Jobs vs the Environment One More Time

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The New York Times tries to provide some perspective to the renewed debate over the economic effect of environmental regulation, and the effect of regulation on jobs in particular.  The story was prompted by President Obama’s decision to ask Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to withdraw a proposed revision of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone.  Business groups and many local government officials cheered the move; environmentalist groups were dismayed.

Part of the problem in evaluating the costs of regulation is that there have been few systematic studies of such costs after regulations are imposed.

“Regulations are put on the books and largely stay there unexamined,” said Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is part of the reason that these debates about regulations have a Groundhog’s Day quality to them.”

Mr. Greenstone has conducted one of the few studies that actually measure job losses related to environmental rules. In researching the amendments to the Clean Air Act that affected polluting plants from 1972 and 1987, he found that those companies lost almost 600,000 jobs compared with what would have happened without the regulations.

But Mr. Greenstone has also conducted research showing that clean air regulations have reduced infant mortality and increased housing prices, and indeed many economists argue that job losses should not be considered in isolation. They say the costs of regulations are dwarfed by the gains in lengthened lives, reduced hospitalizations and other health benefits, and by economic gains like the improvement to the real estate market.

The NYT story did not provide links to Prof. Greenstone’s research, so I added them above. For those interested in the subject, a third paper by Greenstone looks at the extent to which air quality improvements can be attributed to the federal Clean Air Act. Prof. Greenstone is, among other things, the former chief economist of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The story closes with a quote from current Obama Administration “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein, who’s in leave from the Harvard Law School.

“My view is that the Republican claim that ‘job-killing regulation’ is a redundancy is as ridiculous as the left-wing view that ‘job-killing regulation’ is an oxymoron,” said Cass Sunstein, head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. “Both are silly political claims that have no place in a serious discussion.”
I agree with Professor Sunstein that the debate over whether regulation kills or creates jobs is not very productive. As a general matter, when a firm is forced to spend money complying with environmental regulations, such expenditures are likely to take the place of more productive investments.  Some of these expenditures may benefit other firms, such as those which sell products or services that assist with compliance, but are still unlikely to offset the negative effects of the initial diversion.  As a consequence, whether or not there are net economic benefits from environmental regulation will usually depend on the magnitude and nature of the other benefits the regulation provides — benefits that may or may not translate into job creation. Even if an environmental regulation generates net economic benefits, this does not necessarily translate into increased employment.  But whatever the effect of regulation on jobs, and even assuming the effect could be predicted with any accuracy, this is only one factor to be weighed when considering the desirability of regulation.

UPDATE: Matt Kahn notes that Clean Air Act regulation is not uniform across the nation, and insofar as regulations adopted pursuant to that law have reduced employment in some parts of the country, this has been offset by greater job creation elsewhere.  Indeed, this differential effect is one reason why the Clean Air Act was amended to impose greater restrictions on “cleaner” areas, as B. Peter Pashigian documented in a 1985 paper.

Another interesting aspect of Clean Air Act regulation, relevant to President Obama’s recent decision, is that the economic consequences of tightening a NAAQS may be severe, but they are anything but immediate.  Once a new NAAQS is finalized, state and local governments have many years to develop plans to come into compliance, so no direct regulatory burden would have been imposed on private firms for many years.  Thus whatever the merits of withdrawing the NAAQS revision proposal, and deferring any tightening to 2013, it will not do much for the economy in 2011, except insofar as one believes the prospects of tighter environmental regulations in the future is a significant impediment to investment and job-creation in the present.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.

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Jonathan Adler is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He is a prolific scholar, publishing on such topics as regulatory takings, water marketing, fisheries management, and the judicial limits of federal environmental regulation. He is the author,...
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