The Regulatory Charade

Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh, writing in The Wall Street Journal, highlight the dearth of business investment over the last eight years. (WSJ)

Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh, writing in The Wall Street Journal, highlight the dearth of business investment over the last eight years. (WSJ)

Unless we address the growth of the Administrative State, it will continue to stifle growth in the real economy. As you can see in the chart above, this recovery has suffered, among other maladies, from the weakest business investment of any recent expansion. The weakest by far. A number of factors may be at play — monetary policy, global turmoil, bad corporate tax policy, the nature of the last downturn, etc. But it’s not a stretch to conclude that a major factor in the economy’s underperformance is growing bureaucratic interference with economic activity. One study estimates that regulation costs the economy $1.88 trillion per year, and another study puts the cost to the economy into the tens of trillions of dollars. As bureaucratic excursions into firms and industries grow, and as the costs so manifestly outweigh the benefits, the agencies’ rationales for regulatory control become ever more creative.

A good example comes from Susan Dudley of George Washington University, who studies environmental regulation. She describes a clearly political decision cloaked as “science.”

The Environmental Protection Agency published its final national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone in the Federal Register on Monday.  EPA emphasizes that “Setting air quality standards is about protecting public health and the environment. By law, EPA cannot consider costs in doing that.”  The agency did prepare a regulatory impact analysis (RIA) to comply with presidential executive orders 12866 and 13563, but it is explicit that “although an RIA has been prepared, the results of the RIA have not been considered in issuing this final rule.”

The results of the RIA, however, were featured prominently in EPA’s press release.  According to the release, “The public health benefits of the updated standards, estimated at $2.9 to $5.9 billion annually in 2025, outweigh the estimated annual costs of $1.4 billion.”  EPA’s fact sheet relies on the RIA to assert that meeting the new 70 parts per billion (ppb) standard will avoid 320 to 660 premature deaths each year.

Nonetheless, the 480-page RIA suggests that these health benefits pale in comparison to the benefits that achieving a more stringent 65 ppb standard would bring.  According to EPA’s models, a standard of 65 ppb would avoid between 1,590 and 3,320 premature deaths. (This does not include California.)

There are ample reasons to question EPA’s ozone health benefit estimates but the fact is, the agency’s own analysis claims that the more stringent 65 ppb standard would have saved an additional 1,274 to 2,660 lives per year, and avoided an additional 2,670 emergency room visits and almost 1,300 hospital admissions.

If, as EPA says, “the Act requires [it] to base the decision for the primary standard on health considerations only; economic factors cannot be considered,” how can it reconcile setting a standard that leaves so many lives unprotected?

EPA cannot openly admit that its decision was influenced by the enormous costs of achieving the tighter standard.  (Chapter 4 of the RIA acknowledges that no known measures are available to achieve either of the standards EPA considered, but estimates that a 65 ppb standard would impose costs of $16 billion per year – more than 10 times the estimated $1.4 billion per year cost of achieving a 70 ppb standard.)

It’s obvious that EPA did consider the gigantic cost, and Dudley concluded:

It’s time to stop the charade that it is wise or even possible to base NAAQS purely on health considerations.  There are very real tradeoffs involved in these policy decisions that deserve open and transparent debate, rather than the pretense that they can be made by considering only science.

Another example from the environmental arena is the never-ending Keystone XL saga, in which various bureaucracies have for seven years pretended to “study the impact assessments” while blocking the project. Almost no one even argues anymore that this is anything but a political football designed to pacify narrow constituencies and raise campaign money. And yet billions of dollars in potential investment and thousands of jobs are put off.

It is impossible to insulate executive and even independent agencies from all politics. Let’s be realistic. And yet emboldened bureaucrats are increasingly dispensing with even the pretense of expertise, fair play, and the rule of law.

In recent years, the Federal Communications Commission, a nominally “independent expert agency,” has descended into the political swamp. In the most famous case, one year ago, just after the 2014 elections, the FCC collapsed in the face of a subversive White House campaign to write new regulations governing the Internet, one of the most important and innovative sectors of the economy. The FCC had been heading in one policy direction, but at the last second, after years of consideration, a small team of non-expert political operatives in the White House (in cahoots with a few FCC insiders who, it turns out, were also orchestrating outside political activists) twisted Chairman Tom Wheeler’s arm, and the White House got its favored policy. Never mind that all of this was illegal —  Congress had told the FCC 20 years ago the Internet was to remain “unfettered by Federal and State regulation.”

Last week, one of Chairman Wheelers’s senior advisors spoke to an industry group and once again asked them to go on a political campaign in favor of even more regulation of the communications sector. As Light Reading reported,

Ideally, Sohn [Wheeler’s senior advisor] said, the same kind of consumer activism that helped drive the Open Internet rule changes earlier this year — including pickets at Wheeler’s home and the White House, and widespread TV coverage — could be brought to bear on some of the more arcane issues, such as special access and IP transition rules.

So senior staff at “independent expert” agencies, who make economic rules and enforce technology standards in highly technical sectors of the economy, are now urging political activists to go to the home of the agency chairman to bank pots and pans and urge specific policies — invariably tilted toward more regulation.

In a possible silver lining, the assertiveness of regulatory and expert agencies is exposing fundamental flaws in the Administrative State. So egregious is the behavior, so overt and obvious is the politicization, so damaging is the impact on the economy, that the agencies — long political tools but not recognized as such — are earning the scrutiny that could lead to a revolution of sorts.

Steven Davis of the University of Chicago describes the size of the problem — a Code of Federal Regulations now 175,000 pages long, for example — here. Charles Murray describes the nature of the regulatory charade and a possible political solution  here. John Cochrane of UChicago and the Hoover Institution outlines the impact of regulatory insanity on economic growth here. I’ve looked at the impact on economic growth here and suggested that, in the cases where regulation is needed, it’s imperative to “Keep It Simple.”

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