Mr. Payne Goes to Jefferson City
Last Wednesday, I traveled to Jefferson City in the hopes of testifying about payday lending before the House Committee on Financial Institutions. That didn’t happen, because the session on payday lending became a purely informational presentation by representatives of the industry, with no outside witnesses testifying. (We still have a couple very interesting projects on the subject that should be forthcoming shortly, however.) Still, this was my first trip to the capitol to see Missouri’s democracy in action (so to speak), and I found it extremely interesting.
No, wait … not interesting. What’s that other word? Oh yeah: tedious. I spent three hours in a hearing room with most of the time taken up by an abstruse discussion of appraiser regulation. The only people in the room who seemed to be actually animated by the subject were the interested appraisers and representatives of appraisal management companies. Most of the representatives seemed to idle the time away browsing the Internet on their laptops and phones. The rest sat there, supporting their heads with their hands and wearing the painfully bored looks of people firmly convinced they are meant for something better in life than this.
Even for all the hearing’s spectacular boredom, however, I did learn a thing or two. First, appraisal regulation is a subject far more complicated than anyone should ever want to know. The big change under discussion that night was the move to a greater reliance on appraisal management companies (AMCs) over the old-fashioned kind of appraisers. This shift has been ongoing for some time but received a big boost when the Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC) essentially became the law of the land. I will spare you most of the further details (if you really must know, I recommend this article) except to say that although it does appear the HVCC is kind of a disaster, the new bill being used to rectify the problems looks like it just benefits the appraisers at the expense of AMCs and consumers.
Now, I fully admit that I am no expert in the field, but when every appraiser testifying for the bill complains that AMCs do less expensive work than appraisers, it sets off my Rent-Seeking Alarm. It sure seems to me that the appraisers are using the problems in the HVCC as a way to limit their competition and raise rates. But I could be wrong. Given the massive complexity of the regulatory code surrounding appraisals, it probably isn’t possible to know how the bill would change the system ex ante, and this presents a massive problem for regulators.
Writing about Democratic members of Congress who did not understand how tax changes in the health care bill would affect large companies, Glenn Reynolds describes this same problem:
The United States Code — containing federal statutory law — is more than 50,000 pages long and comprises 40 volumes. The Code of Federal Regulations, which indexes administrative rules, is 161,117pages long and composes226volumes.
No one on Earth understands them all, and the potential interaction among all the different rules would choke a supercomputer. This means, of course, that when Congress changes the law, it not only can’t be aware of all the real-world complications it’s producing, it can’t even understand the legal and regulatory implications of what it’s doing.
There’s good news and bad news in that. The bad news is obvious: We’re governed not just by people who do screw up constantly, but by people who can’t help but screw up constantly. So long as the government is this large and overweening, no amount of effort at securing smarter people or “better” rules will do any good: Incompetence is built into the system.
The good news is less obvious, but just as important: While we rightly fear a too-powerful government, this regulatory knowledge problem will ensure plenty of public stumbles and embarrassments, helping to remind people that those who seek to rule us really don’t know what they’re doing.
And that’s assuming the legislators actually take the time to try and understand the legislation. What’s more likely is what I witnessed last Wednesday: disinterested representatives killing time until the end of the session by checking their email and text messages. If a regulation is so complex that the regulators can’t even be bothered to understand it, it is likely to be ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst. In regulation, less is often more.