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Friday, June 29, 2007

I held it together until about half way through. Then it gets good.

In fact, our entire edifice of environmental protections is silly because it takes power and control away from those most directly affected. What do a bunch of scientists on some panel of experts know about the harm that their decisions will costs to tens of thousands of farmers? Do they even think about it? Did they get Ph.D.s in humanistic studies or in things like fisheries management? With whom--or what--will they side given their backgrounds and training and biases? Probably not the farmers. And is that fair? Is that right? Why set up a system that is biased towards protecting the fish and ignoring the farmers?

There is a very good reason to take power and control from those most directly affected. Farmers in the Klamath are one group that is intimately and personally affected by the allocation of water in the Klamath. Yep. I bet they think about that a whole lot and understand VERY CLEARLY the costs keeping water in the river imposes on farmers. If farming were the only important priority, they would be very good people to make decisions about where Klamath water goes. I have every faith that they could operate the Klamath River to maximize farmer profit.

But, and this seems to be the part that loses libertarians, civil servants and agency staff are required to BALANCE COMPETING NEEDS. See, it isn’t just farmers in the Klamath basin. There were salmon fishers whose livelihoods were at stake. There are Karuk peoples, whose sustenance is at stake. There are sport fishers. There is the American public as a whole, who are emotionally attached to the ideas of salmon runs in the west. So the answer to your question “What do a bunch of scientists on some panel of experts know about the harm that their decisions will cost to tens of thousands of farmers?” is: probably a fair amount. You know what else they know? They know what different alternatives will cost the fish run, the salmon industry, the Karuk, the sport fishers. They have MULTIPLE INTERESTS TO BALANCE. Under those circumstances, libertarians forever emphasize how one party got injured. But that doesn’t mean that the system didn’t work. It likely means that an outside party, like an agency official, balanced the collective wishes of everyone in the conflict and the American public as a whole (usually represented by the Endangered Species Act) and chose one trade-off. Who should do that? NOT the people who are “most directly affected”, the ones who have an economic stake in the issue.

You know who else shouldn’t do it? Fucking libertarians. I swear to God, you guys act the same every single time. EVERY time I post something about a societal trade off, you instantly, passionately and irrevocably identify yourself with one and only one side. Why? WHY? WHY do you do that? I thought this one might be harder for you. I mean, two picturesque resource extractors. I thought the salmon fishers might get some love from you. Two years they lost their entire livelihood and way of life! But no. Instead you write with a fanatic dedication to the potential costs to the farmers! Why?! What did you choose on? Seriously, it was "rippling back muscles of the fisher as he winches his nets out of the sea, man on his boat against the elements" versus "his thigh muscles flexing, the grower squats to take a handful of soil, surveying the new growth on his alfalfa before whistling for his dog". How the hell did you choose?

I mean, I knew the Karuk would get no love and heaven forefend we respect the fish, who exist as entities unto themselves and not for our purposes. But WHY did you arbitrarily pick the farmers and focus exclusively on the potential harm to them? I know why Cheney did, for votes. But why did you? Justin did the same shit when I talked about flood easements in the Sutter basin farms versus entire downstream cities. What the hell is with this immediate and visceral need to identify with one side of the story, who may experience a loss in what they consider their rights, and disregard ANY LEVEL OF COSTS to anyone else or the population as a whole. Why do you do that so blindly and so absolutely? You would make CRAPPY civil servants.




UPDATE: Hi friends. I've had a few hours to think, and now I am sorry I wrote the sweeping generalizations about libertarians in this post. Jan's comment gave me some access to his libertarian perspective, which was very helpful. You guys did an amazing job raising the level of the discussion higher than the tone I set, and I appreciate that. I'll be out tomorrow, but I want to keep talking about this stuff Sunday or next week. Please be thoughtful and respectful of each other in the comments. Thanks.

Megan

30 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I didn't choose. It really seems like you're the one who's outraged about the decision.

I don't care, someone had to lose.

You're also angry that Cheney was able to influence the decision to the one you opposed. But, again, if you don't like that then you should be for less government power, not more.

If there was a law that stated which way the decision should go, then the government should be bound by it. Politicians shouldn't have so much influence that they can trade favors and work their magic to get around the laws. But, they do, and they do because of the amount of power and influence government in general has.

Justin

5:51 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Nope. I actually don't have a dog in the farmer/fisher fight. I am a little saddened by fish kills, but I sleep fine nights.

