Poisoning the Well

Bush is right about arsenic. Damn! 

It looks as if arsenic will be to George Bush what ketchup was to Ronald Reagan: shorthand for everything his critics don’t like about his administration, an easy laugh line for late-night TV comics, a wedge that pries away his more ambivalent supporters. In Reagan’s case it was a regulation allowing federally subsidized school lunch programs to count ketchup as a vegetable. For Bush it was the suspension of a regulation reducing the amount of arsenic permitted in drinking water.

The Bushies would dearly like to put the ketchup back in the bottle. They emphasize that the new arsenic standard was only suspended to permit further study, that it wouldn’t have gone into effect for five years anyhow, and that they aren’t trying to defend the current standard of 50 parts per billion. They’re only questioning whether the Clinton administration’s standard of 10 parts per billion is too stringent.

Unfortunately, this still leaves them in the politically untenable position of wanting Americans—most notably children, minorities, senior citizens, and veterans who’ve shed precious blood in defense of our freedom—to drink more arsenic. How callous can you get, Mr. Compassionate Conservative? We voted for him, and now he’s trying to poison us. Wait, most of us didn’t vote for him. Still, is that any reason for the Lucretia Borgia treatment?

The trouble is that Bush is right about arsenic. How it happened, one can only imagine: Late nights in the White House library. The first lady: “George, are you coming to bed? It’s a quarter after 10 already.” The president: “Honey, could you bring me that epidemiological study? It’s over there on top of my pocket calculator. I think I’ve figured out where the National Academy of Sciences went wrong.” The first lady: “I’m warning you, buster, if this doesn’t stop I’m running for the Senate.” The president: “Honey, calm down. [Ominous pause.] Have a glass of water.”

More likely, Bush stumbled or was blindsided into this heroic and correct application of his own principles. Whatever, 10 parts per billion clearly is over-regulation. As Sebastian Mallaby noted in a Washington Post column last month, the cost of meeting the tougher standard exceeds the likely benefit even by the government’s own calculations. Those calculations involve putting a dollar value on each human life likely to be saved and each nonfatal illness likely to be avoided. Your life is worth $6.1 million, you may be glad to hear. And yet your government was willing to stretch (or rather, willing to require local water districts to stretch) and pay $7.5 million to save you from arsenic poisoning.

Why? Because of “unquantifiable” factors. You may well wonder, if your life is quantifiable to the first decimal point, what could be unquantifiable. Also, why even bother with cost-benefit analysis if you’re going to set a price on almost everything and then go all Oscar Wilde, declaring that this tells you the value of nothing? These questions are taken up, indirectly, in a study of the Environmental Protection Agency’s arsenic analysis sponsored by a respected (and reasonably nonideological) Washington think tank. By the authors’ best calculation (which seems reasonable to me), a standard of 10 ppb implies a cost-per-life-saved of more like $65 million. I’m not worth it. Are you?

Most people understand that human life cannot really be priceless, but some still object to the government making explicit calculations about when it would rather have the money than the pleasure of your company. For these folks, the study’s authors have another calculation. They point out that every dollar tacked onto your water bill for reducing arsenic means you have one dollar less to spend on other things, including life-prolonging things like health care, education, etc. At some unknown point—surely less than $65 million per—a regulation can start costing more lives than it saves.

You may not buy that one either. But go back to the government’s own $6.1 million figure and consider this: Isn’t it easy to think of ways society could spend $6.1 million that would save more than one life? Health care for the uninsured comes to mind, of course, and other worthy causes. But statistically, you would probably get more life expectancy for the buck if you simply gave a million bucks each to six people chosen at random and pocketed the hundred thou as your service charge.

Of course, the flaw here is that President Bush is not proposing to take the money we save by swilling more arsenic and devote it to health care for the uninsured. On the other hand, come to think of it, he is indeed proposing something like the second option: dumping piles of cash on certain lucky citizens. Only they’re not chosen at random, exactly. In fact to qualify for a big pile, you must have a big pile already.

The life-extending effect of the income tax cut on the well-to-do will help to counteract the dangerous and little-noted side effect on that same group of repealing the estate tax. Supporters of repeal call it the “death tax,” and supply-side theory tells us what happens when you reduce the tax on something: You get more of it. Estate Tax Repeal ought to be called the “Incentive To Die Act.”

So, everything makes sense after all! I just knew the president had it all figured out. Keep an eye on your rich friends, though, and make sure they’re not drinking too much water.