html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: "I don't want to die."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"I don't want to die."

I saw this story yesterday, about remote members of a desert community left with no water after the state shut down the unlicensed trucks hauling water to them. It is a pretty dramatic story, with lots of angles. Some of mine:

Are we a freakin' third world country, that towns get their water from unlicensed trucks hauling water that is dubiously potable?

Man, people love what they have. No matter what they have, an isolated impoverished life in a small desert town, if they have it now, they believe they are owed it.

My feeling that people cannot believe what they cannot see is growing stronger. If people can't see a problem, like a plume of contaminents in groundwater or crap in their drinking water, they do not believe the problem exists.

Aw crap. Why'd we come and bother them? They making do and it looks like they've got some work-arounds. Can't we leave them in their hermit lifestyle, drinking foul water?

My other conviction, that this lifestyle is a luxury we will not be able to afford after climate change, is strengthened by today's piece. The Governor's Office of Emergency Services is bailing them out, sending water tankers. How long will be have enough slack to support lifestyles beyond the means of local resources? Could we do that if we weren't deferring maintenance on our infrastructure? If we were preparing for sea level rise? If we had to attend to a catastrophic flood and a catastrophic fire in the same decade? I said that the deserts would contract first, and this is the type of thing I mean. If you are Californian, we will not let you live in squalor, even if you choose it; sooner or later, we can't afford to keep you out of squalor in the marginal areas. They will have to come in, as long as there is a social contract. (Yes, yes. We could change the social contract, but I don't see much will for that. Maybe when we are poor.) Or they will die, a small incidence of increased mortality after a combination of heat waves and high gas prices; people will cluck when they read the newspaper stories and wonder how that could happen here. There is no mystery to it, but we don't make our choices explicitly and openly and then follow through. We just react, and send water tankers.

UPDATE: The state authorized more truckers. Another news story about the Lucerne Valley.

Also, Borrego Springs' well failed. They don't know where their next water is coming from. We do not have the resources to live the way we do. I read three or four of these stories a month.


Blogger Megan said...

Please don't leave predictable libertarian comments. Please leave new and thoughtful libertarian comments, so we don't rehash old threads. No backtracking for us.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't want the same predictable libertarian comments, why make the same predictable, we've gotta save people from themselves, posts?


12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What you think about this story?


1:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


That it is a case of people being mission focused. Everyone acted appropriately by the standard of their mission. You want a different outcome, you have to give them different missions. Where do I come down on the issue of raw milk? I'd have to think about it to have an opinion, but somewhere between "it is fine for informed consumers" and "raw milk can kill kids".

I have made predictable "we've got to save people from themselves" posts, but more often I say things like "we need to make explicit decisions about this stuff."

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mostly, I was wondering how you'd approach a similar situation (people want to consume something, citing lifestyle concerns. Regulators want to stop them, citing safety issues) when it was outside of your area of expertise.

I think your 'missions' comment is dead-on, BTW, and your 'informed consumer/kids' observation. But I also see those exact issues in the water situation.

What is it about the water issue that makes you more willing to come to a conclusion than about milk? Where do you see the important differences between the two?


2:09 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

What is it about the water issue that makes you more willing to come to a conclusion than about milk? Where do you see the important differences between the two?

I'm on the ground here and I know why I think things. I'm not guessing, or when I am guessing, I have a sense of my confidence intervals. I have had a long time to think things over and years to watch whether my thoughts have changed.

I know very little about food security issues, and I don't guess when I only know the outlines of a situtation. What would it take for me to opinionate about raw milk? Two or three dairy science classes, a childhood nutrition class or child food epidemiology class, time spent in a pasteurization facility, time spent in a big commercial dairy, time spent in a small raw milk-type dairy. By the time I write something here, I either flag it as outside my solid knowledge, or I am pretty damn sure of it.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

I do think the state has a role in reducing information problems. So it's good if the state prevents people from calling the water they're selling "potable" if it really isn't.

