The Leisure of the Theoried Class

In 1979 and 1980 I participated in a study commissioned by the US National Academy of Engineering on the impacts and appropriate regulation of diesel automobiles. The study came about because the 1979 energy supply shock due to the Iranian Revolution led US policy makers to anticipate widespread consumer adoption of energy-efficient diesel-powered automobiles. I was reminded of this episode from my distant past because I was recently interviewed by a doctoral student at the University of London who is writing a thesis comparing American and European approaches to environmental regulation of automobiles.

Seminars in Upscale Places

The study was carried out by a group of academic experts, and we met for all expenses paid week-long seminars in upscale places, the Northstar Ski Resort near Lake Tahoe in 1979 and the Woods Hole Research Centre on Cape Cod in 1980. My Toronto colleague Don Dewees and I, playing on the title of Veblen’s famous book, dubbed our gatherings “the leisure of the theoried class.” Why was it that so many junior academics were selected by so august an institution? We surmised that we were all recommended by the distinguished and influential transportation economist John Meyer, who had been everyone’s dissertation adviser at Harvard. So that’s how the world works.

The Big Tradeoff

The big tradeoff we were investigating was that diesel cars are more fuel-efficient than standard gasoline-powered cars, but the nature of exhaust they produce is different. Diesel cars produce somewhat more nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide but 30 to 100 times more particulates. You can see the particulates in their smoky exhaust, as shown in the picture I chose for the home page. Though no sane person would want to put their face near such an exhaust pipe, it is unclear whether the components of the exhaust would be toxic once they were dispersed and diluted. Would this smoky exhaust, once it is dispersed, cause diseases such as cancer, emphysema, and asthma? Forty years ago there weren’t laboratory or human studies to resolve that question. (Now the evidence of the harmful health effects of diesel exhaust is clear, as indicated on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website.)

In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency had set a standard of .6 grams per mile for particulate emissions for automobiles, which diesel cars could meet. But it was considering whether to tighten this to .2 grams per mile by 1985, which would have required manufacturers to develop new abatement technology. Because of the paucity of data on health impacts, the final report of the diesel study group recommended retaining the .6 grams per mile standard for the time being and gathering more information before deciding whether to reduce it to .2 grams per mile. (This is of course a simplification of a complex process; the report is available online if you are interested in the evidence and analysis).

The Political Context

The diesel impact study began during the Carter Administration but its final report was presented in December 1981, during the first year of the Reagan Administration. If my memory serves me correctly – though this was forty years ago – very soon after taking office Reagan announced a package of measures to ease the regulatory burden on the automobile industry, one of which was ensuring that the particulates emission standard would stay at .6 grams per mile. Thus the analysis-driven final recommendation, in the short term, was telling the Reagan Administration what it wanted to hear.

Events in the Eighties made the issue of dieselization of the auto fleet moot; OPEC soon turned on the taps, the price of oil fell, and the percentage of the automobile fleet in the US that used diesel technology remained very small, essentially VWs and Mercedes.

The Gorsuch Family: A Digression

The EPA Administrator to whom the study reported was Ann Gorsuch. She was a precursor to a type of Republican political appointee sometimes seen in the George W. Bush Administration and almost always seen in the Trump Administration: an enemy of the deep state committed to cutting the agency’s budget, undoing its regulations, and destroying its capacity to act. Gorsuch “resigned” because it was discovered that she was withholding toxic waste cleanup funds for California to avoid helping Jerry Brown’s Senate campaign. When Gorsuch left, Reagan – to his credit – appointed William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator and a person of integrity respected by environmentalists, to restore morale among the EPA’s staff and its credibility with the public.

In case you were wondering about the name, Ann Gorsuch was the mother of Neil Gorsuch, now a US Supreme. Neil, who was a teenager at the time, thought that his mother was being crucified by liberals, and it seems to have influenced his subsequent personal and judicial worldview.

Lesson Learned: The Science Matters

Looking at the diesel impact study with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, what we were doing was applying science to an important public policy question. The EPA, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation didn’t have the expertise inhouse, so they called on a variety of experts in academe. They didn’t hire one or two consultants, rather they engaged a group of us so they had a diversity of views. We weren’t paid consulting fees, but the interest and importance of the problem, the chance to work with respected colleagues, and the upscale seminar locations definitely were incentives.

We were like the panels of epidemiologists who are advising governments today on the pandemic. One difference is that we were meeting face-to-face, while they are using Zoom. In any event, the important thing is that policymakers then, as now, were engaging experts as part of evidence-based policymaking. We can hope that the Trump Administration was an aberration in this respect.

Lesson Learned: How you Define the Problem Matters

Our study focused on dieselization of the passenger vehicle and light-duty truck fleet. At some point, we began to wonder whether this wasn’t too narrow a problem definition and whether we shouldn’t at least take a quick look at the impact of exhaust produced by heavy-duty diesel trucks. I remember doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations one afternoon at the Woods Hole seminar. Because diesel trucks produce a lot more exhaust than cars, it turned out that if the percentage of trucks using diesel engines grew, they would account for a very large percentage of total particulate emissions. This is yet another illustration of Pareto’s principle that 80 percent of the consequences come from 20 percent of the cases, and vice versa. I also remember writing this up in a memo, but of course no longer have a copy. The memo appears to have had some influence. The covering letter to the Reagan Administration executive agencies from Frank Press, Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, who had the ultimate responsibility for the study, concludes with the following paragraph:

“The Committee calls upon the Congress and the EPA to consider regulating heavy diesel trucks and buses, which emit greater amounts of particulate matter than light-duty diesel vehicles. This, the committee observes, is likely to be a more cost-effective strategy than more stringent regulation of diesel cars and light trucks.”

I did a quick search and found that particulates are indeed regulated for heavy-duty trucks. I can’t say how much influence our study had in getting to this outcome, but with the benefit of hindsight, I am proud that my colleagues and I were helping bend the arc of history towards a cleaner environment.

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