In the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians — roughly speaking, people who combine free-market economics with permissive social views — and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?
The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.
As you’ve probably heard, the City of Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.
When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State — and I remembered an antigovernment rant a few years back from Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder. Mr. Erickson suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing?
An aside: The states bordering Lake Erie banned or sharply limited phosphates in detergent long ago, temporarily bringing the lake back from the brink. But farming has so far evaded effective controls, so the lake is dying again, and it will take more government intervention to save it.
The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.
Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, Milton Friedman famously called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. But in that case, how would consumers know whether their food and drugs were safe? His answer was to rely on tort law. Corporations, he claimed, would have the incentive not to poison people because of the threat of lawsuits.
So, do you believe that would be enough? Really? And, of course, people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers.
More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. We’re living in an Ayn Rand novel, they insist. (No, we aren’t.) We have more than a hundred different welfare programs, they tell us, which are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor. (No, we don’t, and no, they aren’t.)
I’m often struck, incidentally, by the way antigovernment clichés can trump everyday experience. Talk about the role of government, and you invariably have people saying things along the lines of, “Do you want everything run like the D.M.V.?” Experience varies — but my encounters with New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission have generally been fairly good (better than dealing with insurance or cable companies), and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad. But they go for the legend, not the fact.
Libertarians also tend to engage in projection. They don’t want to believe that there are problems whose solution requires government action, so they tend to assume that others similarly engage in motivated reasoning to serve their political agenda — that anyone who worries about, say, environmental issues is engaged in scare tactics to further a big-government agenda. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t just think we’re living out the plot of “Atlas Shrugged”; he asserts that all the fuss over climate change is just “an excuse to grow government.”
As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide; despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 10, 2014
“The Real Crises On Their Doorsteps”: Will The Green Goop In Toledo’s Water Be The End Of GOP Anti-Environmentalism?
It’s easy to doubt the effects of climate change – especially if you’re a Republican or a dedicated Fox News watcher. It’s an abstract concept easily “disproven” by the first cold day, and Republican-driven policies (or the lack thereof) to address it reflect just that. But it’s more difficult to deny the causes of smelly green goop washing up on a lakeshore or sticking to your toes.
But the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that caused 400,000 Toledo residents to avoid municipal water for two days provides an opportunity for conservatives to illustrate the ease with which they could co-opt the environment movement to push for local control, market solutions and individual choice – and start dealing with the very real crises on their doorsteps.
To that end, Ohio’s Republican governor – and pro-fracking enemy to the state’s environmentalists – John Kasich already signed legislation to address the algal blooms producing the toxins in Lake Erie earlier this year. That was too late, of course, and it might also be too little: it’s a voluntary program to certify farmers who use the phosphorous fertilizers that cause the blooms, and it won’t take effect untl 2017.
But even signing the legislation puts Kasich on the “Al Gore” side of the environmentalist spectrum to others in the GOP. In Washington state, Republican state house members argued that there was no science “that proves fertilizers have any impact on water quality”. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker “eased” the deadlines for polluters in the state to meet the previous administration’s numerical standards for the amount of phosphorous allowed in public waters (he tried to replace the numeric standards with a “narrative description” of reduction efforts, but wasn’t successful). In Tea Partying Florida, the Republican state legislature sought to overturn locally-enacted bans on phosphorus fertilizer – an effort pushed by a Scotts Miracle-Gro lobbyist who texted a representative, “I am begging for your help here.”
Meanwhile, dozens of communities and 12 states have banned phosphorous fertilizers – and some even ban phosphorous in detergent, too. These laws don’t just spring up in Birkenstock Nation capitals such as Vermont or Ann Arbor, Michigan: Virginia banned phosphorous fertilizers in 2011 under the watchful eye of Republican governor Bob McDonnell, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie enacted the nation’s strictest regulations on the use of the chemical with trademark defiance and sentimentality in 2012. Christie explained:
We understand that the beauty of the body of water that we have here in New Jersey is much more important to our psychic health and our economic health than any of the arguments being made by the other side.
Research from 2009 shows that the results of fertilizer bans are clear: one of the oldest bans in the country – in Michigan – was linked to 28% reduction in phosphorus in downstream waters.
We shouldn’t be too surprised by some GOP flexibility on this aspect of environmental regulation: it’s mayors and governors who wind up having to deal with environmental crises on the ground and in real time – and who ultimately cannot afford ideological purity at the cost of their communities (though it may cost them higher office).
For them, GOP disdain for executive power stops at the Beltway’s edge; they cannot afford the luxury of speeches and stunts when their constituents go thirsty or can’t take baths.
