Relative Prices: Automobiles' Were Driven By Regulation

Craig S. Marxsen is a Professor of Economics, University of Nebraska at Kearney.



Prices of numerous manufactured goods have scarcely increased since the early 1970s. The contrastingly extraordinary price increases for automobiles appear plausibly linked, in part, to greater regulation. Research has consistently found a pervasive productivity growth-stifling impact of regulation throughout manufacturing, although the effect seems to have been smaller than would be needed to explain the relative shift in automobile prices. This paper argues that rent seekers may have augmented idealists’ efforts to propel automobile design interventions that contributed to automobile price inflation, both measured and hidden, far in excess of levels seen for other goods such as lawnmowers, window air conditioners, sewing machines, washing machines, lawn tractors, or even bicycles.

Thomas Sowell (1995, p. 50) argued that, at one time, the automobile industry was like the computer industry of the mid-1990s with prices coming down and quality rising. Unfortunately, Sowell reasoned, politicians discovered the automobile’s potential as a regulatory issue, with Ralph Nader and environmentalists whipping up public hysteria that translated into legislation and bureaucratic regulation, and, most especially, higher prices (ibid.). Sowell emphasized that automobile safety had spontaneously improved by more than a two-thirds reduction in fatalities per passenger mile before Nader sensationalized car safety as his great political issue, and fatalities per passenger mile fell far less after Nader prompted greater safety regulation (ibid.). Sowell’s purpose was to express fear that government regulation might smother the computer revolution, but his point about automobiles remains particularly thought provoking. The purpose of this essay is to emphasize that Sowell’s observations are actually surprisingly visible to any casual observer who cares to look at an old catalog or volume of Consumer Reports. Productivity growth stifling effects of regulation are well documented, moreover, by painstaking studies of manufacturing industries.

Many Products Show Little Price Rise Since the 1970s

The Consumer Price Index increased by a factor of about four and a quarter between 1973 and 2003. Yet some manufactured goods benefited so much from gains in production efficiency that their prices went up hardly at all. Without any adjustment for inflation, we find that a 6000 Btu Fedders window air conditioner sold for between $166 and $236 according to the 1975 Buying Guide of Consumer Reports (1974, p. 142), while a comparable unit at Wal-Mart was selling for $148 on Wal-Mart’s website on July 20, 2003. Lawnmowers that cut a 20-inch swath have sold for prices in the neighborhood of $100 (depending on the season) ever since the early 1970s, showing virtually no upward trend in nominal price. Consumer Reports’ 1970 Buying Guide (p. 189) shows a 20 inch Sears’s rotary mower going for $124.95; Wal-Mart listed a 20-inch Murray rotary mower for $99.96 on July 21, 2003. A basic Maytag top-loading washing machine, according to the 1975 Buying Guide of Consumer Reports (p. 64), was priced at $302, while Best Buy was selling their cheapest Maytag for $339.99 on July 20, 2003, according to their website. Consumer Reports’ 1970 Buying Guide (p. 32) listed a basic Sears Kenmore zigzag sewing machine for $149, while the Sears Internet shopping site on July 21, 2003 showed full-sized Kenmore sewing machines starting at $119.99, electronic controls and all.

The list of manufactured products that have shown little or no rise in nominal price since the 1960s or 1970s is easily expandable. The 1966 Sears Craftsman Power and Hand Tools Catalog revealed that a 10 inch, one horsepower table saw was selling for $163.94 if one ordered it with the motor and floor stand included (p. 6). The 2003-2004 Craftsman Catalog (p.142) had a 10 inch, three horsepower table saw, with stand, for $139.00, and the saw featured such improvements as a carbide tipped blade that were not included with the 1966 table saw. Another model on the same page was $119.99, and it also looked better than the 1966 version. Likewise, a variety of pages from the 1971 Sears Fall Catalog listed prices that seemed remarkably near the ranges one sees today. In 1971, Sears offered a five speed bicycle for $59.95, a 14 horsepower electric-start lawn tractor for $1194.95, an under-the-counter dishwasher for $249.95, and an 18.2 cu ft, All-Frostless, top-freezer refrigerator for $399.95, including automatic icemaker. On February 7, 2004, Sears was selling 18.2 cu ft refrigerators for almost exactly the same price as in 1971 and Wal-Mart was offering a 26 inch Mountain Bike for $58.88 on its website. Sears was also selling an 18 horsepower lawn tractor with automatic transmission for $1199.88 on February 7, 2004, and it listed 14 different under-the-counter dishwashers for $249.99 or less, with three of the models selling for  less than $190.00. Many things with wheels, shafts, motors, and sheet metal show no inflation at all. Innovation throughout an expanding global economy kept the real prices of these products falling at about the same rate that inflation was causing the general price level to rise. As a result,  nominal prices, stayed nearly constant. If, due to productivity advancement, all prices had behaved this way since 1973, the average American, given her nominal wage increases, would have had a standard of living about four and a quarter times as high as it actually was by 2003 and might now be looking forward to a comfortable early retirement.