But I think you mischaracterized the situation when you called the water "dubiously potable". The article talks about one of the water haulers explicitly requiring customers to sign a waiver that acknowledges that the water they're getting is non-potable. That's not "dubiously potable", that's being explicitly up-front about the fact that the water is not potable.

If someone designed a building that recycled greywater for flushing toilets and whatnot, we'd applaud their greenness. But here we've got people similarly taking advantage of the fact that only a small fraction of our water needs to be potable, and the state is shutting them down instead.

As long as there's no information problem, it's not at all clear to me that the state has an interest in preventing people from utilizing non-potable water sources. It's not cost-effective in most cases to have a non-potable water system alongside the should-be-potable water system, so you (and most people) are used to the situation where all the water that you get is potable. In fact, I imagine that you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about ways to ensure that potability. But you certainly haven't made the case that that's the only way to go.

If you really think there's a public health interest, it ought to be possible to collect some statistics on the rates of whatever problems people get from drinking non-potable water. And then you could do some cost-benefit analysis. But it's pretty harsh to just assume that these people are too stupid to do the right thing.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

As long as there's no information problem, it's not at all clear to me that the state has an interest in preventing people from utilizing non-potable water sources.

Doesn't. State cited the truckers, whose trucks didn't meet whatever the cleanliness for potable standards are. They definitely have an interest in regulating the purveyors. Also, I think they're being somewhat shifty about what that well water is being used for. Doesn't seem to me like they've tested the well sources, and they cited someone who was putting untested well water into a storage tank that wasn't expressly non-potable.

I don't actually think this is a huge health crisis, but I also don't think the state is overreacting. They shut down truckers operating without a permit, and they do have an interest in that. They brought in clean tankers to provide water. They are working with the truckers to get low-interest loans or grants to get their permits. This is a short-term mess, but it'll go back to how it used to be in a short while, only the trucks will be inspected and permitted and we'll know what is in that well water. I know that it is scary and it sucks in the meantime.

In fact, I imagine that you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about ways to ensure that potability.

Oh fuck no. That is over on the water quality side. I'm purely a water supply person. Moving big amounts of water around, that's cool. Water quality involves chemistry, and I hate chemistry.

But it's pretty harsh to just assume that these people are too stupid to do the right thing.

I don't. But I assume that whatever standards we've decided on collectively have to be uniformly enforced, even if there isn't a problem in the Lucerne Valley. I don't care if we collectively change the standards (I really don't.), but while they're law, the fact that they cause short-term damage in some cases doesn't bother me. Presumably, they catch enough cases of genuinely bad groundwater that the false positives are worth it. We don't know yet that this is a false positive either. If they find scary shit in that water, and I don't know what the odds of that are, they'll be Erin Brokovich heroes that saved the children, just by following procedure.

(For a sense of scale, those linked stories? I get two or three just like that every day. I don't do gw or quality side stuff, but my rough sense of the relative risks is overwhelmingly on the side that untested groundwater is dangerous.)

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

I don't care if we collectively change the standards (I really don't.), but while they're law, the fact that they cause short-term damage in some cases doesn't bother me.

I see; I guess we're talking past each other a bit. I'm trying to discuss the wisdom of the law itself, and I thought that was the context of the original post. I agree that in general the laws/regulations that we already have should be consistently enforced.

My view is that in almost all cases, certification is preferable to licensing. Just like we have "certified public accountants", we could have "certified potable" water-haulers. This keeps people from being surprised by non-potable water while at the same time preserving their freedom to choose non-potable water if that fits their needs better.

The (LA? Orange County?) solution of requiring restaurants to prominently post their health inspection score is also a good solution in a similar vein.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Most of the time here, I don't care about the wisdom of the law itself. There's the occasional issue I find egregious, like Paterno allocating all flood liability to the state, but even so, I hold my opinion as one among very many in the state. I'm likely to be OK with any law that plausibly accommodates most interests.

