For instance, one of Frank’s favorite examples is the question, “Why do the keypad buttons on drive-up cash machines have Braille dots?” The natural answer is that it’s less costly for the ATM producers to produce just once kind of button for both walk-up and drive-up ATMs, instead of two different kinds of button. But a reader of Frank’s introductory textbook, which included this example, wrote him an email objecting:
[T]he real reason for the dots is that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires them. He sent me a link to a webpage documenting his claim. Sure enough, there is a requirement that all ATM keypads have Braille dots, even at drive-up locations.Frank then responds by saying:
I wrote back to my correspondent that I tell my students their answers don’t have to be correct. But I also urged him to think about the circumstances under which the regulation was adopted. If it had been significantly more costly to require Braille dots on the drive-up machines, would the rule have been adopted? Almost certainly not. And since the dots cause no harm and might occasionally be of use, regulators might well find it advantageous to require them, thereby enabling themselves to say, at year’s end, that they had done something useful.The “almost certainly not” is the part that bothers me. In this case, the regulators required something inexpensive (indeed, cost-reducing) that ATM producers probably would done regardless. But even if the Braille mandate had been very expensive, the regulators might very well have created it anyway. The Americans with Disabilities Act is well known, even notorious, for requiring all kinds of accommodations even when they are highly expensive and of trifling benefit. And that’s because regulators face costs and benefits that differ from those of the rest of us. They get the benefits of seeming to have done something, while imposing most of the cost on private parties.
But I haven’t finished reading the book yet. Maybe later Frank addresses the incentives of politicians and bureaucrats more directly.