The two plants tell a complex story of what happens when regulations written in Washington ripple through the real economy. Some jobs are lost. Others are created. In the end, say economists who have studied this question, the overall impact on employment is minimal.
“If you’re a coal miner in West Virginia, it’s not a great comfort that a bunch of guys in Texas are employed doing natural gas,” said Roger Noll, an economics professor at Stanford and co-director of the university’s program on regulatory policy. “Some people identify with the beneficiaries, others identify with those who bear the cost, and no amount of argument is ever going to change their minds.”
The arguing has lately turned into a brawl. In the face of the country’s unemployment crisis, many politicians have portrayed regulations as the economy’s primary villain.
House Republicans have identified 10 “job-destroying regulations” they want to repeal, and a steady stream of bills have been proposed to block environmental rules governing everything from cement plants to boilers. GOP candidate Mitt Romney has vowed that on his first day as president, he will “tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy.” The White House, meanwhile, says it is making a determined effort to assess how rules are affecting jobs.
The critique of regulations fits into a broader conservative narrative about government overreach. But it also comes after a string of disasters in recent years that were tied to government regulators falling short, including the financial crisis of 2008, the BP oil spill and the West Virginia mining accident last year.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that very few layoffs are caused principally by tougher rules.
Whenever a firm lays off workers, the bureau asks executives the biggest reason for the job cuts.
In 2010, 0.3 percent of the people who lost their jobs in layoffs were let go because of “government regulations/intervention.” By comparison, 25 percent were laid off because of a drop in business demand.
Limits on emissions
Set along a bucolic stretch of road two hours east of Columbus, the smokestacks of the Muskingum River plant rise suddenly from the landscape like skyscrapers. Beside the plant, huge mounds of coal wait to be lifted by a conveyor belt, then dumped into machines to be pulverized into powder before being burned.
Last year, the plant emitted 98,515 tons of sulfur dioxide, the third-highest total in the country, according to data collected by the EPA.