Hazardous Decisions


In a sane world, it would be an obvious point; in this one, it bears repeating. When legislators craft public policy and when regulators enforce it, they tend to put political considerations before the public interest.

The most recent scholars to demonstrate this are W. Kip Viscusi of Harvard and James T. Hamilton of Duke, who recently took a hard look at where Superfund concentrates its efforts to clean up hazardous wastes. The results appeared last September in The American Economic Review, under the title "Are Risk Regulators Rational?"

According to Viscusi and Hamilton, "most of the significant influences on Superfund site decisions do not follow the expected pattern for efficient risk management," which would emphasize how many people are being exposed to risks and how much each clean up costs per life saved. While some cleanup decisions were grounded in solid cost-benefit calculations, a majority of cleanups were inspired simply by political influence. Instead of spending money where it was needed most, Superfund's choices reflected which counties had a higher percentage of voters, which sites had received more press attention, which chemicals were more notorious (which isn't always the same as being more dangerous), and which states contained a higher rate of membership in environmental groups–and environmentally conscious senators.

The effect, of course, was to divert money from places that needed it more. That's an understandable result, and given how special-interest politics work, perhaps even an inevitable one. And one that Superfund is unlikely to clean up anytime soon.