The first bogeyman of the 2012 campaign

September 1, 2011

If an election is coming, that means each side needs a bogeyman. The Republicans have chosen first, and theirs is the Environmental Protection Agency. Michele Bachman calls the EPA “the job-killing organization of America,” promising to “padlock” its doors. Tea Party leader Eric Cantor says environmental rules are “job-destroying”. Texas Gov. Rick Perry says he “prays daily” for the EPA to be restricted.

Soon Democrats will choose their bogeyman – The Rich are the current frontrunner.

Elections often are dominated by bogeymen – Republicans claim Democrats don’t care about national defense, Democrats claim Republicans want to eliminate Social Security, that sort of nonsense. Environmental bogeymen are appealing to some factions because the issue involves regulatory arcana that hardly anyone understands, and because environmental subjects are poorly reported in the mainstream media.

What’s maddening about the politics of the environment is that both sides consistently assert things that aren’t even close to true. The right claims that environmental regulations hurt the economy – data show the reverse. The left claims the environment is dying – data show the reverse.

Consider environmental rules and the economy. From 1980 to the beginning of the 2008 recession, the very period in which environmental regulations went from few to many, the U.S. GDP rose 124 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Most of that period was gangbusters for growth and employment. If environmental regulations are “job destroying,” the economy has a funny way of showing it.

Besides coexisting with economic growth, environmental regulation has had other positive impacts. The dramatic decline in air pollution (down 57 percent from 1980 to 2009), coupled to dramatic decline in releases of toxic compounds (down 74 percent since 1980) are central factors in the rebound of American cities.

New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh – economic activity in these places has soared, population rebounded, and real estate values have risen (even taking into account the post-2008 slump) in part because big cities are far cleaner and more desirable than a generation ago. In the 1970s, Los Angeles averaged more than 100 “stage one” smog alerts per year: recently Los Angeles went seven consecutive years without any stage one alert. If smog and toxic emissions had continued rising at the pre-EPA pace, major U.S. cities might have become nearly uninhabitable. Instead big cities have replaced smokestack industry as the engines of 21st century economic growth – see the book The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida.

Yet Republicans claim environmental regulations are bad for the economy because many voters believe it. Same goes for when Democrats claim Republicans want to end Social Security — it’s because many voters actually believe it.

Lowest-common-denominator politics aside, what’s maddening about Republicans making the EPA a bogeyman is that it denies a great American success story. Using innovation and ingenuity, U.S. businesses found ways to cut pollution without harming economic expansion — and not by offshoring either: petrochemical production inside the United States has increased during the period of toxic-emission decline.

America has every right to boast of leading the world in environmental protection. Some of the credit belongs with Republicans – Richard Nixon for founding the EPA, the elder president George Bush for backing a push against acid rain. But in order to say that environmental protection worked, candidates such as Bachmann and Perry would need to admit that federal rules can bring benefits to society. Many on the contemporary right just can’t bring themselves to say this. So Bachmann, Perry and others on the right talk down the United States, ignoring success while crying wolf about problems that don’t even exist.

On the left, the mental blinders are just as bad. All forms of air pollution except greenhouse gases have been in decline for a generation, even as prosperity rises; toxic emissions are in deep decline; water quality is rising almost everywhere; the forested acreage of the United States has been increasing for two decades; many U.S. species are threatened, but extinctions are rare.

Rather than note these things, Democrats and leftists cry doomsday or Republican conspiracy. In a June speech Bruce Babbitt, who was secretary of the Interior under Bill Clinton, decried a supposed Republican “assault on our public lands and water.” The left strongly backs a current EPA proposal to drop the urban ozone standard from 75 parts per billion of air to 60 parts per billion. Previous anti-smog rules have been highly cost-effective; the latest proposal may be an exercise in chasing diminishing returns. But if the proposal passes, Democrats will be able to claim that 85 percent of American cities don’t meet the EPA anti-smog standard. That can be used to make it seem like the industry is despoiling the environment. Though smog itself is declining, making the rule more strict would create a politically pleasing illusion that smog is getting worse.

Many Democrats can’t bring themselves to cite environmental progress because this spoils the script in which Republicans play bogeyman trying to ruin nature. Also, citing the success of American environmental regulations prevents use of the blame-America-first strategy that is dear to the hearts of all too many Democrats.

