Rethinking the pros and cons of government regulation

At the Department of Regulatory Agencies in Denver. Photo: Jeffrey Beall via Flickr, Some rights reserved.

Most of us who have lived in New York state — let alone the Adirondack Park — knows what it’s like to get tangled up in weird, confusing and costly regulations.

A few months ago, I listened to the owner of a new liquor store talk about the byzantine rules and endless delays that bogged down her efforts to win a license.   It cost a lot of money, in fees and in time and labor.

Politicians — Republicans mostly, but also many Democrats — have turned this irritation into a kind of war cry.

Last year, Rep. Bill Owens from Plattsburgh joined the fight to prevent the EPA from treating dairy spills in the same way that the feds treat oil spills.

If we can thin the tall grass of useless regulation, the argument goes,we can boost productivity and attract new investment, making New York state more business friendly.

I don’t quibble with any of that.  The burden should always be on regulators to demonstrate that government rules produce tangible benefits, at a reasonable cost.

And sometimes bureaucrats in Albany and Washington really do seem to have drunk whatever flavor of Kool-Aid it is that drowns common sense.

But this is one of those areas in American life where it seems like we swing from one extreme to the other.

Earlier this year, the agriculture industry derailed an effort to introduce new farm safety regulations designed to protect child laborers.

Some of the proposed rules were goofy and nonsensical and poorly written.  But the fact is that a lot of kids are seriously injured or killed each year while working in the ag industry.

When the dust settled, there were no rules in place protecting even very young children, or restricting the kind of machinery they can operate, or the number of hours they can work each day.

Does that make sense?

This question of regulation surfaced again the last couple of weeks as I researched the fledgling wood pellet energy industry in the North Country.

I found a lot of business leaders in our region who say their profits are actually being stifled by the lack of enforcable quality standards that would give consumers more confidence.

“There are a lot of pellet stoves sold that are inferior and they create a lot of work for the people using them,” said Pat Curran, head of Curran Renewables in Massena.

“If there could be a standard, we could create something that really takes the end work away from the consumer, and then we could really grow the industry.”

But American companies that make these furnaces and a lot of companies that make the actual wood pellets have resisted any kind of regulation.

“Unfortunately, it’s still a bit of the wild west out there, with pellet fuel,” says Charlie Niebling general manager of a company called New England Wood Pellet based in Jaffrey New Hampshire.

“You can say ‘premium’ on your bag and you can shovel any old crap into the bag and there’s really nothing to stop you,” he acknowledged.

Some companies are even using contaminated wood to make their pellets.  Wth no rules in place to stop them from doing so, they can buy cheap raw materials and undercut the price of more ethical competitors.

How does that make sense?

There is, of course, a school of thought that holds that any government intervention in the marketplace is a bad thing.  People say consumers and families should make their own informed decisions without hand-holding from a bureaucrat.

But other Americans seem pretty pleased with government rules that protect things like food safety, and set standards for medical care and other services.

What do you think?  Too much regulation in our society?  Have you experienced a horror story with a government bureaucrat?

Or have there been moments when you wished companies faced closer scrutiny and tighter rules to protect consumers?  As always, comments welcome.

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26 Comments on “Rethinking the pros and cons of government regulation”

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  1. Will Doolittle says:

    Both are problems — under-regulation and over. But, often, the problem is not in the regulation but in the way it is enforced, or not enforced.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Will – Really good point.

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. jeff says:

    Manure. The last two weeks have been haying season and each field’s haircut has been followed by the slurry wagons and the associated fouling of the air and peeling of paint as the stench permeates the air for days as there are fields to the north, fields to the south, fields to the east and so on. This slurry would be called an advance in technology. Compared to the application methods of 50 years ago. Although in some states it is regulated because of concern for excess application ’round here with the mega-farms that have a need to find every piece of bare ground to share their wealth and we can’t hang out laundry the energy efficient way. We have to close windows and swelter in the heat (no a/c) because the fumes soak into the house .

    This isn’t the method my grandfather used to spread manure. It didn’t stink like this fermented stuff. Where are the biodigesters? The methane plants? Where are the (expensive) manure injection systems that inject it under the surface of the ground?

