The First Bogeyman of the 2012 Campaign

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.

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.