Vox's amateurish defense of environmental regulation

March 8, 2017

Earlier this week, the American Council on Science and Health and RealClearScience rated popular media outlets on the accuracy and readability of their science reporting. 


The resulting infographic was a mostly accurate assessment of who's producing good science content, but ACSH/RCS gave Vox a surprisingly favorable review, ranking the liberal website better than Scientific American and Discover.


Skeptical of such a ranking, I pulled up Vox's Health and Science section to discover a headline that instantly validated my skepticism and stirred up some heartburn: Do environmental regulations reduce employment? Not really.


The headline sounds like a snarky comment your hipster friend might utter in between sips of his fair-trade latte. It's cool because it bucks the accepted economic wisdom--but it's also nonsense. Environmental regulations have long-lasting, widespread economic effects, and any reliable science news outlet ought to know that.


Vox's argument is one commonly made by environmentalists and left-leaning political commentators, namely that sacrificing economic growth for clean air is a worthy trade off. Vox takes a similar line, only they go on to suggest that the economic side-effects of EPA regulations are limited because market economies can adapt to such impositions from the federal government.




There's a lot wrong with that statement, but I want to focus on the core of Vox's justification for this thesis:


For some reason, when it comes to regulations, conservatives’ optimism and faith in markets vanish. If a scarcity or obstacle is artificially imposed by government through regulation (as opposed to happening “naturally” via historical circumstance or international competition), they rend their garments and lament that it will destroy jobs and growth.


This argument, witty and ironic as it is, fails for a deceptively simple reason: government intervention in the market isn't a one-and-done affair; one regulation perpetuates further government intervention, ultimately crippling the economy that's supposedly robust enough to deal with the original regulatory burden.


The economist Ludwig Von Mises convincingly argued this point in his book A Critique of Interventionism. To illustrate how this works, consider a hypothetical situation in which the EPA restricts emissions from coal-fired power plants in hopes of preserving air quality. The new restrictions raise the costs of producing energy from coal, which means higher electricity prices for businesses and consumers around the country.


Over time, higher energy costs prompt some politician somewhere to call for price controls on electricity to prevent gouging by greedy energy companies. These price controls then discourage energy companies from producing more electricity, which leads to shortages for everybody. The ultimate result is government-regulated utilities tasked with producing energy and rationing its consumption to varying degrees.


 This, by the way, is not a hypothetical scenario. Energy prices really do rise as regulations increase. And as the EIA admits, electricity prices are controlled by public service commissions in many parts of the country.


Our point here, then, is that environmental regulations are not "small" and limited to restricted sectors of the economy, as Vox suggests. Instead, they tend to multiply over time and damage the economy as a whole, since everybody has to pay higher energy prices caused by a regulated market. 


But there's another problem we have to mention here. Vox's argument is both cynical and gullible at the same time. Energy companies, so we're told, are operated by greedy, monocle-wearing capitalists who hate the environment, and whose activities have to be regulated. But these same men are also brilliant entrepreneurs who can adapt to changing market conditions; therefore, they shouldn't complain about government regulations if they really have faith in the free market. Vox is damning and praising the market economy simultaneously. 


The one potential reply to this argument is that energy producers could simply shift to alternative energy sources as the government tightens its restrictions on coal. Vox takes this angle, arguing that "pollution standards might reduce employment in coal mining and coal-fired power, but demand for electricity will pull those jobs into either pollution remediation or alternative sources."


This is an error-ridden rebuttal for two reasons, though. First, alternative energy sources are still more expensive to develop than coal and gas, so energy producers can't afford to invest in them, which means jobs in coal production don't automatically translate into new jobs in solar panel construction.  And second, energy sources that are affordable to develop, like shale gas and nuclear power, are almost universally opposed by the left.  


That Vox can't factor these few simple variables into their analysis is bothersome, and suggests, at least to me, that curious readers should go elsewhere for their science news and commentary. 












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