American Action Forum Releases Predictable Report on Regulation, Leaves Benefits Aside

When companies report to shareholders they report their income as well as expenditures. When conservative think tanks report on regulation, they report costs but not benefits. What’s wrong with this picture?

The latest illustration of this studied blindness is the report of the American Action Forum, which received attention yesterday in a column on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. It seems the Forum concluded that new regulations would cost over $200 billion and involve 87 million hours of paperwork. 

Such figures are inherently untrustworthy because they involve self-reporting of projected costs by corporations which campaigned against important regulatory measures such as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, and the Affordable Care Act.  

But the more important point is that by focusing on costs without a corresponding acknowledgement of benefits, reports such as this one undermine policy discourse which should be concerned with the net benefits or costs of any actions. If we only counted costs, none of us would go to the movies, drive our children to school, or go to the beach. 

Since the Fall of 2010, when the Chamber of Commerce and its Republican allies in the House of Representatives began their campaign against sensible safeguards, supporters of public protections have been batting away blustery claims that government regulations are excessive. But as analysts at the Economic Policy Institute have shown, when benefits as well as costs are factored in “the benefits of government regulations have consistently and significantly exceeded their costs.”

This is not to say that all regulations are useful or cost-effective, or that there might not be better ways of achieving objectives. In a pragmatic search for balance between the need for public protections and the costs of compliance there should be room for new approaches. Regrettably, it seems that opposition to effective regulatory standards will continue to throw reports on the cost of regulation at the wall, hoping no one will notice or care that they have left out half of the equation.