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September 6, 2017 6:02 AM   Subscribe

What are some good counterarguments in favor of a restored EPA and environmental regulations?

I've been doing some environmental activism, as well as following the damage that's been done because of Trump's gutting of the EPA through Scott Pruitt. In the process, I've encountered several consistent conservative and libertarian counterarguments:

1) Regulations are expensive. They cut into businesses' profits and prevent them from making as much money as they can. This hurts the economy - by weakening the EPA and deregulating, Trump and Pruitt are making the economy stronger.

2) Some regulations are necessary, but under Obama there were too many regulations and government red-tape that was getting in the way of business. Trump's actions are necessary to cut the unneeded ones.

3) We can't put aside progress because animals might get hurt. Human and American interests are more important than the interests of spotted owls and snail darters. For progress to continue, businesses need to grow.

4) The EPA operates outside the system of checks and balances and passes its own laws without oversight. The agency is tyrannical as it was and needed to be reined in.

5) Regulations take away blue-collar jobs (coal miners, loggers, fishermen, etc.), and by loosening regulations these jobs can be restored and these industries made competitive again.

I'm interested in solid counterarguments to these claims. How much impact do regulations actually have on the economy (hard numbers preferred)? How much regulation did Obama's EPA pass? What is the actual impact on job loss? What do Trump and Pruitt personally gain from stopping the EPA from doing the job it is supposed to do, and what are their real motives in doing so?
posted by thedarksideofprocyon to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Regulations are the foundation of a healthy economy in which companies don't exploit every resource they can get their hands on.

Regulations prevent companies from taking risks that hurt other people. They prevent companies from disposing of their garbage into our neighborhoods, water supply, lungs, etc.

Unregulated economies are expensive - it's just that the cost is shifted to other people.

The best argument for the EPA's regulatory function is to take a look at what the country was like before there was an EPA. For example, see Pittsburgh.
posted by entropone at 6:31 AM on September 6 [7 favorites]


The counter argument regarding the costs of regulation (to business) is that businesses have defined costs to exclude the environmental damage they cause - economists refer to these costs as externalities because they are not integral to the businesses operation, but they sure do exist. The added costs of not-polluting or doing business in a cleaner way are paid by someone (usually in the form of poorer health for affected communities etc) without regulation, and regulations shift that burden back to the businesses which would rather profit more and pay less.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:34 AM on September 6 [8 favorites]


These are all the same argument, for one thing.
posted by PMdixon at 6:41 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


In a previous 20th century life I worked on many advocacy and informational PSAs and events. We once put on a media event in support of... carbon offsets, I think. Just like today, industries had hauled out all the usual excuses like costs and lost jobs, so we held a Celebrity Whine Tasting Party. I was in charge of creating "whine labels" with excuses, and for each one we had someone explain that the same excuses were always used and the fears of lost income, jobs, etc never, ever panned out.

I think the most straightforward response you could give would be to counter the excuses with the same kind of examples.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:58 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]


1, 2, and 5 are basically the same point. And in principle, they are correct: There are costs and benefits to virtually all regulations. The goal is to have regulations for which the costs outweigh the benefits. Resources for the Future is the leading independent research organization in this area. You could take a look at their research on cost-benefit analysis, for example.

And some of these decisions are value judgments, especially 3. I doubt you'll change anyone's mind on that issue. (Well, I actually doubt you'll change any minds on any of those issues...)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:15 AM on September 6 [2 favorites]


The town of West, Texas exploding and killing its entire fire department and killing and injuring more people besides that, in the middle of the supposedly-onerously-restrictive Obama era, has seemed to me to encapsulate many of the arguments against the mentalities and propaganda complexes you're listing. If that event can happen under a regime of "too much government red-tape", how can anyone believe that even just industrial and commercial activities that slowly kill humans in a non-action-movie-like fashion by poisoning them and causing cancer and other diseases will be prevented or held in check under a loosened regime where even the supposed red-tape that still allowed that to happen has been dramatically reduced? Much less prevent or hold in check that sort of stuff happening to flora and fauna, which are canaries in the coal mine for what's happening to the rest of us.
posted by XMLicious at 7:55 AM on September 6 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that all of these arguments amount to: "We should be able to trash the environment without interference so that we can make money." The"we" here are private businesses, and not the people or the public.

It's easy to see that trashing the environment ultimately benefits no one. We all have to breathe the air and drink the water. Even businesses will eventually be harmed once so much damage is done that their operations no longer have resources to exploit.

It's also easy to see that without regulations or with lax regulations businesses have been unscrupulous at defiling whatever resources it is profitable for them to defile. It was regulations that cleaned up the Hudson and New York Harbor. You can now eat fish from those waters. You can also find photos of US cities cloaked in smog in the 1970s before regulations mandated catalytic converters.