I'm outraged for exactly what you said. That there was a law that stated which way the decision should go, and the government should be bound by it. And Cheney went around the law to increase his own power.

To me that means that we bind governments to the law, while they are doing the useful things we created them for.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Francis said...

justin:

the dispute does not go away in the absence of statutory law. It simply gets expressed in a different way.

Lots of resources conflicts are resolved with violence. It's the usual way of doing things around the world and, historically, in the US West.

Had, for example, the farmers insisted on cutting the locks on the diversion gate (a form of violence against property), the fishers could have decided to dynamite the dam.

Round about this point, they would change from violence against property to violence against person.

So as a society we enact these massively complex environmental laws to provide a forum and a mechanism for resolving the disputes without violence.

But we've discovered that these environmental laws are so fact-specific and complex that we need neutral scientists, engineers and lawyers (ahem) to work through the disputes. Hence what Megan does, what the USFWS and NMFS staff does and what Department of Interior Solicitors do.

These individuals work within the framework of the law written by the legislative branch and the regulations that they themselves write. So their discretion is bounded.

Where things go wrong is when a policy maker exceeds the scope of his policy making power and directs staff to abuse their discretion. That's what Cheney did.

But let's be clear -- saying that we shouldn't have these laws is precisely equivalent to saying that the resource conflicts need to be resolved some other way, like with dynamite.

ps: Megan, I think I'm addicted to your blog.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Tommaso Sciortino said...

Libertarians are ideologically incapable of understanding communal goods. There's no reason that should bother anyone... unless you require air to live or something.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

You know who else shouldn’t do it? Fucking libertarians.

Hey! At least limit it to simplistic internet libertarians.

Some of us are at least recognize the complexity involved and don't claim to have answers.

EVERY time I post something about a societal trade off, you instantly, passionately and irrevocably identify yourself with one and only one side.

It was (and still is) unclear whether you were posting about a societal tradeoff, or about a corrupt politician.

I'm with you on the corruption of the executive branch under Bush. It stinks badly. I worry a lot that it's an institutional change which will persist regardless of which set of asshats is in power, rather than an aberration of the current bunch. It's probably both, which makes me very sad.

I'm less convinced about the actual tradeoff. The farmers (and more importantly, the few million people they feed) seem to have some claim on the water, as do the fishermen (and their customers). As do individual fisher-consumers, regardless of heritage or reason.

Fish have no rights, but I, as a human, have an interest in maintaining diversity, at least of the yummier species like salmon.

Balancing all that is not just hard, it's impossible. There's no commonly-accepted theory of rights that can make the determination.

Scientists can make estimates of likely effects and costs. But politics, as the application of force that determines ownership, is what decides who wins.

It would be nice to say "see, there's a law" and leave it at that. The problem is that law is politics too. It's just cleverer politics, and in this case there are contradictory, vague laws which don't really carry a clear moral weight. IMO.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Megan.

If I did choose, I did so because you chose first. I don't "irrevocably identify [myself] with one and only one side"; I temporarily choose the side on which you are not, because of your choice. As soon as you choose a side, I imagine myself on the other side and see that I wouldn't want someone like you to have power over me.

How much education and expertise and disinterest on my part would justify my forcing you to move to Kansas based on my claim that it would be better for the world?

- Jan

7:27 PM  
Anonymous rm said...

Libertarians always choose an aggrieved side because, it seems, to them the ideal situation is one where a single person heroically insists upon his rights even though doing so causes the rest of the world to die. The closer a situation gets to that pure scene of individual-liberty-above-all, the better they like it.

And, apparently Cheney corrupted the legal decision-making process not just to get local votes, but because this situation had become a symbolic drama for the ultra-right around the country . . . for reasons I think I got at above.

So, all of that balancing-of-competing-interests stuff . . . evil, evil!

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Francis:

I'm not sure you're average libertarian is thinking of dynamite as the solution. Rather, I think it's more like the joke about two economists stuck in a well. What'll we do? says the one. First of all, let's assume a ladder.

Our anti-government friends assume well defined rights. This has two problems, of course. First, no system is really capable of that level of definition, especially not a system that's light on bureaucracy. Second, as you and Megan know as lawyers, no right, no matter how well defined, is any better than the mechanism created to enforce it. Where that mechanism is a jury, no right is any better than 12 random people can be convinced it is. Having heard from someone with the opposite view.

