Dear Reader,

I appreciate Harold Henderson’s ongoing attempts to bring sobriety and rational argumentation into environmental debates. And I can understand his frustration when such attempts are simply dismissed by environmental activists who are too impatient or, worse, dogmatically wedded to particular views to consider counterarguments (as seen in the responses [Letters, October 7] to his “Environment: The Manufactured Crisis” review essay last September [16]). It’s arguable, however, that in his zeal to steer clear of the misperceptions and excessive rhetoric of some environmentalists, he oversells neoclassical economic theory and too eagerly forgives a good deal of distortion and hand-waving by the various conservative think tanks which espouse it.

His cover story of February 17 (“The Cost of Living”) is no exception. Based on Henderson’s own account, Don Coursey’s study of race and hazardous waste siting may well have potentially serious methodological problems. There is nothing particularly political about this claim, nor need it emerge from the “effect” of the study on anyone’s “agenda,” as Henderson worries. Coursey’s sample, as Henderson describes it, was comprised of 30 cases from a larger sample of EPA Superfund sites already reduced by what Henderson acknowledges to be the Agency’s own inept record-keeping. As Greenpeace’s Charlie Cray rightfully points out, there is nothing about the EPA’s procedures that would rule out, at face value, the possibility that the very selection of Superfund sites is itself biased. This is a perfectly reasonable objection to Coursey’s design, and whether or not it is a genuine problem would need to be established independently and before any conclusions from an EPA-defined sample can be generalized to the theoretical population of all hazardous waste sites. Indeed, unless one is willing to believe that greedy corporate moguls are actively conspiring to poison minorities in spite of an efficient and benevolent government (and there doesn’t seem to be anyone credibly suggesting this), it would be patently self-defeating to hypothesize a racial and class bias in the storage of hazardous waste and simply assume that the same political and economic incentives that would facilitate it would be somehow dormant in the cleanup process which defines the parameters of Coursey’s sample.

A less confident social scientist, as Coursey implies, might have systematically “started punching holes” throughout the area in order to get a more reasonable sample of hazardous waste sites. But Coursey apparently has no need for the rigors of empirical data-gathering; his intuitions are sufficient to insure an unbiased sample. “I don’t think,” he announces, “there is less chance of something being reported in a poorer neighborhood than in a richer one.” While seat-of-the-pants speculation is to be barred from Henderson’s ledger when it comes from environmentalists and community activists, it appears to be wholly admissible if those pants buff the upholstery at the University of Chicago’s Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies.

Neither Coursey nor Henderson elects to address the research already done in other parts of the country that has established a disproportionate risk of hazardous exposure in minority communities (most notably sociologist Robert Bullard’s work in the South, summarized in his Dumping in Dixie). While I’m certain Coursey would attribute this to the modesty of his research aims, his study is sufficiently “provocative” to be employed in the same way as most research featured by conservative, market-oriented think tanks (I am, admittedly, only assuming this of FREE). The general strategy is to select some area of public policy research to “debunk,” pronounce it the domain of thoroughly entrenched liberals and leftists, and model an “unbiased” and “scientifically sound” approach that invariably defeats the “conventional wisdom” and offers evidence for one’s own conservative ideals, taking, at best, a glancing blow at the volumes of research already done. This is the sort of duplicity that fills the pages of the Public Interest every three months.

I have no wish to slight the valuable work done by scores of economists–whatever their political agendas may be. My point is simply to deflate somewhat Henderson’s aspirations for it. Welfare economics provides useful tools for assessing how a given society might efficiently allocate its resources, and that’s about it. It won’t solve all of your policy problems, it won’t even address some of them, and it certainly won’t tell you what values you ought to hold or the “better” form of society within which to allocate those resources (as some of its most ardent adherents would attest). If, as Coursey’s introductory students are informed, economics can say no more about the polarization of wealth in the U.S. than “even Oprah Winfrey” is not perfectly free, Henderson should not be surprised when the intuitions of most individuals tell them that something is missing here. We may choose to believe that we are no better off (and possibly worse off) when we improve the lives of the disadvantaged than we are when we use the same resources to assist the already-advantaged. But we should be honest with ourselves and admit that this belief is based on either our own moral judgments of desert or an ideological predisposition–not the “facts” of social science.

Edward Tverdek