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“Phosphorus And Freedom”: The Libertarian Fantasy

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

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Deregulation, Environment, Libertarians | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“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

August 6, 2014 Posted by | Environment, GOP, Pollution | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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