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Ideology vs. Reality in Public Policy

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 Robert Whitcomb
RECYLING BIN © gabyjalbert via Getty Images RECYLING BIN

"Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" -- Chico Marx, in Duck Soup
Most of us have ideologies sometimes blocking us from looking at reality head on. But then, facts can be anxiety-provoking.
Consider retired Brown University physics professor Frank Levin's Oct. 3 Providence Journal column, "What motivates climate-change deniers?'' He wrote:
"The deniers' primary motive clearly seems to be based on ideology. That ideology, as laid out in several denier books and occasionally stated in the letters and opinion pieces, is pro-business, anti-regulation and anti-tax.'' He noted that "{B}elief tends to trump facts and valid explanations, so why look them up?''
Ideology can triumph over facts on the left side, too. Read John Tierney's essay in the Oct. 4 New York Times, "The Reign of Recycling''.
In it he notes that much recycling from curbside pickups is of questionable economic and environmental utility, however virtuous it makes us feel. (Recycling is particularly popular in affluent neighborhoods with the highest per-capita fossil-fuel use because of big homes, large cars and the most plastic trash.)
Some steps in recycling can even be bad for the environment. I have often thought that while following regulators' orders to use water to clean plastic and metal containers before putting them in the recycling bins: By using what would presumably be warm water to clean this stuff, you're burning fossil fuel; then there's the fuel burned by the special trucks carrying trash to the recycling plants.
Further, when raw-materials prices fall, as they have lately, recycling looks less alluring. A central idea of recycling, after all, is to reduce the need to make stuff from scratch -- and especially to cut the need to mine and use oil, gas or assorted metals.
Recycling now makes sense for only a few materials -- cardboard, some paper and some metal items. John Tierney notes that consumers "probably don't know... that to reduce carbon emissions, you'll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza.'' Plastics recycling is particularly problematical. And composting releases methane...
Meanwhile, most people don't understand or ignore the arcane rules about what to put into recycling bins. The Providence Journal's columns by Sara Kite-Reeves about what and how to recycle offer sometimes comically complicated directives, ignored by many, perhaps most people, that remind me of the new and endless ICD-10 diagnostic codes for physicians and insurers for reimbursement purposes. America may be the most bureaucratic nation; we endlessly complicate everything.
The most effective, fairest and simplest way to reduce greenhouse emissions (one of recycling's aims) would be a carbon tax. But that's unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future because of fossil-fuel companies' heavy influence in the Republican Party, which has an ideological opposition to any new tax, and indeed would like to cut the ones we have. There are, however, a few free-marketers who think that a carbon tax is just what's needed.
One is former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican who heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which promotes conservative grassroots support for a ''revenue-neutral'' carbon tax. I don't know whether the "revenue-neutral'' angle would work, but I admire Mr. Inglis for taking on the fossil-fueled Koch Brothers, who call the shots for much GOP policy.
John Tierney rightly, if politically incorrectly, touts landfills as economically and environmentally good ways to dispose of much of our trash. That runs into the recycling lobby's ideology (which is almost theology). Still, perhaps some of the money saved by not having complicated and economically dubious recycling programs could go into more effective environmental programs, such as alternate-energy electricity-generating plants and developing cars that can run on batteries for as long as they can on a tank of gasoline.
Recycling some stuff can make sense, depending on the time and place, but often not. As with much public policy, it's ideologically oversold.
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Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a Providence-based editor and writer, is a partner in the healthcare-sector consultancy Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and overseer of newenglanddiary.com. He's also a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune.

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