What This Election’s About

Jeff Alworth

Politics often seem abstract to non-wonks.  One particular meme the media seems to be playing this year is how voters find no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Politicians are all the same, all corrupt and dishonest.  (These stories usually end with a woman-on-the-street concluding, sadly, that she’ll probably vote Dem because at least with a divided Congress, you’ve got the parties keeping an eye on each other.)  But there’s a story out today that illustrates quite distinctly—and fairly simply—what the difference is between the parties and why elections matter.

The issue is benzene, a naturally-occurring and cancer-causing substance in gasoline.  It is found in far greater concentrations in Alaskan crude oil, and as a consequence, Oregon and Washington have some of the highest amounts of benzene in our air (The Oregonian broke the story earlier this week).  This brings us to a public policy issue, because no one wants to be exposed to high concentrations of a cancer-causing chemical.  So the question is, how do we lower the levels of benzene in the air?

One method is the good, 'ol (and now demonized) liberal method: regulate it.  Turns out that's what California does, forcing gas companies to remove it from the same, Alaska-derived oil we use.  It costs about a penny a gallon, and benzene levels are far lower south of the border.

Or, you could go the Republican route, which means letting "wisdom of the markets" sort this out.  The Bush plan--as implemented by the EPA--would be to put the issue in the hands of oil companies:

The EPA wants to regulate the chemical by using the "cap and trade" structure that the Bush administration has favored for pollution control. Oil refineries that cut benzene from gasoline would get credits and other refineries could buy those credits rather than reducing benzene at their factories.

But of course, if the incentives don't actually incent the companies to change, we get to continue to breathe toxic air.  It's sort of like faith-based economics: blindly hoping that the markets are smarter than beaurocrats.  If you wish to join the congregation of the faithful, the worst that will happen is you'll die of cancer.

Elections aren't just about personalites.  These people actually go off and make decisions that literally affect our health.  The benzene example is a perfect case for why we should run these ideologues out of office.

  • Isaac Laquedem (unverified)

    There's actually a delightful perverse irony here: the result of a cap-and-trade program is that the refineries that can afford it will buy pollution credits from refineries that clean up their act, moving pollution (I think) from the blue states with stronger environmental regulations (such as California) to red states with weaker regulations. It's an inventive way to celebrate the free market.

  • KISS (unverified)

    I agree with part of Jeff's assessment. The "cap and trade" is a terrible example of cleaning up pollution. On the other hand the demos way has been the strong arm attacks on small communities to comply with pollution controls, needed or not. Super funds comprised of taxation takes the place of clean-up rather than going after the giant corporations legally. EPA has made it abundantly clear; small entities have not the resources to fight back and not take on corporations that will litigate. In fact the buzz word at EPA and DEQ is enterprise...This is that rare time when both demos and repugs are both together against the little man on the street.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    We here at the Cheney-Haliburton Enterprise Institute are not concerned about the benzene issue. The free market will take care of this problem. Eventually enough customers will die from benzene poisoning that it will affect the profit figures for the oil companies. At that point big oil will take steps to reduce death rates to an acceptable level - so that profits can be sustained and the stock price supported.

    Didn't any of you people take economics?


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