How to Pick the Regulators

Paul Rubin explains why deregulation under Obama is not likely to happen, based on his years as a deregulator for Reagan:

The permanent staffs of the agencies were always interested in more regulation, either because of self-selection or because promotions and power increase in a larger agency. It also helped that we deregulators (generally economists) were not usually interested in permanent government positions, because reducing the power of the agency is a sure way to make enemies.

(For an excellent book on this problem pick up James Wilson’s Bureaucracy.)

It sounds like the executive branch needs something analogous to jury duty, where top regulators are pulled from industry. To the degree that their industry affiliations present a conflict of interest in deregulation, at least they will counterbalance the permanent regulatory staffs’ asymmetric interest in increased regulation.

One particular example recently brought to mind is Richard Bookstaber: A veteran of the finance industry who more than a year ago accepted a role as Senior Policy Advisor in the SEC’s Division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation. (I was reminded of him because the uncannily prescient book he published four years ago is apparently still being plagiarized.)

Government’s New Standards for Regulation

WSJ today printed a promising essay by President Obama outlining his administration’s new approach to regulation. Granted, in government it’s a long way from good principles to good practice. And it’s hard even to draw coherent principles from the meandering examples in his essay. The strongest theme seems to be ‘balancing the costs and benefits of regulation,’ which works well when those costs and benefits are objectively assessed, but poorly when the Precautionary Principle takes over.

Nevertheless, we’re in for a treat if government regulation “… means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices.”

Sometimes ‘Nothing’ Is Better Than ‘Something’

I opted out of commercial air travel long before the We Won’t Fly campaign. After all, the Precautionary Principle went to work right after 9/11 with the establishment of the Transportation Stupidity Administration (TSA).

Wes Benedict, paraphrasing Congressman Rush Holt, summarizes the problem:

Something bad happens. People demand Congress do “something” about it. Congress comes up with “something.” And so “something” gets implemented, even if it doesn’t do any good, because in the minds of Congress and the voters, “something” is better than nothing.

People, when it comes to government, “nothing” is usually better than “something.”

No Wonder I Hated English Classes

As soon as the study of “English” in school graduated from Reading, Spelling, and Writing to Literature, Grammar, and Composition I began to hate it. At some point after taking an early course from the Yale English department I recognized that my irritation stemmed from the conflation of these three separate subjects by teachers who were themselves only amateur writers. I didn’t realize how bad it really was until I came across this essay by Geoffrey Pullum lambasting the supposed bible of grammar, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Yes, even the textbooks are wrong!

No wonder I struggled with grammar at the same time I was acing geometry, algebra, and computer programming: Complete rules of English grammar are too complicated for non-technical teachers, and so for generations they have resorted to oversimplification and then tried to ignore the vast exceptions and holes in their theories. I was baffled by a grammar that “didn’t compute,” but they wrote the tests, so I lost and just moved on. (When I later dabbled in college-level Linguistics, where they don’t take shortcuts, I found it both engaging and facile.)

If I have become a good writer it has not been thanks to any English teacher. Composition should be taught along with Rhetoric — a sister subject that the education establishment left at the side of a road sometime in the twentieth century. Instead English departments have tied composition to literature, perhaps because it doesn’t seem scholastic enough to simply read and discuss great literature. No, a student must then go and carry on a discussion with himself for x number of pages, and his grade is determined by that essay. If he is not inspired to expound upon a particular book it reflects not on the book or the teacher but supposedly on his own writing skills. And here it gets even more confusing: Occasionally classes would undertake an exercise wherein students exchanged papers and I would get to read the final draft of someone else in the class. I don’t remember if I ever got a full “A” in an English class, but I did read papers of students who were getting full “A”s. And they were riddled with grammatical errors. I never did figure out what it takes to get an A on an English paper, but I did learn that English teachers value something that they couldn’t teach me.

Fortunately I discovered sometime in high school that I love to write, and that I do so easily and naturally when I have something to say. I once spent over 20 hours trying to draft an essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, one of half a dozen major works we were covering in one semester of an English class. Finally I went to the teacher with many pages of dense notes and drafts, threw up my hands, and asked how a student could possibly be expected to fully read the book in the few allotted weeks, much less put together a short essay making anything other than banal observations about such a work. The teacher was sympathetic to my pleas, and apparently sufficiently impressed by my effort to give my final thousand-word essay an A-. In contrast, when I took a Spanish Composition course to satisfy my language requirement I was often free to pick my topics, so I could focus on writing instead of contriving. I regularly irked the other students by bringing in essays that were 2-3 times the assigned length and that were frequently excerpted as model examples for the class.

QOTD: Restraints on the ‘General Welfare’ Clause

The “General Welfare” and “Commerce” Clauses of the U.S. Constitution are among the most widely abused by our expansive federal government. Letters in today’s WSJ remind us that the Founders didn’t leave these open to interpretations that liberal courts and politicians have nevertheless applied. Arnold Nelson notes:

221 years ago James Madison clearly identified some common misunderstandings of the general welfare clause and explained what the Founders meant, clearly, thoughtfully, and I’m sure he felt finally, when in Federalist Number 41 he wrote: “Some . . . have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the [Constitution’s] power ‘. . . to provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States,’ amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare.

“Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it. . . . But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon?”

And following that semicolon is a list of 17 other congressional powers, from “borrow money on the credit of the United States” to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers,” but not a word about health care, environmental protection, education, housing, etc.