Economics

Letters

|

Earth Day in the Balance

I was delighted to read Ronald Bailey's "Earth Day: Then and Now" (May). I was teaching high school economics during the original Earth Day. Caught up in the hubris of the 1970 Earth Day, I was relieved of teaching duties for a period of time to develop a senior high school course in environmental economics. I fell hook, line, and sinker for the scenarios of Ehrlich, Commoner, and other doomsters.

I wrote and taught the course for three years until it was quite clear they were very wrong—that as a matter of fact the earth's store of proven resources was increasing rather than being depleted. It was also true that the wealth creation from increased production was contributing to improving the environment. I decided to drop the course and roll a few of its good ideas into my economics course.

Walter J. Nelson
Middlebury, VT

I was puzzled by Ronald Bailey's "Earth Day: Then and Now." He tried to show that the state of the environment is improving yet overlooked some important points, such as the effects of increased population on food production and of increased food production on the environment. He says the rates of extinction, deforestation, and population growth are decreasing. To me, these things mean not good news, merely less of the bad news.

What are these environmental gains, preservation, and enrichment Mr. Bailey speaks of? The only thing the environment seems to need to be "preserved" against is our interference. The environment is not a garden, to be "enriched" by human weeding and pruning, but a living system that humans are part of. And what time period is it in which "the planet's future has never looked better"? The time since the Industrial Revolution? Since the Ice Age? Since humans evolved?

Overall, the article gave me a slightly better understanding of the state of the environment and slightly more hope for the future. But I just can't bring myself yet to don a nice happy smiley face for the occasion.

Rachel Gatwood
Silver Spring, MD

Libertarian articles about the environment always seem to involve logging, ranching, fishing, or perhaps water rights to the Colorado River. For most of us, though, the first environmental worries that come to mind are dirty air and dirty water. I have read libertarian publications for years and have encountered (or can extrapolate) plausible nongovernmental solutions to just about every public policy issue I can think of except for these ultimate "tragedies of the commons."

Ronald Bailey does not really topple his own straw man assertion that "doomsters will claim whatever environmental progress has been made over the past 30 years is only a result of the warnings that they sounded." Surely on at least some issues "they were right all along" in bringing enough attention to bear on environmental problems to quicken the pace of their resolution. Mr. Bailey acknowledges, for example, that "part of the answer [to air quality improvement] lies in emissions targets set by federal, state, and local governments." In the face of continuing opposition from industry, politicians didn't dream those up on their own.

Cost-effectively or not, as rapidly as possible or not, correctly targeted or not, government prodded by zealots has cleaned up our environment—an outcome that most of us, presumably including Mr. Bailey, would agree is worthwhile. My challenge for Mr. Bailey or anyone else: What is the libertarian alternative?

Lloyd Andrew
Arnold, MD

Ronald Bailey's glowing account of the improved state of the environment should make everyone feel better. For some reason it doesn't.

I'd like to invite Mr. Bailey to visit Wyoming, still supposedly a pristine state with a population of less than 500,000 people. We could start with an outing to any one of our plains lakes, but the shoreline may be littered with trash. Or how about going into a nearby mountain range, if we could even find a parking place at the trail head parking lot. Of course there will be large groups of hikers trekking up the trail. No visit would be complete without a trip to Jackson Hole, with its bumper-to-bumper traffic and an art gallery or souvenir store on every corner. The once-beautiful hills above town are dotted with houses. (I believe single-family dwellings are currently limited to 10,000 square feet.)

We have too many people and not enough land. And solitude, which is difficult to quantify, gets to be a rarer and rarer commodity. All of Ronald Bailey's numbers are nice. But why do I still have a hollow feeling when I see what is happening to the environment?

Lew Vavra
Laramie, WY

Ronald Bailey's article is highly irresponsible journalism in view of the worsening ecological crises abundantly documented by Worldwatch Institute and most other mainstream environmental organizations, world governments, and independent researchers.

If, as Mr. Bailey seems to suggest at one point, Lester Brown and Worldwatch aren't good sources of environmental data, then why do a host of publishers print their annual State of the World in some 30 languages? And why are its books used as texts in more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities? And why have over 1 million copies been sold?

