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Posts Tagged ‘Regulation’

I don’t like the tribal nature of American politics, in part because I get criticized for not playing the game.

I tell both groups that I care about public policy rather than personal or partisan loyalty. Not that this explanation makes either group happy.

Today, I’m going to give a “thumbs up” to the President for what he’s doing about car mileage regulations. Which means the first group will be happy and the second group will be irritated.

To be more specific, the Trump Administration is proposing to ease up on the CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) rules. The Obama Administration, working with California environmentalists, proposed to make these regulations far more costly. Trump’s people basically want to freeze the car mileage mandate at the current 37-miles-per-gallon level.

Here’s a look at the history of the CAFE standards.

Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute explained earlier this year why these regulation impose high costs. And deadly costs.

The federal government’s auto fuel economy standards have for decades posed a simple problem: They kill people. Worse, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has covered this up. …To call it a coverup isn’t hyperbole. CAFE kills people by causing cars to be made smaller and lighter. While these downsized cars are more fuel-efficient, they are also less crashworthy. …A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study estimated the death toll at between 2,200 and 3,900 a year. Similarly, a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study estimated that CAFE had contributed to up to 2,600 fatalities in 1993. …The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which closely monitors crashworthiness, still provides the same advice it has been giving for years: “Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.”

The Trump Administration apparently was listening to Sam, and has decided to block future increases in the CAFE mandate.

Environmentalists are predictably upset, but the Wall Street Journal opined on this topic a couple of days ago and explained why it is good news.

The Trump Administration’s deregulation is improving consumer choice and reducing costs… Its proposed revisions Thursday to fuel economy rules continue this trend to the benefit of car buyers… Obama bureaucrats were acutely blind—perhaps willfully so—to economic and technological trends in 2012 when they set a fleetwide average benchmark of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. …Americans prefer bigger cars, which makes it harder for automakers to meet the escalating Cafe targets. …As prices rise to meet the new standards, consumers would also wait longer to replace their cars. The average age of a car is approaching 12 years, up from about 8.5 in 1995. Newer cars are more efficient and safer, so longer vehicle turnover could result in more traffic fatalities… Thursday’s Trump Administration proposal to freeze—not roll back—fuel economy standards at the current 2020 target of 37 miles a gallon. …Automakers also want to duck a prolonged legal tussle with California, which received a waiver from the Obama Administration under the Clean Air Act in 2013 to establish its own emissions standards and electric-car mandate. The proposed Trump standards would apply nationally.

Holman Jenkins of the WSJ also weighed in on the issue, pointing out that undoing Obama’s expansion of CAFE mandates will have no impact on the earth’s climate.

…the effect on climate change would be zero. The Obama White House at the time exaggerated by a factor of two the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the effect on total emissions over the lifetime of the cars involved. It doesn’t matter. Two times nothing is still nothing. …Let’s remember the truth of Mr. Obama’s fuel-economy rules. He did not wander the balconies of the White House gazing far into the future when he drafted the 2021-25 fuel economy target of 54.5 miles a gallon. His flunkies, as documented in a House investigation, simply were looking for a impressive-sounding number to serve the administration’s political interests at the time. …in undoing Mr. Obama’s policies, Mr. Trump is doing nothing to hurt the climate.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute also wrote on the topic and noted that Trump’s policy will save about 1,000 lives each year.

…the administration has struck a blow for consumer choice that will be good news for drivers planning or hoping to buy a new car in the next decade. That’s because the mileage mandate is one of the main causes of rapidly rising vehicle prices. …Meeting ever more stringent fuel economy standards is driving up new vehicle prices. Sticker shock is thereby causing a lot of people to hang on to their current cars. The average age of all cars on the road is now at an all-time high of over 11-1/2 years. …Freezing CAFE standards will make new cars more affordable for millions of Americans and also allow many of them to buy bigger and hence even safer new models. How much safer will be hotly debated. The Transportation Department concludes that the proposed changes will prevent about 1,000 traffic fatalities a year. …For many people, fuel economy will still be the most important factor in choosing a new car. The good news for them is that the Trump administration’s action will in no way prevent them from buying a model that gets great gas mileage. The good news for everyone else is that the choice of models will be much wider than if the CAFE standard remained 54.5 mpg.

By the way, this isn’t simply a matter of saving lives.

After all, we theoretically could save thousands of lives by simply banning automobiles. In the world of sensible public policy, we make trade-offs, deciding if achieving a certain goal is worthwhile when looking at all the costs and all the benefits.

So it’s theoretically possible that a policy that leads to more premature deaths might be acceptable.

But CAFE fails even on that basis. As Marlo Lewis explained a few years ago, the policy both kills people and imposes net financial costs.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump just improved his grade on regulation.

Back in April, I gave him a B+ on regulation. But then he did something foolish in June that (if I recalculated) would have dropped him to a B. Now he’s probably back at a B+ because of the change to the CAFE rules.

Given what he’s doing on trade, he needs to boost his other grades as much as possible!

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During the Obama years, I criticized the President for various green-energy scams that squandered money and produced scandals such as Solyndra.

And I also noted that many Republicans were happy to support corrupt subsidies to inefficient sources of energy so long as their voters got a slice of the loot.

Sadly, the same thing is happening with Trump in the White House. All that’s changed is that there are different groups sucking at the federal teat.

Catherine Rampell’s column points out how Trump wants the government to pick winners and losers in energy markets.

The GOP…definition of free markets turns out to be pretty confusing… It apparently includes allowing the president to personally dictate what companies must buy, from whom, and at what price; what products they should sell; which employees they should hire and fire; where they should locate… The Trump administration has taken action or raised questions in all these areas… And President Trump’s supposedly laissez-faire co-partisans in Congress have barely said boo. …If that doesn’t count as “picking winners and losers,” it’s hard to say what would. Efforts to prop up inefficient coal-fired plants are…a terrible idea from an economic perspective. The reason these plants are struggling, after all, is that they can’t compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables. Trump is wielding the power of the state to keep uncompetitive companies in business, and costing taxpayers and consumers lots of money in the process.

