Ushering in California's Ecotopia

Sarah Elkind, a professor of history and Director of Environment Studies at San Diego State University, has written a short but information-laden book, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, & the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (Univ. North Carolina Press, 2011).

The first half of the book provides great detail about political scraps in the Los Angeles area in the first part of the last century regarding air pollution, water pollution, and flood control. The discussion reads in a familiar manner. Change some names and details and the same forces are in play in the first half of the twenty-first century. There is pollution. It is not appreciated. Something should be done about it.

Beaches in Los Angeles were crowded with oil derricks. They smell, are noisy, and there were spills. The recreation value of beaches was reduced as were property values. Or, that is, developers understood that property values would be higher if the derricks went away. So there were conflicting business interests. Over time, especially after World War II, the non-oil interests got the upper hand and increasing restrictions were imposed.

Left out of the discussion about the policy conflict is a discussion of property rights. The cost of buying out the well owners and closing the wells would be high, so the regulatory route became the method of attack. Property owners with no oil interest are likely to align, at least in part, with the hoi polloi that wanted free public beaches to enjoy. That was what Elkind reports happened. Those who would benefit from fewer oil wells wanted to use the power of the state to drive out oil well owners rather than use the common law process to see if nuisance suits might help, or buy out the wells. State-sponsored theft is cheaper.

Air pollution is eternal in Los Angeles. Stick millions of people in a valley where mountains rudely trap the air and you get pollution. As pollution worsened with increasing population and industrialization, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce recognized that the situation was a deterrent to growth. A study it sponsored in the early 1940s fairly blamed pollution on industry, auto exhaust, backyard garbage incinerators, and other sources. But, as Elkind notes, Angelenos blamed industry for the problem (p. 60). Los Angeles County took more and more steps to deal with the problem but there was no simple technological fix. Driving industry away would improve air quality because of the economic wreckage that would occur. Presaging the Clean Air Act of 1970, the County Air Pollution Control District began a pollution permit system before 1950. Industry contributed money to Cal Tech for research on how to control smog. That sensible step was attacked by the left as evidence of industry, government and higher education being in bed together (p. 75) as the Luddites simply thought emissions should be banned to solve the problem.

Elkind concludes that Los Angeles could not fix its problem; it had to await passage of the Clean Air Act (p.55). A bit of the story that seems missing is the active role played by California legislators in crafting the 1970 statute. California had instituted tail pipe controls on vehicles before 1970 but got it put into federal law so Californians would not suffer higher auto prices alone. Places such as North Dakota, where vehicle emissions were irrelevant, would pay the price too.

Flood control is a bit different. There were devastating floods in 1927 and 1938 that made it clear to many people that something needed to be done—dams and viaducts to control water flows out of the hills. As would be expected, most locals wanted flood control, but were happy for the federal government to pay for it via the Army Corps. Of course, the Army Corps had to dance around local interests. Building a dam meant property would go under water. Homeowners, railroads, and the Audubon Society all squawked (p. 103). Richard Nixon, who had originally opposed the Socialist dam, then helped to secure federal funding for it once in office (p. 107, 110).

Air pollution is tough as there are multi-jurisdictional issues. Flood control is less so. The Army Corps asserted that the project was worthy because destroying hundreds of homes would help protect hundreds of thousands of homes. No doubt. The question is why a penny of taxpayer money from 47 other states (at that time) should go to a local water control project in Southern California. Elkind never discusses that issue; her focus is on making sure that all voices were heard in the process. It was a struggle between “Jefferson’s agrarian vision of the nation, threatened by the self-interested, large-scale forces of modernization” (p. 115). That is highly dubious. Los Angeles is an urban area, not vigilant farmers fighting rapacious industry somehow ruining their farms. Some houses would be torn down to build a dam that would provide benefits to many people downstream. Rhetoric aside, this is a cost-benefit issue. The benefits of flood control rose with population and property values; the costs, however, cannot be justified as being absorbed by anyone but the downstream beneficiaries.

The second half of the book moves away from Los Angeles to look next at the politics behind the building of the Hoover Dam. Elkind lays out the special interests very nicely as multiple states wrestled for control of the multi-state Colorado River and for control of the electricity that might be generated. When there is a pot of gold on the table, the stakes are high. Eastern interests opposed the dam. The rhetoric was about “states’ rights” (p. 137), but likely had more to do with eastern members of the legislature seeing no benefit, only costs, for themselves. Again, assuming the dam had net benefits, there is no reason the national government needed to be involved in a project that provide benefits to six states at best. Elkind sees the decision in terms of ideology when it seems more like traditional rent-seeking and logrolling in the national legislature.

Elkind goes on to provide an excellent review of the failed attempt in the Truman administration to nationalize water planning. That had to wait until the Clean Water Act of 1972. She discusses “public dissatisfaction with federal water development” back in 1950. That is implausible. Voters are rationally or otherwise ignorant about nearly everything. How many really thought about centralized versus decentralized river basin management? She correctly notes the incentives of the Army Corps and Bureau of Reclamation to grasp more authority that caused them to promote some projects that were not in the public interest, whatever that means. The seeming disgust with agency behavior is explained by a huge literature on bureaucracy theory that is not mentioned.

In sum, the book provides some excellent, carefully researched, historical examples of policies that are related to what is now thrown in the endless can of issues asserted to be “environmental.” Elkind is a historian and does dandy historical research. While I have been critical of her focusing on the fairness of the political process—the marginalization of certain groups to the benefit of others—she does not seem to grasp that the stories she relates are par for the Congressional course. Members of Congress constantly think about how to satisfy local interests at the expense of non-local taxpayers. It has been that way since the founding of the Republic. When Congress had little largess to control, the damage it could do was constrained. Today there is little to constrain the federal beast, whether the matter falls under the rubric of environmental issues, health care, or whatever politicos can exploit.