Author Archives: James Broughel

Why Do We Get So Much Regulation?

Over the past 60 or 70 years, levels of regulation in the United States have been on the rise by almost any measure. As evidence, in the year 1950 there were only 9,745 pages in the US Code of Federal Regulations. Today that number is over 178,000 pages. There is less information about regulation at the state level, but anecdotal evidence suggests regulation is on the rise there too. For example, the Commonwealth of Kentucky publishes its regulatory code each year in a series of volumes known as the Kentucky Administrative Regulations Service (KARS). These volumes consist of books, each roughly 400 or 500 pages or so in length. In 1975, there were 4 books in the KARS. By 2015, that number had risen to 14 books. There are many different theories as to why so much regulation gets produced, so it makes sense to review some of those theories in order to explain the phenomenon of regulatory accumulation.

Perhaps the most popular theory of regulation is that it exists to advance the public interest. According to this view, well-intended regulators intervene in the marketplace due to “market failures”, which are situations where the market fails to allocate resources optimally. Some common examples of market failures include externalities (cases where third parties are impacted by the transactions involving others), asymmetric information (cases where buyers and sellers possess different levels of information about products being sold), public goods problems (whereby certain items are under-provided or not provided at all by the market), and concentration of industry in the form of monopoly power. When market failure occurs, the idea is that regulators intervene in order to make imperfect markets behave more like theoretically perfect markets.

Other theories of regulation are less optimistic about the motivations of the different participants in the rulemaking process. One popular theory suggests regulators work primarily to help powerful special interest groups, a phenomenon known as regulatory capture. Under this view—commonly associated with the writings of University of Chicago economist George Stigler—regulators fix prices and limit entry into an industry because it benefits the industry being regulated. An example would be how regulators, up until the late 1970s, fixed airline prices above what they would have been in a competitive market.

The interest groups that “capture” regulatory agencies are most often thought to be businesses, but it’s important to remember that agencies can also be captured by other groups. The revolving door between the government and the private sector doesn’t end with large banks. It also extends to nonprofit groups, labor unions, and activist groups of various kinds that also wield significant resources and power.

The “public choice theory” of regulation posits that public officials are primarily self-interested, rather than being focused on advancing the public interest. Under this view, regulators may be most concerned with increasing their own salaries or budgets. Or, they may be focused primarily on concentrating their own power.

It’s also possible that regulators are not nearly so calculating and rational as this. The behavioral public choice theory of regulation suggests regulators behave irrationally in many cases, due to the cognitive limitations inherent in all human beings. A case in point is how regulatory agencies routinely overestimate risks, or try to regulate already very low risks down to zero. There is significant evidence that people, including regulators, tend to overestimate small probability risks, leading to responses that are disproportionate to the expected harm. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s evaluations of sites related to the Superfund clean-up project routinely overestimated risks by orders of magnitude. Such overreactions might also be a response to public perceptions, for example in response to high-profile media events, such as following acts of terrorism. If the public’s reactions carry over into the voting booth, then legislation and regulation may be enacted soon after.

One of the more interesting and novel theories as to why we see regulation relates to public trust in institutions. A 2010 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics noted that there is a strong correlation between trust in various social institutions and some measures of regulation. The figure below is an example of this relationship, found in the paper.

QJE trust

Trust can relate to public institutions, such as the government, but it also extends to trust in corporations and in our fellow citizens. Interestingly, the authors of the QJE article argue that an environment of low trust and high regulation can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low levels of trust, ironically, can lead to more demand for regulation, even when there is little trust in the government. One reason for this might be that people think that giving an untrustworthy government control over private affairs is still superior to allowing unscrupulous businesses to have free rein.

The flip-side of this situation is that in high-trust countries, such as Sweden, the public demands lower levels of regulation and this can breed more trust. So an environment of free-market policies combined with trustworthy businesses can produce good market outcomes, more trust, and this too can be a self-fulfilling, allowing some countries to maintain a “good” equilibrium.