BUT. I care very deeply about systemic problems with how laws get decided and implemented. I care A LOT about process and EVEN MORE about breaches of process. I worry about reinforcing privilege and wealth, and about purely sloppy management.

I mostly don't argue specific outcomes with you guys, 'cause I mostly don't feel strongly about them.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Wisdom of this law? As a rough take?

I think the people in those towns don't have the information they need to decide whether that water is safe, even for non-potable use. I think that humans as a species can't make good decisions about problems they can't see. I wrote that I think I'm inclined to believe most gw is contaminated, but if you told me that well is on land and downstream of land that has been rural for centuries, I'd be less concerned. (Groundwater flows, too, you know.) The consequences of bad shit in your water are illness and death, and since I think that bad shit is likely, I'm inclined to make the standard for water very high. It is expensive to maintain your health when polluters impose their externalities on us.

For non-potable water... I'm less sure of the risks, but agree the standards should be lower.

3:51 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

I am flabbergasted by your comment that your interest here is in the consistency and integrity of the process, but not the wisdom of the policy.

If that's the case, what is there to discuss here? There was a policy. It was encforced. What more is there to say?

(I could go even further, and point out that your position treads awfully close to the lawyer-like interest in rules and disregard for outcomes that you attacked in your last post. But perhaps I've misunderstood your position.)

4:39 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Well, I thought the interesting points were my bullet points.

I'm interested in the idea of America's self-conception as a first world nation is threatened by the fact that our bridges fall down and we are hauling non-potable water to small towns and we cannot save our people from predicted floods and lose entire cities. I think that is interesting.

I'm real interested in the two biases I mentioned, 1. people's reactions when they lose what they have known, and their belief that what exists is a right, even when it is patently unsustainable to anyone who hasn't grown used to it and 2. that people cannot effectively deal with something that isn't visible, which could have lead to an interesting conversation about how that applies to global warming.

Or my point about my belief that marginal communities contracting is a leading indicator of global warming could have lead to a big ole fight about whether I'm right about my vision of new scarcity, or it could have been a fight about whether global warming or Peak Oil will get us first, or it could have been a talk about softening the human costs of the transition I foresee.

There was LOTS of stuff to talk about.

Instead, we talked about the paternalism of bureaucrats in setting this standard. The outline for this is the same no matter the issue. There is an amount of safety and a cost, and people disagree about where the legal threshold should be. I was riveted by it the first time I read it. But we've talked it to death. Where the actual legal boundary is, as long as it is somewhere in the range of "keep most people alive for a reasonable amount of money", is something I WANT to delegate to experts. And even if I thought what we ended up with is somewhere close to the edges of "keep most people alive for a reasonable amount of money", if I believed that other people chose something different because they thought about the people and the money, and the outcome wasn't corrupted by a one-sided process, but rather expressed a different collective preference, I would be fine with that too.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I think some of y'all mistake what I write a fair amount. Nearly every time, all I want is for the decision to be explicit. In that Gladwell article, which I LOVED, there was an incremental mortality for every unit of decreased air conditioner quality.

Now, you know me. I'm a full-on bleeding heart type. When I am dictator, I will insist on the most efficient air conditioners for everyone, and CHEER LOUDLY as it imposes a regulatory burden on air conditioning manufacturers.

Sadly, I am not yet the dictator. Sadly, other people's opinions matter too. As long as they do, I am fine with some other efficiency standard for air conditioners AS LONG AS everyone decides:

We are willing to kill an extra hundred old people for every additional decrease in efficiency unit during heat waves so that it is slightly cheaper for air conditioning manufacturers.

Once everyone says those words out loud, and I realize that my bleeding heart ways are not the will of the rest of the people, I am done.

I think it is FUCKED UP when that conversation is obscured, so that people do not know what they are deciding. It is FUCKING WRONG for a politician to come in and circumvent the process for personal political gain. It is WRONG when entire classes of people do not have access to that conversation, so we don't know how many people they are willing to have die in heat waves so that air conditioning manufacturers can have more profit. See, those things bother me.

