Rolling back regulations is fundamental to the philosophy of the Trump administration. Last year the president signed an executive order that for every new regulation, two had to go.
Trump recently claimed his administration did way better than that, averaging twenty-two regulations eliminated for every new one created. And a lot of the action has been directed towards environmental regulations: According to a review done by the Washington Post, 63 environmental rules have been targeted across all agencies. That’s more than other policy area. So what’s the case for environmental regulations? Do they work? Do they make our lives better in any measurable way? We hear a lot from the Trump administration about how regulations are job-killers, but aren’t they also life-savers?
Karen Clay is an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, and she’s researched the tradeoff between death and jobs.
“One way to think about the Trump administration’s focus on jobs is, implicitly, what they’re doing is trading off jobs for lives,” said Clay. “Is one job equal to one premature death? Is one job equal to five premature deaths? Or are 100 jobs equal to one premature death? I think we need to have a clear conversation about those trade-offs in order to better understand what we might be getting if we’re saving 100 jobs or a thousand jobs.”
One of the regulations President Trump wants to repeal is the Clean Power Plan, an Obama era initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The plan was finalized in 2015, but never implemented because of legal challenges, some lead by Scott Pruitt while he was the attorney general of Oklahoma–he’s now the EPA administrator.
Clay has studied the Clean Power Plan extensively, and her research shows that it would have saved 36,000 lives by the time it was supposed to be fully implemented in 2030. It would have prevented about 90,000 childhood asthma attacks a year. And in total would have generated about $54 billion in public health and climate benefits.
“Non-economists hate this kind of discussion, but at some level if we’re investing, and we’re trying to save lives, we want to think about the cost per life saved,” said Clay. “Valuations that are conventionally used by economists suggest that one premature death corresponds to between 50 and 150 jobs in terms of economic contribution. So the problem with that calculation, if you take it at face value, is that the number of jobs saved by repealing the Clean Power Plan would have to be between three and 10 times the total number of coal miners in the United States today. Job creation or preservation of that magnitude is just very unlikely.”
Last February President Trump signed an executive order establishing a task force in every agency for “removing job killing regulations and increasing economic opportunity.” And while the CEOs of Dow Chemical and Archer Daniels Midland stood behind him, the President said, “Every regulation should have to pass a simple test. Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers.” So is the President even following his own advice?
“One would think that the Clean Power Plan would pass such a test. I think the way you want to think about it is if he actually applied that, then there would be plenty of regulations that would either be retained or promulgated,” said Clay. “But my sense is that he’s not actually committed to that statement.”
>>LISTEN to the rest of Karen Clay’s interview about the trade-off between jobs and human health, including an explanation of how the federal government decides how much money your life is worth, statistically speaking. Currently, the EPA puts the value of one life at about $10 million.