This is concerning for the United States because trust has been on the decline in a whole host of areas. A Gallop survey has been asking questions related to trust in public institutions for several decades. There is a long-term secular decline in Gallup’s broad measure of trust, as evidenced by the figure below, although periodically there are upswings in the measure.

gallup trust

Pew has a similar survey that looks at public trust in the government. Here the decline is even more evident.

pew trust

Given that regulation has been on the rise for decades, a decline in trust in the government, in corporations, and in each other, may be a key reason this is occurring. Of course, it’s possible that these groups are simply dishonest and do not merit public trust. Nonetheless, the US might find itself stuck in a self-fulfilling situation, whereby distrust breeds more government intervention in the economy, worse market outcomes, and even more distrust in the future. Getting out of that kind of situation is not easy. One way might be through education about the institutions that lead to free and prosperous societies, as well as to create a culture whereby corruption and unscrupulous behavior are discouraged.

There are a number of theories that seek to explain why regulation comes about. No theory is perfect, and some theories explain certain situations better than others. Nonetheless, the theories presented here go a long way towards laying out the forces that lead to regulation, even if no one theory can explain all regulation at all times.

Thinking like an Economist Means Thinking about Tradeoffs

This week, I’ve written two articles about different types of tradeoffs that economists think about when they evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed public policies. One type of tradeoff relates to the costs that consumers and businesses incur in exchange for the benefits policies will achieve, while a second type of tradeoff involves countervailing risks that sometimes increase as policies aim to reduce other risks.

An example of the first type of tradeoff, involving benefits and costs, comes from energy efficiency regulations for appliances. These regulations do produce some benefits involving reduced emissions, but entire classes of very important costs are routinely overlooked by regulatory agencies. When an agency doesn’t count what consumers give up in exchange for the good things policies produce, there is a greater chance people will be made worse off by a policy. That’s bad news.

Here is a relevant portion of an op-ed I wrote published in the Washington Times:

The Department of Energy sets energy conservation standards that limit the amount of electricity that can be used by home appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. These sweeping regulations affect nearly every American consumer. The department claims its rules address an imminent problem — environmental degradation — and argues that its conservation rules produce two main benefits: First, more energy-efficient appliances use less energy, so we all release fewer emissions into the atmosphere. Second, by using less energy, consumers may save money over time on monthly utility bills.

Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Not so fast.

We haven’t considered the costs of these regulations. Consumers care about their utility bills and the environment, but they also care about how well a product works, its appearance, whether the product comes with or without a warranty, the purchase price, and countless other things. When product attributes change as a result of regulations, these are costs to consumers. But the costs are ignored by regulators at the Energy Department. Regulators do consider some costs, like how much more appliance makers will have to pay when they are forced to comply with new rules, but the costs to consumers — whom we should care most about — are systematically overlooked.

In a second article, published in US News and World Report, I show how tradeoffs can involve more than just benefits and costs (which are valued in monetary terms). Tradeoffs can also involve risks. An example of a risk tradeoff comes from proposed legislation in New Jersey that targets distracted driving. The bill would ban drivers from engaging in “any” activity unrelated to driving that might interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle in the state. Some have said the bill’s language is so expansive that drinking a cup of coffee while driving would be banned.

The distracted driving bill has the potential to create what economists call “risk tradeoffs,” which occur when the mitigation of one risk simultaneously increases the risk of another. This bill addresses an all-too-real danger, but any law that prevents people from drinking coffee behind the wheel is going to increase at least one other risk: the risk created by drowsy drivers on the roads.

With fewer people drinking coffee on the roads, that means more sleepy truck drivers hauling sixteen wheelers at 2am. Is that a risk worth bearing in exchange for fewer distracted drivers? That’s a difficult question that will involve careful analysis to answer.

Risk tradeoffs are actually pretty ubiquitous, and involve far more than just Jersey drivers.

