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Does Anyone Know the Net Benefits of Regulation?

by Patrick McLaughlin on October 2, 2013

in Regulation

In early August, I was invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).  The topic of the panel was the amount of time it takes to finalize a regulation.  Specifically, some were concerned that new regulations were being deliberately or needlessly held up in the regulatory process, and as a result, the realization of the benefits of those regulations was delayed (hence the dramatic title of the panel: “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis.”)

In my testimony, I took the position that economic and scientific analysis of regulations is important.  Careful consideration of regulatory options can help minimize the costs and unintended consequences that regulations necessarily incur. If additional time can improve regulations—meaning both improving individual regulations’ quality and having the optimal quantity—then additional time should be taken.  My logic behind taking this position was buttressed by three main points:

  1. The accumulation of regulations stifles innovation and entrepreneurship and reduces efficiency. This slows economic growth, and over time, the decreased economic growth attributable to regulatory accumulation has significantly reduced real household income.
  2. The unintended consequences of regulations are particularly detrimental to low-income households— resulting in costs to precisely the same group that has the fewest resources to deal with them.
  3. The quality of regulations matters. The incentive structure of regulatory agencies, coupled with occasional pressure from external forces such as Congress, can cause regulations to favor particular stakeholder groups or to create regulations for which the costs exceed the benefits. In some cases, because of statutory deadlines and other pressures, agencies may rush regulations through the crafting process. That can lead to poor execution: rushed regulations are, on average, more poorly considered, which can lead to greater costs and unintended consequences. Even worse, the regulation’s intended benefits may not be achieved despite incurring very real human costs.

At the same time, I told the members of the subcommittee that if “political shenanigans” are the reason some rules take a long time to finalize, then they should use their bully pulpits to draw attention to such actions.  The influence of politics on regulation and the rulemaking process is an unfortunate reality, but not one that should be accepted.

I actually left that panel with some small amount of hope that, going forward, there might be room for an honest discussion about regulatory reform.  It seemed to me that no one in the room was happy with the current regulatory process – a good starting point if you want real change.  Chairman Blumenthal seemed to feel the same way, stating in his closing remarks that he saw plenty of common ground.  I sent a follow-up letter to Chairman Blumenthal stating as much. I wrote to the Chairman in August:

I share your guarded optimism that there may exist substantial agreement that the regulatory process needs to be improved. My research indicates that any changes to regulatory process should include provisions for improved analysis because better analysis can lead to better outcomes. Similarly, poor analysis can lead to rules that cost more human lives than they needed to in order to accomplish their goals.

A recent op-ed penned by Sen. Blumenthal in The Hill shows me that at least one person is still thinking about the topic of that hearing.  The final sentence of his op-ed said that “we should work together to make rule-making better, more responsive and even more effective at protecting Americans.” I agree. But I disagree with the idea that we know that, as the Senator wrote, “by any metric, these rules are worth [their cost].”  The op-ed goes on to say:

The latest report from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs shows federal regulations promulgated between 2002 and 2012 produced up to $800 billion in benefits, with just $84 billion in costs.

Sen. Blumenthal’s op-ed would make sense if his facts were correct.  However, the report to Congress from OIRA that his op-ed referred to actually estimates the costs and benefits of only a handful of regulations.  It’s simple enough to open that report and quote the very first bullet point in the executive summary, which reads:

The estimated annual benefits of major Federal regulations reviewed by OMB from October 1, 2002, to September 30, 2012, for which agencies estimated and monetized both benefits and costs, are in the aggregate between $193 billion and $800 billion, while the estimated annual costs are in the aggregate between $57 billion and $84 billion. These ranges are reported in 2001 dollars and reflect uncertainty in the benefits and costs of each rule at the time that it was evaluated.

But you have to actually dig a little farther into the report to realize that this characterization of the costs and benefits of regulations represents only the view of agency economists (think about their incentive for a moment – they work for the regulatory agencies) and for only 115 regulations out of 37,786 created from October 1, 2002, to September 30, 2012.  As the report that Sen. Blumenthal refers to actually says:

The estimates are therefore not a complete accounting of all the benefits and costs of all regulations issued by the Federal Government during this period.

Furthermore, as an economist who used to work in a regulatory agency and produce these economic analyses of regulations, I find it heartening that the OMB report emphasizes that the estimates it relies on to produce the report are “neither precise nor complete.”  Here’s another point of emphasis from the OMB report:

Individual regulatory impact analyses vary in rigor and may rely on different assumptions, including baseline scenarios, methods, and data. To take just one example, all agencies draw on the existing economic literature for valuation of reductions in mortality and morbidity, but the technical literature has not converged on uniform figures, and consistent with the lack of uniformity in that literature, such valuations vary somewhat (though not dramatically) across agencies. Summing across estimates involves the aggregation of analytical results that are not strictly comparable.

I don’t doubt Sen. Blumenthal’s sincerity in believing that the net benefits of regulation are reflected in the first bullet point of the OMB Report to Congress.  But this shows one of the problems facing regulatory reform today: People on both sides of the debate continue to believe that they know the facts, but in reality we know a lot less about the net effects of regulation than we often pretend to know.  Only recently have economists even begun to understand the drag that regulatory accumulation has on economic growth, and that says nothing about what benefits regulation create in exchange.

All members of Congress need to understand the limitations of our knowledge of the total effects of regulation.  We tend to rely on prospective analyses – analyses that state the costs and benefits of a regulation before they come to fruition.  What we need are more retrospective analyses, with which we can learn what has really worked and what hasn’t, and more comparative studies – studies that have control and experiment groups and see if regulations affect those groups differently.  In the meantime, the best we can do is try to ensure that the people engaged in creating new regulations follow a path of basic problem-solving: First, identify whether there is a problem that actually needs to be solved.  Second, examine several alternative ways of addressing that problem.  Then consider what the costs and benefits of the various alternatives are before choosing one. 

  • hans

    I would simply ax the senator, what daily activity in life today
    is not regulated by one governmental unit or another?

    Those that support regulations are not concerned about market
    efficiency or individual freedoms but rather the control of independent
    actions of it’s citizens or corporations…

    Remember, only through regulations can others engage in social
    engineering to impose their will and morals upon others under the
    guise of the general health and welfare clause…

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