Automobile Prices Seem Absurdly Higher

How striking is the contrast when one considers automobiles listed in the 1970 Buying Guide of Consumer Reports, which reported prices for foreign cars at the time of its publication (but not for American cars). The very popular Volkswagen Sedan (or "Beetle") was just $1799, and the Toyota Corolla was $1686 (Consumer Reports, 1969, p. 423). On July 21, 2003, Yahoo Auto website showed Volkswagen’s "New Beetle" retailing between $15950 and $23540, while the Toyota Corolla retailed for between $13570 and $14680, or more than 8 times its 1970 price. Consumer Reports (p. 401) emphasized that, in 1970, American manufacturers had entered into direct price competition against the foreign economy cars with Detroit contenders such as the Ford Maverick. One might recall that the Chevrolet Corvair was closely competitive with the Volkswagen, the Corvair holding a distinct performance advantage with a price little different from the "Beetle." Nader singled out the Corvair in particular, making it the scoundrel of his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed (New York: Grossman). To be sure, today’s Volkswagen or Toyota significantly outperforms its 1970 predecessor, but so does today’s sewing machine or washing machine, though we can’t prove it at the drag strip. Consumer Reports showed a coveted BMW priced at $2727 (p. 424) in 1969, still nearly an order of magnitude less than today’s high-end "New Beetle." While today’s Plymouth Neon may, to an enthusiastic subset of its owners, seem more comparable to a then lower priced high-end Porsche of the early 1970s, allegations that car prices haven’t really gone up seem obviously exaggerated. Automobile prices have not only outpaced those of products such as sewing machines and lawnmowers, they seem to have greatly outrun the prices of some of their own component parts: a belted bias ply tire was about $30 in 1974 (Consumer Reports, 1974, pp. 425-426), compared with steel-belted radials starting below $30 at Wal-Mart today. In fact, the Producer Price Index for new motor vehicle parts (excluding motorcycles) was less than 10% higher in 2003 than it had been in 1982, the earliest available year for that series on the BLS website (BLS, 2004). Whereas producers have been able to increase production efficiency enough to completely neutralize inflation among so many other products, a car that provides essentially the same ride to work as it did in 1970 sure does cost much more today. While today’s cars are better, someone who would willingly drive a new copy of the old VW Beetle can find no such market option. It is as if there are laws against producing cheap cars.

Automobiles have constituted an ever-changing package of quality changes, but so have other products such as sewing machines and lawnmowers. The government seems to have exaggerated automobile quality improvements even while the Boskin Commission found it ignoring them in many other goods and services. From 1970 to 2001, the chain-type price index for "new automobiles" in the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) Personal Consumption Expenditure series increased by a factor of 2.56 (BEA, 2003, Table 7.5), and that is a far cry from the roughly eight- fold nominal increase that a naïve old-timer witnessed if he perused the car lots over the years. The BEA attempts to measure a theoretically standardized core unit:-- a standardized "automobile" that is defined, in effect, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) methods of adjusting for quality changes when the Consumer Price Index for new automobiles is calculated. Unfortunately, the resulting 2.56 figure incorporates some "quality changes" unlike the ones delighting grandma in her new sewing machine because the automobile "quality changes" got there due to politically expressed preferences rather than preferences consumers expressed as market sovereigns. Endowed with 2.56 times the price of her 1972 VW, can grandma go out and buy any sort of new car at all? It seems doubtful!

The government has mandated many automobile "quality changes" such as catalytic converters in exhaust systems and airbags on steering wheel hubs – things that consumers resisted buying voluntarily. In October, 1970, the BLS formally decided to treat charges for mandated pollution control equipment on automobiles as price increases, reasoning that the services the autos provided to consumers would be equally valuable with or without the mandated equipment (BLS, 2001). However, in March 1971, the BLS reversed this decision and retroactively switched to treating pollution control devices as pure quality improvements (BLS, 2001). Even though the true value of such quality changes probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, for its inability to objectively value environmental benefits, the BLS thus began using a "cost of production" procedure to value automobile pollution reductions as if they were "quality improvements" worth their full cost of production. It is even plausible to argue that, had emission cleanup efforts proceeded only a little more slowly, a tremendous reduction in their costliness might have been achieved and radically cheaper cars might have hastened the replacement of America’s fleet of old clunkers that were perhaps the most significant source of automobile air pollution in the first place. Lynn Scarlett (1996) discusses some of the expensive dilemmas that California has subsequently faced because of its population of "gross polluters" consisting of the 10 percent of all cars that account for more than 50 percent of all vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

Some of the other "quality changes" were of questionable merit, such as weight (and, therefore, safety) reductions required to comply with corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards. Even a perceived tendency for automobiles to last longer today may be largely due to better lubricants, fuels that leave no corrosive lead salt residue and prices that discourage early replacement, rather than to greater durability of the cars themselves. Improvements in apparent safety statistics might likewise largely reflect completion of the interstate highway system, the prolonged imposition of 55 mile per hour speed limits, mandatory seatbelt wearing laws, and a severe crackdown on drunk drivers. Reduced traffic fatalities might also derive more from improvements to the nation’s roadways such as signs, traffic lights, guardrails, etc., and more effective, if not more laudable, policing procedures than from safety improvements embodied in the automobiles themselves. In 1991, Thomas Sowell discussed the irrational regulatory fads that had turned the automobile industry into a "basket case" at that point in history, while yielding dubious benefits for society. Regarding all mandated environmental and safety modification costs as quality improvements leaves one with a seemingly exaggerated account of the actual level of suffering or fear of the relevant perils in the 1970s, since many people were not even frightened enough to wear seat belts back then. In the 1970s, people who felt particularly unsafe in 1972 Volkswagens probably drove cars more similar to the well armored Ford Galaxy 500 instead, and they now may drive heavy SUVs, while thumbing their noses at today's supposedly safer smaller cars.

In a column for Automotive News in May 2000, Murray Weidenbaum stated that safety and emission requirements added $2,500 to an average new automobile’s price. The higher price forcing motorists to drive their old cars longer before they replace them largely cancels out intended environmental and safety benefits, Weidenbaum observes (2000, p. 14). Just the airbag alone in 1995 added $400 or $500 to the average car’s price, while National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator (NHTSA), Ricardo Martinez, stated that safety standards imposed by his office added $700 to the price of a new car (Ward’s Auto World, 1995). Ward’s marveled in 1995 that, in a country where mean individual income was then about $30,000, the price of the average new car had passed $20,000, having risen $9,000 in the previous decade alone. It is striking that the biggest advances in safety had already taken place before 1970. In 1966, Congress created NHTSA and required 17 safety improvements in all cars, including seat belts, padded dashes, and collapsible steering columns (Gardner, 1996). In 1968, Congress imposed California-style exhaust control requirements, subsequently toughening exhaust standards in the early 1970s to usher in the catalytic converter (Gardner, 1966). Much of the improvement in emissions and safety since the early 1970s seems arguably ambiguous, with one regulation working against another, according to Weidenbaum (2000, p. 14).

Effect of Regulation on Productivity

Not counting the pollution abatement "quality improvements" embodied in the cars, between 1974 and 1986 pollution abatement expenditures within the transportation equipment sector were about the same fraction of the value of industry shipments as were abatement expenditures in the food and kindred products or textile mill products sectors – all three sectors starting the period with such expenditures a little below 0.2% and ending close to 0.5% (Robinson, 1995, p. 423). The same was true for OSHA compliance expenditures, although they were comparatively so much smaller than pollution abatement expenditures that they appear to have been relatively insignificant (Robinson, 1995, p. 425). James C. Robinson found that these pollution abatement and OSHA compliance expenditures reduced multifactor productivity growth by about the same annual amounts in all three sectors between 1975 and 1986 – by about 0.3 percentage points in 1975, increasing to about 0.7 or 0.8 by 1986 (Robinson, 1995, p. 431). However, Robinson relied on multifactor productivity measurements that were derived from inflation adjusted output, and relatively little of the increase in automobile prices was represented as inflation (Robinson, 1995, p. 401). Productivity growth in the transportation equipment sector was being greatly exaggerated by treating all mandated pollution and safety equipment costs as pure quality improvements, and had these costs been treated as pure price increases, productivity would have doubtlessly declined markedly, rather than increasing at all.

