Monday, August 15, 2011

Job-Killing Regulations

As the economy splutters on, lurching and reeling like an old drunk while Republicans and Democrats trade blame for the disaster instead of actually working together to fix the problems, we face an intractable dilemma: nobody quite knows what to do to fix the problems.

If you're a hard-shell, take-no-prisoners political purist, of course, you know all the answers -

The Republican View: reduce taxes to virtually nothing, cut government spending (and, by extension, government itself) to the bone, and eliminate all job-killing regulations on businesses.

The Democratic View: increase government spending to keep at least part of the economy going, increase taxes on the wealthy, and cut spending on everything except social programs.

In my humble opinion, both of these views are overly simplistic and ... well ... stupid.

I've beaten the rhetorical drum about taxes often enough, so I won't talk about that part of it any more. Let's talk this morning about the nightmare that keeps Republicans up at night, quivering with righteous anger: regulation. Oh, excuse me - I forgot the mandatory modifier: job-killing regulation.

In the prevailing Republican philosophy, if I understand it correctly beneath the level of shouted rhetoric and sound bites, the major drag on the performance of the economy is the enormous and unnecessary burden of excessive government regulation on business. In the Republican view, vast numbers of faceless bureaucrats are hired by a heedless government to do nothing all day long except dream up new and burdensome regulations that force businesses to waste time, resources, and energy doing things other than making money...

The truth, as you might suspect, is somewhat more nuanced than that.

I don't think that there are regiments of mindless bureaucratic drones who wake up each morning, yawn, stretch, scratch their backsides, and report to work to dream up new ways to hobble the economy. I suspect that that every job-killing regulation you could name began as a well-intentioned effort to address a real problem ... protection of consumers from dangerous chemicals or predatory business practices, protection of workers by improving workplace safety, improving the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, and so on. The problem is that if you're the business that must comply with these regulations, you look at the bottom line ... and the bottom line isn't generally helped by anything not directly related to making a profit.

So let's accept for a moment that the job-killing regulations we hear so much about actually grew out of legitimate ways to address real problems. Job-killing regulations have given us reasonable working hours, a safer workplace, a better environment, and assistance with health care. Are those things worth the burden they place on businesses? In many cases, that's up for debate. We've all heard the horror stories about uncoordinated and unreviewed regulations, particularly from the much-maligned Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which once famously required the installation of loud warning signals on vehicles to alert workers that the vehicles were backing up...and then required those workers to wear hearing protection because of the long-term effects of loud noise in the workplace. You've probably seen cartoons like this one ...

Silly? Of course. But the point is valid - there needs to be a balance struck between regulations that are well-intentioned but overly burdensome and those that are well-intentioned and necessary. Who decides which are which? Well, there's the problem. Businesses would prefer no regulations at all, workers would prefer regulations that protect them from danger and from arbitrary exploitation. Somebody needs to referee the scrum.

And that's our old bogeyman, the government bureaucrat.

I think it would be useful to ratchet back the inflammatory rhetoric. Republicans need to understand that there are good arguments in favor of reasonable regulation of business activity, while Democrats need to understand that we can't use regulations as a way of addressing every perceived problem. Unrestricted business practices gave us benefits like child labor, unsafe workplaces, and the collapse of the financial mismanagement industry. Overly restrictive business practices give us economic stagnation and provide little incentive for businesses to hire workers.

How about let's stop shouting about job-killing regulations and do something useful, like reviewing the impact of existing regulations before imposing new ones ... and not just asking the regulated businesses for their opinion, but asking for the opinion of the Real People who might benefit from those regulations as well?

Because we're all in this together.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

Ahh . . . . the pure, heady oxygen of common sense to act as an antidote to the obscenely bloated rhetoric! You put it quite correctly. As I see it, both extreme views exist because of a perception the liberals and conservatives share in the slippery slope hypothesis: any attempt to tinker with the regulatory structure as it is (whether regulation exists or its doesn't) will lead to the changes going too far.

In short: both sides fear a revolution; looking into changes being like opening Pandora's box.

And both sides share a mutual antipathy: seeing the others as prone to act on bad faith if they're allowed. Kind of like the parents who overcontrol their children.

Mike said...

"job-killing regulation"

I didn't know where you were heading with this when I first read it. But then you covered it very well.

I think it should be called 'life saving regulation'.