Learning a Foreign Tongue

I feel a bit like an enthusiastic tourist of late, visiting the Land of the Economists, learning their customs (Their curries, while an acquired taste, are delicious!) and language.

Their language uses many words that we foreign visitors also use, but in different ways that can be at first puzzling, but eventually instructive. “Rent” was the first clue to me that they were up to something odd but potentially useful. (To the economist, “rent” is the revenue after production costs are subtracted – the reason the Saudi princes are so rich. When lobbyists engage in “rent-seeking behavior,” they’re not trying to get you to sublet their flat.)

The latest example came in yesterday’s lecture on deforestation in Thailand (represented by the variable DF – the economists like to represent things with variables, algebra being one of their sacred cultural traditions – along with that delicious curry). DF is an “environmental bad”. To you and I, bad is generally an adjective, describing, for example, the music our children listen to. But to an economist, nouning the bad serves a useful function. If we can manufacture “a good” – rice, or those annoying CDs kids today buy – why can we not have things that are “bads”? Poop (denoted by the variable “P”) or deforestation in Thailand?