MAKING REGULATION WORK

For society to function, regulatory agencies must protect consumers, workers, and the public from self-interested and unscrupulous individuals, employers, and businesses. In a democracy, this requires a concerted effort and leadership from elected officials to put appropriate regulations in place and to ensure that they are enforced.

In a recent speech, Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) noted that an essential piece of regulating large corporations is to use anti-trust laws to stop mergers that create huge corporations that have the power to distort our economy and policy making. The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general all have the power to do this. However, the political climate and, to some extent, the judicial climate have left anti-trust regulation withering on the vine in recent decades. [1]

Due to weak anti-trust law enforcement, a few giant corporations now control major U.S. industries including the airline, banking, health care, pharmaceutical, agriculture, telecommunications, and technology industries. Today, two-thirds of the 900 U.S. industries that are tracked by The Economist are more concentrated than they were in 1997, i.e., have fewer and larger corporations making them up. Competition is increasingly choked off. Small businesses and innovators are shut out of the market place, either by being bought up or squashed.

With this reduced competition, consumers pay more and get lower quality, while workers have their pay and benefits cut. A classic example of this is the cost and speed of Internet access. The U.S. has some of the most expensive Internet access among the developed countries of the world. And the speed of access is among the slowest in the world, particularly when comparing major cities. [2] Furthermore, cost and speed of access in the U.S. varies tremendously among urban and rural areas, as well as among wealthier and poorer communities.

The poor Internet service in the U.S. occurs because we have a small number of large, private, lightly regulated telecommunications providers that often have a monopoly or near-monopoly on service in a geographical area. To improve access, cost, and speed, a handful of U.S. cities have chosen to create their own municipal broadband services to compete with private Internet service providers: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Bristol, Virginia; Lafayette, Louisiana; Cedar Falls, Iowa; and Wilson, North Carolina. However, the private providers are working to get states and the federal government to ban the creation or expansion of these municipal providers because they do not want the competition. The private providers are also lobbying hard to weaken regulation, such as the net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission recently put in place.

The argument that corporations and competition in a free market will result in effective self-regulation has been shown to be false time and again. The financial industry is probably the poster child for refuting this argument. The deregulation of the financial industry led, not to effective self-regulation as the proponents promised, but to the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the financial collapse of 2008. The lack of regulation led to risky and abusive business practices that spiraled out of control and eventually collapsed, causing major disruption to the financial industry and the whole economy.

In another example, U.S. industry has not, on its own, kept our air and water clean. Without regulation, it is much easier and cheaper for industry to dump its waste products into our air and water.

Corporations have a knee-jerk reaction against regulation because they want unfettered control of their products, their markets, and their marketing. They highlight the (often exaggerated) costs of regulations and ignore benefits. Unfortunately, this has been a very effective strategy for resisting regulation in our current political climate. It seems that no one is highlighting the benefits of regulation or standing up for consumers, workers, and the public.

Corporations always claim (with little evidence) that regulation will hurt business and reduce the number of jobs. However, as the financial collapse demonstrated, a lack of regulation can lead to a crisis that dramatically hurts businesses and reduces the number of jobs.

In fact, studies have shown that regulation has a neutral or modestly positive effect on the overall number of jobs, although it may cause some shifting of jobs, for example from the coal industry to the wind and solar power industries. [3]

Furthermore, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported to Congress that the cost-benefit analyses of new, major federal regulations from 2009 to 2015 showed that benefits exceeded costs by between $103 billion and $393 billion annually. These findings are corroborated by other reports.

In another report, OMB reviewed major regulations from 2000 to 2010 and found that the average annual benefits of regulations were about 7 times the costs. This finding is especially significant given that almost all costs are included in such analyses and are often over-estimated, while many benefits are not monetized and, therefore, are not included (e.g., the lifetime benefit of better cognitive functioning when children’s exposure to lead and mercury is reduced). In other words, benefits outweigh costs by 7 to 1 even though costs are over-estimated and benefits are under-estimated. [4]

So, what will it take to get good regulations in place that protect workers, consumers, and the public? Senator Warren in a recent speech called for 4 policy changes to reduce corporate power and allow appropriate regulation to occur:

  • Enforce anti-trust laws to limit the size and power of corporations,
  • Reform campaign finance laws, including enhancing the value of small contributions from individuals by matching them with public funds,
  • Close the revolving door of personnel who move between industry and government jobs, creating conflicts of interest and an industry-friendly mindset among regulators, and
  • Reform the process for implementing regulations to limit corporate influence. [5]

We as citizens and voters need to work with our elected officials to make sure that the influence and interests of large corporations are appropriately balanced with the interests of workers, consumers, and the public. This means we need to be active and engaged in our democratic processes – in our elections and in communicating with our elected officials. Senator Warren notes that the concentrated money and power of large corporations and wealthy business people influence nearly every decision made in Washington, D.C. We must ensure that the voices of we the people are heard and have every bit as much influence as those of wealthy individuals and large corporations.

[1]      Marans, D. 5/16/17, “Elizabeth Warren has a real plan to drain the swamp in Washington,” HuffPost (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/elizabeth-warren-clean-up-washington-trump_us_591b6f2ae4b0a7458fa3f3d8)

[2]      Yi, H., 4/26/15, “This is how Internet speed and price in the U.S. compares to the rest of the world,” PBS NewsHour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/internet-u-s-compare-globally-hint-slower-expensive/)

[3]      Shierholz, H., & McNicholas, C., 4/11/17, “Understanding the anti-regulation agenda,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/understanding-the-anti-regulation-agenda-the-basics/)

[4]      Shierholz, H., & McNicholas, C., 4/11/17, see above

[5]      Marans, D. 5/16/17, see above

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