I refer specifically to some of Mr. Bailey's outrageous claims, such as that "there's a broad consensus that exposure to synthetic chemicals, even pesticides, does not seem to be a problem," "documented animal extinctions peaked in the 1930s," "global warming is not a serious problem," "increased wealth, population, and technological development [automatically?] preserve and enrich the environment," etc.

Does he really believe that nuclear weapons research, the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, plutonium, asbestos, PCBs, toxic waste, polluting giant industrial hog farms, and Union Carbide's chemical factory in Bhopal, India, in the 1980s have "enriched the environment"?

If pesticides and other toxic, and largely untested, synthetic chemicals are not a problem, then why in 1995 at a United Nations Environment Program conference in Washington, D.C., did environment ministers from 103 countries sign a high-level declaration calling for a legally binding global treaty to reduce and eventually eliminate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)? And why in 2000 is the U.N. continuing to sponsor international negotiations to phaseout POPs, especially highly dangerous organochlorines, including pesticides and industrial chemicals and by-products such as PCBs and dioxin?

And why did a 1999 study by the Consumers Union find that domestic fruits and vegetables often exceed the safe exposure limit set by the EPA for young children? And why are increasing numbers of consumers buying, and growing, organic food?

Bailey denies animal extinctions are a growing problem, yet renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson calculates that at least 50,000 species are becoming extinct every year and that the rate is escalating. Paleontologist Peter Ward in The End of Evolution documents "the third mass extinction facing planet Earth." A poll by Louis Harris and the American Museum of Natural History found that "seven out of ten biologists believe the world is now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction of living things in the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet." Nearly 25 percent of the 4,600 species of mammals, especially the primates, are threatened with extinction. Estimates are that at least two out of every three of the 10,000 species of birds are in decline worldwide. Some 20-25 percent of the 10,000 surveyed reptiles and amphibians rank as endangered or vulnerable.

Is the planet's ecological future more promising than ever? There are countless reasons to question this wild claim. If global warming isn't a problem, then why are the vast majority of independent scientists (i.e., those not on industry's payroll) claiming otherwise? And why are world automakers beginning to develop alternatives to fossil-fuel-based engines? And, why are international insurance companies paying out record claims (close to $100 billion a year) in climate-related disasters? And how can any reasonable person claim that severe storms, floods, and droughts aren't getting worse? Has Mr. Bailey forgotten about Hurricane Mitch in the Caribbean 18 months ago? The East Coast devastation from storms and flooding last fall?

Does Mr. Bailey really care about what kind of planet our children and grandchildren inherit, or is his more pressing priority preserving his free market ideology and unrestrained economic growth? He needs to remember that there is a name for unrestrained growth—cancer.

Dan Butts
Dunebutts@aol.com

Ronald Bailey replies: Thanks to Mr. Nelson for his kind comments. I admit that I, too, initially believed the dire predictions of Ehrlich, Commoner, and other doomsters, but it took me nearly two decades to realize that they had been spectacularly and harmfully wrong.

In response to Ms. Gatwood: Far from overlooking food and population issues, I showed how Paul Ehrlich and other neo-Malthusians were wrong. Hundreds of millions did not starve to death as they predicted. Global food production has certainly affected the natural environment, but modern, high-yield agriculture, by tripling farm productivity since the 1950s, has prevented the plowing down of as much as an additional 10 million square miles (the land area of North America) to produce food for today's population. I don't want to be perceived as claiming that humanity has solved all environmental problems, but I do want to assert that the only way to protect and even extend the area spared for nature is through technological progress and economic growth.

In response to Mr. Andrew: He does have a point with regard to the tragedy of the commons as applied to cleaning up dirty air and polluted rivers and lakes. But bear in mind that the preferred strategy of many environmentalists for cleaning up air and water was stopping economic growth and moving to a steady-state economy. Government regulation—local, state, and federal—has helped clean up both the air and the water in the United States. But why did environmental concerns top the public agenda in the late 20th century? Because only prosperous people are willing to devote wealth to improving environmental amenities.

One can either regulate or privatize environmental commons. Most countries have chosen to regulate and made considerable progress, as discussed in my article. But free market think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute are now doing some interesting preliminary work on figuring out how to enclose environmental commons such as airsheds, groundwater, and fisheries. If such proposals are adopted, we can expect industry to oppose them, for the same reason they opposed government regulations: They don't want to pay for something they once got for free.

