Monday, July 13, 2009

Tragedy of the Commons, Part 3: Over-Pollution

The second manifestation of the “tragedy of the commons” is the problem of over-pollution. When human beings either extract resources from the environment or transform resources into artifacts a certain amount residual material is left behind. That residual material deposited in the earth, air, or water can be useless, useful, harmful, or harmless. We usually call the useless, harmful, residual “pollution.” Knowledge of whether that residual material is (in fact) useful or useless, and/or harmless or harmful is contingent upon conducting costly scientific research and acting based on that research. Moreover, in many cases the natural environment is capable of reducing or eliminating the harmfulness of pollution. Knowledge of Mother Nature’s timeline for the transformation of waste can often be discovered via research, but sometimes not. The holy grail of human extraction and production is to develop techniques that minimize; or, at least expel waste at a degree and rate within Mother Nature’s ability to transform it into more useful and/or less-harmful byproducts. Call it "sustainability."

The basic problem for the social and political management of pollution is how to provide incentives and disincentives that lead extractors and producers to conduct the research necessary to limit and or reduce pollution, and act based on this research. The “tragedy of the commons” predicts that political stewardship over the “commons,” is invariably inefficient and/or ineffective. Hence, when extractors and producers expel useless and/or harmful waste into “commons” there is little, if any incentive to conduct the research necessary to transform it, eliminate it, or act on that research. Here’s why. If it costs less to pollute than not pollute, extractors and producers will usually choose to pollute. They will invest in research to minimize pollution and/or convert it, if and only if, the cost of conducting that research, and the prospects of that research “paying off” is less than the cost of continuing to pollute with impunity. For example, it is difficult to extract minerals from the earth without polluting the adjacent air and water. If there is little cost associated with polluting the commons, mining companies will continue to pollute, and/or transfer the cost of cleaning up the mess to others (usually government). Therefore, pollution control policy is all about providing extractors and producers with incentives and disincentives that lead to acceptable levels of pollution.

There are two ways for societies to provide these incentives: one entails “more government” the other “less government.” Unfortunately, neither strategy is likely to succeed at a global level. There are two “more government” strategies that are often employed to raise the cost of polluting the commons. One way is to simply tax or fine polluters. This strategy entails that government "cap" pollution levels, monitor and enforce compliance with these caps, and either tax or fine extractors or producers that exceed those limits. This raises serious practical problems. At what level will government set those pollution limits? (Set caps too high and there will be no extraction or production.) How much will it cost for government to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with pollution limits? (It could cost more to monitor and enforce pollution laws than it would cost to clean up the mess.) At what level will the government tax or fine violators? (Set taxes or fines too low and there is no incentive to not-pollute, set it too high and black market polluters will appear.) Who pays the cost of monitoring and enforcement of pollution standards? (Taxpayers, polluters, stockholders, retailers etc.)

The second “more government” strategy is the policy now being pursued by the Obama administration, called “cap-and-trade.” The general idea is to “cap” pollution at a certain level, but then allow extractors and producers that generate pollution levels lower than the cap to “trade” or sell “pollution credits” to those extractors and producers that are unwilling or unable to meet those standards. This creates an artificial market, that in theory, provides an incentive to become a seller of pollution credits, and a disincentive to become a buyer of credits. Although, this resembles a free-market approach, it is really a contingent upon where government sets the pollution limits, how government manages the pollution credit market, and how much government spends doing all of this. Since the sellers of the credits are the primary beneficiaries of cap-and-trade, the question remains of how to pay for the army government watchdogs responsible for implementing this convoluted cap-and-trade system.

Critics of taxation, fines, and “cap and trade” argue that most serious problem with any strategy that involves setting, monitoring, and enforcing “caps” is that these standards are usually set by industry lobbyists rather than scientists, and therefore reflect political expediency and not science. Other critics argue that the cost of monitoring and enforcing the caps would require hiring an army of monitors and enforcers, which would require a massive tax increase, user fees of some kind, and/or increased borrowing from China! And, of course, all libertarians will point out that in recent years the United States government has proven to be less than reliable steward of the "public good" and an ineffective and inefficient monitor and enforcer of laws governing other undesirable forms of corporate behavior.

Libertarians therefore argue that the best “less government” strategy for the reduction of pollution would be to simply transform public property in private property, and thus eliminate "the commons." But private ownership of earth, air and water will not necessarily reduce pollution in the United States. If the short-term (or long-term) benefits of extraction outweigh the perceived costs of continuing to pollute, extractors and producers will continue to pollute. Moreover, if extractors and producers were required to pay the owners of the earth, air, and water, to clean up the mess, or purchase earth, air, or water from the owners, it would almost certainly reduce pollution levels, but where? If United States adopted this strategy, the most likely consequence would be that extractors and producers would simply move extraction and production to other countries that maintain “public property,” where government officials earn a handsome profit from graft and corruption. So when pollution is exported to nations that allow their governments to exercise stewardship over publically-owned earth, air, and water, “tragedy of the commons” predicts that pollution levels will rise in those countries. So although private ownership in the United States may reduce pollution levels in the United States, global pollution would continue to increase. In other words, global pollution will require global cooperation between nations and/or universal abandonment of "the commons,"which are both highly unlikely. Am I a libertarian or a cynic? What do you think?

No comments: