Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?

With the locus of action on Federal climate policy moving this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, this is a convenient moment to step back from the political fray and reflect on some fundamental questions about U.S. environmental policy.

One such question is whether economic analysis – in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies – plays a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or – worst of all – is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms.   With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers – including scientists, lawyers, and economists – now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance.

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations.  As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations.  (See:  “The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency,” March 3, 2009; “What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers,” April 20, 2009; “Does Economic Analysis Shortchange the Future?” April 27, 2009)  Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments.  In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough.  From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs.  In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs.  In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors.  Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation.  Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis.  At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed.  Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation.  That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself.  That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making.  We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change.  But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations.  Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions, and to explain why they have selected actions for which reliable evidence indicates that expected benefits are significantly less than expected costs, those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests.  Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible.  But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized.  Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making.  If an agency wishes to introduce a “margin of safety” into a decision, it should do so explicitly.

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better they are likely to be.  Retrospective assessments should be carried out periodically.

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs.  Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety.  Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help to agencies participating in the development of environmental regulations, and it can likewise be useful in evaluating agency decision making and in shaping new laws (which brings us full-circle to the climate legislation that will be developed in the U.S. Senate over the weeks and months ahead, and which I hope to discuss in future posts).


National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead

Like any legislation, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but its cap-and-trade system has medium and long‑term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are sensible, and the cap‑and‑trade system is — for the most part — well designed.  With some exceptions, the bill’s cap‑and‑trade system will achieve meaningful reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost to the economy.

There has been much lamenting about the corporate give-away in the bill, but this is unfounded, as I explained in detail in my May 27th post on The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey. Concerns have also been expressed — such as by a number of Republican members of Congress during last Friday’s floor debate in the House of Representatives — about negative impacts on the international competitiveness of U.S. firms.  The only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term is to bring non‑participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways. (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)  But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

In the meantime, the Waxman‑Markey approach of combining output‑based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors was sensible and pragmatic (see my June 18th post on Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal).

That’s the good news.  But the bad news is that last-minute changes in the bill changed what was a Presidential option regarding long-term back-up border adjustments (tariffs) to a requirement that the President put such tariffs in place under specified conditions.  This moved the legislation considerably closer to risky protectionism, as President Obama rightly noted in comments to the press on Sunday.

Also, the compromise amendments with the House agriculture committee that provide for generous numbers of potential offsets from the agricultural sector (regulated not by EPA, but by USDA!) are troubling — not in terms of driving up compliance costs, but in terms of reducing the real environmental performance of the system.  This is because of the general problem of limited additionality of claimed reductions under offset (or emission-reduction-credit) systems, as opposed to cap-and-trade systems, plus the well-known difficulties of measuring non-point emissions, let alone emissions reductions, from agriculture.

These and other design issues will be important topics when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on some of these issues will likely be quite different.  For example, there is likely to be more interest in the Senate in the use of a “price collar,” a mechanism to constrain both the maximum and the minimum market price of allowances over time.  This would be a move beyond the safety-valve mechanism that is provided in the House legislation.

When the action moves to the Senate, the greatest attention and the greatest skepticism should be directed not to the cap‑and‑trade mechanism, which is — for the most part — well designed in Waxman‑Markey, but rather to other elements of the legislation, some of which are highly problematic. While the titles of Waxman‑Markey that create the cap‑and‑trade system are ‑‑ on balance ‑‑ sensible, and will result in meaningful emissions reductions cost effectively, the other titles of the bill include a host of conventional standards and subsidies, many of which (under the cap‑and‑trade umbrella) will have minimal or no environmental benefits, but will limit flexibility and thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of this legislation that needs to be selectively, surgically repaired.

It is the fault of economists — myself included — that we have given so much attention to the cap-and-trade system that we have ignored these other important elements of the legislation, elements that unfortunately can degrade significantly the cost-effectiveness of the package while providing little if any incremental benefits to the environment.  Even the Congressional Budget Office, in its excellent economic analysis of HR 2454, focused exclusively on the bill’s cap-and-trade program.  Going forward, CBO, EPA, and independent analysts need to examine the bill’s other elements, and assess what those elements provide at what incremental cost.

A broader question — also raised by House Republicans in the floor debate — is whether the United States should be moving towards the enactment of a domestic climate policy before a sensible, post‑Kyoto international agreement has been negotiated and ratified. Such an international agreement should include not only the countries of the industrialized world, but also the key, rapidly‑growing economies of the developing world ‑‑ China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia ‑‑ which are and will increasingly be major contributors to emissions.

It’s natural for such a question to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address what is fundamentally a global problem.  The environmental benefits of any single nation’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This means that for any single country, the costs of action will inevitably exceed its direct benefits, despite the fact that the global costs of action will be less than global benefits.  This is the nature of a global commons problem, and this is the very reason why international cooperation is required.

The U.S. is now engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home.

Europe has put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post‑Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy ‑ with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post‑Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly‑growing developing countries. U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

So, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but it represents a reasonable starting point for Senate deliberation on what can become a national climate policy that will place the United States where it ought to be -‑ in a position of international leadership to help develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world.


Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility.