The Misallocation of Water

One of the most remarkable discoveries of economics is that under the right conditions competitive markets allocate production across firms in just that way that minimizes the total costs of production. (You can find a discussion of this remarkable property in Modern Principles. See also this MRU video.)

One of the necessary conditions for this result is that firms must face the same input and output prices. If one firm is subsidized and another taxed, for example, then resources will be misallocated and total costs will increase. In a pioneering paper, Klenow and Hsieh measure misallocation across firms in China, India and the United States and they find that micro misallocations can have large, macroeconomic effects. In particular, if capital and labor were allocated as well in China and India as they are in the United States then output in those countries would double.

We can get some intuition for the costs of resource misallocation by looking at water in California. As you may have noticed at the grocery store, almonds are in demand right now whether raw or in almond milk. Asian demand for almonds is also up. As a result, in the last 10 years almond production in California has doubled. That’s great, except for the fact that almond production uses a huge amount of water and water in CA is severely mispriced and thus misallocated.

In my previous post, I pointed out that agriculture uses 80% of the water in California but accounts for less than 2% of the economy. So how much water does almond production alone use? More water is used in almond production than is used by all the residents and businesses of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. Here’s a chart from Mother Jones:

(Aside: Some of this water is naturally recycled so net use is likely somewhat lower but a lot of water in California is now being pumped from the aquifer and that water isn’t being replenished.)

At the same time as farmers are watering their almonds, San Diego is investing in an energy-intensive billion-dollar desalination plant which will produce water at a much higher cost than the price the farmer are paying.  That is a massive and costly misallocation of water.

In short, we are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.

Hat tip: Walter Olson.


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