Mr. Vavra thinks Wyoming is suffering from a miniature tragedy of the commons. One can have unlittered shorelines if no one visits a lake, but one can also have them if one pays to keep them clean or encourages visitors (by fines, say) to clean up after themselves. If there are too many hikers on one trail, the Forest Service or Park Service could charge hiking fees to ration use of the trail. As for Jackson Hole, a wag once wisely said that an environmentalist is someone who already has his cabin in the woods. Mr. Vavra would apparently prefer to enjoy solitude without paying for it, or even have other people pay for his solitude. Despite the hullabaloo over sprawl, more and more land is reverting to nature in the United States as farms and ranches are abandoned and Americans move to relatively compact suburbs.

Now to Mr. Butts. Publishers publish Worldwatch's books for the same reason they publish Stephen King or Deepak Chopra: not because they are true, but because they sell.

Mr. Butts makes many scientifically unsubstantiated assertions, relying chiefly on arguments from authority. Let's deal briefly with a few of them. First, if toxics were such a problem one might expect U.S. life expectancy to be decreasing; it continues to increase. Overall cancer incidence and cancer death rates in the United States have been going down since 1990, and both the Food and Drug Administration and the National Research Council have concluded that synthetic chemicals are involved in less than 2 percent of human cancers.

As for POPs, they were not created to pollute the environment but to solve problems. Organochloride pesticides like DDT were a great boon to agriculture as well as to human health by preventing insect-borne diseases. PCBs were superior stable coolants for electrical transformers. Richer societies like ours have decided that many POPs are sufficiently hazardous to wildlife that they can afford to forego the benefits of these synthetic chemicals. But pesticides like DDT still play a vital role in preventing diseases such as malaria in the poorer regions of the world. Is it moral to forbid poor mothers to use DDT to protect their children from malaria in order to save songbirds? Or is it even necessary, since many of those species are rebounding today?

Consumers buy organic foods because they either prefer them or have been misled by environmentalist propaganda. There is no scientific evidence that organic foods are more healthful than conventionally grown foods. Since organic farming is only two-thirds as productive as modern farming, a switch to organic methods would mean plowing down lots of wildlife habitat to provide food for people.

As for animal extinctions, let's look at the data. According to data compiled in 1994 by the World Conservation Union-IUCN, since 1600, 593 animal species (including 368 invertebrates) and 384 vascular plants have gone extinct. Seventy-five percent of these extinctions occurred on oceanic islands. With regard to the alleged disappearance of 50,000 species a year, would Mr. Butts please name 500 of them, or even 50? Those huge numbers are extrapolated from the species/area curve relationship in the increasingly challenged theory of island biogeography.

Despite Mr. Butts' claims, the number of hurricanes is not increasing, nor are they getting fiercer, according to the National Hurricane Center. Hurricane Mitch was a disaster in Honduras and Nicaragua largely because of poverty, poor infrastructure, and the denuding of steep hillsides by subsistence farmers. As for increased weather-related insurance claims, surely Mr. Butts is aware that Florida has had a population boom, as have many other coastal areas. This means there are more targets for storms to hit. Note than 1,000 Americans died annually in hurricanes between 1900 and 1908, while only 25 died annually between 1988 and 1996, despite huge population increases.

I really do care about what kind of planet future generations will inherit, and I believe Mr. Butts does too. But misdiagnosing problems and advocating bad, though well-meaning, policies will not achieve an environmentally healthy world.

Pay Attention Now

Jason Sholl's review ("Dangerous Distraction," May) of two popular books on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) illustrates five common pitfalls: the danger of "a little knowledge," quoting out of context, assuming that a disorder does not exist unless its cause is known, confusing treatment and diagnostic issues, and assuming that pathology must be qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different from health.

The mass of literature on ADHD, ranging from solid scientific studies to opinion pieces (and commercial attempts to cash in on the public curiosity), is so huge that it is difficult for any one person to assimilate it all or even to find a balance. In any large body of science, there will be some contradictions and apparent contradictions, including occasional failures to replicate. Deciding whether the positive study or the negative is accurate often depends on time and further study; no single study should be taken as definitive. Consequently, anyone who draws conclusions from a small sampling or quick skim of the literature, especially without reviewing the scientific database, is in danger of error.

