Q&A: The state of regulation

Renowned conservative author academic Steve Hayward is in the process of producing three papers for center of the American Experiment about various effects of regulation in Minnesota. CAE president John Hinderaker recently talked to him about his background, his books and the prospects for his upcoming CAE projects

It’s difficult to classify your academic interests into a particular niche. How would you describe them?

I have wide interests. I’ve always thought there is a cost to the narrow specialization in the modern world. You can see this in the decline of the liberal arts in universities. I’ve tried to see if it’s possible to make my way as something of a generalist, and not chase down a rabbit hole into one specialty. They used to call me the intellectual Swiss Army knife at AEI (The American Enterprise Institute), because of my wide interests and wide knowledge.

What are your graduate degrees in?

I have two degrees. I took a master’s degree in government, and then I did a Ph.D. through the history department at Claremont. I was studying political science, but I had this odd view that the best way to understand American government was to do it from a historical perspective. Winston Churchill used to say, “If you want to understand
the secrets of politics, study history intensively.” We don’t do that anymore, so I went that route.

You’ve had multiple careers in think tanks and with various teaching appointments. Let’s walk through that.

I started working in the think tank world even while I was still in graduate school. Academia has a lot of things wrong with it these days, and it’s difficult for conservatives to break into. I worked first with the Claremont Institute, because that’s where I was going to graduate school. Then around 1991, I worked for the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco—I’m still affiliated with them as a senior fellow. Then I moved to Washington, DC, and worked for AEI for more than a decade, which was great fun.

There’s an old joke that many conservatives go to Washington thinking they’re going to drain the swamp, only to discover that it’s a hot tub. I think that’s a line from one of my early mentors in journalism, M. Stanton Evans. I decided a few years ago that I was tired of writing the same old thing over and over again, so I decided to go back into academia. I had done some teaching as an adjunct at Georgetown University, and Ashland University in Ohio, and I decided to take on campus craziness as my next great white whale. I spent a year at the University in Colorado at Boulder.

Pause on that: You were appointed the first-ever professor of conservative studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, right?

Right. I think, in the abstract, you don’t want to hire people on ideological grounds, but universities are so unbalanced today that to the credit of Boulder they said, “Let’s actually bring in a known conservative.” I didn’t want to teach conservative studies, because that just becomes like women’s studies, or gender studies. I wanted to teach regular courses in regular departments. They agreed, so I taught constitutional law for undergraduates in the political science department, and a course on market-oriented environmentalism in the environmental studies department. Those departments are mostly liberal, but I got along with them just fine.

I’ve been at Pepperdine University for three years as the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor, kind of a fun title. I’m going to spend the next three years—sit down for this—at the University of California at Berkeley.

I’m not sure the Berkeley of today is the same as the Berkeley of the 1960s. My sense is that the student body is quite a bit more conservative these days. I don’t know about the professors.

The single largest student club at Berkeley now is the College Republicans. It’s partly because people who aren’t Republicans or conservative have 50 or a hundred different clubs to choose from. If you’re not inclined towards center-left or gardening, then the College Republicans is what you flock to.

Of course, the reason we’re talking right now is that you are working on a series of major papers for the Center dealing with regulation in Minnesota.

People like to say, “The problem today is Washington, DC, and centralization.” That’s certainly true, but one of my arguments is that the culture of modern government now goes all the way down. Four years ago or so, I started noticing stories about 40 or 50 localities shutting down little kids’ lemonade stands. I
can understand why a city might be concerned if a kid had a stand on the median of a busy boulevard, but in a lot of cases they were dunning children or their parents for not having a business license—not spending $500 for a business license to sell 25-cent lemonade on a Saturday afternoon.

This is absurd—bureaucratic rigidity run amok. That’s not the fault of the department of Health and Human Services. That is self-generated lunacy on the local level. My point is, the bureaucratic mentality now infects government at all levels. While we talk about the problems in Washington, we also need to do a deep dive into what state and local government are doing, and how they’re doing it.

In this particular case, you’re looking at some of Minnesota’s regulatory agencies.

We’re going to look at how three different areas are affected by regulation. We’ll start with mining. We’re just gathering information and trying to understand it better. The private sector is often frustrated with the regulatory process for getting permits to do business. My general perception is that Minnesota is probably much less corrupt, or maybe not corrupt at all compared to places like Chicago or New York, or parts of California, where really it’s organized and legalized bribery. My initial reading is that the people who work in the agencies in Minnesota, for the most part, are sincere, trying to do a good job.

The difficulty is when you get to big projects. Mining is especially naughty. You can put a Home Depot in many places. If one town doesn’t want it, they can put it in another town. But you can’t move a mine. It has to be sited where the minerals are. Second, big projects tend to attract a lot of attention and therefore get more politicized. When that happens, the regulatory process seizes up like an engine without enough oil. I think that serves everybody very poorly, and there’s got to be a better way to do it than this.

This kind of regulatory environment is anti-competitive, expensive and time consuming—and only the biggest players can maneuver through it. On a national level, certain regulatory schemes, like banking and communications, tend to turn industries into something of a cartel. It’s almost unthinkable that a group of investors might start a mining company. The barriers to entry are too high. Meanwhile, the process wastes a ton of time; some of the hours put in by public employees are staggering. That’s an incredible waste of resources, and it delays job creation.

The second paper will have to do with energy, particularly green energy. This is a subject that you have worked with a great deal over the years.

Minnesota, like most states, has a renewable portfolio standard. Something like 25 percent of the state’s electricity is supposed to come from renewable sources by the year 2025. I want to analyze how that will actually play out in practice. Second, there’s also a federal angle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pushed through
what it calls a Clean Power Plan, their answer, supposedly, to climate change. It involves using the Clean Air Act to regulate utilities. I like to say it amounts essentially to a federal take-over of the electric utility in America, quite beyond anything that’s ever been done with the Clean Air Act.

