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Think tanks wrap-up II

  |   March 20, 2003 at 1:11 AM
WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the second of several wrap-ups for March 20.


The Cato Institute

WASHINGTON -- EPA: shoot first, ask later

By Patrick J. Michaels

Surely their hearts are in the right place. A new report from the Environmental

Protection Agency, "America's Children and the Environment," argues for a cleaner world. Specifically, it states that children of women with a blood mercury concentration of 5.8 parts per billion "are at some increased risk of adverse health effects."

That's about eight percent of American women of childbearing age. And that concentration is about 10 times less than the minimum recommended in the scientific literature. No one has documented epidemiological evidence for damage at such levels.

But, oh well, what's wrong with a little caution when we're concerned about "the children"?

A lot. The EPA, and everyone else around Washington, knows how these stories play. They're used as the excuse to bang Congress into policy -- policies that can hurt and even kill.

Sure enough, a day after the report came out, the Washington Post filed a story that led with this: "(The report) said there is a 'growing concern' about exposure to mercury by women of child-bearing age."

Two paragraphs later the policy banging began: "President Bush has proposed legislation ... (S)ome environmental groups consider (Bush's) pace too slow, while some industry groups consider it too ambitious."

These proposals mandate major reductions in mercury from coal-fired power plants, the largest single source in the nation.

To encapsulate this common Washington morality play: "The EPA cares about children. Mercury is a poison. President Bush has proposed a phase-out that takes too long, which will kill kids. To stop this we need legislation, pronto."

As Gary Gilmore said once (and only once), "Let's do it." Get rid of every single molecule of mercury from power plants. Will anyone find a major effect?

Human activity currently emits 4,000 mega (million) grams of mercury into the atmosphere. It can float around for a long time -- about as long as a flake of soot from a Chinese power plant -- and with the wind, under proper conditions, can go from Shanghai to Chicago in a week.

The United States, with about 25 percent of the world's total economic activity, should logically emit about 1000 of these megagrams. But we only throw out, according to the EPA, 144 megagrams, or 3.6 percent of the world's total. That's a pretty good bang for your mercury buck.

How much of this comes from the combustion of coal in U.S. power plants? Again, the EPA has a figure: 46.9 megagrams. (Readers who ask how they can be so precise: they can't). So all those power plants are producing about one percent of the total human contribution to the atmosphere.

This means that there are plenty of densely populated places on earth (such as China, Japan and Korea) that are exposed to one heck of a lot more mercury from power production and other economic activity. Where are the bodies? Where are the sick millions?

We Americans pay our environmental lobby billions of dollars per year to find them. They aren't there.

In fact, except for a few very famous outbreaks of mercury poisoning, such as the tragedy at Minamata Bay, Japan, caused by massive industrial dumping beginning in the 1930's, there's precious little sickness to be found on this fairly large planet. And in the case of power plants, we don't even know how much gets taken up by humans.

That's because no one has ever bothered to see if the mercury in Americans largely resembles the mercury, in its chemical signature, that comes out of power plants. Nor has anyone ever asked if the patterns of mercury elevation in landlocked fish (the putative source for people) looks like the pattern of mercury fallout from the nation's matrix of power plants.

This is a classic example of regulating first and asking questions later. It's going to be pretty expensive to get a lot of the mercury out, which is likely to lead to a considerable reduction in the use of coal for energy production, resulting in substantially higher power costs. At the same time there's no demonstrable benefit, given that no one can now demonstrate a demonstrable harm in any truly scientific fashion.

When people really need power to save their lives, which they do when it gets hotter than blazes in the nation's urban cores, it may not be there or it may be prohibitively expensive. We already know, from the Chicago tragedy in July 1995, that power-related reductions in air-conditioning can kill hundreds -- and that's hundreds of people more than will ever die from the one percent of global mercury coming from U.S. power plants.

(Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.)


The Acton Institute

(The Acton Institute works to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. Its goal is to help build prosperity and progress on a foundation of religious liberty, economic freedom, and personal moral responsibility.)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- 'Alternatives to global capitalism' is really no alternative at all

By Phillip W. De Vous

"Socialism easily accepts despotism. It requires the strongest execution of power -- power sufficient to interfere with property."