An example of Sholl's errors is his statement that DSM-IV diagnosis requires six out of a list of 14 symptoms (it is actually six out of either of two lists of nine symptoms, but one cannot add together symptoms from the two lists). Another is the failure to mention that diagnosis also requires impairment in at least two settings, not just the symptoms. Further, no ADHD expert would endorse making (or rejecting) the diagnosis on a 10-minute office observation.

Closely related to the pitfall of limited literature sampling is quoting out of context. For example, Sholl cites the 1998 National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference report, a valid strategy in itself because the consensus panel was composed of scientific experts from outside the ADHD field who had no vested interest. However, he selects only the statement that knowledge about causes "remains speculative." The same report also states, "The diagnosis of ADHD can be made reliably using well-tested diagnostic interview methods….Although research has suggested a central nervous system basis for ADHD, further research is necessary to firmly establish ADHD as a brain disorder. This is not unique to ADHD, but applies as well to most psychiatric disorders, including disabling diseases such as schizophrenia. Evidence supporting the validity of ADHD includes the long-term developmental course…, cross-national studies revealing similar risk factors, familial aggregation…(which may be genetic or environmental), and heritability." The heritability of ADHD from twin, adoption, and other familial studies is over 0.5.

Much of the criticism of the ADHD diagnosis seems based on dislike of the most popular treatment, Ritalin. But we do not deny the existence of cancer just because we dislike its toxic chemotherapy. There are, in fact, numerous other possible treatments for ADHD, some with well-documented efficacy, others with promising pilot data.

Sholl is correct that the symptoms of ADHD are merely frequent or excessive occurrence of behaviors that any normal person might occasionally show. The NIH consensus statement says, "This is not unique to ADHD, as other medical diagnoses, such as essential hypertension and hyperlipidemia, are continuous in the general population, yet the utility of diagnosis and treatment have been proven." Everyone has a blood pressure and temperature. When either exceeds a threshold agreed on by expert clinicians, hypertension or a febrile illness is diagnosed, even if the cause is not known. The appropriate threshold for ADHD symptoms is a subject of continuing deliberation among clinical scientists. The politicization of the diagnosis, by inducing defensiveness, may have a chilling effect on the healthy self-criticism and scientific dialogue needed for further progress in diagnostic accuracy.

Sholl may be correct that some parents bilk the system for Supplemental Security Income payments or other benefits for unimpaired or mildly impaired children; but if so, that is a problem of the welfare system, not of the diagnosis.

L. Eugene Arnold
Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry
Ohio State University
Arnold.6@osu.edu

Jason Sholl replies: The medical disorder ADHD and the popular label "ADHD" are both very real phenomena. The difficult question is not whether one or the other exists, but where one ends and the other begins. By discussing ADHD's social and economic aspects, as well as its medical aspects, I tried to convey the full complexity of distinguishing the label from the disease. I do not consider such an approach a "limited literature sampling."

The NIH Consensus Conference report presents an optimistic evaluation of our knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. While my single quote from the report did not reflect this optimism, neither was it taken out of context. I discuss many of the report's other claims, such as "heritability" and "cross-national studies" elsewhere in my review. Similarly, while certain details about DSM-IV diagnostic criteria were inaccurate as I presented them, for which I apologize, the point I made remains valid: diagnosing ADHD is a highly subjective affair.

For better or worse, the preferred treatment for ADHD is a drug virtually indistinguishable from cocaine. When we administer such a drug to over 4 million children each year, I fail to see how diagnostic issues can remain separate from treatment issues. The overprescription of Ritalin and the perverse incentives surrounding ADHD diagnosis are not problems unique to the welfare system. We would be wise to take them seriously.

Literary Destruction?

I have a literary bone to pick with Nick Gillespie. In "Boiler Room Boilerplate" (May), he refers to the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman as "dramatically incoherent," presumably because it "unmasks its title character as a 'phony little fake' even as it seeks to elevate him to tragic stature." It is unfortunate that Mr. Gillespie seems to believe that the tragic form should have remained constant since the Greeks.

Miller's innovation in Salesman is precisely that he writes a tragedy of Everyman; he democratizes the art of tragedy. For the Greeks, one had to be royalty—an Oedipus or Electra or Ajax—to be worthy of leading a tragic existence. Miller's Willy Loman is an ordinary man. Indeed, that is the tragedy of his existence; he dreams of being royalty—or rather, of the American equivalent: being successful in business. His dreams, unrealized and ultimately unrealizable for him, eat at him, until there is nothing left but a shell. Loman's death, far from occurring at the end of the play, has occurred before the play even begins. He tells his son, "A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." Loman's body lives on after his dreams have died, and therein lies the tragedy of Miller's play.

