Faculty Profile: Sidney Shapiro says regulatory failure can sink the economy

Photo of Professor Sidney Shapiro

Sid Shapiro is one of the country’s leading experts in administrative procedure and regulatory policy. He has written six books, contributed chapters to seven additional books, authored or coauthored over fifty articles, and is currently working on a book on administrative accountability.

As a law student, Sidney Shapiro dropped his administrative law course because it was so boring.“It was my least favorite class,” he says with a laugh.

Shapiro, however, loved law school and in fact, realized he wanted to teach in a law school one day. Fast forward and Shapiro, who teaches administrative law among other courses at Wake Forest law school, is one of the nation’s leading experts in administrative procedure and regulatory policy.

As the law school’s associate dean for Research and Development and the University Distinguished Chair in Law, Shapiro is often quoted in national media outlets including USA Today and the New York Times on regulatory failures, including the largest oil spill in American history, the recent Toyota recall, lead paint-coated toys, ecoli- and salmonella ridden foods, Hurricane Katrina and coal mine explosions.

“The misunderstanding is that somehow the government has oodles of people working on this stuff and the capacity to regulate the hell out of the American economy,” Shapiro was recently quoted in Mother Jones. “They don’t.”

While calls for smaller government and more freedom for industry are common, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, raises the question whether consumer safety is being jeopardized by a lack of effective regulation.

“When I actually started doing the work, I found it to be a fascinating and challenging area, and it only gets more so,” said Shapiro, who is also vice president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, a nonprofit research and educational organization of university-affiliated academics. Prior to teaching, Shapiro was a trial attorney with the Federal Trade Commission and Deputy Legal Counsel of the Secretary’s Review Panel at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, when Congress passed most of the health, safety and environmental laws that we have today, it had high aspirations for what it could accomplish. Beginning in the 1980s, progress toward those goals started to slow down and lately it has almost come to a halt. This has real consequences for Americans. ”

“As we learned from the failure to regulate Wall Street, regulatory failure can sink the economy and cause endless grief for people for years. What we fail to realize is that, while government can limit liberty, it can also enhance it. If a person a dies of lung cancer due to toxic chemicals in the workplace, or if a poor family doesn’t have the opportunity to send their kids to college, their liberty is not enhanced. While we have to be careful that government doesn’t over extend, we also have to look for areas where government can expand liberty and opportunity.”

Shapiro blames the numerous recent regulatory failures in part on federal budget cuts. Taking inflation into account, some agencies now receive only half as much funding as they used to, leaving them dangerously short of personnel. The result, he said, is a series of unprecedented regulatory failures.

“Every time we look at one of these disasters, we tend to blame the regulatory agencies. But if we look behind the scenes, it’s a much more complicated picture and a rather frightening one. It’s likely we’re going to continue to have a string of these calamities unless we do something to act on these various causes,” said Shapiro, who along with Rena Steinzor, is the author of the new book, The People’s Agents and the Battle to Protect the American Public: Special Interests, Government, and the Threats to National Health, Safety and the Environment, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010. Steinzor is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a former New York Times reporter.

Shapiro started thinking about teaching law school while he was still in school at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was one of the rare students who liked law school,” he said. “It was appealing to me. I liked the intellectual atmosphere, the arguments and the challenge of reforming the law.”

That interest eventually led to his involvement in forming the Center for Progressive Regulation nine years ago. “A couple of academics I knew and myself had  been telling some public interest friends of ours in Washington that they really needed to form a progressive think tank to counter some of the conservative ones.  After  several meetings with public interest groups not much was happening, so five of us decided do it on our own.”

Shapiro describes the Center as a work in progress. “I am both pleased and amazed by its growth, which probably proves our intuition was correct and there was a need for a voice from this viewpoint. Our idea about CPR was there was lots of good academic writing that never found its way into policy debates particularly in Washington, D.C. Then and now CPR primarily takes ideas from academia and through various outlets reformats them so that they come to attention of lawmakers, staff, agencies and public interest groups.”

He has written seven books, contributed chapters to seven additional books, authored or coauthored more than 50 articles. As part of his activism, Shapiro has been a consultant to government agencies and has been called to testify before Congress on regulatory subjects.

“The only time I was intimidated was when I testified in front of Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.),” he said. “He was a good questioner.”

In his free time, Shapiro and his wife Joyce can be spotted out at sports bars in Winston-Salem when the University of Kansas Jayhawks are playing basketball. Shapiro joined the Wake Forest faculty in 2004 after teaching at the U of K law school for 25 years. He became associate dean for Research and Development at Wake Forest in 2007.

“You can take the man out of Kansas but you can’t take the Jayhawks out of the man,” said Shapiro, who grew up in a small town in neighboring Nebraska. “If KU is on TV, we watch them. One of the things Joyce and I miss about Lawrence is watching the Jayhawks play in Allen Field house, which is one of the best places to watch basketball in America. It was built in the 1950s and it’s still an old-time basketball arena. There are no skyboxes or special chairs. Just lots of people very close to the court who yell incredibly loud.”

Shapiro and Joyce have two children: Jeremy and Sarah. “My son is a reporter for the Emporia Gazette in Kansas and my daughter is getting a master’s degree in youth leadership at N.C. State,” he said.

While he doesn’t watch much TV outside of Wake Forest and Kansas basketball games, Shapiro said his favorite television show of all time is “The West Wing.”

“I still watch re-runs of ‘West Wing,’ “ he said.  “I think the writers sort of went out of their way to make it a civics lesson by pointing out both sides of an issue even though the President was liberal. I think it demonstrates both the promise and pitfalls of American government. It’s idealism vs. reality.”