Cass Sunstein is head of something called the “Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.” I’ve seen enough conspiracy thrillers to know that when someone has so obvious a blandly amorphous federal-job description as that, it means he’s running some deeply sinister wet-work operation of illegal targeted assassinations in unfriendly nations that the government spooks want to keep off the books and far from prying eyes.
Oh, no, wait. Actually, Covert Operative Sunstein passes his day doing more or less what the sign on the door says: He collects information about regulatory affairs. More specifically, he is charged by the president with “an unprecedented government-wide review of regulations” in order to “improve or remove those that are out-of-date, unnecessary, excessively burdensome or in conflict with other rules.”
How many has he got “removed” so far? Well, last week he took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to crow that dairy farmers will henceforth be exempted from the burdens of a 1970s EPA-era directive classifying milk as an “oil” and subjecting it, as Professor Sunstein typed with a straight face, “to costly rules designed to prevent oil spills”. But Ol’ MacDonald and his crack team of Red Adair–trained milkmaids can henceforth relax because now, writes Professor Sunstein, Washington is “giving new meaning to the phrase, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.’”
That’s a federally licensed joke from Sunstein’s colleagues at the Agency of Guffaw and Titter Regulation, so feel free to laugh.
Did you know milk was an oil? It is to the federal government, and, if a Holstein blows in the Gulf of Mexico and beaches from Florida to Louisiana are suddenly threatened by a tide of full-fat crude, they want to know you’ve got the federally mandated equipment to deal with it. With hindsight, the president’s remark in the early days of the BP oil spill that he was meeting with experts “so I know whose ass to kick” was not just a bit of vulgar braggadocio but the fault of early Department of Energy findings that the spillage was caused by asses’ milk from BP (Burros & Poitous Ltd., a member of the Big Ass cartel). “Your ass is on the line!” as the president told BP’s Tony Hayward after his donkey was found wandering down the first 38 billion-dollar stretch of the federally funded high-speed-rail track.
Whoops, sorry, I made the mistake of hiring Cass Sunstein’s federally accredited “spilled milk” gag writer. Where was I?
Oh, yeah, federal regulation. So this EPA directive requiring milk to be treated the same as petroleum for the purposes of storage and transportation has been around since the ’70s and it’s only taken the best part of four decades to get it partially suspended even though it’s udderly insane? Hallelujah!
At that rate of regulatory reform, we’ll be . . . well, let Sunstein explain it. Aside from his crowing over spilled milk, he cites other triumphs: The Departments of Commerce and State are “pursuing reforms”; the Department of Health and Human Services “will be reconsidering burdensome regulatory requirements”; and the Department of the Interior will be “reviewing cumbersome, outdated regulations.”
Wow! “Pursuing,” “reconsidering,” and “reviewing”? Meanwhile, back at the Department of Bureaus and Agencies, they’re pursuing a review of their reconsideration of reforms. That’s great news, isn’t it? I’ll take a wild guess and bet that the upshot of this frenzied “pursuit” will be a ton of new regulations about streamlining regulatory oversight and improving regulatory harmonization: The big growth area in America’s post-modern Republic of Paperwork is regulations about regulating regulations. For example, in New York City, applying for the “right” to open a restaurant requires dealing with the conflicting demands of at least eleven municipal agencies, plus submitting to 23 city inspections and applying for 30 different permits and certificates. Not including the state liquor license. Recognizing that this could all get very complicated, the city set up a new bureaucratic body to help you negotiate your way through all the other bureaucratic bodies.
And, for every little victory, there are a zillion crankings of the government vise elsewhere. Plucked at random from the Obamacare bill:
“The Secretary shall develop oral healthcare components that shall include tooth-level surveillance.”
“Tooth-level surveillance”? Has that phrase ever been used before in the entirety of human history? Say what you like about George III, but the redcoats never attempted surveillance of General Washington’s dentures. Why not just call it “gum control”?
The hyper-regulatory state is unrepublican. It strikes at one of the most basic pillars of free society: equality before the law. When you replace “law” with “regulation,” equality before it is one of the first casualties. In such a world, there is no law, only a hierarchy of privilege more suited to a sultan’s court than a self-governing republic. If you don’t want to be subject to “tooth-level surveillance,” you better know who to call in Washington. Teamsters Local 522 did, and the United Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago Plastering Institute. And, as a result, they’ve all been “granted” Obamacare “waivers.” Rule, Obama! Obama, waive the rules! If only for his cronies. Americans are being transferred remorselessly from the rule of law to rule by an unaccountable bureaucracy of micro-regulatory preferences, subsidies, entitlements, and incentives that determine which of the multiple categories of Unequal-Before-the-Law Second-Class (or Third-Class, or Fourth-Class) Citizenship you happen to fall into.
And yet Americans put up with it. According to the Small Business Administration, the cost to the economy of government regulation is about $1.75 trillion per annum. You and your fellow citizens pay for that — and it’s about twice as much as you pay in income tax. Or, to put it another way, the regulatory state sucks up about a quarter-trillion dollars more than the entire GDP of India. As fast as India’s growing its economy, we’re growing our regulations faster. Oh, well, you shrug, it would be unreasonable to expect the bloated, somnolent hyperpower to match those wiry little fellows back at the call center in Bangalore. Okay. It’s also about a quarter-trillion dollars more than the GDP of Canada. Every year we’re dumping the equivalent of a G7 economy into ever more ludicrous and wasteful regulation.
As my fellow columnists Charles Krauthammer and Victor Davis Hanson like to point out, decline is not inevitable; it is a choice. The voters of New York’s 26th district chose it just the other day, presumably on the basis that it will be relatively pleasant, as it has been in certain parts of Continental Europe. But genteel Franco-Italian decline is not on the menu. As those numbers suggest, the scale of American decay is entirely different: a trillion-and-three-quarter dollars in regulatory costs, a trillion dollars in college debt, four-and-a-half billion dollars spent by Washington every single day that we don’t have, 70 percent of which the United States government “borrows” from itself because nobody else wants to lend it to us — and a governing party whose Senate leader boasts about not passing a budget and whose plan for Medicare is not to have a plan at all and whose crusading regulatory reformer’s greatest triumph is getting Daisy the cow moved out of the same federal classification as the Exxon Valdez.
Stand well back, that Holstein’s about to blow.