    People want regulation to prohibit building on private property in the adirondacks. Don’t need regulation, like deer repellant, infuse the areas that people want protected with this odor and folks won’t want to build a camp there.

    Good fences make good neighbors. Fences are self-regulation. This advance in technology has an external dis-economy which is like the coal-fired electric plants of the “midwest” that negatively affect the air quality in Jefferson county. Except here the locals get the impact, not those in New York City.

    The windfarms pass out money to neighboring landowners (hush money) who have some impact from the towers- discontent one may say. When do I get reimburse for the impact on my freedom to hang out laundry or inability to open windows?

    The right of another person to touch me ends at that fraction of an inch before they make contact. The vile odors assault me.

    We’re told what made the PC market expand was the open book to writing code and software for the device. The negative impact was to other computers- Radio Shack or Commodore or McIntosh. But with one standard we had VHS instead of Beta and growth proliferated.

    Lumber had standards- APA the American Plywood Assn., New England Lumber Manufacturer’s grades pine lumber, NHLA does hardwoods and customers can know what they are buying-non-governmentally regulated. People can still buy ungradeded lumber that is of equal quality or better if they are satisfied with they they are getting.

    Think of S.A.E. Society of Automotive Engineers. They have standards which are different than regulations.

    Then there are the pervsions, standards adopted as regulations (Building Codes). This is the reverse of privatization whereby government adopts as a regulatory guideline a standard of a private organizaiton. Often one has to buy copies of the standard to read it because it is not public domain. OSHA uses American National Standards Institute standards quite often or National Fire Protection Association standards.

    How’ bout a farm neighbor standard. They’ll keep mud off the road, tractor tire tracks off of my lawn and manure in its place, including the odor. Or at least like noise zoning wherein the noise level at the property line will be say 65 dB, the odor level at the property will be, on the scale of 1-10, 5 pinched noses. The next issue of course will be the output from my combination wood-oil furnace. Which could burn compressed logs of manure….. Hey, the Indians used it.

  4. mervel says:

    I think regulation should be focused on areas that markets don’t do well and not on simply regulating for the sake of what regulators feel need to be done.

    For example one area that the market does not do well is providing full accurate information on products that consumers cannot outwardly know about. This would apply to wood pellets. I can’t tell what is in a wood pellet, if the government enforced some sort of standards in labeling consumers could then make the choice. Versus a regulatory stance that said wood pellets must be produced this way in NYS. I am sure crappy wood pellets would be cheaper and burn less efficiently but I could as a consumer make that choice.

  5. Kathy says:

    The bigger picture is we’ve become a society that’s big on our rights and it has gotten to the point of “my right not to be offended”. We see it everyday with lawsuits – we sue just because we can.

    I think we can agree when it comes to the safety of the general population that regulations are necessary – for the good of all. But then is safety defined as inspecting beef because of the potential of an outbreak of e coli or a ban on large sodas because of obesity?

    I want my pellet stove to be safe and sound so there isn’t a fire or my beef to be free from e coli. But I’ll leave it up to my neighbor if he wishes to drink a large soda everyday or smoke cigarettes. With rights comes responsibility and everyone is responsible for themselves. It’s called self-governing – having a conscience – thinking about others over ourselves.

    Perhaps the rule of thumb before regulations, rules, and laws are passed is deciding what consumers should take as personal responsibility for educating themselves. The problem today is we have lost the ability to put up with some things and squeaky wheels make a lot of noise. And despite what many believe here, it creates more and more dependence upon the government thinking for us.

  6. Paul says:

    The wood pellet industry folks should get together and come up with standards for their own industry. Not all standards need to be spoon fed to us from the government. Pat Curran knows what he is talking about, a bureaucrat in DC or Albany doesn’t have a clue.

  7. mervel says:

    I agree.

    What is interesting is that in food labeling for example the large food industries got together to OUTLAW labeling on many foods; so you cannot know where a food is grown, if your apple is from China or not. This is changing to some degree but often time regulations are simply a function of industry lobbying. They are often written to intentionally hurt or support a particular company group at the expense of another. Many regulations are simply the result of lobbying.

