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Infinite Economic Values??
Dave asks for my thoughts about this article on The Angry Economist. Russell is involved in an argument about recycling, and defending the proposition that a finite physical supply of some resource can have an infinite economic value:
Talking about infinite values in an economic context is ridiculous. Economic valuations are ordinal, not cardinal — a person ranks their alternatives by their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, (etc.) preferences, but cannot quantify (give a cardinal number for) the magnitude of the distance between any pair of preferences. "By how much do you prefer an apple to an orange?" cannot be sensibly answered.
(Before any mathematicians pounce on me, please note that economists and mathematicians don't define "ordinal" and "cardinal" in the same way. They're terms of art in each field.)
The concept of infinity does not apply to ordinal numbers as used in economics.
Russell's conclusion (that we shouldn't worry about running out of resources) is correct, but not on the basis of infinite values. At the end he switches to the correct reasoning — competition among goods will cause people to use less of a resource as its increasing scarcity causes it to become relatively more expensive compared to its alternatives.
It is possible for a resource to be completely used up, but this is not necessarily cause for alarm. For example, the extinction of the dodo bird, which never had much economic value even as its population dwindled to zero because its habitat was destroyed to be used for purposes with higher economic value. There were never infinite values involved.