Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading Challenge VI

Today's selection: Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison.

You can see a powerpoint presentation on the paper here.
Abstract: In the 16th century, North America contained 25-30 million buffalo; by the late 19th century less than 100 remained. While removing the buffalo east of the Mississippi took settlers over 100 years, the remaining 10 to 15 million buffalo on the Great Plains were killed in a punctuated slaughter in a little more than 10 years. I employ theory, data from international trade statistics, and first person accounts to argue that the slaughter on the plains was initiated by a foreign-made innovation and fueled by a foreign demand for industrial leather. Ironically, the ultimate cause of this sad chapter in American environmental history was of European, and not American, origin.

One day, I will find that economics papers do not make me feel horrible about my math skills. I had a 5 on the AP Calc AB exam and straight A's in two more semesters of calculus, two semesters of mathematical economics, two semesters of real analysis, ODE and scattered other math courses, and I still don't feel comfortable with the math contained herein. The perils of being an undergrad. I digress.

Commentary: Before we get to the economics;
...it should be remembered that a seasoned hunter could kill several thousand buffalo a season.

As someone who is more familiar with hunting than the average economist, (gory details will no doubt offend certain readers) this is astounding to me. Getting a solitary moose is, on average, likely a three-day process and a lot of work for two people. Several thousand for a single person in one season? The mind reels.

Basically, the paper consists of two parts. One, a rigorous model showing that (gasp) a positive sustained price shock will cause entry, which causes the "kill function" to increase. This part is, in my view, more or less superfluous to what is essentially an economic history paper.

That leads to the rest of the paper, which is mainly export and shipping statistics. The point is made that likely almost 10 million buffalo (or most of the herd west of the Mississippi) were killed for export. However, I don't think we can blame trade. What we can blame is:

1) Tragedy of the commons. We immediately know we're going to see overexploitation since property rights aren't enforced.
2) An extremely low marginal cost of harvesting skins. Ergo, (1) is exacerbated.
3) The presence of a close substitute, namely cattle leather.

Presumably, without trade, given the extent of the use of cattle for leather in the US (at the beginning of the hunt there were two cows for each bison, from the paper), whatever European innovation allowed the tanning of buffalo would've crossed the ocean, and the buffalo hunt would have been on as a cheap substitute for traditional leather. European trade just compressed the process that much more given a commeasurately larger market for bison.

I guess I'm trying to argue that trade only compressed the slaughter into one decade as opposed to two. Taylor admits as much, saying that buffalo could never have survived in large numbers. But painting the picture that the hunt on the west of the Mississippi would have been gradual, as it had been on the east, would only have happened if buffalo skins could not produce leather. Given that it was discovered how, the hunt was doomed to become a slaughter, regardless of export markets.

Technology, not trade, killed the buffalo.

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