Apart from the automobile value measurement problem, Robinson’s findings represented another reasonably good illustration of what Wayne Gray observed. Gray follows Edward Denison and others in discerning that "A plant which spends 2 per cent of its total costs on abatement will have a 2 per cent lower level of productivity, all else being equal" (Gray, 2002, pp. xiv-xv). Regulation imposes costs similar to annually taxing away the interest from a bank account. Gray explains that a plant that spends 0.5% of its total costs every year on pollution abatement can expect a 0.5% reduction in annual multifactor productivity growth that would, after two decades, reduce productivity and, therefore, output by roughly 10 percent (Gray, 2002, p. xv). Pollution abatement spending within the automobile assembly plant, however, seems modest compared with the pollution abatement spending embodied within the automobile itself. While the auto assembly plants needed few smokestack scrubbers, the automobiles coming out of the plants all required catalytic converters in their exhaust systems. The cost of the catalytic converters did not appear in the tally that the Census Bureau kept of pollution abatement spending within the manufacturing sector. Instead, as seen above, the BLS recorded such expenditures as product quality improvements, thereby increasing the inflation adjusted value of output when it compiled the Consumer Price Index. To fully explain the more than eight-fold increase, since 1970, in the price of a Toyota Corolla, we would need to find annual productivity growth reduced enough to account for about a 6.5 percent annual increase in the price of such cars, if, at the extreme, we assume that no real quality improvement occurred at all. If mandating safety and pollution expenditures cost annually about 6.5 percent of the value of a new car, then such mandates really could cumulatively suffice to produce a more than eight-fold increase in car prices 33 years later, ruining the car, as Sowell describes it. Gray and Robinson leave us convinced that the expected effect of requiring the same number of dollars worth of pollution control and safety modifications to the auto assembly plant as were mandated for the autos themselves could conceivably impact car prices by an amount similar to the actual nominal increase that car prices exhibited. Sowell’s perception of mandates ruining the car requires us thus to merely accept an analogy that regards modifying the automobile itself as being effectively equivalent to modifying the assembly plant, if we wish to take Sowell literally.

Not all of the increase in car prices need be attributed to mandated modifications to cars. The manufacturing of automobiles fell victim to the stifling of multifactor productivity growth that plagued the larger manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy in total. Robinson’s estimates imply that environmental regulation reduced output growth in the whole of manufacturing by about one percentage point per year from 1974 to 1986 (Robinson, 1995, pp. 411, 414). Thus, while Robinson found relatively small effects in producing transportation equipment and food, he found productivity growth stifling effects an order of magnitude higher in some other industries such as paper, chemicals, petroleum, metals, and stone, clay and glass products so that it all added up to a bigger effect (Robinson, 1995, 431). Gray summarizes six different studies utilizing varying methodologies that all conclude that during the 1970s environmental regulation reduced multifactor productivity growth by more than 0.2 percentage points per year in certain particular affected industries (Gray, 2002, xvii). Gray cites still other studies with substantially larger stagnating effects of environmental regulation identified (Gray, 2002, xviii, xix, xxi). Like Gray, Robinson also found productivity reduction to be relatively small in the mid-1970s and small in a variety of particular industries, but larger when aggregated over the whole manufacturing sector and extended into the mid-1980s (Robinson, 1995, p. 411, 414). Such studies do not extend to measuring the impact of product design mandates that have plagued the automobile and contributed to its greater nominal price increases whose origins remain obscured by a complexity of details.

