Published On: Thu, Jan 5th, 2012

Paul Krugman’s toxic environmentalism

Over the past several years, Paul Krugman has become extremely predictable in his columns. First, the mantra is, “Democrats good, Republicans bad,” as though a decorated academic economist should have such a childish view of the world. (Anyone who disagrees with the Great One, according to Krugman, does so out of malice toward anything that is good.)

In economics, he tells us that government spending is the cure-all for all ills, and he has endorsed what essentially is a money-printing scheme by calling for the Fed to purchase U.S. Government paper directly on the primary market. (He cleverly claims that we are mistaken about “money printing,” since the Fed mostly expands bank reserves. If the Fed were to directly monetize federal debt, as Krugman recommends, this WOULD be real-live printing that essentially would be no different than what has been done in places like Argentina and Bolivia.)

And then there is environmentalism. In his recent column, Krugman again presents his environmental views, which pretty much can be contained in the following statements:

  • Any statistics that the Environmental Protection Agency gives us regarding costs and benefits of new environmental regulations always are true, at least when Democrats control the White House;
  • All fossil fuels are evil and burning them always gives us net costs. There can be no exceptions to this viewpoint;
  • All government environmental regulations are good and necessary and anyone who questions them does so ONLY because he or she wants others to suffer and die. There can be no exceptions to this viewpoint.

Krugman’s latest salvo deals with the new EPA standards for mercury and other toxins released by coal-fired power plants. Obviously, mercury is bad when absorbed by humans (all of us agree on that), so anyone who might question the latest from Obama’s environmental chief, Lisa Jackson, does so because he or she wants children to suffer from mercury poisoning, or at least that is what Krugman is saying.

However, Krugman claims, don’t take his word for it; no, the numbers, according to the EPA, tell the story:

The new rules would also have the effect of reducing fine particle pollution, which is a known source of many health problems, from asthma to heart attacks. In fact, the benefits of reduced fine particle pollution account for most of the quantifiable gains from the new rules. The key word here is “quantifiable”: E.P.A.’s cost-benefit analysis only considers one benefit of mercury regulation, the reduced loss in future wages for children whose I.Q.’s are damaged by eating fish caught by freshwater anglers. There are without doubt many other benefits to cutting mercury emissions, but at this point the agency doesn’t know how to put a dollar figure on those benefits.

Even so, the payoff to the new rules is huge: up to $90 billion a year in benefits compared with around $10 billion a year of costs in the form of slightly higher electricity prices. This is, as David Roberts of Grist says, a very big deal.

Actually, the cost that EPA gives is about $11 billion a year, although I will say that EPA is notorious for underestimating the costs and overestimating benefits. In this one, Krugman repeats the claim that just the “quantifiable” numbers regarding supposed gained future wages from children that won’t suffer from mercury poisoning is an astounding $90 billion per year. Wow. One only can wonder at what kind of methodology the EPA used to come up with this fantastic figure.

US-EPA-logo-275x300First, the agency claims it KNOWS the future IQs of American children before and after the regulations. Anyone who believes this deserves to be sold the Brooklyn Bridge. However, it gets better. Not only does EPA know IQs, but it also claims to know exactly how much money these smarter children are going to make.

This is pure nonsense, for no one, no statistician, no economist, no biologist, no one can know what these numbers were, even if the underlying premise were true, that children were going to be smarter in the future because there will be less mercury in fish. That an academic economist is quick to showcase the numbers that have been politically-created says more about what Krugman is willing to swallow than the accuracy of these numbers themselves.

I can tell readers that I had my own experience with the EPA and its magic numbers. In 1991, I was doing research for a paper on the EPA and the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and came across a claim by the EPA that acid rain was killing more than 100,000 Americans each year, so that the proposed legislation would then effectively save more than 100,000 lives annually.

The late Warren Brookes also was researching those numbers, and he asked EPA officials where they had found such astounding numbers, and he was told that they came from researchers at the American Lung Association. Brookes then asked the ALA how it got those numbers, and ALA officials told him that they came from the EPA.

That’s right; numbers that environmentalists were repeating in the media, and the media was repeating to Americans, had no official source at all. No one had done any such research; the numbers were created from whole cloth, but that did not deter the EPA and its allies from trumpeting them around the country.