One of the most common ways new policies create risk tradeoffs is through “substitution effects.” For example, when a pesticide is banned, farmers usually switch to a different pesticide instead. The new chemical may be safer than the banned one, but it could also be more dangerous. Sometimes risks are simply shifted from one group of people to another. A new pesticide might reduce the risk from eating residue left on fruit in the supermarket, but at the same time, it could create new risks for farmers who work among the sprayed fruit.

Considering these kinds of tradeoffs—benefit/cost and risk/risk—is what rational decision making is all about. Any good economists is trained to think about these things when evaluating proposed policies. If legislators and regulators are going to use the resources we entrust them with wisely, we should all demand they think like economists too.

Washington’s Legitimacy Crisis Presents an Opportunity for the States

You’ve heard it before. Americans are deeply unhappy with Washington, DC. Sixty-five percent say the country is on the wrong track. Confidence in institutions is near all-time lows. Congress’s approval rating is terrible, and the two major presidential candidates are viewed more negatively than any other mainstream presidential candidates in recent memory. Only nineteen percent of the public trust the government to do the right thing all or most of the time.

Washington’s dysfunction—what is probably driving these perceptions—extends to all three branches of the federal government. Congress is in a near-permanent state of gridlock. The president uses his executive authority wherever possible, but often with little practical impact. Even regulatory agencies are facing what Brookings Institution scholar Philip Wallach has dubbed a legitimacy crisis of the administrative state, as the public grows more skeptical of leaving the most important policymaking decisions to insulated and unelected regulators.

The courts are in little better shape. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court has been hobbled without its ninth member. Even before this development, there was a perception building that politics too often enters the Court’s decisions, no doubt contributing to the gradual increase in the Supreme Court’s disapproval rating over time.

On a brighter note, in contrast to this crisis of legitimacy at the federal level, polling data suggests that Americans still generally trust their state and local governments. The cop on the beat, the garbage man, and the postal worker, are still trusted symbols of everyday American life.  Furthermore, the social divisions that make dramatic change at the federal level difficult (i.e. red state versus blue state stuff) actually make it easier to get things done in the states.

Where governorships and state legislatures are dominated by a single party, there are opportunities to advance creative policy solutions, allowing the states to fulfill their roles as laboratories of democracy. Policy reforms in the states, where successful, can lay the groundwork for future changes at the federal level, perhaps restoring badly-needed trust in our ailing institutions.

There are a many reasons to be cynical about where the country is headed, and to doubt whether our leaders are capable of addressing our looming challenges. However, the states should not be made complacent by this state of affairs. They should view Washington’s dysfunction as an opportunity and not a reason for despair. Now is an opportune moment to step up and demonstrate what it means to govern. Perhaps…just perhaps… our friends in Washington might pay attention and learn something.

When Regulatory Agencies Ignore Comments from the Public

A few days ago, the Department of Energy (DOE) finalized a rule setting energy efficiency standards for metal halide lamp fixtures. Last October I wrote a public interest comment to the DOE to point out several problems with the agency’s preliminary economic analysis for the rule. As part of the Administrative Procedure Act, agencies are required to solicit, and respond to, comments from the public before finalizing regulations. Unfortunately, the DOE failed to even acknowledge many of the points I made in my submission.

As evidence, here are some of the main takeaways from my comment:

1)      The DOE claims consumers and businesses are acting in an irrational manner when purchasing metal halide lamp fixtures because they forgo modest long term energy savings in order to pay a low upfront price for lamp fixtures. Yet the agency offers no convincing evidence to support the theory that consumers act irrationally when purchasing metal halide lamp fixtures. At the same time, roughly 70% of the estimated benefits of the rule are the supposed benefits bestowed upon the public when products people would purchase otherwise are removed from the market.

2)      The DOE is currently adding together costs and benefits that occur in the future but that are discounted to present value using different discount rates. It makes no sense to add together costs and benefits calculated in this manner.

3)      The DOE is using a new value of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), a way to measure benefits from reducing carbon dioxide emissions, that may be of questionable validity since the analysts who arrived at the estimate ignored recent scientific evidence. Additionally, the DOE is using the new SCC in its analysis before the public has even had a chance to comment on the validity of the new number.

