The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Mr. Shellhammer: But… but maybe he’s only a little crazy like painters or composers or… or some of those men in Washington.

Miracle on 34th Street, Screenplay (1947)



One of the great superstitions of the last century was the positive impact of government regulation.  Most government regulation acts as an unseen tax on every good and service we purchase.  What good the regulations bring about is out of all proportion to the cost, not only as to the costs imposed on the businesses that must, because there is no other way to pay for them,  be passed on to the consumers, but also the costs imposed on taxpayers to pay for the bureaucracies that administer the regulations and dream up ever newer ones.  This is a legacy of the so-called Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century and is as out of place now in a contemporary economy as a Model T attempting to tool down an interstate.

More to explorer


  1. There are some parts of the Code of Federal Regulations written for public health and safety, like Title 10 on Energy – US NRC:

    Or Title 29 – OSHA:

    Or Title 14 – FAA:

    You can’t just make blanket statements about these regulations. Technology has advanced and that advancement brings with it both new benefits and new dangers. Do any of you here really want to get rid of nuclear regulations, or aircraft regulations?

    Now I am a big critic of stupid regulations. For example, 10 CFR 50 on Domestic Licensing of Production and Utilization Facilities (i.e., nuclear power plants) is myopically geared almost exclusively to pressurized and boiling light water reactors. It doesn’t encompass Canadian heavy water reactors (which sadly can’t be licensed in the US), or liquid sodium fast neutron reactors, or high temperature pebble bed reactors, or thorium fueled molten salt reactors, or other advanced designs, hence Regulatory Guide 1.232 on Developing Principal Design Criteria for Non-Light Water Reactors (which still doesn’t address CANDU reactors). But having worked in commercial nuclear power since my honorable discharge from the US Submarine Service in 1982, I can assure you that if it were not for the fear of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (and its regulations), electric utilities and nuclear steam system suppliers would be running amok wherever they could, abusing employees and gouging the public with nary a thought contrariwise. Of course the anti-nuke activists have taken advantage of this situation, and every time we have had a Democrat President, the NRC gets stacked with such kooks. Nevertheless, the NRC and its regulations are due reasonable credit for (1) ensuring that the mortality rate of nuclear power per terawatt hour is lower than hydro, coal, oil, gas, solar and wind, and (2) providing the highest capacity factor (92 + %) of any form of power generation (compare that to wind’s and solar’s less than 30% capacity factor or fossil fuel’s 70% capacity factor). The same is analogously true of the FAA and the airline industry. Yes, from time to time there are aircraft disasters with loss of life. Imagine what that would be like without the FAA regulations. Think about the mind-numbing software QA that has to go into the embedded digital instrumentation and controls equipment that run the aircraft on which you next fly – that software QA is mandated by FAA regulations and you ought to thank God Almighty (and the FAA) that the mistakes which have been made aren’t greater than they are.

    It’s important to have perspective, folks. If you don’t work in a highly technical engineering industry, then you got no idea why these regulations exist and how they evolved. Yes, free enterprise – let’s have a free market, but the free market should be made to compete on a level regulatory playing field where public health and safety is first and foremost. I have lived these regulations from the time I got qualified as a reactor operator on a nuclear submarine till now. I curse them daily. But I know in my heart of heart that however difficult they are to follow, people have lost their lives by trying an easier softer way that never ever works (the stories I could tell of trying an easier softer way, then OSHA shows up and says, “We defer to the NRC.”)   

  2. Do any of you here really want to get rid of nuclear regulations, or aircraft regulations?

    Quite a few of them, yes. A lot of the Progressive Era regulations were a function of the fact that it was almost impossible for consumers to bring a lawsuit successfully due to a defective product. In the age of mass torts that simply is not a factor. If an airline manufacturer produces a defective plane that crashes, they will be sued into oblivion and members of the corporation might well face criminal charges. The Progressive Era idea that only regulation could protect the public is an idea whose time has passed.

    As for the nuclear industry we have had two new nuclear power plants built in the last 33 years. Intense regulation was not the only factor in bringing this about, but it was an important factor.

  3. “It’s important to have perspective, folks. If you don’t work in a highly technical engineering industry, then you got no idea why these regulations exist and how they evolved.”

    As someone who deals with state-level regulations on a daily basis, I would have to agree. It isn’t “regulations”, per se, that are bad; it is bad regulations that are poorly written, difficult/impossible to grasp, don’t take into account real-world conditions, and don’t allow for any justified exceptions, that are the problem.

    Every now and then a fiscal conservative executive such as a governor will go on a regulation cutting crusade in which they insist that a certain percentage of the existing rules on the books must be repealed. Of course some agency bureaucrats will try to meet that mandate by just arbitrarily removing x percent of their rules without taking the time to consider why those rules exist and whether or not they continue to be necessary. This happened in certain IL state agencies during the Rauner administration; I suspect it’s been done in other states as well.

  4. Donald, first with all respect, you’re not a technical engineering person and you don’t know the history of how the regs I am talking about evolved from the experience of lost lives and huge environmental snafus. Second, it’s too late to sue after a plane crashes, a nuke plant melts down, a train carrying toxic chemicals derails, etc. The regs we have are built on lessons learned from disasters like that. Suing an industry into oblivion after a disaster isn’t a solution. But criminal charges against execs and employees who ignore regs is exactly what happened when the NRC got the DOJ involved in the Davis Besse reactor vessel head degradation a decade and a half ago. And because of those regs you hate, I got to give training at the different nuke plants in my company on what NOT to do.

    We aren’t going to agree on this. I can see that. But Navy regs on Subsafe and Nuclear Safe, and NRC regs at commercial plants save lives no matter what you say. The same with FAA regs and airlines. As far as I am concerned, those who haven’t heard a metal hull creak at 1000 ft beneath the surface can’t understand. I shudder to think of whatever protection insurance companies can provide. Ha!

  5. Donald, first with all respect, you’re not a technical engineering person and you don’t know the history of how the regs I am talking about evolved from the experience of lost lives and huge environmental snafus.

    Quite right, LQC and you are not a lawyer. Most businesses take into account potential legal liabilities when they make decisions, perhaps to too great an extent. The idea that plane manufacturers will deliberately manufacture defective planes without government regulation is simply farcial. Additionally, most government regulation has only the most tenuous connection with health and safety. I will, grudgingly, concede some role for government regulation, especially in highly technical fields, and where the technology involved is experimental or cutting edge. However most regulation could be dispensed with, and the impact on public safety and well being would be almost nil.

  6. Two systemic solutions might help:

    Sunset laws. Sort your state Codes, Rules, and Regulations into twenty odd segments. Every two years, and entire segment expires and the agencies have to promulgate new rules. You reconsider the whole set of codes every 45 years.
    Revising the functions of the upper house of the legislature.

    a. Replace the directly-elected upper house of your legislature with one elected by the lower house in the manner common during the colonial period.

    b. Assign the functions of statutory legislation and budgetry to the lower house.

    c. Assign to the upper chamber (which would be in continuous session) the task of vetting and recomposing proposed rules. Any session law which contained an instructed to an executive agency to issue regulations binding on the public would include a calendar which would have task deadlines.

    i. Time for the bureau chief (or anyone north of him in the chain-of-command) to compose draft regulations.

    ii. Time for public comment on the promulgated draft

    iii. Time for the issuing party to digest the comments and amend the draft.

    iv. Formal submission to the upper chamber of the legislature, and time for the upper chamber to consider the draft.

    Consequent to that, the upper chamber could do one of three things: ignore the submission and allow the draft to take affect at a time defined by the state’s rules of administrative procedure; endorse the draft; or return to the executive an amended text.

    At this point, the matter is in the governor’s hand. He can either: allow the upper chamber’s text to pass into law per the schedule of the rules of administrative procedure or place a hold on the regulations and ask the lower chamber to endorse one version or the other the next time it convenes. The lower chamber could then ignore the request and allow the upper chamber’s text to pass into effect according to schedule or endorse one or the other option.

    After said regulations pass into effect, the instructions appended to the session law in question expire, and persons who serve at the pleasure of the governor could no longer issue drafts on the authority of that law. Multi-member commissions who do not serve at the pleasure of the governor could promulgate drafts citing the state code, and submit such drafts to the upper chamber after public comment. The upper chamber could ignore the submission (at which point it is a dead letter), or endorse the submission (directing the regs to take effect), or amend the submission and return it to the executive. The governor at this point could allow the amended version to take effect or could ask the lower house to choose one or the other. Should the lower house fail to choose, the upper chamber’s version would pass into effect.

