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California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader

Author(s):Vogel, David
Reviewer(s):Kanazawa, Mark

Published by EH.Net (November 2018)

David Vogel, California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xi + 280 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17955-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Kanazawa, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

This is a highly readable broad-sweep account of California environmental history in a nutshell. But it goes way beyond mere description to advance a thesis that explains how California has attained a position of leadership among U.S. states in environmental policy, while still managing to support a vibrant economy. The argument is essentially a series of stories of how environmental policy has been shaped by competing political and economic interests. The basic thesis, stripped to its bare bones, is that three factors have made California’s enviable position possible: citizen mobilization, selective support from businesses, and a steady growth in regulatory capacity over time.

The argument progresses in a nicely-structured series of chapters that literally span the history of the state. The first substantive chapter is about gold mining, which was the main environmental issue of nineteenth century California, especially after use of the environmentally destructive process of hydraulic mining became widespread. It then proceeds to devote a chapter to each of the main environmental issues — land protection, coastal protection, water management, clean air policy, and energy policy — that the state has experienced, in a series of overlapping phases, over time. It turns out that each issue has presented a different set of challenges because of differences in factors that fostered citizen mobilization and in the economic stakes of different segments of the business community. The contrasting ways in which the politics and economics of each issue played out is used to illustrate the roles played by citizen mobilization and business stakes. The overall explanation is compelling and nuanced.

A key recurring theme is the active support for environmental protection by some businesses, not out of any sort of humanitarian concerns but rather, when it was in their own best interests. In cases where the business community was unified in opposition, it was typically difficult to enact effective environmental protection. However, when business was divided, we often observed unholy alliances between some set of businesses on the one hand, and citizens and environmental groups on the other, to enact environmental policy. This “bootleggers and baptists” coalition idea has been around since at least the early 1990s but has made surprisingly modest headway in penetrating popular debates over environmental policy, which all-too-often portray businesses as staunchly and unreservedly anti-environmental. In contrast, Vogel shows how commonly such unholy alliances have appeared in California environmental history.

Another recurring theme is the importance of the visibility and salience of environmental problems in mobilizing citizen support for environmental protection. What has often mattered in California history in rousing citizens to action has been direct experience with environmental degradation. For example, offshore oil drilling that sometimes caused damaging oil spills led irate coastal communities to effectively push for coastal protection. On the other hand, environmental problems that were out of sight — such as the famous flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley to provide San Francisco with drinking water — were often out of mind and failed to provoke the necessary citizen ire to bring out sufficient support for environmental protection. On a number of occasions, physical topography was a key factor that increased the salience of a particular environmental problem. For example, the fact that the Central Valley was basically a floodplain exacerbated the environmental damages of hydraulic mining. And later on, the peculiar topography of the Los Angeles basin trapped smog at a very early date, leading to early demands for policies to control air pollution.

Much of the argument of this book will resonate with many public choice scholars, who may interpret the episodes as reflecting the imperatives of political coalition building, conditioned by perceived stakes and transaction costs of political organization. Relatively large and concentrated stakes in policy outcomes have mattered a great deal. Divisions across different business sectors have increased the political transaction costs of the business community. Citizen and environmental groups have been galvanized by environmental problems that posed clear and present dangers. Droughts, smog events, and oil spills all served to provoke demands for changes in environmental policy.

Perhaps the biggest question I have concerns the broader lessons of the California experience for environmental policy more generally, in other contexts and looking forward into the future. On one level, it is hard to argue against the ideas that direct personal experience with environmental problems galvanize popular support for policy and that ‘bootleggers and Baptists” coalitions may arise. Both of these seem clearly correct. However, given the present state of extreme political polarization and ideology-based opposition to policy actions on issues like climate change, one wonders about the explanatory limitations of a narrative that focuses on relative special interests while largely ignoring the role of ideology.

It is striking to me, for example, that except perhaps for the concluding substantive chapter on energy use and climate change, political parties are largely invisible in Vogel’s story. This is counter to a number of narratives that highlight the importance of political parties, such as Robert Kelley’s scholarship on nineteenth century hydraulic mining, and my own reading of the early historical development of California state water policy. As an economist, I would not be inclined to go on the record as arguing that ideological factors swamp economic pressures: I do not believe that they do. Indeed, there is something ironic in an economist criticizing a political scientist for not paying more attention to party politics. However, lessons from these areas and others lead me to believe that models based solely on relative economic interests, though powerful in many respects, may be too simple and perhaps misleading in enabling us to draw lessons regarding effective environmental policy for the future. Especially now in our present political climate where too many people are calling climate change a “hoax” and science is sometimes demonized by a significant portion of the population.

These concerns aside, however, this book is well worth reading for its careful, detailed, judicious, and sensible interpretation of the historical record. On the whole, this may be the best single brief overview of California environmental history that I have read. In this book, David Vogel continues to cement his well-deserved reputation as one of our leading scholars in the academic study of environmental regulation and policy.

Mark Kanazawa is Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College. His recent book Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush was published in 2015 by University of Chicago Press.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Reluctant Partners: A History of Multilateral Trade Cooperation, 1850-2000

Author(s):Brown, Andrew
Reviewer(s):Aaronson, Susan Ariel

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Andrew Brown, Reluctant Partners: A History of Multilateral Trade Cooperation, 1850-2000. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. xiii + 254 pp. $49.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-472-11305-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Susan Ariel Aaronson, Kenan Institute, Kenan Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina.

