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The illusion of liberal failure (Part I)
Pittsburgh "air" 1941
You don't have to be a genius to find an example of a law, regulation, or practice, put in place by liberals that's resulted in a ridiculous outcome, or corrupt behavior, or unintended consequences. This is fortunate, because the people who complain and rant, who blog and comment, tweet and retweet, and share these failures endlessly with their Facebook friends are hardly geniuses.
So, yes, there are failures. Some are real ones. This is not about failures, and I promise to come to real failures later.
Right now I want to talk about illusions.
About the idea that that all or even most liberal programs are failures. That is an illusion. And I'm going to back that claim by picking an example of a failed program, and pulling it apart. I took the first one that came to mind: clean air and water. Google for "EPA failures" and you'll get enough reading for a lifetime (13M hits, and counting.)
Can we acknowledge that market forces will not give us clean air and water? (Except maybe Perrier. Or maybe not.) Yes, the market punishes some polluters: a local company, with local customers, that spews toxins into the local environment might not do well. And the market might provide some motivation in niches catering to relentlessly green customers.
But in the global market, when customers are far from the scene of the crime, the market rewards the company that delivers best product at the lowest cost. Period. Their distant customers don't pay attention to environmental policy, just cost and quality. And environmental protection is a cost that does not affect quality.
The market is why American companies poisoned American air and soil and why the Chinese companies that now serve those market needs kill and will continue to kill their own citizens. They will do it until their own government steps in, and the pollution moves elsewhere. Say, somewhere with less job-killing government regulation. With freer markets.
Fact. Pollution was a huge, huge problem. Check your history books. It took liberal agitation to find a way to attack it. It was attacked by expanding government. It gave us us the Environmental Protection Agency, now a bureaucracy with 15,000 employees, plus state and local equivalents.
According to Forbes, in an article long on opinion and short on citations, the EPA is "the worst of many rogue federal agencies."
In the Age of Obama, there are many viable candidates for the official title of Washington’s “Private Sector Enemy Number One.” You could make a strong case for the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and others, but my choice would be the Environmental Protection Agency.
OK, Forbes-guy, let's go with that.
There's evidence in his favor. We read news about reams of regulations. We hear about inconsistent, and sometimes ridiculous application of the regulations. We hear about businesses closed, and millions of jobs lost. And we see cities, like Los Angeles, with air that's still marginally breathable. We get 13M google hits.
Clearly Forbes-guy's perceptions are right. It's a private sector enemy.
I claim that those perceptions are based on illusion. And I'm going to back it up with both reasoning and data.
Let me start by acknowledging inconvenient facts. The EPA has and continues to make questionable decisions. And the EPA does things that are absolutely horrible. Yes, things could be done better. But things that get done can always be done better.
But can we agree that the market is not going to give you clean air and water? Again and again, when the air and water get too dirty, when people finally have had enough, government steps in.
And always, it seems, it's liberals leading the way, and conservative fighting a rear-guard action to stop it, and then sniping from the sidelines after the fact.
I wish conservatives would lead!
There are lots and lots of smart conservatives. These are real problems that need everyone's brains. Let's just acknowledge the market failure, realize that intervention is needed, and work to make the intervention better.
I chose clean air and water because -- well, it's the first one I thought of. And happily Forbes-guy thinks that the solution is horrible. So it must be a good example of liberal failure.
To check my facts I didn't look at ten different places to cherry pick facts that fit my narrative. I picked Pittsburgh, PA because it was the first place I'd thought of. I didn't look at this list of most polluted places in the US until just now, to pick my poster-child. I just picked Pittsburgh.
When I did my deeper dive, which I will share with you in a follow-up, I was not terribly surprised to find:
No progress until the long-term Republican administration in the city was replaced by Democrats.
Legislation fought, all the way, by Republicans.
Initial approach modeled after St. Louis, another polluted city that had cleaned up their act. (Anyone want to guess what party had just lost power in St. Louis and which had just gained when they started to clean things up? Hint: R and D).
Continuous efforts by Republicans, even to recently, to stop further remediation.
