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Thursday, August 1, 1996

The Incredible Regulatory Follies

Whatever Happened to a Wise and Frugal Government?

Mr. Reiland is associate professor of economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In a recent Times-Mirror poll, 69 percent of Americans said that government “controls too much of our daily lives.” Seemingly not satisfied that they have alienated the bulk of the adult population, the central planners and bureaucrats are now going after America’s kids.

Raymond Raines, a fifth-grader in a St. Louis public school, was placed in detention for a week after committing a faux pas in the school cafeteria. Raymond’s misdeed was bowing his head in prayer and silently saying grace.

School officials, allegedly interested in diversity, invoked shunning to maintain uniformity. Raymond was told he’d have to eat by himself in a separate room until he conformed. No one can explain to this 11-year-old why Congress spends $210,000 every year for chaplains to begin each day with a prayer and yet he can’t quietly bow his head over a cheeseburger.

In Boston, a kid opening a lemonade stand must get permission from five different government agencies and pay $335 in fees and licenses. The city also requires the budding entrepreneur to comply with dozens of complex food and building ordinances and carry $500,000 in liability insurance. “Massachusetts,” wrote Ted Levinson in The Freeman, “frowns upon the ramshackle wooden lemonade stands set upon the lawn that Norman Rockwell would paint.”

A Boy Scout from Chicago, Bobby Graham, got a taste of government red tape when he got separated from his troop and was lost in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest. After two days and nights of searching, police helicopters finally spotted him and requested authorization from the Forest Service to land and bring him back. Citing a regulation that “mechanized vehicles” are prohibited in wilderness areas, the Forest Service denied the rescue helicopter permission to land. The Forest Service also forbids the operation of a “musical instrument near a campfire or adjacent to a body of water.”

Robyn Lerman, a 6-year-old in Highland Park, Illinois, discovered that she couldn’t put her pulled tooth under her pillow without violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. OSHA, explained her dentist, requires human tissue, including teeth, to be immediately placed in a closed container for proper disposal. The Tooth Fairy became illegal the same month that the Center for Science in the Public Interest declared movie popcorn to be lethal.

For disadvantaged kids in California, the listing of fairy shrimp as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led to eviction from Pastor Bob Raup’s ranch for troubled children and a quick trip back to inner-city killing fields. Raup, a chaplain with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, created a getaway ranch where at-risk kids could ride horses and get counseling. Even though the minuscule fairy shrimp can be found thriving by the hundreds of thousands in railroad ditches and water-filled abandoned tires, the central planners rank endangered kids a step below endangered crustaceans.

Children may not be allowed to sell lemonade, pray, be rescued, take their baby teeth home, or play the guitar next to a lake, but government regulators are working to insure that they’ll be able to eat all the clean dirt they can handle. Taxpayers in Columbia, Mississippi, were forced to pay $20 million to haul dirt away from an old lumber mill site so it would be clean enough for a child to safely eat a teaspoon of dirt every month for 70 years.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Unfortunately, these kids will find out soon enough that the rules don’t get any less bizarre when they get older. Under a new no-ogling policy in Minneapolis, it’s a firing offense for a city construction worker to stare too long at a passing female.

A city agency in Los Angeles closed the Odd Ball Cabaret, a strip joint, under the Americans with Disabilities Act because a shower stall on stage wasn’t accessible to strippers in wheelchairs. It didn’t matter that no handicapped strippers had applied for work, just as no blind drivers had complained about a Kansas City bank before regulators ordered the installation of a $5,000 Braille keypad on an automatic teller machine in the drive-through lane.

After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared obesity to be a protected job disability, a 410-pound applicant for the job of subway train conductor dragged the New York City Transit Authority into court. Unhired and simply too large to fit in the small cab of the train, the applicant claimed the Authority didn’t make “reasonable accommodations.”

Nothing is too small to become a federal case. Under OSHA rules, the smoking and gum chewing by America’s roofers are matters of national labor policy, while a Florida business was cited for failing to place a warning label on a bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid. For a shoeshine stand in the courthouse lobby, Bergen County in New Jersey issued a full 18 pages of regulations. The smock, only burgundy or dark brown, must be knee length and wrap around, with pockets.

“The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words,” says policy analyst Thomas D. Hopkins, “while government regulations on the sale of cabbages total 26,911 words.” Someone has too much time on his hands. In California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing ordered newspaper editors to remove “family room” and “master bedroom” from real estate ads. Even “nice neighborhood” was ruled to be insensitive.

The Best Laid Schemes . . .

It was mice and the federal government in California who thwarted John Thorpe’s plans to develop the upland portion of his property. Regulators, after discovering salt marsh harvest mice on the lower levels of Thorpe’s land, envisioned an apocalypse: global warming might melt the polar ice caps, the Pacific Ocean would rise, and the mice would be forced up Thorpe’s hill. No new building was permitted. The fate of California’s jobless contractors took a back seat to rodents and science fiction.

All these regulatory follies might be funny if it weren’t for the costs. By most estimates, federal regulations impose costs on American workers and consumers of $500 billion per year, or $5,000 per family. In terms of lost jobs, the U.S. economy operates with an estimated 10 million fewer jobs because of federal regulations, according to studies by economist William Laffer. In the Northwest, over 30,000 logging jobs were destroyed when federal planners mistakenly theorized that spotted owls could only live in old trees.

Last year, the average American had to work full-time until July 10 to pay his or her share of the combined costs of taxes, government spending, and federal mandates and regulations, according to a recent Americans for Tax Reform study.

I wonder what our Founding Fathers would say about mice having the right to the top of anyone’s property, the government timing of ogling, and kids being shunned into conformity by school bureaucrats or being left in the woods so no bugs are disturbed in a rescue.

“A wise and frugal government,” said Thomas Jefferson, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Sounds like someone who would take a risk on homemade lemonade.

  • Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.