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Frontyard Propaganda
A response to "Beyond Backyard Environmentalism" by Charles Sabel, Archon Fung, and Bradley Karkkainen

Theodore J. Lowi

Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen argue that we will come closer to a maximum of environmental protection if we opt for a nationally coordinated localism rather than the traditional environmental regulation involving "hierarchical forms in which subordinate parts answer to the center’s authority of command." Everyone lives happily ever after within a new structure that is a "collaborative and mutual accountability of center to parts, parts to center, parts to other parts, and all to the whole enterprise–and to the public generally." Yet in the very same paragraph, the authors inform us that their construct is neither voluntarism–abdication of public authority to private actors–nor is it devolution of authority from center to local units. Rather, the center retains the "ensures that local units live up to their commitments." In other words, local interests, including experts as well as amateurs, NIMBY groups and selfless citizen groups, and of course the special interest groups and corporations, interact in "a new form of democracy" to set "allowable performance standards [and] desirable targets"–then the standards they set through their participation and interaction (rules? ordinances? policies? directives?) would be enforced by that very same "authoritative command" of central government, of whose absence we had just been assured. All this is affectionately referred to as a "rolling-rule regime"–which means we can have our central government and reject it too.

This is where I came in 35 years ago in my confrontation with the late New Deal policies and the very same squaring-of-the-circle we confront in this piece. Words and style are different, because the underlying ideology (i.e., the choir to which the authors are singing) is different. Their choir is the decadent phase of classical liberalism, whereas the choir in the 1960s was the decadent phase of social-democratic liberalism. But the motivation is the same–to try to finesse the coercive nature of public authority in order to validate, or embrace, or make more convincing the key principle of that ideology as it goes into decline. I’d call it ideology if the singers were unaware of the meaning of the song they were singing: I called it propaganda in my title because it seems to me to be an ideology of whose meaning the authors are quite aware. The key principle of the classical liberal, laissez-faire ideology is that free-market localism bordering on anarchy is the best way to serve the public interest. Again, pretend away public authority.

The authors then use case studies to give the impression of empirical support for their process. In the New Deal era, case studies were also a major means of illustrating and confirming the political system to which they were committed. Political scientists called this the analysis and presentation of "how democracy works," or "how the system functions"–as though it did in fact function successfully, due to the principles being embraced. But the trouble is, for every supporting case study there is almost inevitably an unsupportive case study.

The same problem with case studies is even more pressing here because of the essential problem of "area and power" or "area and authority." Environmental policies almost always exist in a geographic context considerably larger than the area or principality within whose jurisdiction or boundaries the policy applies. In the 1960s Mancur Olson crystallized the intractable problem of public goods and their spillover effect (first described by David Hume back in 1740). First, there is an incentive not to begin a project if the public or spillover benefits can be enjoyed by everyone in the vicinity regardless of what they contribute; they can go along as "free riders." Second, if the public or spillover effects are costs rather than benefits, there is an equally strong incentive or tendency to act in concert to displace as many of the costs onto other people in other communities and other principalities, near and far.

Because both costs and benefits spread to a larger geographic context, we are led inexorably to the conclusion that the larger and more inclusive principality must have a superior share of authority over all the backyard environmental policy decisions. The authors tell us of the importance of "contextual intelligence," but they don’t say what context and how (and how inclusively) it is to be defined. They simply say, hopefully, that in the process of participation "ordinary citizens would become quasi-experts by imitation." And they support their discovery of this natural and spontaneous acquisition of expertise with the experience of their case study on the Chesapeake Bay Program, in which "the Program"–I assume the officials or their public relations people are speaking for the Program–"explicitly equated participation with the emulation of expert knowledge." This is a new pedagogical method for human adult learning, copied from canines and chimpanzees, that specifically relevant and required expertise–as well
as "conceptual intelligence" and "system- level learning"–can be acquired through mimicry. How much time does this education-through-emulation take? My answer to that question is inspired by something I learned from Shaw a long time ago: democracy will fail, because there aren’t enough evenings in the week!

Even more hopeful (or downright propagandistic) is the authors’ report on the Massachusetts case, which involved broadening a federal "right-to-know" law mandating that the 30,000 private and government-run facilities which meet statutory size requirements publish estimates of the amount of around 650 chemicals that are transferred off-site or are routinely or accidentally released. In 1989, Massachusetts expanded on the federal requirements to include "use or generation of toxics in any stage of production." But while the Massachusetts law set the ambitious goal of 50 percent reduction by 1997 and provided for penalties for "willful" violations of the reporting requirements, it (like the federal program) provided no penalties for failure to act on the reduction plans. The goals were to be achieved by an "obligation for self-monitoring to induce firms and citizens to acquire information that reveals problems and possibilities for their solution."

On the basis of this program, and all the observed participation and emulation and spontaneously acquired knowledge, the authors proceed to claim that there is "substantial evidence ... that this apparatus works." In the five years between 1990 and 1995, they report, "the production-adjusted use of toxic chemicals fell by 20 percent in Massachusetts and the generation of toxic byproducts by 30 percent." Meanwhile, "the responding firms were most enthusiastic."

There is no reason to doubt their claim that use of toxic chemicals fell by 20 percent and generation of toxic byproducts declined by 30 percent. But there is no basis for their claim that these important results were produced by the backyard process they outlined. For example, during and before that five-year period, Massachusetts, especially the Boston metropolitan area, went through a period of rather serious de-industrialization. Massachusetts reached its peak growth in heavy industry or manufacturing in 1984, with close to 674,000 employees; it then declined by mid-1999 to 435,000. That 35 percent decline was bad news for the "Massachusetts miracle," but good news for Massachusetts breathers, with the closing of some of those old, first generation factories. Meanwhile, the city of Boston was losing population and the Boston metropolitan area (as defined by the US Census Bureau) grew by a mere 0.8 percent, second to the bottom among the 30 major metropolitan areas in the United States. To attribute a 20 to 30 percent improvement in anything to a pussy-footed "rolling-rule regime" is no less a propaganda ploy than a president claiming credit for improvement in GDP or SAT, or a mayor claiming a personal victory over crime. And meanwhile, suburban and open country areas just beyond the Boston backyard in central Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Long Island are suffering with their highest ozone scores.

I am glad I took on the assignment of responding to this essay because I can see more clearly now than ever the insidious neoclassical liberal (Republican party) influence on the thinking of intelligent policy analysts and advocates. In that light I would like to end this on a couple of warnings, pedagogically speaking. First, never fall in love with process. Americans love process, especially if it is grounded in competition, visibility, and democracy. I suppose this is because it helps us maintain the appearance of consensus. But process is a double-edged sword: eventually it will cut the other way, and then it will be called betrayal.

Second, if we really want a safer and healthier environment we will either have to embrace drastic de-industrialization with a smaller-is-beautiful standard, or we will have to take our beloved process and place it in a solid, legal framework. You can set strict standards–regionally, nationally, internationally, as the situation warrants–and you put the burden of participation on the polluter. That standard can be a rule or a tax. It puts all interested parties on an equal plane, part of a stable and understandable structure. And it enables us to ask the truly operational question, which I heard Milton Friedman ask thrity years ago at one of the first conferences on the early environmental protection movement: how much pollution can we afford?

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review

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