As far as jobs, there is more opportunity for job growth in clean energy than in outdated and damaging industries.

Number 3 is particularly specious because trashing our natural resources -- that we literally depend on for human survival -- is in no way "progress." Progress would be figuring out ways that we can preserve resources and switch to alternate sources of energy. It also shortsighted to suggest that preserving biodiversity is unimportant. Individual species need to be protected because they are a part of the larger ecosystem.

There's so much more... :)
posted by Vispa Teresa at 9:04 AM on September 6 [3 favorites]


The EPA operates outside the system of checks and balances and passes its own laws without oversight.

The EPA doesn't pass laws. Anyone who tells you this is either arguing in bad faith or is too dumb or partisan not to adopt unconsidered the arguments of someone else arguing in bad faith.

The EPA, like most federal agencies, does have the ability to issue regulations. While it's a complex story, usually the EPA, like most federal agencies, can issue regulations only pursuant to a specific Congressional grant of legal authority to do so, usually as a matter of interpreting or filling in the (often arcane) details of a particular law Congress has charged the agency with administering. The agency, of course, is headed by a presidential appointee, who must be approved by the Senate, and ordinarily the head of the agency will act pursuant to presidential instruction, as he serves at the pleasure of the president and can be removed without cause. (Again, this is a complex story, and there are some agencies created with a bit more independence from executive authority, but not the EPA.) There is, generally speaking, a drawn-out process by which the EPA must publicly propose regulations and take and respond to public comments before issuing the regulation. So there are actually plenty of structural constraints on agency action.

Further, regulations do not override laws. If Congress doesn't care for a regulation, they have the power to pass a law overriding it, or even, ultimately, to abolish the agency. Additionally, most regulations are subject to a law known as the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which provides grounds for people affected by regulations and other agency decisions to challenge them.

I wouldn't expect a non-lawyer/policy person to have the details of all this at their fingertips, but anyone who tells you that the EPA "passes laws without oversight" is effectively confessing that either they know fuck-all about our system of government or are happy to lie about it.
posted by praemunire at 9:10 AM on September 6 [8 favorites]


4) The EPA operates outside the system of checks and balances and passes its own laws without oversight. The agency is tyrannical as it was and needed to be reined in.

This is basically how all executive agencies work. Congress spells out in broad (well, as broad or as narrow as congress likes, but usually pretty broad) strokes what they are supposed to do, and leave the details up the agency — in fact, I believe that the establishment of those details are typically explicitly left up to the agency in the establishing legislation.

This is not unique to the EPA, or even to various bodies charged with enforcing environmental laws (of which the EPA is not the only one); it's pretty much how all executive agencies work. An argument can be made (and sometimes is made, by libertarians) that Congress shouldn't be able to delegate its authority to Executive Branch agencies like that at all, but if you go down that road you're no longer merely discussing environmental regulations, you've entered a much larger philosophical debate about How Government Should Work.

As for oversight, there is oversight: Congress can amend its legislation to more narrowly proscribe how an agency exercises its authority, and if it desires, reverse any regulations the agency has made, if they don't like how the agency has been operating.

As an example, let's take the Endangered Species Act, as it's a frequent target for this type of argument. (Side note: the Endangered Species Act is not administered by the EPA, so if your debater brings up "spotted owls and snail darters" specifically against the EPA, you can stop them right there. But we'll assume they're arguing against environmental regulations from Executive Branch agencies generally, and continue from there.)

Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 to protect species from extinction, but delegated the designation of species into the various ESA categories jointly to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Now, what tacks might be taken by a debater who is opposed to the current protection of endangered species in the US?

— If they believe no species at all should receive any special protection, that's an argument that can be made, but then their disagreement is with the underlying federal law, passed by Congress, which clearly intended that some species receive special protection, and not with the "unchecked" regulations made by FWS and NMFS.

— If they believe some species should receive special protection, but only if each species is directly identified as such by Congress and its specific protections spelled out, then there's two ways to approach that:
— the "no executive branch regulations at all" philosophy mentioned above, under which Congress would directly have to consider every possible endangered species, every candidate drug which is currently submitted to the FDA for evaluation, the details of every single worker safety regulation currently handled by OSHA, etc., etc. And a) Congress doesn't have time for all those nitty-gritty details, and b) the experts at the various agencies have better knowledge about what exactly those regulations should be than Congress does. Having Congress directly consider every possible endangered species would mean a lot less science and a lot more politics in those decisions, and Congress itself recognizes that FWS/NMFS can make those decisions better than Congress can. (Warning: the idea that Congress wouldn't have the time to directly enact the vast majority of regulations may be taken as a point in favor of not delegating rule-making authority to Executive Branch agencies by libertarians.)

