Why are US Republicans against environmental regulations?

Paul Krugman and Matthew Kahn provide some thoughts on why US Republicans are so hawkishly opposing any environmental regulation. I add some thoughts of my own to this.

Krugman is asking “When and why did the Republican Party become the party of pollution?” He is suggesting that this wasn’t always the case, and provides two examples: both the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the1990 cap-and-trade system that limits acid rain were introduced by Republicans. For example, in 1992 an overwhelming majority in both parties favored stricter laws and regulation. Since then, Democratic views haven’t changed, but Republican support for environmental protection has collapsed.” So this is the when: the Republican views have basically changed after 1992.

Concerning the why, Krugman suggests to blame money in politics, since “[i]n the early 1990s, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry favored Republicans by a modest margin, giving around 40 percent of its money to Democrats. Today that number is just 5 percent. Political spending by the oil and gas industry has followed a similar trajectory.” Thus, Republicans favor the 1% and since the 1% would have to pay the majority of the green bill while benefiting the least from it, then this explains the move of Republicans to vote against virtually every restriction on pollution.

Matthew Kahn agrees with the fact that Republicans are anti-green, but suggests for different reasons. Luckily, he backs it up with his own research. He notes that himself and Matsusaka, in 1990, ” conjectured that the rich use private markets (Club Med) rather than relying on public goods to meet their desires for environmental goods.  We also found that Republicans consistently voted against the environmental public goods initiatives.  This doesn’t mean that they are anti-environment. We interpreted these results as saying that Republicans support the private provision of environmental services.” Obviously it could also mean that the 1% believe they suffer less from public bads like pollution than from the additional costs that any regulation thereof would impose. But leaving that aside, he may be entirely correct that the rich can protect themselves better against pollution than the poor. He gives Tiebort sorting in Los Angeles as an example, where “there is huge variation in air pollution levels with the wealthy living in areas with much lower PM2.5 than the poor who live closer to freeways and further from the beach.” His conclusion thus is that the Republican party is made up of libertarians who believe that green regulation have high economic costs for them, as well as (rich enough) individuals who can substitute costly private goods for the public bads (like air conditioning against higher heat). He then concludes that basically the Republicans are the made up of this 1% libertarians and rich.

While all this seems reasonable, one has to remember a simple mathematical truism: The 1% means 1% and not something like 47.2% of the voters (Presidential election 2012)! I can agree that Krugman’s and Kahn’s arguments may be applicable to the 1%, but then we are still missing something like 46.2% of all voters (given that the whole 1% is Republican). Then one would want to inquire why this larger and poorer number of people still vote far right, and here the analysis of Krugman and Kahn is falls somewhat short and the B+ that Matthew Kahn gave Paul Krugman becomes a questionable grade.

Let us thus include the middle income group into the group of rich voters that support the Republicans. But if we do this then Matthew Kahn’s research comes in: He found that, “[b]y including an income quadratic in our regressions, we found that richer people were more likely to vote against public goods focused on the environment than middle class people.” So this means the middle class people should actually support green regulations much more and thus be more likely to vote for the Democrats! So they can’t be the missing 46.2% that we are searching for.

Thus, we have to look further down the income chain and are only left with the poor. Why would they ever support the rhetoric of Republican leaders that dismiss any environmental regulation? It may be because this rhetoric addresses not environmental quality directly, but only indirectly through job security and alike. And this may just be the highest concern on the agenda of the poor. Thus, it is only reasonable that the very poor, when voting, try to address their immediate fears, which are obviously income security. Of course, as Krugman has written, “actual costs [of environmental regulation] have been far lower than they predicted. In fact, almost always below the E.P.A.’s predictions.” So, fortunately, the fear that the Republicans put into the heart of the poor, namely that they would face high costs if they supported environmental regulation by voting for the Democrats, is built only upon hot air.WE-WANT-YOU

Thus, we have a potential line of argument here: The 1% fear that they will be taxed more and that they will lose money through environmental regulation, especially since they can protect themselves. Then they try to support their anti-environmental regulation agenda by calling in the support of the very poor on a topic that is most important for them: income security, job security, lower taxes. The very poor then provide the 46.2% additional votes for the Republicans, which waters down any environmental regulation, harms the very poor through higher pollution; while it reduces the taxes of the very rich, which then allows them to protect themselves even more against pollution.

To conclude, if Paul Krugman and Matthew Kahn are right on the rich 1%, then I may be getting close on the reason why the poor 46.2% vote Republican. If that is only vaguely correct, then this means the rich 1% are patronizing the poor 46.2%, or the insecure, into voting in the favor of the rich 1% by knowingly relying on false statements, which subsequently implies further harm for the poor 46.2%. Wow, that’s trashy!

So, what can be done? Here is a (simple) three point agenda:

  1. cut the ties between industry and politics; this is nothing new and has been demanded many times. Politicians who obtain money from the industry for their election, or who are sitting on company boards, are certainly expected to pay back for this favor. There is no free lunch from the industry.
  2. make politicians accountable for what they are saying; since politicians’ choice of words are able to influence millions of people and can potentially shape the course of nation for years to come, it is only sensible that their choice of words mustn’t be arbitrary or simply chosen to meet their own interests. Hence, each party should have a pool of scientific literature to back up statements, and only those statements that can be backed up must be officially allowed. For all other statements, if they turn out to be false, a politician must be held accountable. In this way, only `hard’ facts come on the table, politicians talk less and more sense, and facts from each side battle each other and not personal opinions. This, of course, would be a real game changer.
  3. education; while it may be of somewhat limited use in this case (since the rhetoric of the rich 1% feeds on the insecurity and fears of the poorer), it may help to better distinguish facts from fiction.
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