Hysteresis for legally protected ZMP elephants in Myanmar

by on January 31, 2016 at 12:49 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

“Unemployment is really hard to handle,” said U Saw Tha Pyae, whose six elephants have been jobless for the past two years. “There is no logging because there are no more trees.”

Myanmar’s leading elephant expert, Daw Khyne U Mar, estimates that there are now 2,500 jobless elephants, many of them here in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, about two and a half hours from the Thai border. That number would put the elephant unemployment rate at around 40 percent, compared with about 4 percent for Myanmar’s people.

“Most of these elephants don’t know what to do,” Ms. Khyne U Mar said. “The owners have a great burden. It’s expensive to keep them.”

Adult elephants, which each weigh about 10,000 pounds, eat 400 pounds of food a day and, other than circuses and logging, have limited job opportunities.

Logging is arduous. But elephant experts say hard work is one reason Myanmar’s elephants have remained relatively healthy. A 2008 study calculated that Myanmar’s logging elephants, which have a strict regimen of work and play, live twice as long as elephants kept in European zoos, a median age of 42 years compared with 19 for zoo animals.

Here is the full NYT story, via Michelle Dawson and Otis Reid.  The story is interesting throughout, you will note the elephants had strong labor law protections:

The military governments adhered to a strict labor code for elephants drawn up in British colonial times: eight-hour work days and five-day weeks, retirement at 55, mandatory maternity leave, summer vacations and good medical care. There are still elephant maternity camps and retirement communities run by the government. In a country where the most basic social protections were absent during the years of dictatorship, elephant labor laws were largely respected.

Interesting throughout — I wonder what is the natural rate of unemployment for elephants in a freer labor market…?

1 ChrisA January 31, 2016 at 1:01 am

“you will note the elephants had strong labor law protections” – surely these are not “labor law” regulations but slavery regulations. The elephants had no choice but to work. Interesting that in colonial times it was thought necessary to introduce these regulations for elephants but not for humans. Probably these were the result of the colonial administration seeing the elephants as part of the capital stock of the colony and not privately owned. Thus these regulations were necessary to deal with the agency problem of elephant drivers working their elephants too hard over depreciating the colony assets.

2 Dan Lavatan January 31, 2016 at 1:22 am

Elephants can choose to work or not – have you ever seen an Elephant that doesn’t want to do something? Elephants love logging, they are always knocking over trees and stuff in their native habitat.

3 ChrisA January 31, 2016 at 2:05 am

I don’t really know how elephants feel about being made to work at logging as opposed to playing. I know I would prefer not to be forced to do something, even if I sometimes enjoyed doing it for fun.

4 fwiw January 31, 2016 at 11:27 am

I think you would prefer it over a life of pure leisure.

I’ve been staying with an aunt who has dogs. They are miserable and sleepy most of the time. Except when they hear or see another dog, when they go nuts, get animated, and start barking at it, protecting their territory.

They are so much happier when they have a task. I know I am the same way. It wouldn’t surprise me if elephants are, too.

5 Kimock January 31, 2016 at 4:02 am

Slavery is defined as the practice of owning humans. Elephants and other working animals are not slaves.

6 Hedonic Treder January 31, 2016 at 4:08 am

The same goes for the labor market, which was the joke.

Ethically, there are similarities to slavery, in that elephants can clearly suffer and have preferences that can be frustrated by their treatment.

We should strive to transition to non-sentient substitutes for any economic function that now uses sentient beings. Compare horse carriages with the automobile (I hope we never design self-driving cars with sentience or preferences.)

The ethical point of the economy should then be to support self-aware persons with extensive rights and liberties.

7 ChrisA January 31, 2016 at 4:43 am

The ethics of developing a sentiment car that has strong preferences or gains great utility by driving humans where they are want to go is interesting. Sort of like the animal in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Universe that wants to be eaten much to Arthur Dent’s disgust.

8 Thiago Ribeiro January 31, 2016 at 5:51 am

Or Al Capp’s Shmoo.

