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The Role of Regulation in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Regulations have played an essential role in modern attempts to curtail pollution, prevent abuses in the banking system, ensure safe food, and protect public health. They have been indispensable in checking powerful corporate interests that abuse the public trust.

Now, just on the heels of the global financial collapse and forty years after the first Earth Day, we are witnessing two frustrating failures in the United States:

(1) the failure of regulatory bodies to perform their duties, and

(2) the failure of regulations to achieve objectives contained in major laws (e.g., the coal strip mining law (SMCRA), the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

A prime example is the inability and the unwillingness of the government to implement the law and halt the obliteration of portions of the Appalachian Mountains by mountaintop-removal mining. Despite creative strategies by many citizen groups involving all branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — the erasure of the landscape continues. The destruction of these biologically diverse mountains in West Virginia and the wreckage of public drinking water, however, are not just environmental nightmares. They are also economic calamities that are completely incongruent with the principles of a steady state economy.  A corporation with a health, safety, and environmental record like Massey Energy would not even be able to maintain a license to do business in a steady state economy.

Better regulation could prevent problems like this nightmare on Kayford Mountain.

Regulations, including tax code changes and outright bans on particularly destructive practices, will be part of the landscape in a steady state economy, but we have to structure them differently. We need to change the dynamics that cripple much regulation today. Here are some key elements of the regulatory transition aimed at curtailing the abuses of corporations and preventing pollution:

(1) Make it vastly more expensive to pollute than to prevent pollution: no more token fines, legal delays, and slaps on the wrist.

(2) Increase taxes on pollution — it’s a no-brainer to tax what we want to reduce or eliminate.

(3) Apply special regulatory attention to the natural resource extracting industries (i.e., fossil fuel, timber, and mining). These industries are causing immense pollution and wiping out entire ecosystems. Extra disincentives should accompany any regulations on pipelines, drilling, reactors and other risky ventures where the consequence of an accident — natural or man-made — produces very damaging health or environmental impacts.

(4) Economize the use of raw natural resources in production processes and establish comprehensive recycling programs. In his seminal book, Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough has described such a strategy for reducing the enormous throughput of raw materials to a sustainable level.

Here are two examples to illustrate the above points:

(1) The U.S. strategy for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals under the Ozone Treaty of 1987 (Montreal Protocol) was a smashing success. It is a strategy worth implementing for other pollutants. The Congress set phase-out dates for a group of ozone-depleting chemicals and imposed a steeply increasing tax on their usage until the date of the ban arrived. In response, corporations stopped using the chemicals ahead of schedule, quite a different scenario from the usual foot-dragging.

(2) Yet another oil spill just occurred, this time on Montana’s magnificent Yellowstone River when an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons. In the past year the world has witnessed a major nuclear catastrophe in Japan at the reactors in Fukushima, run by Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), as well as a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s deep drilling went awry. In these and other similar cases the current global system privatizes the gains and socializes the losses (i.e., the corporations keep the profits, and citizens get stuck with the bill for the environmental disasters). Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observes that societies following this policy “inevitably mismanage risk.” With each passing day, it becomes clearer that we need to manage risk, not continue to mismanage it. Thus, regulatory controls on extractive industries must reflect the riskiness and magnitude of adverse outcomes.

In contrast to this discussion on improving regulatory approaches, the present Republican leadership has given a green light to eviscerating regulations across the board, much as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted in the mid 1990s. This is part of a long-term, deliberate effort to frame regulation as being the problem, not the solution.

I suggest that we directly confront this ideology and switch the frame to view new regulatory approaches as problem-solvers that will achieve beneficial results for human civilization and the ecosystems we inhabit.

Opportunities for a Different Economy in 2011

by Brent Blackwelder

With last November’s election there are new governors, state legislatures, and a very different U.S. House of Representatives. The issues of budget cuts, tax reform, corruption, the global financial collapse and the rise in unemployment are high on the agenda. We have an opportunity to shape the debate on these issues and bring the steady state economy into the discussion.