-- Lord Acton

It is a fact that certain ideas die hard, suffering a long senescence before passing forever into the ash heap of history. And no set of ideas, especially for those of religious persuasion, seems to be suffering a longer decline than the idea that "Christianity is the religion of which socialism is the practice."

While most "Christian socialists" these days are reluctant to make such an argument in its most brazen form, the World Council of Churches, or WCC, continues to serve as a clearinghouse for assertions most people have long ago to discarded as false.

In a recent edition of the WCC's Ecumenical Review, Ulrich Duchrow, a professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University and author of "Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action", writes a lengthy article exploring many of the themes contained in his book. If one was expecting a careful articulation and highly nuanced presentation of neo-liberal (really, paleo-Marxist) thought, disappointment is in order.

The opening lines of the article are shocking; such a bald assertion of a demonstrably false proposition strikes one as a historical artifact of the ideological battles of former days. "Since the breakdown of historic socialism," Professor Duchrow writes, "the category of private property has practically disappeared from the discussion of economic justice." Perhaps news arrives slowly in Germany, but "since the breakdown of historic socialism," the issue of private property has been at the center of most discussions of economic justice.

Even a cursory glance at the world scene shows this to be true. Failure to take into account the work of internationally acclaimed scholar Hernando de Soto in Peru and Egypt is the most glaring omission in Professor Duchrow's article. De Soto's efforts, especially over the last decade, have brought to the attention of the international community the intrinsic connection between private property rights, economic development, the alleviation of poverty, and the development of the institutions of civil society. As a result of de Soto's intellectual activism, such ideas have even gained some currency with the United Nations.

Unfortunately, Professor Duchrow sees the United Nations as a vehicle for promoting ideas contrary to de Soto's. Even though Professor Duchrow thinks little of private property rights, he believes property rights could accomplish a great deal more by "linking private productive property to strict criteria of social usefulness as determined by democratic institutions in the framework of the United Nations, which needs to be reformed accordingly."

Of course, this idea is the exact opposite of de Soto's thesis and is probably even a little too ambitious for the United Nations' global engineers. Apparently Professor Duchrow has failed to read the United Nations' recent Arab Human Development Report, which examines the many issues confronting a region that has been politically and economically intractable, despite its great wealth.

The report, authored by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the United Nations, clearly acknowledges that the lack of political freedom, corruption-free governance, and the necessary means to form capital are at the heart of poverty in the Arab world. As a result, it seems even the hard-edged global socialism of the United Nations will retreat in the presence of sound analysis.

Nearly every statistic measuring global poverty, including the U.N.'s own studies, indicates that poverty is on the decline, especially in those nations that have moved toward increased international trade and have adopted systems of the rule of law and private property protections. Those nations showing the greatest success in economic development and in the alleviation of poverty are the ones that have embraced and protected property rights.

Many African nations, such as Kenya, are illustrative of the move toward the institutions of the rule of law and property protections in the formation of their government -- with the lead in developing such institutions taken by religious leaders. Nations that fail to offer such protections continue to experience degrading poverty. Nowhere is the failure of historic socialism more apparent than in places like Cuba and Iraq.

Reports and statistics aside, is there really an "alternative to global capitalism" now that "historic socialism" has failed? Not likely. While many Christians protest what they understand to be the pernicious effects of global capitalism, the market system itself is a source of hope and prosperity for the world's developing nations.

Increased global trade has opened new markets, and with it, new opportunities for the products of the poorest nations. What Professor Duchrow and his colleagues would likely call exploitation, the poor people of the world are more apt to call employment, opportunity, and development.

The "alternative" offered by Professor Duchrow under the guise of neo-liberalism is really no alternative at all, at least not a new alternative. Rather, it is the very same "historic socialism" that is acknowledged to have failed. It's high time socialism's advocates, Christian and otherwise, confront the causes of that failure.

(Phillip W. De Vous is the public policy manager of the Acton Institute.)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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