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On Balance: Two Decades of Benefits and Costs: Promise and Pitfalls

A new article in the Fall Issue of the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis (JBCA),  “Some Pitfalls of Practical Benefit-Cost Analysis,”  describes common pitfalls that well-meaning analysts fall into. Over the past 23 years I have worked on and supervised hundreds of benefit-cost analyses. Most of these analyses have dealt with public health regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration, although on occasion I have reviewed analyses from other government agencies and academia. I’ve seen these pitfalls occur many times and at one time or another I’ve been guilty of most of them.

 

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On Balance: Reflecting on the Longevity of Executive Order 12866 and Looking to the Future

September 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Executive Order (EO) 12866, which requires U.S. federal agencies, “in deciding whether and how to regulate, [to] assess all costs and benefits of available regulatory alternatives, including the alternative of not regulating.” It further states that, “in choosing among alternative regulatory approaches, agencies should select those approaches that maximize net benefits (including potential economic, environmental, public health and safety, and other advantages; distributive impacts; and equity), unless a statute requires another regulatory approach.”

Since it was signed on September 30, 1993, four different presidents with markedly diverse regulatory philosophies have relied on EO12866 to guide both the procedures and analytical practices for developing new regulations.

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On Balance: Reporting back: the World Congress for Environmental and Resource Economists in Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg, Sweden hosted the 2018 World Congress for Environmental and Resource Economists, which met from June 25-29, 2018. The five-day conference was held at the School of Business, Economics, and Law, which is part of the University of Gothenburg. The conference was made possible by the joint effort of three major economics associations: the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE), the East Asian AERE (EAAERE), and the European AERE (EAERE).

 

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On Balance: Review of “Teaching Benefit-Cost Analysis” by Scott Farrow

As the feasibility of using benefit-cost analysis (BCA) as a practical tool of policy analysis has increased, so too has the need for materials to aid those of us who are called upon to teach BCA. Teaching Benefit-Cost Analysis: Tools of the Trade, edited by Scott Farrow (Professor of Economics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County), is a distinctive and welcome addition to the collection of such materials.

 

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On Balance: Retrospective Analyses Are Hard: A Cautionary Tale

Under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was required to establish standards limiting air toxics emissions from industrial plants. An article in the latest issue of the Journal of Benefit Cost Analysis  (JBCA)“Retrospective Analyses Are Hard: A Cautionary Tale from EPA's Air Toxics Regulations,” takes a retrospective look at 5 of the largest rules issued by EPA in the initial round of air toxics rulemaking over the period 1995 to 2000. For the rules examined, our estimates suggest mixed results, in terms of the reductions in emissions that were achieved. However, our efforts during the project also reinforce the difficulty of obtaining adequate plant emissions data, even where there is an established database--in this case, the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).

 

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On Balance: Taking Benefit-Cost Analysis on the Road

One of the reasons I look forward each year to the annual conference of the Society for Benefit Cost Analysis is connecting with fellow economists who have chosen careers in my specialty, which has evolved to be regulatory policy and analysis. I enjoy sharing and hearing everyone’s war stories and appreciate the advice I receive from those who have “been there, done that” and hope that I add value when I offer the same to new economists working to influence the policy process.

 

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On Balance: Communicating about Benefit-Cost Analysis

It is challenging to explain benefit-cost analysis (BCA) to the general public or to members of other professions lacking sufficient knowledge of—and appreciation for—applied microeconomics. This post discusses the nature of this challenge, and raises the question: should the SBCA develop a more concerted communications strategy to better explain the fundamental concepts of the discipline and their practical application?

 

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On Balance: Review of “Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society” by W. Kip Viscusi

Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society  (Princeton University Press, 2018) is a tour de force. It provides an entertaining, accessible account of the modern approach to valuing mortality risk. In non-technical prose, it covers the major aspects of the approach and how it should be applied to social decisions.  It shows how US regulatory agencies’ adoption of the ‘value per statistical life’ (VSL) to replace the ‘cost of death’ (i.e., human capital) approach has led to more-protective regulation and argues the VSL approach should be extended beyond regulation, to private-sector decisions about product design and to government sanctions for regulatory violations. It also finds that the values used outside the US are typically far too small; revising these upward would lead to more-protective and more-appropriate regulation in other countries.

 

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On Balance: Report from the SBCA President on the 2018 Annual Conference and The Plenary Presentation by Tomas Philipson

It was my honor to preside over the 2018 Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis (SBCA) Conference held March 14 – 16 at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I am happy to report that by all indications it was another successful conference. We had 319 total registrants from 19 countries across 5 continents. U.S. participants represented 31 states and D.C. Half of all participants were affiliated with the U.S. federal government. The next largest group were academics (almost one-third); other attendees were from the private sector or from state and international government agencies. The three pre-conference professional development workshops were well attended and also drew a mix of participants from federal, state, and international agencies, as well as academics.