Environmental crises are usually trotted out as case studies in the limits of conservative governance: they are systemic problems, requiring broad, coordinated action and strict penalties in place to dramatize the cost of continued malfeasance (since the real costs are all too broad to force individuals to take action). Coal seems like “cheap” energy … until you calculate the associated health and environmental costs after its use; avoiding chemical fertilizers seems expensive until you compare it with the cost of cleaning up after them.
The situation in Ohio has brought home how short the timeline of deferred costs can become, and it should: phosphorus fertilizers aren’t like oil wells or fracking fields, because consumers can make a direct choice in using them or not. Specific sites such as waste management plants (so-called point sources) aren’t even the primary sources for phosphorous pollutants in public waters like Lake Erie; rather, much of the pollution in the water is the result of run-off from developed land (non-point sources).
And algal blooms aren’t like climate change – though, importantly, they’re exacerbated by it: they are near-term and ugly, comparatively immediate consequences of definable actions that everyday citizens can see without a microscope or binoculars. They are inarguable.
In Ohio, the urgency to take action on the algal blooms can only be enhanced by the recognition that doing so makes economic sense – and will keep harsher regulations at bay. Phosphorus bans even make a certain economic sense: The EPA estimates that “nutrient pollution” costs the US $1bn a year in lost revenue from outdoor tourism and waterway recreation.
The problem with getting consensus on environmental policy is not, primarily, that Democrats want to continue expanding the leviathan of big government and Republicans are seeking local solutions – it’s that many conservatives refuse beyond all reason to acknowledge that there is a problem to be solved at all.
Maybe a glass of goop can change that.
By: Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian, August 5, 2014
For Chevron, the second-largest oil company in the country with $26.2 billion in annual profits, it helps to have friends in high places. With little fanfare, one of Chevron’s top lobbyists, Stephen Sayle, has become a senior staff member of the House Committee on Science, the standing congressional committee charged with “maintaining our scientific and technical leadership in the world.”
Throughout much of 2013, Sayle was the chief executive officer of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, a lobbying firm retained by Chevron to influence Congress. For fees that total $320,000 a year, Sayle and his team lobbied on a range of energy-related issues, including implementation of EPA rules under the Clean Air Act, regulation of ozone standards, as well as “Congressional and agency oversight related to offshore oil, natural gas development and oil spills.”
Sayle’s ethics disclosure, obtained by Republic Report, shows that he was paid $500,000 by Chevron’s lobbying firm before taking his current gig atop the Science Committee.
In recent months, the House Science Committee has become a cudgel for the oil industry, issuing subpoenas and holding hearings to demonize efforts to improve the environment. Some of the work by the committee reflect the lobbying priorities of Chevron.
In December, the Science Committee, now chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), held yet another hearing to try to discredit manmade global warming. In August, the committee issued the first subpoena in twenty-one years, demanding “all the raw data from a number of federally funded studies linking air pollution to disease.”
Though Chevron has gone to great lengths to advertise a lofty environmental record, the company continues to break air pollution laws while quietly backpedalling on its prior commitments to renewable energy. A Bloomberg News investigation reported that Chevron estimated that its biofuel investments would return only 5 percent in profits, a far cry from the 15 percent to which the oil giant is accustomed, and quietly moved to shelve renewable fuel units of the company. In California, Chevron is battling the newly created cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution. And in states across the country, Chevron has lobbied and provided financial support to a range of right-wing nonprofits dedicated to repealing carbon-cutting regulations, including the low-carbon fuel standard.
Earlier this year, Dow Lohnes’ lobbying practice merged with Levick, a public affairs firm.
By: Lee Fang, The Nation, February 21, 2014: This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
In Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and other states, people who have rarely experienced earthquakes in the past are getting used to them as a fairly common phenomenon. This dramatic uptick in tremors is related to drilling for oil and natural gas, several reports find. And the growing popularity of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is in part to blame.
Between 1970 and 2000, there was an average of 20 earthquakes per year within the central and eastern United States. Between 2010 and 2013, there was an average of more than 100 earthquakes annually. A United States Geological Survey released last month summarized research on man-made earthquakes conducted by one of the agency’s geophysicists:
USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed for this purpose.
So, the actual hydraulic fracturing process itself is not to blame in these cases; instead, it’s the injection of wastewater into deep wells that accompanies it.
