It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Apple, an American Company, made my iPhone in China (mostly). I find it disappointing, though, that Apple’s suppliers were just accused for a second time of polluting several communities there. Then, a couple days ago, I was disappointed again when President Obama abandoned a more restrictive air pollution rule that was recommended by the EPA. The reason for doing this was, of course, jobs.
The argument usually goes that environmental protections are job killers. Where I live, in the Piedmont of North Carolina, air quality has gotten much better over the last 15 years. It’s not because of pollution controls, though. It has more to do with the tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs that disappeared from the region. Until recently, this area used to be the American center of textile and furniture manufacturing. People here wax poetic about how the local rivers would run whatever color the mills happened to be dyeing that day. It’s not that way anymore. The mills are largely closed, the rivers are mostly clear, and the air is more breathable. And a lot of people are out of work. So, if it wasn’t pollution controls that put these people out of work, what was it? NAFTA. I’m sure it’s cheaper to dump pollutants into the nearest river, but what’s driving manufacturing jobs oversees has more to do with wages, currency markets and trade agreements than pollution regulations.
Still, some people think we should open ourselves up to a bit more pollution to provide a kind of lesser-evil alternative to the uber-pollution status quo in China. It’s a decent argument, and I’m open to the possibility that some regulations may go too far, but I doubt a significant number of jobs would come back to the US if we start down this path. It begs the question though — what’s our responsibility for pollution in other countries? The world?
Pollution rules are built into many international treaties and regulations; maybe we need to concentrate our attention there instead. After all, if trade agreements are driving pollution, maybe trade agreements can tamp it down. Of course, the elephant in the room is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Should we start there? A cap and trade system has the potential to stop manufacturing firms from chasing the lowest wage and start chasing the cleanest facility. That sounds like a situation that could create jobs here.