29 January 2007

Haggard scandal follow-up

Remember this mess? It was the subject of an editorial of mine, posted here in November of 2006.

Here's an interesting postscript to the story, one that reflects more kindly on current American evangelicalism. The basics--the (vindicated) accuser Mike Jones visits Ted Haggard's former mega-church, and gets a warm reception. Click the link for the full story.

The downside? Jones is writing a book about it. Just what we need! :-/

24 January 2007

Mystery Guest: For Recycling

Mystery Guest
The Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
18 January 2007

As someone engaged in the "mindless preening" The Objectivist mentions in his January 10, 2007 column, I would like to respond to his pro-landfill/anti-recycling comments. Not only are his claims way off base in most cases, but he also fails to mention a central component of the SUNY Fredonia environmental petition: a request to reduce the campus's greenhouse gas emissions. While The Objectivist apparently does not think that global warming is a serious issue, more than 1,200 people on our campus do. But let us focus on the matters he does raise.

According to The Objectivist, landfills are "environmentally safe." In fact, he claims, "even the old landfills aren't dangerous." If landfills are so safe, I wonder why more than twenty-one New York State landfills and dumps appear on the EPA's national priority clean-up (superfund) site list. Even if we dismiss these landfills on the grounds that many of them were constructed before the Resource Conservation Recovery Act's more stringent 1991 "Subtitle D" guidelines, there is startling evidence that even the best modern landfills are not safe.

According to a March 2006 report by Drs. G. Fred Lee and Anne Jones-Lee, the flawed technology and improper monitoring of most municipal landfills result in groundwater pollution. Basically, they find that leachate (garbage juice) can leak into surrounding groundwater both through flaws or deteriorations in the plastic and clay liners at the bottom of landfills and through the top coverings. In addition to groundwater pollution, Lee and Jones-Lee note that landfills pose risks to our health due to the release of gases that "are known to contain carcinogens and other chemicals" (32) and disease spread by vermin attracted to garbage. But whom should we believe about the safety and health of landfills? Environmental consultants with advanced degrees in Public Health and Environmental Engineering who have evaluated landfills in more than twenty-three states and eight countries, or Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, who made his claims about landfills fifteen years ago?

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the one-tenth-of-an-inch-thick plastic landfill liner doesn't come into contact with household chemicals such as shoe polish, vinegar, or mothballs that might cause it to crack. Let's pretend that testing 100 to 200 of the 75,000 possible chemicals in a landfill is enough to ensure that toxic substances don't enter our air or groundwater. (Lee and Jones-Lee 42). We still have the issue of landfill space. The Objectivist assures us that "there's no shortage of landfill space." Even if we ignore pervasive claims that landfill space--especially in urban areas--is limited, we still must contend with fact that most Americans don't want landfills near them. As reported in the December 1, 2006 issue of Waste Age, a trade publication for people in the waste industry, Boston's Saint Consulting Group found that 87 percent of Americans opposed the prospect of landfill development in their neighborhood. I wonder where The Objectivist thinks his proposed 1936 square miles of landfill would go.

Because he is a great fan of landfills, it is not surprising that The Objectivist claims that recycling is inefficient and "not clearly environmentally friendly." As evidence, he cites John Tierney's 1996 article about the inefficiencies of New York City's recycling program. Had he consulted any recent information on the city's recycling program, he would have found that recycling has already become cost effective and will potentially save the city millions of dollars. In 2003, the city did curtail some of its recycling collection in an effort to save money. It turns out that these $40 million cuts to the recycling program did not reduce the costs of waste disposal. Between the dramatic increase in the cost of exporting garbage to out-of-state landfills (almost 50 percent in a three-year period alone) and a significant decrease in the cost of recycling, the city's recycling program had become economically sound. On March 3, 2004, New York City Comptroller William Thompson, Jr. announced a twenty-year full-scale recycling commitment, noting that it was "the right decision for the environment, for the economy and for the City's budget."

Recycling makes both economic and environmental sense. By reducing our extraction and use of virgin materials, recycling saves energy, reduces pollution, and lessens greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 1998 EPA pamphlet on recycling (5306W), manufacturing and recycling one ton of recycled office paper reduces total energy consumption by 43 percent, net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent, and hazardous air pollutant emissions by 90 percent (8). More recently the National Recycling Coalition has reported that recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than creating it from bauxite ore. The organization has also found that making "recycled steel saves 60%, recycled newspaper 40%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%." Recycling plastic in particular can lessen our oil needs. According to the University of Colorado at Boulder's March 2006 recycling bulletin, more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil are used each year just to produce plastic water bottles. Recycling also creates good American jobs. A 2001 report by R.W. Beck, Inc. found that the recycling and reuse industries employ 1.1 million people with an annual payroll of $37 billion while grossing more than $236 billion in annual revenues.

