Poisonous politics

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Apr 19, 2001 12:00 AM

The latest political alarm is about arsenic in our drinking water. Yes, Virginia, there is now, has been in the past, and may forever in the future be arsenic in our drinking water. Obviously not a lot or I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading it.

As science develops the ability to detect ever more minute traces of all sorts of impurities in water and in the air, politicians have developed propaganda to scare the daylights out of the public, in pursuit of votes, money or power. Who can be against "clean water" or "clean air"? But those things have never existed and probably never will.

The most that we can do is reduce the impurities to a level that does not threaten our health. This can usually be done at a reasonable cost and no one doubts that it should be done. But the economic reality is that making the water or air 99 percent free of some impurity can cost twice as much as making it 98 percent free -- and making it 99.9 percent free can cost ten times as much as making it 99 percent free. Trying to find and eliminate ever more minute traces gets costlier and costlier.

If the impurity is something deadly, then of course we pay whatever it costs to make the water 99.999 percent free of it, if that is what it takes for our health. With arsenic, the standard is no more than 50 parts per billion. That's a dime out of two million dollars.

Last year this time, nobody questioned the limit of 50 parts per billion. This year, the media are hysterical about it. What happened in between? Did science discover that 50 parts per billion was dangerous? Not at all.

What happened in between had nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics. Among the many things that Bill Clinton did in a flurry of activity as his presidency neared its end, along with pardoning felons, was creating a booby trap for his successor by suddenly reducing the legally allowable arsenic level from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

This meant that President Bush either had to come up with vast amounts of money, in order to try to meet the new standard, or look like he was callous about the health of our children by restoring the old standard. It was a political "gotcha." They don't call Clinton Slick Willie for nothing.

This gave the Democrats something they could beat the new president over the head with, as they prepare to try to take back Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. "Arsenic!" became the cheap shot cry of the hour among Democratic politicians.

What is amazing is how many in the media also began to sound an alarm over standards that they had never said a word about during the two Clinton administrations -- or before. But perhaps it is not so amazing, after all, when you consider that 89 percent of media journalists voted for Clinton, and Dan Rather was a speaker at a Democratic fund-raiser.

Arsenic is only the latest in a series of scares that have been used to score political points, often at a huge cost to the taxpayers, for solving non-existent problems. It was not a conservative, but liberal Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, who pointed out that millions of dollars were spent cleaning up a so-called "toxic waste site" where children could have eaten some of the dirt for 70 days annually without any ill effect.

After millions of dollars were spent reducing impurities at this site, the children could now eat the dirt 245 days a year without ill effect. Incidentally, there were no children playing on this site, so all this money was apparently spent for the hypothetical safety of hypothetical children.

In reality, the money was spent because there is no logical stopping place for those on "safety" crusades, whether they are being hysterical about land, air or water with minute traces of impurities. The only way they can be stopped is by the rest of us finally beginning to see through what they are saying and doing.

Ultimate safety is as elusive as completely "clean" air or water. No matter how safe we make anything, it could always be made safer -- even if only infinitesimally so and only at astronomical costs. And sometimes one kind of safety increases other kinds of dangers, as Californians discovered when a gasoline additive to reduce air pollution increased water pollution. Being adult means being able to weigh one thing against another, without letting hysterical rhetoric sweep you away.