 

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On Balance: Application of BCA in Europe

Despite the obvious attraction of Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) for policy evaluation, its implementation rate varies across countries and sectors. Although the concept of BCA can be traced back to European thinkers, it was first applied in the United States. The evaluation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ of the U.S. Flood Control Act of 1936 is often regarded as the first use of BCA, but President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12291 issued in 1981 provided considerable impetus to its use in the United States. Although perceptions of BCA as anti-regulatory caused some adversaries of BCA to argue for its elimination in policy making, BCA is now viewed also as a tool to promote regulation.

 

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On Balance: Don't Undervalue Life

Proper application of the value of a statistical life (VSL) is essential to preventing the systematic undervaluation of life throughout the world. The values used by U.S. federal agencies to monetize prospective risk reductions formerly were too low but have increased over time and are now in a range consistent with the economic literature. However, the values agencies assign to fatalities in setting regulatory sanctions are extremely low—often a fraction of the current estimates for VSL estimates used in regulatory contexts. Further, other countries still monetize risk reductions using techniques that undervalue life relative to VSL estimates. 

 

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On Balance: Teachable Moments in Benefit-Cost Analysis: From Obama to Trump

As a teacher of benefit-cost analysis (BCA), the review by the current administration of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a cornerstone of the Obama era climate change regulations, presents what we often call “teachable moments.” Specifically, how could the CPP produce benefits that exceed costs in the Obama administration and then costs that exceed benefits in the Trump administration? 

 

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On Balance: Bringing Benefit-Cost Analysis to Policing Practices

The Journal of Benefit Cost Analysis and the Policing Project at New York University School of Law teamed up to host a symposium on the use of benefit-cost analysis in a domain in which it is all too absent: policing. (Policing tends to have many definitions, but generally we mean it here to refer to any use of force or surveillance of the populace for reasons of achieving public safety.) The goal of this Symposium on Benefit-Cost Analysis of Policing Practices, and the conference that preceded it, is to interest more scholars in working in this vital field, and to identify and begin to tackle some of the methodological challenges the field faces.

 

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On Balance: Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler, Behavioral Economics, and Benefit-Cost Analysis

Rational action lies at the heart of neoclassical economics. Sovereign consumers make choices that maximize their utilities. By observing the tradeoffs implicit in actual choices, or eliciting tradeoffs for hypothetical choices, benefit-cost analysts impute willingness to pay for desirable policy impacts and willingness to accept undesirable ones. Yet, it appears that sometimes consumers seem to make mistakes. The field of behavioral economics seeks to provide a more realistic psychological model of consumers and other economic actors that helps us understand apparent deviations from neoclassical rationality. The 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recognizes Richard H. Thaler’s pioneering contributions to behavioral economics.

 

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On Balance: [Not] Lost in Translation -- International Perspectives on Benefit-Cost Analysis

Since its founding in 2007, the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis (SBCA) has sought to engage scholars and practitioners from across the world. The Society’s current rolls count members from 35 countries. In support of expanding the Society’s international scope, the SBCA co-sponsored a workshop on September 20, 2017—together with the University of Milan and the Centre for Industrial Studies (CSIL)—titled “The Role of CBA in Government Decisionmaking: International Perspectives.” The workshop was held in conjunction with the annual Milan Summer School on Cost-Benefit Analysis of Investment Projects organized by SBCA board member Massimo Florio and CSIL. 

 

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On Balance: Review of "Behavioral Economics for Cost-Benefit Analysis" by David L. Weimer

Behavioral economics finds that under predictable circumstances people sometimes fail to act rationally and in their own best self-interest. In these circumstances, public policies can nudge people towards better choices. For example, people can be nudged to save more, smoke less, lose weight, and buy more energy efficient vehicles and appliances. In addition to providing new insights about how to design public policies (see Chetty 2015), behavioral economics also has implications for how we conduct benefit-cost analysis (BCA). After all, BCA is built on the foundation of neoclassical welfare economics and rationality. This topic has been explored over the years in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, notably in a March 2016 Special Issue on [Ir]rationality, Happiness, and Benefit-Cost Analysis

 

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On Balance: Consumers Guide to Regulatory Impact Analysis

In the United States and elsewhere, government agencies are required to conduct regulatory impact analyses (RIAs) to weigh the benefits of regulatory proposals against their costs. These RIAs are invaluable tools for informing decision makers about the effects of regulatory choices; even regulatory decisions that are ultimately made on political, legal, ethical, or other grounds will benefit from the structured evaluation of tradeoffs and alternatives that a good RIA provides.


However, dense or complex RIAs can be challenging for policy officials and interested parties to comprehend and interpret, making it difficult to evaluate the evidence presented and to understand the likely consequences of alternative policy choices.

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