A Congressional Regulation Office?

Philip Wallach and Kevin R. Kosar write,

The office would have two core functions. First, it would perform cost-benefit analyses of agencies’ significant rules, which number around a hundred per year, in order to provide a disinterested check on agencies’ self-interested math. These CRO analyses would coincide with the prospective estimates that agencies themselves perform. This would create a legislative counterweight to the rule-review function of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — which is nested within the OMB and thus the Executive Office of the President, and is therefore unable to provide a credibly neutral review process that goes beyond concerns internal to the executive branch.

The CRO’s assessment of a proposed regulation, like CBO’s bill scores, should be posted online and delivered to the committee of jurisdiction. Doing these things would increase the political salience of agency rulemaking, thereby fostering congressional oversight and encouraging policy entrepreneurs in the legislature to take up the subject. A CRO cost-benefit analysis should also be automatically submitted as public comment to the rule, which would oblige an agency response and possibly a recalibration of the rule.

Second, but perhaps just as promising, would be to have CRO perform periodic retrospective analyses informed by real data rather than forward-looking estimates. Agencies sometimes perform “look-back” assessments, but they are modest in number (certainly compared to the massive corpus of standing regulation) and produce only nominal changes. This is unsurprising, since each agency is passing judgment on its own work. CRO reports would regularly goad Congress to examine how the rules produced by existing laws are performing, such that they could work to revise those statutes that have yielded problematic results.

My thoughts.

1. Take the analogy with the Congressional Budget Office. People love the CBO, but its practical impact has been questionable. Since 1975, the Congressional budget process has become worse, not better. Congress has become more evasive of accountability, not less so.

2. The proposed CRO is a solution if the problem is that Congress lacks information about bad regulatory policy. But is that really the problem? The problem is that, as with the budget, there is not much collective will in Congress to set policy.

I think that we have the state of affairs that we do because politicians like it. That means either that the regulators are getting away with something without the public realizing it or the public is basically complacent about regulators running amok. I am afraid that it is the latter.

Would a CRO make the public less complacent? Well, CBO has not made the public any less complacent about the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare. Instead, the CBO’s main impact has been to increase policy makers’ hubris about the ability of deficit spending to create jobs.

In a better world, what are called “regulations” would be called “laws,” and every single last one of them would require Congressional votes. In an even better world, politicians in Washington would look at all the things that agencies are attempting to regulate and say, “Gee, we have no business doing that. We are not properly informed. We should only regulate in areas where we have a good set of information on which to base regulation.”

I don’t know how to get to a better world. Look, I love checks and balances in theory. And I don’t mean to discourage creative ideas for addressing what I agree is a serious problem. But I am afraid that I must assign a low probability to a CRO moving us in the right direction.

Child Care and Subsidized Demand

Luke P. Rodgers writes,

Child care tax credits are intended to relieve the financial burden of child care expenses for working families, yet the benefit incidence may fall on child care providers if they increase prices in response to credit generosity. Using policy-induced variation in the Child and Dependent Care Credit and multiple datasets in both difference-in-difference and instrumental variable frameworks, I find evidence of substantial pass-through: between $0.73 – $0.90 of every dollar is passed through to providers in the form of higher prices and wages. Robustness checks confirm the pattern that the bulk of credits are crowded out by increased prices. Furthermore, the relative inelasticity of child care suppliers implies that increased non-refundable credit generosity may have the unintended effect of making child care less affordable for low-income families, though the magnitude of this conclusion is tempered by heterogeneous pass-through rates.

Pointer from James Pethokoukis.

I am surprised by the claim that supply is relatively inelastic. I wonder if that is true in the long run and, if so, why. Again, I do not think of the child care industry as politically powerful, so even though this perfectly illustrates my view that the public-choice outcome is subsidized demand and restricted supply, I want to be cautious about this one.

Once Again, Subsidize Demand and Restrict Supply

John Cochrane writes,

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton want to lower the cost and, presumably, increase the amount of child care. A quick economics quiz: What is the policy change that would have the greatest such effect?

I hope you answered: legal immigration of child care workers! And remove the large number of restrictions on providing child care.

