Bloomberg News Serves up an Echo-Chamber-Ready Take on Regulation

by Matthew Freeman

April 30, 2012

Last week, Bloomberg News ran a curious story conflating a range of issues under the banner of regulatory rollbacks. The piece keys off of the ongoing GOP push to deregulate America. That effort has been going on for decades, of course, but in the wake of the recession (made possible, not coincidentally, by deregulation in the economic sector), GOP leaders and their business allies and funders have rebranded it, and now argue that that "burdensome" economic, health, safety and environmental regulations are in fact the cause of economic distress.

Most of the GOP rhetoric has been aimed at federal regulation. But the Bloomberg piece breaks some new ground, sweeping together a hodgepodge of state regulations and laws, overlaying it with an uncritical reference to some shoddy right-wing research, and presenting the resulting brew as the state and local expression of the GOP's anti-regulatory campaign.

In the first three paragraphs of the story, the reader is given purported evidence that regulations are bad for the economy, and treated to a quote from a blogger for the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) alerting us to a "national focus on reducing regulation…some of [which] is about jobs and revenue and some of [which] is about less government."

The supposed evidence of regulatory burden is an unattributed study (the article eventually explains it was "issued" by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but never names the source) concluding that "regulation cut gross state output in California by $493 billion a year." A little Googling reveals that the study was conducted by two researchers at California State University, Sacramento, apparently under contract from the Governor's Office of Small Business Advocate. Much as a similar report from the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy has been discredited by a number of sources for its ridiculous methodology, the California version uses similar methods and got similar reviews. California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office dismembers its methodology and conclusions, making clear that it piles bad estimates on top of bad methodology, charitably describing its flaws with words like "deficient," "problems," "special difficulties, "inappropriate," and "overstated." Bloomberg, on the other hand, presents it as if its calculation were the revealed truth.

The ATR quote serves as something of a hinge for the story: What begins as a tale about the economic impact of regulation devolves quickly into a list of rules and laws that annoy various right-wing constituencies. As flabby as the $493 billion figure is, it's at least focused on regulations, and purports to have something to do with economic activity. But Bloomberg stuffs its story with such data points as:

  • Several states have legalized certain fireworks over the past 12 years;
  • A West Virginia legislator made a speech opposing smoking restrictions in public buildings;
  • Michigan is rolling back a motorcycle helmet law;
  • The Idaho legislature defeated a bill that would have restricted teenagers from using tanning beds; and
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill repealing that state's law banning the use of dyes on animals (dyes are sometimes used by rabbit and chick breeders and sellers, particularly around Easter, and also by owners of show dogs).

Not only are the examples a bit far afield from the current debate, most aren't even regulations! They're state laws, or in the case of the Idaho tanning bed proposal and the West Virginia pro-smoking legislator, twinkles in a legislator's eye.

One actual regulation that gets a little airtime in the article is a Michigan rule about barber shop trash cans. The story says,

Among the more intrusive rules identified in Michigan were those that…specified the size of barbers’ wastebaskets and when to empty them and stipulated replacements of warning labels on ladders,

The story makes it sound as if the requirement lays out specific dimensions for trash cans, and sets forth a schedule for emptying them. In fact, the regulation (see page 38 of this PDF) requires that trash cans be big enough to hold a day's worth of trash, and that they be emptied daily. That makes a certain sense when you consider that barber shops are breeding grounds for all kinds of bacterial nastiness. (In case you've ever wondered why haircutters leave combs left soaking in that curious blue liquid, that's why.) But Bloomberg goes instead for the cheap suggestion that regulators are measuring trash cans with tape measures, and running transgressors off to the pokey.

In the end, the story amounts to little more than a list of libertarian bugaboos. And perhaps that's the ground on which the GOP wants to fight. But Bloomberg wraps it all up into a package about supposedly costly government regulations, without bothering to explain why any of the regulations or laws cited would have any economic impact whatsoever. The reader can be forgiven for wondering exactly which business interest is burdened by a motorcycle helmet requirement, other than hospitals and emergency room doctors.

With a little bit of journalistic skepticism about conspicuously fishy statistics and a dose of common sense, Bloomberg could have given its readers a useful review of under-reported laws that GOP legislators and governors are adopting under the banner of liberty. Instead, the story is just more fodder for the right-wing echo chamber.

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Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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