There's often going to be bands of discretion where bold and unscrupulous people, like the VP, can exert discretion. One hopes that shame would restrain the worst of them -- this is where the current VP exceeds any other inside player I can think of.

CharleyCarp

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I temporarily choose the side on which you are not, because of your choice.

Guess that's one way to avoid actually thinking about the merits of an issue. Probably saves time...

9:15 PM  
Anonymous HC said...

Momentary tangent, but have you considered looking for farmers or fishermen? Favorable sex ratio and therefore probably odds, if you can take to the rural life. Also - rippling, flexing, sweaty muscles. Man against the elements - with dog!

....
My Captcha today is igotvp. The implications are somewhat disturbing.

10:36 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

I don't know what libertarians hang out on your blog, but whoever they are, they appear to have completely missed the standard liberatrian solution to such quandries: place the resource under private ownership.

The Coase theorem guarantees that, as long as property rights are well-defined, the market will find an efficient allocation of resources even in the presence of externalities. It doesn't matter who owns the rights. Give the river to a farmer; if the fishermen can make more money with the next mega-gallon than he can, they will pay him to use it and it will get used for fishing. Give the river to a fisherman; if the farmers can make more money with the next mega-gallon of water than he can, they will pay him to use it and it will get used for farming. Give it to the first homeless guy you meet on the street; he will dole out water to the farmers and the fishermen in whatever ratio maximizes their profits and, and thus his.

Asking a scientist or bureaucrat to compute the objectively optimal allocation is a fool's task, because the objectively optimal allocation isn't just a question of multi-factor crop yield functions or salmon life-cycle models. It's a question of how every person on the planet, not just the local farmers and fishermen, relatively value the outputs that can be produced from one use of the river versus another (or another, or another). And amazingly, we have an algorithm for solving that incredibly complex optimization problem: it's called the price mechanism.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Benquo said...

The Coase theorem doesn't quite "guarantee" anything. There are transaction costs to consider, especially when so many people depend on a river in so many different ways, and have committed to a "way of life." Perhaps either the farmers nor the fisherman would be unwilling to sell any of the river to the other party. We shouldn't rule out the possibility of a complete market solution, though; has anything like what you suggest actually been tried for anything sufficiently like a river to be analogous?

12:03 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

The whole point of externalities is that the people most directly affected by the regulation restricting pollution are absolutely not the people most directly affected by the pollution. Government experts stand in for the interests of the people directly affected by the pollution. As Benquo said, the people affected by the pollution have difficulty organizing to represent their interests through market ownership because of transaction costs.

The problem is that law is politics too. It's just cleverer politics, and in this case there are contradictory, vague laws which don't really carry a clear moral weight.

So politics is automatically corrupt, just by virtue of being politics? Nice way to pre-determine the outcome. You either believe that politics is a legitimate way for human communities to come together and make decisions, or you don't. Law is morally legitimate because it is the outcome of our agreed-upon political system. If you don't like it, one thing to do would be to work to improve our political system. If you believe that political systems are inherently corrupt and cannot be improved, that makes you a libertarian. But it seems to me that if we put more genuine effort into taking care of our politics instead of giving up on it, then we might improve things.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Oh, and also: I take the Coase theorem seriously, in that I think there really are cases where there the number of actors affected by an externality are small enough that you could simply assign the property right over the resource and let the market handle it. But I'll tell you this: any time the property right would be *reassigned*, say from the polluters to those affected -- the people losing the property right would scream bloody murder about government regulators robbing them blind. And they would scream again every time a court case forced them to pay compensation to affected parties. I'm pretty sure libertarians would point to it as an example of coercion.

In other words, I'm saying that market-based regulation is still regulation. Any time government action creates winners and losers, using whatever mechanism, people will respond to that just the same way they respond to regulation.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous milo said...

Dear DCW:
I am a wealthy person with a deep and abiding interest in birds. I have a private zoo on my property with many birds which I also breed. I would like to purchase a pair of Dodo Birds, Passenger Pigeons, Great Auks, and Labrador Ducks, among others. The price mechanism you speak of does not appear to work. Could you suggest how to make it work?

