What Role for Regulation in the American Economy

Today in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama lays out a vision for a 21st Century Regulatory System. He concludes that:

Despite a lot of heated rhetoric, our efforts over the past two years to modernize our regulations have led to smarter—and in some cases tougher—rules to protect our health, safety and environment. Yet according to current estimates of their economic impact, the benefits of these regulations exceed their costs by billions of dollars.

This is the lesson of our history: Our economy is not a zero-sum game. Regulations do have costs; often, as a country, we have to make tough decisions about whether those costs are necessary. But what is clear is that we can strike the right balance. We can make our economy stronger and more competitive, while meeting our fundamental responsibilities to one another.

It is important to understand that not only is regulation not always bad, sometimes it can lead to innovation. Over the summer, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote about Harvard Professor Michael Porter's research on just that:

It's been 20 years since Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter provided scholarly support for the notion that, rather than hamper economic growth and competitiveness, well-crafted regulation could actually promote it. Porter's first observation was that some of the world's most prosperous and economically vibrant countries were also those with some of the most stringent business regulations, such as Germany and Japan. His studies of specific industries also turned up numerous examples of new products and more efficient ways of doing business that came about only because companies and industries were forced to comply with rules.

Porter's musings, introduced in an article in Scientific American, have since spawned a cottage industry of researchers intent on proving or disproving his hypothesis. Its most controversial aspect was to suggest that profit-maximizing companies were ignoring opportunities to produce profitable new products or adopt more-efficient production techniques. Such a notion not only runs counter to the most basic principles of economics and efficient markets, but it also offends the sensibility of corporate managers, who find it preposterous that such opportunities could be revealed only when the EPA or an OSHA inspector knocks on their company's door.

But subsequent research confirmed what some of us have long since discovered -- namely that corporate executives can be stuck in their ways, averse to risk and unwilling to sacrifice short-term profitability for long-term gain. And as a result of these market "imperfections," sometimes a new regulation comes along that spurs innovation by forcing companies to look at things in new ways. That doesn't mean that regulation is costless, but it does suggest that, on an economy-wide basis, those costs can be offset by subsequent investment and innovation.

As the President's op-ed describes, the role of regulation in our economy is not as simple as many describe. For more on his strategy, check out OMB Director Jack Lew's blog.