* trip reduction rules, demon spawn of the Clean Air Act

Topics: Resources, Regulation
08 Sep 1994

From: ervan

Tuesday's Chronicle headlined an article "Clean Air Act will back off on car
pools". The next to last paragraph gets around to the truth "companies
could still be fined if they do not make a good faith effort to comply." In
other words, they didn't back off, they only made it more capricious. Just
hope your company has enough extra cash to send the inspector a new car for

It also reports that exceptions for schools are in the works. Yes, once
again, the government exempts itself from its good ideas. I'm sure there
will be more exceptions. See above.

In another irony on this piece of legislation (sorry if you missed my
previous list ;-), the companies hurt the worst are those whose employees
drive a shorter distance! Companies on the outskirts are closer to their
employees but they have no bus service (and thus cannot make the 1.47
passengers/car quota). Saving gas just became more expensive. Better to
drive 1/3 fewer vehicles twice as far according the law. As for getting
busses out there, Houston city government funnels not only taxes but busses
downtown in an effort to prop up their corner of the city, everyone else be
damned. There is some hope (not yet decided) that the courts will permit
people to run private busses, but as of now this is still illegal.

It also reported the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (state
government) as saying the trip reduction part of the Clean Air act will
lower "pollution levels by less than 0.2 percent". 0.2% ! The Act is not
about controlling pollution, it's about controlling your life. There is now
a bureaucracy in Washington, in Austin, and in Lovett Hall (Rice admin)
concerned about where you drive, when, & who rides with you. They have the
authority to arbitrarily manipulate your driving. The paranoid in me is not
happy at the prospect of somewhere down the road having to file a report
with the government to ask permission to go to the beach. BTW, Social
Security numbers are not national ID numbers. Congress said so when it
passed social insecurity.

I want to return to the previous topic of the frictional cost of this. Why
not a gas tax instead? A gas tax has many advantages over trip reduction rules:
1) Low frictional costs
2) The burden falls on the people actually doing the damage
3) The burden falls proportional to the damage done (as a rough approximation,
but it falls more equally than under the trip reduction rules).
4) The cost of lowering pollution is clearly exposed (at the pump) instead
of being hidden in higher general prices and lower wages.
But, these advantages are exactly the problem from a political perspective.
I've already anaylzed (1). The most common objection to a gas tax is that
it is politically impossible. Yes, and the reason that it is politically
impossible is exactly reasons 2, 3, & 4. In other words, under the current
circumstances, the cost of lowering pollution levels is more expensive than
the cost of tolerating the current level of pollution.

Democracy has an answer to the problem: screw the minority. That is exactly
what has happened. According to the Chronicle, the law will affect 647,000
people in Houston, a minority of the population. The rest are not in the
work force or work for companies too small to be covered. While the law is
national, the Houston analysis applies to other cities and the collective
effect is realized. Meanwhile, the rest of the people can go on polluting
as before and make a particular group bear the cost of lowering pollution
(though it will fail to do even that, it was the original motivation).

Of course, it won't stay that way. A new majority will form to jerk the
then minority which is now getting the 'free ride'. Then we can raise the
effectiveness to 0.6%, yeah! Consider social security. At first, it was
only a few percent and imposed only on large companies. Congress promised
to not extend it (why does anybody ever believe anything congress says?).
People looking for a handout plus small business that was glad to escape the
ax voted for it against the big business minority (or maybe small business
voted to give itself a comparative advantage). The next step was to combine
a new group of people looking for a handout with big business to screw small
business. Once entrenched, the ideal of repeal becomes impossible. We are
seeing the same thing now with health care deform. Big business argues that
small business is getting a free ride because their indigent employees jack
up everyone else's rate when they are treated in public ER's, get Medicaid,
etc. I think their numbers are dubious, but the basic observation is
correct. The reasoning is, of course, just backward for which way we should
go. Regardless, the effect is clear -- Everyone loses in the long run. The
promise to exclude small business is nothing but a cynical move to form a
majority in order to turn the screw the first turn.