Reflections of an Unapologetic Safety Regulator

Reflections of an Unapologetic Safety Regulator

October 17, 2022 Off By administrator

Leading U.S. consumer safety regulator reflects on his career and offers lessons for all regulatory professionals.

I have been a proud, unapologetic regulator.

I say this after completing a career that spanned almost 50 years in the world of regulation, spent variously as a regulatory agency commissioner, a congressional staff attorney overseeing several regulatory agencies, and a professor researching and teaching the subject.

Much of my experience comes from years of association with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which I joined in October 1973 as a Special Assistant to one of the original five commissioners.

Having worked in and studied regulation from a variety of perspectives, I hope to convey a few lessons learned and some advice for consideration. I claim no brilliant revelations, but experience can sometimes serve as a better guide than pure smarts. As Albert Einstein once said, “it is not that I am so smart. It is just that I stay with problems longer.” Having stayed with the subject so long, I hope I have gleaned some insights worth sharing.

Although the focus of this essay extends beyond the workings of one agency, I will discuss the CPSC as an example. The CPSC was established in the early 1970s as part of what has come to be known as the Consumer Decade, the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s.

During the Consumer Decade, an unprecedented number of new federal regulatory agencies were established or granted new authority, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and, of course, the CPSC.

Many of the following 15 lessons I have learned likely extend to regulators at these agencies and others as well.

Lesson 1: Policy makers face a choice between imperfect markets and imperfect regulation. Public policy constantly seeks to balance two competing dynamics: imperfect markets versus imperfect regulation. This approach requires an ongoing reality check. Anyone who believes that markets produce optimal societal outcomes without the need for regulation lives in a dream world where dangerous products, fraudulent practices, abusive monopolies, and climate change always sort themselves out in the long run. They do not.

On the other hand, even rules drawn with the best of intentions and the greatest of skill can occasionally miss the mark or carry unintended consequences. Sadly, the CPSC discovered this years ago when its rule promoting reduced flammability for children’s sleepwear led to the use of potentially toxic flame retardants, which undercut the safety benefits from that rule.

In short, markets are flawed human institutions—despite occasional fantasies that they are divinely ordained. Regulations can be similarly flawed and fallible.

Lesson 2: Government safety regulations are usually very effective. Historic injury trends…

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