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Myths and Realities of Regulatory Uncertainty

By / 8.12.2010

Ezra Klein joined others this week in mocking the “uncertainty” rhetoric that Republicans and some business leaders have been parroting to argue for lower taxes and lighter regulation.  As Stan Collander, Brad DeLong, and Ezra himself have all done an excellent job of arguing, there is plenty of reason for ridicule.  Most of the talk about businesses being paralyzed by uncertainty over taxes and regulations is little more than politically-driven spin.

The problem I have with Ezra’s post this week is that he chose the wrong example to pick on.  He points to Derek Thompson’s  interview with Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens USA, who complains about the uncertainty his company faces in the wake of the failure to pass an energy bill in Congress.  Thompson and Klein both equate this position with the less policy-specific confusion and outrage Republicans are attributing to the business community at large.   Thompson sums it up with this broad conclusion:

It’s another piece of evidence that “government should remove uncertainty” is a euphemism for “government should enact the laws that make me profitable.” For some companies, “make me profitable” might mean simply slashing taxes on income and capital gains, cutting public spending and getting out of the way. For other companies like Siemens, it means government getting in the way. It means putting a new tax on carbon, giving tax money to companies building wind blades, and adding new regulations for renewables.

In this case, there is more to it than that.  The kind of uncertainty problems that Spiegel describes are actually legitimate, at least in part.  The energy industry has been holding its breath for years waiting for the EPA and Congress to decide what they are going to do about regulating carbon emissions.  With the energy bill now faded into legislative limbo, it looks like the industry will not get the resolution it needs anytime soon, which means billions of dollars worth of investment will be trapped in limbo as well.  The uncertainty is so real that several people in the industry have privately told me that they almost don’t care what Congress chooses to do with carbon pricing, as long as it does something, so they can stop waiting and start building.   Or as another energy CEO put it recently, “There’s a lot of capital sitting on the sidelines just waiting for more regulatory clarity.”

It’s worth differentiating the energy industry’s need for long-term clarity in climate policy from the standard fear and loathing Republicans are promoting.  Here’s why.  A lot of the decisions energy companies need to make are binary choices that change dramatically depending on the policy assumptions: whether a new plant should be coal or natural gas, whether a new wind farm is viable without tax incentives, whether a new nuclear plant could be approved and running within ten years.  It’s hard to make economically rational decisions when the outcomes are so dependent on unresolved political questions.  This is fundamentally different from arguments that companies are afraid to hire new workers this quarter due to taxes or health care regulations.

There is no shortage of unsupportable statements about uncertainty that belong to the realm of political fiction.  Rep. Boehner’s latest call for a moratorium on new regulations certainly qualifies, blaming the “uncertainty that’s being created by the Democrats’ agenda” for leaving every employer and investor in America “frozen” with fear.   That kind of rhetoric is obviously exaggerated, and it should either be refuted or ignored altogether.

However, we should not allow Republicans crying wolf to drown out the voices that have legitimate gripes about regulatory uncertainties that Congress needs to address.  And we should be careful not to confuse the two for each other when we hear them pleading their case.