9 Hopaulius January 31, 2016 at 10:15 am

“The ethical point of the economy should then be to support self-aware persons with extensive rights and liberties.” I’m not sure any economy has an “ethical point.” In the case of elephants, the unfortunate fact is that if they do not have something productive to do that benefits human beings, they become more valuable for their parts than their sentient beings. It’s all very well to insist that some other country allocate land and resources for elephants to romp and play. It carries absolutely no personal cost to the critic. But do you want one in your back yard? Do you want to feed one 400 pounds a day? If you really think they are equivalent to humans in their essential being, your answer should be “Yes.”

10 Hedonic Treader January 31, 2016 at 10:38 am

I didn’t insist that anyone allocate anything for elephants. It is fine to reduce their birth rate until only the number exists that can be carried by voluntary charity or zoos or tourism. In fact, I prefer a small number of animals to minimize their total suffering.

The economy may not have an objective ethical point, but there are certainly ethical implications whenever people write about it or make economic policy decisions. You commonly see language like “optimism” or “pessimism”, “better” or “worse” when people refer to economic growth, especially on econ sites. At some point, we have to answer the question “what for?”, and I have given you my personal answer.

11 John L. January 31, 2016 at 11:15 am

“If you really think they are equivalent to humans in their essential being, your answer should be “Yes.”
I am sure there are lots of African orphans being fed in your back yard. After all, they are more than merely “equivalent to humans in their essential being”, right?

12 mpowell January 31, 2016 at 1:18 pm

Hedonic – maybe you missed the part in the article where logging elephants live twice as long on average as the ones in the zoo. I think your priors are all wrong. The assumption that the life of a logging elephant is worse than no life at all seems to be invalid. A life of 40 hour work weeks with time off (what those elephants get) is quite enjoyable for most humans so I don’t even know why this would come as a surprise.

13 Hedonic Treader January 31, 2016 at 1:42 pm

@mpowell, in my ethical judgment, the only life worth living is the voluntary life of a self-aware person.

Either way, we can’t ask them, so I opt for the suffering minimization.

Whether a 40-hour work week is worth experiencing is a judgment I will leave to the individual person, as people differ.

14 Hopaulius February 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm

@John L: I don’t personally think elephants are equivalent to humans in their essential being. But I have thought about what it would mean to host an elephant on my property. Unless I just wanted to turn over the entire 11.4 acres to the elephant, it would require a lot of fencing. If it had free range over the property I would still need a huge fence around the perimeter. If it escaped my property and ambled into the nearby town it would likely be killed by the authorities, who have no scruples about such things. I have grass that might sustain the beast through the summer, but I would have to supply feed for about eight months of the year. In order to pay for that, the elephant would have to bring in some revenue. Perhaps providing rides, photo ops, or something. I think as an alternative that the United Nations could make itself useful by promoting an international fund to support nations with large animal habitat and populations for the loss of economic potential caused by leaving that habitat intact. I think the same things about the tropical rain forests and their production of oxygen. But no, they’re far more concerned about climate change.

15 Dan Lavatan January 31, 2016 at 1:20 am

We need open immigration for elephants. No elephants have been convicted of terrorism.

16 Moreno Klaus January 31, 2016 at 6:37 am

What about the syrian and somali elephants?

17 fwiw January 31, 2016 at 11:34 am

A comment with neither relevance nor wit, but plenty of political rectitude.

Bravo. Can’t wait to see what else you have on offer.

18 Keith January 31, 2016 at 1:48 am

Best thing about elephants is they work for peanuts!

19 robert January 31, 2016 at 11:03 am


20 Alan January 31, 2016 at 1:54 am

The most interesting phrase in this story is “there are no more trees”.

21 prior_test January 31, 2016 at 2:03 am

Well, one can look at that two different ways –

Innovation will take care of the problem of clear cut land.

Or a generations long commitment to reforestation, as occurred in both Germany and Japan, based on the awareness that only long term planning and the recognition that short term profit leads to long term loss prevents the destruction of valuable shared resources, while ensuring availability of such resources into the future.