But as long as everyone is VERY CLEAR on what they are deciding and why, and make a considered choice about trade-offs? I have my preferences (very likely more expensive and protective than yours), but I can live with nearly any non-ridiculous collectively decided outcome.

You should go back to my old posts and re-read them. I bet most of the time when you thought I was advocating an outcome, I was actually saying that the decision should be explicit.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

If we have to have a single legal boundary for everyone, then I agree that setting that boundary is something I'm willing to agree to disagree about and I'm probably happy to delegate to an expert. And I agree that the process of setting those boundaries is extremely important and that people who mess with and/or obscure those processes are evil.

The question I'm more interested in is whether or not we need to have a single legal boundary for everyone. Sometimes, as with the (Klamath?) fish kill, there are shared outcomes (fisher-people lost some income, etc.). In those cases, you do need a collective decision-making process. But with the water situation I don't see any shared outcomes. So I think people should be free to purchase crappy water if they want to, as long as they're properly informed about what they're getting. If there's no information problem, then people should be able to decide on their own boundary (or boundaries).

If that's not a question you find interesting, then sorry for hijacking the thread. My idea of America as a first-world nation wasn't affected by this story. Some people like to live out in the sticks; I feel sorry for them since their options are getting more limited with time, but their strangeness doesn't change the fact that I live in the first world.

I also thought this was a bit off base:
No matter what they have, an isolated impoverished life in a small desert town, if they have it now, they believe they are owed it.
I don't see these people asking for help maintaining their lifestyle; they just seem peeved that someone has taken away a setup that was working for them, which (as far as I can tell) didn't affect anyone else. If they had (say) been taking water from a river that needed the water to support a fish population, then the "they believe they are owed it" comment would have fit much better. But I don't see them imposing any externalities on others. Again, as long as there's not an information problem.

Or if all of their wells suddenly dried up due (somehow) to climate change, and if the state sent in water tankers, then I'd be much more on your side. And I do agree with you that some lifestyles will become less viable with climate change and diminishing oil supplies. I just think that those changes will be gradual enough for people to adjust without too much pain. And now I really am rehashing an old thread.

But we're not sending tankers because of climate change, we're sending them because the state shut down their water supply. Is anyone else surprised that it costs $7000 to get the permits/tests necessary to sell water from your well? How heavyweight is this process, exactly? Who is incented to reduce that cost?

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe when we are poor."

When we're poor, feminism's dead. But you know that, right?

Seriously: the last. freaking. thing. I would want, if I were an intelligent female with any trace of feminist ideas, was that "we" would end up "poor". Because historically, it is absolutely the case that ideologies like feminism only thrive in very affluent Western societies, and tend to get completely hammered in societies undergoing economic collapse. Consider most of the history of the 20th century, specifically the rise of fascism after the Weimar inflation.

You really, really should want the pro-abundance technophile libertarians to be right about the future: you should want "we" to continue getting richer, not "be poor".

--Erich Schwarz

1:03 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

You really, really should want the pro-abundance technophile libertarians to be right about the future: you should want "we" to continue getting richer, not "be poor".

What does 'what Megan wants' have to do with 'what's going to happen'? Sure, if the magical nanotech singularity unicorns come and we can all use all the energy and resources we want without damaging anything, that would be great! But wanting something doesn't make it likelier to happen, and just because something (like our society becoming poorer due to environmental degradation) would be a bad thing to happen, doesn't mean that planning for it is a bad idea.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Ben A said...

I really enjoy your writing, so I'd hate if my first comments turned out to be predictable libertarian comments. Here's hoping they are only predictable, not also not tiresome...

