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Air Pollution and the ‘Distribution’ of Its Burdens

Nearly two weeks ago I ran this Contest for Readers. The challenge was to offer the best critical analysis of this Washington Post headline: “Whites are mainly to blame for air pollution, but blacks and Hispanics bear the burden, says a new study.”

I was genuinely impressed with the many answers offered. Below are my three favorites, but if your answer isn’t among these three, please don’t assume that I think it defective in any way.

Bobby Valentine:

Besides the vulgar practice of invoking group identity, another valid headline might be
“Blacks and Hispanics are main beneficiaries of pollution-creating goods and services, but Whites bear burden of providing them, says a new study.”

Brian Mannix:

My first encounter with so-called “environmental justice” was through FEMA, where the complaint was that the poor and minorities disproportionately suffered from riverine flooding. My response was that I don’t think it’s because we put the rivers in the wrong neighborhoods. Also worth noting: oceanfront flooding works the opposite way. Go figure.

Jonathan Fordham:

I’ll give it a stab: “blame” and “burden” are subjective valuations of which party is a perpetrator and which party is a victim. Assuming that race is a valid way to break down these statistics, the statistics themselves don’t really tell us much about the problem. Each party is both the polluter and the polluted. That means the problem is reciprocal in nature. Both parties cause harm (generate pollution) and both parties receive benefit (derive utility from the activity that creates the pollution). Does the net benefit outweigh the net harm? That’s the question you have to answer before you can draw the conclusions set forth in the title. Since findings such as these are often appealed to in order to support particular policy choices, it is imperative that both sides of the equation are properly weighed in order to ensure that corrective action doesn’t actually leave the “victim” worse off. It is doubtful that some allocation of harm/benefit other than the allocation which the market has naturally arrived at would benefit the intended party. In fact, it would more likely than not make the intended beneficiary worse off.


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