Hydraulic fracturing produces a higher volume of wastewater than traditional drilling — as the name implies, drillers use millions of gallons of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to break apart rock and release gas trapped in pockets in the earth. The wastewater generated is often contaminated with salt or poisonous chemicals, and environmental regulations bar drilling companies from allowing it to mix with drinking water; oftentimes, the most economical way for these companies to dispose of it is to sequester it deep in the ground, below aquifers. Once there, it changes pressure underground and lubricates fault lines, with the potential effect of causing earthquakes.
In both Texas and Oklahoma, the number of earthquakes per year has increased ten-fold. And wells storing wastewater from fracking have also been linked to hundreds of earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio.
Studies last year found that the largest quake ever recorded in Oklahoma — which was felt 800 miles away in Milwaukee, Wis., damaged 14 homes, injured two people and buckled a highway — could be linked to wastewater injection. Damage from the quake, which measured 5.6 on the Richter scale, “would be much worse if it were to happen in a more densely populated area,” the USGS wrote.
In the Netherlands, where the Groningen gas field lies, quakes have also become more frequent, increasing from about 20 each year before 2011 to an average of one per week. Shell and Exxon Mobile, active in the gas field, set aside $130 million to strengthen buildings as the quakes increased in severity. But residents of the area worried that a 4-or-5 magnitude earthquake –the likelihood of which, experts warned, is increasing — would threaten the integrity of the country’s dikes, which protect the low-lying northern Netherlands.
Last month, the country’s government decided to scale back production of natural gas on the Groningen field, foregoing one billion euros a year by 2016, even as the country struggles to cope with the European Union’s deficit reduction targets.
But similar reductions in the US are unlikely. The oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in both Texas and Oklahoma, and natural gas has become widely popular among electric utilities for its low cost.
By: John Light, Bill Moyers Blog, February 14, 2014
“You Don’t Need To Be A Scientist”: West Virginia Can’t Get Its Story Straight On The Chemical Spill
Over the weekend, West Virginia authorities lifted the last remaining tap-water ban in effect since a January 9 chemical spill at the Freedom Industries plant in Charleston contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. But in a press conference Monday, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin hardly inspired confidence that the water was safe to drink, saying, “It’s your decision” to choose to drink the water and “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe.” Tomblin, a Democrat, later added, “It’s a very complicated issue. I’m not a scientist, you know.”
There’s the problem. Scientists don’t know much, either, about the leaked chemical, “crude MCHM,” and on Tuesday a Tomblin spokeswoman confirmed that a second chemical, a modified form of PPH, also leaked into the water during the spill. The Center for Disease Control insists that 1-part-per-millon or less of crude MCHM isn’t harmful, but adds, “Due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system…. Few studies on this specialized chemical exist and most have been conducted on animals.” The CDC reported that toxicologic information on PPH is also limited but does “not suggest any new health concerns.”
This is little comfort to #aquapocalypse victims whose tap water still smells like licorice, despite following a U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Register (ATSDR) recommendation that they flush their plumbing systems until the odor goes away. Dr. Paul F. Ziemkiewicz of the West Virginia Water Research Institute explained to me that crude MCHM is a surfactant that lowers the surface tension between a liquid and a solid—in this case, water and coal. It’s a detergent of sorts, cleaning coal by separating it from non-burnable (and thus non-usable) mined substances such as shale. Because crude MCHM is only slightly soluble in—and lighter than—water, it is possible that traces of the chemical could settle at the top of water tanks in homes, continuing to contaminate its contents even after households have flushed their plumbing system. Little is known, too, about PPH, which made up five percent of the leaked tank’s total capacity. According to the Charleston Gazette, “A Freedom Industries data sheet on the chemical says it can irritate the eyes and skin and is harmful if swallowed. The sheet lists the material as less lethal than Crude MCHM but also says no data are available on its long-term health effects.”
With the state sending mixed messages, West Virginians affected by the spill are hoping scientists can provide more clarity on the chemicals. “The governor has closed the book on this disaster,” said Rob Goodwin, an activist in Charleston, “and it’s unfortunate because the disaster relief aid as it was, especially in rural areas, is going to stop because the state is no longer seeing this as an emergency anymore.” Goodwin thinks that in the absence of a regulatory standard, the least the state and the water supplier, West Virginia American Water, could do is clarify and expand the flushing instructions. (Goodwin advises draining hot water heaters completely and minimizing exposure by leaving the home during the process.) But the state has confused even this relatively simple matter. West Virginia authorities rejected ATSDR’s flushing advice, and when asked about it Monday, Tomblin said, “I’m not aware that we did. I have not seen that.”
No wonder there’s still “a big demand” for the bottled water being trucked in by FEMA—a supply that, according to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, is only expected to last through the weekend.
By: Claire Carusillo, The New Republic, January 22, 2014