Do as I say not as I do

by Russ Roberts on November 30, 2011

in Environment

Great catch from Gregg Easterbrook (and his analysis of Tim Tebow is also superb):

Federal standards for ground-level ozone, the main component in smog, were tightened in 2008. This happened when George W. Bush was president. Little was said because establishment opinion did not want to acknowledge that a conservative Republican backed the tightening of anti-smog standards. When, a few months ago, Barack Obama decided not to support another tightening of regulations against smog, establishment opinion was shocked. How could a liberal Democratic not support stricter environmental rules!

Here, The New York Times recounts how Obama reached his decision, laboring to make the story sound appalling. Never mentioned is that smog is already declining under the existing standard — and has been declining steadily for about 30 years. No mainstream media account of the Obama decision, among those seen by your columnist at least, mentioned that smog is already declining anyway. If you know that, the shock value goes poof.

The EPA reports a 67 percent decline since 1980 in the six common pollutants that contribute to smog. Volatile organic compounds, the worst smog malefactor, are down 63 percent since 1980. This progress has occurred in the same period that the U.S. population has risen 36 percent, meaning per-capita pollution is spectacularly lower, and while vehicle miles-driven have risen 96 percent, meaning smog went sharply down even as driving went sharply up. Did you even know that air pollution has declined, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike? The media rarely mention this, because it’s good news.

The Times story linked above begins with a classic unintentionally hilarious reference: “As she was driven the four blocks to the White House, Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suspected that the news would not be good.” The EPA administrator used a government car to move just four blocks! The Environmental Protection Agency building is at 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania. Just four blocks and a pretty walk to boot, with historic buildings all around. Did Jackson need a car because it was raining? The story gives the date of Jackson’s meeting with Obama. Washington weather that day was partly cloudy, high of 80.

Jackson has been the leading Obama administration supporter of stricter regulations to discourage gasoline and coal consumption. On the right this is described as a disaster — Monday’s Wall Street Journal editorial page slammed Jackson for favoring fuel efficiency. Just as the left’s global warming alarms are overblown, so are the right’s alarms about environmental regulations, which definitely have been good for the environment and mainly have been good for the economy. The issue here is simple government hypocrisy. The EPA administrator herself wants to be in a car even for a very short distance on a nice day — but thinks everybody else should be required to use less fossil fuel!

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Jon Murphy November 30, 2011 at 1:51 pm

With a high of 80, I wonder if she used the air conditioning, too.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Obama turns up the heat at 80.

Mogden November 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm

It is not our place to question the wisdom of our public servants.

RobH November 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm

That’s right Mogden. As Tom Woods would say, “Our wise overlords are here to protect us.”

Krishnan November 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Imagine the horror if Obama does not have enough fossil fuels to go on his vacations on multiple 747′s … So, yea, of course we all should use none of the fuels that they need …

Darren November 30, 2011 at 2:55 pm

The EPA administrator used a government car to move just four blocks!

Government officials can’t be seen brushing shoulders with plebes.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Taking a look at her, she probably needed an F150 and could use a walk.

Rob November 30, 2011 at 10:06 pm

On the face and out of context, yes, it is funny and ironic. But the problem is that she might be required because of security protocol not to walk. Let’s at least be reasonable here people and consider alternative explanations. Need we read Russ’ post about the umbrella man again?

Jon Murphy November 30, 2011 at 2:58 pm

There’s also the President using Air Force One to fly to Martha’s Vineyard, a distance of less than 400 miles! He can fly in a freaking puddle jumper for that flight

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Let him ride Amtrak, like his stooge no. 2.

Jon Murphy November 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I took the Amtrak from Boston to Chicago two years ago to celebrate my birthday with my twin. I am telling you, there is no better way to travel! The food was very good, the porter was friendly, the people you meet were fascinating and you get to see the country in a way one cannot driving or flying. It was sooooo relaxing, and they even brought us drinks at midnight (it was our birthday and we were turning 21) on the house!

Maybe El’ Presidente should travel by train more often.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Don’t take me wrong, that wasn’t a dig at Amtrak, but at politicians.

As qualified conductor (not on Amtrak, and not for money), it is true, if you can spare the time or your are on the Northeast corridor (where travel time compare well with air, all things considered) whatever misgivings you might have about Amtrak’s organization and financing should be shelved and you should take the train. The business class upgrade is worth the $$ and trains are now starting to be equipped with Wifi.

In my advocation, I have had the opportunity to work with Amtrak personnel (both administrative and operating), and while “safety first”, they are generally very polite and personable.

Jon Murphy November 30, 2011 at 4:10 pm

No, I knew you weren’t making a dig at Amtrak. It was just time for some UR (unfocused rambling aka re-prime the brain for some good work).

Methinks1776 November 30, 2011 at 6:12 pm

The opportunity cost of your time was pretty low, eh?

