Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scott Pruitt, A Good Protection Racket, Science, and Playing By the Rules

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt artistically (and aptly) rendered

One way of looking at government is to see it as a protection racket. Of course, this seems a bit cynical, and I say it with tongue-in-cheek. But, on the other hand, there's some truth in it.

The primary task of governments since we humans first developed governments (which, I suspect, coincides with civilization), has been to protect inhabitants from threats. In the beginning, the most immediate and easily recognized threats came from invaders. Also, governments began to deal with threats from within, such as criminal acts. As civilization progressed and became more complex, so did the threats. For instance, with cities also came epidemic diseases and the need to supply water and waste disposal for masses of people. In response to threats from disease, governments in the 19th century began to provide safe, potable water and sanitary sewers, which addressed a previously unrecognized threat from unseen germs (via Pasteur and Koch's work in the germ theory of disease). And so it goes. The role of government has expanded as people have comes to appreciate sources of threats to our well-being, and as we have developed ways of addressing these threats. (There are other reasons for the growth of government as well, of course.)

So why the "protection racket"? While some threats are open, obvious, and most efficiently addressed by individual action (e.g., look before you cross a busy street), other threats are either less open and obvious and (or) require collective action to mount an effective response.  You may know that Genghis Khan is coming your way, but acting alone--no matter how acute the perception of the risk to your person and how strong your sword arm--is ineffective. And, some threats, like germs, are invisible. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, we now know that contaminants in the air, water, soil, and food supply threaten us, often without our directly perceiving the threat as it presents itself to us. These threats are perhaps even more insidious than more overt threats, like that of violence, because they are less apparent--they are less visible and slower acting, but lethal nevertheless.

So yes, I'm in favor of this "protection racket." I want the government to protect me from covert threats or those that require collective action. I want protection for me, my family, my friends, my fellow human beings, and the world upon which we depend.

In the U.S. and other liberal democracies, we are protected from the threats of contaminations of our air, water, food, and other necessities by laws and regulations. Laws are enacted mostly by our elected representatives (excepting referendums in some jurisdictions). In theory, elected representatives should be acting in accord with the will of the "people," but for a myriad of reasons, some practical and some nefarious, the actions of any legislative body more often reflect the will of special interests rather than the will and best interests of the general public. Also, as a practical matter, a legislative body, such as Congress, can't act effectively to address all of the details needed to protect the public. Some actions require features that are beyond the reach of Congress (or any legislative body). Therefore, Congress and legislatures delegate authority to regulatory agencies.

Regulatory agencies (such as the EPA, discussed in the article below), are governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, adopted by Congress in 1946, to allow Congress to delegate rule-making authority to agencies based on Congressional mandates. Most states have similar laws. The APA creates a system for rule-making and rule-enforcement that his a hybrid of judicial and legislative procedures. Due process, open hearings, notice, and so on are the hallmarks of the APA and its state off-spring. Indeed, given the obvious and egregious pitfalls of the political system, the administrative rule-making and rule-enforcing systems come across as refreshingly rational.

Thus, for instance, when it comes to keeping us safe from impurities in our air, water, and soil (food safety is under the FDA), the EPA is given a mandate by law along with authority to work out the details. In doing so, the agency must follow strict procedures. In fact, once Congres has approved a law that says (in effect), "Keep our air, water, and soil safe for all Americans," it really should become a matter of exploring the limits. What do I mean by "exploring the limits"?

To explore the limits means to move beyond the obvious. For instance, no one (sane) wants to breathe dense smoke day all day (set aside addicted smokers for a moment). No one wants to experience a stream that's treated as an open sewer running along their backyard, and so on. The tougher questions, the limits questions, are where reasonable minds may differ based on value judgments and imperfect knowledge:

1. The nature and seriousness of some threats are not apparent. Deciding "how much" of any contaminant is "too much" is often difficult to determine (causation is not easily identified and isolated). And if we spend money reducing "x," we'll have less money to reduce "y." 
2. Even if we agree on a threat, the best way to minimize the threat may not be easily identified. Should we adopt strict prohibitions? Tax polluters? Require escrow funds? This issue dovetails with the issue of "who pays?" The polluter? The consumer? The taxpayer? The current generation or future generations?

Just these two broad criteria of disagreement allow us to realize how we may disagree. But on the other hand, if we act with rational and scientific prudence and without unwarranted preference in favor of any limited group, we should be able to confine our disagreements within an arena that would allow a fully informed, neutral decision-maker to arrive at a reasoned decision. To enable this, we need access to uninhibited scientific evidence, and we need to allow debate about the underlying scientific assumptions and processes. We would need to have information from all perspectives (stakeholders) rationally presented and without binding preconceptions by a decision-maker. All evidence and arguments should be subject to cross-examination and debate. We must follow the path of science. We must--in some reasonable measure--learn to doubt our doubt, lest we act like contemporaries who mocked Copernicus and Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein--the list could go on almost endlessly. Of course, at some point, we must reach a conclusion sufficient to act (or to justify inaction.  (But note this: absolute certainty is a chimera and quite often a decoy to assure inaction). Openness, large-mindedness, and commitment to a process of testing and renewal are imperative.

I offer all of the above reflection in response the article below, where I find that Mr. Pruitt seems to be flaunting most of the propositions that I argue in favor of. I disapprove of this whole course of conduct. (I'm also sad to note that Mr.Pruitt is a lawyer, for whom the propositions and values stated above should be apparent.)

For a more in-depth consideration of what Mr. Pruitt is up to, read this profile from The New Yorker
A proposed policy would bar the E.P.A. from considering research that doesn't release its raw data for review, blocking some significant work.

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