Ever since President Donald Trump issued his May Executive Order “Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery,” the permanent-government’s hometown Washington Post headlines and pages have been dominated by warnings about this threat to bureaucratic rule.
The Post’s business is to appeal to and lead its big-government audience of career bureaucrats, progressive activists, and intellectuals. Its consistent aim has been to promote the welfare state ideal that expert bureaucracy should make government decisions based on expert “best science” rather than upon popular mandates for elected officials, especially Trump administration political appointees who might prefer to rely on the market or lower-level governments.
The most recent front-page caption was: “Trump’s New Orders Dismantle Regulations: ‘Emergency’ Cited as Workers, Customers, Environment Targeted,” with its biasing-term “dismantle,” ironic quotation marks on “emergency,” and the slanted term “targeted” — all validating the charge by a former CBS News CEO that mainstream media do not even try to be neutral anymore.
The article’s message was to render the Regulatory Relief Executive Order toothless through bureaucratic delay and court challenge. Although the president’s Order set just the right tone for his economic reform, like all Executive Orders effectiveness depends totally upon the political and career executives in the bureaucracy, who actually must lift the economic burdens to return the country to prosperity.
Career expertise has in fact been the major cause of today’s economic crisis. While COVID-19 obviously required some governmental intervention, the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — guided solely by their virus-control-only mission — demanded the most extreme government-control isolation regimes rather than also considering negative effects on other health and economic needs. Botched early CDC tests that could have avoided a general lockdown were mostly covered up. Likewise there was little interest in narrowing focus when it became clear that the fatalities were centered among the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
A German study found that social isolations were associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke of more than 40 percent, and all health cases increased by half. A third of the U.S. population claimed depression and anxiety as a result of lockdown situations.
A University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government study of Western nations’ efforts based upon the best science models found that “there’s little correlation between the severity of a nation’s restrictions and whether it managed to curb excess fatalities — a measure that looks at the overall number of deaths compared with normal trends.”
After being told his Central region would suffer 2,000 deaths and only 115 actually occurred, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained his frustration about his bureaucratic experts’ predictions: “I’m out of that business, because we all failed at that business. All the early national experts, here’s my projection, here’s my projection model, they were all wrong; they were all wrong.”
He added, “We didn’t know what social distancing would actually amount to, I get it. But we were all wrong. So I’m sort of out of the guessing business.”
The guessing business continues at the expense of reviving the economy today as many health experts warn against opening more businesses, some suggesting waiting even 18 months for a vaccine. The world would starve. The CDC experts had already ordered a two-month, near-total economic shutdown, which led to 20 million U.S. workers on unemployment insurance, ones who were not fortunate enough to be able to work from home like experts. Perhaps 40 million total still lack work or have lost private businesses, with the latter denied staff because the expert stimulus guesses made it more profitable for 68 percent to stay home rather than to work.
In one fell swoop the country went from its lowest unemployment and highest income increases, even for minorities, and turned into the most serious depression since the big one in the 1930s. Imagine, an unprecedentedly low GDP (wealth) growth rate in the first quarter of -4 percent and unemployment exploding up into the teens. The good news is this was not unprecedented but was what Ronald Reagan also faced when he entered office in 1981 — and this should inspire President Trump today. Reagan had a longer time to fix things, but recovery was evident for all to see within a year or so. Moreover, he also faced historically high inflation, which was the real drag on the economy then but is not the case today, at least so far.
Reagan even had a Democratic House, although Trump’s has no helpful pro-market Dixiecrats and much higher debt and spending, further limiting the tools at Trump’s disposal. But the upside is that today’s is an artificially induced depression and should be able to be reversed more quickly. Trump like Reagan must concentrate on what he can control, and that means regulations. Indeed, Trump’s major success actually was the result of his earlier across-the-board easing of many government regulatory burdens holding back prosperity.
This does not require ignoring serious matters of health. Indeed, over-burdensome, ill-advised, and expensive health regulations were major contributors to the pandemic itself. A Heritage Foundation commission has recommended a full series of reforms on health, food, transportation, trade, emergency, and communication matters. Even with often-manipulated statistics, we now know that federally regulated Long Term Care Facilities like assisted-living and nursing homes represented the core of the pandemic, especially for fatalities, which constituted an actual majority of deaths in most counties.
The heart of Washington’s response for both health and the economy must be deregulation and decentralization. The Food and Drug Administration has already shown the way in temporally simplifying its drug approval process for the pandemic. On health, the focus must move to help vulnerable seniors by immediately reassigning all regulatory personnel possible to loosen the administrative burden at nursing homes that hinder caregivers’ ability to focus upon the unique problems facing these individual facilities and patients.
The same focus must extend to the whole economy. Only half of U.S. companies have opened fully. Unemployment remains in double digits. The Congressional Budget Office says the economy could be $7.9 trillion smaller in real terms over the next decade than it would have been without the pandemic. Another study found that “the employment rate fell by about 1.7 percentage points for every extra 10 days that a state experienced a stay-at-home mandate.” Much more is needed to free the economy from regulatory burdens if small business and all employers are to reinvigorate their businesses, employ their fellow Americans, and meet the needs of their communities.
If ever the American government needed an all-hands effort to manage the bureaucracy and make the government do its job — to implement the spirit of the deregulation Orders in each agency and department — this is it. If based on the right Reagan management principles and the proper policy guidelines, this administrative challenge can be met and can succeed.
Without such a total executive branch management commitment to unleashing the economy, there will be no recovery, much less any second chance for a Trump administration.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1