May 18, 2010 2:13PM

Krugman and Oil Spills, cont’d

Last week Paul Krugman seized on the Gulf oil spill as another occasion to bash libertarians in general and the great Milton Friedman in particular. On Friday David skewered the Times columnist over his odd rhetorical ploy of treating politicians' failure to follow Friedman's principles as a refutation of those principles. Now economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reports that Krugman also completely misunderstands the current set of laws governing oil spill liability:

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which is the law that caps liability for economic damages at $75 million, does not override state law or common law remedies in tort (click on the link and search for common law or see here). Thus, Milton Friedman's preferred remedy for corporate negligence, tort law, continues to operate and there is no doubt that BP's potential liability under common law alone would be in the billions of dollars.

...The point of the OPA was not to limit tort law but to supplement it.

Tort law, as traditionally understood, could only be used to recover damages to people and property rather than force firms to pay cleanup costs per se. Thus, in the OPA as I read it -- and take the details with a grain of salt since I'm not a lawyer--there is no limit on cleanup costs. Moreover, the OPA makes the offender strictly liable for cleanup costs which means that if these costs are proven the offender must pay them regardless (there are a few defenses, such as an act of war, but they are unlikely to apply). The offender is also strictly liable for up to $75 million in economic damages above and beyond cleanup costs. Thus the $75 million is simply a cap on the strictly liable damages, the damages that if proven BP has to pay regardless. But there is no limit, even under the OPA, on economic damages in the event that BP failed to follow regulations or is otherwise shown to be negligent (same as under common law).

The link Krugman supplies, and perhaps the source of his error, was this Talking Points Memo item baldly describing "the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill" as "a paltry $75 million." Even the most passing acquaintance with the aftermath of real-world oil spills should have been enough for Krugman and TPM author Zachary Roth to realize that liability for assessments to this one federal rainy-day fund is but one component, perhaps but a minor one, of liability for overall spill damage. And even as regards this one specialized federal fund, Krugman and Roth got it wrong, as a glance at the May 1 edition of Krugman's own paper would have revealed:

When a rich and well-insured company like BP is responsible for the spill, the government will seek reimbursement of what it spends on cleanup from the company and its insurers.

So Krugman's post not only strained to take a cheap shot at libertarians, but also thoroughly botched a factual background that it would have been easy enough for him to have looked up. Other that that, it was fine.