To breathe or not to breathe

Jeff vonKaenel

I like breathing. There have been a few times in my life when I temporarily lost my breath. It was then that I realized how much I enjoy breathing. What is more, I care deeply about what I am breathing. I enjoy breathing ocean breezes, summer morning air and crisp mountain air. And I hate breathing polluted air. Some of my most unpleasant memories were in Mumbai, India, on a still day or in the leaded gasoline haze of Los Angeles in the 1970s or those days in Sacramento when the air used to be thick with rice-burning smoke.

It is this interest in breathing that took me to the recent Cleaner Air Partnership luncheon held at the Sacramento Association of Realtors office. I wanted to learn about what was being done to clean up the Sacramento air that I have every intention of breathing.

The featured speaker was Congressman John Garamendi, who just arrived from partisan-gridlocked Washington, D.C. Garamendi was clearly frustrated. Not only with the inability of government to improve air quality, but with the inability of government to accomplish anything with a Republican Congress and a Democratic Senate.

But this problem goes beyond the two parties. The gridlock is due to a fundamental disagreement about the role of government. One side believes the government at the federal, state and local level needs to be smaller. Much, much smaller. They believe that by starving the beast, the government will shrink. While this shrunken government will have to reduce health care, Social Security and environmental protection, the shrunken government will have more money to return to its citizens, especially its wealthy citizens, who will use it to energize the market. The other side, Garamendi’s side, believes that government programs play a critical and much-needed role in our society.

In the last five fiscal crises there has been a steady reduction of environmental programs, even though a united scientific community has urged America to do everything it can to combat global warning. You can see the foolishness of this position when you look at air quality in Sacramento over the last 20 years. Being in a bowl-like valley, which traps pollution that blows in from the Bay Area, we have some of the worst air quality in the country. Nevertheless, since 1990, we have been able to reduce our nitrogen oxide emission levels by around 40 percent, even though our population has grown nearly 40 percent.

This dramatic improvement was not due to the market or chance. It was due to the work of the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency. It was due to government mandates, which led to more energy-efficient and less-polluting vehicles, buildings, and hundreds of other environmental programs.

I think those who are supporting a shrunken government have forgotten some of the basic necessities of life. Like breathing. In and out. In and out. I like breathing.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.