Regulations shackle the economy

In this column in November 2015 I noted that many U.S. economic trends were turning ominous. I still think so.

Our leaders have added $10 trillion to the national debt in the last decade for a “shopping spree” that always seemed free, but now we’ll experience the pain of making the interest payments, at a minimum. Printing new money artificially props up the economy in the short term but causes bubbles in the long term. I don’t know when, but at some point I think we’ll experience some very dire consequences of these actions.

One way to mitigate the consequences would be to reduce the onerous federal regulations which have added tremendous costs to our country while providing little or no benefit — and often causing actual harm. “Federal regulations” often seem amorphous, so I thought I’d share a firsthand example to make them personal.

I work as a university professor, teaching and conducting research. I’m a management professor, so I study people at work. One common way to conduct my research is to have people complete surveys with questions such as “are you more extroverted or introverted?” However, I cannot simply start surveying or interviewing people without getting approval, from what is known as an Institutional Research Board. IRBs were enacted into legislation to make people safe when they are the subjects of research.

The intention of regulation is always positive and honorable. The actual legislative effects though are often costly or negative. In this case, regulations were put in place primarily because of a study years ago labeled the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in which these men were told they were getting health care, but in fact they were not and the researchers actually studied the effects of untreated syphilis. These and other psychologically damaging experiments from earlier generations can no longer be conducted and IRBs ensure that they aren’t. That’s great.

The problem begins when you compare experiments like these with me asking non-threatening questions on a survey. The good news is the government does distinguish between various levels of intrusiveness, so my work is in the least intrusive category. Still for permission to administer a survey in that category, I spent three hours completing a 15-page application in which I had to explain thoroughly how people would not be harmed responding to the questions in my survey. I had to summarize several published articles in this area because by law I’m required to show that my study will produce more benefit than harm. I had to include a two-page “informed consent” letter that respondents sign to agree to answer the questions in the survey. Most of the language in the letter was required by law and could not be changed, even though it wasn’t quite applicable to my situation.

Then, I had to complete and pass an online training course that took me about three hours. I had to answer questions about the Tuskegee experiments, about conditions in typical health experiments, about whether women should be administered pregnancy tests before given medication, about illegal immigration status, and on and on. None of this was relevant to the work I proposed to do.

Next, the IRB sent me a two-page, single-spaced letter asking for additional justification for my application. I spent two hours working on my response and sent it in. So, I’m up to spending eight hours on a task that provides zero benefit to Americans. Yet, it costs eight hours of state payroll money plus who knows how much payroll time by IRB members as they reviewed my application and drafted the lengthy letter requesting more information.

None of this adds to the quality of life of Americans, and it, in fact, detracts from it. In 2017, the government has been dramatically reducing such needless and costly federal regulation. This gives me hope that our economy won’t be hit as hard when it comes time to pay the piper for printing money and borrowing so much of it.

Eric Dent is endowed chair professor of Ethics at Florida Gulf Coast University.


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