This is certainly not Oedipus Rex, nor should it be, for Miller lives in 20th-century A.D. America, not in fifth-century B.C. Athens. Miller's alterations to the Greek tragic formula do not make his work "dramatically incoherent," and there is no small irony in Gillespie's assertion to the contrary, coming as it does in the middle of an editorial discussing the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction, which, after all, applies to cultural artifacts as much as to industrial processes.

Josh Chafetz
New Haven, CT
josh.chafetz@yale.edu

In his editorial "Boiler Room Boilerplate" (May), Nick Gillespie asks, "Does it matter that most depictions of capitalism and business in popular culture are relentlessly negative?" His answer: "Films such as Boiler Room don't undermine or challenge capitalism as much as they further it. Indeed, by foregrounding—or even by absurdly exaggerating—the duplicity possible in a market system, they may well help it to function more efficiently."

Such duplicity does exist, of course. But everyone knows this perfectly well already. And the market already gives us abundant means of protecting against it, from Consumer Reports to the countless investment letters that evaluate stocks, mutual funds, brokers, corporate buyout offers, etc. At Barron's, where I used to work, the editors took pride in having exposed more fraud than the Securities and Exchange Commission—not because they hated business but because they wanted to prevent the bad apples from spoiling the barrel.

But a movie is a form of art, not journalism. As such its theme is inherently general; it communicates a view of what is important and essential about some domain of life. The view communicated by movies like Boiler Room is that the essence of business is deception and exploitation rather then productive achievement, innovation, and voluntary cooperation.

And the essential thing to say about these movies is that that view is false. To the extent that they have any cultural and political impact, it will be to encourage a false conception of business and capitalism and a corresponding propensity to support government controls. In that context, any incidental value such movies may have in promoting well-informed consumers seems insignificant.

David Kelley
Executive Director
The Objectivist Center
Poughkeepsie, NY
dkelley@objectivistcenter.org

Nick Gillespie replies: Josh Chafetz, who is clearly familiar with Arthur Miller's self-promoting essay on Death of a Salesman's tragic dimension, assumes too much. I have no interest in articulating or enforcing strict definitions of genres, whose forms and meanings absolutely change over time. Individual works of art, even ones credited with creating a form, never conform fully to such categories (indeed, even as Aristotle cites Oedipus Rex as the exemplary tragedy, he significantly misrepresents the drama). I find Death of a Salesman dramatically incoherent for a number of reasons, but the most important one is that it is never clear whether Willy Loman has ever actually been successful or whether he has always been, in Biff's words, "a phony little fake." If the latter, he hardly represents the "ordinary man" and has precious little claim on our sympathies.

Unlike David Kelley, I see no reason why "art" and "journalism" shouldn't cover similar ground and I see no reason why his defense of Barron's exposés shouldn't extend to other forms. One of the defining characteristics of capitalism—perhaps the defining characteristic, to the chagrin of many despairing Marxists—is its ability to incorporate challenges and criticisms. In any case, I'm less interested in authorial intention—Barron's ostensibly means to save capitalism, the director of Boiler Room to unmask it—than the ways in which audiences ultimately receive and use texts. As I suggested in my piece, there is little reason to believe that negative depictions of capitalists and capitalism in popular culture necessarily undermine support for markets. Indeed, we might well ponder how, after a century of much art that was emphatically anti-capitalistic, we have arrived at a moment in history where capitalism is virtually everywhere ascendant.

What's an Education Worth?

The text with the graph in "Powerful Credentials" by Michael W. Lynch (Citings, May) implies that the measure of the worth of a college education is the difference between median annual earnings for high school and college graduates. I think this is misleading from two standpoints.

First, the median annual earnings undoubtedly reflect a difference of scholastic aptitude and motivation between high school graduates who go on to college and those who do not. Furthermore, the higher income probably also reflects that college graduates are more likely to be from affluent families and thus have greater earnings because of their positions in society. To imply that those who do not go on to college would reap the same monetary rewards if they did seems erroneous.

Second, to discuss only the monetary value of a college education is to ignore its value for living a fuller life.

Allan Halderman
Allan.Halderman@worldnet.att.net