Without looking into the methodology, all I can say is that those mercury numbers are highly suspicious, and the notion that we would be looking at $90 billion of ANNUAL benefits is utterly fanciful, I believe.

Second, let us understand that the $10-$11 billion numbers also are well understated. The reason is that most of the costs will be applied to older power plants that do not have the official command-and-control devices that newer plants have, so the costs of compliance for these regulations will be concentrated upon those plants, not across the electric power industry as a whole. The correct application of these numbers is not to compare them to all electricity revenues, but rather the revenues that come from the electricity produced at the plants that will be affected.

Most likely, many of those plants would not produce enough revenues to justify the huge costs of compliance, so they would be shut down, and this is EXACTLY what Obama, Jackson, and Krugman want to happen. We are speaking of large portions of the U.S. electricity grid that come from the burning of “demon coal,” and there is nothing more than Obama would love to see than Americans to face blackouts, brownouts, and soaring costs for electricity. (That’s right; I believe Obama wants this to happen, as he is perhaps the most radical environmentalist — at least in the Algore category — to occupy the White House.)

What the EPA and Krugman don’t include in the cost category is what happens when people have no electricity at all or are forced to pay substantially more for it. Electricity in a modern society and a modern economy is not a luxury; it is a necessity, and the government’s attempts to deprive us of it only will wreak more economic havoc.

Third, what is an EPA directive on attacking “brown energy” without an appeal to the Broken Window Fallacy? Krugman’s columns are full of the stuff, and, according to the EPA, this newest directive won’t destroy jobs. No, it will create them. The following article notes:

American Electric, based in Columbus, Ohio, said in June that proposed EPA rules would force it to close parts or all of 11 power plants, eliminating 600 jobs. Complying with the rules would cost $8 billion, most of it on cleaning up or shutting plants that lack pollution-control equipment, it said.

The EPA says the rule would save lives and create 9,000 more jobs than would be lost, as power plants invest billions of dollars to install pollution scrubbing systems or build cleaner natural gas plants. It estimates the regulation could prevent 17,000 premature deaths from toxic emissions. (Emphasis mine)

Of course, the EPA has plenty of propagandists in both academe and the media to trumpet this nonsense that these new regulations will create “net jobs,” not to mention net wealth. (George Soros is a major funder of Media Matters, and where would a vast network of lies be without his guiding hand?)

Yes, what Krugman and others want us to believe is that if we are forced to use more resources to create LESS wealth, that somehow makes us wealthier and creates more employment opportunities and, thus, creates more income streams for individuals. (Where is that bridge again?)

Krugman’s column itself operates on the assumption that mercury is an unregulated toxin, as though there are no rules at all governing the release of mercury into the environment. That clearly is not true. First, mercury discharges into American waterways have been substantially reduced in the past four decades. Yes, I know, Krugman is speaking of mercury now that might enter the water via atmospheric mercury discharges, but nonetheless important strides have been made in that area.

Second, the whole issue of atmospheric discharges is fraught with false numbers. Pat Moffitt and I co-authored an article in Regulation that looks at how environmental groups, along with the EPA, have falsified numbers and claims about nitrogen being released via burning of coal. The misconduct and outright lies we uncovered were massive, and I have no doubt that the EPA is doing the same thing in regards to mercury and burning of coal.

In the end, we see a uniting of environmentalists and Keynesians claiming that wealth destruction is good for the economy, and that all we need to do is have less electricity — and more freshly-printed money. This is a recipe for disaster.

I need to add that Paul Krugman, along with people like Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner, are high-IQ people who apparently have not had their brains addled by mercury. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine anyone who is doing more damage to the economies around the world than these Really Intelligent Men who want us to believe that wealth destruction really is wealth creation. Maybe a few doses of mercury might have done them some good.


I also am reporting very sad news about the recent death of Siobhan Reynolds, the most important voice against the government’s war on painkillers, doctors who prescribe them, and those who suffer from chronic pain. I have posted something here.

This is more than just the loss of an ideological partner. Siobhan was my friend and she and her son recently visited us here in Finzel. I am going to miss her very, very much.


William L. Anderson is an author and an associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland. He is also an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy as well as for the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.

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About the Author

- William L. Anderson is an author and an associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland. He is also an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy as well as for the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.

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