  7. Anybody who doubts what LQC says should look at the documentaries that cover airline crashes and the investigations that follow. Regulations often play a significant part in these investigations. Often these regulations undergo revisions as a result of the findings of these investigations. The NTSB exists for a reason.

  8. I am neither a Nuclear Engineer nor a Lawyer (love you both, though) so I should not opine regarding those regulations. What about the economic cost imposed on someone who wants to color or braid hair? It’s not just the cost of the license but the many hours of (useless) training. Or the kid who wants to set up a lemonade stand and so on. There are many stupid regulations that impose a cost on consumers with no benefit.

  9. Thank you, Greg B.

    Having stood before the “Green Table” in front of the Bureau of Naval Reactors, and later in my career having stood before the “Green Table” in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I can testify that Greg B. is 100% right. I have wondered if both organizations use the same table. They certainly have the same Grand Inquisitor style. And in both cases I got corrective actions that I shall never ever forget (and no one here needs to know the details). Fortunately, my head wasn’t the one that rolled (both govt agencies found that I had followed orders; they just had a problem with the givers of the orders).

    Again, with all respect to Donald and lawyers everywhere, the one time in my experience that lawyers got involved in a nuclear regulation fiasco, they made it ten times worse than it was. Most lawyers have minimal if any technical engineering acumen. They simply don’t have the knowledge to deal with engineering regulations, whether aircraft, nuclear, locomotive, petrochemical, medical, pharmaceutical, etc. But they sure do know how to make a profit off ensuring everyone gets sued! Sorry, Donald. No slam against you intended.

  10. my Wife’s always second guessing me when I build or fix something, “how do you know that’s right” she’ll say… and I say “because I’m an engineer, why do you think it won’t work?”
    “Oh you engineers”, she says.

    It’s because engineers have taken: physics, chemistry, thermo, electronics, electric power, static’s, calculus, diff eq, Laplace, Fournier, quantum mechanics….
    Basically we read the basic instructions on under the cover of God’s Gift Box called Universe. And we love it.
    It’s good to be an engineer; I wouldn’t or couldn’t be anything else.

  11. Engineers also as a group have a low tolerance for BS, including any stupid government or private regulations. In any regulation there should always be meaning and philosophy, logic and consistency – otherwise it’s junk and actually detrimental to the respect a regulation ought to have, therefore disrespecting regulations in general. Potentially unsafe in practice and in general.
    And one of us will call it out-

    In the cookie company door example I would have either:
    1. Raised a ruckus
    2. Designed a double hinged selectable RH/LH door.
    (Likely both.)

  12. @Gustavo, I loathe stupid regulations too. Hence David WS’s response to such is appropriate. But I don’t believe in throwing out the baby (good, common sense engineering regulations) with the dirty bathwater (those that only serve to prove the validity of Dr. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy).

    BTW, stupid regulations always grow when Democrats are in charge. I have seen that in my own industry time and again. And yes, when there’s something stupid in our industry’s regulations, we have the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to push back on the Regulator. That’s why a lot of times the NRC endorses NEI documents as a way of meeting regulations. The FAA is the same way with the airline industry’s RTCA standards for digital instrumentation and controls (I&C) (I know because sometimes there’s back and forth between RTCA / NEI and FAA / NRC since after all safety-related digital I&C is safety-related digital I&C). But if someone doesn’t know how regulations work (e.g., lawyers – no offense, Donald), then this process isn’t transparent to them.

    Often the nuclear industry writes the rules which the regulator then either codifies as regulation or endorses in a regulatory guide or NUREG or regulatory issue summary (at least in my industry). An equivalent process exists with the FAA, RTCA and the airlines. No freaking insurance company could possible do as good. That’s a libertarian fantasy.

  13. Let me explain this a little better (since I teach this stuff). In the case of my industry, the US NRC issues regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 10, Energy, Parts 1 through 199; Parts 200 and up are DOE regulations). Then the NRC participates with industry groups like the following (a small sample list is provided below) who formulate ways best to satisfy regulation:

    American Nuclear Society
    American National Standards Institute
    American Society of Mechanical Engineers
    Electric Power Research Institute
    Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
    Instrument Society of America
    Nuclear Energy Institute
    Nuclear Information Records Management Association

    The US NRC also participates with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the UK’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, the International Atomic Energy Agency, etc.

