Cato Studies

March/​April 1996 • Policy Report

How to Clean Up Hazardous Waste

Superfund is not a program devoted to the protection of public health, says James V. Delong, a lawyer and adjunct scholar of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in “Privatizing Superfund: How to Clean Up Hazardous Waste” (Policy Analysis no. 247). It is, instead, an expensive mechanism for reclaiming a limited amount of land for general use. The number of parcels of real estate covered by the law or otherwise needing remediation runs into the hundreds of thousands (though the level of contamination of the vast majority is probably minimal), yet federal policy is to clean up the 1,238 sites on the National Priorities List to operating‐​room standards and ignore the others.

According to DeLong, “The effort to justify that policy results in exaggeration of the risks to public health posed by Superfund sites.” Those risks are trivial and could be contained at low cost. Furthermore, the effort to “make the polluter pay” has enmeshed over 32,000 people in a regime of injustice, waste, inefficiency, and bloated transactions costs and is discouraging the redevelopment of properties.

The policy of concentrating on NPL sites ignores the arbitrary nature of the process by which sites are listed. There is no convincing evidence that those sites are significantly more threatening than are many non‐​NPL sites. The focus on the NPL also ignores the growing burden of private litigation, which is becoming an increasing drain on national economic resources and represents a significant reallocation of property rights.

DeLong concludes that “the present law should be repealed and site remediation privatized so that decisions are made by market processes, not bureaucratic ones.” Existing federal sites and abandoned sites should be auctioned off to private parties for either a positive or a negative price. The buyers should be obligated only to contain the contamination and prevent harm to public health. Whether a site is cleaned up for use or left idle should be determined by the market for the property.

Capital Crimes: Political Centers as Parasite Economies

Washington, D.C., and state capitals are “parasite economies” that drain resources from other areas, according to Ohio University economics professor Richard K. Vedder. In “Capital Crimes: Political Centers as Parasite Economies” (Policy Analysis no. 250), Vedder says that the “productive private citizens in outlying regions of our nation and states are financially burdened to pay for a parasite public economy of lawmakers, lobbyists, contractors, and bureaucrats in the political centers.”

Vedder compares income, population change, unemployment, and working conditions in capital cities and surrounding areas and concludes that the former siphon wealth from the latter. For example, he finds that the “average annual pay of workers in the District of Columbia exceeds the national average by 48 percent,” that “nationwide, income per person in counties with state capitals tends to be nearly 10 percent higher than in other regions,” and that the per capita income levels in the capital cities of the poorest states are about 17 percent above the state averages. “Government is said to redistribute income from rich to poor or from young workers to older retirees,” concludes Vedder, “but there is evidence that individuals use government to redistribute income from the general taxpaying public to themselves.”

Smog Reduction

The 1992 amendments to the Clean Air Act mandated that local governments that violate federal ozone (urban smog) standards abide by a dizzying array of regulations, many of the most controversial of which — centralized state inspection and maintenance programs, carpooling requirements, zero‐​emission vehicle sales quotas, use of alternative fuels, and new‐​vehicle emission standards — are intended to control automobile emissions. In “The Smog‐​Reduction Road: Remote Sensing vs. the Clean Air Act” (Policy Analysis no. 249), Daniel B. Klein and Pia Maria Koskenoja, respectively professor and graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, show that both empirical evidence and candid reflection suggest that current approaches to vehicle pollution are extremely inefficient, economically costly, and of only limited help in improving air quality. They assert that “the use of remote sensors, mobile, roadside emission‐​sensing devices, could do more to improve air quality than all other approaches combined at only a fraction of the cost.”

A detailed examination of how such a program could be implemented in the Los Angeles region indicates that “remote sensing would prove far more effective and about five times less costly than the current decentralized inspection and maintenance program.”

Klein and Koskenoja urge Congress to “amend the Clean Air Act to allow states to adopt remote‐​sensing programs in place of the unpopular and less effective programs currently required by the act.” Such a reform would be a boon to drivers everywhere and would better meet environmental goals.

China and the United States

Relations between the United States and China are becoming frayed, with serious risks for both countries, says Leon T. Hadar in “The Sweet‐​and‐​Sour Sino‐​American Relationship” (Policy Analysis no. 248). Hadar, a Cato adjunct scholar, contends that “a containment policy directed against China could easily provoke a military crisis in East Asia.”

He warns, “Hard‐​line U.S. policies based on the assumption that China poses a strategic, economic, and cultural threat could create a tragic, self‐​fulfilling prophecy.” The military threat is exaggerated; although China is modernizing its antiquated forces, military spending remains relatively modest, and Beijing’s strategic policies (while sometimes troubling) do not pose a credible threat to America’s security. The notion that China represents an economic or cultural threat misconstrues the complex roles of trade and culture.

Instead of adopting a confrontational policy, Hadar advocates that the United States intensify economic relations. Those relations have a liberalizing influence that increases the likelihood of additional economic and political reforms. U.S. officials should advise the Taiwanese not to provoke a crisis by declaring independence and make it clear that the United States will not intervene militarily to protect Taiwan. Finally, the United States should encourage the development of a balance‐​of‐​power security system in East Asia, with Washington playing a low‐​key, supportive role.

Risking a Second Cold War

The strong showing by Communists and ultranationalists in Russia’s parliamentary elections emphasizes that the current political environment in that country is extremely delicate, says Stanley Kober, a Cato research fellow in foreign policy, in “NATO Expansion and the Danger of a Second Cold War” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 38). It is vital that the United States and its West European allies not take any action that might make an already bad situation worse. Enlarging NATO to include the nations of Central and Eastern Europe would be an especially unwise step. Kober warns that “enlargement would undermine Russia’s beleaguered democrats, intensify Russian suspicions about Western intentions, and play into the hands of militaristic elements that argue that Moscow must restore the Soviet empire to protect Russia’s security.”

Expanding NATO would also require the United States to extend security commitments to the new members — commitments that neither the United States nor the West European powers are prepared to fulfill. Kober cautions that “reliable security guarantees must be based on more than verbal declarations, which means that Washington would be pressured to station conventional forces in the new member states. The Russians have emphasized that they would regard that as a provocation requiring countermoves on their part. NATO expansion, therefore, would risk recreating the division of Europe.”