Want to guess which approach members of the GMU econ dept. will favor?

22 Ray Lopez January 31, 2016 at 2:14 am

You’ve jumped the shark with your elephant metaphor. Surely the GMU econ dept will favor the long commitment, as they are aware of externalities from cut-and-not-plant.

BTW, when you visit Japan and Korea you’ll notice the trees are in neat rows in the forest. That’s because, as prior_ says, they cut down the ‘wild’ trees many generations ago, and what replaced them is reforested trees, neatly spaced as per the Asian habit (and the French / British monarchy for that matter).

23 MC January 31, 2016 at 3:04 am

They tried socialism in Burma and got deforestation. So the solution, of course, is more socialist planning!

24 fwiw January 31, 2016 at 11:39 am

Wait, serious question. Are Germany and Japan socialist, in your opinion?

Neither seems socialist to me, but, what do I know? I’m just a boy with an internet.

25 mpowell January 31, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Well, you should really be asking about this particular policy – is it socialist planning or not? If the forests are privately owned and managed and the government maintains a sufficiently hands off incentive program, I would say no. If the forest is closely managed by the government, it definitely falls into the ‘socialist planning’ category, regardless of what the rest of the society looks like.

But I think some things are fine to have socialist planning for even if it usually a bad idea – that’s part of why I’m not a libertarian.

26 MC January 31, 2016 at 2:53 pm

As Mpowell notes, whether Germany or Japan are “socialist” as a whole (though certain people do routinely cite Germany as a model social democracy) is not as important as whether their policy involves central planning, which was the knee-jerk response from the guy with GMU Derangement Syndrome.

27 Hedonic Treader January 31, 2016 at 4:10 am

It would be interesting to ask what innovation could fill this role.

If we had cheap photovoltaics that can produce more valuable output per land area than trees, perhaps we should consider this as an alternative to reforestation.

28 RM January 31, 2016 at 2:33 am

Right up there also is that the unemployment rate in Myanmar is 4%. Hmmm … and even corroborated by many other sources. I would also have to believe that in India it is 3.6 percent, Pakistan, 5.1, Mexico 4.9 percent, etc. None of these numbers can be accurate.

Are they counting the Rohingya?

29 ChrisA January 31, 2016 at 3:50 am

No social security is a good incentive against unemployment.

30 Thiago Ribeiro January 31, 2016 at 6:03 am

If one counts the “informales” (informal workers) and professional criminals as non-unemployed (i.e. they are not looking for a job), it is probably about right (not so different in essence from how Americans argue about the “real” unemployment rate). Half of Latin American workers are employed this way. If anything, Mexico may be in a better situation than most poor countries as respects employment.

31 Mondfledermaus February 1, 2016 at 12:11 pm

It’s because how “unemployment” is defined. A person is unemployed if he has not had a job for less than six months and is actively looking for one. That definition ignores the workers in the informal sector that can be quite numerous. In Mexico commentators don’t pay much attention to the “unemployment” numbers, they pay attention to “sub-employment” which refers to the informal economy, but that is much harder to estimate.

32 Jay February 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Is this definition the same across all countries though? What if a developing country disagrees and doesn’t collect statistics like that but does according to some other definition?

33 Thiago Ribeiro February 2, 2016 at 7:50 am

Unless someone else iscollecting these statistics too, that is it. You can doubt if you want (the way people doubted Argentina’s inflation statistics) or say the numbers are not very useful, but it is their call. I think most countries– at least those where the problem is worse– ignore the “informales” when dealing with employment statistics.

34 Dangerman January 31, 2016 at 10:00 am

Age of retirement is 13 years *above* the median lifespan.

Suggestion for Social Security reform?

35 Tom Warner January 31, 2016 at 10:18 am

Apparently a good time to start an elephant trek business in Myanmar.

36 Jay February 1, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Tyler’s burying the lead here, does anyone seriously believe the UE rate is 4% or anything close to it given average living conditions?

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