And remember that this intervention will destroy more jobs than it saves, just as was the case with Obama’s interventions.

This sordid story also is a perfect example of why politicians should never be granted open-ended power.

Trump is now defiantly claiming that “national security” requires bailing out his political allies in the coal industry. It’s the same absurd rationale he has lately invoked for other unfree-market interventions — including, ironically, our military-alliance-straining steel and aluminum tariffs and, perhaps soon, automobile tariffs. …Leave it to Trump to try to strong-arm the invisible hand.

The Wall Street Journal has a hard-hitting editorial castigating the Trump Administration for considering back-door bailouts and special subsidies.

…all of a sudden the Administration wants to do a Barack Obama imitation and play energy favorites. …The supposed problem is that the U.S. is producing an abundance of cheap natural gas thanks to the shale fracking revolution. As a result, national electric wholesale prices for natural gas have plunged by half since 2008… Meanwhile, government subsidies such as the 30% federal investment tax credit have boosted solar and wind production while driving down the wholesale cost. Many nuclear and coal plants unable to compete with renewables and natural gas may have to shut down over the next few years. …Thus, the rescue plan—er, regulatory bailout. According to the Trump memo, Section 202 of the 1920 Federal Power Act lets the Energy Secretary mandate the delivery or generation of electricity during an emergency. It also suggests that the President could use his authority under the 1950 Defense Production Act to “construct or maintain energy facilities” to protect national defense. …Mandating that grid operators buy more expensive coal and nuclear power would raise consumer prices and could reduce natural gas production that has been a boon to many states. And note to Mr. Trump: Energy is one of the biggest costs for steel and aluminum manufacturers. The government rescue for coal and nuclear is as politically abusive as Mr. Obama’s lawless policy to punish fossil fuels. A better way to make coal and nuclear more competitive is to keep chipping away at renewable subsidies and cutting regulation.

The editorial concludes with a very appropriate observation.

As Governor of Texas, Mr. Perry often visited our offices to explain why the U.S. government shouldn’t pick energy winners and losers. He’s still right even if he has moved to Washington.

Amen. Intervention in energy markets is bad when “green” groups get the handouts, and intervention also is bad when coal gets the goodies. That’s true in America and it’s true in other nations.

The Washington Post also correctly opined against this heavy-handed government intervention.

President Trump is preparing what could be the most astonishing and counterproductive instance of central planning the nation has seen in decades.

Mr. Trump last Friday ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to recommend ways to prop up struggling coal and nuclear power plants. …One option would require the purchase of electricity from coal and nuclear plants under a law meant to keep power flowing during emergencies, such as hurricanes. Another scheme would hijack the 1950 Defense Production Act, which allows presidential intervention to secure critical goods when national security is at stake. …Americans could pay hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, more every year for energy. Wholesale electricity markets could collapse as efficient power plants failed to compete with subsidized dinosaurs.

The editorial wisely notes that Trump’s intervention will create a bad precedent that will be abused by a future Democrat president (actually, he’s building on Obama’s bad precedent, but it doesn’t help that Trump is making intervention a pattern).

If Mr. Trump proceeds and the courts somehow allow such a perversion of the law, it would be hard to stop the next Democratic president from, say, using emergency powers to force the purchase of renewables at the expense of coal, oil and natural gas. The president’s latest turn toward economic statism should be no surprise; it has been an animating principle of his presidency. …Mr. Trump is in the midst of picking unnecessary and increasingly costly trade fights with once-close allies, while assuring U.S. farmers that he will use state power — and, presumably, everyone else’s tax dollars — to preserve their margins. Now he is on the verge of asserting dictatorial control over energy markets, using powers meant to be reserved for real emergencies.

Call me crazy, but I want consumers to have the power. And that means allowing competitive markets to allocate resources and determine profitability.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t seem to have any guiding principles. Yes, he sometimes supports good policy, but he’s also just as likely to favor intervention.

By the way, the Washington Post picked the wrong word in the title of its editorial. At least in theory, socialism means government ownership of the “means of production.” Trump doesn’t want the government to own energy companies. Instead, he wants to control them.

As Thomas Sowell observed when writing about Obama-era intervention, that’s technically fascism.

But since that term is now associated with other nasty attributes, let’s call Trump’s policy statism, corporatism, or cronyism. Or, if you like oxymorons, call it state-led capitalism.

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As a policy wonk, I mostly care about the overall impact of government on prosperity. So when I think about the effect of red tape, I’m drawn to big-pictures assessments of the regulatory burden.

Here are a few relevant numbers that get my juices flowing.

  • Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.
  • The economy-wide cost of regulation reached $1.75 trillion in 2010.
  • For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are lost in the economy’s productive sector.
  • A World Bank study determined that moving from heavy regulation to light regulation “can increase a country’s average annual GDP per capita growth by 2.3 percentage points.”
  • Regulatory increases since 1980 have reduced economic output by $4 trillion.
  • The European Central Bank estimated that product market and employment regulation has led to costly “misallocation of labour and capital in eight macro-sectors,” and also found that reform could boost national income by more than six percent.

But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that I’m not normal.

Most people don’t get excited about these macro-type calculations.

Instead they’re far more likely to get agitated by regulations that make their daily lives a hassle. Such as:

I certainly can sympathize. It’s galling that the clowns in Washington have made our existence less pleasant.

Most people also are quite responsive to anecdotes about red tape. Simply stated, big-picture numbers are like a skeleton, while real-world examples put meat on the bones.

Today, let’s look at some absurd examples of the regulatory state in action.

We’ll start with bone-headed pizza regulation, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

FDA released guidance for posting calorie disclosures at restaurants with more than 20 locations, and the ostensible point is to help folks choose healthier foods. The regulations…are an outgrowth of the 2010 Affordable Care Act… The reason some restaurants have spent years fighting these rules is not because executives lay awake at night plotting how to make Americans obese. It’s because the rules are loco. …Take pizza companies, which have to display per slice ranges or the number for the entire pie. Calories vary based on what you order—the barbarians who put pineapple on pizza are consuming fewer calories than someone who chooses pepperoni and extra cheese. But the number of pepperonis on a pizza depends on the pie’s size and whether someone also adds onions and sausage. ..The rules are so vague that companies could face a crush of lawsuits, which will be abetted by this “nonbinding” FDA guidance.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that academic researchers have found these types of rules have no effect on consumer choices.

A systematic review and meta-analysis determined the effect of restaurant menu labeling on calories and nutrients…were collected in 2015, analyzed in 2016, and used to evaluate the effect of nutrition labeling on calories and nutrients ordered or consumed. Before and after menu labeling outcomes were used to determine weighted mean differences in calories, saturated fat, total fat, carbohydrate, and sodium ordered/consumed… Menu labeling resulted in no significant change in reported calories ordered/consumed… Menu labeling away-from-home did not result in change in quantity or quality, specifically for carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fat, or sodium, of calories consumed among U.S. adults.

Shocking, just shocking. Next thing you know, somehow will tell us that Obamacare didn’t lower premiums for health insurance!

For our second example, we have a surreal story out of California.

A farmer faces trial in federal court this summer and a $2.8 million fine for failing to get a permit to plow his field and plant wheat in Tehama County. A lawyer for Duarte Nursery said the case is important because it could set a precedent requiring other farmers to obtain costly, time-consuming permits just to plow their fields. “The case is the first time that we’re aware of that says you need to get a (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) permit to plow to grow crops,” said Anthony Francois, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation. “We’re not going to produce much food under those kinds of regulations,” he said. …The Army did not claim Duarte violated the Endangered Species Act by destroying fairy shrimp or their habitat, Francois said. …Farmers plowing their fields are specifically exempt from the Clean Water Act rules forbidding discharging material into U.S. waters, Francois said.

Wow, sort of reminds me of the guy who was hassled by the feds for building a pond on his own property. Or the family persecuted for building a house on their own property.

Last but not least, our third example contains some jaw-dropping tidbits about red tape in a New York Times story.

Indian Ladder Farms, a fifth-generation family operation near Albany, …sells homemade apple pies, fresh cider and warm doughnuts. …This fall, amid the rush of commerce — the apple harvest season accounts for about half of Indian Ladder’s annual revenue — federal investigators showed up. They wanted to check the farm’s compliance… Suddenly, the small office staff turned its focus away from making money to placating a government regulator. …The investigators hand delivered a notice and said they would be back the following week, when they asked to have 22 types of records available. The request included vehicle registrations, insurance documents and time sheets — reams of paper in all. …the Ten Eyck family, which owns the farm, along with the staff devoted about 40 hours to serving the investigators, who visited three times before closing the books. …This is life on the farm — and at businesses of all sorts. With thick rule books laying out food safety procedures, compliance costs in the tens of thousands of dollars and ever-changing standards from the government…, local produce growers are a textbook example of what many business owners describe as regulatory fatigue. …The New York Times identified at least 17 federal regulations with about 5,000 restrictions and rules that were relevant to orchards. …Mr. Ten Eyck…fluently speaks the language of government compliance, rattling off acronyms that consume his time and resources, including E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), U.S.D.A. (United States Department of Agriculture) and state and local offices, too, like A.C.D.O.H. (Albany County Department of Health).

And here’s an info-graphic that accompanied the article.

Wow. No wonder a depressingly large share of the population prefers to simply get a job as a bureaucrat.

Needless to say, this is not a system that encourages and enables entrepreneurship.

Which is why deregulation is a good idea (and Trump deserves credit for making a bit of progress in this area). We need some sensible cost-benefit analysis so that bureaucracies are focused on public health rather than mindless rules.

And it also would be a good idea in many cases to rely more on mutually reinforcing forms of private regulation.

Since I’m a self-confessed wonk, I’ll close by sharing this measure of the ever-growing burden of red tape. I realize it’s not as attention-grabbing as anecdotes and horror stories, but it is very relevant if we care about long-run growth and competitiveness.

P.S. On the topic of regulation, I admit that this example of left-wing humor about laissez-faire dystopia is very clever and amusing.

P.P.S. I’ve used an apple orchard as an example when explaining why a tax bias against saving and investment makes no sense. I’ll now have to mention that the beleaguered orchard owner also has to deal with 5,000 regulatory restrictions.

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Beginning in the 1980s, money-laundering laws were enacted in hopes of discouraging criminal activity by making it harder for crooks to use the banking system. Unfortunately, this approach has been an expensive failure.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. I wrote last year about some intrusive, expensive, and pointless legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse.

Now there’s another equally misguided set of proposals from Senators Rubio and Wyden, along with Representatives Pearce, Luetkemeyer, and Maloney. They want to require complicated and needless ownership data from millions of small businesses and organizations.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has a comprehensive report on the legislation. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Congress is seriously considering imposing a beneficial ownership reporting regime on American businesses and other entities, including charities and churches. …the House and Senate bills…share three salient characteristics. First, they would impose a large compliance burden on the private sector, primarily on small businesses, charities, and religious organizations. Second, they create hundreds of thousands—potentially more than one million—inadvertent felons out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Third, they do virtually nothing to achieve their stated aim of protecting society from terrorism or other forms of illicit finance. …Furthermore, the creation of this expensive and socially damaging reporting edifice is unnecessary. The vast majority of the information that the proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would obtain is already provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Rahn criticizes this new proposal in his weekly column.

…what would you think of a member of Congress who proposes to put a new regulation on the smallest of businesses that does not meet a cost-benefit test, denies basic privacy protections and, because of its vagueness and ambiguity, is likely to cause very high numbers of otherwise law-abiding Americans to be felons? …Some bureaucrats and elected officials argue that the government needs to know who the “beneficial owners” are of even the tiniest of businesses in order to combat “money-laundering,” tax evasion or terrorism. …Should the church ladies who run the local non-profit food bank be put in jail for their failure to submit the form to the Feds that would give them the exemption from the beneficial ownership requirement? …Given how few people are actually convicted of money-laundering, the overwhelming evidence is that 99 percent of the people being forced to submit to these costly and time-consuming proposed regulations will not be guilty of money-laundering, terrorism or whatever, and thus should not be harassed by government.

Writing for the Hill, J.W. Verret, an expert in business law from George Mason University Law School, highlights some of the serious problems with this new regulatory scheme.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act, risks tying entrepreneurs’ hands with even more red tape. In fact, it could destroy any benefit some small businesses stand to gain from the tax reform legislation passed last year. It would require corporations and limited liability companies with fewer than 20 employees to file a form with the Treasury Department at the time of formation, and update it annually, listing the names of all beneficial owners and individuals exercising control. …Given the substantial penalties, this will impose a massive regulatory tax on small businesses as they spend money on lawyers that should go toward workers’ pay. …It is unlikely someone on a terrorist watch list would provide their real name on the required form, and Treasury will probably never have sufficient resources to audit names in real time.

Professor Verret explains some of the practical problems and tradeoffs with these proposals.

…some individual money laundering investigations would be easier with a small business registry available. But IRS tax fraud investigations would be much easier with access to taxpayers’ bank account login information — would we tolerate the associated costs and privacy violations? …How is the term “beneficial owner” defined? How is “control” defined? As a professor of corporate law, I have given multiple lectures on those very questions. What if your company is owned, in part, by another company? Or there is a chain of ownership through multiple intermediary companies? What if a creditor of the company, though not currently a shareholder or beneficial owner, obtains the contractual right to convert their debt contract into ownership equity at some point in the future? …for the average small business owner, navigating those complexities against the backdrop of a potential three year prison sentence will often require legal counsel. Companies affected by this legislation should conservatively expect to spend at least $5,000 on a corporate lawyer to help navigate the complexities of the new filing requirements.

Needless to say, squandering $5,000 or more for some useless paperwork is not a recipe for more entrepreneurship.

So how do advocates for this type of legislation respond?

Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute wants us to have faith that bad people will freely divulge their real identities and that bureaucrats will make effective use of the information.

It is time to weed out illicit financing and unfair competition from criminals and bad actors. …Passing the House Financial Services Committee’s Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act should be a priority for the 115th Congress. …Dictators, terrorists and criminals have been freeriding on the prosperity and liberty of the American economy for too long. Officials at FinCEN are sure that beneficial ownership legislation will exponentially increase conviction rates. We should give law enforcement what they need to do their jobs.

Gee, all that sounds persuasive. I’m also against dictators, terrorists, and criminals.

But if you read his entire column, you’ll notice that he offers zero evidence that this costly new legislation actually would catch more bad guys.

And since we already know that anti-money laundering laws impose heavy costs and catch almost no bad guys, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out better ways of allocating law enforcement resources?

I don’t know if we should be distressed or comforted, but other parts of the world also are hamstringing their financial industries with similar policies.

Here’s some analysis from Europe.

…a new reportfrom Consult Hyperion, commissioned by Mitek, reveals that the average UK bank is currently wasting £5 million each year due to manual and inefficient Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, and this annual waste is expected to rise to £10 million in three years. …Key Findings…Inefficient KYC processes cost the average bank £47 million a year…Total costs for KYC processes range from £10 to £100 per check…In the UK, 25% of applications are abandoned due to KYC friction… The cost of KYC checks is much too high, placing too much reliance on inefficient and error-prone manual processes,” said Steve Pannifer, author of the report and COO at Consult Hyperion.

And here’s an update from Asia.

Anti-money laundering and know-your-customer compliance have become leading concerns at financial institutions in Asia today. … we estimate that AML compliance budgets across the six Asian markets in this study total an estimated US$1.5 billion annually for banks alone. …A majority of respondents (55%) indicated that AML compliance has a negative impact on their firms’ business productivity. …An additional 15% felt that AML compliance actually threatens their firms’ ability to do business. …Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents saw overall AML compliance costs increasing in 2016, with one third projecting that costs will rise by 20% or more.

The bottom line is that laws and regulations dealing with money laundering are introduced with high hopes of reducing crime.

And when there’s no effect on criminal activity, proponents urge ever-increasing levels of red tape. And when that doesn’t work, they propose new levels of regulation. And still nothing changes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the video I narrated on this topic. It’s now a bit dated, but everything I said is even more true today.

Let’s close with a surreal column in the Washington Post from Dana Milbank. He was victimized by silly anti-money laundering policies, but seems to approve.

I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism. …The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced. …I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act. …the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist… The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor? …a week later they came back with a new threat to freeze the account and a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential?

Sounds like an awful example of a bank being forced by bad laws to harass a customer.

Heck, it is an awful example of that happening.

But in a remarkable display of left-wing masochism, Milbank approves.

The people who flagged us were right to do so. …Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money. Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us — not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.

I guess we know which way Milbank would have responded to this poll question from 2013.

But he would be wrong because money-laundering laws don’t stop terrorism.

We’re giving up freedom and imposing high costs on our economy, yet we’re not getting any additional security in exchange.

And I can’t resist commenting on his absurd assertion that money laundering played a role in the 2008 crash. Does he think that mafia kingpins somehow controlled the Federal Reserve and insisted on easy-money policies and artificially low interest rates? Does he think ISIS operatives were somehow responsible for reckless Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies?

Wow, I thought the people who blamed “tax havens” for the financial crisis deserved the prize for silliest fantasies. But Milbank gives them a run for their money.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

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I wrote three days ago about the worst-international-bureaucracy contest between the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A reader emailed to ask me whether I had a favorite international bureaucracy. I confess I’ve never given that matter any thought. My gut-instinct answer would be the World Trade Organization since its mission is to discourage protectionism.

