Market failure?

Posted January 30th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

In a measure designed to make government agencies more open and accountable to those they regulate, yesterday Bush signed an executive order that requires federal agencies to identify the “specific market failure” or problem that justifies government intervention, and to get approval from a politically appointed regulatory policy officer before even planning any kind of regulatory intervention or even just preparing regulatory guidance documents. But for anyone who professes Social Darwinism, the market has been wildly successful. And by creating ever more uncertainty regarding the impacts of all of the novelty it generates, and failing to fund scientific research and monitoring that detects any such impacts, as Bush demands scientific certainty, this invisible hand assures that there will never be enough scientific information to justify government intervention to protect public health, safety and general well-being.
A few examples of reduced capacity for scientific research under this administration – according to a recent NAS report, the capacity of all of our earth observing systems is expected to decrease by 40% by the end of the decade and many critical measurements are expected to cease altogether, jeopardizing the ability to forecast weather, hurricanes and El Ninos at a time when changes in climate are affecting global precipitation patterns, and land use patterns changing rapidly as well. Among the earth observing missions threatened with discontinuity is Landsat, which has provided continuous images of the earth for over 30 years – although some steps are now being taken to reduce this risk. Among the reasons is that, “Early plans called for NASA to purchase data meeting LDCM specifications from a privately owned and commercially operated satellite system. However, after an evaluation of proposals received from private industry, NASA cancelled the Request-for-Proposals (RFP) in Sept. 2003.” (link) According to one of my former professors, John Townshend, who chairs the geography department at the University of Maryland – where I watched the launch of Landsat 7 in 1999 – only one bid came in and was rejected because it was deemed too expensive, and because there was not enough cost sharing by the private sector. But he said part of the failure can be attributed to the scientific community, which assumed continuity and did not speak loudly enough when the program was delayed. He referred to it as “going blind.” And then there are the closures of EPA science libraries .
Although I regard this discourse of market failure to be a distraction from the more important problem, of finding agreement on policy goals and how they can best be achieved, whether through public or private means, perhaps it should be welcomed as an opportunity to put aside the games with cost-benefit analysis and get this administration and its supporters to be explicit about what they believe the purpose of government to be. Although placement of politically appointed regulatory policy officers in each agency practically guarantees political interference in science, he could no longer blame the bureaucracy and would have to take responsibility for his policy decisions. In other words, if Bush doesn’t believe that health and safety or disaster response is a government responsibility, he should just say so!

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