Republicans Have Degraded Cost-Benefit Analysis Into a Parody of Itself

Branden Camp/AP

Tyler Cowen says this today:

Not since the 1970s has cost-benefit analysis been as underrated as it is right now.

I don’t know if this is true. But if it is, I place the blame squarely on conservatives, who have corrupted the entire enterprise. When they look at public spending programs aside from the military, they don’t just exaggerate the costs and minimize the benefits; they ignore the benefits almost completely. Major environmental rules, for example, usually have enormous net benefits, but conservatives hate them anyway. To take a recent example, here is EPA’s cost-benefit calculation for the Clean Power Plan as of January 19, 2017:

EPA estimates the costs and benefits for two different approaches and two different discount rates. The net benefit is around $30 billion in all four scenarios. Nonetheless, Scott Pruitt almost immediately initiated a review of the CPP with the goal of repealing it. Nor was this some kind of rogue action: it was supported nearly unanimously by the Republican caucus in Congress.

Now, you can argue that compliance costs of CPP are pretty concrete, while the benefits mostly depend on assumptions about the value of life. How much is an extra year of life worth? How much is a lifetime without asthma worth compared to a lifetime with asthma? These are obviously not hard-and-fast things, but they’re certainly real things. And even if you think EPA is wrong, an estimate of zero for the benefits is obviously really wrong.

But this is all part of the Republican Party’s growing hostility toward science and evidence in the post-Gingrich era. Rigorous research all too often fails to support the conclusions they want it to support, and their answer is to retreat to basic principle and ignore its real-world consequences if they’re inconvenient. This is a very human thing to do, and all humans do it. Modern conservatives, however, have elevated it to the status of dogma.

Is my view just partisan hackery? It could be, and you can certainly cherry-pick examples of denying or downplaying troublesome evidence from every party and creed in history. But it sure seems like Republicans do it a whole lot more than normal. Back when cost-benefit looked like a useful tool for reining in big liberal programs, they believed in it. When that changed, they couldn’t really abandon it, so they simply degraded it into a parody of itself.

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