As this review was written, the Doha Round continues to dither along. After three years of talking about the scope and purview of what they should talk about, the 147 nations of the WTO, finally developed a framework for their talks. One has to wonder why so many nations spend so much time talking about how to talk about trade liberalization.

Economist Andrew Brown has written this book to explain why nations put so much effort into multilateral trade talks. He believes countries have learned “that the material benefit from cooperation can make it worthwhile to rein in their Hobbesian mistrust of other countries. The key has been the recognition of their mutuality of interest” (p. 2). He notes “the advance in trade cooperation has been the story of the gradual liberation of countries from the tyranny of precise equivalence in the interpretation of reciprocity” (p. 37-38). Brown defines trade cooperation as “the resolution of conflicting interests in a mutually advantageous way.” He then describes operating principles of reciprocity, nondiscrimination, and national treatment as essential tools to help policymakers achieve the cooperation nations want.

Brown’s book examines the last one hundred years of trade policy and sees a pattern of ever greater trade cooperation. That is what’s visible, but what’s visible is not the whole story. The system and institution that encouraged multinational trade liberalization — the GATT/WTO — seems to be showing its age. While it worked well through the Uruguay Round, increasingly, nations are turning to bilateral trade agreements to achieve their international objectives. As evidence, both the U.S. and the EU are enthusiastically pursuing bilateral free trade agreements in many regions of the world. (In 2004 alone, the U.S. has negotiated some 14 of these agreements.)

Brown’s strategy for the book is problematic. He cites no primary sources for his evidence. He did not look, for example, at Department of State or U.S. Trade Representative files from the U.S. Archives (now available for the Tokyo Round) to root his theories. He relies on outdated definitions. For example, he says trade policy and commercial policy are the same thing (p. 4) but trade policy includes the key barriers to trade today — national regulations, competition policy, etc. Commercial policies simply include traditional barriers to trade such as tariffs and quotas. While these barriers remain important, one can’t examine multinational trade cooperation without discussing both. It is not until p.195 that he discusses some of these concerns, which he concludes should not be pursued through trade policy. But he doesn’t really address why these concerns seem to so frequently intersect with trade policy and how they can be addressed outside of the multilateral trade regime. Finally, the book promises to be a history of multilateral trade cooperation, but it is very U.S. centric. He never discusses the debate over multilateralism in Brazil, China, or France, as example, so that we can understand if these nations are as reluctant or as enthusiastic as the U.S. to partner in trade.

Brown has read widely and cited a wide range of secondary sources, but again his sources and writing focus on the U.S., which may have resulted in a very U.S. neoclassical perspective on multilateral trade cooperation. The analysis would have been deepened by scholars such as Amartya Sen; Kimberley Ann Elliot, Jeff Schott, David Vogel, Alfred Eckes and the more recent edition of I. M. Destler’s magisterial study of U.S. trade policymaking trade liberalization: American Trade Politics: System under Stress. He tends to skirt over challenges to multilateral trade cooperation developed in the U.S. In recent years, the U.S. has demanded that its trade partners reduce real or imagined barriers to U.S. exports and investment, with the threat of retaliation of under Section 301, special 301 and super 301. Although these strategies are discussed on pp. 125-129, his examination of multinational trade cooperation seems simplistic. One can argue that the threat of unilateralism is a powerful incentive towards greater multinational trade cooperation, just as some analysts see America’s use of bilateral free trade agreements as a tool to prod reluctant multilateralists to make better deals at the WTO. But they can also illuminate a weaker commitment to multilateral trade cooperation — a thesis that Brown never discusses.

Brown’s discussion of “the developing countries,” in chapter 8 is especially simplistic. I am not sure if he is including middle income countries or countries such as China and India which have not only commodities but highly skilled workers and high-tech high-value goods to trade. The analysis again relies totally on secondary sources — and very few are cited in the footnotes. He states that the developing countries became more oriented towards market opening policies as a result of financial crises and dissatisfaction with state-oriented trade policies. He ignores the role that declining foreign aid funds, IMF and IBRD policies played in moving countries towards greater openness. He never utilizes the perspective of developing country officials or scholars. Brown concludes “a multilateral trade regime … that constrained … the opportunistic behavior of the more powerful countries was distinctly attractive to them” (p. 147). But what alternatives were available to these countries given the growing importance of trade and the decline of official aid?

The best chapter of the book is the final chapter, which is much broader in its analysis. Brown here is thoughtful about the challenges to multilateralism in the twenty-first century. But major developing country trading nations Brazil and China have taken on the role of supportive leaders of multilateralism. That is a reason to be optimistic about the future of a multilateral cooperative strategy. In this chapter, Brown does not take on the potential and inadequacies of the WTO as the main institution to foster multilateral trade liberalization. The WTO has proven itself flexible and transparent. Its leadership and staff have worked hard to explain its actions to the citizens of its member governments. But 147 countries may be simply too many countries. Brown notes multilateral trade cooperation has endured because of pragmatism. But pragmatism may lead many WTO members to broker deals with their most important trading partners first. The twenty-first century may prove multilateral trade negotiation outdated — at least under the aegis of the WTO.

Susan Ariel Aaronson is author of Taking Trade to the Streets: The Lost History of Public Efforts to Shape Globalization (University of Michigan Press, 2001).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII