Who Loves the Regulations?

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Aug 28, 2010 12:01 AM
Who Loves the Regulations?

What’s great -- and infuriating -- about commuting in Washington is that something is always going on. The commuter can kill time while in traffic trying to figure out what it is.

On August 25, the sidewalks outside the Department of Agriculture were littered with cameras and reporters. A passerby might guess they were there to cover the massive, ongoing egg recall, a topic that would seem to be of great concern to journalists and agriculture employees alike.

Nope.

The reporters were there to discuss an upcoming meeting between fired former bureaucrat Shirley Sherrod and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack. He offered her a job; she said no. Eggs, presumably, weren’t on the menu, although they were probably a more important topic of conversation.

It just goes to show that what you’re seeing in the media isn’t necessarily going to line up with what’s important to you. Take the concept of “regulation.”

In the media, regulation is generally considered a good thing, and thus any move to deregulate is treated as a bad thing. The costs and drawbacks of over-regulation are seldom considered.

For example, a Washington Post headline late in the George W. Bush administration announced: “White House Makes Final Push To Deregulate.” The subhead added, “Bush Administration Seeks To Weaken Government Rules Aimed At Protecting Consumers And The Environment.” Sounds frightening.

Read through the story, though, and it’s clear the administration wasn’t completely dedicated to slashing regulations. “As many as 90 new regulations are in the works, and at least nine of them are considered ‘economically significant’ because they impose costs or promote societal benefits that exceed $100 million annually,” reporter R. Jeffrey Smith wrote. That’s a pretty big price tag.

For most Americans regulations are an inconvenience. We encounter regulations when the government tells us how many gallons our toilet may flush or how much water our showerhead may use. If that leads to clogged plumbing or a sluggish water flow, the bureaucrats don’t care.

Even after the financial meltdown of 2008, when the government stepped in to supposedly save the capitalist system, people rightly remain leery of regulations.

“57 percent of Americans are worried that there will be too much government regulation of business, while 37 percent worry that there will not be enough,” according to a Gallup poll in February. “Half of Americans believe the government should become less involved in regulating and controlling business, with 24 percent saying the government should become more involved and 23 percent saying things are about right.”

But mere public opinion doesn’t keep Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson from hopping aboard the regulatory bandwagon.

In a piece titled “The Many Sins of Deregulation,” he blames the government for its convoluted egg-inspection system. “The Agriculture Department oversees chickens and grades eggs for their quality. The FDA is responsible for the safety of eggs in their shells. The FDA inspects egg farms after an outbreak of egg-borne disease has been detected -- not before.”

That’s supposed to make the point that there aren’t yet enough regulators?

Maybe, if we created a regulatory group to regulate the regulators, we’d have safe eggs. And if that doesn’t work, we can keep adding layers of regulations until the food supply is completely safe. Oh, and eggs may cost $15 a dozen. Or more.

Ironically, while complaining about deregulation, Meyerson stumbles across a better solution. “The FDA, for example, can’t mandate a recall of diseased food; it can do no more than try to persuade the responsible company to recall the product on its own,” he writes. Well, companies have no interest in selling “diseased food.” Any company that tried would swiftly go out of business.

The power of consumers in an open market, not the power of federal regulators, will ensure a safe supply of food.

August hasn’t been a good month for commuters. As the Post reported on Aug. 16, “Falls Church plans to end its George bus service, which has been popular among riders, because it can’t afford to run its fleet after September.” Hold it -- if the bus is so “popular,” why would the city shut it down?

By “popular,” the Post doesn’t mean that the buses carry many passengers (they don’t) or that the service turns a profit (Falls Church loses money on every passenger who gets aboard). Maybe they’re popular the way regulators are: with reporters, not so much with the rest of us.