No Heroic Assumptions In Ozone Cave

I think it’s strange how frequently I see people who I know to be really sincerely driven by concern about the substance of issues decide that other people who aren’t concerned about the substance of issues are making incomprehensible blunders about the things they do care about. For example, Dave Roberts thinks President Obama did the wrong thing by suspending EPA rule-writing about ozone. He’s angry at Obama, for the very good reason that his decision has “left thousands of people to a few more years of ill health for political advantage.” I’m angry too. But this argument that the political advantage thereby gained is “almost certainly chimerical” doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.

What seems to have happened is that White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley met with industry groups who showed him a map of which counties would be forced by the new rules into non-compliance. There were a bunch of counties on the map, many of which were in states such as Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that are crucial to Obama’s re-election effort. Roberts then glosses Daley’s allegedly misguided thinking about this:

The logic seems to go like this: If the ozone regs had passed, several swing states would be put into noncompliance. That would have involved some fines and prompted the need for aggressive state implementation policies (SIPs). That might have upset voters, who would then be less likely to vote for Obama and, e.g., Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (D). It might have upset businesses, who would then be less likely to give money to those candidates. Now that the White House has delayed the rule, those voters won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to vote the right way, and businesses won’t be upset, so they’ll be more likely to give money.

I hope it’s obvious, just from laying it out, how absurd this kind of reasoning is, especially when it comes to voters. It relies on the presumption that there is a neutral media which will report to voters in those states that something was going to happen, but now isn’t, and that those voters will be attentive enough to understand that, and that the knowledge will meaningfully affect their voting behavior.

But there is no such media. There are no referees. And voters are not nearly that sophisticated. They assess politicians based on crude stereotypes, and when politicians do something counter to those stereotypes, voters simply don’t notice. That’s more true than ever in today’s fractured media landscape. The kind of people who get their news from Fox are never, ever going to give Obama credit for blocking regulations.

It’s often best in life to try to avoid assuming that people you disagree with are motivated by “absurd” lines of reasoning. Perhaps Daley is persuaded by Matthew Kahn’s point (based on research from Michael Greenstone) that enhanced EPA regulations cause job-shifting out of non-attainment counties into attainment ones. Regulations that break up concentrations of extreme pollution in part by shifting polluting activity to less-polluted areas are perfectly sound public health measures, but there’s nothing absurd about the theory that it could do political damage to the standing of incumbent politicians in the areas that suffer from the negative short-term effects. There’s no need to assume that voters will know anything about the EPA or the rulemaking process, you just need to assume that people are generally aware of the short-term economic trends in their community. None of this changes the fact that taking a step that’s bad for public health in order to obtain a marginal advantage on Election Day is not exactly the audacity of hope, change we can believe in, or the fierce urgency of now. But it’s political operatives doing what political operatives are there for, finding ways to grind out marginal advantages in a world where short-term economic fluctuations are an important driver of voter behavior.