I will make a dig at Amtrak if you won’t. I worked with them to improve their financial health measurements and compensation schemes many years ago. It’s is a nightmare of subsidy.

Amtrak has only one line – the NorthEast Corridor – that makes money. The rest are a giant toilet down which government flushes the money extracted from the very citizens who do not wish to pay as much as the price of an airplane seat to spend a week slowly crawling from New York to Los Angeles in a long petry dish.

The worst part for me is that I was forced to create 30 year financial projections for them to present to conresscritters when they went to get their next subsidy. Believing that you can make anything like a reasonable projection for a period of that huge length is hilarious enough on it’s own. But, it didn’t stop there. I was forced to use a slightly fluctuating growth rate over the 30 year period as congress would not accept a constant growth rate in the model because it is not unrealistic.

brotio November 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

AmTrak, in its bureaucratic wisdom, runs service from LA to Chicago. In order to maximize profits, AmTrak bypasses the quaint, little burgs of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Denver so that they can go after the robust population centers of Needles, CA; Kingman, AZ; and Trinidad, CO.

Oops! My mistake! AmTrak does serve Las Vegas …
New Mexico!

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I’m not contesting that its a nightmare of subsidy. But airlines (AMR, today, again, Chap 11) are financial disasters and subsidized (yes, differently) and they aren’t the stepchild of eleven decades of ICC regulatory idiocy.

People fly without complaining about the business model, and it’s a far less pleasant journey. Likewise, I despise sugar subsidies, but I’m going to stuff my face with cookies for the next few weeks.

However, unless you are complaining about the aesthetics of those damn ugly GE P42′s at the head end or the rent-seeking of their builder, its still worth considering.

Methinks1776 November 30, 2011 at 7:56 pm

IFRSdrools (I just wanted to use that part of your name for a change),

I’m no expert on the tangled mess that is transportation. Given the level of regulation and government intervention in the airline industry, I’m sure the business model sucks.

However, AmTrak is obsolete in most parts of the country. I used to take the train from NYC to AmTrak’s headquarters in DC and to Philly. It was very convenient, more relaxed and took about as much time as flying to either location (and that’s in the pre TSA sexual assault days). Which is precisely why the Northeast Corridor remains profitable for AmTrak. Although, as soon as I bought a car, I started driving to Philly to avoid the inconvenient train schedule.

However, although I agree with you that commercial air travel is nasty (a flying petri dish), I still prefer it if it gets me there faster. As does the rest of the population. The opportunity cost of people’s time is simply too high to take the train for long distances.

I’m reaching back many many years, so I may either have my facts wrong or they may have changed, but I do believe the operating costs for airlines are much lower than for AmTrak if you include the buildout, care and maintenance of the tracks (which was 100% subsidized by taxpayers). Airlines simply don’t have a national network of tracks to maintain and they are able to reach a larger number of locations (something Brotio was alluding to) in part because they don’t have to build and maintain tracks to remote locations.

Even without the cost of track buildout and maintenance, AmTrak is exceptionally unprofitable. In contrast, CSX was profitable (even though – again I’m reaching back, so correct me if I’m wrong – it paid a fee to use the tracks AmTrak used for free) because it makes total sense to haul goods around the country on trains. People? Not so much.

Greg Webb November 30, 2011 at 10:30 pm

“I was forced to use a slightly fluctuating growth rate over the 30 year period as congress would not accept a constant growth rate in the model because it is not unrealistic.

Well, of course! Everyone knows that a constant rate of growth and rounded numbers don’t look realistic. The appearance of propriety, not propriety itself, is what counts. After all, public perception is reality because the truth is now obsolete.

Greg Webb November 30, 2011 at 10:50 pm

“AmTrak does serve Las Vegas …New Mexico!

Isn’t that where the Librarians have their annual convention?

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Russ, it’s rare when you whiff completely, but you have whiffed completely with your analysis of the “right’s” (i.e., any thinking person evaluating this topic with something more sophisticated than naïve sentimentality) objections to the EPA.

As a skeptic of the use of government’s ability to get much right, I have no objection to an EPA in theory. Nobody wants “dirty air” or “dirty water”, NOBODY. In operation, the EPA and environmental regulation are wholly different matters.

The first question is, what’s dirt? As we see with the now crumbling AGW hoax, that’s not at all clear. Oh come on hoax deniers, that’s red meat, you should all be salivating, emitting a low frequency growl and baring your fangs now. The EPA is neither all-wise or powerful in determing what is dirt, or how much can be tolerated.

The second matter is the EPA gets to define a pollutant, and if it’s disputed, its settled by a small club of guys and gals wearing impressive black robes, known as the judiciary. Wonderful! A tyranny of benevolent “experts”, all-wise and wonderful. Better yet, provide cauldrons of legal plunder known as “environmental” groups “standing” to sue states in federal court to insist on for example, emissions testing, only exempt the biggest smog belchers- diesels and pre-1996 vehicles because there’s no standards for diesels or OBD ports, respectively.

