The column “Red tape strangling growth” in the Feb. 19 edition of this newspaper repeated a common mantra. The author, William F. Shughart II, is “research director of the Independent Institute,” accompanying his academic affiliation with Utah State University. The study he cited, claiming that regulations costs U.S. businesses and individuals some $4 trillion annually, was from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
This all appears highly respectable. However, the Independent Institute is an institution whose publications have rejected the widely accepted science supporting human-caused global warming, and have argued for privatization of Medicare, and even for hiring private mercenaries to pursue Osama bin Laden. The Independent Institute was ranked near the bottom — 54th of 60 — among independent think tanks in the U.S. by the University of Pennsylvania in a 2014 study. While many Mainers may agree with one or more of its positions, this is hardly a neutral or highly rated intellectual body.
Then there is the Mercatus Center itself, the source of the report. The word “mercatus” is Latin for “market,” the root for the English “mercantile.” The Mercatus Center, like many institutes at George Mason University, was founded by and is 100 percent supported financially by outside interests. In the case of the Mercatus Center, it is funded almost completely by ExxonMobil and Charles and David Koch, whose billions in annual income is derived mostly from their coal and oil operations.
The Koch brothers (who’ve driven their other brothers, Fred and William, from the family business) see the primary role of government as to ensure their unfettered ability to gain even more wealth at the expense of the rest of humanity and the environment.
The Mercatus Center’s core mission is the production of reasoned position papers supporting a libertarian business-centered economy consistent with the Koch brothers’ perspective — again, far from a neutral, objective source.
But it would take a highly knowledgeable economist considerable time and effort to analyze the report and find its flaws — which is intentional.
What Shughart and others have failed to recognize is that existing business regulations, though admittedly complex and burdensome, are because of the small handful of unscrupulous businesspeople who will do whatever will make them an extra dollar, whether or not it is moral, as long as it’s not illegal — and sometimes even if it is, if calculations show they can still profit after paying any potential fines.
Most readers will not be old enough to remember when foam on the Kennebec River was a foot deep and could be cut out and removed in blocks, or when the waters beneath that foam were as dark as molasses and totally devoid of life.
But that’s why Sen. Ed Muskie became the champion of the Clean Water Act. That’s one of those “burdensome regulations” that some would like to loosen —it was far cheaper and easier to merely vent waste waters from pulp and paper processing operations into the rivers.
For another example, the air pollution regulations of the national EPA — which may be rolled back by newly confirmed Director Scott Pruitt as “anti-business” — are addressing one of the major reasons people are advised to limit consumption of fish caught in Maine’s lakes and streams. We have serious mercury contamination in these waters, courtesy of our position at the end of the “exhaust pipe” of emissions from the coal-fired power plants in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
One can read Maine’s official recommendations — which are frightful — on the state’s own web page, which has as its headline, “Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant, and children under age 8 SHOULD NOT EAT any freshwater fish from Maine’s inland waters.” (Emphasis in the original!)
This was why Sen. Susan Collins voted against Pruitt’s confirmation to head the EPA, as he has sued the agency repeatedly to restrict its control over local air-pollution emissions, considering them something that should be left to the individual states to regulate.
So before we jump on the “less regulation, more business” bandwagon, let’s consider seriously the source for the arguments as well as the implications.
“Less regulation” has a wonderfully American sound to it. Unfortunately, it presumes that all actors will behave honorably in the absence of supervision, and that actions in one area can have no adverse impacts elsewhere.
As we all know, this is not — and never will be — the case.
Robert E. Nelson of Clinton is the editor of The Maine Entomologist.