Dear Dagon:
You said "Balancing all that is not just hard, it's impossible. There's no commonly-accepted theory of rights that can make the determination." DCW, above, will have an impossible task providing me a mechanism. But on the topic at hand: The House passed a bill after committee hearings and hearing amendments to the original bill. They did this with a majority vote. The Senate did the same thing. Then, two bodies reconciled the differences in the two versions of the bill and passed it again with a vote. Then, the President signed the bill, making it the law. All this is spelled out in the Constitution. There is nothing impossible about it.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think a libertarian cannot choose sides in this problem, because it mostly is enhanced and brought down by the states own short-comings, the multi-interest-conflict and let's phrase it that way: Cheney just made the final and quick decision, whose interests are more important for him and the greater good.
Even a rolling troop of 100 scientists with perfect data would have to make that choice and would choose what they deem the perfect trade-off for the majority from THEIR point of view.

And as long as we have communal goods on water, we will always have that and libertarians shouldn't choose sides, instead they should more often show the basic fault in this.

I don't think proper libertarians (or liberals as we are still called in Europe) should choose farmers or the rest, but rather say that the means to decide are not right...
If this outrages you, then I can't help it.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Zubon said...

Stop the "affirmative kindness" charade if you are going to be hateful about people when you don't understand their views. It seems to happen a lot.

I'm done.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

So politics is automatically corrupt, just by virtue of being politics?

Not automatically, and not usually to this degree. Politics and violence are the primary options for resolving this kind of dispute. I prefer politics very strongly.

The original post was about politics overturning legislation, and I want to be clear that on some level they're the same thing.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Here's an example that may give another perspective on the issue: Congress passes a law saying that you, personally, cannot be thrown in jail unless a district attorney brings charges against you, a grand jury ratifies them, and then a (hopefully) impartial jury convicts you of those charges in a trial overseen by a (hopefully) impartial judge. Dick Cheney finds a way around this system and has you thrown in jail just because he personally thinks society would be better off without people like you running around free. Is this a problem, or isn't it?

Substitute the jury for the scientists in this case and the situation is pretty analogous. After all, the DA and judge are elected officials, and the jury sometimes makes mistakes, and the court system is political like Dick Cheney is political, so isn't it pretty much all the same?

The original post was about politics overturning legislation, and I want to be clear that on some level they're the same thing.

Politics is a preference of one participant in the process, but legislation is the ratified agreement of all participants in the process. What I'm saying is that the very fact that you would don't see the quite significant difference between the two shows that you don't believe in the legitimacy of the political system. Think about it.

Cheney just made the final and quick decision, whose interests are more important for him and the greater good. Even a rolling troop of 100 scientists with perfect data would have to make that choice and would choose what they deem the perfect trade-off for the majority from THEIR point of view.

So all choices are imperfect, hence all choices are equally valid? Again, choices that follow a procedure ratified in law are different than choices just made by some guy on a whim (even if such a guy is an elected official). Congress vested the power to make this decision in impartial scientists specifically because they wanted the choice to be made in a certain way on the basis of certain kinds of scientific expertise.

11:01 AM  
Blogger dcw said...

Milo: You are absolutely correct that the market allocation mechanism I advocate doesn't take into account the preferences of future generations. But I think if you follow that line of thought a bit further, you will see that isn't quite such a devastating critique as you think.

One reason is that we have no good handle on the real preferences of future generations. You seem to think it's clear that future generations would prefer to have salmon in the rivers. But it's entirely plausible that future generations would prefer that we engage in a massive program of resource depletion, ploughing those profits into a program of medical research that produces a pill that extends the human lifespan to 200 years.

Suppose, though, that we did have some magic psyhic handle on the real preferences of future generations. There is no reason to believe that democratic decision-making, the alternative allocation mechanism that you apparently advocate, would be any better at taking those preferences into account. We have made all sorts of democratic collective decisions that will probably harm future generations (e.g. deficit spending) and private individuals have engaged in all sorts of market transactions intended to benefit of future generations (e.g. bequeathing land and money).

So the democratic allocation mechanism appears to have all the same deficits as the market allocation mechanism. But the converse is not true: economists can point to all sorts of nice features that the market allocation mechanism has that the democratic allocation mechanism does not (e.g. Praeto efficiency).

Given these points, you will forgive me for suspecting that it isn't so much the democratic allocation mechanism that you prefer as its result in this particular case. (It isn't clear to me, though, what makes you think you know the outcome of the market allocation mechanism well enough to be sure you would like it less.) That's a fine preference for you to have, but it isn't much of a general argument in favor of the democratic allocation mechanism, is it?