4)      In its analysis, the DOE is including benefits to foreign countries as a result of reduced carbon dioxide emissions, even while the costs of the metal halide lamp fixture regulation will be borne largely by Americans.

Regarding #1 above, the DOE provided no direct response to my comment in the preamble to its final rule. This even though #1 puts in doubt roughly 70% of the estimated benefits of the rule.

The DOE also failed to respond to #2 above, even though I cited as support a very recent and relevant paper on the subject that appeared in a reputable journal and was coauthored by Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow.

Regarding #3 and #4, the DOE had this to say:

On November 26, 2013, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced minor technical corrections to the 2013 SCC values and a new opportunity for public comment on the revised Technical Support Document underlying the SCC estimates. Comments regarding the underlying science and potential precedential effect of the SCC estimates resulting from the interagency process should be directed to that process. See 78 FR 70586. Additionally, several current rulemakings also use the 2013 SCC values and the public is welcome to comment on the values as applied in those rulemakings just as the public was welcome to comment on the use and application of the 2010 SCC values in the many rules that were published using those values in the past three years.

In other words, the DOE is committed to continuing to use a value of the SCC that may be flawed since the public has the opportunity to complain to the Office of Management and Budget. At the same time, the DOE tells us we can comment on other regulations that use the new SCC value, so that should reassure anyone whose comment the DOE ignored related to this regulation!

All of this is especially troubling since the DOE is required by statute to ensure its energy efficiency rules are “economically justifiable.” It is hard to argue this rule is economically justifiable when roughly 94% of the rule’s benefits are in doubt. This is the proportion of benefits justified on the basis of consumer irrationality and on the basis that Americans should be paying for benefits that will be captured by citizens in other countries. Without these benefits, the rule fails a benefit-cost test according to the DOE’s own estimates.

The requirement that agencies respond to public comments is designed to ensure a level of democratic accountability from regulators, who are tasked with serving the American public. A vast amount of power is vested in these agencies, who are largely insulated from Congressional oversight. As evidence, Congress has only used its Congressional Review Act authority to overrule major regulations once in its history. If agencies ignore the public, and face little oversight from Congress, what faith can we have that regulators will be held accountable for any harms that inevitably arise from poorly designed regulations?

Environmental Injustice at the EPA

This past week, the EPA’s science advisory board held a public hearing on efforts to measure the “environmental justice” (EJ) impacts of EPA rules. EJ refers to adverse human health and environmental effects of government policies on minority and low income populations in the US. The EPA has released draft guidance to agency analysts who measure these effects, and this hearing was intended to find ways to improve the guidance before it is finalized.

While holding a public hearing is a sign that the EPA is committed to getting this issue right, significant improvements need to be made to the EJ guidance if the EPA does not want the entire EJ project to backfire. Specifically, closer attention should be paid to the costs EPA rules impose on low income and minority populations. Further, improvements in the transparency of agency procedures will help ensure that those with modest incomes are allowed to participate in decisions that will have significant impacts on their health and well-being.

Currently, the EPA is focusing far more on the benefits of its rules to low income and minority groups than on the costs. As evidence, the 81-page draft guidance document contains only two pages related to costs of EPA regulations. In those two pages, the agency argues that costs are often not relevant to environmental justice issues, saying:

Consideration of the distribution of costs in the context of EJ is not always necessary. Often the costs of regulation are passed onto consumers as higher prices that are spread fairly evenly across many households.

This is a striking statement because regulatory costs are regressive exactly in the instances that the EPA describes in this statement. Any time costs of a policy are spread evenly across all citizens, the dollar amount paid to implement a regulation consumes a larger percentage of a poor person’s income than a wealthy person’s income. This is precisely why sales taxes are regressive.

Additionally, as incomes fall due to the costs imposed on citizens complying with regulations, people have fewer resources available to use toward risk reduction and outlays related to improving health. Meanwhile, there is evidence that private risk reduction can be much more effective than public methods of risk reduction, especially when regulations are addressing very small risks that are dwarfed by the other risks individuals face in their everyday lives.