— If they're OK with Executive Branch agencies making regulations in general but think Congress should evaluate individual species for endangered status, well, Congress could amend the ESA to have that happen, if it wanted. It doesn't, for the reasons mentioned above.
— If they're OK with the concept of endangered species receiving special protection generally, and with the idea of FWS/NMFS determining which species receive special protection, but just think that far too many species receive too much protection, then that's a problem to be corrected by either a) an executive directing the agencies to protect fewer species and/or b) Congress amending the ESA in a way that would lead to fewer species being protected.

The short version of the answer to point #4 is: Congress provides as much or as little detail as it desires in the law to the agency itself, and delegates any further details of the operation of the law to regulations made by the agency. If Congress doesn't like how the agency has used the authority delegated to it, they can always amend the law to more strictly describe what the agency does and thereby limit the amount of discretion given to the agency itself.

(On preview: also, the public comment process required for creating regulations mentioned by praemunire is another major form of oversight.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:29 AM on September 6 [4 favorites]


Since you-know-who announced his one step forward two steps back thing, I have made a point of referring to these as "protections" rather than "regulations." Worker protections, consumer protections, environmental protections. Because that's what they are, not just pointless rules.

1) Regulations are expensive. They cut into businesses' profits and prevent them from making as much money as they can. This hurts the economy - by weakening the EPA and deregulating, Trump and Pruitt are making the economy stronger.

Eliminating protections is easier and cheaper in the short term, the same way it's easier and cheaper in the short term not to invest in smoke detectors for your house and to pour grease down your kitchen sink. The reason you don't take those cost saving measures is that you would be the one suffering the consequences.

Corporations don't suffer consequences in any meaningful natural sense. They are man-made entities that exist solely for the purpose of amassing profits. They don't have consciences. All they have are their charters, which mandate them to make money and nothing else. Life--human or otherwise--has no intrinsic value to them. They're single-minded sociopathic entities that don't care if you or your children live or die except when it affects their bottom line. Publicly held corporations are accountable primarily for creating maximum profits for their shareholders, not for the community at large.

These protections are one of the few tools we have available to hold those corporations responsible for the damages they cause to their workers, the environment, and the community at large.

2) Some regulations are necessary, but under Obama there were too many regulations and government red-tape that was getting in the way of business. Trump's actions are necessary to cut the unneeded ones.

Nobody is in favor of pointless regulations. If there are bad and ineffective regulations that put up obstacles that are not worth the benefits they're intended to provide, address those individually. Make your case, listen to rebuttals, and then make any necessary changes. People proposing to just repeal regulations wholesale are not acting in good faith. If they only wanted to get rid of pointless and overly cumbersome regulations, they could do that with far less pushback, by actually making their case against the specific protections they think are excessive. So it's pretty obvious they're not just targeting bad regulations--they're targeting our worker, consumer, and environmental protections as a whole.

3) We can't put aside progress because animals might get hurt. Human and American interests are more important than the interests of spotted owls and snail darters. For progress to continue, businesses need to grow.

Our environment is an incredibly complex organism. We do not know how everything is put together, we don't know how everything works, and we don't have a clear, precise model of the ecosphere so that we can predict the effects of changes. Without environmental protections designed to limit and control our own actions and our effect on the environment, we end up with disasters like colony collapse and the almost countless other horrific effects of corporations allowed to pursue profits unchecked. (WARNING: There's a picture of a baby killed in the Bhopal disaster right at the top of that article, but people who don't believe that people deserve protections should have to look at it.)

4) The EPA operates outside the system of checks and balances and passes its own laws without oversight. The agency is tyrannical as it was and needed to be reined in.

LOL no.

5) Regulations take away blue-collar jobs (coal miners, loggers, fishermen, etc.), and by loosening regulations these jobs can be restored and these industries made competitive again.

Sometimes, jobs become obsolete. I don't get to make a living as a COBOL programmer just because my dad did, or a railroad mechanic because my grandfather was. Those skills just aren't in demand anymore. We're not propping up the industry for people who want to work as blacksmiths or wet nurses. Nobody else has a right to make a living working in the industry of their choice. I have tons of skills I've learned that are no longer of value in the marketplace, so I've had to learn new skills and change jobs plenty of times. Most people have to adjust and adapt to meet the needs of the market, so it's weird when people act as though it's such a horrible injustice to those industries specifically. But nobody making these arguments actually cares about the workers. They care about the corporations exploiting those workers. (And they are exploiting them, badly.)

Honestly, I don't know how much good any argument will do against someone who has made up their mind already, and anyone supporting Trump at this point is pretty clearly not swayed by facts or evidence or any argument you might make.

I just kind of felt like answering anyway.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:46 AM on September 6 [9 favorites]


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