Regulations are boring. They are sometimes boring by design and almost always boring when examined. There are some regulations that are not boring, but those are a small minority of the lot. Overall, regulations are a dull part of a dull system — a system that one might view as analogous either to scaffolding or to binding.
President Trump views regulation as the latter. Since taking office, he’s boasted frequently of slashing regulations, often exaggerating the extent to which he’s done so.
In an attempt to make his regulation-slashing interesting, Trump on Thursday participated in an event meant to visualize the growth of regulations in the American government and, further, his efforts to eliminate that “red tape.” The result was Trump standing next to one small and one giant pile of paper — a giant pile which our obsessive analysis reveals as almost certainly too giant to accurately make Trump’s point.
Here’s how the White House press reporter on duty today (the “pooler,” in the vernacular) described Trump’s props. You can see them in the photograph above.
“On the far right side of the room were two stacks of white office paper. One was labeled ‘1960’ and was about shin high; the other was labeled ‘TODAY,’ and around the same height as your pooler (6’3″). When President Trump saw the stacks, he quipped, ‘That’s a lot of regulation.’ Later, he explained that in 1960, there were 20,000 pages of federal regulations, compared to 185,000 pages today.”
There’s one bit of context worth pointing out: America is much bigger now than it was in 1960. That year, the country’s GDP was about $3 trillion in 2009 dollars, compared to about $17 trillion now. The population was about 179 million, compared with 332 million. That sort of growth might be expected to similarly see some growth in regulation.
It’s also worth noting that the “page” is a weird unit to use. A sheet of paper could consist of one sentence reading, “Everything is illegal” and have more of an effect than a thousand sheets detailing purchasing processes for new Homeland Security vehicles. But, this is the unit that’s used and, as you can see from the photos, 185,000 pages is a lot of pages.
But . . . is that actually 185,000 pages? ProPublica’s Scott Klein was skeptical, based on the image used in the New York Times’ story about the event. It seemed to him like a lot more than that.
So we set out to find the answer.
First, we need to know how big each of those stacks of paper is. (From here on, we use “pile” to describe the two overall groups of paper and “stacks” the columns that they contain.) We assume that each stack is made up of standard sized sheets, which in the United States are 8.5 by 11 inches. Since the camera distorts the size of objects depending on where it’s located, we measured the base of each visible stack and compared it to each one’s height.
Since the two piles — call them 1960 and Today — are made up of stacks that vary slightly in height, we took an average. The result? The 1960 stacks are about 13.2 inches high on average; the Today stacks are about 70.6.
When doing that analysis, we at first got some numbers that seemed way off the mark. That was when we noticed that the piles weren’t all oriented the same way. You can see this clearly in the Today stacks. The one on the end is oriented so that the 8.5-inch-long side is facing the camera; the other four are oriented so that the 11-inch side is facing the camera.
Why’s this important? Because we need to know how many piles there are. You’ll notice, too, that the Times photograph shows a three-stack-deep Today pile. If you look closely, you’ll see that the same thing is happening with the middle two stacks in the 1960 pile.
This is our guess for how many stacks there are in each pile. It’s hard to say if the Today pile has 15 or 19 stacks (or somewhere in between), so our analysis includes both options.
Now the math.
- 1960 pile: 10 stacks of 13.2 inches on average is a total of 131.9 inches.
- Today pile (15 stacks): 15 stacks of 70.6 inches on average is a total of 1,060 inches.
- Today pile (19 stacks): 19 stacks of 70.6 inches on average is a total of 1,342 inches.
(These numbers are rounded.)
In other words, the Today pile contains between 8 and 10.2 times as many sheets of paper as the 1960 pile. That’s about right: 185,000 divided by 20,000 is 9.25.
However, Klein is also right. A ream of paper is about 2 inches high and contains 500 sheets, according to Princeton University‘s technology department).
Here’s how many sheets of paper those piles would then contain.
- 1960 pile: 131.9 total inches is 65.9 reams, or 33,000 sheets.
- Today pile (15 stacks): 1,060 total inches is 529.9 reams, or 265,000 sheets.
- Today pile (19 stacks): 1,342 total inches is 671.2 reams, or 335,600 sheets.
You’ll note that our estimates of the height of the stacks in the Today pile are shorter than that of the pooler. If the stacks were taller, of course, the number of sheets included would be higher, not lower.
A pile of the proper height, then, would be a little more than 10 stacks of the height of the Today pile, or, assuming that the Today pile contains 19 stacks, a pile that’s a bit more than half as high as the one next to which Trump stood.
Anyway. You have now read some 900 words discussing the federal government’s regulatory scale, albeit mostly in the abstract. Nonetheless, Trump was successful: A boring subject has been made a bit more palatable, at least if you like bad Photoshop illustrations and math.