Tag Archives: pollution

The Virus Is An Externality

Well, I see the “President” has restarted his pandemic “briefings,” and–wonder of wonders–said everyone should wear a mask. Whether that will convince any of the dangerous idiots who are refusing to do so (because “freedom”) remains to be seen.

My two favorite economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, are both Nobel prizewinners. I find both to be logical and persuasive–and I’m sure that a great deal of their persuasive power is their ability to explain things clearly to non-economists, of whom I am definitely one. Krugman stepped up to the plate again in a recent column for the New York Times, in which he explained what is at stake in the mask controversy with an analogy to the economic concept of externalities.

Krugman notes that there are a number of possible reasons for rejecting the wearing of a mask.

Some of this is about insecure masculinity — people refusing to take the simplest, cheapest of precautions because they think it will make them look silly. Some of it is about culture wars: liberals wear masks, so I won’t. But a lot of it is about fetishization of individual choice.

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

The reference to “going to a gym” was prompted by the stubborn idiocy of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Krugman had opened his column with a discussion of Florida’s soaring Covid-19 case count, and the Governor’s culpability for that rise.

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

As Krugman points out, this isn’t true–but the fact that healthy people can and do contract the virus is almost beside the point: gyms should be closed because the people we are trying to protect aren’t the people working out, but the people with whom they will come into contact. As he says, even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers.

And that brings us back to externalities.

Unregulated free markets simply cannot solve the problem of externalities. Externalities are defined as costs imposed on non-consenting others, on people who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example–the factory that dumps its waste in the local river in order to save the cost of proper disposal requires a government cleanup paid for with our tax dollars. Spreading a virus raises precisely the same set of issues yet, as Krugman notes, many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point.

And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

The people who refuse to wear masks are clones of the lawbreakers willing to dump industrial waste into our rivers, and spew harmful chemicals into the air we all breathe.

The pandemic has simply allowed them to advertise what and who they are: self-centered and illogical ignoramuses polluting the environment we all must share.

 

Yep–Kakistocrisy

Every once in a while, I think about James Madison’s touching belief that Americans would elect “the best and brightest” to represent them in the halls of government. (He’s probably spinning so fast in his grave he may be in China by now.)

Anyone who reads or listens to the news can contribute their own preferred anecdote to the daily and dispiriting evidence of ideology, idiocy and/or corruption in Washington, so file this post under “what else is new?” I must say, however, the violation of previously respected norms and basic rational expectations is becoming more blatant by the day.

The New York Times first carried the story I’m sharing today.The title is the giveaway: “How $225,000 Can Help Secure a Pollution Loophole at Trump’s EPA.”

CROSSVILLE, Tenn. — The gravel parking lot at the Fitzgerald family’s truck dealership here in central Tennessee was packed last week with shiny new Peterbilt and Freightliner trucks, as well as a steady stream of buyers from across the country.

But there is something unusual about the big rigs sold by the Fitzgeralds: They are equipped with rebuilt diesel engines that do not need to comply with rules on modern emissions controls. That makes them cheaper to operate, but means that they spew 40 to 55 times the air pollution of other new trucks, according to federal estimates, including toxins blamed for asthma, lung cancer and a range of other ailments.

The special treatment for the Fitzgerald trucks is made possible by a loophole in federal law that the Obama administration tried to close, and the Trump administration is now championing. The trucks, originally intended as a way to reuse a relatively new engine and other parts after an accident, became attractive for their ability to evade modern emissions standards and other regulations.

The survival of this loophole is a story of money, politics and suspected academic misconduct, according to interviews and government and private documents, and has been facilitated by Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has staked out positions in environmental fights that benefit the Trump administration’s corporate backers.

How, exactly, did this happen?

Representative Diane Black is a Republican running  for Tennessee governor. Tennessee Technological University is a state university that had produced a study minimizing pollution problems associated with the trucks. Ms. Black introduced legislation in 2015  to protect the loophole when the Obama Administration wanted to eliminate it. That bill failed, but after Trump was elected, she turned to Mr. Pruitt to carve out an exemption to the rule —  and presented him with the study from Tennessee Tech.

Surprise! Fitzgerald had  paid for the study, and had offered to build a new research center for the university on land owned by the company. It further sweetened the deal by generating at least $225,000 in donations to Ms. Black’s campaign.

Both businesses and environmentalists have condemned the loophole. That includes major truck makers like Volvo and Navistar, as well as fleet owners like the United Parcel Service. Even pro-business, pro-corporate, big-clout lobbyists like the National Association of Manufacturers have weighed in against it, joining health and environmental groups like the American Lung Association and the Consumer Federation of America.

In any other administration, a roster of opponents like those would shame government officials into backing down and ensuring that the rules applied to everyone. But not this collection of Trump’s “best people.” They’re shameless.

Not only are the favors being dispensed manifestly unfair to Fitzgerald’s competitors, not only does a quid pro quo that can be seen from space undermine trust in government and the rule of law, but this particular “favor” adds to the pollution of the air we all breathe, and contributes to climate change. (I know–Scott Pruitt refuses to admit that climate change exists. I’m convinced he knows better; it’s just that it is in his personal, political and financial interest to say otherwise.)

The current Republican Party–especially as represented in Congress and the Administration– is what you get when you marry a cult (Pence, Evangelicals, gun nuts and anti-intellectuals) to the Mafia (Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, Trump and his sleazy cronies.)

They all need to be soundly defeated in November and in 2020.

Apparently, It Isn’t Just Flint

Water, water everywhere…but not a drop to drink.