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    NPR just this morning did a program on air quality regulation (and lack of enforcement) in the coal mines. Its pretty clear that in the absence of regulations (or the absence of their enforcement) – and government regulations, not self regulation – there would be widespread degradation of most everything. Thats just human nature – dump garbage and move on. Exploit workers and make profits. Maybe if you are a “good” employer, you exploit a little less and a little more kindly. No doubt government regulations can stifle all sorts of creativity. and reduce profits, but without them, (or without enforcement) life would be pretty miserable for most people.

  9. Paul says:

    “They are often written to intentionally hurt or support a particular company group at the expense of another. ”

    Excellent point. The current proposed legislation in CA asking for labeling food that contains GMOs is a good example. Despite all the science and the overwhelming data that these products are safe (no products are subject to more regulation or testing that these) these is still a smear campaign full of lobbyists peddling outright lies tries to get this law passed. Why? For just this reason that Mervel writes:

    “They are often written to intentionally hurt or support a particular company group at the expense of another.”

    To hurt companies that makes these products and support farmers who do not use GMOs.

  10. Will is right about enforcement. I also see cases of trying to regulate common sense and protecting people from themselves. I.E. I had a perfectly good metal gas can with a hose cap for filling my lawn mower’s tank. The hose cracked but I can’t replace it. NYS has outlawed that kind of can in favor of “spillproof” cans. So now I have this plastic can that has to be held upside down to fill my mower tank because the spout is stiff. It gurgles and slops. I can’t see when the tank is full and end up spilling gas every bloody time I fill the mower. If I could just buy a hose cap to replace the one on my old can… sigh. I only spilled gas with that one when I got careless.

    How about power driver’s windows that can automatically go down but not up. “Small children can be strangled but power windows that go up automatically” I’m told. So what sort of fool leaves a small child in a car with the ignition on and not in a car seat so the kid can go to the driver’s seat and get his/her head caught in the driver’s window?

    I could go on (and on) but I think sometimes the regulators should let individuals take responsibility for exercising their own brains and take the consequences when they don’t instead of dumbing the world down for the rest of us.

  11. Dave says:

    Paul, I’d like to have as much information about the food I eat as possible… including if it is genetically modified. Then I can make my own decision about what to buy, what to eat.

    I fail to see how anyone would have a problem with that.

    When an industry fights tooth and nail to keep information off of labels, that begins to strike me as fishy. If there is nothing wrong with GMO foods, then there should be nothing wrong with knowing which ones are and are not GMO.

  12. Paul says:

    Dave, what other irrelevant information about the production of your food would you like to see on the label? The only reason that would be there is for the reason I mentioned above, because the lobbiests did their job and got their special interest what they paid for.

  13. Paul says:

    Dave, I don’t have a problem with the labeling in principle since I understand the science and that I have nothing to fear. But if you look at the other side of the argument that have also fought as you describe, mostly with lies and misinformation I find that troubling. Why don’t you?

  14. Paul says:

    The regulations that are concerning to me are some of the ones that we are seeing that are making it so expensive to do research in this country. We have gone way overboard in some areas. So now we spend far too much money on compliance and far less taxpayer money on life saving research. That is poor policy.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    What is it about freedom to eat what you want to eat that Paul doesn’t understand?

  16. JDM says:

    Kathy: “consumers should take as personal responsibility for educating themselves”

    I think you hit on the key point, i.e. personal responsibility.

    It is getting to the point where enough people don’t want to take responsibility for themselves, and there are plenty who will gladly step in and take over for them – for a price!

    That price is freedom. That price is handing over control of our lives and our own personal destiny. That price is handing over our government to tyrants.

  17. mervel says:

    Regulations in NYS also are often programs that protect jobs and employment.

    Consider the DOH regulations. Do we really need someone from Albany actually driving around in NYS inspecting one or two chair barber shops in small villages in the NC? A state this size with millions and millions of people, and a state employee has the time to worry about regulating little barbers and actually visiting them?

    How many employees does it take to make sure that we don’t have bake sales? How many employee hours were spent going back and forth with the Legion or whoever deciding if they can or cannot have bake sale and then writing the rules about the bake sales and then inspecting the bake sales, all in little old villages in the NC? It takes time, people and it creates jobs. That is the inertia you are up against in changing these regulations. Each regulation has a stream of people who’s jobs are dependent on that regulation.