Lots of EPA regulations are excessively complex, and their transaction costs high: streamlining would be welcome. But that’s a complicated thought. Besides, it’s election season — so bring on the bogeymen.

Here is a past column on the nuttiness of environmental regulation politics.

Photo: The Sierra Nevada Mountains are seen from Air Force One flying north towards Seattle from Los Angeles while carrying U.S. President Barack Obama, August 17, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing




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Your best article in a while, Mr. Easterbrook.

Both sides of the aisle are environmentally irrational. Unfortunately that leaves us dangling without any environmental policy whatsoever beyond the vagaries of the current administration’s interpretations of existing regulation. And it leaves us voters without an important descriminating factor in choosing between candidates.

Worse yet, the environment is but one area in which the political milieu is so dichotimized.

Posted by nadie | Report as abusive

I think it’s interesting that you try to play the “middle” and end up having to lie about the “left”.

Here’s where it starts… “What’s maddening about the politics of the environment is that both sides consistently assert things that aren’t even close to true…. the left claims the environment is dying – data show the reverse.”

But then you add this much later, “All forms of air pollution except greenhouse gases have been in decline for a generation…”

Ipso facto on the last sentence I quoted, greenhouse gases are on the rise. And greenhouse gases and curbing C02 emissions is the left’s big bogeyman. So the “left” ISN’T, in fact, wrong in making their claim that the environment is dying. Thanks for playing Greggggggg.

Posted by Sprizouse | Report as abusive

I am very surprised at how Mr Easterbrook so easily takes the side of EPA rules.

He says that US output has increased 124% between 1980 and 2009 which, indeed, may or may not be true. In any case, this percentage is irrelevant to his own very poor arguments because he has made no tangible comparisons.

Between 1952 and 1972 — the average US GDP rate was 3.7%.

Between 1972 and 2010, the average GDP increase was at 3%.

That’s a drop of 23%.

Isn’t this pecentile figure rather more important, truthful and revealing than your own weak assumptions on the “positive” effects on GDP of EPA rules ?

Sick media, sick opinion equals dumbed-down citizens.

I would try searching a little harder for the truth Mr Easterbrook.

Posted by slowsmile | Report as abusive

I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that environmental regulations increase prosperity. Correlation does not imply causation. It would be like saying “wearing drooping pants increased between 2001-2010 at the same time that crime decreased during the same period. Therefore it’s vital for public safety for kids to wear their pants below their knees to eliminate crime.”

That being said, I agree fully that there is fault on both sides in the environmental debates. On the left there is the tendency to play up the “chicken little” aspects of environmental policy that leads to skepticism amongst those who lived through it. Anyone over the age of 40 remembers the fear mongering of overpopulation, ozone depletion, death of the rain forests, starvation, acid rain, new ice age, expanding deserts, DDT, Alar, etc. In all those cases the problems were either resolved (mostly), overblown, or just plain wrong.

For the right, there’s a bad tendency to suggest that there are no environmental problems whatsoever. This is, of course, demonstrably wrong.

The need to streamline EPA regulations is vital, and the agency needs to move from a role of being a police force with a goal of punitive action, to one of cooperation with industry making the environment better. Instead of denying a company the ability to build a plant on a brownfield, let the agency work on helping a company acquire funding and resources to clean the site first.

Of course, as Will Rodgers once said, “the middle of the road is the surest place to get run over.”

Posted by GBob | Report as abusive

Easterbrook wrote: “Lots of EPA regulations are excessively complex, and their transaction costs high: streamlining would be welcome.”

I supposed Gregg needed a column this week but he could have stopped at that single sentence. Next week I suggest he substitute “Government” for “EPA” and that will be another well written column.

Posted by danwut | Report as abusive

You do not seem to read your own newspapers news. Did the democrats make this up;
Ocean life on the brink of mass extinctions: study 1/us-oceans-idUSTRE75K1IY20110621
Or this?:
The Sixth Extinction 05/25/090525fa_fact_kolbert

Two good books “The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind” by Richard E. Leakey
And ESPECIALLY ” Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators” by Will Stolzenberg
The last one is written really well..wonderful to read!

Posted by BobbieJ | Report as abusive