The Full Employment Act for Clean Air

Keeping our air clean is obviously a Herculean task. After all, if it was easy, why would we employ thousands of scientists and bureaucrats to feverishly toil away, examine every particle of air, determine if there's any harmful pollutants, and -- if any are found -- put controls on the source?

Since the state of California got involved in "air management" back in 1967 by establishing the Air Resources Board, automakers have made enormous progress in cleaning up the internal combustion engine. Today, even diesel-fueled engines run so cleanly that only specialized equipment can measure the resulting emissions. In fact, you can put your white handkerchief (if you carry such a thing) over today's diesel passenger car tailpipe, rev the engine, and it will not turn brown, grey, or any other sordid shade of soot.

We've done a fine job in emissions control, but just like our own human engines, vehicles take in oxygen and put out carbon dioxide. Then, as you'll recall from your science class, trees and plants take in the carbon dioxide and release oxygen. That's a simplification, of course, but that's the way nature and people with their transportation devices work together. Now, according to some in the scientific community -- led by a former vice president -- we're outputting way too much carbon dioxide (CO2) and if we don't cut way back, we'll overheat the planet and die. To avoid this looming disaster, we can collectively quit exhaling, but that's not a very popular approach, especially within the political class. We could replace coal-fired power plants with nuclear energy, but the Senate majority leader is afraid we'll put the waste under his Nevada residence, so that solution isn't going anywhere.

So cars have become the government's target of interest for cleaning up our Jolly Green Giant-size carbon footprint. And since every politician wants to be your friend, here's the really good news: you don't have to worry because the government will make those mean automakers build clean vehicles and we'll all live happily ever after.

Some reasonable people might wonder why we're working on the wrong end of this problem. After all, why pass laws and hire bureaucrats to tell automakers what kind of vehicles to build while allowing fuel prices to remain low? Didn't we just witness the sudden escalation in gas prices create a giant lemming-like sprint by consumers to more efficient cars? And wouldn't a simple tax on fuel keep that same public laser focused on energy efficiency while adding revenue for all those public works programs we need for stimulation?

But there's a lot at stake in this air management business. The State of California's Air Resources Board (formerly the Bureau of Air Sanitation), has mushroomed into a big bureaucracy, part of the $2.3-billion (and growing) California Environmental Protection Agency with an army of 4,500 well-paid troops to fight the evils of pollution. And although California's EPA has a global reach, with its secretary, Linda Adams, jetting to China to dine with her peers in that green country, it's not to be confused with the Federal EPA.

Taking a page from his Golden State, former President Richard Nixon allowed the United States EPA to take root in 1970, ostensibly to do on the federal level what California had accomplished out West. But since California was first and claimed the most smog (especially around the L.A. sprawl), it got to keep its very own air pollution laws. For quite some time, automakers had to make special cars to meet California standards, although those vehicles could leave the state with you if you moved and perhaps help clean up other states. Some of that benefit was offset by allowing less-excellent, out-of-state cars to bring families into our Golden State as long as it could be proven the out-of-state cars arrived here for that purpose. It's complicated and that's why we need so many bureaucrats to keep track of it all. So add more than 18,000 (and growing) feds to the California total and billions of taxpayers dollars to keep things clean and shiny.

If you think that our federal government and a gaggle of states that have created agencies to manage the environment are enough, you're obviously a committed Libertarian or a supporter of Ron Paul. In fact, it's not enough that states are no longer united in the air business; metro areas and even cities have got into the act. In the San Francisco region, the air is further examined by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), with "Air Quality Management" replacing "Air Pollution Control" to keep the 350-person outfit contemporary and well-wired suppliers designing logos and producing new stationary. Its original purpose was to keep tabs on vapor from refineries, wrecking yards, and even aerosol spray cans, but dabbling in motor vehicles was soon added to the list.

The earth-saving feats of the BAAQMD have been programs to call a hot line if you witness a vehicle smoking. Since the average motorist is a poor witness to the origin of bad smoke and some miscreants found the toll-free number a great place to rat out their adversaries, the snitch line died of natural causes. It's been replaced by Spare the Air alerts and gathering fellow bureaucrats to learn about perils that are besieging our planet. Recently the agency paid NY Times' roving gadfly Thomas Friedman $75,000 to enlighten 500 fellow bureaucrats as part of a $200,000 summit at a luxury resort.

If you think this is the end of air foolishness, don't be so hasty -- there's more. A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that the  San Francisco had its own Department of the Environment, an agency that may have found its origins in garbage management. Back then, there were only a few folks hanging out on the public's payroll. Today more than 70 toil to keep their part of the planet clean.

Of course, all these public servants are compensated with salaries and benefits that most of us can barely imagine. There are admin positions that pay six figures, supplemented with fully-paid medical care, life insurance, retirement, deferred compensation, and education reimbursement. And it's a growth industry at a time of financial stress. Just remember that when your government asks for more tax money.