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Who Cleans Up?

Taxpayers are now being asked to pay for corporate pollution.

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"Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today."

-- Theodore Roosevelt

It's hard to think how this could be any clearer: The headlines are "Bush Proposing Policy Changes on Toxic Sites: Taxpayers Would Bear Most Cleanup Costs" and "Bush to Shift Toxic Cleanups to Taxpayers."

Katherine Seelye of The New York Times reports the Superfund was founded in 1980 under the slogan "The polluter pays." Industry was to clean up its own messes and special corporate taxes were used to fund clean-ups at "orphan sites," where the responsible party could not be identified or could not pay. The taxes were reauthorized under President Reagan and again under President Bush's father. They expired in 1995, and while President Clinton sought to have them reinstated, the House of Representatives, by then under Republican control, refused.

According to Seelye, Congress let the taxes expire "under pressure from the chemical and oil industries. Without them, the trust fund dwindled from a high of $3.8 billion in 1996 to a projected $28 million next year. President Bush did not reauthorize the taxes last year in his first budget, and his proposed budget for 2003 explicitly states he will not do so ... . Chemical and oil companies and other businesses had long complained that the taxes were burdensome."

Actually, being poisoned is quite burdensome too.

And if the oil and chemical industries find the tax burdensome, I suspect Bubba and Bubbette aren't going to be dancing in the street.

Does this make any sense at all? Industry creates some god-awful mess that harms people then walks away and leaves it, and we have to pay to clean it up. We didn't make the mess, we didn't make piles of money off making the mess, and the mess is killing our children. So exactly why is that our responsibility? They poison you, and you have to pay for it?

Industry claims the Superfund has not been run efficiently or effectively. Of course, there is an anti-Superfund PAC that has contributed millions to congressmen on the right committees. You can read a study of these contributions on the U.S. PIRG Web site.

Environmentalists have long argued that we have no true estimate of the cost of industry because industry can pollute the air, the water, and the land -- not to mention kill off critters -- without having to pay for it. But we sort of drew the line at poisoning humans for profit. The administration has also decided to designate fewer sites for cleanup.

Following the theme of invisible government, The Wall Street Journal reports on the growth of oligopolies, the market condition that exists when there are a few sellers who can greatly influence price and other market factors -- a semi-monopoly. The trend is everywhere from cable television to college textbooks to defense contractors to telecommunications.

The Journal attributes it not only to market forces but to weakened antitrust laws: "Regulators and judges seem less antagonistic toward bigness. Just last week, a federal appeals court opened the door to another round of media mergers by striking down rules that in effect barred cable companies from buying broadcast networks."

While noting that oligopolies are not always avoidable or undesirable, the Journal also notes, "An oligopoly can allow big businesses to make big profits at the expense of consumers and economic progress. It can destroy the competition that is vital to preventing firms from pushing prices well above costs and to forcing companies to change or die." If competition is the genius of capitalism, why are we allowing, even encouraging, it to die out?

The aforementioned decision encouraging another round of media mergers gives me a chance to plug a deliriously funny new book by Carl Hiaasen: Basket Case. It's not only a dandy mystery and romance, but it's also the best description of what is wrong with American journalism I have ever read.

The trouble with working for a giant media oligopoly isn't that anyone ever calls from corporate headquarters and says, "You can't say that." No one at corporate headquarters knows or cares what you're saying -- their bean-counters just want to know if you're a profit center and, if so, does your rate of return meet the expectations of some 25-year-old whiz on Wall Street who never wrote a news story in his life.

The best way to increase profits at a news organization is to cut down on the number of people gathering news. Hiaasen's ground-level accounts of how this works out in terms of city council coverage are both hilarious and miserably true.

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate.

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