The Politics of “Jobs Versus the Environment”

George W. Bush, having presided over an orgy of job destruction, now intends to use that as an excuse for fouling the air and water. [*]

One of the big advantages of the tight labor markets at the end of the Clinton Administration was that they made it easier politically to support tough environmental policies (and, for that matter, free trade) by depriving the advocates of more pollution of the excuse that letting them foul our nest was somehow good for “jobs.”

Update Juan non-Volokh disagrees [*]. Worse, he finds the comment above “thoughtless.” Juan points out that Bush specifically argued that jobs and the environment were compatible. But that is much too kind both to Bush’s rhetoric and to his actual policies. He clearly meant that he intend to make them compatible by modifying environmental regulation in the interests of “jobs.”

As to the assertion that gutting New Source Review won’t lead to dirtier air, it doesn’t pass the giggle test. Of course grandfathering is always bad; over time, old plants ought to be required to come up to the standards required of new plants regardless of whether other capital improvements are made or not. Having plant renovations trigger higher environmental standards does indeed discourage renovations, some of which would in fact reduce emissions.

But Bush’s policies won’t tighten up regulations on old plants; they will merely allow them to be renovated while still being grandfathered, so they can stay in business forever without meeting current standards. As it happened, he chose one of the nation’s dirtier old cold-fired power plants, one which probably needs to be shut down entirely, to make his speech. His implicit message to the plant’s workers was that he would protect their jobs, even at the expense of the health of the people downwind.

Second update Juan responds, suggesting that I either don’t know what I’m talking about or don’t care. He then quickly elides the distinction between changing the New Source Review rules, which is widely thought to be a good idea, and the specific changes made by the Bush team, which are widely thought to be a thoroughly bad idea. Juan says:

“The worst that can be said about the NSR reforms is that some facilities might not install new pollution control requirements as quickly as they might have absent the reforms.”

Not quite. It’s true, and in all conscience it’s bad enough, but it’s not quite the worst that can be (accurately) said. The worst that can be said is that some especially dirty plants — for example, the power plant Bush selected for the announcement — will be able to stay open, and stay dirty, under the new plan instead of being mothballed.

As Juan points out, the Clinton team was moving ahead with proposals to change NSR. It would have been possible to design new regs that would have led to speedier environmental cleanup as well as cost savings for some companies, while slowly closing down facilities too dirty to live. But that’s not what the Bush team has done. They have chosen “jobs” over clean air. It’s enough, quite literally, to make you sick.

Third update Juan responds again, reporting AEI press releases as if they represented scientific facts. But the facts aside, he seems to think that he can prove that Bush’s policies are environmentally benign simply by noting that over time regulations continue, on balance, to tighten. That’s true (so far).

But so what? According to Joel D. Schwartz and his colleagues in environmental epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (not to be confused with industry flack Joel Schwartz of AEI), particulate air pollution alone causes about 60,000 excess deaths per year in the U.S. That number will go down over time as a result of tightening regulations. The result of Clean Skies (Bush’s Orwellian label for his polluter-friendly package of “reforms,” of which gutting New Source Review is one element) will be to slow the rate of decrease.

The people who die due to looser regs implemented in the name of “jobs” will be just as dead as they would have been if the net trend had been in the wrong direction.

This is, we are often reminded, the richest country in the world. The richer people get, the more they are willing to pay to protect their health. So our environment ought to be getting cleaner. In general, liberals and Democrats like to speed up that process, and conservatives and Republicans like to slow it down. (Al Gore lost West Virginia in part because he was perceived, correctly, to be an enemy of coal-burning, and thus of coal mining.) It used to be the case that the official environmentalist line embraced by Democrats was against market-simulating regulations; that was too bad, and fortunately it’s mostly no longer the case. It also used to be the case that the Republican party had a large pro-environmental wing; that was good, but unfortunately that isn’t the case anymore either.

So right now, the political package that includes looser economic regulation, tort “reform,” lower taxes on the rich, restrictions on abortion, opposition to equal treatment for homosexuals, and public finance for religion under various guises also includes dirtier air and water. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Fourth update (and enough, already!)

This thread seems to have spun out of control. Glenn Reynolds likens it to smackdown wresting, which it seems to me is only a partial truth: Juan non-Volokh seems eager to smack me down, but I don’t have any comparable desire to prove him a fool or a scoundrel, as opposed to arguing against the position he takes.

Juan does engage in what seems to me a rather shabby rhetorical trick. He made an appeal to authority, citing Joel Schwartz of the American Enterprise Institute as the source of an assertion about the impact of changes in NSR rules. I pointed out, as a reason for rejecting that appeal to authority, that Schwartz functions more as a publicist for anti-regulatory positions on environmental matters than as a scholar. In response, Juan accuses me of engaging in ad hominem arguments. Presumably if someone were to cite the ravings of Jeremy Rifkin as facts, Juan would object that Rifkin is not, in fact, an authority. What’s the difference?

Juan continues to point out that NSR isn’t the only environmental rule in place as if that prove that weakening NSR couldn’t possibly do any damage. Of course NSR isn’t the only air quality regulation the Bush Administration wants to weaken, either. (Juan correctly calls me on referring to “Clean Skies” when I should have said “Clear Skies”; it’s hard to keep one’s Bush Administration Orwellisms straight.)

And if Juan really believes that there is no health damage from any level of pollution below the standard arbitrarily set as “attainment” of clean air goals, he has greater faith in the legislative and administrative processes involved than I think warranted. If regulations were really set at levels so low that air pollution were causing no health damage, they would clearly be too strict. Sometimes there is no such level; that is, the damage function always has a positive value for any positive amount of pollution, with no “threshold.” That doesn’t mean that regulations in those cases ought to be set at zero emissions. Nor are they.

It is therefore the case that weakening air quality regulations in ways that permit more pollution does damage to health, if the comparison is, as it should be, to not weakening regulations. Why Juan thinks that current levels of pollution serve as an appropriate baseline, and that any change in policy that slows down the rate of improvement rather than causing pollution levels to actually increase over time is therefore somehow benign, is beyond my comprehension.

Juan doesn’t bother to try to refute my assertion that, right now, Democrats tend to be friends of more rapid environmental cleanup and Republicans enemies of the same, except by making a fairly transparent debater’s point about the party identities of Presidents who signed various pieces of environmental legislation. That might suggest that he despairs of coming up with any facts or arguments against what seems to me a fairly obvious observation.

A reader rebukes me for putting the word “jobs” in quotation marks in accusing Bush of trying to run “jobs” against the environment. It’s not that I think jobs an unimportant consideration. But there is no simple relationship between levels of employment or unemployment (which are almost entirely macroeconomic phenomena) and the stringency of environmental regulation. If tighter regulations eliminate jobs in coal mining or in the operation of coal-fired plants, the composition of employment will change, but not the overall number of jobs; someone is going to make a living producing electricity some other way, or, if the result is an increase in power prices leading to a decrease in power consumption, then someone is going to make a living selling whatever consumers are buying instead of electric power.

Pretending to solve macroeconomic problems through microeconomic strategies is a political trick used by Democrats as well as Republicans, but it is a pretense rather than a valid argument; therefore, I put “jobs” in scare quotes.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: