The New York Times on Monday published a useful if context-lite front-page article on the Trump administration’s plans to roll back some federal regulations. Before delving into the policy content of the push, linger for a moment on the Paper of Record’s headline, since it reveals much about why the default setting of the regulatory state is to grow forever: “Leashes Come Off Wall Street, Gun Sellers, Miners and More.”
If I am understanding the metaphor correctly, financial companies, firearms merchants, and minerals-extractors, in addition to the headline’s “more” as enumerated in the full article (telecoms, automakers, pharmaceutical companies, internet service providers, chicken farmers, hunters, and pretty much every corporation that pays salaries or owns property), are the equivalent of dogs, liable to wreak havoc—presumably by biting, pooping, or just roaming around in unsettling ways—unless restrained by a strap, preferably attached to a neck-collar, and controlled by the guiding hand of benevolent government. This from a paper known for being sensitive to the dehumanizing perils of comparing categories of human to animals. And to take figurative language even more literally, the implication of removing a leash is that the dog now runs free. Whatever one might think of either Donald Trump or Wall Street, the whiff of suggestion that the financial industry exists in a regulatory-free environment is flat bonkers.
The unspoken default assumption of the Times article, wince-inducingly familiar to those of us who have either worked for or consumed too much of mainstream American journalism, is that regulations can be assessed not by effectiveness but by virtuous intent. And that intent can be intuited by a selectively curated roster of who’s for and against. Here is a typical passage:
Ajit Pai, a Republican whom Mr. Trump recently named as the F.C.C. chairman, has also made clear that he intends to push to roll back or abandon several other major rules, including the landmark net neutrality intended to ensure equal access to content on the internet, as well as efforts to keep prison phone rates down and a proposal to break open the cable box market.
The efforts have been praised by telecommunications giants, like Comcast, but condemned by consumer advocates.
Reading this you’d have no clue that there were consumer-oriented, non-self-interested arguments against net neutrality (neatly summarized in a whole Reason special issue, including a very interesting interview with Pai himself). Instead you’re steered without subtlety to a conclusion that need not be troubled by further inquiry into cost and benefit. If evil Comcast is on one side, and “consumer advocates” are on the other, well, ’nuff said.
So: Team Regulation in this article is described variously as “public interest groups,” “environmentalists,” “labor unions,” “consumer watchdogs,” “nonprofit groups,” and “Democrats.” The radicals threatening to rip things up are called “corporate lobbyists,” “trade association executives,” “industry executives,” and “Republicans.” The lone exception to this presumed white hat/black hat framing comes when acknowledging that the American Civil Liberties Union took sides with the National Rifle Association (ewww!) in rolling back a late-Obama reg instructing the Social Security Administration to cough up names of people it classifies as having a mental illness to the national gun database in order to deny them the right to purchase weapons. “The Obama-era rules under attack have drawn objections even from some liberal groups,” the paper said. The “SMDH” is implied.
At this point you may be asking, don’t they have an opinion section for such editorializing? But as Scott Shackford pointed out one week ago, the paper’s editorial board even more blatantly airbrushed not just the ACLU but also a bunch of non-conservative mental health groups who supported overturning this midnight regulation:
the New York Times editorial board completely ignored the background and acted like this effort to rescind the rule was a conspiracy between the Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The headline, “Congress Says, Let the Mentally Ill Buy Guns,” should be perceived at this point as a deliberate choice to mislead the reader. At no point at the editorial does it even reference the due process concerns or acknowledge that the ACLU and NRA (and several groups with no connection to gun ownership controversies) are all on the same side here. Democrats who voted with the GOP are dismissed on the basis of being “up for re-election next year.”
Reminder: The NYT’s new ad campaign is based on the motto, “The truth is more important than ever.”
Part of media literacy in 2017 is reminding yourself in the mirror every morning, a la Roy Scheider’s “It’s showtime, folks!” in All That Jazz, that political journalism is not fundamentally about the results or propriety of policy, it’s about the emotionally based competition of politics. Even at the most sophisticated level, supposedly journalistic treatments of governance are instead routinely processes of whittling down the facts and especially characters of a story so that you’re left with the Obviously Bad Intentioned on one side and the Obviously Good on the other. We expect this reductionist intellectual shortcut from partisans and/or ideologues, but what too many behind the barricades of Respectable Journalism do not yet grok is that the rest of us have (sadly!) come to expect something similar from those allegedly in the impartial/fair information-spewing business. Surely life is more complicated than that Team X wishes unicorns and Team Y welcomes Satan.
What’s especially frustrating to those of us with long enough memories is that not only did the political press once entertain the quaint notion that regulations and other government initiatives should be measured primarily on their effectiveness rather than presumed moral virtue, but so did some self-identified political tribes. A half century ago, Charles Peters, a good John Kennedy liberal, became so frustrated at the gap between policy intent and outcome that he launched a magazine, the Washington Monthly, to confront the problem. As I recounted four years ago:
“The government’s struggle to reform itself has been the continuing political story of the 1970′s,” Peters co-wrote in the preface to a 1976 collection of Monthly articles, “but often the story has a familiar ending. No sooner has an agency been set up to save the environment, deliver the mails, cure the sick, or discover new sources of energy than it begins to behave like the many other government agencies, which were created years ago in similar bursts of enthusiasm but quickly crossed the threshold into bureaucratic ossification.”
The less rigorous assumption that good people identifying real problems = justification for government activity is so widespread in newsrooms and (crucially!) regulatory agencies themselves—after all, why would you go work for the Environmental Protection Agency unless you sought to use state force on private actors to roll back pollution?—that the result is an almost unbroken trend line of regulatory mission creep and growth. As I (and plenty of others) have written at Reason again and again and again, the push to just do something, often portrayed as high-mindedly non-ideological, is in fact one of the most ideological reflexes in American politics, nearly assuring perpetual government growth. You don’t have to squint to see that pathology impacting headlines even today.
This is one reason why so many journalists were apoplectic that President Trump had the gall to nominate critics of federal agencies to head them up. It’s as if there’s only one acceptable vision for regulatory policy, and that’s to step on the gas pedal.
Donald Trump could go down as the biggest deregulatory president in history (as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s transition team at the EPA, suggested to me last week). He also could quickly demonstrate the very real limits to a president’s deregulatory ability in the absence of congressional commitment, as Regulation Editor Peter VanDoren recently told me. (Stay tuned for a forthcoming print-magazine feature on the topic.) Potential reform at the Food and Drug Administration alone could end up saving untold numbers of lives. On the other hand, the president’s mercantilist notions on trade and immigration could overwhelm whatever positives flow from his deregulatory agenda. We just don’t know yet.
One should (and we do) treat the administration’s actions on a case by case (by case by case by case by case by case by case) basis. But seeing how even an informative and link-rich New York Times article on deregulation is blatantly framed suggests that the president’s aggressive overall skepticism of the regulatory state might prove a long-overdue tonic to an intellectually lazy and policy incurious status quo.