A step in the right direction would be to ask analysts to identify the distribution of costs of EPA regulations, especially for rules that increase the prices of products that EJ populations purchase (e.g. rent, fuel, food, electricity).

Another important component of EJ is to gather meaningful feedback from low income and minority persons before implementing policies. The notice announcing last week’s public hearing was published in the Federal Register on Christmas Eve, making it unlikely that many in the EJ community, especially those with little political influence and low alertness to EPA actions, will even be aware this hearing is taking place, let alone will participate in the event.

If the EPA’s science advisory board is truly committed to improving the lot of the less well-off, it should tell the EPA to do more to measure the costs of environmental rules on low income and minority persons, and to improve transparency of agency procedures so those with less political clout can participate equally in the democratic process.

Markets Fail and Governments Do Too

We often hear that markets fail when it comes to preserving the environment, so government regulation is needed to protect natural resources from the ravages of capitalism. But what happens when government regulations themselves get in the way of innovative ideas that move us towards a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable future?

This is exactly what happened in Logan City, Utah when the local government built a small hydropower turbine and ran into a nightmare of regulatory red tape that led to large cost overruns and far more time committed to the project than was originally anticipated. In the end, the project was delayed four years and ended up costing twice as much as planned.

This abstract from a recent working paper from the Mercatus Center describes what happened:

In 2004 Logan, Utah, saw the opportunity to place a turbine within the city’s culinary water system. The turbine would reduce excess water pressure and would generate clean, low-cost electricity for the city’s residents. Federal funding was available, and the city qualified for a grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unfortunately, Logan City found that a complex and costly federal nexus of regulatory requirements must be met before any hydropower project can be licensed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This regulation drove up costs in terms of time and money and, as a result, Logan City is not planning to undertake any similar projects in the future. Other cities have had similar experiences to Logan’s, and we briefly explore these as well. We find that regulation is likely deterring the development of small hydropower potential across the United States, and that reform is warranted.

This wouldn’t be the first time that regulations have led to perverse environmental outcomes. To prevent these problems in the future, agencies need to take better account of the expected costs and benefits of their rules before finalizing them. For example, recent analysis by myself and my colleague Richard Williams shows that agencies only rarely estimate dollar values for both benefits and costs of their regulations.

Another improvement would be for agencies to consider more flexible approaches when regulating. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed a rule to reduce silica exposure for workers. The rule requires businesses to consider gas masks or other personal protection equipment only as a last resort. Other methods of controlling silica dust, like enclosing work areas or using sprays and vacuums, should be considered first. These methods are likely to be more burdensome than asking workers to wear a gas mask. The agency should consider offering more flexibility to businesses and workers if it wants to relieve some unnecessary burden in its proposed rule.

Of course it’s true that markets can fail. But it’s important to remember that governments often fail too. Only an approach that considers both market failure and government failure can illuminate the best course of action when addressing a serious social problem like environmental degradation. Furthermore, until regulators start acting more like the experts we expect them to be, government is likely to fail just as much, if not more often, than markets.

A New Year’s Gift from the Department of Energy

On New Year’s Eve, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced it will be denying a petition brought to the agency by the Landmark Legal Foundation. The petition had requested the DOE reconsider a regulation related to energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens on the grounds that the Energy Department used a new, much higher, estimate of the social cost of carbon (SCC) in the final analysis of the regulation than had been used in the proposed version of the rule. The SCC is a number the Department uses to estimate benefits to society from reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The public was denied the opportunity to comment on the higher estimate of the SCC since the new estimate was not used until after the time the public was allowed to comment on the regulation.

