Blog 58. Hierarchy in Regulation

Society is a set of regulations—written and unwritten—that specify how a person, a social entity, or business should act.  We rarely think of the unwritten regulations, such as those social customs that dictate how to greet an acquaintance in the grocery store.  However, politicians, pundits, and newspapers force our attention to the written regulations adopted through government for the common good or imposed by government as bureaucratic tyranny, depending on your point of view.  The point of view depends  whether you think the regulation benefits you or impedes you.  It is simple to see your own needs but difficult to  discern what will best benefit the entire complex system that is a nation, or the world.  Some people aren’t interested in benefits for the world, anyway.

Why  a hierarchy?

Each person prefers to be unfettered himself, but wants the behavior of others to be restrained.  Likewise, local authorities seek more to provide local benefits than to protect the wider common good.  Burn coal here, let the smoke blow away downwind.  Therefore, environmental regulation must be imposed from a level above where the regulated activity occurs.  That’s why a city regulates the zoning of neighborhoods, a county dictates the limit of city authority, the state imposes controls on cities and counties and the federal government imposes requirements on the states, administered and enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Under the federal EPA, each state develops its own rules for restricting the pollution within its borders.  Thus, for example, a state’s regulations pertaining to discharges to rivers and the atmosphere were actually adopted to comply with federal mandates such as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA).

Cooperative federalism

The state action with federal oversight is sometimes called “cooperative federalism,” now under attack in Washington.  I’ll quote(with permission) excerpts from an article  by Robert Ukeiley in Solar Today magazine.

“The Clean Air Act (CAA) is supposed to be a shining example of cooperative federalism. This means that both the states and the federal government play key but distinct roles in implementation. For the past year or so, a small but extremely vocal group of Republican politicians has waged a misinformation campaign in the media and the courts about how the EPA is destroying the CAA’s cooperative federalism system. …

“The anti-EPA campaign is based on false premises. The first is that less CAA implementation is good for states, and more implementation is bad for states. This premise, in turn, is based on the myth that less CAA implementation means more economic growth and more CAA implementation means less economic growth. EPA opponents argue, in effect, that more pollution means more economic growth and less pollution means less economic growth. … (however) Every solar panel added to a roof, every wind turbine erected, every efficiency retrofit means less pollution and more economic growth.”

Pollution means economic growth?

Let’s examine the commonly accepted assertion that more pollution means more economic growth.  If “economic growth” means Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that assertion might temporarily be true because GDP is an annual tally of money changing hands, not an account of food, medical care, satisfaction, or well-being.  Pollution often goes with extra money changing hands if the true costs of  business are “externalized” onto the environment rather than included in the price of the product.  Furthermore, the GDP increase might be temporary while the pollution can be permanent.

We are learning that environmental insults, like coal-burning, affect the world.  Although current environmental protection employs a hierarchy of regulating agencies from cities to the federal government, we must now specify that the target is well-being of the world, not GDP, not even well-being of one city or one nation.  Unfortunately, there is no agency capable of regulation at the world scale.  The United Nations identified the global climate problem some 25 years ago, but it has only persuasive, not regulatory powers.

Head in sand

For global problems, we need a global authority because society is now a global complex system.  To ignore that is like putting the head in sand while the rump is exposed.