I assume that whatever standards we've decided on collectively have to be uniformly enforced

The concern here is that just as information problems exist in markets, so too do they exist in government. There is, to be sure, a sense in which I have consented to be part of various federal regulatory regimes, but it is akin to the way I have "understood" the risks of a new pharmaceutical on hearing the TV list of side effects. This is why those with libertarians predisposition prefer making government more local when it is practicable (which is not always).

so that it is slightly cheaper for air conditioning manufacturers

Regulation on industry almost never imposes costs just on industry. It usually imposes costs on everyone.

On your point about loss aversion/status quo bias (what we have now must be OK and justified), I entirely agree. Likewise on how people value things they can't see and understand. A pet concern of mine is the role these biases play in the undervaluation of scientific/medical advance. This is an issue at stake in the policy question of pharmaceutical price controls. A 50% reduction in drug bills today sounds like a good deal, unless you believe reduces the likelihood of a future remedy for incurable condition X. The same bias, as you say, is at stake in global warming: people don't want to sacrifice current income for a danger they can't see. Although in the case of global warming, it may be that loss aversion is useful counter-balance (we don't want to lose the good environment we have). Future costs may be valued more accurately than future benefits.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous scottb said...

Hey Megan,

You said:

BUT. I care very deeply about systemic problems with how laws get decided and implemented. I care A LOT about process and EVEN MORE about breaches of process. I worry about reinforcing privilege and wealth, and about purely sloppy management.javascript:void(0)
Publish Your Comment

So, the word that hasn't come up here yet, that really bugs me, is "capricious". If I try really hard not to go off on a libertarian rant about whether or not the state should have an interest here, and instead simply assume that it _does_, then I'm struck (offended? really really _pissed_?) by the whole-hearted capriciousness of the government's actions.

If there's a law, and it _actually matters_, then someone ought to have come down on those evil truckers long ago.

If there's a law, and it _doesn't_ actually matter, then the state can enforce it just as effectively by calling up all the truckers and saying "we're going to enforce this law that you haven't been paying attention to - starting next week, so if you don't have your papers in order, we'll shut you down". What happens then? A bunch of folks scramble for their permits etc.; a bunch of folks continue to get their water, there's much less drama, lower enforcement costs, and no 86 year old women kept without cooling by the _capricious_ actions of the all-knowing state.

You want process? Then give us some process. Please _don't_ defend the government when they come down and screw with a bunch of poor people. Just because they can. Rather than take a simpler, cheaper, and less confrontational way to solve the problem.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Mitch, I know I'm ducking your question:

The question I'm more interested in is whether or not we need to have a single legal boundary for everyone.

I've been mulling it, and some answers to your questions a while back. I may get at some of them in a rant that's brewing.


I'm actually with you on the idea that there could be a better way. I agree with most of what you wrote. I don't know any of this to be true, but my guess at a reconstruction is that the state didn't know about the situation. The Department was Health Services; I have no reason to think they have much local knowledge about how towns are being served with water. (By contrast, I have a sense that the Re/gional Boards or DVVR's district offices could guess at where every town or ag area in their jurisdiction gets their water. But, those folks aren't as alert to drinking water standards. My dept doesn't deal with that at all; the Re/gional Boards are cleaning up pollution spills.) So I can see how it fell through the cracks.

Then, Health Services got anonymous complaints. (It was a problem for someone.) Now that they know, they MUST do something. They have to do something because the legislature has given them that job. They have to do something because people could poison themselves if they don't. Also, and this will shock the lot of you, there are people with much different views of government intervention and they sue state agencies for non-enforcement. Yes, really. Now that Health Services knows about this, they are liable for the situation. They have people on the other side of the spectrum from you, pushing them to do something as hard as you push them not to. Shocking, isn't it.

So. They must do something. Like you, I think it could have been done with a softer hand. They could have called an illicit trucking moratorium for two weeks while the state sent in tankers (as they ended up doing anyway), they inspected and issued permits to the clean truck. If they met resistance, they could have then taken stricter actions. They leapt to enforcement, and it made everything dramatic and sucky.

