Thursday, November 05, 2009

How to Destroy an Economy

From the Washington Times:

Since February, the EPA has placed 175 surface coal mining projects under review and halted 79 of them because of their effects on surface water. For 30 years, the agency did not object to the air pollution caused when miners blast dirt into the air to expose coal deposits. Now, invoking the Clean Water Act, the agency is moving to block, at least for now, the projects when they sully nearby streams with the same pollutant.

The agency also has, for the first time, revoked a permit for a surface mine because the project in West Virginia could violate the Clean Water Act.

More broadly, the agency has announced there could be a link between greenhouse gas emissions and public health and welfare - a prelude to new mandates for corporations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The agency also agreed to allow California to regulate tailpipe emissions, increased fuel efficiency standards for cars for the first time in more than 25 years and won White House approval to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the nation's largest polluters.

And that's just the beginning.

I remember a magazine article from long ago about Vietnamese refugees stuck for years in Thai refugee camps. The Thais had no use for them, and they were rightly afraid to move back to Vietnam. (Are there still such camps in Thailand?) One line from the article I remember crystalized the damage that this kind of dislocation could do. It said that there were working-age young men, born in exile, that had "never seen a water buffalo."

There are many skills that, once lost, are very difficult to recover. They are the kind of skills that are passed from journeymen to apprentices, not the kind learned from books and academic journals, and therefore not the kind with which Obama's minions have any experience. Once the opportunity to practice the skill is suppressed (or regulated away), the skill rapidly decays.

The EPA is almost certainly costing a lot of coal miners their jobs. These miners are not suddenly going to put on a shirt-and-tie and start doing office work; they will likely be stuck in the economic equivalent of a refugee camp. Further, they will lose the opportunity to pass their skills to the next generation of miners. And I'm pretty sure this is not the way of growing the economy out of the recession.

And what for? I've never lived anywhere in the U.S. (and I've lived a lot of places) where I couldn't drink the water or breathe the air. For whose benefit, exactly, is the EPA undertaking these regulations?


Grim said...

The eco freaks want the coal industry ended. Obama promised them this during the campaigne and he is doing it.

Amanda said...

I've never lived anywhere in the U.S. (and I've lived a lot of places) where I couldn't drink the water or breathe the air. For whose benefit, exactly, is the EPA undertaking these regulations?

Well, I have lived in China, where they have no EPA. There you cannot drink the water and in many places you will never (literally) see the sky or the stars. In some places, the air can be so thick it looks smoky all the time and most of the population has hacking coughs. Near Shanghai, almost all the water is so polluted that it can't even be drunk after treatment, and causes cancer. And who benefits by making the environment disgusting and unhealthy? The rich, who keep all the profits from the factories and coal mining (a very widespread industry in China's most polluted areas BTW). Of course, it's also the rich who don't have to live in the place they have destroyed (and can afford to buy expensive water and health care). Having a clean environment is very important, especially for the most vulnerable (the poor, children, the sick).

You should be grateful we have an EPA. In China, they have constant protests against rampant pollution (which you won't see on the news due to censorship) but since it benefits the rich nothing is done. Your attitude is entitled and gross: why do you think the US has drinkable water and an industrial sector? It's not an act of God.

Burke said...

Insults aside, you have the correlations between wealth and the environment exactly backwards. Both nations and individuals begin to desire environmental good when they are rich, not when they are poor. The poor have much more important concerns: food, clothing, shelter. Only after these goods are secure do they begin to worry about the environment.

Hence, rich nations like the U.S. concern ourselves with the environment more than poor ones like China. Similarly, rich blue-staters in Vermont and Manhattan are more concerned with the environment than West Virginia coal miners.

But more to the point: I did not attack the existence of the E.P.A. I attacked its fervor on behalf of new regulations that will destroy jobs in the middle of a recession in which we have double-digit unemployment.

Amanda said...

Both nations and individuals begin to desire environmental good when they are rich, not when they are poor. The poor have much more important concerns: food, clothing, shelter.
This is not true. While some environmental issues (saving spotted owls, organic produce) are solely of concern to the relatively wealthy, having clean water and air is a vital issue for the poor. A lack of clean water is a leading cause of death for poor children around the world. The Chinese protestors which I mentioned before are usually peasants whose environment has been destroyed by (for instance) a new factory which pours toxic sludge directly into their only water source, meaning that their livelihood is destroyed as there is no usable water for crops. The profits from the factory go to the factory owner, who is free to live somewhere less polluted, while the poor are robbed of everything. This is a common story, not only in China, and used to happen in the US too, before companies were required to be more responsible.

You might not have attacked the existence of the EPA directly, but you did ask for whose benefit the EPA was working, implying it was for wealthy liberals at the expense of the hard-working poor. I am pointing out that usually environmental protection benefits the hard-working poor, at the expense of the unscrupulous wealthy.

Burke said...

Not above some threshold level. In general, the people who live closest to industrial pollution are those directly employed by the factories generating that pollution, not some third party. They are the ones faced with the environmental tradeoffs: how much environmental good are we willing to trade away for other goods? Well, it depends on how rich you are!

China, obviously, is in a go-go industrialization phase not seen here in 100 years. On top of which, it's a corrupt dictatorship in which state-owned enterprises have no checks on their power, and no mechanism to compensate those suffering from their externalities. So yeah, it's easy to see how farmers are getting screwed.

So what's at stake here in the U.S.? Are farmers being driven off their land for the benefit of mining and manufacturing? Are people having to drink bottled water because their public water supply is poisoned? There is nothing happening in China that justifies what the EPA does here.

Amanda said...

Your point about workers employed at factories making environmental tradeoffs is true but misses the point. Pollution generated by a factory or mine is going to affect everyone in the area, regardless of the economic benefits they derive from the pollution's source. Moreover, your argument is assuming that people are given a choice of increased wealth or increased cleanliness. In reality, they are not given that choice: the company begins polluting without consulting them as to their desires, and rarely discloses important information (like chemical processes used in our factory will give a large percentage of workers and nearby residents cancer: yes, this also happened in China).

China is not exceptional: these same processes are taking place all over the world (the rainforest, for example, is largely being cut down by large corporations over the objections of those who live there).

You are quite right that the US is not in the same situation at all. But the reason it isn't has completely to do with the existence of regulatory bodies like the EPA (and fundamentally with a democratic system enabling people to demand their existence). The US used to have very similar problems. For example, in 1948 near Pittsburgh, air pollution caused by industrial processes created a thick yellow smog of sulfur dioxide which blanketed the town of Donora. It killed 11 people and made thousands seriously ill. After this event, regulations were introduced and pollution was reduced by 97%. (They also passed the Clean Air Act as a result)

People can drink water and breathe the air only because of our regulations.

Burke said...

And the activity of the EPA is a function of politics.

Obama's EPA is presumably carrying out the wishes of Obama's voters. People in Swipplevilles like Manhattan, for instance. People who's livelihoods do NOT depend on resource extraction, like miners or, for that matter, farmers.

1948 . . . seriously? If you are looking for me to concede that we ought to care about the environment more than we did 60 years ago, fine. I don't have a problem with balancing environmental concerns with other policy priorities, so long as the tradeoffs affect everyone. But this process has become predatory: the clerical class pass laws that make domestic production uncompetitive, and then buy their stuff overseas. American workers get screwed.