Thursday, July 29, 2004

Random Environment Thoughts

Wrote the following while attending an Enviornment Votes 2004 event....

"Worst administration ever" was Carol Browner's assessment of the Bush administration on the environment. It's hard to argue with that, though they haven't yet had a chance to do quite as much damage as they'd like. I don't talk about environmental stuff much, other than the basic "Bush is bad," because serious discussion is rather wonky and there really isn't much point of doing that. But, rhetorically I think there is an opportunity to reframe the issue in a way that can appeal to a broader chunk of voters.

At heart, most (though not all) environmental issues can be reframed as property rights and personal health issues. Do firms have the right to pollute your air, water, and soil or not? For various reasons (somewhat their own fault, probably, but largely due to the spin machine), the environmental movement has become associated with things that people don't perceive as affecting them personally - endangered species that they've never heard of, clumps of trees in countries they don't care much about, etc... I'm not trying to diminish the importance of any of these issues, I'm just pointing out that it's easier to get people to care about things which do affect them personally..

While Rush Limbaugh's listeners are probably convinced that mercury is good for you, most people don't really want their kids to be exposed to it. People like Big Media Matt don't really care about pristine landscapes, but they do care that they can't drink their tapwater.

Make people understand that it isn't just about abstract natural beauty, endangered insects, or the abstract if possibly very real coming global warming catastrophe. It's about cancer, asthma, and kids getting brain damage. Environmental issues have broad general support by people, but the specifics are too often associated with things which are too far removed from them. Find a way to bring it home.

Another point that Robert F. Kennedy frequently makes (and just did again), is that part of the problem is that we don't really have a "free market." He passed on a quip from Jim Hightower, "A free market is nice, we should try it some time." Now, this is a bumper sticker way to frame the issue which is slightly misleading under the rules of standard acceptable discourse about economic issues, but it's actually quite true. A true "free market" requires people/firms to pay the full costs of their economic activities. Polluting companies are getting something for free. In an alternative universe where issues actually mattered we could have a sensible debate about the appropriate means for dealing with this - regulations, emissions taxes, fake market-based "cap and trade" systems, etc... All of those methods have their imperfections, but the answer isn't "no government intereference." Even the conservatarian fantasy of Coase-theorem based solution of assigning property rights clearly and letting individual actors bargain was practical in more cases, it would still involve very costly enforcement and court fights over what would need to be incredibly complicated contracts (conservatarians frequently ignore the fact that people don't always honor their contracts, and costly legal battles then follow...) Government of a different sort, but still government.

Robert Kennedy just contrasted the press's treatment of the Mark Rich pardon with their lack of interest in the fact that the Bush administration has thrown out dozens of criminal cases against big donors related to violation of environnmental laws .

Elliot Spitzer said a couple of things which were interesting. He said they've "turned federalism against this administration," and informed the audience that during a speech to the Federalist Society he told them, "You've let a genie out of the bottle and you're going to live to regret it."