Thursday, April 17, 2008

my new favorite punching bag

(Taken from the blog of the late great Steve Gilliard)

Given that Sen. Chris Buttars might lose in the primary, let alone the general election this fall, I have been on the lookout of another local politician who can be counted on to say stupid things that I can make fun of on a regular basis. And sure enough Buttars's colleague and heir apparent to his title of Eagle-Forum-Mouthpiece fits the bill: Sen. Margaret Dayton (R-Orem).

Due to the large number of cars to people ratio, the traffic bottleneck on I-15 between Logan and Salt Lake, Kennecott Copper, Geneva Steel, and high pressure fronts in the winter, the Wasatch Front has dangerously bad air quality.

Concerned mothers and doctors have banded together to bring attention to the health impacts of such polluted air: children developing asthma and dying, elderly dying, heart disease, etc.

So at a hearing on whether to reauthorize the Utah Air Conservation Act, Dayton
said she is "agitated" by too many regulators and regulations costing too much taxpayer money to monitor and control emissions in Utah.

"It's frustrating to me," she said. Dayton criticized state and federal regulators for placing too little confidence in letting people solve air quality "issues" on their own.

Where to begin? Let's compare the cost of inaction with the cost of action. For FY 2008, Utah spent a mere $10.8 Million (page 87 on the print out, page 97 of 300 on the PDF) on improving air quality and doing its part to enforce the Utah Clean Air Act, which also includes provision for banning smoking indoors (spend any significant length of time at the SLC airport and you too will have this fact beaten into you). More critically, only $3.92 Million of that came out of the General Fund (table 19, page 90). The Californian government took a look at the cost of air pollution in 2004 and found these disturbing findings:
Of course, California's air quality, despite the toughest rules in the country, is still worse than ours, but it gives you a sense of what will happen in a few decades if we listen to Dayton's advice.

To be charitable, I assume Dayton is attempting to express the conservative ideological idea that individuals can always solve problems better than the government can by regulation. Of course, air pollution is the classic example of what economists call a negative externality. When you buy car, or gas, or anything made of copper or steel, you aren't paying for the pollution emitted in making/using the product. At most you are paying for the cost of cleaning up the prior emissions (but since Kennecott and Geneva are SuperFund sites, you are mostly paying for those out of your federal tax dollars) So where is the incentive to make cleaner gas, cars, cooper, and steel? Other than customer's moral complaints, there is actually a reverse incentive, because technologies to reduce or prevent emissions costs more money.

This is a classic example of the failure of markets to include the full costs of a product and to address a public harm. So how does one fix that and still appeal to their beliefs that markets solve everything: pollution-trading-credit-markets. All three presidential candidates believe in some form of a cap on emissions and then distributing credits to pollute X amount, which companies can then sell among themselves and thereby incentivize companies to invent cheaper and more efficient ways of reducing emissions. But governments have to be sure to set the cap low, and not give out too many credits, otherwise the whole purpose of the cap and trade system will flop, as it has in Europe.

But where was I? .... Ah yes, Ms. Dayton, congratulations! You are going to provide many a day of fodder.

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