Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Of wolves and "regulations"

Ever since I can remember, Republicans and businesses have been hammering away with the meme that the private sector is overregulated, and those regulations cost everyone in dollars wasted and lost jobs.  The latest hammer blow comes from Michael Swartz:
Yet we forget there’s a hidden tax which gnaws at our pocketbooks and the economy at large every day. It was pointed out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in their “Ten Thousand Commandments” report, released on Tax Day.

Regulations cost $1.75 trillion in compliance costs, according to the Small Business Administration. That’s greater than the record federal budget deficit — projected at $1.48 trillion for FY 2011 — and greater even than all corporate pretax profits. Says report author Wayne Crews, CEI’s vice president for policy:
Trillion-dollar deficits and regulatory costs approaching $2 trillion annually are both unsettling new developments for America. … Every year, the federal government blows past previous deficit, debt, and regulatory burdens with no end in sight. No wonder Americans are fed up with Washington.
Just think of the handicap that sucking over $1 trillion annually out of the national economy places on job creation, for regulations that normally have little to do with safety but a lot to do with selecting winners and losers. There’s a school of thought out there which believes that big business (and by that I mean Fortune 500 multinational corporations) is in bed with government to promulgate new regulations in order to discourage competition — a sort of trust-busting in reverse. Since start-up businesses have great ideas but little capital behind them, creating a maze of red tape they need to navigate before they can begin making their mark tends to discourage competition.
That's all well and good.  But Republicans face two interrelated problems when it comes to fighting federal regulations, both of which are of their own making.

First, what do they mean by "regulations?"  It probably sounds like a stupid question, and it may be.  But "regulations" is a very abstract term to the vast majortiy of voters.  Businesses understand it, but so what?  Republicans and their allies try to explain that these amorphous "regulations" cost the economy trillions of dollars each year.  They might as well be trying to explain quantum physics. It's not going to mobilize or excite anybody beyond them.

The second issue is that they have been beating the drum of oppressive and costly "regulations" for so long that it's like the boy who cried wolf.   My parents keep telling me that when they were growing up among the steel mills, auto plants and coal mines of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, it was not unknown for the pollution to peel the paint of cars.   It was only the actions by Congress and regulations by federal adn state authorities that helped clean up the air and water.  Businesses fought these new rules every step of the way, claiming the same things they do today: it costs too much money, stifles innovation and hurts the economy.  They didn't separate needed regulations from unneeded ones.  By campaigning against "regulations," they were in effect saying that all regulations were bad.  In other words, "Wolf!"

As this piece indicated, they are still crying "Wolf!"  Now there may be an actual wolf in the fold.  We may have gone too far in the real of regulations, especially environmental regulations, but businesses and Republicans lack credibility here for crying "Wolf!" for so long.  If you fight everything you soon can fight nothing.

Some free advice for those Republicans, for what it is worth:

First, stop crying about "regulations."  No one understands it.  No one cares that it costs the economy trillions of dollars each year, in part because no one understands what you are talking about and in part because many of those same "costly" regulations, as noted above, are badly needed.  Every time you shout "regulations" some environmental activist will shout "clean air and water."  You will lose that argument. Every time.

Second, replace the abstract "regulations" with specific instances of regualtory overreach and how they hurt people.  A case in point would be the Delta Smelt Crisis in California's Central Valley.  Or the upcoming ban on incandescent light bulbs (which was not even a regulation but an act pased by Congress and signed by then-President Bush).  The ineffective low-flush toilets and phosphate-free laundry and dishwasher detergent.  Or the asthma inhalers that don't work because of the new "enviornmentally-friendly" aerosols.

That's your foot in the door.  Try it.

Because using your current meme on "regulations," you are losing.  Even now, in this age of tough economic times and regulatory overreach, you are losing.  Badly.

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