Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Walkerton, E-Coli, and Incentives

In May of 2000, there was an e-coli outbreak in the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario, a small town about an hour north of where I live. In its early stages, as people were becoming ill, the quality of the water supply was questioned, but the water managers assured the public the water was safe.

It wasn't. In the end, 7 people died as a direct result of the outbreak, and over 2000 were made ill, some with permanent damage.

It turns out that the brothers who were charged with monitoring and managing the town's water supply, Stan and Frank Koebel, had been intentionally falsifying water safety records; and to cover their tracks, they lied even when pressed by others about the condition of the water supply. For their actions, they have copped a plea to "common nuisance". No charges of murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide. Not even forgery.

One reason the crown settled for such mamby-pamby punishment is that many people in Ontario, including a commission that reviewed the situation in Walkerton, are trying to blame the former conservative provincial gubmnt for having cut back on funds to monitor water supplies. This is mostly political grandstanding; but it also reeks of requiring higher levels of gubmnt to bail out the lower levels.

Why should the provincial gubmnt be held responsible at all for the actions of these two men who knowingly falsified documents and who lied about it? Holding the provincial gubmnt even partially responsible has the effect of letting these guys (and others) off the hook. It also absolves the town that hired them of all responsibility. We should not be creating incentives like this.

My take on this matter is that these guys took actions which they knew would cause serious harm. They deserve much more punishment than the maximum two-year jail sentence. And if they don't get much jail time, I wish they could be nailed in civil court. The trouble is, these guys don't have anywhere near enough wealth to compensate the victims. And that's why we need criminal law as an additional deterrent against this type of behaviour.

Update: Read what this blog has to say on the topic -- superb!
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