CLAIMING that Americans must choose between their jobs and the environment is getting to be a habit for President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.
Ten days ago it was the hapless spotted owl that was demonized.
Three weeks ago it was those "environmental extremists" who dared suggest an end to the internal-combustion engine.
What's strange is that America's two primary economic rivals, Japan and Germany, take precisely the opposite view.
"What we're doing here is economic policy, not environmental policy," Edde Muller, a senior official of the German government, told me last year in explaining why her country's environmental standards are stricter than those of the United States
A few months later Katsuo Seiki, then an official in Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was more circumspect.
Global warming affords Japanese companies a "very big challenge," he said, and "a rather big business opportunity."
America's competitors know what our politicians have yet to grasp fully: Protection of the environment is a global economic necessity. The nation that does it best will be positioned to capture economic supremacy in the 21st century.
But here, where environmentalism was born, we continue to labor under the illusion that, as Bush says, "America's record on environmental protection is second to none."
The president is wrong.
That may have been true 10 or 20 years ago, but not today.
Environmental leadership has passed to Germany and Japan, where officials see environmental protection as an opportunity for economic development, not as a barrier to growth.
Air-pollution limits in Japan and Germany are nearly four times as stringent as those in the United States. It should come as no surprise then that Japan, followed by Germany, has the world's cleanest, most efficient power plants and steel mills.
The United States is third and falling fast.
The same can be said of gasoline mileage. Of the largest car makers in each of the three nations, Toyota is the leader in fuel efficiency, followed by Volkswagen. General Motors, the largest
American car company, is a distant third.
The world's most stringent controls on toxics? In Europe. The toughest recycling programs? Ditto.
In only one area of environmental protection can it be fairly said that the United States remains the world leader -- tailpipe controls on cars and trucks.
California's requirements are the world's strictest, followed by the rest of the United States, Japan, then Europe. But European standards are nearly as tough and getting tougher.
Consider also that the Swedes have adopted pollution taxes to curb driving, while the Dutch, Germans and others are banning automobile traffic in city centers.
"You either walk or take public transit," said Joris Al, a senior official with the Dutch Ministry of Environment. The cleanest car is one that isn't driven and compared with that standard of zero pollution, U.S. limits are high indeed.
To seize competitive opportunities, the Japanese have launched strengthened business-government partnerships aimed at accelerating development of technology and promoting its sale abroad.
The Germans have adopted regulations mandating a wide range of pollution-cutting measures from industries and citizens. One program requires car makers to pick up and recycle vehicles that in the United States would be junked.
BMWs, Mercedeses and Volkswagens now roll off the assembly line with bar-coded parts to speed disassembly, sorting and recycling. Soon, this policy will be extended to computers and cameras, then to everything from cardboard boxes to yogurt containers.
But that's not all. In six years every power plant in the country is required to reduce air pollution by 90 percent, with most using scrubbers that remove acid rain-causing pollutants.
Scrubber byproducts (considered waste to be thrown away in the United States) are dried and made into gypsum board and construction mortar in Germany.
The Germans, in other words, literally build homes out of pollution. The system is so successful that Knauf Gypsum, a German company, opened a plant in Britain with 1991 sales of $48 million.
The results are economies that are clean and lean, specializing in just the sorts of programs and technologies that the rest of the world is seeking to buy.
The U.S. economy, meanwhile, continues to be fueled by the twin policies of cheap oil and deregulation, which were initiated by Ronald Reagan and have been continued by Bush. The tragic result has been an enormous transfer of U.S. technology to other nations. Consider this:
* In 1980 the United States was the world's largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells, which produce electricity from sunlight. Today the United States has fallen behind Japan and will soon be overtaken by Germany.
* Japan and Germany are the leading producers of a multimillion-dollar system for power-plant pollution control called selective catalytic reduction. The technology was developed in the United States by Corning.