Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Silent moo

Tyler Cowen links to a new book on the economics of animal welfare.

To me, the most obvious and fundamental tradeoff has always been the question of how many cows should live versus how good their lives will be. You will have to take a stand before you tell people what sort of meat they should (or should not) eat.

We are allowed to care how extant animals are treated. But of course we're also allowed to care about future animals that may or may not exist. The problem is, if we decide to treat living animals better, it's going to cost more, which will raise the price of meat, which all else equal will reduce the amount of meat people buy, which means fewer cows will ultimately be raised. Great for the cows that do exist, not so great for the ones that never get to exist as a result. (Of course, it's pretty bad if their lives are actually worse than death).

For the most part, I see people who are outraged about animal treatment basically failing to notice this important tradeoff. Silent moo? That which is heard, and that which is not heard? That which is herd, and that which is not herd? The language gods are smiling on me, so I must be right, right? Indeed, silent moo is not an anagram of economics, which means that in this case, economics is not all mixed up.


  1. For some odd reason, your post reminded me of the treatment of Waygu cattle, which is notoriously good (relative to other types of cattle).

    On doing research for this comment, I came to realize that Waygu cattle are not *actually* fed beer and ice cream (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobe_beef), "In "Blackout", Episode Seven, Season Seven of Malcolm in the Middle, it is claimed that these cattle are fed beer and ice cream and massaged, but, contrary to popular belief, the cattle are not fed beer, and they are not massaged with sake. They are fed on grain fodder and brushed sometimes for setting fur."

    Why do people eat Waygu beef in the first place? As nearly as I can tell, they think it is better quality (it's not an animal rights issue). I'm not sure how this relates to your post... it is probably orthogonal, but it is something I think about from time to time.

  2. For some reason the image of cows being massaged with sake makes my mouth water. In any case, quality of beef and quality of cow life are positively correlated in general, so foodies are into a lot of the same things (grassfed beef etc) as animal rightsies.

    By the way I would say that increasing appreciation for *beef quality* is likely to increase beef consumption, perhaps trading off low-quality beef for high-quality beef but typically driving it up overall. By contrast, increasing appreciation for *cow life quality* is likely to decrease overall beef consumption.