For several months, headlines about Flint, Michigan have documented a failure of government that is truly unforgivable. Whatever one’s preferred ideology about the proper size or function of government, only the most extreme libertarians or anarchists would argue that government has no responsibility to provide and maintain essential infrastructure.

In the wake of these disclosures, there has been public outrage and condemnation leveled at Michigan Governor Snyder and his administration. That condemnation is deserved. The outrage has reflected a belief that the actions of the administration were “beyond the pale,” that they were a rare and unacceptable deviation from the most basic duties of governance.

Or so we would like to think.

Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, resigned this week in the latest bit of drama over drinking water safety — drama that involves the state’s biggest utility and the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Davies, who accused state officials of deliberately misleading residents, gives up her post of seven years and an $188,000 annual salary.

The story begins in 2014, when a Duke Energy power plant spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and it’s harmful to people and ecosystems, containing silica, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

When the spill occurred, the state told residents that their well water was unsafe, and Duke Energy provided bottled water to those affected. When the state lifted that order, telling those in the area that the water was now safe to drink, a number of scientists working for the state criticized that move, insisting that the water was still unsafe. Davies has now resigned in protest.

There is still no order from the state requiring Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash deposits. This is corruption and it is potentially costing many lives and damaging the environment enormously.

For those of us who live in the Hoosier state, there’s similarly disquieting news closer to home. Think Progress recently reported that “An Indiana City is Poised to Become the Next Flint.”

In East Chicago, the problem is lead contamination in the soil.

Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.

But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.

The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

Children exposed to lead at a young age can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.

These disclosures join a number of other signs that governments–especially at the state level–are not discharging their most basic responsibilities. In Indiana, unsafe bridges have also made the news. Nationally, Congress has yet to authorize funds for needed upgrades to the electrical grid. The neglected infrastructure list goes on.

A country that cannot maintain its infrastructure is a third-world country.

I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When “good enough for government work” attitudes demean public service, government stops attracting the “best and brightest,” the people who want to serve, to make their communities better; instead, it becomes a refuge for second-raters seeking power or influence.

When I worked for the City of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, I was constantly impressed by the number of administration officials and municipal employees who cared deeply about doing a good job, who worked extra hours and took pride in improving their city.

At some point, when “government work” became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.

Instead, we have the Snyders, McCrorys and Pences.

Don’t You Just Hate When That Happens?

I posted a couple of days ago about the first-ever EPA rules limiting carbon emissions, and the hysteria with which Indiana’s 19th-Century leaders greeted those rules.

Those leaders must have been really annoyed by a story in yesterday’s New York Times–that is, if they actually read the Times or other credible news sources.

The cries of protest have been fierce, warning that President Obama’s plan to cut greenhouse gases from power plants will bring soaring electricity bills and even plunge the nation into blackouts. By the time the administration is finished, one prominent critic said, “millions of Americans will be freezing in the dark.”

Yet cuts on the scale Mr. Obama is calling for — a 30 percent reduction in emissions from the nation’s electricity industry by 2030 — have already been accomplished in parts of the country.

At least 10 states cut their emissions by that amount or more between 2005 and 2012, and several other states were well on their way, almost two decades before Mr. Obama’s clock for the nation runs out.

Worse still for the naysayers, the states that have already begun to clean up their acts haven’t suffered the dire consequences predicted by apologists for Big Coal. The New England region has made some of the biggest cuts in emissions, and residential electricity bills there have fallen 7 percent since 2005.  Meanwhile, economic growth in the region ran slightly ahead of the national average.

Oh, pesky evidence!

The Times also reported that Europe is considering a 43 percent cut in emissions by 2030.

So much for “we’re number one!”

 

 

 

 

Here’s My Question

A study recently published in The Archives of General Psychiatry adds to a body of evidence linking the growing incidence of autism to early-life exposure to pollution. According to the study, children with autism are two to three times more likely than other children to have been exposed to car exhaust, smog, and other air pollutants during their earliest days.

“We’re not saying that air pollutioncauses autism. We’re saying it may be a risk factor for autism,” says Heather Volk, lead author on the new study and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. “Autism is a complex disorder and it’s likely there are many factors contributing,” she says.

Now, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV. (Nor do I have a subscription to the Archives of General Psychiatry–I came across a reference to the study while reading another journal article.) I’m not a climate scientist either. So–just like the deniers who prefer to believe that climate change is a big myth–I do not possess the ability to independently review the evidence and judge its persuasiveness.

I understand the resistance to environmental regulations by those whose economic interests are affected–the oil and gas producers and others whose profits would suffer if we really got serious about carbon emissions. I know those interests have been heavily invested in a campaign of “disinformation” and that they’ve managed to confuse a lot of people who–like me–aren’t scientists able to independently evaluate the evidence.

But let’s just assume that the deniers are right–that 99% of the scientists who are able to evaluate the evidence are wrong, and the other 1% are right. Why wouldn’t it still make sense to clean up the air and water? Even the deniers aren’t arguing that pollution is good. We have plenty of irrefutable evidence linking air pollution to higher incidences of respiratory diseases. There are these growing links to autism and other disorders. And as anyone whose traveled in China can attest, bad air quality can be a real turn-off–I’ve yet to meet anyone who enjoys breathing black air.

Here’s the calculus as I see it: one the one hand, there is no doubt that continuing our polluting ways negatively affects our quality of life. There is evidence that it contributes significantly to a variety of diseases, and overwhelming consensus that it is warming the earth among those who actually know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, there is no benefit whatsoever from continuing to pollute–except to companies whose profits depend upon continued emissions.

On one side, cleaner air, healthier people, and the possibility of saving the planet. On the other side, big oil.

Seems pretty clear-cut to me.