    From all of this, the US NRC formulates Regulatory Guides and NUREGs and other documents that endorse those codes and standards that the industry which it regulates determines is the best way of meeting public health and safety. So in a sense, by using international consensus and industry self-policing, the US NRC regulates.

    The FAA does the same thing. It endorses those industry standards applicable to aircraft that the airline industry has formulated and it works with its international partners in Canada and Europe and elsewhere.

    BTW, in the case of nuclear, as an example, the Quality Assurance standard that the US NRC endorses in Regulatory Guide 1.28 as the means of meeting 10 CFR 50 Appendix B on QA Criteria for Nuclear Facilities was developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It’s NQA-1-2008 / NQA-1a-2009. The industry told itself what to do for QA to meet the regulation, and the US NRC endorsed it. That’s how things work.

    Another thing. Mortality rate per terawatt hour of electric power generation is LOWEST in nuclear.

    Why? Because of regulation. Go to the table in grey midway down that web page. Nuclear is at the bottom. 0.04 fatalities per terawatt hour. Solar is higher at 0.1 and wind is also higher at 0.15. Forget about coal, oil, gas and hydro. Death traps! If other energy sources had the same rigor in regulations that we nukes do, then lives would be saved. Isn’t that important? The proof is in the pudding. But sadly, this costs money and methane burning (lacking the regulatory rigor of nuclear) with 20 fatalities per terawatt hour is more lucrative. Think on that! 20 fatalities per terawatt hour for methane vs 0.04 for nuclear. That’s a factor of 500 different.

  14. Now in defense of Donald. Sometimes we got dumb idiot regulations in nuclear, like those for radiation exposure. Current rad exposure limits are based on the Linear No Threshold Theory (LNT) which says that no matter how small the rad dose, a cancer from rad exposure will always happen. This isn’t true. There is a hormesis effect up to a certain level. The body can actually make cellular repairs in response to small rad exposure and become healthier and more immune. Yet because of anti-nuke eco-wackism, and because we can measure radioactivity down to absurdly small levels (over decades of measurement (e.g., 10E-07 uCi / cc up to 10E+8 uCi /cc), we regulate to absurdly small levels. All this increases expense in terms of cleanup and maintenance and operational workarounds. And it’s horse crap. Yet no one will change it because the public is so scared of a little radiation. Well, a little nukie never hurt you.

    Another thing that’s asinine are the EPA regulations on rad release and public evacuation during an emergency. (Yes, EPA and asinine in the same sentence – forgive the redundancy.) When I was a Rad Dose Assessment Engineer at a BWR, we ran E-Plan drills where we had to simulate a greater than design basis accident to force theoretical rad release levels to a point requiring evac. It was BS, but it was done because the EPA was watching the drill. Indeed, the best thing to do in an emergency is to shelter in place. Unlike Chernobyl (a mad communist design not license-able in the West), our nukes can’t do much of anything but fizzle out as TMI did in 79 and cost the utility a lot of money. And Fukushima would have been the same way if there hadn’t been collusion between the Japanese nuclear regulator and TEPCO – they put their emergency diesels below the line where they could get flooded by the tsunami and the inevitable happened; they had been warned in the 1980s about this but didn’t listen. So our dumb idiot Gregory Jackzo anti-nuke NRC chairman that Obama appointed recommended a 50 mile evac zone. Asinine! More people died from panic during evac than if they had sheltered in place (in which case, NO ONE would have died).

    That’s what I mean by stupid regulation. But remember, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Keep the good regulations and tell the enviro-wackoes to hang themselves.

  15. Step One: Repent. Go forth and stop voting Democrat.
    Step Two: Vote for the most radically small-government candidate who can win.
    Step Three: Persuade everyone you can to follow your example.

  16. LQC, I work as an electric power engineer, protection and control, IEEE, PE. My experience is that companies that push ridiculous safety practices or regulation turn out to be detrimental to safety itself. Too much and People then begin to ignore the rules, don’t take them seriously and end up not taking safety seriously. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the three bear’s chairs, too much regulation in bad, too little is bad -what our practice should always aim for is just the right amount. And above all keep the accountants and lawyers away from the regs.
    (I must say it’s easier typing on my laptop than on my phone and my sentences seem more coherent. 😉

  17. @Micha Elyi, Step Zero, turn your black friends and colleagues away from the Democratic party, and convince them to wake up their families too.
    THAT is the death knell for the Democrats, and they know it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: