Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Diamond-Water Paradox, Revisited

How much diamonds cost relative to something as essential as water is one of the oldest puzzles in economics. The simple answer at first was scarcity – diamonds are scarcer than water, right? Well, that's not the whole picture, because the diamond market is riddled with a small number of people willing to pay a whole heckuva lot for a really pretty rock, all water is pretty homogeneous, and the diamond market itself is well-controlled by the DeBeers cartel. What's more, scarcity or not, not everyone is willing to pay even amount of their income for a diamond, whereas they would gladly give their own lives for more water.

I've blogged before about ethnic conflict and economic incentives (new path to victory and economic development in Iraq), and I kept wondering about some of the ethnic conflict and genocide. Basically, I'm running out of examples of conflicts that are purely ethnic in nature – the only one I can come up with is Palestine.

While most of Africa's famous conflicts and genocides revolve around diamonds and the high rents that can be captured by controlling their extraction, and much of the middle east fights over oil, some places have been a bit more difficult to understand. The answer might simultaneously explain their underdevelopment, difficulty developing institutions, and propensity for conflict. What might turn out to be the case is that they aren't really fighting over ethnicity or differences in traditions, but they're fighting over water, that essential resource (and arguably "public good") that every agrarian culture needs to break out of the Malthusian Trap. The sides of the fight are simply lining up on ethnic lines, which is interesting enough, but won't contribute to a solution (and neither will the military might of the US and Europe). By focusing on ethnicity instead of economics, we make the mistake of patching the problem with a band-aid (at best) by policing the conflict rather than driving to the root of the problem.

Clearly I've done some over-simplification of the problem here, but although the problems of the moment are complex, the solution is simple – water is coming at too high a price.

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