Behind the Lines: Our Dirty Air
Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Lambson: I understand that, in your view, it is axiomatic that the Republicans are responsible for all that is amiss in the world, so tell me what your hypothetical enlightened government officials would do about inversions.
Bagley: Let's hop in the WayBack machine and travel to our childhood home of Oceanside, Calif. We'll stop at, oh, let's say 1968. The breeze off the Pacific means the air is usually fresh, but several times a year weather patterns allow a wall of Los Angeles smog to swallow Oceanside whole. Recent pictures out of Beijing recall Southern California's air pollution misery in the '60s. You couldn't see the house across the street for the sickly, yellow haze. Looking back I'm appalled we were let out for recess to play during these episodes, sucking in the toxic muck, until we literally couldn't catch our breath, and collapsed into wheezing helplessness.
Then came the environmental movement and the Clean Air Act, supported and signed by Richard Nixon. I remember dad cursing government regulation and catalytic converters, which he claimed would price cars out of affordability and be the ruin of Detroit. We know the end of the story: Detroit did just fine and the air cleared up almost overnight. In fact, Detroit might have stolen a march on the Japanese if it had focused back then on high mileage (and quality, of course).
I bring up this history as an example that sometimes government gets things right. Just for fun go back and read the news from the time: Industry was screaming bloody murder that onerous government regulation would be the death knell of growth and jobs. In retrospect, it saved lives and money.
Lambson: That last sentence is quite the leap, but I will refrain from yet another wrangle about the scientific method and the hard work required for reliable statistical analysis. Instead, using automobile emissions as an example, I will point out that there are at least two approaches. One is regulation: demand that Detroit build cars that use less gas, and then complain that the resulting lighter cars are unsafe at any speed. Another is to tax gasoline and let producers and consumers decide how to conserve. The underlying problem is that you can't really enforce property rights over the air in and around your home, so the market doesn't price the effects of air pollution correctly.
Bagley: Air is hard to think of as a single individual's property. It tends to wander off and mix with bad elements. A hundred years ago the first successful environmental lawsuit was waged by Salt Lake Valley farmers whose crops and cattle were being killed by the smoke from smelters in Murray. Refining ore from Park City was a huge business, and the smelter owners fought dirty, accusing the Mormon farmers of faking diseased crops and dying animals. They even financed bogus scientific studies. It took government action to force the polluters to eventually remove the arsenic and lead they were pumping into the atmosphere. But even this had a happy capitalist ending: the toxic stuff they gathered with their pollution control devices was sold as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides to farmers, who spread it on their crops. Want to guess what happened next? I wrote a history column about this some years back.
Lambson: Which brings us back to my original question: What would your hypothetical enlightened government officials do about inversions?
Bagley: Unlike Governor Herbert and the Legislature, enlightened government officials would care more about the health of Utahns than they do about the wishes of corporate contributors, which are currently lobbying to be allowed to increase emissions. Nobody can stop inversions in Utah's valleys, but determined action could cut down the poisons that are pumped into the air during these episodes. Things can be done now. No matter one's politics, eventually things will get so bad that something will have to be done. In a letter to Herbert, a hundred Utah doctors provided a list of suggestions. It would be a good start.
Lambson: I agree that government has a role in regulating emissions. Any enlightened government must consider costs as well as benefits. Pollution is more likely to be reduced at lower cost if government action is not heavy-handed and micromanaging. I prefer market-based solutions, like cap-and-trade. Next best is taxation of emissions, so that the decision of how to reduce emissions is decentralized. Finally, it is crucial to remember that the optimal amount of pollution is not zero, even if it is much lower than what we currently face.
And stop blaming things on evil corporations. Corporations are made up of real people. If you prick them they bleed. They include owners (of which you are one if you have a 401k that invests in stocks), managers, and workers. They produce things that we all consume. If corporate managers find it in their interest to go to the government for favors that they are willing to pay for, it is because well-meaning people like you have given government the power to pass out such favors. One reason I prefer market-based solutions is that they are not subject to as much political manipulation as micromanaged solutions. Another trip in the Wayback machine, this time to Utah Valley in the 1980s, would allow us to see government keeping Geneva Steel open by trade protection and tax breaks, hardly an environmentally optimal policy. It would be great if you could grow your hypothetical enlightened politicians in a laboratory, but they would be unlikely to survive in the wild.
Bagley: Corporations aren't evil, they're just amoral. Their sole objective is to return profit to the shareholders. They'll fight for decades to promulgate a lie, and incidentally ruin everyone's health, if there's money in it. Cigarettes don't cause cancer. Rivers naturally catch fire and burn. Lead in gasoline doesn't poison everything with lungs. Massive burning of fossil fuels isn't juicing the climate. It's nothing personal, that's just how they roll.
So I'm skeptical when spokesmen for Utah's major polluters, like Gov. Herbert, claim that industry is already doing everything possible to mitigate the problem.
The Top comment from last week was from Chester4:
Let them place their trust in guns, I'll place my trust in God.
I'm more concerned about the right to own "weapons" against deadly diseases, "weapons" against illiteracy and ignorance, "weapons" against hate.