Understand, the Clean Air Act has always worked through the states, going back to 1970. Individual states come up with plans to meet the Clean Air Act targets, and the EPA approves them. That’s why the states were designated to implement this plan. The Supreme Court has put a stay on this at the moment, but my understanding is that Minnesota’s going ahead with its planning anyway. They could, if they want to, impose the same standards on their own.

We’ll try to use this study to demystify all this. But we’ll also address something that’s hard for people to grasp. People think green energy means lower pollution, lower green-house gas emissions. That’s not true. Wind and especially solar power have to have natural gas back up. Those plants have to run all day long. People love to point to how Germany has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for wind and solar power, yet their green house gas emissions are rising again.

In other words, when you run through the numbers, you’re going to find that a 20 percent increase in renewable energy sources in Minnesota will not yield a
20 percent reduction in green house gas emissions. It might yield none at all.

Back in the ‘70s, when Jimmy Carter first subsidized wind and solar power, the argument was, “We need to use renewable energy because we’re running out of fossil fuels.” Today the argument is exactly the same. “We need to use renewable energy because we’re running out of fossil fuels, and oh my god, if we burn them all up we’re all going to die and fry to death from global warming.” Peel this onion, you’ll find there is a lot of money to be made on subsidies.

Just briefly, let’s note that the third paper that you’re going to write for the Center will relate to the impact of state regulation on agriculture.

That’s another area that’s hard to untangle, and I’m not sure I’ve got the thread completely grooved yet. Let’s just limit ourselves to water for the moment. We made great strides in 40 years by upgrading waste water treatment in all our major cities. Most new chemical plants these days are essentially built to a zero discharge standard. Same with our waste water treatment facilities. We don’t dump junk in the Great Lakes or the Mississippi anymore.

But how do you do that for a farm? Every farm’s a little different, from how much rainfall it gets, what the slopes may be, what the soil might be, what you’re growing, and what fertilizers you use. The idea that we would have a permit system for farms, like we do for waste-water treatment plants is ridiculous. The idea that we’d have EPA enforcers or state regulators regulating run-off from farm to farm is also ridiculous. There’re not enough people or expertise to do it. The farmers are going to know best what happens on their own farms.

The EPA has been trying to figure out how to regulate this for 25 years, and they can’t do it. They’ve pushed this off on the states. And like mining, you tend to get a lot of the special interest groups, the environmental groups, agitating to make life miserable for farmers. That’s how it works in practice. We’re going to try to unravel this and see if we can’t point out a better way of doing it.

We haven’t yet talked about the books that you’ve written. I think the best known is your two volume set called The Age of Reagan. Talk about that.

Way back in the summer of 1993, I went to a very small dinner with Edmund Morris, who had been picked to be the official biographer of Reagan. Morris is a great writer, but I thought at the time his approach to Reagan was very narrow. He was interested in Reagan’s personality and character, but not much interested in his ideas or his political story. I thought his book would probably be very good and a big best seller, but that there would be room for another book that puts Reagan on a larger canvas. I had in mind narratives like Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, or William Manchester’s books on Winston Churchill. Manchester is a great narrative stylist; he put Churchill’s story in a wider context.

A few years later, Morris’ book finally came out, called Dutch, where he wrote a novel and made himself a character in it. It was a strange book. People said the book should have been called Botch. Nancy Reagan was so upset about the book that she forbid it ever to be sold in the Reagan Library book store.

I like to say the Morris biography of Reagan is like the Star Wars prequels. We’re stuck with them forever. Dreadful in both cases. Anyway, my book got longer. I ended up writing two volumes instead of one, and it turned out pretty well.

Has it sold a lot of copies?

It’s done just fine. It got reviewed very positively in the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement in London. But I had a little bad luck with the first volume, which landed in bookstores on September 10, 2001. I was actually in Washington on September 11 for the usual schedule of TV and radio appearances to promote the book, and of course those all got canceled.

What about other books?

My very first book was called Churchill on Leadership, one of those executive guides to leadership that sell very well. I did another book that grew out of my Reagan work called Greatness: Reagan, Churchill and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. It was kind of an accidental book. In the course of my Reagan research I started writing what I thought would be three or four paragraphs about how Reagan used Churchill’s words and thoughts. I kept working through the material, and I discovered that Reagan quoted Churchill more often than all other American presidents combined. Suddenly four or five paragraphs grew to five thousand words. My book was already going to be too long, so I gave that five thousand word excerpt as a lecture at the Hoover Institution, where a number of old Reaganites encouraged me to turn it into a book. One way of explaining it is that Reagan’s grand strategy for the Cold War was Churchill’s grand strategy for the Cold War.

You’re one of the few thinkers these days who can claim to be an old fashioned public intellectual, someone who is wise and interesting, but who also actually gets listened to.

Public intellectual is a description I resist, for a bunch of dumb reasons, but I think it’s probably true. My original inspiration going back to when I was a teenager was William F. Buckley. I started reading George Will when he first started writing a column in 1974 or ‘75. They wrote interesting stuff; they made good arguments. So for a long time I wanted to be a journalist. I’m glad I didn’t; that world is collapsing fast. But I always liked writing, still do. I much prefer to send a lecture than give one.

As a writer, you never know who’s reading you and how they’re taking it. In 2006 I was invited to a White House State Dinner for Australian Prime Minister John Howard. I went through the seating line, shook hands with President Bush, and then I got to Prime Minister Howard, who said, “I’m glad you came. I read your Reagan book, I love it.” I said to him, “The book only sold three copies in Australia according to my sales statements.” He says, “Well, I’m one of them. I sure wish I could have met Reagan.”