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The Federalism Solution

The New York Times editorializes today in favor of reforming the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows companies to mine public lands with minimal environmental regulation and without paying royalties to the federal government. As the editorial notes, a growing chorus of Western elected officials at both the state and federal level are coming around to the view that the law, which effectively prioritizes mining over other types of economic activity on public lands, is simply inappropriate for a region that no longer depends so heavily on mining to support itself. A bit oddly, this view doesn't seem to be shared by Barack Obama, who prior to the Nevada caucuses announced he opposed the reform bill working its way through Congress because it was too rough on the mining industry.

The ideal solution here, it seems to me, is federalism. Because both the environmental costs and economic benefits to mining tend, for the most part, to be concentrated locally, it makes sense to give more control to state and county officials in regulating mining, who are in a better position to perform the cost-benefit analysis for their communities. As it stands now, they have very little say in the matter. This, incidentally, is also why it's hard to get too worked up about John McCain's flip-flop on offshore drilling: His new position is to let states decide whether to permit drilling, and the question of whether Florida and California want the economic benefits that come with allowing drilling off of their coastlines is of little concern to anyone besides Floridians and Californians. (Both states' Republican governors oppose it, though Charlie Crist now supports McCain's new plan to leave it up to the states and seems to be wavering on the substantive question of whether to drill.) Now, this is a slightly more complicated issue because one could plausibly argue that the environmental costs of oil drilling--especially factoring climate change into the equation--aren't as purely localized as they are in the case of mining, which would militate for more federal oversight, but the basic idea of leaving more of these decisions up to the states is a sound one.

--Josh Patashnik