If we focus only recycling, we miss the bigger environmental picture. Many of us on SUNY Fredonia's campus would like to see more conservation, the preservation of our green spaces, and composting of our food wastes--a practice that could potentially benefit both our students and local farmers. These practices can potentially save the campus a lot of money. According to their UB Green web site, the University of Buffalo saves more than $9 million annually on energy conservation alone. Even if SUNY Fredonia saved a fraction of this amount, it still presents an economic argument for making environmentally sound changes.

The Objectivist's arguments just don't make sense. Anyone who has ever visited a junkyard knows that we do recycle cars, and this practice hasn't reduced the number of cars in the U.S. In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation, the total number of registered vehicles in the U.S. has more than tripled between 1960 and 2004. But don't allow my comments to be the final word either. Check out the facts for yourself.

19 January 2007

Objectivist: Against Public Education

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
17 January 2007

There is an odd feature of our country, which is that we have largely socialized K-12 education, that is, the government owns and runs most of the schools. This is odd for a couple of reasons. One reason it's odd is that few citizens would like to socialize other parts of the economy. Most people would be disgusted at the idea the idea of Washington, Albany, or local towns owning and running supermarkets. The same citizens would get nauseated at the idea of these governments owning and giving out houses, rather than allowing them to be freely bought or sold. And who doesn't flinch at the idea of the government controlling the movie industry? Imagine modern-day censors like Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and religious politicians like former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) choosing our movies. Goodbye HBO. A second reason it's odd is that education involves the teaching of ideas and it's hard to believe anyone wants the government deciding what ideas should be recognized and supported. Consider some of the arguments for socialized education.

The first argument is that if we didn't have public education, either the poor or children in general wouldn't get educated. The help-the-poor argument is unconvincing because in other areas the government subsidizes the poor by giving them money to purchase goods in the free market. Consider, for example, food stamps and housing subsidies. The notion that children from middle-class and rich families won't get educated unless taxpayers foot the bill takes a dim view of parents. In any case, the government could always require middle-class and rich parents to send their children to school just as they require them to feed and house their children without taking over these tasks.

It's sometimes argued that government schools are more efficient. For example, it might be argued that having an educated populace is a public good similar to national defense, roads, and clean air. Public goods are things that benefit the population, but can't be supported by the free market because it's too expensive to exclude individuals who don't pay their fair share. For example, we can't provide clean air only to those families willing to pay for it. Public goods also usually involve things in which one person's consumption of the good (for example, breathing fresh air) doesn't leave noticeably less for others.

Public education, however, isn't a public good. That is, collecting money from parents who want their children educated is not only feasible, it's standard operating procedure in private schools and in almost all colleges and universities. In addition, one person's consumption of education does leave less for others. If one child occupies a spot in the classroom of a gifted teacher, she leaves one less spot for other children.

The related suggestion that government schools are efficient is so ridiculous that even Paris Hilton's toy Chihuahua would gag upon hearing it. The U.S. spends more than our peer countries and consistently gets worse results. New York in particular spends money on education as if it has a jihad against taxpayers. Even if government schools were not historical monuments to wasteful inefficiency, it's still not clear why citizens should be forced to support them. In a free country, citizens should not be yoked to the goal of efficiency, equality, or any other collective goal. In part, this idea explains our revulsion over the past collectivization of industry and agriculture in China and the Soviet Union.

A third argument is that public education achieves some collectivist goal like equalizing children, having informed citizens, or instilling a sense of community. Given the caliber of education in the inner city, the suggestion that public education makes us more equal is laughable. Given the poor job that public schools do in teaching children about American history and contemporary politics, it is hard to see how the informed-citizen argument is supposed to work. In any case, private schools (for example, Catholic schools) can and do instill these same values. Even if so many public schools weren't a disgrace to God and man, one might wonder how watching other citizens be forced to pay for their education instills in students a sense of equality and community rather than an appreciation of the beauty of coerced servitude to the masses.

A fourth argument is that we have democratically chosen to socialize K-12 education and are thus bound to follow the will of the majority. However, the issue is what the majority should support. One doesn't answer this by reporting on what they do support. On a side note, when it comes to deporting illegal aliens, banning abortion, and outlawing homosexual sodomy, the public-education crowd somehow loses its enthusiasm for majority preference. Nor should we be worried about a Constitutional difference between the above activities and public schools. It's clear that the Constitution, at least as originally written, didn't allow the federal government to pay for education.

Public education uses the jackboot of the state to force some taxpayers to pay for others' children. It's a gross imposition on liberty and inefficient to boot.

