The Political Economy of Birding

My recent post on public sector pay elicited a lot of comments, including a fair few based on the right-wing premise that the public sector is an unproductive burden on the private sector.

I have always found this ascription of productivity to the public and private sectors to be deeply misleading in that it conceals the profound interdependence and interpenetration of the private and public spheres. Sure, one needs a healthy private sector to generate jobs and tax revenues, but the private sector depends hugely on public sector outputs from infrastructure, to skilled and healthy workers, to regulation in the public interest  in order to thrive.

Here is a simple example. I have just returned from a week of birding in and around Corpus Christi, Texas, during which my partner and I  spent a fair bit of money to say the least on air transportation, rental car,  hotels, restaurants, bars etc., all private sector operations.

Why did we go to Texas? Not to worship at the shrine of Presidents Bush, but because birds are there in large numbers and enormous variety, and also because their highly varied habitats have been preserved and protected and made accessible by governments.  Not only are there major National Wildlife Refuges like that in Aransas, but local governments and counties have built boardwalks to mudflats, marshes, open range, prairie and other protected areas which would otherwise be inaccessible.  The State of Texas publishes detailed maps on how to reach literally scores of excellent, locally maintained birding sites, which are well marked on the highways.

Birding has been promoted as a big tourist draw, and investment in the infrastructure and maintaining  some semblance of natural habitat works for the tourism industry. We met a number of Canadians, and there are even tours from Europe.

All of which gives me an excuse to report seeing a total of 106 species over five days, including the wintering Whooping Cranes and a huge variety of shorebirds at the Aransas Refuge and several Texas rarities at a multitude of  other sites on the coast and in the interior.

So, even the singularly stingy State and local governments of Texas do this one thing pretty well (even as layoff notices are going to a staggering one in three public school teachers so as to balance the books.)

And, let it be said, some of that private sector seafood went down pretty well also.


  • The non-productivity of the public sector is one of the great untruths of neo-classical economics. I like your example Andrew. I also enjoyed Texas the one I was there, in particular hanging out in a Tex-Mex restaurant in San Antonio, and getting to know the wonderful staff.
    Now for birds, it is hard to beat the Poitou-Charente where we are at the moment. I will try and get a fix on how many species are around at this time of year.

  • I’m just back from a couple weeks in Hawaii. Undoubtedly, it was the public spaces that made us go — beaches, parks, etc. In doing so we made some money for local restaurants, stores, a guesthouse, car rental agency and an airline. But we would not have gone for all those things had it not been the public spaces. And to access it all we needed a few airports, roads and so forth.

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