Dear EPA: Greed is a Motivator, NOT a Public Virtue
This week, the Trump Administration’s EPA decided to weaken yet another of the regulations that had been protecting America’s water, air, and land. This shouldn’t take anyone by surprise; it’s been happening virtually ever day since Scott Pruitt (Trump’s head of the EPA) graduated from fossil fuel lobbyist to fossil fuel stooge to the villain from a Captain Planet cartoon. The man has been hell-bent on deregulating environmental controls for years, and now he’s in power. The consequences just sort of follow on naturally.
But let’s take a step back for a moment, and examine the philosophy of rule behind these moves: the idea that greed is good, and the follow-on idea that regulations get in the way of making money. The Trump administration wants to deregulate environmental controls because they are expensive. This week’s change targets an emissions control policy that sought to limit the plume of heavy metals (including mercury, lead, and arsenic) emitted by power plants and industrial facilities. This is a serious change; mercury contamination is a major health hazard around coal-fired power plants and has been a target of regulation for years; the same goes for other heavy metals and toxins. The problem is that emissions control technologies are costly— one EPA estimate showed that the cost for reducing mercury emissions by 80% in coal-fired power plants could be as much as 23% of the operating cost of the facility. That equates to billions of dollars over even a short span of time.
The short version: rolling back emissions controls directly equates to electric companies and industry in general paying less to produce and consume power.
Now, when you phrase it that way, it sounds like a good thing. Electric utilities and major industrial concerns would make more money because they don’t have to meet burdensome regulations, which is good for the economy. It might even lower the prices for some things. Well, here’s the problem:
That’s Beijing, China’s capital. That’s not fog. It’s smog, mostly from coal-fired facilities in and around the city. And it is an enormous problem, accounting for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually. Just breathing the air in Beijing is roughly equivalent to smoking two packs a day. You can’t leave anything white outside; it turns grey from the soot. They actually had to turn off all industry in the city to host the Olympic Games. That, friends, is what deregulated electricity production looks like. It’s a nightmare of industrial proportions, a throwback to an industrial era of soot and grime and rampant excesses. It’s what prompted the Clean Air Act in the first place. It’s the past.
It could be the future, too.
The core problem here is that the Trump administration has prioritized the wrong thing in their governance philosophy. They think that money is always good, efficiency is always a virtue, and that regulation just gets in the way. The issue is that each of these things is true — from a certain point of view:
If you’re making the money, money is always good.
If you’re profiting from efficiency, efficiency is always good.
If you’re the one being regulated, regulations always get in the way.
But if you’re not making the money, and you’re not benefiting from the efficiency, and you’re not the one being regulated, things take on a different light. Then you have to start thinking about what the entity in question is actually doing that affects you. How does a company making money fit into that? How does a company being efficient fit into that? How does a company being regulated fit into that?
Sometimes the answer is “not at all,” in which case by all means make money, be efficient at it, and be deregulated. Sometimes the answer is “a lot,” in which case the question of the public good starts to come into the conversation.
The Trump administration’s conception of the public good is solely focused on making money available to industry, the theory being that more money = more jobs = better economy. They are not focused on what industry does with the money to anywhere near the same extent, and they are not focused on the public good to any degree beyond the theoretical relationship previously mentioned. This philosophy, in practice, boils down to one thing: putting more money in a very particular series of pockets and hoping it trickles down to the rest of the economy at some point. From the perspective of those pockets, this is a very good thing. But it’s not a great public policy.
This policy fundamentally and erroneously conflates the motivating principles of capitalism with the virtues of good governance. The motivating principle of capitalism is greed. Pure and simple. Capitalism works because people want more. More resources, more goods, more services, more money. People will work for more if you let them — they’ll work hard, make sacrifices, and dedicate the best years of their lives to the various enterprises of business, in pursuit of that more, driven by greed. This is the engine that drives our economy and enables our way of life. It is therefore tempting for industry leaders and public officials to start to see greed as being necessary and sufficient of its own accord; after all, it inspires such effort, and such innovation! They think greed is a virtue; they think that more money to industry is always good. But it isn’t, and I can show why.
A virtue is, in short form, a commonly acknowledged good quality or characteristic. Now, what is the good characteristic of capitalism? Is it money? Of course not. Every economic system uses some form of money; money is just a means of exchange, a fungible form of power. Money is a tool that enables us to maintain a means of barter that is not subject to rot. Is it greed? Of course not. Greed is just a psychological trait that makes us value more stuff. Left to its own devices, greed is a source on conflict. Greed is just another tool in the case of capitalism, a lever that we use to get people to do things in accordance with incentives.
