There is an emerging talking point among Republicans that the way to create jobs is not to spend government money on infrastructure projects or even to cut payroll taxes or give tax breaks to companies that hire new people. All of these things have been supported by Republicans in the past. But now they swear that the only policy worth pursuing is eliminating a wide range of existing regulations. I was watching CNN this morning as I ate breakfast and it is clear that American journalists are simply not equipped to report on this subject. Instead of engaging in a discussion of what regulations are and how they are enacted, CNN ran a human interest style story where they interviewed the owner of a small car painting business in California. He swore that he was personally committed to protecting the environment etc but that some regulations were simply unreasonable intrusions into his business. He described these as regulations that did nothing but force him to “cross t’s and dot I’s.” The point of the story was clear: Regulations are silly because they make well intentioned business owners waste their time filling out paper work instead of creating new jobs. This interview reminded me of a conversation I once had with a group of small business owners at a yacht club in Santa Barbara. They are standing around grousing about exactly this sort of regulation. They hated it and blamed “socialists” in Sacramento and Washington for the whole thing. Here is the gist of what I told them.
The complexity of the paperwork is not a result of “socialist” dominance. On the contrary, the excess of paperwork is a direct result of a regulatory system that depends overwhelmingly on self-reporting. The self-reporting approach was insisted upon by conservatives who were able to force it through the necessary compromises so common in American politics. In more centralized democracies, such as the UK, there is a good deal less paperwork to fill out. However, such countries have a good deal more inspectors barging into businesses and snooping around. I asked the cluster of businessmen at the yacht club if they would rather have paperwork or government inspectors and they all said, “Paperwork!” without hesitation.
Clearly the Republicans are trying to use the persistent economic troubles as an excuse to undo a century of regulations entirely. They want to return us to a Dickensian dystopia of the 1890s. If we eliminate the paperwork without hiring thousands of new inspectors at the state and federal agencies that enforce environmental, workplace safety and other regulations, we would effectively eliminate the original regulations. These regulations were not imposed to make life difficult for business. Rather they were put in place because businesses were making life unlivable (literally) for the workers who were getting sick and injured in dangerous workplaces, the neighbors who were being poisoned by industrial run off and the many species that were being driven to extinction by the same (such as the bald eagle that Republicans love to fetishize).