Blawgletter learned in college, to our surprise, that we liked the dismal science.  We could do without the math, mind you — regressions, Lagrange multipliers, and whatnot.  But we did enjoy the parts that seemed to make practical sense of the world.

On vacation this last week, between the day after Christmas and the one following New Year's, we recalled the stuff that beguiled us back in the late 1970s.

A talk about gasoline prompted the memory.  Why do the cars here use the kind with lead in it when vehicles in the U.S. don't?

Well, we said, lead in gasoline prevents engine knocking and allows for more powerful engines.  The greater power means lower cost per mile and therefore better economy for the driver/owner.

Also, lead makes catalytic converters, which cut pollution, ineffective.  To use catalytic converters in automobiles, a nation must not only forego higher octane gasoline (with lead) but must also force people to pay the extra cost of factory installation of the device in the automobiles they drive.

Regulation of lead additives in gasoline thus translates into (a) giving up the anti-knock qualities and higher octane of putting lead into gasoline and (b) increasing car prices to consumers.  (The state must also monitor compliance with anti-lead and catalytic converter rules, costing taxpayers for the oversight.)

Do the benefits of regulation outweigh its costs?  The lovely and poor island-nation we visited felt they did not.  Noxious fumes hung always around the streets and highways, but the people seem to have judged that they'll benefit more from allowing air pollution than from barring lead in gasoline.

Clean air, we infer, amounts to a luxury for many.  (Take China.  Please.)  Americans don't mind paying for it so much.  The challenge consists in how to convince other countries to feel as most of us do.