Green Eyeshades

I was pleased to see Jonathan Marshall's very timely article about green taxes ("Paying for Pollution," Apr.). Most of the article was appropriately skeptical, but I was surprised at its seeming acceptance of several points.

I was baffled by Charles Ballard and Steven Medema's study about the effects of different kinds of taxes. The idea that pollution taxes can boost total output seems bizarre to me. This can happen only if the government will use the money in an efficient manner—highly unlikely—or if you estimate the environmental benefits as very high and include them in an output or GNP figure—highly uncertain economics.

Second, while it is correct to point out the problematic aspects of courts and tort law in protecting private property rights, the article assumes that collective action can get better results. Furthermore, I get the feeling the author has accepted the view that air pollution today is killing people. There just isn't credible scientific evidence of that happening in the United States. Studies of air pollution have indicated there can be some lung impairment, but in virtually all cases, I believe, this is reversible. I have seen no epidemiological evidence showing deaths from current air pollution levels, even in Los Angeles. Toxic compounds can kill also but not at the levels of normal emissions. Actual deaths from toxic compounds are usually traceable to specific sources, and dealing with them is perfectly compatible with a tort system. In fact, the tort system is more worthy of attention than the article suggests. Common law is the "road not taken" in pollution control.

Jane C. Shaw
Political Economy Research Center
Bozeman, Montana

Mr. Marshall replies: I should have said that Ballard and Medema conclude that pollution taxes, properly applied, would increase total welfare, not necessarily total output. As any Russian knows, higher output need not translate into greater well-being.

There is widespread and credible epidemiological evidence—published in such peer-reviewed journals as American Journal of Epidemiology, Environmental Research, and Governmental Health Perspectives—that particulates and sulfur aerosols kill thousands of people with respiratory problems each year; this effect accounts for the bulk of social cost estimates of pollution in most air basins. Prolonged exposure to some toxic emissions, possibly including benzene and formaldehyde, probably also causes a few fatal cancers, even if the risks do not justify the expensive countermeasures called for in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.

Unfortunately, it is easier for epidemiologists statistically to estimate total deaths from these sources than to pinpoint specific deaths caused by any one source. It's hard enough to tell for sure the cause of lung cancer among uranium miners or asbestos workers who smoke. The tort system's inability to assign specific responsibility for the causes of some illnesses should not become an excuse to ignore diffuse environmental health risks, any more than public ignorance and hysteria should become an excuse for heavy-handed regulation of minute risks.

That said, I applaud efforts by the Political Economy Research Center to discover and promote solutions to environmental problems through strict enforcement of property rights rather than collective and all-too-often fallible government action.

Striking Back

On reading Michael McMenamin's excellent article, "Picking on Scabs" (Apr.), I thought more and more about an early Peter Sellers movie. In it he plays a socialist labor leader in England shortly after World War II. During a dispute between his union and management, Sellers comes out with the delicious line: "Since when is incompetence grounds for dismissal?"

Lawrence D. Skutch
Westport, CT

In "Picking on Scabs," strikebreaking is sanitized and organized labor is damned by the testimony of one of its own. London's scab "gives more for less," but most of us, including organized labor, want to do "less for more." Today, thanks to the perversity of the American scab, we lead the world in productivity per worker, union membership is decimated, and strikers face permanent replacement.

London, however, was not a defender of organized labor. He was a romantic socialist and, as one biographer wrote, "there was no record of his having participated in a strike, walked a picket line or skirmished with strikebreakers." London's definition of a scab is endearing; a striker's would be unprintable. One is the product of the muse, the other the product of experience. London knew as little as possible of labor. After hard knocks in early life, he used fame to insulate himself from unpleasant realities.

Organized labor built the house the American scab lives in. Giving "more for less" didn't win the eight-hour day, a decent wage, a pension, health insurance, seniority rights, or job security. Sure, there were and are union abuses; but abuse by the captains of industry was primary: As "owners," they fought every attempt to improve the lot of their producers. As jobs go south or disappear in these recessionary times, the American scab should reflect on what standing hat in hand and offering "more for less" has been getting him.

Denton Porter
Long Beach, CA

Before graduating from law school, I belonged to a labor union, and I found Mr. McMenamin's article amusing. The author, who says he is a "labor lawyer" (meaning management lawyer), wants to warn us of the apocalyptic results should Congress ban the hiring of replacement workers. While decrying the loss of the "last economic weapon" available to employers, he conveniently forgets to mention that allowing such hiring eliminates the right to strike. Even Business Week concedes this point.

While McMenamin's position is understandable, it points up a problem I have with the right. There is no lack of energy dedicated to bashing unions and trial lawyers—and rightly so—yet why do we not read about the corporate lawyers who aided in the looting of S&Ls and the raiding of pension funds?

Finally, if McMenamin truly fears socialism, he should consider what will happen when the lower-middle class, more productive yet unrewarded (wages and benefits flat for 15 years), loses its patience. Why should the people who fight our wars and bail out the treasury from the excesses of Keating, Boesky, and Neil Bush (where were their values?) be increasingly unable to own their own homes or send their kids to college?

Michael S. Moore
San Dimas, CA

Mr. McMenamin replies: Peter Sellers is right. Incompetence has never been grounds for dismissal in a socialist economy.

Mr. Porter is wrong. Jack London was both a dedicated socialist and a defender of organized labor, which he supported through speaking, writing, and contributions throughout his career. He deserves better than Mr. Porter's dismissive and false claim that "London knew as little as possible of labor." London's definition of the scab is not "endearing." The term Mr. Porter is searching for is "honest." But if he wants an unprintable definition, he need go no farther than London:

"After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, He made a SCAB, a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carried a tumor of rotten principles….No man has a right to SCAB as long as there is a pool of water deep enough to drown his body in, or a rope long enough to hang his carcass with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a SCAB. For betraying his Master, he had character enough to hang himself. THE SCAB HASN'T!"

As for Mr. Porter's claim that "organized labor built the house the American scab lives in," I don't think so. American productivity—giving "less for more"—created the prosperity that permitted shorter work hours, higher wages, etc. Trade unions fought that productivity every step of the way, enabling incompetent management to nearly destroy the U.S. automobile and steel industries.

As for lawyer Moore, I never claimed to be a "labor lawyer." That is rapidly becoming an archaic term as the ranks of organized labor continue to decline. Most of us are now primarily "employment lawyers," advising and defending companies in connection with the myriad government laws and regulations pertaining to the employment relationship—regulation that has done a lot to make unions obsolete.

And I didn't "forget to mention" that allowing permanent replacements "eliminates the right to strike" because it is demonstrably not true. The only thing the ability to hire permanent replacements eliminates is an employee's right to a job for life, which is what the proposed strike-replacement legislation will virtually ensure.

Finally, far from being defenseless, companies will need their lawyers more than ever, especially if Congress adopts, as I believe they will, a compromise permitting the hiring of permanent replacements so long as companies can prove they were required to do so as a matter of business necessity. Who do you think employers are going to hire to help them prove business necessity? Hint: It won't be unemployed doctors. You made the right choice in going to law school, Mr. Moore. Bill Clinton is going to be good for the profession. Unfortunately, and as usual, the rest of the country is going to end up paying for it.