Iron, plastic, and big pipe’s battle to replace your municipal plumbing

Hiroko Tabuchi has a fascinating piece in this morning’s New York Times about a battle underway to determine whether gazillions of dollars in infrastructure spending to upgrade America’s municipal plumbing is spent on iron or plastic pipe.

It features a couple of issues I love to talk about with our University of New Mexico Water Resources Program students:

  • rent-seeking behavior
  • scientization

Because it is an area where decisions are made by governments, and therefore influenced by political processes, water policy is a classic playground for what economists call “rent-seeking behavior” – attempts by individuals or firms to profit by influencing government decisions in their favor, rather than by making products that consumers want to buy. Here’s Tabuchi:

How the pipe wars play out — in city and town councils, in state capitals, in Washington — will determine how drinking water is delivered to homes across America for generations to come.

This lobbying war is playing out via a classic case of “scientization” – attempting to win a battle by claiming the scientific high ground:

Plastics are an obvious replacement for the country’s aging pipes. Lightweight, easy to install, corrosion-free and up to 50 percent cheaper than iron, plastic pipes have already taken the place of copper as the preferred material for service lines that connect homes to municipal mains, as well as water pipes inside the home.

Still, some scientists warn that the rapid replacement of America’s water infrastructure with plastic could bring its own health concerns.

The “scientization” hypothesis would predict that those who favor iron for economic reasons (because they sell iron pipe!) are more likely to find the “plastic could bring its own health concerns” argument persuasive, while Big Plastic will raise concerns about the problems of iron pipe.

I’ll leave a reading of Tabuchi’s story as an exercise for our students, to see if the scientization hypothesis is supported.

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