The 20th annual snapshot of the federal regulatory state published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) last month announced the arrival of an unhappy milestone: Regulatory costs now equal more than half of all federal spending. Put another way, the real cost of government in the United States is half-again as much as the federal budget. It is approaching a third of the country’s economic output. Said CEI in its Ten Thousand Commandments 2013 report: “Federal environmental, safety and health, and economic regulations cost hundreds of billions — perhaps trillions — of dollars every year over and above the costs of the official federal outlays that dominate the [current] policy debate.”
Just how many billions and trillions the regulatory state costs, and has cost, the American economy has been put into perspective by two economists in their paper, “Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth,” published in the June issue of the Journal of Economic Growth. Rather than count the cost in dollars, the authors, John W. Dawson and John J. Seater, take a unique approach and attempt to measure how much lower Americans’ standard of living is today compared to what it would be if regulations had stayed at the level they were in 1949, the starting point of their study. Their conclusion? The average American household’s income would be $27,500 a month instead of the $4,400 a month that it is currently.
In their study they count the pages of federal regulations from 1949 through 2005 and discover that they have grown by 600 percent, slowing the economy by an estimated two percent every year. In simple terms, today’s economy, which produces about $17 trillion in goods and services every year, would instead be producing almost $55 trillion. And the authors apologize that their study doesn’t reflect state and local regulations during that period as the effort that would have been required to collect and analyze them as well would have greatly exceeded their time and resources.
In a word, incomes and standard of living for the average American family would be even higher than they estimate, had that data been available. They also note that the avalanche of regulations under the Bush and Obama administrations were not included as part of their study.