10/24/2011 09:12 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Rick Perry's Fossilized Jobs Program

The constant complaint by the Right that America's businesses are over-regulated always reminds me of the losing team that blames the refs. "If only we'd gotten that call we could-a, should-a, would-a, won." Apparently the late Steve Jobs told President Obama that it was easier to build a factory in China than in the United States. Perhaps, if the state supports your enterprise, but let's not forget the dominant and highly directive role that the Chinese government plays in steering Chinese capitalism. China's economic boom is not the product of an unregulated economy, but of a very sophisticated marriage between the private and public sector. Despite the obvious importance of a mixed economy, we recently got treated to Governor Perry proposing a jobs bill that can best be summarized as "drill baby drill 2." Perry would like to gut EPA's air pollution regulations and other controls on extracting and burning fossil fuels. He thinks that we can create a million or so jobs, if we can just figure out a way to blow the lid off those pesky federal rules.

Instead of a search for common ground and common purpose, we get the combative and misguided rhetoric of Governor Perry. As reported by Paul West of the L.A. Times:

"To applause from several hundred workers in hard hats at a U.S. Steel plant that makes products for natural gas pipelines, Perry said that if he became president, the country would not be "held hostage by foreign oil and federal bureaucrats." The governor said he would "kick-start the economic growth of this country" by telling environmental regulators to "stand down."

Does the governor have anything against breathing? Does he really think that the way to revive our nation's well-being is to turn back the progress we've made cleaning the environment, painfully achieved in EPA's short forty years of existence? We tried the unregulated approach to oil exploration. Let's all remember that pathetic group of compromised bureaucrats within the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS). These were the folks charged with simultaneously selling rights to drill for oil in the Gulf while regulating the safety of drilling operations. Their free market approach to regulation led to the BP Gulf oil spill and the death of eleven workers. When government is as incompetent as the now defunct Minerals Management Service, it's easy to see why no one thinks that America is capable of real partnership between government and business. Rather than working together to find a way to serve shareholder and public interests, our corporations seek to either destroy or capture regulators.

One of the main reasons that air pollution regulations have such a positive benefit-cost ratio is that environmental regulations reduce the cost of health care. People who breathe clean air get sick less than people who breathe poisons. Maybe Perry's job program is designed to add employment in the health care industry. It is amazing that this shortsighted and foolish excuse for an economic policy is somehow seen as realistic, tough and pragmatic; while Obama's fledgling effort to stimulate green jobs is seen as foolish, weak and idealistic.

Let's get real. In a planet of seven billion people, the short-term economic gains of poisoning the planet are becoming smaller and less durable. When we dumped chemical waste in pits and on the side of the road in the '40's, '50's and '60's, it made some of our companies more profitable in those decades, but has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars to remedy since the 1980's. When developing countries dump toxics today, the poison starts impairing public health right away. As our population grows, more and more people are in the pathway of exposure to toxics. There is no free lunch. As Barry Commoner once wrote in his classic, The Closing Circle, "everything must go somewhere." The problem is that "somewhere" is increasingly a place where people live.

While it's a little amazing to believe that an American governor can still spout this nonsense, it's easy to see where this comes from. Perry thinks that the environment is a luxury. American environmentalism had its origin in a spiritual veneration of nature epitomized by John Muir and his good friend Teddy Roosevelt. They sought to preserve nature because they loved it. The modern sustainability movement includes many people who love nature, but its primary motivation is quite different. The goal is not to preserve nature out of love but out of necessity. The goal is to keep toxins from poisoning the air, water and land that we need to ensure we can eat, drink and breathe. The environment is not a luxury item for the effete but a fundamental necessity for our very own human species.

As a student of organizational management, I know that different forms of organization are best at performing particular functions. The private sector has remarkable advantages in producing goods and many services. For most people, the profit motive provides excellent incentives with predictable results. Nonprofits are particularly good at producing services associated with a clear and motivating mission. Government uniquely represents the entire community and has the power to police and mobilize our society. If we are going to create the high throughput but environmentally sustainable economy needed for the 21st century, we need to get a lot better at getting these organizations to work together.

Demonizing the public sector and glorifying private industry misses the point. The opposite is also true. The argument that during an economic meltdown any government spending and activity is better than none is not correct. Spending is best aimed at programs that enhance the nation's wealth and productivity. Infrastructure, research and development, education, preventive health care, and tax relief for people who will make immediate use of the money are the best targets for stimulus funding. Regulation must somehow get past the legal quicksand of overly-complex rules, and focus on simple and enforceable principles implemented with common sense and flexibility.

Modern presidential campaigns are clearly not a place we look to for reasoned dialogue. But the backward thinking and ridiculous posturing of this campaign is setting a new standard for absurdity. Perry's jobs program is predictable, but disappointing. After we drill up the oil and pollute the unregulated air, what will our children do to power their economy? Who will pay the extra costs for health care of the people harmed by the poisoned air? I know that Perry and his colleagues are skeptical about climate science, but do they also doubt the impact of pollution on cancer rates? We need a mature discussion about the world we are facing. Instead, we get ideology and fact deprived nonsense, like Governor Perry's jobs program.