When I think about public policy as an economist, my first instinct is (of course) that a market-based solution is usually the first-best alternative. Unfortunately, this is where many poorly-trained economists (or worse, well-trained economists who should know better) stop. I next think about the potential for market failures: un-realized goals or inefficiencies due to aspects of the market that don't match the textbook version. Market failures always exist - the job of a good economist is to identify them and figure out, one, how important they are, and two if the additional inefficiencies that will arise from government intervention are outweighed by the potential gains from such an intervention.
It is from such a lens that I am often either bemused or delighted by public policy in Oregon (and sometimes both). One of the most visible policies that I find bemusing is the ban on self-service gas in the state. First let us dispense with a number of obvious canards about self-service gas: it is not 'dangerous,' it does not lead to increased environmental damage from sloppy customers pouring gas all over the place, it does not reduce automobile insurance in Oregon, it is not less-efficient. So why do we have this policy? Let me try offer some reasonable arguments for and against. For: the elderly and disabled self-service gas can difficult; it creates jobs for a segment of the population that often has trouble finding employment. Against: it is slow and inefficient; it raises the price of gas; employees (who are often teenagers) are exposed to potentially harmful vapors. Are there any others I have not thought about?
Each of these arguments has an element of truth, so how important are they? Well, I think that they are all fairly unimportant save for the first argument about the elderly and disabled - I'll come back to that in a minute. I have seen a figure of about 7,600 persons who are employed as gas pumpers in Oregon. My guess is that this includes a large-portion who are part-time and for whom the income from their job is not what they live on (i.e. teenagers living at home) , so I think that the real impact on the well-being of Oregonians is minimal - these are simply lousy jobs. Besides if this is good public policy, why don't we mandate employment for many other business (no self-service car washes!, no self-service Laundromats!, etc.)? We don't do this because it dissuades investment in new business. As for the arguments on the other side, I believe it is slower and that gas prices are slightly higher. I don't think either is that important. Perhaps this helps achieve another policy goal of reducing slightly the miles driven, but there are much cleaner ways to do that (to wit, a gas tax). I do not know if there is credible evidence to suggest that teenagers are being harmed by fumes, until there is I shall assume the libertarian stance. So in the end, I think this policy fails the pointless test. I cannot see any good reason for government involvement and, therefore as an economist that believes in limiting government intervention in areas in which it is unnecessary, I think this policy stinks.
Now let me return to the one cogent point I put off. I do think that the elderly and disabled argument has merit, because if you have been to our neighbor states recently, I defy you to find anything other than self-service gas. So I can imagine a case for mandating at least the option of having gas pumped for you. However, again, since this does not seem to be an issue in the other 48 states the do not prohibit self-service gas, I would not be in favor of this amended policy solution until I were convinced that it was necessary.
Other policies I hope to comment on soon: bottle bill, payday loans, sales tax.