So, I think it was heavy-handed. I don't think it was capricious. I can understand how it happened, and I wish it had gone down another way.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"What does 'what Megan wants' have to do with 'what's going to happen'?"

A lot. If you have a fixed expectation that it's inevitable that "we" will end up "poor", there's a lot of consequences of that fixed expectation.

First, you'll ignore any evidence that poverty's not necessary:

Second, you'll tend to let things keep sliding downward until we really are poor, through economic and technological do-nothing behavior.

Third, you'll wake up one fine day and find out that, surprise!, being poor doesn't tend to make people politically progressive.

Those are Bad Things. And they're not necessary. But before one can even talk about rational strategies for what Jerry Pournelle's called "survival with style", one has to first face the idea that our future isn't predetermined, that we do have real choices in front of us, and some of those will have much better consequences for human liberty and well-being than others.

--Erich Schwarz

8:03 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


I'll agree with you some of the way. I think we are living as if we are limitlessly wealthy, driving the very basics for living all over the place, using up stocks and sinks within a couple generations.

If a vast new source of wealth appears, the magic energy with no costs and no externalities, then we can continue to live as if we were limitlessly wealthy. That would be great, although I do sort of wish that people had better taste in how they spend that wealth.

But. The magic cheap and clean energy isn't here yet. With what we've got, we cannot live the way we do. I fully believe that living the way we do without the magic energy will lead to a severe contraction of population and standard of living, if not a collapse within my lifetime. In poor countries, it will be very, very bad.

I'm not willing to gamble on the magic energy showing up. I think we should change what we do now, to prevent the results of our overreaching. We should do what we have to for a soft transition. If the magic energy comes along, we can always return to our spendthrift ways. In case it doesn't though, I'd like us to be implementing the back-up plan.

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


We have gobs of "the magic energy" -- e=mc^2 was worked out 102 years ago and it's been implemented worldwide (France runs 80% of its electric grid off nuclear power).

The problem isn't that we lack enough uranium to make enough plutonium through breeder reactors and fuel recycling to power the world for centuries. We do have enough. The problem is that we geniuses in the U.S. decided almost 30 years ago, for rather inane political reasons, that banning nuclear and instead going with oxidizing carbon was preferable. We Americans are still living with that decision; in fact we're fighting a war in Iraq right now at least partly because of that decision.

When I see everybody in the U.S. who is currently up in arms about our "unsustainable" lifestyle start arguing for building breeder reactors all along the California coastline, and for using at least some of their gigawatt output to desalinate water from a rather large adjacent ocean, I'll know that somebody besides myself is actually serious about getting off their rear end and solving things.

Until then, I'm going to have to assume that people around me prefer either using coal (of which we have a 300-year-supply) to fuel the U.S.'s lifestyle, or that they're actually deluded enough to think that "poor" is some sort of lifestyle choice that "we" can live with.

That URL I posted earlier:

provides further, rather extensive arguments for what I'm saying here, but you can also try reading this one:

taken from a lecture at Caltech by Nathan Lewis, one of our professors of chemistry at Caltech, earlier this year. Lewis is quite blunt about two points: if we want to stop oxidizing carbon, we need a lot of energy from some alternative; and the only alternative we currently have in 2007 that would actually work with existing technology is nuclear. (He also discusses other options, which are worth thinking about, but which all depend on at least some technological improvements beyond what we have right now.)

It's really unlikely that people will voluntarily choose to just give up a high-energy, high-affluence lifestyle. They'll either find some way to fuel it that may or may not be optimal (300 years of burning coal? ugh), or -- if they are forced to give it up involuntarily -- they're likely to only do so with the ugliest of political power-struggles over the remaining scraps at the table. Niceties like "progressive" politics and feminism are not likely to thrive in such an political setting.

So. If you want a future that's actually one you can not merely survive but actually live with, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start thinking hard about how "we" can actually start making that putatively "magic" energy right now.

--Erich Schwarz

7:14 PM  

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