Cain, Cows, the Economy and the Environment

Herman Cain unleashed an advertisement in Iowa, claiming that the EPA’s plans to regulate methane from cows and dust from farms would be the death knell for Iowa farmers.  Truth, or even truthiness, as Steven Colbert would say, do not appear to be hallmarks of Cain’s campaign, and this ad is no exception.  Neither of the assertions in it are true. The EPA has no plans to regulate methane from cows, nor dust from agriculture. Leaving Cain aside, however, the bigger recurring story is the apparent appeal of the “jobs v. environment” rhetoric, addressed recently on the BAT site here.

(But before we leave the ever-popular subject of cows and methane behind, here is a PSA on the topic from Animal Planet, a British outfit that produces environmental animation shorts:)

Back to the larger issue.  One way to counter the “economy v. environment” rhetoric is to resort to facts.  A recent article in the Washington Post took that approach.  Among the facts recounted in the story were the results of a study of four heavily polluting industries: “The researchers concluded that higher spending to comply with environment rules does not cause ‘a significant change’ in industry employment. When jobs were lost, they were often made up elsewhere in the same industry. For every $1 million companies spent, as many as 11/net jobs were added to the economy.”  This resonates with my similar assertion in the previous post, that there is no credible evidence that environmental protection harms an otherwise sound economy.

Another way to counter the rhetoric is to focus on what kind of economy we want.  In other words, there certainly could be more economic development if we eliminated all laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment.  But do we want to go back to the days of raw sewage in our rivers and smog so thick in LA that on occasion the populace was warned to stay indoors and school was cancelled? Most Americans would reject that extreme version of an unregulated economy.  Raising it as a possibility is a way to redirect the conversation to what is actually at stake, which is how to shape an economy with sufficient guarantees of livelihood, health, and other important values, including natural places in which to live, play and wonder.

Finally, to the extent that environmental regulation imposes costs on business, the effect on jobs is often indirect. Industries choose whether to comply with environmental regulations and continue operating, or instead to close up shop.  The determining factor for them is usually profit.  To the extent that there is any accuracy to the “environment v. economy” debate, in other words, it should properly be described as “profit v. environment,” not “jobs v. environment.”  While I have never been an optimist about the “natural capitalism” thesis, a very important contribution from that literature is that some firms have chosen to incorporate environmental (and social) benefits into their understanding of what it means to do “good” business. Many firms, of course, do not. They make the decision to turn environmental regulation into a job killer.  It’s a choice, not an inevitability.  (And as a mournful aside, we might add that the lives, and therefore inevitably the jobs, of 11 men in the Gulf of Mexico would have been saved had there been adequate environmental regulation of that industry.  Tragically, in that case and others, failure to regulate was the killer.)


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1 Response to Cain, Cows, the Economy and the Environment

  1. mpbulletin says:

    It’s interesting related to the job killing rhetoric…During the Reagan administration a choice was made not to support the development of wind power. As a result the US lost its chance to be a leader in that area to Germany. Over the last decade the Bush administration declined to support solar power development. What happened? Germany again had the foresight to invest in that technology and now leads the world in that industry.

    How are renewables job killers when other countries have created so many jobs through their investments?

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