The Sequester is back in the news. People have to wait longer at airports, and federal agencies are putting off hiring new employees because of budget uncertainty.
The Sequester is representative of the way the U.S. federal government approaches so many policies in contemporary America. Specifically, Congress and the White House consistently focus on the financial bottom line of nearly every proposed or existing policy. Proposed laws have to be revenue neutral to pass congressional muster or must show demonstrated long-term financial paybacks. For example, the Washington debate about the Keystone pipeline largely revolves around its potential economic impact and President Obama’s State of the Union stressed the importance of early childhood education in economic terms.
The prevalence of this market-based analysis begs that we consider the fundamental role of government. Must government only enact policies that best benefit our GDP? Must we only enact social programs if those laws are revenue neutral or net positive? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then what is the point of government at all? Won’t the markets handle all of this work? Some in this country wish to shrink the government and drown it in a bathtub. Yet isn’t our government’s most important job to pick up where the private market leaves off? Only government can pay for a national defense system, major transportation systems, or scientific research that may not make for a long time, if ever.
What does this have to do with environmental health law? Quite a bit. Environmental programs, including those programs and issues that affect public health, can involve enormous up-front costs. Some of these programs might pay for themselves in lowered medical bills and higher worker productivity due to a healthier workforce. Some may not. But that does not mean that, for example, we should not pay to conserve ecosystems and biodiversity, which help clean our air and water, even if we do not reap visible financial rewards.
A paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy states that “99 per cent of respondents [to a poll] thought that wildlife and landscape have a right to exist. But this percentage fell to 49 per cent when it was suggested that conservation costs money.” These numbers show individuals’ proclivity for funding the public good. If the government acts and thinks as private actors do, our conservation programs could quickly come to an end. This is why government must act differently. Government’s role is to protect us from ourselves, to institute programs that benefit society, the environment, and human health that no one else will pay for. If government does not take the reins on these issues, no one will.