Monday’s Mtg: Are Californians Environmentally Over-Regulated?

This topic is one that political conservatives worry about a lot. Every time California experiences a recession or the mildest growth hiccup, and every time a high-profile business leaves California for another state conservatives say it’s all because of over-regulation. To me at least, their rhetoric often sounds ideological and a cynical cover for corporate self-interest.

But, not so fast. I think there’s something to this topic, even after discounting for rhetorical excess and partisanship. California has a very dense web of environmental regulations. They affect every aspect of living and doing business in our state. No one serious is saying we should not have clean air and water, safe consumer products, and wetlands. But, perhaps Californians can be said to be over-regulated, especially if “over-regulated” is carefully and specifically defined.

One definition of excessive govt regulation involves marginal costs exceeding marginal benefits. I will explain this basic concept briefly in my opening framing remarks on Monday night. But, basically, the more stringent an environmental regulation is, the higher the costs of implementing it and (probably) the smaller the additional increment of benefits it provides. You can think of the marginal costs and benefit curves as being non-linear to reflect this. At some point the lines cross, and the reg does more harm than good.

This sounds simple, but it’s very hard to compare costs to benefits in a way that gives us confidence we have assessed them right. C/B analysis is not my field, nor is environmental policy. But I’ll explain this basic idea within the level of my competency.

A second type f over-regulation involves the bureaucratic process. The enviro law permitting process in California can be very time consuming and expensive, especially for big projects that require the full Monty environmental impact studies. There is a lot of talk right now in Sacramento about streamlining the processes. Process is one of those boring-but-really-important aspects of government that separates good government from bad, even if it’s hard for non-experts to discuss and gets very little media attention.

A third type is more like mis-regulation. Like the rest of government, enviro laws/regs can and do get manipulated by private interests for their own benefit, usually at the expense of their public good. As the links explain, below, the third party litigation allowed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is vulnerable to this. (As is our initiative process, that big biz uses to bypass enviro laws they don’t like.)

Huge battles are brewing all over the country over the future of our environment and climate.  As always, Californians will be manning the front lines. At present, the Republican Party has virtually abandoned the environmentalism it used to embrace. That can’t last forever, though. Even if it does, it puts the Democrats in danger. Progressives risk getting too smug about their environmentalism and ceasing to listen to skeptics, businesses, and other good people who bear the brunt of good (and sometimes bad) policy.

I think an honest discussion of the limits of CA’s environmental regulation is very much needed now.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are CA’s main environmental laws? How do they get enforced?
  2. What is “over-regulation?” Can it have more than one meaning? How can we measure its extent and distinguish valid complaints from false/cynical ones?
  3. If we’re over-regulated environmentally, how did we get that way? How can we safely reverse any over-regulation?
  4. New areas: What do we think of the latest CA enviro laws addressing climate change, energy use, toxins, and groundwater?
  5. Is “technology forcing” regulation a good idea? How do we know if we’re overdoing it?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

[Update – Climate Policy – CA is moving very aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Here is a (very supportive) description of what’s bee done, and here is what to expect in the near future.]

Are we environmentally over-regulated?

Next Week July 18: Are native-American interests being neglected?

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