About a week ago, I tweeted, ” Nixon created the EPA by diktat, Trump should now uncreate the EPA by diktat.” Little did I know that someone close to the creation of the EPA in 1970 would post a comment about the EPA on a paywalled chat room (garynorth.com) that I belong to. Here is the entire post:
EPA political? Always … Enough time has passed that I think it is safe to share this story …
During the summer of 1971, I worked as a young economist, an intern really, for the US Treasury, Office of Tax Analysis. My office had a nice view of the White House. One of my assignments that summer was to gather data on air pollution attributed to power plants. Air quality was much in the news during the first Nixon administration. Dr. Larry Ruff wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post explaining his theory that air quality could be improved through tax policy. His idea was to tax polluters on measurable levels of sulfur and carbon particulates emitted. This would include a sliding scale that incorporated the ambient air quality where the polluter was located.
He believed that pollution was relative and should be regulated with an eye toward cleaning up the worst abusers in the most polluted areas. He wanted to encourage polluters to locate in places where the environment could more readily absorb pollutants and discourage polluters from congregating in areas already heavily polluted. His plan incorporated a system of tax credits for cutting stack gas emissions and allowed polluters to seek their own solutions to clean up their emissions retaining some element of the free market to preserve efficiency. The idea was to capture the cost of externalities and present them to the polluter.
There was a good deal more to the policy Ruff had in mind and I think it would have worked well, at least much better than the final solution. His approach was well received at Treasury and Dr. Ruff engaged in several meetings with White House staff to present the case. He reported that there was not much enthusiasm in the administration for the approach.
One day Dr. Ruff called me into his office and told me I was being reassigned to another project since his had been canceled. I asked why. He answered me by suggesting I watch the evening news and talk to him in the morning. That night I learned that the Environmental Protection Agency had been created and William Ruckelshouse was to head it up. The next day I naively asked Ruff if we were going to be involved. I must paraphrase what he said as it’s been a long time. And, Larry if you should read this, I hope I’m not out of line.
No, the administration has plans to take another approach. They prefer to take an approach where Bill Ruckelshouse rides in on a white horse and confronts some miscreant polluter and threatens him on national television. Then, I guess, they plan to tell him what he must do to comply with new regulations while looking stern for the cameras.
I asked him how that could have as positive an impact on environmental quality as our plan. He replied that it probably wouldn’t. He told me that the White House had never seriously considered our plan. But this wasn’t about cleaning up the environment, it was about politics and politics in Washington would always prevail. This way the administration could get the message across that they were serious about cleaning up the environment while proving they were firmly in control. There would be abundant opportunities for television time, something our plan would not include.
Though the creation of the EPA was considered a positive measure on both sides of the aisle and is still considered a bright spot in an otherwise tattered administration, I have watched the organization grow through mission creep to become just another officious, bullying agency with far more power than it deserves. I have no idea how many binders are filled with EPA regulations. It doesn’t surprise me that the organization would be used by another president to shut down coal plants, whose pollution profile is pretty benign, for emitting, of all things, inert and environmentally beneficial carbon dioxide. People can argue all they want about the agency’s effectiveness but it has always been and was from the beginning a political tool.
We have so many “tools” in Washington now, that it looks like a big box home improvement store.
I say end the EPA. Every state has one, so would the world end if there were only 50 instead of 51?