  18. Ken Hall says:

    Americans appear to be either ignorant of or indifferent to the lobbyist corporate approach to the creation and passage of bills by federal and state governments. Virtually all bills are influenced by corporate greed a trend which has been increasing exponentially to the point that currently the money invested in lobbying versus time curve is nearly perpendicular.

    If a consumer protection bill, of one stripe or another, should slip through the constraining wall of corporate lobbying, impelled by inordinate disrespect for the 99%, the efforts by corporate interests to mitigate the effects of the potentially “good” bill are incessant, i.e. “Obamacare”

    It is my contention that personal decision making based upon self informed education in a western society is a pipe dream. If anyone believes that they can uncover all of the significant or even the salient information about the myriad of products available to to the American public she/he obviously thinks they know far more than the marketing moguls who initiate their pandering efforts against unsuspecting children without creating suspicions on the part of the parents at the earliest possible age. How many years did the tobacco industry insist that they did not target their advertisement toward children, regardless of the evidence that they did, and how many years did it take to win the restraints currently in effect against same?

    Lobbying, Marketing, Government are all TOOLS used by Business to control everything YOU think you need/want/desire whilst unimaginably enriching the owners!

  19. Paul says:

    knuck, the labels already tell you what is in the food. If you understand the science (I am sure you do) than you understand that all food is genetically modified. Why wouldn’t all food contain this labeling? For one simple reason – to mislead you. Not a good idea in my opinion. It isn’t any kind of freedom issue. Like I said if it wasn’t misleading I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

  20. JDM says:

    Just a reminder that it is the politicians telling us the world is warming, not the scientists. (well, not all the scientists, anyway)

    Tree-rings prove climate was WARMER in Roman and Medieval times than it is now – and world has been cooling for 2,000 years….It is the first time that researchers have been able to accurately measure trends in global temperature over the last two millennia.

    Read more:

    Read more:

    Looks like the debate is over. The earth is cooling.

  21. Ken Hall says:

    JDM says: “Just a reminder that it is the politicians telling us the world is warming, not the scientists. (well, not all the scientists, anyway)”

    Am I correct in assuming you are making a joke????

    If you are serious you obviously fit the pattern of homo sapiens who constrain their investigative inquiries to only those that offer support to your belief paradigm.

  22. Paul says:

    “Looks like the debate is over. The earth is cooling.”

    You are right, the debate is over, the earth WAS cooling, now it is warming.

    The studies cited above back up that fact. BTW I think you cited the same story twice?

    The good news here may be that after we boil for the next 4 or 5 generations we may see a slight decrease on average over the next 2000 or so years.

  23. JDM says:

    Ken: “If you are serious you obviously fit the pattern of homo sapiens who constrain their investigative inquiries to only those that offer support to your belief paradigm.”

    Heh, heh. That fits the description of most of the regulars on this blog.

    Just sayin’

  24. tootightmike says:

    We’re headed into the third world here. Our governments become less effective and more ham-handed at the same time. People see lax enforcement and take it as a sign that the rules can be fudged. Rrampant consumerism has led to Walmartization of every store in town, and lower prices have replaced good products as our measure of value…good food follows us down the same path and too many folks will eat what ever’s cheap. Bad diets lead to kids who can’t study, and a stupid population can only accelerate the slide.
    We don’t have to look to far to see where this road leads. Every day a new horror story from Mexico, South Sudan, and a dozen other places shows what happens when we slip too far.
    But the rich get richer, and if the markets are up then everything’s OK right?

  25. JDM says:

    Paul, “You are right, the debate is over, the earth WAS cooling, now it is warming.”

    Yes, and someday it will be the same as when Rome was ruling the earth. They had no cars, and didn’t rely on fossil fuel, and they had maybe 1/2 of population as us, right?

    Yet, you admit the earth was warmer, then. Hmmmm.

    Scientifically, then, it has nothing to do with fossil fuel and population.

  26. JDM says:

    And with over 500 million people on the earth, of course, the earth was over-populated!

    Tertullian, (ca. CE 160-220), was one of the first to describe famine and war as factors that can prevent overpopulation. He wrote: “The strongest witness is the vast population of the earth to which we are a burden and she scarcely can provide for our needs…

    Tertullian, undoubtedly, was writing on his blog that the debate was over.

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