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Robert Bennett: The health hazards of unemployment

Published: Monday, Nov. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama signs an executive order after speaking about jobs, energy independence, and climate change, Monday, Jan. 26, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Secretary Ray LaHood, center, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson, right, look on.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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We are seeing conflicting signals from the Obama administration on the jobs front.

Last week President Obama announced his decision to halt the expansion of the pipeline that would have brought oil from Canada into the United States. He claimed that he did it on environmental grounds, which pleased his political base, but there will be no benefit to the environment.

The oil which would have come to America through the pipeline will still be produced; the Canadians will simply sell it elsewhere. That means that tankers will be used to transport it to foreign markets, and other tankers will be used to bring foreign oil to the U.S. to make up for that which would have come through the pipeline. Tankers are not only less efficient and more costly than pipelines, but also have a greater environmental impact.

This decision sends the message that jobs are less important than the president says they are. Building the pipeline would have created roughly 20,000 new American jobs.

The conflicting message on the issue of jobs and the environment comes from the decision the president made last summer when he overruled EPA adminstrator Lisa Jackson's recommendation to change existing smog standards, which she insisted are a health hazard. When that matter went to the White House for review, Cass Sunstein, the official in charge of the cost-benefit analysis process at the Office of Management and Budget, wrote a strong report disagreeing with EPA and urging that their request be turned down.

Administrator Jackson sat down with White House Chief of Staff William Daley to make her case in person. He listened to her reasoning and then asked, "What are the health hazards of unemployment?" That's a question which EPA is not used to confronting.

The text of Obama's letter to Jackson saying that the standards would not be changed was very close to the text of Sunstein's report. There is no way to calculate how many jobs would have been lost if the new standards had been adopted, but the number would certainly have been large.

No on jobs for the pipeline, yes on jobs on existing projects — mixed signals indeed.

As the debate rages, however, we must remember this fundamental truth — a viable economy is the base of all governmental activity, including environmental protection. Tax revenue does not materialize out of the air, in response to tax bills; taxes are paid on investment returns, business profits and salaries. When investors are putting their money elsewhere and businesses aren't making a profit and individuals are out of work, tax revenue disappears, no matter where the tax rates are set.

That means that, if the economy weakens further, there will be less money available for environmental protection, defense, entitlement payments, education, infrastructure maintenance, law enforcement or anything else the government does.

It is in the best interest of the environmental movement to support actions that will strengthen the economy and create more American jobs.

I am not advocating abolishing EPA, scrapping environmental standards or voiding all clean air and clean water regulations. I am advocating greater respect for the cost benefit analysis process and a wider view of the health impact of environmental actions that carry significant economic costs. Unemployment reduces access to health care, increases mental stress, causes clinical depression, drives up the number of divorces and, in extreme cases, leads to suicide.

"What are the health costs of unemployment?" is a very valid question. A good economy is as good for your physical health as it is for your financial health. Environmentalists and economists alike should embrace that truth.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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