Regulations, Knee-Jerking, and Getting Serious About Our Problems

obama signingRecently, there has been a new favorite of the portion of the ideologues on the Left who like to use the President as their proverbial punching bag. Barack Obama is making overtures to business! He hired a business guy as his Chief of Staff! He is ordering federal agencies to do a top-down review of federal regulations, including those that may be unnecessarily burdensome to business and may present a problem in job creation. Everyone's freaking out, charging the President with embracing Reaganomics.

It's situations like these that frustrate me about the establishment on the Left blogosphere and Left media. They look at a President who, along with the last Democratic Congress, has done more than any in recent memory to regulate big business, banks and insurance companies and ensure consumers and patients get a fair process when they are wronged, and they accuse him of Reagan-esque qualities. They look at the President who signed health care reform that contained a patient's bill of rights on steroids, and they think he's weak on regulating big insurance. They look at the President who signed the most significant re-regulation of Wall Street since the Great Depression (which also created an independent federal consumer protection agency for the first time in history) and they see someone cozy with the banks. They see a President who lead and signed into law the nation's most significant food safety regulatory overhaul since the 1930s and magically morph him into Harbert Hoover. They never even talk about credit card and student loan regulatory reforms this President instituted.

There has to be a large disconnect from reality for anyone to be seeing the big picture that way. But this isn't the first time the reactionary ideologues on the Left went after the President this way. On this very blog, you read yesterday about the very real attack on the on Obama's mythical attack on social security. Again and again, a fraction and a fringe has been interested in labeling the President as too conservative because... well, just because.

This is also the pitfall of seeing everything through the prism of a skeptic first and an analyst second, if at all. It's the danger in looking at every single nuanced event and trying to tie it into whatever your view of the president is, never mind what the actual policy contains. This happens as much on the Left as on the Right, I'm sorry to say. Speaking of which, I am beginning to wonder if any of the uber-reactionaries actually read the President's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (or, for that matter, the actual Executive Order), which seems to have caused all this stir. First, the President defines the purpose of regulations (yes, they have a purpose - they are not there to stoke the egos of Bloggers and Left media types):
But throughout our history, one of the reasons the free market has worked is that we have sought the proper balance. We have preserved freedom of commerce while applying those rules and regulations necessary to protect the public against threats to our health and safety and to safeguard people and businesses from abuse.
 There it is. The purpose of regulations is to protect and safeguard consumers, the public and yes even businesses from the abuse and excesses possible under a free market. And because regulations have a purpose, it is the right thing to do to ensure that regulations serve that purpose. Just as the Right wing philosophy of "no regulations whatsoever" is absurd, so is the view that every regulation is justified just by the virtue of being a regulation. I guess it bugs some of us to have a president who understands the complexity of that purpose and is an intellectual about it rather than a simpleton. So here is the part that set off the fireworks:
This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth. And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. It's a review that will help bring order to regulations that have become a patchwork of overlapping rules, the result of tinkering by administrations and legislators of both parties and the influence of special interests in Washington over decades.
The media elite read that, and went into full red alert mode, as if to miss the very next paragraph:
Where necessary, we won't shy away from addressing obvious gaps: new safety rules for infant formula; procedures to stop preventable infections in hospitals; efforts to target chronic violators of workplace safety laws. But we are also making it our mission to root out regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb.
Umm, I guess the part that went right over their heads is that where necessary, this review may result in addressing the gaps in regulations - i.e. more regulations where it's needed. As a flipside of that coin, yes, there are regulations that are dumb and should be removed from the books. Oh no, we can't have a President that wants to be smart about regulations. No, no, we need to have one who is knee-jerk about it.

And by the way, if anyone thinks that there aren't any dumb regulations, please please please think again. The president gives you an example himself:
For instance, the FDA has long considered saccharin, the artificial sweetener, safe for people to consume. Yet for years, the EPA made companies treat saccharin like other dangerous chemicals. Well, if it goes in your coffee, it is not hazardous waste. The EPA wisely eliminated this rule last month.
Or, you can have a look at an op-ed by the Liutenant Governor of Washington State calling out the EPA's unscientific treatment of biomass that comes from forest wood. The state's Democratic governor Christine Gregoire, its Democratic Senator Patty Murray, and Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden have all taken a stand against this particular regulation (all arguing that it's both unscientific and would cost jobs in the renewable energy industry), along with over 100 scientists who have signed a letter stating the regulation's lack of scientific basis. Oh by the way, their opposition worked. The EPA has put off that regulation for three years.

President Obama even takes us through some examples of smart regulations in this WSJ op-ed:
The EPA and the Department of Transportation worked with auto makers, labor unions, states like California, and environmental advocates this past spring to turn a tangle of rules into one aggressive new standard. It was a victory for car companies that wanted regulatory certainty; for consumers who will pay less at the pump; for our security, as we save 1.8 billion barrels of oil; and for the environment as we reduce pollution. Another example: Tomorrow the FDA will lay out a new effort to improve the process for approving medical devices, to keep patients safer while getting innovative and life-saving products to market faster.
What I'd like to know is just what is wrong with that kind of an approach. Just what is so "progressive" about hanging onto regulations that may be outdated or ineffective, or create complicated paperwork without doing a whole lot of good?

So here's what's been missing from the conversation at large about this move by President Obama: first, a whole lot of people are choosing to see the part of the Executive Order that orders federal agencies to review "overly burdensome" regulations, but in the same breath are ignoring the part of the same order that tells the agencies to also look at "insufficient" regulations and update those. Second, the same talking heads are blissfully ignorant of the record that this President has built to created regulatory reforms centered around the consumer - serving the best interest of the public at large and protecting consumers against abuses.

But the biggest problem with the knee-jerking around this issue is exactly the same problem with knee-jerking around any other. The refusal to view the issue of regulations with a detailed lens is no different from the refusal to view any other issue through that same lens. Whenever we are doing that, we are refusing to have a serious conversation about the problems facing this country. In our ideological zeal, we are entering a paradigm of black-and-white issue judgments. That is not healthy for a democracy, and it is not worthy of a great nation. If we want progressive things to happen, progressives are going to have to show that we are serious about our problems - including our willingness to do introspective analysis.

Enough of this bru ha-ha. Enough of this pontificating about how the Executive Order represents a "shift" in the position of the White House (funny that the "shift" argument is mostly coming from critics who thought Obama a disciple of Reaganomics in the first place, but I digress). Let's look at what actually is being proposed and then let's see how the process of it works out. Let's have an argument on the merits, not on some nefarious intention that one assigns to the President. I, for one, want to see what this Executive Order brings us. Will it help reduce the regulatory gaps in the federal system that encourages bad behavior from the private sector? I hope so. Will it also help reduce unnecessary burden (yes there is such a thing) on businesses - especially small businesses? I hope so, too. But for crying out loud, I am tired of the constant whining.

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