Regulatory Moneyball

What Washington Can Learn From Sports Geeks

Obama throws the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Major League Baseball's opening game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies, 2010. (Jim Young / Courtesy Reuters)

Chances are that you will never hear a crowd at a protest rally chant, “What do we need? Regulation! When do we need it? Now!”

People want safe food, clean air, and clean water. But in the abstract, regulation is never a popular idea. In a tough economic environment, it might seem like a recipe for disaster. In the United States, businesses large and small have long argued that they are subject to excessive red tape and government oversight, and in the context of a serious recession, that concern has become acute. In light of the country’s general enthusiasm for freedom of choice, regulation is particularly vulnerable to political attack.

I learned just how intensely many Americans oppose government regulation in 2009, when President Barack Obama nominated me to become the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The OIRA administrator is often described as the nation’s “regulatory czar.” That is a wild overstatement. But the term does give a clue to the influence and range of the office. OIRA is the cockpit of the regulatory state. The office oversees federal regulations involving clean air and water, food safety, financial stability, national security, health care, energy, agriculture, workplace safety, sex and race discrimination, highway safety, immigration, education, crime, disability rights, and much more. In general, the nation’s cabinet-level departments -- such as the Treasury Department, the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- cannot issue a significant rule unless OIRA approves.

For me, heading OIRA was a dream job. I have spent much of my career writing about the proper role of regulation. Before my nomination, I had written in favor of “nudges”: simple strategies to affect behavior that do not force anyone to do anything and that maintain freedom of choice but that have the potential to make people healthier, wealthier, and happier. Examples include a requirement that automobile companies disclose the fuel economy of new cars, an educational campaign to discourage texting while driving, and an effort to encourage employers to enroll employees automatically in savings plans.

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