Clean Air Villain of the Month

October 2001


Launches Bizarre Attack on EPA Snowmobile Rule

(Washington, D.C, October 24, 2001) -- The nonprofit Clean Air Trust today named John Graham, the White House Office of Management and Budget's regulatory czar, the clean air "villain of the month" for October.

Czar Graham earned this dubious distinction by launching a bizarre attack on a proposed EPA rule designed to require less-polluting recreational vehicles, including snowmobiles. It was the first significant air pollution control proposal issued by the Bush Administration -- and it isn't particularly tough -- but the Czar apparently felt he had to attack it on general anti-regulatory principles. And he showed that even the most fervent anti-government spokesman can spout nonsensical bureaucratic gobbledygook.

First, a little background on the Czar: As has been widely reported, in his prior job he ran the industry-funded Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, an outfit that was paid to lend an ivy patina to corporate efforts to undermine various health and safety standards -- he was sort of a tweedy version of that poor fellow who runs that tiresome "junk science" Web site.

Health and environmental groups opposed the Czar's nomination as director of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but the business lobbyists called in their chits and got the Senate to confirm him. Czar Graham is wasting no time putting his unique stamp on the job of reviewing all federal rules.

Consider, for example, his treatment of EPA's "snowmobile" proposal, which is the subject of an EPA hearing today. EPA proposed a modest reduction in pollution from new recreational vehicles because of concerns that: 1) most recreational boats spew huge volumes of unburned fuel into lakes and rivers; 2) snowmobiles, dirt bikes and off-highway motorcycles tend to stink up national parks as well as create shroud-like haze; 3) these vehicles are a significant percentage of overall pollution. Environmentalists have assailed the EPA proposal as far too weak. State air pollution regulators are also raising concerns.

Enter the Czar. In a recent letter to EPA, he charged that EPA did not evaluate the effect of its proposal on the "attributes" of engines used in recreational vehicles. "We believe it is important to develop an estimate of the value of these attributes," wrote Czar Graham.

Think about that for a second. Are all attributes of equal value? Are there "sound" attributes and "junk" attributes? Does a one-size-attribute fit all? (Those interested in delving deeper into philosophical questions of this sort should dust off Plato's dialogue, Meno, and review Meno's discussion with Socrates on the attributes of excellence. 1 Plato, of course, favored government by philosopher-kings and the Czar may well see himself as one of these.)

Czar Graham also demanded that EPA include "the loss in consumer surplus" associated with the proposal. "The consumer surplus loss could be large," he warns.

The trouble is, we can't figure out what the heck he means by the term "consumer surplus." Is it something like a tax refund for overpayment? Is it the difference between the total we owe -- and the monthly minimum payment -- on our Visa card? Or could it be what a grandmother thinks ought to be spent on the grandkids versus what granddad thinks they can afford? Do less affluent consumers have the same surplus as rich ones for the purpose of this analysis -- or are we talking the consumer surplus of the "average man?"

The bottom line here is it appears that the Czar plans to make it difficult for an agency like EPA to issue even a mediocre rule -- and he'll make up a lot of jibberish if he doesn't have a real complaint about the rule.

1 Consider this sample:

Meno: Let us take first the attribute of excellence in a man: he should know how to administer the state, and in the process to benefit his friends and harm his enemies. He must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman's excellence may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, slave or free, has a different attribute of excellence. There are numberless types of this attribute, and no lack of definitions of them. For the attribute of excellence is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do.

Socrates: How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one attribute of excellence, you present me with a swarm of them. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you, What is the attribute of the bee? And you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?

Meno: I guess bees do share the common attribute of being bees . . . .