18 January 2007

Objectivist: Against Recycling

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
10 January 2007

Recently at SUNY Fredonia, students and faculty met with college administrators. They handed over a petition with over 1,000 signatures that requested a comprehensive recycling policy and an environmental policy coordinator. This is mindless preening.

Recycling already occurs in the marketplace. According to Pierre Desrochers, scrap-recycling industries already recycle massive amounts of materials (on one estimate, 60 million tons of ferrous metal, 30 million tons of waste, paper, and glass, and 7 million tons of nonferrous metals are recycled). The issue is not whether recycling should occur, the issue is whether it should be mandated or subsidized. One way to approach this issue is to ask whether doing so makes the world a better place.

Recycling isn't clearly environmentally friendly. One reason for this is that trash that isn't recycled is dumped in landfills and they are environmentally safe. Daniel Benjamin, an economist at Clemson University, argues that according to the studies that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on, landfills pose virtually no risk to humans. According to Benjamin, the EPA concluded that landfills constructed according to EPA regulations cause one cancer-related death every 50 years. That makes them less dangerous than celery, pears, and lettuce. According to a 1992 article by Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, 83% of America's solid waste landfills pose a lifetime cancer risk of less than one in one million which, he claims, is about the same risk as drinking a glass of tap water.

Even the older landfills aren't dangerous. According to Benjamin, studies by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy found that trash in landfills undergoes little biodegradation and those materials that do biodegrade pose little danger. There is a problem with the improper and illegal dumping of industrial wastes, but this has nothing to do with recycling.

A second reason is that recycling isn't clearly environmentally friendly is that it doesn't always use less toxic substances. Some recycling processes use toxic substances not found in virgin processes and vice versa. In addition, the recycling process sometimes requires more capital goods. For example, a 1995 Wall Street Journal article pointed out that in Los Angeles, recycling programs have resulted in its fleet of trucks being twice as large as it otherwise would be (requiring an extra 400 trucks).

John Tierney, writing for the New York Times Magazine, points out that recycling paper creates more water pollution than making new paper. Goods that are favored because they can be reused are not always environmentally friendly. For example, Benjamin notes that reusable diapers are less environmentally friendly than disposable diapers. He also points out that when it comes to packing it isn't clear whether paper is more environmentally friendly than the widely opposed polystyrene, since the former generates more water pollution and the latter more petroleum-related pollution.

Recycling doesn't always conserve scarce resources. There's no shortage of landfill space. According to Benjamin, citing a 2002 EPA report, the nationwide landfill capacity is more than 18 years. According to A. Clark Wiseman, Gonzaga University economist, all of the trash that Americans produce over the next 1,000 years could be put into a landfill that is 120 yards high (or deep if you dig down) and 44 miles on each side (0.1% of the continental U.S.). This landfill would be covered with grass and is small compared to the 150,000 miles of parkland in this country.

Nor is it clear that recycling results in there being more trees. According to Bjorn Lomborg, cited in Benjamin, the amount of new growth that occurs in forests exceeds by a factor of twenty the amount of wood and paper that is consumed by the world each year. This might explain why the temperate forests have expanded over the last 40 years. According to Jerry Taylor of Cato, America had three-and-one-half times more forest land in 1992 than in 1920. Even if the temperate forest stock weren't expanding, it's unclear why recycling paper would result in there being more trees. If we recycled cars or pigs (don't ask me how we'd do the latter), we'd have less cars and pigs. I can't see why trees are subject to a distinct set of economic rules. Indeed the economic value of trees will likely protect forests against other valued uses of the land.

Recycling is inefficient. As a general rule, the free market price reflects the costs and benefits of various options. In so doing it incorporates the costs of raw materials, capital goods, and labor. Except in the case of harmful effects on third parties, the cheaper option is usually more efficient. When recycling has to be mandated, subsidized, or both, it's likely inefficient. For example, in his 1997 article, John Tierney pointed that by recycling New York City pays $240 per ton of trash more than it would if it were to dump it in a landfill. Even the $240 greatly underestimates the inefficiency because it leaves out labor and space costs, which in New York City are significant. Similarly, he points out that mandatory bottle collection programs that require a five-cent deposit ($500 per ton) are inefficient compared to hired clean-up crews, which pick up more than cans and bottles. At Fredonia spending $69,000 for an environmental administrator (the cost of a low-level administrator is probably around $60,000 plus 15% benefits) will almost undoubtedly eat up any efficiency gains that recycling might miraculously produce.

The recycling crowd is backing a policy that is not clearly environmentally friendly, probably does not preserve scarce resources, and is inefficient. Moral posturing and self-congratulation are no substitute for thought.

[Update: Mystery Guest offers a refutation.]