Here’s some of the DOE’s reasoning for denying the petition:

In the microwave oven rule, the SCC analysis did not affect DOE’s decision regarding the standards that were published in the Federal Register at either the proposed rule or final rule stage because the estimated benefits to consumers of the standard exceeded the costs of the standard, even without considering the SCC values. [emphasis added]

However, as I and others have stated before, these “benefits to consumers” are not benefits at all, and should be excluded from consideration when determining whether the DOE’s energy efficiency standards produce benefits in excess of costs. In a comment I wrote to the DOE as the agency considered this petition, I said:

The preponderance of the rule’s benefits, nearly 80 percent, are not related to reductions in carbon emissions, or even to any environmental effects at all. Instead, these benefits are based on the assumption that consumers behave in an irrational manner when purchasing microwave ovens and that the Department will be able to “fix” this behavior by issuing a regulation, thereby resulting in benefits to consumers. These “savings” should be excluded from the agency’s final analysis of benefits resulting from the regulation.

So the DOE is partly right. The new SCC really doesn’t make a difference in this particular case. However, this is because the regulation produces net costs to society with or without the higher estimate of the social cost of carbon. Thus, the rule can’t be justified on a cost-benefit basis even with the new social cost of carbon number the DOE uses. As I explained in my comment:

Given that the primary estimate of the total benefits resulting from this regulation is estimated at $294 million per year (2011$), and total costs are estimated at $66.4 million per year, subtracting the consumer “irrationality” benefits of $234 million produces net costs to society of $6.4 million per year (2011$).12 If DOE used a lower value of the SCC, like the estimate used in the proposed version of this regulation, that net cost figure would be even higher. The problem is further compounded if benefits to other countries are excluded from the estimates.

The DOE made no effort to respond to this particular critique in its response to the Landmark Legal Foundation petition. The agency does not view the questionable nature of its estimated benefits to consumers as within the scope of the issue it sought comment on. Perhaps this is so. However, there will be more such regulations in the future where this controversial technique is employed by the DOE. Indeed, at Mercatus we have already commented on such regulations. Additionally, the agency’s decision to slip this notice out on New Year’s Eve leads one to question the degree to which the agency is committed to transparent practices. As a result, an inefficient regulation will be implemented and Americans will be made worse off.

 

What the Affordable Care Act Can Teach Us about Government Failure

Most people probably believe that the recent failures of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are an anomaly, and that most areas the federal government involves itself in, from education to transportation, operate quite smoothly, or at least adequately well. This belief is misguided, however, and the issues we see from the ACA should not be viewed as anomalies. Problems like unintended consequences of policy, privilege granting to special interests, adverse selection in insurance markets, and other issues, are widespread in countless areas of public policy. It just so happens that we usually fail to associate the pernicious effects of laws with their source: public policy.

First, public policies create many unintended consequences. People will change their behavior in response to altered incentives from policies and when these behavior changes are not anticipated by lawmakers, unintended consequences occur. As an example, the ACA has altered incentives for many employers. Business owners are now likely to cut worker hours and keep their staffs under 50 employees in order to avoid paying penalties imposed by the law. The intention was that people will get insurance through their jobs, while a result is that many people will lose their jobs or work fewer hours.

A similar effect occurred after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This well-intentioned Act of Congress was supposed to level the playing field for disabled workers by requiring that businesses with disabled workers provide accommodations, such as wheelchair access. The Act also sought to prevent discrimination of disabled workers, such as firing someone for having a disability. The reality once the law was in place was very different, however. Economists have found that the law was followed by a steep decline in employment among disabled workers, likely because of increased costs associated with hiring them, exactly the opposite result the law intended. Perhaps the most famous unintended consequence of all is the fact that minimum wage laws actually hurt low skilled workers.

A lot of these effects, while unintentional, are actually quite predictable and any good economist should be able to identify potential unintended consequences before a law is even implemented. So why do these policies get adopted? A big reason is because special interests have enormous influence in shaping policy. The Affordable Care Act literally has provisions allowing handouts to insurance companies to make up for losses they face in the new government health insurance exchanges. Unfortunately, cronyism like this shapes policy at all levels. For example, a recent USDA regulation will require additional food safety inspection of imported catfish. This may sound like a sensible idea, until one finds out there is no evidence of a significant problem from tainted catfish. The new program was actually lobbied for by domestic catfish producers who wanted to hurt their foreign competitors by driving up the price of imports, all at the expense of American consumers.

