Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kill all the kittens

Gareth Morgan wants to eradicate cats from New Zealand. His campaign website does a good job in describing the various evils cats perpetrate upon our ridiculously pacifistic native wildlife. But it's missing the first thing I'd have expected in a policy campaign coming from an economist: a cost-benefit analysis.

First, how much consumer surplus is generated by cats? It has to be pretty big. The New Zealand Companion Animal Council claims* that the 48% of NZ households owning at least one cat spend on average $838 per year on their cats. 1.419 million cats at $466 per cat is about $660 million spent on caring for cats. I don't know what the price elasticity of demand for cat ownership is, but aggregate surplus seems awfully likely to be big.

Second, how elastic are wildlife numbers to cats' presence? Cats kill a lot of things; they're awfully murderous. But if they weren't there, would native wildlife rebound, or would the population of other predators expand with the reduction in competition?

Finally, how much value do we really place on native wildlife? Sure, we get some existence value from the birds and lizards that cats eat, and it's nice seeing them and hearing them. But is it enough to trump the consumer surplus that people get from cat ownership? I don't know and neither does Gareth. But I'm not the one wanting to kill all the kittens.** Shouldn't we have to run a cost-benefit analysis before considering kitty genocide?

Gareth does recommend a few potentially useful things, like belling cats. I doubt that the cats who do the most damage would be the ones that are belled, but the proposal at least doesn't seem likely to do much harm. Another option: make your next cat a Persian. Our last one was so ridiculously over-bred*** that she could barely eat kibble, much less do any harm to, well, anything other than furniture, carpets, clothing, and my dignity.

* I have no clue how reliable their survey is.

** Ok, he isn't really saying we should kill them all, just that we should phase them out over time. But, still, I'm pretty sure that every time you drink a Coke, Gareth Morgan kills a kitten.

*** We got her from the Cat Protection League's cattery. Long story there. After we moved to New Zealand, Susan insisted we get a cat. I asked that it please please please not be another long-haired one. She sent me to the bank machine to get cash to pay the Cattery after we'd been looking at a nice short-haired one. When I got back, she'd signed all the paperwork for a defective Persian with a substantial underbite. The cat was lost eight years later consequent to the earthquakes.


  1. It is part of a mind set in Australia too- there are active campaigns to poison and hunt Itray cats. Spey/ neuter/ release also exists but i do have to wonder exactly what these plans achieve.

    If I ask for advice about which trees to plant at home I will be advised to plant a local variety - nothing else is acceptable.Even from Queensland which is 400 klms away.
    Cats are foreign so must go.
    Not all diversity is equal!

  2. Agreed on many points, but not on forgoing cost-benefit analysis. We can at least try to put some value on native species' existence and see whether the whole thing winds up being within ballpark of passing.

  3. I don't see how including the welfare of other species in our utilitarian calculations is 'fundamentally anthropocentric'. Why is it more moral to require a CBA for our own actions in terms of human welfare while leaving all other species to fend for themselves? Even if it were anthropocentric, it may still very well be more worthy to include the estimated welfare of other species.

  4. Including other species' utility is not anthropocentric. If cats are more able to experience pleasure and pain than are the animals they kill, failing to weight the animals by such capacity may be.

  5. Sorry, I was unclear. To summarise, Harry said that a CBA should include values other than the instrumental value of animals to humans. You then responded that there are problems with including it that make such inclusion anthropocentric. Now we all know that Singer and others have thought a lot about this problem and it's not a persuasive, general argument against including non-human welfare in a utilitarian calculation. So are you claiming that only instrumental values should matter from a moral standpoint? Your original post implies that, but perhaps that was simply an unintentional omission.

  6. I have an exceptionally hard time seeing how you can simultaneously have a welfare function that counts animals" utility directly, is not anthropomorphic, and gives you a "kill all the kittez but not NZ native predators because we hate foreign carnivores but love love love that plucky little kea."

  7. Hey, I'm all about the method and it sounded like that sort of discussion. Eradicating cats sounds kinda silly but, if someone did a CBA, I'd like to see the welfare of animals included.