Rather, the virtues of capitalism are production and access. Capitalism encourages the mass productions of resources, goods, and services via the application and reward of money. The point is that more resources, goods, and services are made, and are more broadly available to more people, and are ideally cheaper to purchase and of higher quality due to competition.
But governments are not just concerned with production. Governments have enormously varied concerns, particularly if they are democracies — stability, law, scientific advancement, equal opportunities, fair trade practices, low wage gaps, ideal wealth distribution, enabling the middle class, combating corruption, etc. Greed is not an enabling force for any of these things. Greed is in fact the exact opposite, the force that creates problems for many of the supporting forces of a civil democracy.
Greed is not a virtue; it is not and cannot be a necessary and sufficient force for enabling good public policy. It is an incentivizing tool, and if you’re not very careful, it will incentivize the wrong things. This is what Pruitt and Trump fail to either realize or acknowledge, depending on whether you think they’re being maliciously optimistic or just malicious. The precise cause of their failing barely matters at this point; what should concern us is that they have sacrificed the purpose of governance on the altar of efficiency.
In this case, they are sacrificing the governance principle that you should care about the welfare of your citizens for the benefits of a more efficient industrial operation that delivers more money to its owners and shareholders. This is pure greed in action (because what else do you call it when you trade environmental damage for cash?). The most generous interpretation of their actions rests on hope. Their hope seems to be that this increase in efficient moneymaking will translate to a public good in the form of lower electrical costs or a reduction in the price of industrial output. They hope that efficiency will counterbalance clean air on the scales of the public good. But hope is not a strategy, much less a proper feature of governance.
The more realistic interpretation of their actions is that they are passing out kickbacks to campaign contributors, and damn the public health. They got elected, so they are enabling more efficient operations for the people who put them in power.
There is something that many people fail to realize, appreciate, or countenance, and as such it bears repeating: government is not in the business of efficiency. Efficiency is the art of getting things done as fast as possible, for as little money as possible, for as good a product as possible (the last point is optional in modern capitalist dynamics). Efficiency is focused on production. Governments are not focused on production; therefore governments are not solely focused on efficiency. In fact, efficiency is sometimes the exact opposite of a public policy goal.
An equitable distribution of wealth, for example, doesn’t really matter much from the perspective of an individual company. It’s debatable whether it matters from the macro-economic perspective (well, at any rate until it becomes extremely unbalanced). But it is enormously important to a smart government, because a radically unequal distribution of wealth has all sorts of implications for the stability of the nation (none of them particularly good). Ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth usually does not equate to maximum capitalist efficiency, as we see from the current minimum wage debate. But it may be very good for the nation nonetheless.
Similarly, is a life actually economically valuable? You can quantify a person’s life, after a fashion, by calculating their expected earnings. If you went a step further, you could potentially calculate the economic activity they would generate by those earnings. But neither of those metrics would actually tell you the value of the person’s life, or the quality of their life, or anything actually important about their life other than how much money they spend. Like it or not, government is intimately bound up in those non-monetary details. Quite a lot of industry, on the other hand, either has no incentives to prevent or profits immensely from death (and not just the funeral industry). A huge volume of government regulation is therefore focused on decreasing mortality rates at the expense of industrial concerns.
These are just a couple of examples; a moment’s thought for most people reveals a thousand other things that governments need to do because industry won’t, can’t, or shouldn’t. Most of these things are not economically efficient (if they were, industry would already be doing them because the incentive structure would have already lined up on the greed axis).
This all flies in the face of the industry-first, trickle-down money, radical neo-liberal economic perspective so beloved of the current administration. They have failed to read their history. They have failed to recognize that governance is difference from business. They have failed to come to terms with a complete philosophy of governance. And they are actively promoting greed at the expense of any governmental virtues they might have otherwise extracted from such a truncated viewpoint. They have confused the motivating power of greed with the virtues of good governance, and they are making America worse as a result (for everyone who is not a major shareholder, employee, or board member of a fossil-fuel burning company). Efficiency is nice, but it doesn’t keep the air clean.
Do we need to be smart about regulation? Absolutely. Do we need to remove untenable or poorly conceived regulations? Absolutely. Do I trust the Trump White House or its agents to do either one of these things?
Absolutely not. Because of their focus on greed.