*This is the fifth post in a series on Michael Livermore and Richard Revesz’s new book, Reviving Rationality: Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health. For other posts in the series, click here.
Reviving Rationality by Michael Livermore and Richard Revesz is a timely and important work. While it has many virtues, the one that particularly struck me is its seamless blending of the arcane world of cost-benefit analysis and regulation with the broader political context of the Trump years. Clearly as Livermore and Revesz articulate, this broader context had profound impacts on the regulatory world from 2017 until 2021. But a close reading of the book also reveals that the debate over cost-benefit analysis during the Trump Administration illuminates a fair amount about even more profound concerns regarding our governance structure.
Livermore and Revesz point out that, unlike previous presidential administrations, the Trump Administration was at best indifferent and at worst hostile towards the principles of cost-benefit analysis. The analyses produced by agencies in this period were regularly deeply flawed. Executive Order 13771 abandoned cost-benefit analysis for an approach that focused exclusively on the cost side of the equation. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) went from being obscure but powerful to somewhat less obscure and much less powerful.
But the Trump Administration was hostile to many institutions that underpin our system of governance; not just cost-benefit analysis and regulatory review. The Trump Administration was renowned for its hostility toward science. This was exemplified by the deeply flawed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including threats of punishment for civil servants who sounded the alarm about the looming threat. Also in the realm of denying science, officials within the administration from the president on downwards did not merely oppose policies to address climate change but they voiced long refuted arguments that cast doubt on human caused climate change.
The Trump Administration was hostile toward the idea of a neutral civil service. This attitude was most famously voiced by Steve Bannon’s early pledge to champion the deconstruction of the administrative state. But it carried through to actual policies culminating with the threat to reclassify civil servants as “Schedule F,” which would make them easier to dismiss and replace. Indeed the first agency that was considered for reclassification was the Office of Management and Budget, home to OIRA.
The hostility toward cost-benefit analysis and regulatory review identified by Livermore and Revesz is part of a greater hostility toward neutral competence in the executive branch. The idea that civil servants should be experts in their fields but also be politically neutral is not an idea that is as simple as it appears, nor is it uncontroversial. But before the Trump Administration, the idea of an entire executive branch that solely serves the will of the president and not the laws that created their positions was one that was held by a very small number of scholars and advocates.
That may no longer be true. As Livermore and Revesz note (p. 186) the attitude toward regulatory review can be seen “as generating important political benefits, if not policy success.” These political benefits extend far beyond the approach to regulation – they encompass a reaction to neutral competence more broadly.
Livermore and Revesz are correct to note that there was a lack of policy success in the Trump Administration (in a paper with Cary Coglianese and Natasha Sarin we detailed this in the regulatory world). But despite the very small number of policy accomplishments, Donald Trump and his approach to governing now has an entire political party in its thrall.
The opposition to the Trump approach now by necessity includes everyone who believes that expertise or competence in any form (besides being good at interpreting the will of the president and ensuring that it is carried out) should be a part of governance. This is a coalition with widely diverse substantive policy preferences.
These diverse preferences often evince themselves in divergent attitudes toward various forms of expertise. Livermore and Revesz focus on the hostility toward cost-benefit analysis from progressives. These same progressives who oppose cost-benefit analysis are often the same people who assert that we should “follow the science.” In other words, they value expertise but not expertise that may cut against their substantive preferences.
It works the other way too. Economists frequently raise concerns that scientific experts are plagued by biases. They argue that scientists have tunnel vision regarding the problems they are experts in and ignore other (often economic) consequences of addressing these concerns. Again expertise is important but considered flawed if it doesn’t reach the same conclusions as my expertise.
None of the sides in these disputes between different types of expertise are wholly without merit. Indeed, the arguments they voice have informed our debates in regulatory policy for several decades. But they seem like a bit of a luxury in our current climate. There is now a large scale political movement that built its strength in large part by being opposed to expertise; by even being opposed to competence; certainly by being opposed to any traditional understanding of the idea of neutrality.
Livermore and Revesz expertly identify a piece of the challenge of the past several years. After the Trump Administration, the hope is that we can revive not just rationality but respect for expertise and the idea of a neutral civil service. To get there, some of us to may have to put aside our differences, which in reality are much smaller than the difference between a government in which these institutions are embodied and one where they are not.
Professor Stuart Shapiro is the Associate Dean of Faculty at Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University. Prior to that, he worked at the Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.