But I’m also somewhat fond of the European Central Bank, both because the euro has been better than many of the currencies it replaced and because the ECB often publishes good research.

  • Two studies (here and here) on the benefits of spending caps.
  • Two studies (here and here) showing small government is more efficient.
  • Two studies (here and here) on how large public sectors retard growth.
  • And also studies on the adverse impact of regulation, bureaucracy, and welfare.

And here’s a study on regulation to add to the collection. The European Central Bank published a working paper that looks at the effect of selected pro-market reforms. Here’s their methodology.

In this paper, we investigate the relationship between a wide range of structural reforms and economic performance over a ten-year time horizon. …we identify 23 episodes of wide-reaching structural reform implementation (so-called “reform waves”). These are based on a database…which provides detailed information on both real and financial sector reforms in 156 advanced and developing countries over a 40 year period. Indicators considered specifically cover trade-, product market-, agriculture-, and capital-account liberalisation, together with financial and banking sector reform. Then, we track top-reforming countries over the 10 years following adoption and estimate the dynamic impact of reforms.

And here’s an excerpt that describes the theoretical assumptions.

…orthodox economic theory has made a strong case for structural reforms, identified as measures aimed at removing supply-side constraints in an economy. This in turn would favour efficient factor allocation and contribute to medium- to long-term growth. Such measures include, but are not limited to, product and labour market liberalisations, current and capital account openness, and financial liberalisation. For a long time, a collection of these policies has fallen under the name of Washington Consensus.

I agree with this theory, though allow me to elaborate.

The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World is the gold standard when looking at overall economic policy. It considers five major factors – fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and governance policy (indicators such as rule of law and property rights).

The “Washington Consensus” also is based on good policy, but it undervalues the importance of a small burden of government spending.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to the ECB study, which basically looks at the impact of trade liberalization and deregulation. Here’s what the authors found.

Our main findings are as follows: on average, reforms had a negative but statistically insignificant impact in the short term. This slowdown seems to be connected to the economic cycle, and the tendency to implement reforms during a downturn, rather than an effect of reforms per se. Reforming countries however experienced a growth acceleration in the medium-term. As a result, ten years after the reform wave started, GDP per capita was roughly 6 percentage points higher than the synthetic counterfactual scenario.

Here’s a chart from the study illustrating the positive effect of reform.

And here’s another chart from the ECB report looking at the results from another perspective.

The obvious good news from this research is that we have new evidence about the benefits of pro-market reforms. Boosting economic output by an extra 6.3 percent is nothing to sneeze at. And it reinforces my oft-made point that even small improvements in growth – if sustained over time – can lead to dramatic improvements in living standards.

What might be most noteworthy in this study, however, is the finding that pro-market reforms are associated with a short-run dip in economic performance. The authors suggested that it might be a statistical quirk related to the fact that governments have a “tendency to implement reforms during a downturn”.

That’s certainly plausible, but I’m also open to the notion that good reforms sometimes may have short-run costs. Simply stated, if bad policy has produced a misallocation of labor and capital, then pro-growth reforms are going to cause some temporary disruption.

But unless you’re planning on dying very soon and also don’t care about your heirs, that’s not an argument against reform. For example, I think the housing lobby’s opposition to the flat tax is misguided since every sector will enjoy long-run benefits from faster growth, but it’s certainly possible that residential real estate will endure some short-run weakness as some resources shift to business investment.

Unfortunately, politicians tend to have very short time horizons (i.e., the next election), so they fixate on short-run costs and under-value long-run benefits.

But I’m digressing again. Let’s look at one final passage from the ECB study. For those interested in additional research, there’s a section citing some of the other literature on liberalization and growth.

Post-Soviet countries moving towards a market economy have received considerable attention in this respect. Fischer et al. (1996) looked at 26 transition economies over the period 1989-1994. They conclude that structural reforms played a vital role in reviving economic growth. This finding for transition economies was echoed by de Melo et al. (1996), and more recently by Havrylyshyn and van Rooden (2003) and Eicher and Schreiber (2010). Focussing more broadly on countries implementing wide reform packages covering domestic finance, trade, and the capital account, Christiansen et al. (2013) find a strong impact of the former two on growth in middle-income countries. Moreover, they show how well-developed property rights are a precondition in order to reap fully the benefits of structural reforms. The importance of institutions in explaining cross-country heterogeneity is further remarked by Prati et al. (2013), who illustrate how the positive relationship between structural reforms and growth depends on a country’s constraints on the authority of the executive power. Distance from the technological frontier seems also to play a role.

If you’re not familiar with technological jargon, “distance from the technological frontier” is basically a way of saying that nations with lots of bad policy – and thus lots of misallocated and/or underutilized labor and capital – probably have more ability to enjoy fast growth. Sort of a version of convergence theory.

I also like the reference to “constraints on the authority of the executive power,” which presumably a recognition of the importance of the rule of law.

The bottom line is that the ECB study reconfirms that free enterprise is the answer if the goal is reducing poverty and increasing prosperity.

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I was not optimistic about a Trump presidency. Before the 2016 election, I characterized him as a “statist” and a “typical big-government Republican.”

I’ve also criticized his policies on entitlements, trade, child care, capital gains taxation, government spending, and infrastructure.

But one good thing about being libertarian is that I feel no pressure to spin. I will criticize politicians who I normally like and praise politicians I normally dislike.

So I’ve also applauded some of Trump’s policies, whether they are big reforms like a cut in the corporate income tax or small changes like killing Obama’s Operation Chokepoint.

Today, I’m going to give Trump some credit for what’s happening with regulation and red tape.

Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute measures the change.

The calendar year concluded with 61,950 pages in the Federal Register… This is the lowest count since 1993’s 61,166 pages. …A year ago, Obama set the all-time Federal Register page record with 95,894 pages. Trump’s Federal Register is a 35 percent drop from Obama’s record… After the National Archives processes all the blank pages and skips in the 2017 Federal Register, Trump’s final count will ultimately be even lower.

Here’s a visual that captures what has happened.

Wayne explains that the numbers of rules have dropped in addition to the number of pages.

…the Federal Register may be a poor guide for regulation… The “problem” of assessing magnitude is even worse this year, because many of Trump’s “rules” are rules written to get rid of rules. …There has also been a major reduction in the number of rules and regulations under Trump. Today the Federal Register closed out with 3,281 final rules within its pages. This is the lowest count since records began being kept in the mid-1970s.

Susan Dudley of George Washington University looked at what’s happening to regulation for Forbes.

…what has the administration achieved on the regulatory front in 2017? …President Trump issued Executive Order 13771 directing federal agencies to remove two regulations for every new one they issued, and to cap the total cost of new regulations at zero. …An Office of Management and Budget report…finds that during the first eight months of the administration (through September 30th), executive agencies issued 67 deregulatory actions and only 3 significant regulatory actions. …More meaningful is the report’s estimate that these actions will save Americans more than $570 million per year on net. …This was the year of the Congressional Review Act. Working with the Republican Congress, President Trump has disapproved 15 regulations, most issued at the end of the Obama administration.

She looks specifically at regulations that involve a lot of money.

The pace of new regulation has visibly slowed in the Trump administration. A search of OMB’s database reveals that, between January 21 and December 20, 2017, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs concluded review of 21 “economically significant” regulations—those with impacts (costs or benefits) expected to be $100 million or more in a year. As the chart below shows, that is dramatically fewer rules than previous presidents have issued in their first years.

Here’s an impressive chart from her column.

And here’s most impressive part. Some of these “significant” rules are actually designed to reduce red tape.

…a further breakdown of those 21 economically significant actions this year: …Three are classified as “regulatory,” including two from HHS and one from the IRS. …Four are “deregulatory,” including three HHS rules as well as the congressionally-disapproved FAR rule mentioned earlier.

So what does this shift in regulation mean?

Well, as the New York Times has just reported, less red tape is good for the economy.

A wave of optimism has swept over American business leaders, and it is beginning to translate into the sort of investment in new plants, equipment and factory upgrades that bolsters economic growth, spurs job creation — and may finally raise wages significantly. …the newfound confidence was initially inspired by the Trump administration’s regulatory pullback, not so much because deregulation is saving companies money but because the administration has instilled a faith in business executives that new regulations are not coming.

I fully agree with this point.

What seems to be helping growth is that companies are getting some “breathing room” simply because the regulatory onslaught of the Bush and Obama years has finally abated.

…in the administration and across the business community, there is a perception that years of increased environmental, financial and other regulatory oversight by the Obama administration dampened investment and job creation — and that Mr. Trump’s more hands-off approach has unleashed the “animal spirits” of companies that had hoarded cash after the recession of 2008. …with tax cuts coming and a generally improving economic outlook, both domestically and internationally, economists are revising growth forecasts upward for last year and this year. Even before it became clear that Republicans would pass a major tax cut, capital spending had risen significantly, climbing at an annualized rate of 6.2 percent during the first three quarters of last year. Surveys of planned spending also show increases. …business executives are largely convinced that the cost of complying with rules diverts money that could be invested elsewhere. And economists see a plausible connection between Mr. Trump’s determination to prune the federal rule book and the willingness of businesses to crank open their vaults. Measures of business confidence have climbed to record heights during Mr. Trump’s first year. …The Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group in Washington, reported last month that “regulatory costs” were no longer the top concern of American executives, for the first time in six years. …The National Association of Manufacturers’ fourth-quarter member survey found that fewer than half of manufacturers cited an “unfavorable business climate” — including regulations and taxes — as a challenge to their business, down from nearly three-quarters a year ago.

The bottom line is that Trump has out-performed my expectations on this issue.

But I don’t care about that. I’m more interested in a freer and more prosperous America.

So when you’re contemplating the shift in regulatory policy, here are a few factoids.

  • Americans spend 8.8 billion hours every year filling out government forms.
  • The economy-wide cost of regulation is now $1.75 trillion.
  • For every bureaucrat at a regulatory agency, 100 jobs are destroyed in the economy’s productive sector.
  • A World Bank study determined that moving from heavy regulation to light regulation “can increase a country’s average annual GDP per capita growth by 2.3 percentage points.”
  • The European Central Bank estimated that product market and employment regulation has led to costly “misallocation of labour and capital in eight macro-sectors.”

Red tape accounts for 20 percent of a nation’s grade according to Economic Freedom of the World. If the current deregulatory momentum is sustained, the United States will rise in the rankings and Americans will be richer.

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Too much government can be hazardous to your health.

Instead, this is a column about the wonky issue of cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, we’re going to look at whether some regulations can be sufficiently onerous that the resulting economic damage actually produces needless death. This insight can even apply to regulations that are designed to save lives!

It’s quite common, when I first suggest this hypothesis, for people to think I’m nuts. But they begin to see the light when I share this example from an article I wrote 25 years ago for the Journal of Regulation and Social Cost.

People in wealthier nations, on average, live longer and better lives than residents of poorer nations. …government policy makers should consider the adverse effects on health and mortality of economic policies that impose costs on the productive sector of the economy. …it is quite possible that regulations designed to reduced mortality and morbidity, if they impose sufficiently high costs on the economy, actually can result in premature deaths and a less healthy population. Banning the use of motor vehicles, for instance, would save…lives lost annually in traffic accidents as well as preventing whatever number of premature deaths can be attributed to auto emissions. …It would be absurd, however, to…support the elimination of motor vehicles… The higher living standards made possible by fast and efficient transportation clearly must result in reduced mortality…rates over time for the general population.

I don’t know if they accept that society would be so much poorer that – on net – more people would die. But they definitely grasp that there’s a tradeoff.

And that’s a big victory. After all, people are much more likely to accept cost-benefit analysis when they understand that a decision can have both good and bad consequences.

I wrote about this topic back in 2012 because supporters of President Obama basically accused Mitt Romney of contributing to the death of a woman who lost her health insurance. So I looked at the academic data on the relationship between economic prosperity and lifespans to measure Obama’s body count.

Looking over much of this research, it appears that $14 million is a reasonable middle-ground estimate of how much foregone income is associated with a needless death. Now let’s do some simple math to get an estimate of the total number of preventable deaths caused by the economy’s sub-par performance during Obama’s reign. …divide $836.6 billion (our earlier estimate of foregone growth) by $14 million and we get an estimate that Obama’s policies have caused 59,757 deaths.

In that column, I warned that my back-of-the-envelope calculations were not very unreliable, and I also pointed out that it would be wrong to hold Obama personally accountable for any premature deaths.

I simply wanted people to understand that a weak economy has serious consequences (I also thought that Obama’s supporters were making a very dodgy attack on Romney, particularly since there were so many other reasons to criticize the GOP candidate).

But I’m beginning to digress. The purpose of today’s column is to further explain why we should be concerned about the economic damage of excessive government. But not just because of lost income and reduced prosperity. We also need to recognize that a weaker economy translates into needless deaths.

So let’s look at some additional research.

A study prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency provides a dispassionate analysis of this form of cost-benefit analysis. The report starts with a couple of specific examples.

The essence of risk-risk analysis, as it will be referred to here, is the assertion that regulations seeking risk-reduction benefits may also unintentionally increase risks, and by enough in some cases to outweigh the intended benefits. …One such situation currently of concern is the possibility that parents with young children might elect the more risky option of driving a long distance instead of the less risky alternative of flying if the latter alternative is rendered much more expensive by a requirement to purchase a seat on the aircraft for the child instead of sharing a seat with the parent. Similarly, if regulations governing small drinking system quality are sufficiently costly, individuals might elect to use private wells, which could pose even more risks to their health than the public water supply in the absence of the costly rules.

It then puts forth the sensible hypothesis about the economy-wide implications of onerous red tape.

A slightly different version of risk-risk analysis is predicated on the observation that people’s wealth and health status, as measured by mortality, morbidity, and other metrics, are positively correlated. Hence, those who bear a regulation’s compliance costs may also suffer a decline in their health status, and if the costs are large enough, these increased risks might be greater than the direct risk-reduction benefits of the regulation. Advocates of risk-risk analysis emphasize its use as an important commonsense screen… It does seem eminently reasonable not to promulgate costly rules that actually increase risks rather than decrease them.

The study looks at some of the past academic literature.

Lutter and Morrall (1994) attribute to Aaron Wildavsky, see for example Wildavsky (1980), the general proposition that government programs tend to reduce economic growth, thereby interfering with the primary mechanism by which human health has improved over time. According to Lutter and Morrall, the first to apply this principle quantitatively was Keeney (1990), who calculated that an additional death occurs for roughly each $3.14 million to $7.25 million of income lost (1980 dollars). OMB on several occasions has brought health-health analysis to bear both in its review of OSHA regulations related to worker safety, and in examining regulations of other agencies, such as EPA and FDA. For example, using a finding that $7.5 million of costs induces one additional statistical death, OMB argued that although OSHA’s proposed permissible exposure limits for a large number of workplace air contaminants would offer the benefit of preventing 8 to 13 deaths per year, the regulatory costs of $163 million per year would indirectly cause some 22 deaths annually. On that basis, OMB suspended its review of the proposed regulation and OSHA agreed to study the issue further….researchers continue to further refine this estimated relationship between income and mortality risk. For example, Viscusi (1994) reports various estimates of the lost income that induces an additional statistical death ranging from $1.9 million to $33.2 million, and indicates that his own research (in press at the time) places this number at about $30 million to $70 million.

Keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency is not a hotbed of free market radicals. So it’s noteworthy that at least some people at that bureaucracy realize that there should be some cost-benefit constraints on regulation.

The Institute of Energy Research also explored the issue.

…in practice we all make decisions that increase the risk of death, and in that sense, we trade off our own longevity for other goals. In this context, economists can estimate the implied value of a human life, judged by the choices of the individuals themselves. One surprising implication of this approach is that costly government regulations not only reduce Americans’ standard of living, but they also indirectly lead to more deaths. In a modern economy, wealth is health, and so an inefficient regulation doesn’t merely reduce GDP—it also reduces average lifespans. …By analyzing consumer behavior, economists can come up with rough estimates of the implied “value of a statistical life” (VSL) that this behavior exhibits.

Here’s an example.

…suppose a very stringent rule on the emission of soot from smokestacks theoretically would reduce deaths by 2,000 lives, but at an aggregate cost to the economy of $80 billion in forfeited GDP. With these numbers, even on its own terms, such a regulation would save lives at a price of $40 million per life. This is much more than typical Americans spend with their own money to reduce risks and prolong their lifespans, and thus it indicates that the proposed regulation is inefficient because it implicitly forces Americans to “spend” much more on reducing a particular risk, rather than on other goods and services that they value more.

And here’s the key takeaway.

…there is a well-established causal connection between wealth and health. Costly federal regulations make Americans poorer and thus indirectly lead to more deaths, because poorer people are less able to take advantage of private methods of prolonging their lives. If regulations are particularly inefficient, this indirect effect might overwhelm the direct benefit of the regulation, meaning that it not only makes Americans poorer, but actually kills them on net.

Here are some excerpts from a study published by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Many forms of regulation have grown dramatically in recent decades—especially in the areas of environment, health, and safety. Moreover, expenditures in those areas are likely to continue to grow faster than the rate of government spending. Yet, the economic impact of regulation receives much less scrutiny than direct, budgeted government spending. We believe that policymakers need to rectify that imbalance. …We should judge regulations by their individual benefits and costs… One study found that a reallocation of mandated expenditures toward those regulations with the highest payoff to society could save as many as 60,000 more lives per year at no additional cost. …the costs of compliance with regulations pose risks. Compliance typically reduces the amount of private resources that people have to spend on a wide range of activities, including health care, children’s education, and automobile safety. When people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks. The resulting increase in risk offsets the direct reduction in risk attributable to a government action. Moreover, if that direct risk reduction is small and the regulation is very ineffective relative to its cost, then total risk could rise instead of fall.

The AEI-Brookings report also looks at some of the existing research.

Dozens of articles in economics and public health journals substantiate the claim that richer people live longer.10 Simple correlations of annual death rates and income suggest that a community whose income rises by about $10 million can expect about one fewer death. …Sunstein argued that courts should find that regulations that raise risks rather than lower them are arbitrary and capricious. … Lutter, Morrall, and Viscusi…estimated that an increase in income of about $15 million in a large U.S. population reduces mortality risk by one statistical death.

The authors look at regulations from the 1980s and 1990s and calculate which ones saved lives and which ones cost lives.

By the way, allow me to interject by pointing out some specific examples of regulations that are on the books and are causing needless deaths.

Now let’s close with a look at a very recent analysis from the Mercatus enter.

…many regulations result in unintended consequences that increase mortality risk in various ways. These adverse repercussions are often the result of regulatory impacts that compete with the intended goal of the regulation, or they are direct behavioral responses to regulation. As examples, fuel efficiency regulations can encourage automobile manufacturers to produce smaller cars that are more dangerous in an accident (Crandall and Graham 1989). Increased airport security measures after 9/11 made air travel more inconvenient, which has led to increases in estimated car accident deaths as individuals substituted driving for flying (Blalock, Kadiyali, and Simon 2007). …Finally, regulatory efforts reduce individual expenditures on health, both because risk reduction achieved through regulation is a substitute for private risk reduction and because the costs incurred by regulations reduce private health-related expenditures. It is this last item that has been the focus of health-health analysis (HHA).

The authors look at potential ways of conducting this type of cost-benefit analysis.

Despite a robust academic literature that spans decades, HHA has not become widely used by policymakers… HHA relies on an estimate of what is known as the cost-per-life-saved cutoff (the “cutoff”), which is a threshold cost-effectiveness level beyond which life-saving regulations will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to induce more fatalities than they prevent. …There are two competing ways of identifying the cutoff, a direct approach based on empirical observation and an indirect approach grounded in economic theory. …The indirect approach, which is our preferred method, relies on a theoretical model of the income-mortality relationship that is calibrated using data on the value of a statistical life (VSL) and the marginal propensity to spend on health (MPSH). …Employing the indirect approach has led to a cost-per-life-saved cutoff value closer to $85 million for the United States. We employ the indirect approach here as well, estimating a cutoff range from $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). A reasonable rule of thumb might be to assume that regulations costing more than $100 million per life saved will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to increase mortality risk on net.

Like the other studies, there’s a look at previous research.

Ralph Keeney developed the first formal model for estimating fatalities induced by income losses, finding that for every $7.25 million (1980 dollars) in costs, one statistical fatality will be induced (Keeney 1990). Chapman and Hariharan’s (1994) study, published in a special issue of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty devoted to HHA, develops a similar empirical model but controls for initial health status as a means to account for reverse causality (i.e., poor health causing lower income). The study’s authors estimate the cutoff at $12.2 million (1990 dollars). Keeney provided an update of his model in 1997, estimating the cutoff at between $5 million and $14 million (1991 dollars), depending on the distribution of costs.

Including some foreign studies.

Elvik (1999) is a Norwegian study that estimated the cutoff in Norway at between 25 million and 317 million NOK (1995 prices), which translates to US$3.8 million to US$47.5 million (1995 US dollars). Gerdtham and Johannesson (2002) used longitudinal data (tracking individuals for between 10 and 17 years) for a sample of randomly selected Swedes. After controlling for initial health status, they estimated the cutoff at between US$6.8 million and US$9.8 million (1996 US dollars), depending on how costs are distributed. More recently, Ashe et al. (2012) examined fire prevention regulations in Australia. These authors estimate the cutoff at between AU$20 million and AU$50 million (2010 Australian dollars), again depending on how costs are distributed across the population.

The Mercatus study then contemplates the indirect approach, which utilizes the “value of a statistical life” approach, or VSL.

…the empirical evidence from the United States and other countries, as well as the evidence from labor market estimates of the VSL and revealed preference studies, indicate a positive income elasticity of the VSL and a greater income elasticity at lower income levels. This economic mechanism is also consistent with the common conjecture that the mortality effects of regulatory expenditures will be greatest for the poorest members of society. …When a binding government regulation affects risk levels, there will be two effects. First, because health expenditures and job safety levels are substitutes, regulation will decrease the private incentive to invest in health. Second, because the individual bears regulatory costs, there will be decreased investment in health. Whether a regulation reduces risks on balance depends on the sum of three components: the direct effect of the regulation on safety, the indirect effect on risk through a substitution toward safety achieved through regulation and away from personal health expenditures, and the indirect effect on risk as personal health expenditures fall from reduced income as a result of compliance with regulations.

And the authors come up with a range.

According to our estimates, the cost-per-life-saved cutoff is in the range of $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). Any regulation with a cost-per-life-saved that exceeds this range can be expected to increase mortality risk on net. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding a number of factors that produce this estimate, however, including the fraction of income spent on risk reduction, the income elasticity of risk-reducing expenditures, and the VSL.

I don’t have the competence to judge which approach is best. The part of me that is worried about excessive red tape hopes the direct approach is more accurate since a lower “cutoff” means we can argue that a greater share of regulations fail to meet the threshold.

On the other hand, the part of me that is resigned to ever-expanding amounts of red tape hopes the indirect approach generates more accurate numbers since a higher “cutoff” means that the net cost of regulation is not as onerous.

Regardless, my only point is that there should be some form of cost-benefit analysis before bureaucrats churn out new rules, and the impact of red tape on overall economic performance should be part of the equation.

P.S. Speaking of economic impact, a study from the European Central Bank had some very sobering data.

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