Getting rid of old regulations is much too hard

That is the topic of my latest New York Times column, which is entitled “More Freedom on the Airplane, if Nowhere Else.”  It opens with this example:

It is sometimes the small events that reveal the really big problems lurking beneath the surface. That’s the case with the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent decision to grant airlines the liberty of allowing the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing.

You still won’t be able to call on your cellphone during those times, but, if the airline allows it, you will be able to read on your Kindle or play Angry Birds throughout the flight.

That’s the good news. What’s the deeper problem? Our new Kindle freedoms, however minor they may seem, show how hard it is to clear away the old, unnecessary regulations that are impeding the economy.

After all, the previous restriction on electronics during flights was broadly unpopular in a way that cut across partisan lines. Yet, for many years, the public’s complaints did not bring concrete change, mostly because of regulatory inertia. (If you’re worried about safety, by the way, the airlines can still, at their discretion, demand that these devices be turned off when deemed necessary.)

Here is another bit from the piece:

Many regulations, when initially presented, can sound desirable.  The problem is that, taken in their entirety, excess rules divert attention from pressing issues like the need for innovation and new jobs.

Michael Mandel, an economist at the Progressive Policy Institute, compares many regulations to “pebbles in a stream.” Individually, they may not have a big impact. But if there are too many pebbles, a river’s flow can be thwarted. Similarly, too many regulations can limit business activity. When the number of rules mounts, it can become hard for a business to know whether it is operating within the law’s confines. The issue is all the more problematic when federal, state and local constraints all apply.

Our public sector is overregulated, too. For instance, the tangle known as government procurement has exacerbated problems with the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges. The required formal processes made it difficult to hire the best possible talent, led to nightmare organizational charts and resulted in blurred lines of accountability. It’s hard to turn on a dime and fix such problems overnight, no matter how pressing the need.

Read the whole thing.


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