Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 'regulatory uncertainty' canard

Ben and I discuss whether regulatory uncertainty is holding back the U.S. economy in this week's column. My take:
Let's be honest: "Regulatory uncertainty" is a euphemism for "regulations." Businesses -- and their mostly Republican allies -- don't want them.

We have regulations for a reason. The Dodd-Frank law passed because the financial industry proved it couldn't police itself and nearly destroyed the American economy. Richard Nixon created OSHA at a time when 14,000 employees were dying in the workplace every year; that number dropped 60 percent over the next 30 years. Left to their own devices, businesses often cut corners, resulting in financial and even physical harm to the rest of us.

Overregulation can stifle the economy. The Obama administration recognizes this -- and in August announced a reform effort to reduce regulatory burdens on business by $10 billion a year, mostly by streamlining required health, labor and tax paperwork. Obama even alienated environmentalist supporters this fall by delaying new EPA ozone standards to save jobs.

The problem isn't regulatory uncertainty. The Economic Policy Institute in September reported that weekly hours for still-employed workers are still down from their last high in August 2007.

If businesses wanted to produce more widgets --but wanted to avoid the federal paperwork that goes with hiring more widget-making workers -- they'd increase the number of hours their existing employees are working. They aren't. That suggests that the problem is demand: Americans aren't buying stuff.

Why? They're digging themselves out of debt -- often in the form of mortgages that are now worth more than the houses those mortgages bought. Until that issue is adequately addressed, or until those mortgages are finally paid off over the next 30 years, America will continue to have a problem with demand.

"Regulatory uncertainty" offers a handy political club to use against Obama, though. The GOP, it seems, would rather win the presidential campaign with stale untruths rather than address our real problems.

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