Streetwise Professor

December 17, 2020

Water, Water Everywhere–and Don’t Let the UN Anywhere Near It

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:04 pm

For a perfect illustration of why the UN (and most NGOs and most of those talking about Great Resets and the like) represent a grave threat to the lives, health, and livelihoods of those whom they claim to want to help, consider this ignorant drivel on the introduction of water futures on the CME from  Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN’s “special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.” (Hey! He’s not just an everyday run of the mill rapporteur! He’s a special rapporteur!).

According to Bloomberg, water futures “risks a price run-up for a resource that ‘belongs to everyone’ and is a vital tool in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.” Further:

“The news that water is to be traded on Wall Street futures market shows that the value of water, as a basic human right, is now under threat,” Arrojo-Agudo said in a statement. “It is closely tied to all of our lives and livelihoods, and is an essential component to public health.”

Beyond the fact that the reference to “Wall Street futures market” is ignorant (and an offense to Chicagoans!), this short statement is packed with more substantive economic ignorance.

Oh, the blather sounds good: water is “a human right” that “belongs to everyone.” Yay! But it’s exactly this kind of crypto-socialist blather that wreaks great harm when put into actual policy.

For one thing, something that “belongs to everyone” ends up belonging to no one. Or more precisely winds up being grossly misallocated or misused or wasted. Those who don’t own have no incentive to utilize wisely. They have too little incentive to avoid polluting. They have little incentive to increase availability or quality. Indeed, I warrant that many–and arguably the lion’s share–of the problems that Mr. Arrojo-Agudo is rapporteuring about (or whatever it is that rapporteurs do) are directly attributable to the lack of property rights in water, or grossly suboptimal rights. Relatedly, they are directly attributable to the lack of market mechanisms built on property rights to allocate a scarce resource–clean water–and the reliance on political mechanisms plagued by rent seeking and corruption to do so.

It’s not easy to design and enforce property rights for water, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons inhere in the nature for water. For example, designing and enforcing rights to an aquifer are challenging. But many of the problems are political, and public choice in nature. Look at the conflicts over water in the American West for myriad illustrations.

But grasping the nettle of these challenges, and even doing it imperfectly, is distinctly preferable to the policies that arise from an “it belongs to everyone” attitude. That is a recipe for dissipation, waste, and pollution. Water socialism works just as badly as all the other kinds.

As for the “speculative bubble” fears, such creatures are far more common in the fevered imaginations of the likes of UN rapporteurs, NGO nudniks, etc., than in the wild. They hysteria over an oil price bubble in 2007-2008 is an example. This is something that even Paul Krugman and I agree on. Show me a commodity price bubble, and I have a high degree of confidence that it can be explained by fundamental factors. Indeed, interventions intended to combat these bubbles almost always lead to less efficient resource utilization than the alleged bubbles themselves. Price “bubbles” in commodities are usually simply the bearers of bad fundamental tidings.

That is, attempting to suppress “price run-ups” makes things worse, not better.

I’ve already opined that I consider it unlikely that the CME/Nasdaq water futures will register much trading volume, for relatively technical reasons. The same reasons apply to other possible water futures contracts. So Mr. Arrojo-Agudo should direct his nervous energy to other subjects.

But the anti-property, anti-market mindset that the UN rapporteur embodies is a grave threat to prosperity and health. This mindset makes people poorer and more miserable wherever it rules policy. Which is why the UN, NGOs, Great Resetters, and the like pose a far greater danger than all the speculative bubbles ever stacked one atop the other.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Down South, they say, “bless your heart” to UN special rapporteurs. Up North, we say, “Good For You” and let the initials do the talking.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 17, 2020 @ 4:55 pm

  2. Does bitcoin count as a commodity?

    Comment by aaa — December 17, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

  3. I still remember the look I got from a Kiwi – implying that I was mad as a hatter – when I suggested that a looming local water problem on the South Island might be resolved by using water meters.

    Comment by dearieme — December 18, 2020 @ 9:49 am

  4. “and is a vital tool in combating the Covid-19 pandemic”

    Isn’t everything these days?

    Comment by Dieselboom! — December 18, 2020 @ 12:22 pm

  5. Although the California water futures “market”is estimated at $1bn/year the volume traded is barely 4% of the Calif water use. Think about opportunities and maybe, just maybe, it is a beginning of a rational allocation scheme.

    Comment by Slav Hermanowicz — December 18, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

  6. Good piece prof. I wish the UN had kept the words “human rights” exclusively for fundamental (freedom based) rights and not use them in the context of social, cultural and economic aspirations. I mean if I get lost in a desert and die of thirst, who should be prosecuted or sanctioned for denying me my “human right” to water? And agree regarding futures – I’ve given up trying to explain to the wilfully ignorant about what futures are and how they don’t drive commodity prices.

    Comment by derriz — December 18, 2020 @ 1:47 pm

  7. I wish the UN had never adopted the ridiculous expression “human rights”.

    We have no rights simply by virtue of being human. Man is a social animal – his rights (and duties) stem from the society of which he is a part.

    Comment by dearieme — December 18, 2020 @ 5:12 pm

  8. Dear dearie: Does this mean that a helot or black slave will and must remain so because that is what their respective societies allow? I hope not: the lack of self evident rights as per the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution or the extension of them to group rights that transcend the individual are the sources of great evils. If you did mean this, you might have a great future as a Guardian editor, an FT financial reporter or a regulator.

    Comment by Sotos — January 7, 2021 @ 12:17 pm

  9. @7,8 Humans have rights with respect to other humans because each of us is in absolute possession of our own lives, bodies, and minds. Possession of another is always by coercion. No one is born with a deed of possession of another.

    Dearieme has misused the term “rights” when discussing society. One obtains only privileges from society. Not rights. Privileges because they can be removed at social whim. Rights cannot be taken. Privileges can be withdrawn.

    Further “society” is not a being with conscious will. It is a mere aggregate. Society cannot grant anything because it has no conscious self. The notion of society in the sense dearieme means is chimerical.

    Privilege is granted by leaders or power groupings within a society. By people in other words. Dearieme’s removal of rights and replacement with privilege puts everyone at the mercy of the demagogue.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 22, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress