Ruth Marcus / Politics

Sledgehammer Politics

WASHINGTON -- It is a seemingly immutable law of modern Republican rhetoric that the word "regulation" can never appear unadorned by the essential adjective: "job-killing."

As in nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney, after winning the Illinois primary: "Day by day, job-killing regulation by job-killing regulation, bureaucrat by bureaucrat, this president is crushing the dream."

Or House Speaker John Boehner denouncing "the president's job-killing regulatory agenda" last month after the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new limits on coal-fired power plants.

Or Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann who, during her presidential campaign, said EPA should be renamed the "Job-Killing Organization of America."

Hating regulation is an old argument, but the phrase is a relatively new trope. A Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wires shows that the words "job-killing regulations" appeared just a handful of times in 2007 -- but several hundred times in 2011.

This inflated rhetoric is often accompanied by bad science -- or, perhaps more precisely, inherently inexact science badly used. Opponents of a particular regulation tout inflated projections of the regulatory body count, more often than not financed by the affected industry. Ditto, by the way, for those on the other side.

For example, when the EPA last year issued rules to limit mercury and other power-plant emissions, the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity estimated the regulations would trigger the loss of 1.44 million jobs.

At the same time, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluded that the rules would instead create 1.46 million jobs through retrofitting old plants and switching to new sources of renewable energy.

The EPA itself came up with much more modest predictions -- that the rules would create about 50,000 one-time jobs and another 9,000 additional jobs annually. All in the broader context of a rule that the agency estimated would deliver annual net benefits of between $166 billion and $407 billion from cleaner air, including avoiding as many as 51,000 premature deaths annually.

Lesson One: If you plug your cherry-picked assumptions into your preferred model, it's easy to obtain the desired result. Lesson Two: Jobs are only part of the larger picture.

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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