Labor Day 2011: Jobs, Citizens United and Obama’s Surrender on the Smog Rule

Hours before the Labor Day weekend, President Obama decided that he would refuse to do what the law, science, and the public interest require: enforce the Clean Air Act to reduce utility and other polluter emissions that cause illness and death for thousands of Americans each year.  He overruled his own EPA, and killed a life-saving, job-creating rule necessary to reduce ground-level ozone pollution that causes thousands of premature deaths.  Apart from the rash abandonment of effective environmental and public health law enforcement, Obama’s action gratuitously promotes the false dogma that environmental regulation costs jobs.  Just the opposite is true.

The “job-killing regulation” lie is an old one, and most people know it. Apart from the perverse logic in purporting to act to preserve some jobs at the price of thousands of lives and thousands of new cases of asthma in children, actually complying with the Clean Air Act and other environmental protections create jobs.  After all, while polluters might have more compliance costs, those “costs” are paid to innovative companies and people that create the solutions to comply with the law and protect American lives.

For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency first proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing acid rain caused by power plant emissions, the electric utility industry warned that they would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs. But the cost of the program has been closer to $1 billion, said Dallas Burtraw, an economist at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research group on the environment. And the E.P.A., in a paper published this year, cited studies showing that the law had been a modest net creator of jobs through industry spending on technology to comply with it.

New York Times, September 5, 2011

With this retreat on the Clean Air Act, the White House blew another opportunity to lead rather than crouch.  President Obama could have stood up for the American people and innovative businesses rather than do the bidding of the most inefficient, dangerous corporate polluters. He could have pushed ahead with the smog rules that EPA had developed so well and explained why he was doing so in his “jobs speech” this week. He could have told the American people the truth—we can handle it — about the bogus, corporate-funded “job-killing regulation” campaign that coal, oil and other global corporations are spreading throughout the land.

It may be that Obama got weak-kneed on the smog rule because of fear of billions of dollars in potential political spending in 2012 from the oil, coal, and utility corporations. For good reasons, this kind of corporate spending was illegal for a century before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision.  Now “corporate free speech” outweighs the lives, jobs and health of the people who would have benefited from enforcing the Clean Air Act  in a way that might actually protect clean air.

I think we’ll continue to see the effect of Citizens United on jobs, and we will not see a return of an innovative, dynamic American economy that works for Americans until the case is overturned. The Supreme Court’s elimination of the last restraint on corporate power – – a modest limitation on spending in elections – – is likely to be the end game of the transformation of our economy into one where only a few people, rather than most people, have a shot to prosper.

In the corporatist era, it is not just regulation in the public interest that is disappearing. Good wages and benefits like health care or pensions are now costs to be reduced, avoided, or eliminated altogether, rather than good things to which we should aspire.

On this Labor Day, it may be good to recall that we used to think that higher wages with more benefits for working people was a worthy goal, rather than a problem to overcome so corporations can be more competitive.

If we accept the false metaphor in Citizens United of corporate money as a “voice,” and the bogus idea that big corporations are no more of a threat to our political life than wealthy people, there is a good chance we will complete the transition of America to a state of crony capitalism, where corporate money distorts policies, corrupts markets to favor the inefficient, dirty and well-connected, rather than the good, clean and innovative business. And good, well-paying jobs will be as hard to find as clean air.

About Jeff Clements

Jeff serves as President of American Promise. He has practiced law for three decades in public service and private practice, and is the author of Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy From Big Money & Global Corporations. He is also the founder of Whaleback Partners LLC, which provides sustainable financing to businesses in the local agriculture economy. Previously, Jeff has been a partner in a major Boston law firm and served as Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the public law enforcement bureau in the Attorney General’s Office in Massachusetts. Jeff has helped to start and been a board member of many non-profit organizations and businesses. Today, in addition to the board of American Promise, he serves on the vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord, Massachusetts. Twitter: @ClementsJeff
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