What David Brooks Gets Right -- Regulations Aren't Tanking the Economy -- and What He Misses

by Isaac Shapiro

December 07, 2011

Cross-posted from the Economic Policy Institute's Working Economics blog. Isaac Shapiro is EPI's Director of Regulatory Policy Research.

The House of Representatives is poised to vote for the REINS (Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) bill today; this would come on top of votes on two bills last week that would also upend the regulatory process.  These efforts are premised on assertions that regulations are greatly damaging the economy, and David Brooks’ op-ed Tuesday is another timely reminder that these assertions are inaccurate.  He opens with:

“Republicans have many strong arguments to make against the Obama administration, but one major criticism doesn’t square with the evidence. This is the charge that President Obama is running a virulently antibusiness administration that spews out a steady flow of job- and economy-crushing regulations.”

And closes with:

“They [regulations] are not tanking the economy.”

In between, he cites a few relevant facts to support his view that “regulations are not a big factor in our short-term [economic] problems.” These include the Bureau of Labor Statistics data which show that during the first half of 2011, just 0.18 percent of mass layoffs were due to regulations. EPI President Lawrence Mishel comprehensively addresses the role of regulation and regulatory uncertainty in the economy in Regulatory uncertainty:  A phony explanation for our jobs problems; he arrays a range of economic and survey indicators that demonstrate that it is a lack of demand, and not regulations or regulatory uncertainty, that is behind the painful state of the labor market.

I don’t agree with some of the information and characterizations in Brooks’ article; let me focus on the most glaring omission: he includes no discussion of the benefits of regulation. These can be large, not only in terms of health or safety benefits, but often in terms of economic benefits. Appropriate financial regulations are essential to an economy’s foundation.

Also, I’ve previously shown that two joint EPA/Department of Transportation rules which regulate greenhouse gas emissions from, and establish fuel standards for, various-size vehicles have particularly sizable economic benefits. They produce large savings to drivers in the form of reduced expenditures on gasoline. In 2010 dollars, a conservative estimate of the economic benefits from these two rules amounts from $6 billion to $20.6 billion a year. This range is above the range of estimated compliance costs for all 11 major rules finalized so far by the Obama EPA; that range is $5.9 billion to $12 billion a year.

When health benefits are also considered, the combined benefits of all EPA rules finalized so far under the Obama administration exceed their costs by tens of billions of dollars each year. In 2014, the Cross-State Air Pollution rule alone will save an estimated 13,000-34,000 lives and lead to 820,000 fewer cases of respiratory symptoms.

Brooks is right in concluding that concerns that regulations are behind the economy’s troubles are misplaced, and that’s a step towards a more reasoned and balanced discussion. Let’s hope that next time he goes a step further and discusses the benefits from regulations as well.

(Here is a summary of EPI’s research on the costs and benefits of regulation and a summary of our research on the relationship between employment and regulation.)

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