Ezra Klein Gets So Much Wrong

I have been writing for several days about the UC Berkeley enrollment kerfuffle and how it is an example anecdotes and events getting taken out of context and used to pump up the outrage machine, and to drive the weakening of environmental laws.

There were several articles in that vein, but Ezra Klein’s op-ed Government Is Flailing, in Part Because Liberals Hobbled It was particularly galling for several reasons.

The position he is taking is not entirely wrong. Klein correctly states that we need to treat climate change as an existential threat, and that if we are going to slow or even stop climate change we need to think big, and we will need to build. We will need to get off of fossil fuels and create an energy infrastructure that built on energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind.

To conserve anything close to the climate we’ve had, we need to build as we’ve never built before, electrifying everything and constructing the green energy infrastructure to generate that electricity cleanly. As the climate writer Julian Brave NoiseCat once put it to me, “If you want to stand athwart the history of emissions and yell ‘stop,’ you need to do really transformational things.”

Yes, we need the renewable energy infrastructure, and we also need infill housing, reduced waste and better waste management, and better water management, and to do all that, we are going to need to build. NIMBYism and local opposition to building is real, and occasionally overboard. But Klein’s analysis of the causes of the problem, and the solution that he, and several others seem to be advocating are off base.

According to Klein, the purpose of the environmental laws passed in the 70’s such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was to put the breaks on government, an analysis put forward by Paul Sabin in Public Citizen The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism., and that it was liberals, in the form of environmental activists who saw government as the problem.


These attacks were mounted for good reason. America’s major cities were choked with smog. Developers paid little heed to the presence of precious ecosystems or rare habitats. An explosion of industrial innovation led to an explosion of industrial runoff, and novel chemicals and byproducts were dumped into waterways, poisoning people and wildlife alike. America was growing, and the government was trying to sustain and support that growth. The environment was an afterthought, if that.

As Sabin writes, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the foundational text of modern environmentalism, was an attack on “government-led efforts to deploy science and engineering” and “the legitimacy and trustworthiness of agency decision making.” Ralph Nader, and the manifold organizations he birthed, was similarly focused on the failures of government agencies.

When you read this it sounds like he is saying that government caused the industrial runoff, destruction of habitats and other problems of over rapid development and industrialization, and that the goal of the new environmentalists was to restrain government actions. As proof of this history Sabin points to the early lawsuits filed by the new environmental advocacy groups.

Litigation by leading public interest environmental law firms in the early 1970s almost exclusively targeted the government for legal action. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund boasted of 77 legal accomplishments between 1971 and 1973. Approximately 70 sought to block government actions or to intervene in public proceedings to influence government regulatory and permitting practices. The Environmental Defense Fund similarly began its 1972 case summary with a list of acronyms for the 10 federal agencies named in its legal interventions. In more than 60 of its 65 listed legal actions, the Environmental Defense Fund either intervened in public proceedings, such as government permitting processes for private projects, or directly assailed a government-led initiative. Fewer than five of E.D.F.’s legal actions directly targeted companies or private parties. Similarly, only three out of 29 of N.R.D.C.’s legal action initiatives from its first seven months directly named a corporate defendant.

Emphasis mine.

The laws at that time would not support lawsuits directly aimed at corporate entities forcing them to stop development on projects that had been approved and permitted by the appropriate agency, even if the agency acted improperly in granting the permit and did not follow permitting procedure. But the law did allow private groups to sue the agencies to force them to consider the environmental impacts of the permits they were issuing and to hold the government agencies accountable.

The Berkeley case is a perfect example of this type of suit The University created a plan in 2005 in which they projected a level of growth in enrollment and promised new housing to accommodate the growth. The university blew through their growth projections, and ended up growing six times faster than the plan, and provided half as much housing, and there was no enforcement mechanism and accountability, and that was the point of the lawsuit. If the university wants to grow enrollment, they need to plan for it, provide housing, and mitigate the negative impacts. Klein dismisses the concerns

The way to ease homelessness in Berkeley is to build more homes for everyone, not keep out a bunch of kids looking to better their lives. And if there’s too much trash, maybe nearby homeowners, who’ve seen their property values rise to astonishing levels in large part because of U.C. Berkeley’s gleam, should pay higher property taxes for more frequent pickup

Sure, more housing is necessary. UC Berkeley provides housing for a lower proportion of their students than any other UC school. The University is currently not paying the city anything for police or fire or other services, and even when they did, the amount paid didn’t nearly cover the costs. How can the city budget to provide the needed services if the university is allowed to ignore the agreed on plan, face no consequences, or be forced to take any action to mitigate the harm.

Look, maybe we do need to streamline some permitting processes, but for the public to have enough faith to let that happen, government needs to be transparent and accountable

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