12:31 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

Marcus: Yes, the initial allocation of property rights is a political nightmare. But I am not advocating repeatedly re-assigning property rights; I am advocating assigning property rights once and then stopping. Continually re-assigning propety rights is, in effect, precisely what the present regulatory regime does.

Indivdually, people are natrually very concerned with who gets the rights to resources, i.e. who gets to be rich. But societally, what we really need to be concerned about is that resources, whoever owns them, are allocated for the optimal production of outputs. Coase's great insight was that these are entirely seperable questions, and that what matters for the latter isn't who gets the property rights, but that they are well-defined, secure, and tradable.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

I think you wrote an excellent post. And sometimes sweeping generalities are, besides being good fun, easier to work with. People are perfectly capable of inserting on their own, the obligatory disclaimer, "Of course this doesn't apply to every single libertarian in the world. It's just something a lot of them seem to do..."

4:28 PM  
Anonymous andreas said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Andreas left a comment with no other content than misogyny. Since it wasn't advancing the conversation, I deleted it. You can read the original over at MR, if you are interested.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Dizzy said...

Zubon, Megan makes every effort to understand other people. I don't think one thing she said was hateful. It was totally directed at something a certain group of people do, not who they are or whether or not they are smart or anything like that. She doesn't like the way they argue. She doesn't have to, in order to be a nice person. Your comment, on the other hand, was a personal attack on her character. That's really not nice.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

What I don't get:

Here we are, slamming on two things: libertarians, and the fact that a bunch of bureaucrats in DC, acting on the orders of a national politician in DC, had the power to skew a decision about water use in Oregon.

Am I confused? Wouldn't it be the libertarian position that the folks in DC should have precisely zero say in what happens in Oregon? That, perhaps, Oregonians should be the people to make these decisions?

Whatever else might be bad about a libertarian utopia, certainly this particular brand of screwiness wouldn't even be an issue.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Xanthippas said...

Huh. Don't be sorry. You're right.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Charlie said...

"What do a bunch of scientists on some panel of experts know about the harm that their decisions will cost to tens of thousands of farmers?”

They probably know a good bit.

This is terriably worded and obscures the point. Please do not associate market based philosophies (which only a few "libertarians" actually grasp) with this statement.

However, your reliance on a central board of experts is highly flawed:

"You know what else they know? They know what different alternatives will cost the fish run, the salmon industry, the Karuk, the sport fishers. They have MULTIPLE INTERESTS TO BALANCE."

Here you commit the "FATAL CONCIET" (see FA Hayek) --the belief that we humans can engineer society to our wishes and desires. In fact, it is impossible to predict what the alternatives will cost, it is impossible to optimize the balance of intrests. Your groups of experts faces a fundamental "knowledge problem". The market mechanism is the only remedy.

We cannot rely on a band of experts, but rather must look to the spontaneous order promoted by market process for optimal outcomes.

Stop your search for philosopher kings and deterministic paths. Free your mind.

Breckinridge
www.thepokerclub.wordpress.com

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

I don't understand why bureaucrats are intrinsically better able to moderate these conflicts than the people themselves. You bring up the idea that we need what amounts to a "mediator class" to take into account the interests of all parties. But that's not what makes it special, because people can do that themselves via markets, neighborhood meetings, consensus, etc.

What makes your solution of government as the mediator special is the notion of "authority" - that, once the "right" balance of interests is reached, that decision can be forced on people. There is no superior decision making power in the bureaucracy, only those holding the gun and those holding their hands up.

Yes, a little bit of libertarian hyperbole, but only because we like to make sweeping generalizations about government nearly as much as you about libertarians. I would also ask what government interventions have been executed on behalf of Klamath Falls farmers to enable them to farm the land as they do. I'll bet ten Ayn Rand - brand gold dollar coins that their irrigation systems are part of federally funded projects, just like most farming on the west coast is.

Liberals love to talk about solutions without recognizing the role government plays in causing problems.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Libertarian Girl said...

Like Jeremy, I don't see the logic here. The government caused these problems in the first place by taking the land away from some people and giving it to others-- in effect, theft-- and you now trust them to get involved again, taking money away from some people and giving it to others.

When these people get cut-rate electricity, everyone else who uses that electricity company has their rates go up-- poor people, children, kids trying to work their way through college, senior citizens on a fixed income. Old people have been known to die due to not having air conditioning because of the cost-- you have to think about all the consequences of a decision, not just the people who are complaining the loudest.

12:37 PM  

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