Scott Pruitt’s first few weeks at the EPA confirms most environmentalists’ worst fears: The Trump administration intends to dramatically scale back environmental regulations, along with the staff and resources needed for enforcement of what remains. Other federal agencies, it now seems clear, will also have foxes guarding their respective hen houses. Undergirded by Trump’s Executive Order requiring the elimination of two regulations for every new one proposed, we could well see a wholesale reduction in rules intended to protect public health, consumers, worker safety and the environment.
Millions of people – a strong majority of Americans, in fact – support stronger, not weaker regulations to protect the environment and public health. But that’s only part of the picture. A 2012 Pew Research Poll found that more than half the public believes that “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” My own experience suggests that this sentiment is considerably stronger and more widespread among farmers and in rural communities. So, why do so many of us dislike or distrust ‘regulations’?
A little more than four years ago I was speaking with a few dozen folks in a small town in southwestern Virginia. This was one of many community stops I made in my campaign for US Congress. Following my talk, folks were lingering and chatting, including a local businesswoman who owned a small grocery and retail shop. When I introduced myself to her and the others close at hand, she said, with great emphasis, “If you get elected, I only want one thing from you: Just leave me alone. I just want the government to leave me alone.” I told her that as a farmer, I understood some of how she felt, how the government sometimes imposed too many burdens on small farms and mom and pop businesses.
What’s the point of having regulations, and regulators, if the lives of miners or the livelihoods of rural residents are so dispensable?
As she and I had begun talking about government regulation, another conversation intruded. Apparently the owner of a now-closed filling station was allowing an underground tank to leak petroleum, some of which was seeping into the soil and a nearby creek. These neighbors, including the businesswoman with whom I’d been speaking, were all upset about this. “Something has got to be done”, she said. “Somebody has got to make him fix that!”
“But don’t you think “, I said, “that he just wants the government to leave him alone?”
From the liberal point of view, regulations are prudent, a necessary check on the powers of big corporations. Before the EPA, smog enveloped many major cities, industrial plants dumped toxins directly into rivers, and Lake Erie caught fire. Before we had labor laws, ten year olds worked in factories; before OSHA more than a hundred twenty women died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of many workplace disasters of that period. And in coal regions like Appalachia, miners died by the hundreds every year from explosions, roof falls, and other preventable accidents. Regulations protect us, our health, our safety, our environment. The big mystery for liberals is why so many people just don’t seem to get that, especially in coal country and most other rural places.
I think we’re long past due for an honest debate about government regulations, …”
In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild describes how so many people in rural Louisiana support the very politicians that fight regulation of the chemical and pesticide companies that they know to be poisoning their land, bayous and bodies. Why would they vote for people who want to weaken laws that prevent this death-dealing pollution? Paraphrasing one of the people she interviews, “It seems like if we spill a little oil from our boats, they’ll give us a fine. But when the big companies spill thousands of gallons of poisons into the creek, nothing happens.” One factor, then, is the belief that regulations have not worked, at least not to protect the average person. The families of twenty-nine miners killed in Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in April 2010 would surely agree. In spite of 57 citations for mine safety violations the month before the explosion, and 600 in the prior year and a half, nothing was done to protect the miners. What’s the point of having regulations, and regulators, if the lives of miners or the livelihoods of rural residents are so dispensable?
And then there are the community banks, still an important part of many small towns and rural regions. These banks, according to a study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, do four times more small business lending, per dollar of asset, than do Wells Fargo and the other Wall Street Megabanks. In spite of their critical importance in rural communities, nearly two thousand of them have closed in the past eight years, in part at least due to the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulations. A big target for Trump and the Republican Party, this law was intended to rein in risky lending and keep financial institutions from once again becoming ‘too big to fail’. Whatever the intentions, six years out, the big banks are as big as ever; their portfolios filled with high risk financial speculations. But smaller community banks, like miners in West Virginia or fishermen in rural Louisiana, seem to be bearing the brunt of regulations while the big boys coast.
I think we’re long past due for an honest debate about government regulations, rather than continuing to simplistically call for deregulation at every turn, or on the other hand, defend the regulatory state without recognizing the downsides. We might begin that debate with three basic assertions: First, we all live downwind or downstream from others. While the owner of that abandoned service station might well consider regulations to be meddlesome and intrusive, his neighbors sought the action of government to protect their water, land and property. Fundamentally, regulations are about protecting private property and individual persons.
Second, wherever appropriate we should work to construct “scale appropriate” regulations, rather than one-size-fits-all rules and requirements. The 2014 Food Safety Modernization Act is a relatively successful example of this, providing a substantially less burdensome set of requirements for small farmers selling primarily direct to their customers, compared with large growers shipping product across many states. Small farmers still need to follow sensible procedures in how they harvest and handle food, but the monitoring, reporting and infrastructure requirements they must meet are scaled to the size and risk of their operations. More scale-appropriate regulating of family farms, small businesses, community banks and local investors would reduce the burden on these critical parts of our economy and encourage their innovation and growth.
Last, like most public policy, regulations should help level the playing field between the average person and the rich and powerful; between the worker and owner. When people go to jail for shoplifting or a few dollars of embezzlement, while the richest CEOs face no charges for defrauding millions of people, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are two different sets of rules. With that comes cynicism, and in the countryside at least, the belief that regulations hurt the little guy and further the interests of elites. That they’ll fine a fella for spilling a gallon of oil, but let the corporation get away with poisoning the whole bayou. Changing that belief is going to take a while, but focusing regulations on leveling the playing field for ordinary people would surely be a place to start.