Regulators run amok!

Posted on May 31, 2013 by

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Normally we focus on political economy issues on a broader scale, but today I’d like to take you down the path of a local example, as a microcosm of the problems of regulation.  Recently we upgraded the paint in our building, as well as a number of other “clean up” type functions to remove eyesores.  As you can see in the photo above, for some reason the fire alarm pull and extinguisher are near the door.  I’m not a safety guy, but it seems reasonable to have the alarm pull near the door so if in case of a fire someone could pull the alarm on the way out.  Having the extinguisher there also seems to make sense.  But what is with the letter?

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If you read closely, our university is required by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to post a notice of the dangers of gas to people coming into the building (we do have a gas line w/in about 20 feet of the door).  I was told by our facilities personnel that our particular inspector requires the posting at the door.  But ask yourself this question.  What student upon entry into the building is going to stop in the entry way (with who knows how many students behind him or her) and read this letter?  The answer from someone sympathetic to the regulation is, “well they could.”

This is really a microcosm of many our political economy issues–we have to “do” something.  There is little to no real thought about the efficacy of any particular policy, at least we tried, we cared, we did something.  What would you Hayekians have us do–nothing!?  So we do a stimulus, a cash for clunkers, w/little to no long term effect (other than a significantly higher national debt), and the answer to the lack of progress is that just means we didn’t do enough, we really needed to do much more.

Back to our home grown issue.  As a former commander in the Air Force, if I put a warning like this on the wall, for a known issue–and I considered the problem solved–I would likely be court-martialed when and if a gas leak cost someone’s life.  We all know nobody is going to read these letters (at least not a sufficient # to provide the protection ostensibly necessary for the PUCO to issue this regulation), even if it was in a better place.  In the Air Force, we would develop computer based training on a whole host of safety-related issues that would have to be redone annually to ensure people knew what to do in the event of a crisis.  Not that this was the best, but it certainly would do better than posting a note near a door–everybody would be trained to a certain level.  This is often the problem for regulators, the costs to do something that really would improve safety (at least at some level) are too high to get the public to support (like mandating all universities conduct annual CBT safety training for faculty, staff and students), so they try to think of something that won’t be too burdensome so they can say “we tried.”

But at least we framed it!  We’re proud of our efforts…and we really care.

So what is your personal story w/regulators making little to no sense?

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Posted in: regulation