  8. Fundamentally, I'm an "Animals count because people like them" kinda guy. I'm not opposed to setting up "count animals' utility directly" SWFs to see where they go, but they tend to put up results so far from what actual policy looks like that it seems very unlikely that most people count animals' utility directly.

    So my first cut is to run only the human utility SWF, with animal utility as it affects human utility.

    The second run could have an all-inclusive SWF. But then you run into some potential problems like:
    1. Native geckos and the like have tiny brains and consequently are likely efficiently murdered by playful cats. We only get around this if we add in the anthropomorphic "But rare animals count for more than cats" bit.
    2. Do keas enjoy tearing the kidneys out of sheep more than the sheep dislike having their kidneys eaten? Keas are much smarter than sheep, and maybe are capable of higher pleasures. But sheep are likely smarter than geckos. If the calculus runs the wrong way, do we exterminate keas for the sake of the sheep? Why not?
    3. What about the thousands of bugs that would have been eaten by native birds if those birds were not killed by cats?

  9. On the first point, I agree it would be a long way from current policy, although that's to be expected. After all, it's about deciding on the morally right thing to do, which isn't necessarily the intuitive thing.

    Your specific points are well made and boil down to saying that good CBA is really hard. Which is true, but not a reason to steer away from it entirely, as you yourself have argued in the past.

  10. Oh, I'm not saying it shouldn't be done. Rather, that it is not very likely to yield the "Kill kitties, don't kill keas" conclusions unless we impose anthropomorphic weightings on different animals' utilities.

  11. Eric

    Cats are weighted less that native species because they have few or no natural predators and wipe out biodiversity. Animal rights issues are not a source of inconsistency here. Its more than just tabulating all the species and adding up their utilities - again this is crude utilitarian thinking. It is a matter of having decent environmental ethics and seeking to protect our natural environment which is more than a sum of bits. It is why they have this science 'ecology'.

    Your limited knowledge of biodiversity conservation ethics are a reason I don't like market-based procedures. You are an obviously intelligent guy (despite the proclivity for calculating welfare triangles in imagined markets) but don't know much about conservation. Sampling members of the even-less-informed public and trying to estimate the benefits they get from biodiversity won't give you useful information. Cost-benefit calculations based on what Joe Citizen thinks cannot help.

    If you want to ballpark cost of conservation efforts let me tell you they are quite small if the objective is simply to prevent extinctions. The costs seem higher if we want to generally have a society that is more environmentally friendly and lives harmoniously with nature rather than regarding it as purely a productive input or something they can gawk at in nature reserves and zoos. But Thoreau, Naess, Bookchin and others have argued that, anyway, this is a better way to live and I agree particularly if the alternative is to define your life in terms of consumption.

    Am I an elitist? You bet! But one who tries to argue a case with those who uncritically endorse a purely instrumental view of the environment. It doesn't reflect they way more than a small band of economists think about the environment.

  12. Thank you for making my point. What you're advocating isn't a Singer "Let's count the animals' utilities too, as animals experience things" but rather your own specification of what constitutes a good environment - a biodiversity standard to be maximised. And that's fine, but it's also anthropomorphic in that you're specifying what kinds of environments get to count as good for reasons that come from your human utility function and your ideas about what kinds of equilibria are preferable to others.

    I have some familiarity with biodiversity conservation ethics; it's just not my ethical framework.

  13. Gah, autocorrect on the phone had added anthropomorphic but not anthropogenic.

    Let me try it this way.

    There are many stable environmental equilibria. One has cats in it and fewer {rats, mice, weasels, bunnies, birds, newts, bats}; another has fewer cats (impossible to get rid of all of them) and more {rats, mice weasels, bunnies, birds, newts, bats}. The exact proportions in each equilibrium isn't obvious because killed rats mice and weasels don't kill birds and such, but specify that the latter equilibrium has more birds and bats. We have to apply some human weighing of that bats and newts and birds are better than cats. I don't mind applying that: I think we should base it on how much value people get from the different animals. A Singer utilitarian would add in all the utility that each animal gets as well. I don't think that we avoid human weightings of things by moving to a biodiversity standard if we're still choosing among equilibria.


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