Thursday, October 20, 2011

Party of Pollution


Last month President Obama finally unveiled a serious economic stimulus plan — far short of what I’d like to see, but a step in the right direction. Republicans, predictably, have blocked it. But the new plan, combined with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, seems to have shifted the national conversation. We are, suddenly, focused on what we should have been talking about all along: jobs.

So what is the G.O.P. jobs plan? The answer, in large part, is to allow more pollution. So what you need to know is that weakening environmental regulations would do little to create jobs and would make us both poorer and sicker.

Now it would be wrong to say that all Republicans see increased pollution as the answer to unemployment. Herman Cain says that the unemployed are responsible for their own plight — a claim that, at Tuesday’s presidential debate, was met with wild applause.

Both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have, however, put weakened environmental protection at the core of their economic proposals, as have Senate Republicans. Mr. Perry has put out a specific number — 1.2 million jobs — that appears to be based on a study released by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, claiming favorable employment effects from removing restrictions on oil and gas extraction. The same study lies behind the claims of Senate Republicans.

But does this oil-industry-backed study actually make a serious case for weaker environmental protection as a job-creation strategy? No.

Part of the problem is that the study relies heavily on an assumed “multiplier” effect, in which every new job in energy leads indirectly to the creation of 2.5 jobs elsewhere. Republicans, you may recall, were scornful of claims that government aid that helps avoid layoffs of schoolteachers also indirectly helps save jobs in the private sector. But I guess the laws of economics change when it’s an oil company rather than a school district doing the hiring.

Moreover, even if you take the study’s claims at face value, it offers little reason to believe that dirtier air and water can solve our current employment crisis. All the big numbers in the report are projections for late this decade. The report predicts fewer than 200,000 jobs next year, and fewer than 700,000 even by 2015.

You might want to compare these numbers with a couple of other numbers: the 14 million Americans currently unemployed, and the one million to two million jobs that independent estimates suggest the Obama plan would create, not in the distant future, but in 2012.

More pollution, then, isn’t the route to full employment. But is there a longer-term economic case for less environmental protection? No. Serious economic analysis actually says that we need more protection, not less.

The important thing to understand is that the case for pollution control isn’t based on some kind of aesthetic distaste for industrial society. Pollution does real, measurable damage, especially to human health.

And policy makers should take that damage into account. We need more politicians like the courageous governor who supported environmental controls on a coal-fired power plant, despite warnings that the plant might be closed, because “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people.”

Actually, that was Mitt Romney, back in 2003 — the same politician who now demands that we use more coal.

How big are these damages? A new study by researchers at Yale and Middlebury College brings together data from a variety of sources to put a dollar value on the environmental damage various industries inflict. The estimates are far from comprehensive, since they only consider air pollution, and they make no effort to address longer-term issues such as climate change. Even so, the results are stunning.

For it turns out that there are a number of industries inflicting environmental damage that’s worth more than the sum of the wages they pay and the profits they earn — which means, in effect, that they destroy value rather than creating it. High on the list, by the way, is coal-fired electricity generation, which the Mitt Romney-that-was used to stand up to.

As the study’s authors say, finding that an industry inflicts large environmental damage compared with its apparent economic return doesn’t necessarily mean that the industry should be shut down. What it means, instead, is that “the regulated levels of emissions from the industry are too high.” That is, environmental regulations aren’t strict enough.

Republicans, of course, have strong incentives to claim otherwise: the big value-destroying industries are concentrated in the energy and natural resources sector, which overwhelmingly donates to the G.O.P. But the reality is that more pollution wouldn’t solve our jobs problem. All it would do is make us poorer and sicker.

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