Finally, we should ask “at what cost”? Now that we have a President who believes executive fiat can lower oceans and render the laws of physics moot, we can obviously have cars that get whatever magic MPG Lord Obama decrees.

Meanwhile, unless we want to compromise safety, we have to resort to exotic and expensive materials, (hmm any rent-seeking possibilities there?) to make cars smaller, less powerful, and less durable vehicles-which won’t bother a man who needs two 747’s to cart him and his wife to the latest jobsite of their second occupation-exotic location vacationing.
However, if you are somebody that appreciates a little oomph under the pedal, or dare have more than two offspring, or appreciate a safe and durable vehicle-the hell with you when the President is busy placating his red, er’ green left flank.

But don’t worry, this will all seem pperfectly reasonable to people that drive those nice Priuses to get some chicken at the Bost Mkt, on those nice thick, black, petrolem drived, one use and to the landfill plates.

Russ Roberts November 30, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Huh? Where is my analysis of the EPA? I just liked the punchline of the story.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm

“…, which definitely have been good for the environment and mainly have been good for the economy.”

My error-the quote above is Easterbrook’s, not yours. Next time I’ll screw on the spectacles before unscrewing the cap on my mouth. I gotta watch the impassioned pleas that start “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

In an otherwise incite essay, I don’t know if one can make such an unqualified endorsement “definitely” of efficacy. It also seems that even if the primary effect is great, one much consider the explicit and opportunity costs.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 4:57 pm

and again : insightful essay.. geez, louise.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm

much consider

must consider.. man ….

dcj125 November 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Regarding the 4-block car ride, let’s try to re-imagine it from a different perspective. Let’s say you’re a SS agent on patrol at the White House.

Scenario #1: You see a woman emerge from a crowd of tourists head towards the front entrance. You and a group of other agents intercept her before she gets too close. She claims to be the head of a government agency and has a meeting with the POTUS. Do you 1) let her in or 2) call for back up and have her taken into custody for interrogation while trying to keep it quiet from the press?

Scenario #2: You see a sleek black vehicle with government plates carrying a passenger claiming to be the head of a government agency who’s there for a meeting with the POTUS. Do you 1) let her in or 2) call for back up and have her taken into custody for interrogation while trying to keep it quiet from the press?

It takes a little bit of THINKING to make sense of it. But I admit it’s a lot easier to not do so.

Jon Murphy November 30, 2011 at 3:45 pm

That’s a good point. But in both cases, she’d have to go through security at the front gate. Why would it be different if she was in a car vs. on foot?

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm

And they’d rely on exiting a big black Escalade rather than an identity badge that identifies the individual as the one scheduled to meet with POTUS?

Ken November 30, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Can’t have people confusing the apparatchiks with mere kulaks, after all.

Josh S November 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm

The article assumes smog reduction is the goal. It is not. Power is the goal. Not tightening regulations does not increase anyone’s power, which is why it is so appalling.

Slappy McFee November 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Tuesday Morning Quarterback is a must read.

txslr November 30, 2011 at 3:58 pm

When he called the Houston Texans an elite team I openly wept tears of joy. Now if we can just find another couple of quarterbacks named Matt…

kyle8 November 30, 2011 at 10:00 pm

It isn’t that we don’t want clean air, it is that the air in most of the USA is pretty good right now with existing standards.

There is a decreasing marginal utility of cleaning up that last molecule of smog, and a corresponding increase in costs.

BTW, as a Houston fan, I am afraid that we are screwed this season.

Josh S December 1, 2011 at 8:12 am

By who? The Colts? Not with Peyton out and Caldwell coaching. The Jaguars? LOL. The Titans? Doubtful.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 10:12 pm


I’m not disputing any of what you say, I simply don’t have comparative data and I suspect that you are largely right.

Only a couple points: Airports need to be built and maintained plus an air traffic control system, and Amtrak runs over freight RR track, except here in the NEC, where they own the track. It is an enforced annoyance to the freight roads, it was the “deal” for being allowed to exit the passenger business.

Unfortunately, the freight RR’s are now getting on the gov’t teat, as they pitch “PPP”s (public private partnerships) and are financing new multi-engine ultra low emissions locomotives “gen-sets” at astronomical prices (re)built by rebuilders, because the major builders (GE/EMD) haven’t cataloged 4 axle units for almost 20 years now.

When I said nasty, I was referring to the TSA and the behavior you referred to, I forgot the pathogens -and the increased cancer risk presented by being above 30,000 feet of the densest atmosphere.

But as long as Amtrak runs, whatever route it is, its a high fixed, low marginal cost trip, so your ticket will make it less of taxpayer burden and if you don’t have to get there FAST, enjoy the scenery, without having your femurs restricting your breathing, that’s all.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Oh and “IFRSdrools” is the most important part of my pseudonym, even if its an understatement.

Methinks1776 November 30, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I sort of figured ;)

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