charles_seife's picture
Professor of Journalism, New York University; Former Journalist, Science Magazine; Author, Hawking Hawking

On April 5, 2010, deep in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, a spark ignited a huge explosion that rumbled through the tunnels and killed 29 miners—the worst mining disaster in the US in 40 years. Two weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, went up in flames, killing 11 workers and creating the biggest oilspill in history. Though these two disasters seem to be completely unrelated, in truth, they had the same underlying cause: capture.

There are federal agencies that are supposed to prevent such disasters, organizations that regulate industry. Agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (which sets the rules for mines) and the Minerals Management Service (which set the rules for offshore drilling) are supposed to constrain businesses—and to act as watchdogs—to force everyone to play by the rules. That's the ideal, anyhow.

Reality's quite a bit messier. More often than not, the agencies are reluctant to enforce the regulations that they themselves create. And when a business gets caught breaking the rules, the regulatory agencies tend not to impose penalties that amount to more than a slap on the wrist. As a result, the watchdogs are toothless. Companies like Massey Energy (which ran Upper Big Branch) and BP (which ran the Deepwater Horizon) flout the rules—and when disaster strikes, everybody wonders why regulators failed to take action despite numerous warning signs and repeated violations of regulations.

In the 1970s, economists, led by future Nobel laureate George Stigler, began to realize that this was the rule, not the exception. Over time, regulatory agencies are systematically drained of their ability to check the power of industry. Even more strikingly, they're gradually drawn into the orbit of the businesses they're charged with regulating—instead of acting in the public interest, the regulators functionally wind up as tools of the industry they're supposed to keep watch over. This process, known as "regulatory capture," turns regulators from watchdogs into lapdogs.

You don't have to look far to see regulatory capture in action. Securities and Exchange Commission officials are regularly accused of ignoring warnings about fraud, stifling investigations into wrongdoing, and even actively helping miscreants avoid paying big fines or going to jail. Look at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's enforcement reports to see how capable they are of preventing energy companies from violating nuclear powerplant safety rules again and again. Regulatory capture isn't limited only to the US. What caused the Fukushima disaster? Ultimately, it was a "breakdown of the regulatory system" caused by "[a] reversal of the positions between the regulator and the regulated," at least according to a report prepared by the Japanese Parliament. The regulator had become the regulated.

Regulatory capture is just a small part of the story. In my own profession, journalism, we like to think of ourselves as watchdogs, fierce defenders of the public good. But we, too, are being captured by the industries we're supposed to keep watch on. There's journalistic capture just as there's regulatory capture. It's most marked in fields such as tech reporting, business reporting, White House reporting—fields where you're afraid of losing access to your subjects, where you depend on the industry to feed you stories, fields where your advertising revenue comes from the very people you're supposed to critique. In all of these fields, you can find numerous reporters who are functionally controlled by the people they're supposed to keep watch over. Even in my own beat (especially in my own beat!), science reporting, we're captured. The elaborate system of embargoes and privileged press releases set up by scientific journals and scientific agencies ensures that we report not just what they want, but how and when they want it. We've unwittingly shifted our allegiance from the public we're supposed to serve to the people we're supposed to investigate.

Capture is a bigger threat than even Stigler first realized. Any profession that depends to some degree on objectivity, and whose work affects the fortunes of a group of people with power and money, is subject to capture. Science, a field in which objectivity is paramount, is far from immune. There's evidence that medical researchers who take money from industry tend see the natural world in a more positive light: in their experiments, drugs seem to work better, patients seem to survive longer, and side effects seem to be less dangerous. Yet few scientists, even those taking tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug companies or medical device manufactures, think that they serve any master but Truth with a capital T.

That's what worries me the most about capture: you never know when you're a captive.