John Buell

Jobs and the Politics of Regulation

How do Republicans get away with it? The EPA or other government agency proposes a new or amended regulation. The GOP then announces it will kill jobs. A few in the press do worry about lives that might be lost if the regulation is withdrawn, but they join the consensus that there is a tradeoff between jobs and health. Few engage in any systematic inquiry into the jobs loss claim. Soon even the Democratic president, on the defensive, backs down and scales back or withdraws the regulation.

This whole sad scenario has once again unfolded as President Obama recently requested that his EPA withdraw an already long-overdue tightening of ozone standards. Give the Republicans credit for something. They may not get an A in science, but they are Nobel laureates at framing an issue. As with the language of death taxes, talk of job loss resonates with long-standing popular distrust of government and helps Republicans control the terms of the debate.

Why is government so unpopular? In period of joblessness, especially under a president who promised jobs but has failed to deliver, it becomes an inviting target. And the focus on austerity and the mistaken but endlessly repeated claim that fiscal profligacy caused the European and US recession helps build and in turn is reinforced by hatred of government. In addition, gridlock works for Republicans. Though they have caused stalemate, government itself is seen as cumbersome and obstructionist. And the very corruption of the regulatory process –even though through corporate influence— lessens the legitimacy of regulation.

Regulation, of course, not only does not destroy jobs but may even create many more. The Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluded that “new air pollution rules proposed for the electric power sector by the Environmental Protection Agency will provide long-term economic benefits across much of the United States in the form of highly skilled, well paying jobs through infrastructure investment.” Why is there so little push for regulations from the sectors of the businesses that would benefit? It is because the established businesses, such as oil or coal, don’t want to cede influence to these corporations, and the latter are generally smaller, less established, and lack ties to political establishment.

In general, the default position of Americans is to distrust government even though a large majority benefits from — and generally wants to hold on to—a variety of supports like Medicare. But, by a curious catch-22, where such programs are successful and approved they almost cease to be viewed as government programs. Remember the Tea Party member telling politicians not to let government run health care or take away their Medicare!

Speaking of Medicare, etc., there have been periods when regulation had a better name. The ’60s were one such time and the success of Keynesian full employment policies played a big role. The breakdown of that consensus, in part through the collapse of the international economic system of which it was a part and the politics of race helped end that positive interlude. Government regulation and indeed many references to government became racialized. “Hard-working” and “responsible” became code words for white while government was associated with inept, grasping, lazy, prevailing stigmatizations of blacks.

Part of the tragedy of the Obama administration is that he failed to take advantage of the stunning collapse of the economic system that elevated him to the presidency and forced many working-class whites to examine older beliefs. Indeed, he further entrenched older views by advertising an inadequate stimulus as the cure and then proclaimed mission accomplished well before any progress had been made.

Naomi Klein has spoken about the way corporate elites have used the shock of crises to impose a conservative agenda. But the process is more subtle. Conservatives have taken their openings, but have been able to do so because they took ideas seriously, prepared in advance, and continued to articulate a message of self-reliance, small government, even during the height of the Keynesian/liberal consensus.

Many liberals and even some on the left have failed to take advantage of the openings they had. Part of the problem is to recognize that a base must be built over a period of time. At the very least Obama should have been building a case for effective public policy and blaming Republicans in advance for the limits of the inadequate jobs program they occasioned.

Today, liberals must to do more than defend the older liberal agenda. Regulation is not without its problems, but the deficiencies are not in “job destruction.” Progressives should become attentive to and admit the limits of the regulatory process itself. The average consumer and worker does not understand or own the process and there are limits to how the current system works. We can never put enough inspectors into meat plants or industrial workplaces. The regulatory process must to do more than invite comment from interested parties. In the area of occupational safety, worker committees should have the right to stop dangerous production processes and the time to study and understand the occupational risks and current standards. Local environmental groups should have the tools and the standing to assess environmental assaults. A regulatory process that builds in grass roots participation will be harder to overturn with simplistic attacks.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2011

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