Idealism Empowers Rent Seeking

While environmental and safety enhancements were championed by zealous, high-minded, idealists, carmakers were perhaps assumed to be the public’s political defenders of vehicle affordability, thus insuring a measure of balance and pragmatic compromise protective of consumer’s financial interests. Automobile manufacturers openly opposed much of the proposed regulatory legislation, but their opposition might not have been for the sake of keeping down the price of the automobile. The industry worked with the idealists favoring regulation, ever modifying their proposals in favor of protecting industry profitability and even, at times, firm survivability. The political dynamics of the demand for social regulation is best understood in the context of Bruce Yandle’s "bootleggers and Baptists" rent seeking model (1999). Much as Yandle’s bootleggers who secretly promote the Baptist’s efforts to outlaw Sunday sales of lawfully manufactured liquor (Yandle, 1999, p. 5), automakers must have rejoiced to find environmental and safety advocates effectively fostering policies that would, in effect, outlaw cheap cars. The resulting regulatory game, by continually eliminating many price-reducing efficiency gains, propelled automobile prices ever higher. Environmental and safety requirements not only force carmakers to produce expensive additions to their products, they force car buyers to buy them and maintain many of them over the life of their vehicles.

Nor is the automobile market the only one in which the bootleggers-and-Baptists pairing resulted in higher prices. The inordinate rise in the prices of houses over the past 30 years is one of the most visible examples of rent seeking in action, and probably the least despised. Homeownership is so widespread among the voting public that almost any kind of political maneuver that increases the market value of this asset can potentially achieve political acclaim. A politician would be a fool to promise, if elected, to work toward bringing down the prices of houses. Yet people do not openly conspire toward the objective of driving up housing prices, but nearly always in some roundabout fashion promoting some other seemingly noble cause. A recent article by Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko (2003) contends that the cause of much of the so-called "housing affordability crisis" is actually the result of zoning restrictions that push the price of houses in certain locales well above their cost of construction.

Floating Standards of Comparison

Glaeser and Gyourko capture only part of the matter, however, since their study takes the cost of constructing a house as a given. In fact, many restrictions enter into the determination of just what it costs to build a house, per se. These include building codes and regulations affecting building materials, to name just some of the determinants of construction costs. The famous spotted owl controversy of the early 1990s helped push up the price of lumber that had reached $190 per 1000 board feet in November 1991 (Dingle, 1991, p.84) to about $500 by April 1993 (Carpenter, 1993, p. 35). Similar elements are at work in diminishing the affordability of a number of other vital commodities, moreover. Manufactured homes increased in price by a factor of 3.3 between 1970 and 2001 according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (2003, Table 7.7). This was in contrast to the 5.09 fold increase in "permanent site" residential structures from 1970 to 2001 (BEA, 2003, Table 7.7). Manufactured homes, officially so named by Congress which had called them "mobile homes" until 1980, might have increased even less in price had Congress not legislated the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Act in June of 1976 that limited manufacturers’ freedom much as building codes limit contractors’ freedom in building site-built houses (Mobile Homes, 2003). Furthermore, manufactured housing participated in the price inflating retardation of multifactor productivity growth that the whole manufacturing sector appears to have suffered especially because of environmental regulation.

Judging impediments to price reducing technological progress by analogies such as between the automobile and the lawnmower can understate perverse regulatory impacts since regulation stymied progress in producing the benchmark to an unknown extent. Alan Greenspan struggles to illuminate a contemporary natural gas crisis seen in futures markets in early 2003. Greenspan explains how natural gas imports, constrained by environmental and safety concerns, have been retarded enough to help cause the long term price of natural gas to rise from $2 per million Btu in 1997 to over $4.50 per million Btu by 2003 (Greenspan, 2003, p. 547). Greenspan observes that the comparable distant futures price of light sweet crude oil has gone up only $4 per barrel over the same period (Greenspan, 2003, p. 547). Crude oil is hardly an ideal benchmark because environmental and safety concerns have greatly affected its price over the period in question. Both of these commodities might be getting cheaper every day in the absence of unnecessary regulation, for all we know. Julian Simon won a famous bet with Paul Ehrlich, who was confident that natural resource prices would escalate as the result of a rapid increase in demand caused by a global population crisis he forecasted that did not occur (Fumento, 1992).


Argument by analogy is only as weak as the analogy itself. There are many reasons why the price of an automobile diverged so dramatically from the price of a lawn tractor or a sewing machine. While Thomas Sowell’s allegations that government regulation ruined the automobile remain less than fully "proved," it is annoying to stroll through a new car lot while thinking about the many car-like manufactured durables that, unlike automobiles,  haven’t over several decades really gone up at all in nominal dollar price. A kernel of truth in Sowell’s position seems utterly undeniable.


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