In Specialization and Trade, I claim that public policy ends up subsidizing demand and restricting supply, which is almost always incoherent from the standpoint of traditional public goods. Usually, it is the suppliers of the good or service who push for such policies. However, the child care industry does not, as far as I know, have a formidable lobbying presence. Thus, I am inclined to bet that child care subsidies will not get very far in Congress.

Larry Summers Should Read This

Edward L. Glaeser writes,

While infrastructure investment is often needed when cities or regions are already expanding, too often it goes to declining areas that don’t require it and winds up having little long-term economic benefit. As for fighting recessions, which require rapid response, it’s dauntingly hard in today’s regulatory environment to get infrastructure projects under way quickly and wisely. Centralized federal tax funding of these projects makes inefficiencies and waste even likelier, as Washington, driven by political calculations, gives the green light to bridges to nowhere, ill-considered high-speed rail projects, and other boondoggles. America needs an infrastructure renaissance, but we won’t get it by the federal government simply writing big checks. A far better model would be for infrastructure to be managed by independent but focused local public and private entities and funded primarily by user fees, not federal tax dollars.

Alex Tabarrok calls the entire article excellent.

UPDATE: Although John Cochrane agrees with Glaeser, but he is more charitable to Summers than I would be.

Evidenced-Based Policy

Robert Doar writes,

Momentum for evidence-based policymaking is building at all levels of government, from federal legislation funding rigorous evaluations to the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking to counties looking to make funding decisions based on results.

I am afraid that my reaction is to be cynical. When you make funding decisions for programs based on evidence, what will change will be the reported evidence, not the programs.

During the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was famous for demanding statistical evidence that strategies were working. He got what he was asking for, but the statistical evidence did not capture what was really happening.

To cite another example, the Stiglitz-Orszag paper on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac appeared to be evidence-based. Recall that they wrote,

This analysis shows that, based on historical data, the probability of a shock as severe as embodied in the risk-based capital standard is substantially less than one in 500,000 – and may be smaller than one in three million. Given the low probability of the stress test shock occurring, and assuming that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hold sufficient capital to withstand that shock, the exposure of the government to the risk that the GSEs will become insolvent appears quite low.

Within any organization, including a profit-seeking business, one has to be cynical about “evidence.” Show me a CEO who always believes every report he or she receives from middle management, and I will show you a company that is at high risk for going bankrupt very soon. I have never been a large-company CEO, but if I were I would make a point of setting up internal checks and balances so that I did not have to rely on any one set of carefully crafted reports.

You are entitled to ask, “How can you be against evidence? Evidence is bound to make policies better than if evidence is ignored.”

My response is that I am afraid that evidence will be distorted to make spending programs and regulations appear better than they really are. I will take public choice theory over misleading evidence, any day.

Why (some) Governments Protect Intellectual Property

Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts write,

We propose a new model of intellectual property based on the stationary bandit model of government. We argue that new ideas—of the sort that become patents, copyrights and trademarks—emerge as economic rights, born global as it were into a world of roving bandits. They seek protection from a stationary bandit, who extracts tribute in return. The key insight of our new model, however, is a sharper distinction of who those bandits are.

…vulnerable subjects seek protection for their private economic property from the banditry of other governments, by registering their property with their own government, whom they trust to be powerful enough to protect it as they peacefully engage in trade and commerce throughout the world.

In return, they grant that government an exclusive right to exploit them through perpetual taxation of the property.

Pointer from Scott Sumner. This theory suggests that the country that ends up with the largest sector of copy-able products (pharmaceuticals, movies, novels, etc.) will be the country with the largest navy. Hmmm…

More Lifted from the Comments

Kevin Erdmann writes,

The way costs serve as a filter is by constricting supply. Those cities are well past the cost level that would trigger supply. So, a unit that would cost $300,000 is already worth $1 million. To build it, you basically have to negotiate your way through a series of fees and kickbacks so that local governments and interest groups claim the $700,000 difference. It’s like third world governance with a functional bureaucracy. You don’t necessarily bribe anyone, but the parks department gets $100,000 per unit because your building throws a shadow somewhere for 30 minutes, and that money funds a healthy pension.

“third world governance with a functional bureaucracy” describes a very effective kleptrocratic system.

The Great Regulation

Guy Rolnik writes,

Looking at both intangible investments and political activities to explain the 20% rise in Tobin’s q in the U.S. since 1970, a new working paper by James Bessen from Boston University concludes that activity associated with increased Federal regulation is the most important explanatory factor, especially after 2000. In fact, spending on R&D and other intangibles has fallen relative to conventional assets since 2000.

Noting that operating margins for these firms have also risen since 1990 by over 2% in aggregate, Bessen’s study also found that variables associated with regulation and corporate campaign contributions account for about half of this increase.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. The article is a long interview with Bessen, interesting throughout. For example,

In 2011 a new patent law passed, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act. This patent law was essentially negotiated between a small number of large pharma companies and a small number of large tech companies.

…all of a sudden you have a whole lot of small businesses in every state in the country who are now upset about getting sued for patent infringement over these very ridiculous claims.

Once again, I wonder how much of the trend toward industry consolidation and loss of dynamism in the past twenty years is due to regulation and rent-seeking.

A Commenter’s Suggestion

He writes,

May I humbly/respectfully suggest, Arnold, that you consider replacing your economics-is-not-a-science meme with an economics-is-like-applied-science (i.e. engineering and medicine) one.

Reading a draft of Jeffrey Friedman’s next book, I gather that this was John Dewey’s notion. Just as doctors often “treat empirically” (by trial and error), policy science can improve by trial and error.

The parallels with medicine are interesting. Just as it seems to be the case that a lot of health care spending goes to medical treatments with high costs and low benefits, it is the case that a lot of government programs and regulations have high costs and low benefits.

I reject Dewey’s model as a description of actual policy practice. Policy makers almost never design proper trials, and they almost never correct errors. Pretty much every anti-poverty program that has been tried since the 1960s is still around, regardless of how (or whether) it was evaluated.

In my latest book, I argue that the profit system does a much better job of trial-and-error learning. The incentives to learn are much stronger. If you make enough mistakes, you lose money and go out of business. Also, upstart companies are much more willing to attempt a radical innovation than are established organizations, whether those established organizations are corporations or government agencies.

Also, I believe that social phenomena are more complex than the problems that engineers encounter. That is why I see mathematics in economics as pretentious. More than that, it can be harmful, as it focuses economists on building models that are so simple that they are deceptive rather than helpful.

All that said, I prefer that economists present themselves as doctors than as scientists, as long as they make it clear that they have not discovered the cures for the diseases with which they are presented.

Indulging in Confirmation Bias

For my view of the housing bubble. John Geanokoplos and others wrote,

Notice that if we freeze leverage (LTV) at constant levels, the boom gets dramatically attenuated, and the bust disappears.

This statement is based on a simulation of an “agent-based” model for house prices. Pointer from Eric Beinhocker from Mark Thoma.

Beinhocker writes,

rather than predict we should experiment. Policymaking often starts with an engineering perspective – there is a problem and government should fix it. For example, we need to get student mathematics test scores up, we need to reduce traffic congestion, or we need to prevent financial fraud. Policy wonks design some rational solution, it goes through the political meat grinder, whatever emerges is implemented (often poorly), unintended consequences occur, and then – whether it works or not – it gets locked in for a long time. An alternative approach is to create a portfolio of small-scale experiments trying a variety of solutions, see which ones work, scale-up the ones that are working, and eliminate the ones that are not.

American pragmatist John Dewey also thought that technocrats should take an experimental approach. That is not a new idea. (I learned this from Jeffrey Friedman, who sent me a draft from his forthcoming book.) Of course, my view is that I would rather see experiments come from the market than from technocrats.

Later, Beinhocker writes,

A major challenge for these more adaptive approaches to policy is the political difficulty of failure. Learning from a portfolio of experiments necessitates that some experiments will fail. Evolution is a highly innovative, but inherently wasteful process – many options are often tried before the right one is discovered. Yet politicians are held to an impossibly high standard, where any failure, large or small, can be used to call into question their entire record.

I would argue that avoidance of failure is natural in any large organization, not just government. That is why I think that markets are better able to conduct experiments to solve problems.

I found Beinhocker’s essay interesting. However, if we are going to try to improve economics, it is important to include behavioral policy-making and politics into the analysis. Do not simply assume a benevolent, rational technocrat as decision-maker.

Speaking of confirmation bias, a recent Instapundit post linked to an old essay of mine, one which speaks to this comparison between expertise mediated by markets and expertise mediated by government.