Why regulations were a convenient target at the GOP convention
© Greg Nash

To watch the Republican convention this week, one would think regulations were causing an economic crisis in this country on the scale of the Great Depression. Speech after speech bemoaned the volume of regulations under the Obama administration, with nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE saying that regulation is "one of the greatest job-killers of them all," and his son, Donald Jr., saying that we have a "regulatory state on steroids."

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Regulation is a convenient target for Republicans (even if the economy is doing reasonably well). When a regulation imposes a cost on a business, that cost is relatively obvious and painfully felt. This is also true for any workers the business may fire as a result of the regulation. But when a regulation creates a benefit — cleaner air, safer food, less likely terrorist attacks — no one really notices. Hence attacks on regulation are sure political winners as those hurt by regulation will nod and applaud knowingly and those who benefit will not pay attention.

But the truth is inevitably more complicated, even for those hurt by regulation. Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants GOP senator: Border deal is 'a very good compromise' Push to include contractor back pay in funding deal hits GOP roadblock MORE (W.Va.) cited Obama administration regulations as creating a "cycle of pessimism and disgust" in the coal industry. There is no doubt that regulation has imposed costs on coal mines and utilities in the service of curbing greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But the coal industry has been hurt more by falling oil prices and the spread of fracking for natural gas, which both have made coal less competitive. Promising to raise oil prices or to hurt the natural gas industry isn't really a political winner the way blaming regulation is.

Another speaker, soap opera actress Kimberlin Brown, decried the effects of regulation on California farmers. The bigger problem for farmers is probably the drought that has plagued the state. But a speech decrying the drought inevitably leads to calls for action on climate change (i.e., more regulation) and that is not going to happen at a Republican convention, either.

Regulations have costs but the $2 trillion estimate of costs cited by Donald Trump has been widely criticized as methodologically flawed. The relationship between jobs and regulation has been examined by economists and the results are not clear. Workers who have lost their jobs because of globalization or automation are being told by politicians to blame regulation.

To the extent that regulation is a problem for economic growth, the solution is unlikely to come out of overheated rhetoric blaming it for everything that ails us. Instead, we should carefully examine the costs and benefits of each regulation (as agencies are already required to do) and continually improve our ability to do so. We should look back at existing regulations and determine which ones are working and which ones could be improved (as President Obama has attempted to do). We should be more conscious of the cumulative effects of regulations, particularly on small businesses.

But we should remember that other forces affect the economy much more than regulations. We should also remember that regulations have benefits, even if those benefits aren't felt on a daily basis. The worker who is not hurt, the individual who does not eat tainted food, and the planet that does not get warmer count, too. They just don't make for fodder at convention speeches.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.


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