Timothy Taylor on Forest Fires

Sometimes, some of my students will ask me how I manage to read as much as I do, and I tell them that I barely manage to get any reading done at all. They think I’m being unnecessarily modest, but then again, I should be fair to them. They probably haven’t yet subscribed to blogs such as The Conversable Economist. Who, I ask you, reads The PERC Reports magazine?

Professor Timothy Taylor does, that’s who:

The western United States has experienced some extraordinarily large forest fires in recent years. Part of the reason is drought conditions that have left the landscape tinder-dry. But another part of the reason is a century-long legacy of shutting down forest fires–even controlled burns. The PERC Reports magazine considers the history and consequences in a symposium on “How to Confront the Wildfire Crisis” in the Summer 2022 issue.


The phrase “controlled burns” may confuse you if you aren’t familiar with forestry and ecology. But I assure you, the practice is very real, and very necessary. First, what is controlled burning?

Controlled burning, also known as prescribed burning, involves setting planned fires to maintain the health of a forest. These burns are scheduled for a time when the fire will not pose a threat to the public or to fire managers. In addition, forest conditions should call for a controlled burn and weather conditions should be right to allow burning but not enable a fire to spread out of control. Materials burned in a planned fire include dead grass, fallen tree branches, dead trees, and thick undergrowth.


And second, why is it necessary?

Controlled burns are lit for a number of reasons. By ridding a forest of dead leaves, tree limbs, and other debris, a prescribed burn can help prevent a destructive wildfire. Controlled burns can also reduce insect populations and destroy invasive plants. In addition, fire can be rejuvenating. It returns nutrients to the soil in the ashes of vegetation that could otherwise take years to decompose. And after a fire, the additional sunlight and open space in a forest can help young trees and other plants start to grow.


As always, do read the whole thing. But the blogpost reminded me of a book I’d read a while ago, called Foolproof, by Greg Ip. As an aside, Greg Ip will always stay in my memory as the guy whose pocket money was adjusted for inflation. His economist mum had told him that how much money he got each month would be a function of what inflation was like in that month – which, if you ask me, is the best possible way to teach what inflation is to young folks!

But anyways, back to forest fires. The very first chapter of Foolproof is titled Progressives, Engineers and Ecologists, and Greg Ip makes the same point in it and Professor Taylor’s blogpost does – that if you don’t carry out controlled burns every now and then, you’ll only end up getting a whopper of a forest fire eventually.

But he also points out in this chapter that you can use the same analogy in the case of financial crises:

Does this mean central bankers and forest managers were failures? From the point of view of their mandates, they’ve been hugely successful at putting out fires, both in the forest and in the economy. Yet it was that very success that planted the seeds for future disaster and that illustrates the fundamental
contradiction in humanity’s quest for safety and stability: oftentimes our efforts to make our surroundings safer trigger offsetting behavior that frustrates those efforts.

Ch 1, FoolProof, by Greg Ip

There are many nuanced points that follow, and that’s why the book exists – to speak about all of them. But his basic point, at least in the first chapter, is that long stretches of perceived stability only guarantee a eventual moment of reckoning – and that those long stretches of perceived stability only serve to make us ever more complacent.

I hope I’ve managed to incentivize you to read the book – and the key point bears repeating: that our efforts to make our surroundings safer trigger offsetting behavior that frustrates those efforts.

Indians who have relocated abroad experiencing stomach upsets when they come back to India, kids not really learning how to ride a bike if they have safety equipment on while riding even the smallest of cycles are other examples of the same concept. The book has many more.

And as a eminently suitable coda for a whimsical blogpost that talks about forest fires and financial crises, let me round things off by telling you a short story about death:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.