A final problem created by the Affordable Care Act relates to adverse selection in insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs because of information problems between buyers and sellers of insurance. Healthy people may have trouble signaling that they are a low risk to insurers, and so the healthy drop out of insurance markets when insurers don’t offer them a low priced product that serves their needs. This can lead to mostly sick people signing up for insurance coverage, while the healthy decide to go without coverage. Over time this leads to higher prices, causing more healthy people to decline coverage and the pool of insured to become ever sicker.

The ACA creates this problem through community rating requirements and other regulations, like guaranteed issue, that don’t allow insurance companies to price policies based on the riskiness of the applicant. As insurance premiums rise (because of regulations and because insurance companies must cover many new services), more and more healthy people will find these policies unattractive. The insurance pool will become ever sicker over time. To avoid this problem, the ACA includes a mandate that everyone purchase insurance. However, it is far from clear whether the current mandate is strong enough to prevent adverse selection problems from taking place.

This problem is hardly new. New York State passed extremely strict community rating regulations several decades ago. This led to higher premiums and lots of young, healthy people dropping out of the insurance pool. I should know, I lived in New York and went without insurance for most of my 20s. The prices of policies were simply too high for me to justify paying.

The list of government failures likely to result from the Affordable Care Act is too long for one blog post. The ACA also has regressive effects that tend to favor the wealthy at the expensive of the middle class, and the law will add to moral hazard problems in our healthcare system (i.e. people over-utilizing medical services or not taking adequate care of themselves because the costs of their behavior are passed on to others).

The ACA may have serious problems, but it works great as a teaching device. Nearly every day we see another example of government failure in action.  Maybe once Americans see the effects of the ACA, they will look more closely at the effects of other policies as well.

Why Mandating Higher Quality is Regressive

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the fact that millions of Americans are seeing their health insurance plans cancelled as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Some pundits have gone so far as to argue this is a good thing. The cancelled plans, the logic goes, were lower in quality than the plans being offered in the new government health insurance exchanges. Many people will end up paying more for the replacement plans, but since the new plans cover a wider variety of health services, they are better off, right?

Actually, no. Imagine if the same logic were applied to automobiles. I drive a 2003 Toyota Matrix. Would I be better off if my current model was banned and I was forced to buy a brand new Ferrari instead? The President made a similar comparison in a recent press conference when he said:

We made a decision as a society that every car has to have a seat belt or air bags. And so you pass a regulation. And there’s some additional cost, particularly at the start, of increasing the safety and protections, but we make a decision as a society that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of all the lives that are saved. So what we’re saying now is if you’re buying a new car, you got to have a seat belt.

If the President’s comparison were appropriate, people would be able to keep their current plans, and might only have to add a new feature or two when they buy a new plan. Instead, people are being dumped from their current coverage and forced into the government run exchanges where they are being forced to buy all kinds of options they don’t want or need. Some might get a subsidy to help with the purchase, but this is still like forcing everyone to buy a Ferrari when all they really want is their trusty old Honda Accord.

Sure, if I had to buy a new Ferrari, it might have all kinds of amazing features that my current car lacks. But I would also have a lot less money to spend on other things that I value a lot more, like my monthly gym membership, or taking my girlfriend out to a nice restaurant on occasion. If banning low quality goods and services is so good for consumers, why not extend this logic even further? Why not ban row boats and force people to buy yachts instead? Imagine how much better dressed Americans would be if we banned all of the clothes sold at Target and Walmart and only allowed people to purchase Christian Dior or Armani!

The problem with this logic is that quality is what economists call a “normal” good. A normal good is something people demand more of when their income rises. By contrast, an “inferior” good is something we demand more of when our income falls. Think macaroni and cheese dinners or sneakers from Payless, for example.

