If Thomas Friedman Knew Economics He Would Have Made a Stronger Case

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Wednesday, 06 October 2010 03:56

Thomas Friedman devoted his column this morning to criticize an effort by the oil firms to roll back environmental regulation in California. The effort takes the form of a referendum that would delay rules requiring greater energy efficiency until the unemployment rate is below 5.5 percent.

While this sequence appears to be motivated by a concern for California's economy, the logic goes in the opposite direction. In periods of high unemployment investments in more efficient technology have very little cost to California since they are likely to employ workers who would otherwise be idle. In fact, by requiring California firms to invest in clean technology the regulations could well be net job creators.

By contrast, in standard economic theory environmental regulations will pull workers away from other sectors in periods of full employment. This would raise costs and therefore reduce total output and employment. From an economic standpoint it would make more sense to only require firms to take steps to reduce emissions when the unemployment rate is above 5.5 percent rather than below.