David Brooks Teaches People How Not to Talk About Regulation

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Tuesday, 06 December 2011 05:18

Some people try to teach by providing step by step instructions. This can be very tedious. David Brooks instead teaches by example. In his column today, David Brooks commits two of the great sins that would not appear in any serious discussion of regulation. 

First he discusses the cost of the regulations put in place by different presidents:

"George W. Bush issued regulations over eight years that cost about $60 billion. During its first two years, the Obama regulations cost between $8 billion and $16.5 billion, according to estimates by the administration itself, and $40 billion, according to data collected, more broadly, by the Heritage Foundation."

So regulation under the last president Bush cost $60 billion. Is this $60 billion a year (@0.4 percent of GDP)? Is it the accumulated cost over ten years (@0.04 percent of GDP)? Or, is it over a one-time cost of $60 billion? David Brooks doesn't tell us. The differences are of course enormous, but we have not a clue based on the information given in the article.

The second major sin is that we have no idea how Brooks is measuring costs. Suppose that my neighbor has the disturbing habit of dumping his sewage on my lawn. If this is a common problem, then I and others similarly afflicted may unite to put a socialist in the White House who will prohibit people from dumping sewage on their neighbors' lawn.

Most regulation does in fact have this character. It prohibits businesses from doing harm to the life and property of others. The question is, does Brooks' measure of the cost of regulation simply count the cost to my neighbor of dealing with his own sewage, or is it supposed to be some net measure that subtracts the savings that accrue to me and other current recipients of our neighbors' sewage?

Brooks doesn't tell us, but since analyses of most regulations show the benefits far exceed the cost (in the case of the Clean Air Act, the net benefits were estimated as $2 trillion over the next few decades), it is likely that Brooks is simply counting the cost to my neighbor of cleaning up his own sewage. It's not clear what this tells us exactly about the burden of regulation, but hey, this is David Brooks, what did you expect?