American Elephants


Attempting to Regulate Our Way Out of Recession by The Elephant's Child

Capitol Building

President Obama has liked to emphasize the depth and general awfulness of what he calls “the Great Recession”— a term that pleases him because it associates his recession with Franklin Roosevelt’s Great Depression. Roosevelt cheerfully tried to tackle the Great Depression with constant experimentation. Obama has confronted his recession with regulation without end, in the unfortunate delusion that more control would fix things.

Washington set a new record in 2013 by issuing final rules taking up 26,417 pages in the Federal Register. The rules came from various agencies, but Obama remains at the helm and leadership matters. By sheer numbers, President Obama stands at the pinnacle for numbers of rules. The federal Register contained 3,659 “final” rules (which mean you have to obey them), and 2,594 proposed rules on their way to join the others.

Neither politicians nor the media regard this effort to control as anything out of the ordinary, nor important. Yet if you wonder why the recovery has been so far below average —there it is. The bulk of this year’s regulation comes from ObamaCare—a 2,700 page law that has metastasized into a 7 foot tall stack of documents, and Dodd-Frank. Things don’t get done because nobody has the authority to make them happen.

I wrote about the pressing need to protect and update our electrical grid, vital and essential to all life in America, but there is no active plan to rebuild the grid, because the government cannot make the decisions needed to approve it. The average length of environmental review for highway projects, according to a study by the Regional Plan Association, is over eight years. Eight years!

The results and costs of the legal system are not just monetary, everything is too complicated. There are rules in the workplace, rights in the classroom, and government is bogged down in bureaucracy. Responsible people do not feel free to make sensible decisions. We are pushed around by lawsuits, and unable to move for fear of punishment for barely understood regulation.

The point of regulation is to try to make things run smoothly, make sure things work in a crowded society, but rules have consequences, and not always those intended. We now have a court system where even referendums voted on by the public have been taken over by the court system in which judges now feel free to decide these matters. The objections to “judicial activism” are richly deserved, and now even judges are mistrusted.

Consider the case of a fictional Pasquale’s Pizza chain. The typical restaurant has their pizza menu on a large lighted sign behind the counter where you place your order. The federal government has decided that nutritional values for each ingredient must be listed on the menu. Impossible on the customary lighted sign. What to do? How much will it cost? The profit margin is already slim. Pizza chains have dozens of ingredients, and changing featured recipes to entice customers. ObamaCare requires a restaurant to provide health insurance for full-time workers. The cost of policies has gone up sharply. Cut back all employees to 30 hours? Female employees and male employees must work the same number of hours for the same wage.

The requirement for ethanol in gasoline has raised the cost of pizza ingredients. It has also raised the cost of transporting supplies. Requiring a portion of power to come from wind and solar has raised the cost of electricity. Fuel-efficiency regulations have raised the cost of trucking. And all that is before regulations and taxes at the local, state and national levels.

You end up with schools that make fools of themselves over zero-tolerance regulations that do nothing to prevent violence, school lunches that kids won’t eat. You have armed federal agents raiding the Gibson Guitar Company and confiscating their guitars and their materials ostensibly because the wood used for guitar frets violated and environmental law. The wood was legally imported, meeting all the standards of the country of origin, but the costs to Gibson were huge. You not only cannot fight city hall, but you must surrender even though you are in the right, just to avoid further financial damage. There is case after case of people subjected to an armed SWAT raid, accused of violating a regulation they’ve never heard of, and ruined financially.

What business is going to take a big risk, invest a lot of money in a new venture, expanding, hiring new workers in such a climate? There is risk in everything we do. Trying to legislate risk out of our lives just leaves us with rules that keep people hunkered down, trying to avoid bureaucratic attention. In this climate, politicians cannot even get the big things done, let alone attempting to undo the web of regulation that is crippling society.

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