There’s nothing inherently “inferior” about an inferior good. Rather, people with lower incomes often prefer to trade off quality in exchange for a lower price. This is a perfectly rational decision. Since people demand more quality as income rises, banning lower quality products, like catastrophic only health insurance coverage, is actually banning the products that lower income people prefer. And it’s not just the poor who make tradeoffs between price and quality. (For example, I know for a fact that one of my more senior colleagues at the Mercatus Center buys most of his clothes at Walmart!). When prices rise in response to the mandated improvement in quality, the preferences of the poor are ignored and their options limited. As such, each individual must decide for him or herself what the right balance is between quality and price.

Once this becomes clear, one has to wonder who a lot of regulations are really designed to serve. For example, the FDA recently announced it will be setting standards for the production of pet food. Are regulations like this designed to cater to the preferences of the poor, who probably opt for the 79 cent can of cat food? Or are they more in line with the preferences of people who already buy organic food for their cats, people who might not mind paying a little extra to ensure that their pet food has met the new standards set by the FDA?

Mandating rearview cameras in automobiles is regressive for the same reason. This item was originally found mostly in luxury cars, but, thanks to market innovation, these cameras are rapidly becoming commonplace features in cars, all without government regulation.

One of the benefits of the market system is that when a new product is first introduced, the wealthy often pay a lot for it. Over time, the kinks in the product are worked out, and prices fall as the new technology becomes more affordable. Eventually, low income people can afford the product as well, but each consumer must decide for herself when the price has fallen sufficiently to make the purchase worthwhile.

Banning low quality items may seem like a noble way to protect consumers, but not when that removes lower-priced options for those consumers who have the fewest resources to spare. Rather than forcing consumers to buy luxury items, regulatory agencies should respect consumer preferences, especially the preferences of the poor.

Energy Efficiency as Foreign Aid?

A recent suite of energy efficiency regulations issued by the Department of Energy (DOE) have been criticized due to the DOE’s claim that consumers and businesses are behaving irrationally when purchasing appliances and other energy using devises. The Department believes it is bestowing benefits on society by “correcting” these faulty decisions. Mercatus Center scholars have written about this extensively here, here, and here.

However, even if we set aside the Department’s claims of consumer and business “irrationality,” a separate rationale for these regulations is also very problematic. The vast majority of the environmental benefits of these rules stem from reductions in CO2 emissions due to lower emissions from power plants. However, in a 2010 report, the US government estimated only 7 to 23 percent of these benefits will be captured by Americans. The rest will go to people in other countries.

Here’s a recent example. In August, the DOE proposed a rule setting energy efficiency standards for metal halide lamp fixtures. In the agency’s analysis, it estimated total benefits from CO2 emission reductions at $1,532 million. Using the more optimistic estimate of the percentage of CO2 related benefits going to the US citizens (23%), Americans should capture about $450 million in environmental benefits from the rule (once we include benefits from reductions in NOx emissions as well). At the same time, the DOE estimates the rule will cost $1,294 million, much of which will be paid by American consumers and businesses. How can the DOE, which is tasked with serving the American public, support such a policy?

One might argue America is imposing costs on the rest of the world with its carbon emissions, and therefore should pay a type of tax to internalize this external cost we impose on others. However, the rest of the world is also imposing costs on us. In fact, US emissions are actually in decline, while global emissions are on the rise.

Even if we assume it is a sensible policy for Americans to compensate other countries for our carbon emissions, is paying for more expensive products like household appliances the best way to accomplish this goal? Given that no amount of carbon dioxide emission reductions in the US will do much of anything to reduce anticipated global warming, wouldn’t the rest of the world be better off with resources to adapt to climate change, instead of (at best) the warm feeling they might get from knowing Americans are buying more expensive microwave ovens? A more efficient policy would be a cash transfer to other countries, or the US could create a fund the purpose of which would be to help other countries adapt to climate change.

Energy efficiency regulations from the DOE are already difficult enough to justify. Knowing they are really just a roundabout form of foreign aid makes these rules look even less sensible.