Science, Politics, Public Perception, and Wasted Money

I am still slowly working my way through Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, 4th ed. I don’t think I expected the topic of air/water pollution to come up in a tome on economics, but it does make sense, as you’ll see. Cries for increasing efforts toward environmental (i.e., ecological) purification are common — all in the name of saving the land, the wildlife, the children, etc. — and even understandable. But, they come at great cost, and those efforts are not always the best use for that money. Sowell explains…

give-a-hoot“The application of categorical laws prevents the enormous powers of government from being applied at the discretion or whim of individual functionaries, which would invite both corruption and arbitrary oppression. [However, since] there are many things which require discretionary incremental adjustments, for these things categorical laws can be difficult to apply or can produce counterproductive results. For example, while prevention of air pollution and water pollution are widely recognized as legitimate functions of government, which can achieve more economically efficient results in this regard than those of the free market, doing so through categorical laws can create major problems.

Despite the political appeal of categorical phrases like ‘clean water’ and ‘clean air’, there are in fact no such things, never have been, and perhaps never will be. Moreover, there are diminishing returns in removing impurities from water or air. A study of environmental risk regulation cited a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on this:

A former EPA administrator put the problem succinctly when he noted that about 85 percent of the toxic material could be removed from waste sites in a few months, but years are spent trying to remove the last little bit. Removing that last little bit can involve limited technological choice, high cost, devotion of considerable agency resources, large legal fees, and endless argument.

Reducing truly dangerous amounts of impurities from water or air may be done at costs that most people would agree were quite reasonable. But, as higher and higher standards of purity are prescribed by government, in order to eliminate ever more minute traces of ever more remote or more questionable dangers, the costs escalate out of proportion to the benefits. But, even if removing 98 percent of a given impurity costs twice as much as eliminating 97 percent, and removing 99 percent costs ten times as much, the political appeal of categorical phrases like ‘clean water’ may be just as potent when the water is already 99 percent pure as when it was dangerously polluted. That was demonstrated back in the 1970s:

The Council of Economic Advisers argued that making the nation’s streams 99 percent pure, rather than 98 percent pure, would have a cost far exceeding its benefits, but Congress was unmoved.

Depending on what the particular impurity is, minute traces may or may not pose a serious danger. But political controversies over impurities in the water are unlikely to be settled at a scientific level when passions can be whipped up in the name of non-existent ‘clean water’. No matter how pure the water becomes, someone can always demand the removal of more impurities. And, unless the public understands the logical and economic implications of what is being said, that demand can become politically irresistible, since no public official wants to be known as being opposed to clean water.

It is not even certain that reducing extremely small amounts of substances that are harmful in larger amounts reduces risks at all. Even arsenic in the water — in extremely minute traces — has been found to have health benefits. An old saying declares: “It is the dose that makes the poison.” Similar research findings apply to many substances, including saccharin and alcohol. Although high doses of saccharin have been shown to increase the rate of cancer in laboratory rats, very low doses seem to reduce the rate of cancer in these rats. Although a large intake of alcohol shortens people’s lifespan in many ways, very modest amounts of alcohol — like one glass of wine or beer per day — tend to reduce life-threatening conditions like hypertension.

If there is some threshold amount of a particular substance required before it becomes harmful, that makes it questionable whether spending vast amounts of money to try to remove that last fraction of one percent from the air or water is necessarily going to make the public safer by even a minute amount. But what politician wants to be known as someone who blocked efforts to remove arsenic from water?

bear-facepalm-13594_wThe same principle applies in many other contexts, where minute traces of impurities can produce major political and legal battles — and consume millions of tax dollars with little or no net effect on the health or safety of the public. For example, one legal battle raged for a decade over the impurities in a New Hampshire toxic waste site, where these wastes were so diluted that children could have eaten some of the dirt there for 70 days a year without any significant harm — if there had been any children living or playing there, which there were not. As a result of spending more than nine million dollars, the level of impurities was reduced to the point where children could have safely eaten the dirt there 245 days a year. Moreover, without anything being done at all, both parties to the litigation agreed that more than half the volatile impurities would have evaporated by the year 2000. Yet hypothetical dangers to hypothetical children kept the issue going and money being spent.

With environmental safety, as with other kinds of safety, some forms of safety in one respect create dangers in other respects. California, for example, required a certain additive to be put into all gasoline sold in that state, in order to reduce the air pollution from automobile exhaust fumes. However, this new additive tended to leak from filling station storage tanks and automobile gas tanks, polluting the ground water in the first case and leading to more automobile fires in the second. Similarly, government-mandated air bags in automobiles, introduced to save lives in car crashes, have themselves killed small children.

These are all matters of incremental trade-offs to find an optimal amount and kind of safety, in a world where being categorically safe is as impossible as achieving 100 percent clean air or clean water. Incremental trade-offs are made all the time in individual market transactions, but it can be politically suicidal to oppose demands for more clean air, clean water or automobile safety. Therefore saying that the government can improve over the results of individual transactions in a free market is not the same as saying that it will in fact do so. Among the greatest external costs imposed in a society can be those imposed politically by legislators and officials who pay no costs whatever, while imposing billions of dollars in costs on others, in order to respond to political pressures from advocates of particular interests or ideologies.”

This is yet another example in which many millions, even billions, of taxpayer dollars that could be put to good use are instead wasted in unnecessary efforts, thanks largely to the ignorance — in this case, scientific and economic — of the general populace and the obligation(?) of politicians to bow to the wishes of their constituency — or, at least, the vocal minority and/or lobbyists. I’m not sure what the answer is, but a better-educated citizenry — including the politicians, of course, who are supposed to be representing our best interests — would be a good start. If only we could get them to care….


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