By James Broughel
May 29, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Democrats love to chastise Republicans for being unscientific. But an action made public recently by President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency should make critics think twice the next time they call Republicans scientifically illiterate.
It’s a push for evidence-based regulation that should lead to greater transparency, more careful weighing of the positive and negative consequences of regulation, and added clarity for the public. The end result won’t just be good for businesses but also for the environment and public health.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is tasking offices under his control with issuing formal, binding regulations that ratchet up the agency’s commitment to evidence-based policymaking. Among other things, EPA offices, such as the Office of Air and Radiation and the Office of Water, will have to make a firm commitment to balancing the benefits and costs of regulating when they create new federal policies.
Critics of Trump sometimes portray his administration as only caring about the costs of regulations, not the benefits. But Wheeler’s new directive ensures that environmental benefits won’t get short-changed. The action is notable because it has the potential to tie the EPA’s own hands going forward, discouraging the kind of ill-informed regulations based on questionable science that, let’s be honest, the public has come to expect from both political parties.
As a next step, EPA offices will begin work on proposals to comply with the administrator’s order, setting standards of clarity, transparency and consistency for themselves for which they will later be held accountable. As agencies work on crafting their proposals, they should explicitly state their commitment to efficiency and economic growth, along with other legitimate policy goals such as protecting the environment and keeping our air and water clean.
One area worth highlighting for improvement is in how the EPA applies a dollar value to human lives. When the agency expects a policy to save lives, it converts estimates of prevented deaths into a dollar figure to compare with the financial costs of the regulation. But this approach has it exactly backwards. A life isn’t like money; it can’t be invested in a bank account. But money can be used to save lives.
Much like driving down a one-way street, the direction here matters. The money we spend complying with a policy and the benefits we get back from it have to be compared in equivalent units of consumption.
That’s how one accounts for the opportunity cost of funds — what we might otherwise have achieved with that money — thus ensuring the most bang for the taxpayer buck. Currently, this opportunity cost goes overlooked in EPA analyses, and regulations are inefficient as a result.
By pledging to engage in benefit-cost balancing and subjecting its own rules to new quality standards, the EPA has demonstrated that the environmental benefits of policy will get the attention they deserve, and that rulemakers will do their due diligence before imposing costly standards on the rest of us. Unless regulators up their game, scientifically speaking, the Trump EPA’s own rules could be in violation of the forthcoming quality standards. In that sense, the administration is putting its money where its mouth is.
Too often, policies are judged not by their consequences, but based on moral imperatives, duties and good intentions. Wheeler’s new directive is an effort to change that.
There’s no question about it — this scores a win for Team Trump. But more importantly, it scores a win for science.
James Broughel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
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