Here are some of my ideas for 2011.

Public Education

We need to conduct a series of seminars or teach-ins across the country to challenge conventional economic thinking, to expose people to the concept of a steady state economy, and to find workable solutions to all the economic problems we face. If you would like a seminar or teach-in for your community or your college, please contact me. Such sessions would involve audience interactions with leading advocates of new economic approaches and would feature dynamic discussions of what a steady state economy would look like, how to accomplish a transition to such an economy, and opportunities for financial and economic reform this year.

Financial Corruption and Tax Evasion

Financial corruption is undermining all aspects of governance. Tax dodgers are depriving governments around the world of essential revenues. The result is less money for enforcement of health, safety, and environmental standards and reduction of many vital social services. It doesn’t take long under such conditions for citizens to lose faith in the ability of the government to provide security and other meaningful services.

We can work on two tasks in 2011 to address these problems. First, we can solidify important legislative gains made last year to curtail corruption, by making sure new regulations have strong provisions to prevent tax dodging (note: the Administration will be writing regulations to put new agencies like the Office of Financial Research into action). Second, we can demand new laws to force disclosure of clandestine owners of offshore tax havens. Those who want to be part of grassroots efforts on these issues should contact me.

Tax Reform and Budget Cuts

The last election featured headlines about growing deficits, massive cuts in federal spending, and the influence of Tea Party activists. Republicans are demanding spending cuts on the order of $100 billion but are short on specifics. At the same time, Democrats are angling to avoid big reductions in domestic spending.

The win-win solution to the pending impasse on budget cuts is to go after offshore tax havens and other tax dodges that are costing our country $100 billion a year. More and more people and corporations are moving money they earn in the U.S. to offshore havens where taxes are inconsequential. Goldman Sachs used this technique to reduce the percentage of its income going to taxes from 34% in 2007 to less than 1% for 2009. Exxon avoided paying U.S. taxes in 2009 even though it had billions in profits. The Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development reports that 83 of the top 100 U.S. corporations have subsidiaries in tax havens. Such tax avoidance by multinational corporations not only hurts taxpayers, but also costs the governments of developing countries an estimated $160 billion per year, according to a new report by ActionAid. Tax avoidance by corporations is a major factor in keeping poor people poor around the world. For example, in Ghana, SABMiller’s subsidiary Accra Brewery is the second biggest in the country with over $40 million in yearly sales, but through clever accounting, it has paid no taxes the past two years. At the same time Marta Luttgrodt, who sells this beer at her small food and beverage stall near the brewery, must pay a number of taxes to the Ghana Revenue Authority or she will be closed down. ActionAid estimates that the taxes SAB Miller has avoided paying could have put 250,000 children in school in the countries where the company operates.  Click here for more on this story.

Great Educational Movie

For a captivating picture of the global financial collapse of 2008, the bailouts, and the behavior of big bankers and Wall Street firms, the movie Inside Job is a must-see. Inside Job provides a comprehensible and dynamic overview of the collapse in the U.S. and around the world. If you are not already infused with a sense of outrage over the criminal behavior of so many involved in the scandals, you will be after seeing this movie. Help spread the word.

Key Changes in the Tax Code

Tax reform will be a major topic for action this year. Progressives need to be on the offensive and demand a better taxation framework. It is our civic duty to see that our tax structure is fair, that people live up to their responsibility to pay taxes, and that tax incentives do not encourage undesirable activities. For example, the tax code should impose fees on pollution and on products that harm public health. Often the reverse is true. The government has subsidized the purchase of gas-guzzling hummers and delivery of junk food into public schools. We should push both political parties to eliminate all government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. If you want to be part of the subsidy debate on energy, please visit Friends of the Earth.

We have lot of work to do to build a sustainable and fair economy. But we also have a lot of opportunities to minimize perverse subsidies, eliminate tax dodging, create meaningful employment opportunities, and put the brakes on the financial roller coaster that is being driven by speculators. Contact Dr. Brent Blackwelder to follow up.