So why is the illusion of failure so pervasive. I think there are three reasons:
On the mechanics side, consider solution scale: the bigger a program, the more chances that there are for errors, failures, stupidity. Even if small as a percentage, the actual number of screw-ups grows with scale. So no trouble finding trouble.
On the mechanics side, consider problem scale: the bigger the problem, the more likely that some time later, some part of the problem will not yet have been solved. Even if most places get mostly cleaned up, there will be some that have not. There are still most polluted places. Of course.
On the mechanics side, consider visibility: when a regulatory program works as a deterrent it's silent. When people decide not to pollute, you hear nothing. When it works through inspection -- people pollute, get caught and fined, and pay -- you hear little.
So when do you hear things? When the case isn't clear cut, and the polluter takes it to court. And when the enforcement is stupid, or clumsy. Then you really hear about it. And given solution scale, and problem scale, there will be plenty of visible cases.
Which brings us to media.
Left and right, most media are not in the business of delivering facts to people who want to make intelligent decisions. They are in the business of delivering stories and narratives to people who -- well, let me not infer motivation. Let me just say: for people who will pay attention. Facts, when used at all by these media, are just set dressing for the stories they tell.
And the best stories and the best narratives are the ones that stir the emotions. Left and right, media are in the business of creating stories and narratives that stir the emotions and get attention from people who -- no, I'm not going there.
I'll plead guilty to doing something like that here. I'm countering a narrative -- that liberals favor big government, and produce governmental programs that kill businesses, destroy jobs, and that fail -- with another narrative -- that conservatives stand in the way of solving problems that we, the people, want solved.
So far (and you will have to trust me on this) I have not cherry picked the data. And as I've dug into this I have, indeed, found some real examples of failure or questionable practice. Which I will share in future posts.
There certainly are many conservatives who DO want clean air and water, and who are willing to tolerate government to get it. And some might even have free-market solutions that have no government involvement. But I believe that they are factually a minority. There are some Republicans who have helped, but they are a vanishing breed.
Go any idea who established the EPA? Richard Nixon, who this Fox News article calls "The last great liberal."
Cleaning up air and water will increase costs. This is an unintended -- but predictable -- consequence of trying to solve the problem.
(By the way "unintended consequence" is a common conservative meme. It is used when criticizing liberal programs. It's a way of using big, intelligent-sounding words to call someone stupid. Really? Are you unaware that everything has unintended consequences, including the status quo? That some unintended consequences are beneficial? That the only way to avoid all unintended consequences is omniscience?)
Absent any other change, when you increase costs, companies will become uncompetetive and people will lose jobs. Given we all want clean air and water; given that these are the unintended but predictable consequences of getting us what we want; and given that these burdens fall on others -- business owners and factory workers -- what do we do to mitigate the unintended consequences?
Short form answers: Liberals: Do something!. Conservatives: Nope.
Liberals: in addition to a program to solve the original problem, also propose a program to mitigate the consequences.
Conservatives oppose both the original solution, and any mitigation of the consequences. And, oh, yes: accuse liberals of unintended consequences.
On clean water and air:
Liberals: Penalize countries that are willing to poison their own citizens so that our cleaned-up businesses can compete and our workers can keep their jobs.
Conservatives: Nope. Free trade and the free markets Move businesses and jobs offshore. Blame liberals. Fight the EPA.
Liberals: financial support and training for people who lose their jobs; help for new businesses, especially in blighted areas.
Conservatives: Nope. This is America. People can get jobs if they want them. Cut unemployment. Cut welfare. Cut education. Fight the EPA. Blame liberals.
I'm going to stop here.
I've got another couple thousand words queued up for future posts.
Liberals don't want big government. That's an illusion. They want problems solved.
Liberal solutions may not be ideal, but they aren't failures. That's an illusion. Failures scale and so do successes; but successes are silent, and failures -- thanks to the media, are very, very, very loud.
Liberals are not ignorant of unintended consequences. That's an illusion. When they see harmful consequences they want them addressed. Conservatives block remediation, then blame liberals.