The Cost of Prevention

My wife Jan and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary recently by spending a long weekend in Chicago. Among the interesting things we did while we were there was to take a 90-minute architectural boat tour along the Chicago River sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Chicago is justifiably proud of its rich architectural heritage. Classic buildings like the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and the Carbon & Carbide Building share the Chicago skyline with modern masterpieces like the Sears Tower (now the “Willis Tower”) and the soaring Trump International Hotel & Tower, the second tallest building in the U.S. and the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world.

Chicago Tribune Building

Real estate along the Chicago River, our docent told us, is now among the priciest in Chicago. It was not always thus. In the 19th century, the river was effectively an open sewer draining into Lake Michigan, from which Chicago drew its drinking water. Pollution of the lake led to outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the river using a system of locks so that it flowed into the newly built Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, diverting Chicago’s pollution into the Mississippi River system by way of the Des Plaines River. What the folks living downstream thought about this development wasn’t mentioned.

That was a typical solution to a pollution problem in the first half of the 20th century—send it somewhere else. Happily for the Chicago River and many other bodies of water in the U.S., the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1948; the act was reorganized and expanded in 1972. After additional amendments in 1977, the law became known as the Clean Water Act. It is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.


Trump International Hotel & Tower

That’s right, the Chicago River is now a pleasant body of water to take a boat trip on or walk beside or live next to in an expensive condominium because of regulations promulgated under a federal environmental law administered by the EPA. That’s the same EPA that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said should be renamed the “Job Killing Organization of America.” The EPA of which candidate Jon Huntsman said that, in order for the U.S. to become prosperous again, it would be necessary to end “EPA’s regulatory reign of terror.” The EPA that candidate Newt Gingrich wants to eliminate entirely.

One can draw an interesting parallel between bashing environmental regulation and the antipathy of some modern parents toward vaccinations. Parents afraid of vaccines invariably cite the “risks” associated with them when they argue against having their children vaccinated against all manner of diseases. Some of the risks are real, albeit vanishingly small; some are entirely imaginary, such the supposed link between vaccines and autism. What’s really going on, though, is a complete lack of firsthand knowledge of the profound risks associated with diseases like pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles because, as a result of vaccines against these diseases, the parents have no experience of them.

Regulations are like vaccines. They impose a cost, sometimes a substantial one, because the whole point of, for example, environmental regulation is to internalize the cost of the pollution associated with a product into the price of the product. The benefits of the regulations—cleaner air and water, healthier citizens—after a while sort of become invisible. Almost no one living in the pricey condominiums along the Chicago River remembers it when it was an open sewer. Which it would still be had there had been no Clean Water Act and no EPA to enforce it.

View of Chicago from the Chicago River

I know, some readers will respond that that was the “good” EPA that cleaned up the Chicago River; they’re chastising the “bad” EPA created by the Obama Administration. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. I’m old enough to remember that the same claims about destroying the economy were made in the 1970s when EPA started cleaning up the nation’s air and water. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. Radio talk show hosts characterize employees of Federal regulatory agencies as “unelected bureaucrats” who are answerable to no one and get huge pensions, “statists”, “Marxists”, and “environmental extermists”. Apparently the ideal would be to have each state enact the environmental regulations it desires. It’s not clear how pollution that crosses state lines would be dealt with.