How the Dirty Air Campaign Opposing Safe Air for Americans Pushes Falsehoods About Job Losses

Lobbyists for polluting industries and their political allies are ramping up attacks on safe air for all Americans, with an increasingly desperate campaign founded on falsehoods and misrepresentations. These opponents are urging EPA to retain a health standard for smog pollution deemed squarely unsafe by the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association and over 1,000 doctors.

In this post, I focus on the falsehood pushed by the dirty air campaigners to claim job losses from safer clean air standards. I will address other polluter falsehoods in a subsequent post.

Opponents of safe health standards for smog pollution have taken to making claims about job losses they say will result, with a striking degree of precision for individual states. For example, U.S. Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH) asserts that strengthened health standards would result in "over 22,000 lost jobs" in Ohio from 2017 to 2040. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has contended that safer clean air standards will result in "39,087 lost jobs or so-called job equivalents per year" in Virginia, again between 2017 and 2040.

Both critics stake these exacting job loss allegations (39,087?) in a deeply biased report purchased by NAM. The NAM report has been thoroughly discredited. Independent economists at NYU and MIT have rightly called its predictions of wildly exaggerated industry compliance costs "insane" and "unmoored from any economic reality."

The NAM report earns those damning assessments based on the report's biased decision to assume future smog compliance costs 1,000 times higher than cleanup costs today. The report imagines these insanely exaggerated costs by choosing to draw an analogy to a short-lived 2009 economic stimulus program called Cash for Clunkers that was designed to assist Detroit automakers during the recession--not serve as a cost-effective smog control program. In fact no one ever treated the stimulus program as a smog program.

But those aren't even the main problems with relying on the report to allege job losses. The bigger problem is that the NAM president and Republican congressmen flatly mischaracterize the report to claim job losses that the report itself takes pains to say it is not claiming.

The NAM report tries to claim adverse economic impacts from safer air not based on actual job losses, but based on a squirrely concept the report cooks up called "job-equivalents." The report (at FN2) defines job-equivalents in the following convoluted and nearly incoherent fashion: "total labor income change divided by the average annual income per job."

Critically, however, in the very next sentence the report notes: "This measure does not represent a projection of numbers of workers that may need to change jobs and/or be unemployed, as some or all of the loss could be spread across workers who remain employed, thereby impacting many more that 2.9 million workers, but with lesser impacts per worker." (emphasis added)

In other words, "job-equivalents" does not mean actual job losses. The NAM report simply does not support Congressman Latta's claim of "over 22,000 lost jobs." In fact the report flatly contradicts that contention. Similarly, the NAM president is contradicting NAM's own report by pretending that "39,087 lost jobs or so-called job equivalents" are, well, equivalent. The NAM report again contradicts that pretense, because the report doesn't support actual job loss claims in Virginia or anywhere else.

This is no idle distinction, or an instance of 'he said, she said.' For a while after the report was issued, NAM's Twitter feed repeatedly tried claiming that job equivalents and job losses were the same thing. I called them out on this many times by commenting reproachfully on NAM tweets, citing to the critical language in the report itself. Since then the NAM Twitter feed generally has not tried to conflate the two very different concepts. Some members of Congress and NAM's president are another thing altogether.

Finally, consider the incoherency of the job-equivalent concept at all. As my former colleague, economist Laurie Johnson has explained, the NAM report flows from an industry consultant-crafted model that resorts to three maneuvers to generate scary-sounding "job-equivalent" impacts: (1) it bakes into the model lower worker wages assumed from lower productivity; (2) it further lowers labor income by assuming some workers will work less voluntarily; and (3) the model then divides assumed total lost labor income by the "annual baseline income for the average job."

So consider these two scenarios. First, if Charles and David Koch decided voluntarily to stop working for one year out of spiteful, ideological protest over safer health standards, and you divided that lost income by the yearly income for an average worker's job, the result would be an average annual loss of an enormous number of job-equivalents. No actual job losses, mind you, just a year-long sojourn for two multi-billionaires.

Second, suppose every worker in America voluntarily chose to work 5 minutes less per year, haunted by the prospect of safer air in their communities. Dividing that total lost income by the yearly income for an average worker's job, the result would be an average annual loss of an enormous number of job-equivalents.

Of course, neither one of those scenarios is any more realistic than the garbage results spit out by the NAM report. What they all have in common, however, is that none show any actual job losses.

Politicians and industry lobbyists opposed to safer air cannot counter the expertise of the nation's top medical organizations, or the mountain of medical studies proving the need for safer health standards. Look carefully and you will notice these opponents don't even try.

So it's not hard to see why they desperately wish to rely on the NAM report to support claims of significant and precise job losses. Better sound bites, punchier fear mongering, and easier to understand than convoluted "job-equivalents."

What is harder to get is why so much of their dirty air campaign is founded on a demonstrable falsehood from a single, insane study.