As we plunge into the fourteenth year of the new millennium, the fruit-basket-upset of the recession seems to be slowly resolving itself into several clear trajectories. It is as if America, for all of its confused and contradictory yawping, collectively went through a very difficult time – together, it should be noted – and now sits, a little older and worse for the wear. The recession might just be a coming-of-age experience for this country, one that has changed it. In some ways, America is less than before, worn down a little by the harrowing experience, and in other ways, it is more than before – warier, a bit more awakened, perhaps. Awakened and somehow head-over-heels in love with regulation.
Every recession seems to coincide with an increase in laws and codes. Back in the 1989-91 recession, the Americans with Disabilities Act dramatically increased our regulatory environment. At the time, it was considered for the better, because it removed one significantly disadvantaged segment of the population from the list of many. It was enacted under George Bush – a Republican – and thus regulation can be seen as a deeper phenomenon than mere surface partisanship.
Emerging from an awful recession, we seem to be in a state of awakening. Things that we overlooked before are getting closer scrutiny. We have thrown off a lot of excess baggage to lighten our load – we’ve lost newspapers, bookstores, paper maps, and a whole host of other detritus of the twentieth century. We’ve sworn off retail shopping, for example, preferring online and shipping charges to the dreary mess of traffic faced by going to the mall. But has something else changed, something deeper, or is all this just a series of surface choices? There seems to be a collective awareness that something is slightly different. We live in a much denser population on the face of this country than we did once before, and this population – only incrementally bigger across the last several years – seems to be suddenly a lot more pushy, in-your-face, and everywhere making things more congested and crowded where we want to be. This perception of a population increase may, in fact, be one of the drivers behind much of the discontent voiced in America today.
Regulation’s fundamental reason is to give people some guardrails, so we can all get along and keep our social structure in check. We have laws about property and crime, and these haven’t changed all that much. What has changed, however, is the increasingly tight lacing on the straitjacket around individual freedom. Think of a plaza which has a few people in it – they can dance, do cartwheels, box each other, do whatever they want, and relatively few people are at risk. Add a few more, and you may want to ban boxing to keep the emergency room clear. Add more, and you may want to take cartwheels off the list as well. Add a few more, and there isn’t much dance floor left.
For those who still want to box, the plaza just isn’t the place. They may argue that they have a fundamental right to tie on gloves and whack at each other, and the percentage of population who likes this may have stayed the same. A percentage, say 10% of a few people, may be accomodated in a plaza, but it is a fixed size. 10% of a lot of people is a bigger number, and the plaza hasn’t gotten any bigger. The absolute number of boxers has risen, and plazagoers are closer together, so more people are going to get hurt. So boxing gets banned.
The trouble is that regulation is mostly not used in this fashion, to protect people from harm. Instead, the regulators got a good scare during the recession, because much regulated activity diminshed or stopped. Regulators with nothing to regulate simply found new things to latch onto. As a chreod, or fated pathway, it doesn’t really matter what is regulated. What matters instead is that regulation as an activity lives on.
This has caused us to reach the point of absurdity in many arenas. Here in Orlando one isolated example illustrates the point. A building sat empty for many years, deteriorating and causing neighborhood blight. Finally, the bank that owned it sold it off to a new owner, who wanted to reinhabit the building. Built in the 1950s, it needed some modernization in order to re-open.
If the building owner had kept its use the same – a church school – then it could have re-opened. The trouble is, in our highly mobile society, a church school simply doesn’t fit that particular location anymore. Over the years the neighborhood changed. Children are less numerous and the street became more retail oriented. So the building, perhaps inevitably, evolved to go with the flow and become a retail use.
This is when regulation kicked in. In order to change its use, the building had to be so thoroughly overhauled that the owner could have built 3 new ones for the cost of renovating the old. One obstacle after the other had to be dealt with because of this use change. Most owners would have passed on the deal, and let the building’s value dwindle to nothing. This owner, however, stands out as an interesting case because he chose the harder path.
Regulation, triggered in this case because of a change of use, employed numerous government employees. Lucky for them that an owner, who is not even a citizen of their city, stuck to it and kept them busy. Most owners in their city (Orlando) have passed on this promise to help them out, and the city is increasingly riddled with abandoned structures that will ultimately need demolition.
This is a horrendous waste of energy, materials, and people-power. Regulation, by banning the old and only allowing the new, has crossed into a boundary where the government is now acting as a tool of capitalism. Used to be, we could choose to live in the old, to shop and to work in the antiquated and unmodern. We could forego the higher standard of Class A space, we could spend time in places that are not air conditioned, and we could occupy spaces that were built to previous standards. That era, however, seems to be vanishing in favor of a new world.
C0mparisons to software upgrades are frequently made. Regulations, of course, have to be continually upgraded, and requirements increased, in a kind of inevitable juggernaut towards the ultimate goal, whatever that is. Regulations seem to be so deeply entrenched that there are no parts of society that seem untouched. Banks love them, because they drive up costs and therefore the money that banks lend to people is more. Insurance companies love them, because they theoretically reduce risk. Here in Orlando, a growth-oriented economy, the government sector loves them because it gives the government the illusion that quality, property values, and standards of living are preserved. And the private sector generally loves regulation, because it creates a differentiating factor. A newer product, manufactured to higher standards, is always easier to sell – and a little more expensive – than someone else’s older product.
When did we fall in love with this? Is the love being requited? Are we getting indeed a better life out of all of this regulation? Or do we, perhaps, feel the existential diminishment of an over-regulated society, and are increasingly suspicious that the wrong things are being regulated, and that our quality of life and our social development is actually degrading, even though more regulation seems to be happening all the time? Innocent people in this plaza seem to be increasingly laced up tight, or hauled off, while genuinely dangerous people are left to depredate the rest of the population.
It is an interesting problem, and one that won’t go away soon. For those witnessing this time period, it seems that we live in a very strange world. The climate is strange, the economy is strange, our politics are strange, and our culture is strange to us. We can only provide the most basic grounding of truth and love for our children, and hope that they can sort it all out.