A fierce debate has raged for more than a century and a half between the proponents of capitalism and those who favor socialist economic systems. Free enterprise has generally won the contest. However, all systems are subject to human fallibility. Our accounting systems require that we subtract costs from revenue, and, if revenue exceeds costs, we call that profit. But, human nature being what it is, we sometimes try to pass some of the costs to other people. That could be accomplished by persuading a government agency to subsidize our enterprise, and that would be a legal way to pass some costs to other people. But it can also happen when an enterprise dumps toxic waste thus failing to account for the legitimate cost of proper disposal. The resulting contamination of soil and water supplies can be a cause of serious human health problems.
A canal was started near Niagara Falls, New York, in the late 1800s. The project was soon abandoned, but a trench remained. Eventually a chemical company purchased 16 acres and dumped barrels of toxic waste into the trench. The company eventually recognized that they had a potential liability, and, in an attempt to escape that liability, they deeded the site to a school district for one dollar in 1953. Over the years, toxic waste escaped and diminished the health of people who lived or worked in the area. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed a law that established superfund sites. The government takes responsibility for cleanup of superfund sites, and taxpayers cover costs that cannot be recovered from the entities responsible for the toxic waste. There are currently 1332 superfund sites. Many, but not all of these superfund sites, are examples of companies enhancing their profits by passing some of their legitimate costs to other people.
There is a lot of sea water in the world but only a limited amount of clean fresh water. There is a lot of soil on the surface of the planet but only a limited amount that is suitable for food production. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with responsibility to identify and prevent toxic waste disposal and contain or clean up existing waste dump sites. That mission protects us and future generations. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio became so polluted with industrial waste that, over a period of years, it caught fire 13 times. General Electric dumped toxic waste into the Hudson River in New York for 30 years. The superfund cleanup of the Hudson River pollution cost one billion dollars.
The EPA also monitors the pollutants in the air we breathe and the waste gases that rise into the atmosphere and cause climate change.
The EPA has been serving America for 46 years. Now, the U.S. Congress is considering reducing EPA authority. One junior congressman even submitted a bill proposing to abolish the agency entirely. Long ago, a scientist defended an appropriation request before a congressional committee. Here, I shall paraphrase. A member of the congressional committee asked: Will this funding contribute to the defense of the country in any way? The scientist, Dr. R.R. Wilson, replied: No, but it will make the country worth defending.
A company that recognizes and pays all of its costs, including protecting the health of its workers and protecting the planet we live on, is practicing legitimate capitalism. We would not want to eliminate the police who patrol our communities because we know what would happen without them. Without government regulation and inspection, some companies will pass part of their costs to other people for the purpose of enhancing company profit.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.