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July 7, 2009

Henry Waxman: Destroyer of Industry

Here's Henry Waxman, as interviewed by Ezra Klein, on the effect on indusry of two of the reforms he spearheaded:

It was a big battle to get food producers to put uniform labels advising people about calories and sodium and carbohydrates and other nutrients on food. But I think most people take it for granted that they can see those labels when they go into the store and use them to make their decisions. But the food producers said they were going to go bankrupt if they had to put these labels on, it would be such a burden, it would be excessive. Finally we got it passed. And I don't think most people give it a second thought today. It's just there.

...I also talk about the Clean Air Act, which is the most successful environmental law on the books today. There was a huge fight over a one--year period to get that legislation enacted. But now people in the Northeastern parts of the United States that were seeing acid rain don't have that problem any more. And the cost turned out to be a tenth what they said it would be even though different industries argued that our economy would go to hell. Invariably they met their requirements, met them ahead of time, and met them at a fraction of the predicted costs. So we've had very successful laws. But very few people talk about government in those terms.

Listening to these industries' complaints would be enough to make you think that Henry Waxman was the greatest enemy to private enterprise since Lenin. Only he wasn't. Because his reforms either had no effect on corporate bottom lines or, in the case of the CAA, probably led to even greater innovation. That's worth keeping in mind during debates over food system reform and climate change legislation. At worst reforms won't hurt them and at best reforms will help them. So, why don't these companies just back off a little.

On a related note, the NYT reports that new government regulations on lightbulb efficiency has -- despite industry complaints that it would cause the demise of the much-loved but inefficient incandescent bulb -- touched off a torrent of innovation. It may be that an incandescent bulb that is 100% more efficient than current bulbs isn't too far away. Not that regulation can spark innovation, of course. Any "very serious" person will tell you that only markets can cause innovation. But, you know, those capitalists really aren't very good listeners. Just ask Henry Waxman.

Photo courtesy the Washington Post

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