Steve Weinberg, “Mr. Bottomline,” On Earth Magazine
Spring 2003
Pages 34-5

John D. Graham is a brilliant theoretician who achieved tenure at Harvard when he was thirty-two. Now, at forty-six, he is the person journalists call the bush administration’s “regulatory czar.”

Every economically significant regulation drafted by every executive branch agency to carry out the laws of Congress—on power plants or forest conservation, on meat inspection or dioxin—must cross Graham’s desk before it goes into force.

He decides whether the protection is worth the price. On environmental matters, his answer is often No.

Graham’s specialty is a long-established but controversial number-crunching technique called cost-benefit analysis. Its purpose is to quantify, in dollars, every cost and every benefit of a possible course of action. Because Graham has spent his entire professional life working to enshrine it (and its near cousin, risk analysis) at the center of public policy, his nomination process was highly contentious.

He got thirty-seven “No” votes in the Senate—second only to attorney General John Ashcroft, a better-known figure appointed to a much higher-profile office. Among the letters sent to the Senate abut Graham was a critique signed by fifty-one academics; they charged that he had repeatedly lowballed health and environmental benefits, used “extreme and highly disputed” economic assumptions, and issued hard-and fast opinions on complex medical and scientific topics in which he had no training….

He religiously follows the advice he gave in a 1996 speech to the Heritage Foundation: Be careful what you say. At a panel for the foundation (a think tank that champions weakening government regulations), other speakers talked about “regulatory relief.”

Graham said, “I think our message should be that we want smarter, more efficient regulation in order to get more protection at less cost. Therefore, the word ‘relief’ is entirely inappropriate.”