Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by Flickr.com user Kevin Harber

2009 - The end of an error?

My favorite quote from the recent campaign was the statement in Obama's acceptance speech at the convention in Denver. Speaking about the United States, he said, "We are better than these last eight years." Nowhere is this more accurate than in our anti-environmental policies of recent years. (Well, okay, it's actually a tie between numerous strong contenders, including the shredding of civil liberties, destruction of countries that never harmed us, and too many others to name.) No one, of course, came out and said that they didn't much care for public health and the natural environment, so they were going to roll back useful protective regulations. But in the guise of supposedly sound economic analysis, the Bush-Cheney administration achieved the same thing: again and again, cost-benefit analysis was used to bolster the claim that we couldn't afford to, or shouldn't, maintain sensible, effective regulations. The results of such bogus economic calculations inspired the title of my recent Island Press book, Poisoned for Pennies. The amounts of money actually at stake in protecting ourselves, our children, and our surroundings are often trivial. Matching the Japanese testing requirements for mad cow disease, the international gold standard in that field, would add six or seven cents per pound to the price of beef. Atrazine, a potent herbicide used on most of the U.S. corn crop, is a known carcinogen and a suspected endocrine disrupter, turning frogs into hermaphrodites at incredibly low concentrations. One of the best substitutes, an apparently much safer and equally effective herbicide sold by the same company that makes atrazine, would add perhaps three cents per bushel to the price of corn - which has recently been around $6.00. Again and again, objective calculations demonstrate why one of the chapters of the book is called "the unbearable lightness of regulatory costs."  REACH, the new chemicals policy adopted by the European Union last year, is far more ambitious than anything under serious consideration in the U.S. It requires all manufacturers and importers of chemicals to carry out a range of toxicity tests in order to continue to sell their products in Europe. In a study for the Swedish government (included in Poisoned for Pennies), I demonstrated that REACH will raise the average cost of chemicals sold in Europe by one-sixteenth of one percent. Numerous estimates of the potential benefits of REACH are much, much larger than that. Why, exactly, isn't the U.S. considering adopting such a cost-effective, inexpensive measure? We are better than the last eight years, in environmental policy and in so much else. I look forward to an administration that may at last realize that it's time to stop poisoning ourselves for pennies, to take a fresh look at the low cost of doing the right thing for health and the environment. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ---------- Frank Ackerman is an economist who has written extensively about the economics of climate change and other environmental problems. His new book is Poisoned for Pennies: The Economics of Toxics and Precaution.