Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Don't want toxic water? It's gonna cost ya!

This headline and teaser were on the front of nytimes.com yesterday morning:

Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly

Ruptures in aging water systems cause pollutants to seep into water supplies, but in many cities residents have protested rate increases to fix pipes.

This reminds me of a scene from the Simpsons episode "The PTA Disbands," in which budget cuts force teachers to go on strike:

Ned: Well, all right, I'd like to call this meeting of the PTA to or-diddely-order. Let's see if we can't put an end to this strike fuss, huh? Mrs. Krabappel, why don't you begin?

Skinner: Boo!

Edna: Oh, "boo" yourself. Our demands are simple: a small cost-of-living increase and some better equipment and supplies for your children.

Audience: Yeah! Give it to them! etc.

Skinner: Yeah, in a dream world. We have a very tight budget; to do what she's asking, we'd have to raise taxes.

Audience: Raise taxes? They're too high as they are. Taxes are bad. etc.

Edna: It's your children's future.

Audience: That's right. Children are important. etc.

Skinner: It'll cost you.

Audience: No to taxes. My God, they're going to raise taxes. etc.

Edna: C'mon!

Audience: She makes a good case. Good point. etc.

Skinner: [rubs his fingertips together]

Audience: More taxes? The finger thing means the taxes. etc.

Ned: Well, I guess this is a case where we'll have to agree to disagree.

Skinner: I don't agree to that.

Edna: Neither do I!

Besides being an example of misguided media "balance" (side A says toxic water is bad, but side B says fixing it could be costly - who's right?), the obvious conclusion from the New York Times article is, excitable electorates' ability to make informed tradeoffs between long-term and short-term, and between monetary and non-monetary costs, is quite limited.

The other takeaway is that the word "cost" should never be used when talking about environmental issues. The proper word is "investment." Environmental regulations "cost" money in the same way that buying a stock "costs" money: yes, you have to part with some cash up front, but in doing so you reap returns over the long term in the form of avoided health costs, maintenance of environmental services, and improved quality of life.

So when we say that cap-and-trade will "cost a postage stamp a day," what we really mean is that it will require a postage-stamp-a-day investment in our future prosperity.

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