Obesity remains a serious health problem and it is no secret that many people want to lose weight. Behavioral economists typically argue that “nudges” help individuals with various decisionmaking flaws to live longer, healthier, and better lives. In an article in the new issue of Regulation, Michael L. Marlow discusses how nudging by government differs from nudging by markets, and explains why market nudging is the more promising avenue for helping citizens to lose weight.
In Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics, economists Bruce Yandle and Adam Smith explain how money and morality are often combined in politics to produce arbitrary regulations benefiting cronies, while constraining productive economic activities by the general public.
The three-week battle over ObamaCare’s contraceptive-abortifacient ruling isn’t letting up. Catholics for Choice has a full-page ad in this morning’s Washington Post, urging the president to stay firm. And it’s the lead story today on NPR’s Morning Edition, which in printed form devotes fully 2 of 16 paragraphs—the last 2—to the other side (not bad for NPR). The gist of the piece is, what’s the big deal? “The only truly novel part of the plan is the ‘no cost’ bit,” says NPR’s Julie Rovner.
“Now millions more women and families are going to have access to essential health care coverage at a cost that they can afford,” says Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel with the ACLU. “But as a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it’s completely unremarkable.”
Unfortunately, they’re right: our modern anti-discrimination law has been so extended that today it undermines religious liberty on many fronts. Two terms ago, for example, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled that the Christian Legal Society, a student group at the Hastings Law School, had to admit “all comers,” not only as members but as officers. (See Cato’s amicus brief defending the group’s right to discriminate in the name of religious liberty and freedom of association.)
Here, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2000 that failure to provide contraceptive coverage violates the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlaws, among other things, discrimination based on gender. And 26 states today have similar “contraceptive equity” laws on the books, Rovner reports, which state courts have upheld in suits brought by Catholic Charities and others. She quotes from the 2006 decision of New York State’s top court:
When a religious organization chooses to hire non-believers, it must, at least to some degree, be prepared to accept neutral regulations imposed to protect those employees’ legitimate interests in doing what their own beliefs permit.
Right there, of course, is the problem. As I wrote over the past twodays, no one on the other side is asking employees to do anything contrary to their religious beliefs—or not do “what their own beliefs permit.” Employers are not “imposing their religious beliefs” on their employees, as some have argued. Those employees are still perfectly free to use contraceptives and abortifacients. They just shouldn’t expect their employers, through the group health insurance plans the employers offer, to provide and pay for such measures if doing so violates their religious beliefs. But that would be to discriminate against women, the courts have held, since only women get pregnant. Thus does our antidiscrimination law, as found in statutes, trump religious liberty, as once protected by the Constitution. “To each his own” falls by the wayside when “we’re all in this together,” as ObamaCare requires us to be.
Cato’s third Supreme Court brief in the Obamacare litigation concerns the issue of whether the federal tax Anti-Injunction Act prevents federal courts from timely reviewing Congress’s most egregious attempt to exceed its power to regulate interstate commerce. The AIA bars courts from enjoining “any tax” before that tax is assessed or collected.
One would think that such a law would have no application to the penalty that enforces the individual health insurance mandate, which is not a tax but rather a punishment for not complying with the mandate. Accordingly, most of the courts to consider the issue have found the AIA to be inapplicable to individual mandate challenges. Moreover, the government itself has long conceded that the AIA does not bar these suits.
A Fourth Circuit majority and the dissenting Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the D.C. Circuit, however, reached a contrary conclusion, reasoning that the AIA applies to all exactions assessed under the Internal Revenue Code, including “penalties.” Out of an abundance of caution, and because the AIA may be a jurisdictional bar, the Supreme Court appointed an amicus curiae to argue for the position that the AIA bars these suits.
The plaintiffs here — the 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and several individuals — have advanced several strong arguments for why the AIA doesn’t apply. Cato’s brief expands on one of those arguments: that the words “any tax” in the AIA do not include “penalties” simply because they may be codified in the Code.
First, we demonstrate that the Supreme Court has always held that “taxes” and “penalties” are not interchangeable for AIA purposes. Second, we show that, with one exception, all of the cases cited in the amicus briefs filed by two former IRS commissioners, Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen — which appear to have heavily influenced the Fourth Circuit and Judge Kavanaugh — concerned penalties that were statutorily defined as taxes. This refutes the commissioners’ erroneous claim that those cases concerned penalties that were not defined as taxes. As we say in our brief, “the influence of Amici Caplin & Cohen’s [D.C. Circuit] brief is surpassed only by its misdirection.” The one exception is the Mobile Republican case (Eleventh Circuit 2003), which we explain is properly understood as applying the AIA to penalties that enforce substantive tax provisions.
In short, the AIA cannot bar suits to enjoin the individual mandate penalty because that penalty neither is defined as a tax nor enforces a substantive tax provision.
Thanks very much to Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon for taking the lead in drafting this brief and helping me with this blogpost.
We’ve often deplored the continued push of criminal prosecution into matters that were once considered more suitable for regulation or for the operation of civil law. A little-noted report a few weeks back in the Los Angeles Times may indicate the next milestone in overcriminalization:
The U.S. attorney has launched a fraud investigation to determine whether Los Angeles city officials ignored federal laws designed to protect the disabled when building or fixing up housing. …
The investigation spans January 2001 to the present, the letters said. If violations are uncovered, city agencies that used federal housing funds could face financial penalties, lose out on future grants or possibly become the subject of a criminal investigation, said [city official] Bill Carter…
Disabled activists sought an investigation because, to quote the LAT again,
In testimony and in person, activists alleged that doors were sometimes too heavy for wheelchair users to open, elevators were not working in at least one city-funded building, and managers either refused to rent to wheelchair users or did not have apartments available for them, [advocate Becky] Dennison said.
The activists also felt ignored because various management recommendations they made to local officials had been ignored. They already have a right to file civil suits over their grievances: indeed, shortly after the U.S. Attorney’s investigation came to light three advocacy groups did file a civil suit against the city.
There are very real problems of fraud – plain old graft and money-raking – on the L.A. public housing scene. But the idea of redefining fraud to include ADA noncompliance is a different matter. If taken seriously, it would mean exposing ordinary as well as dishonest local officials across the country to the specter of criminal liability. It’s notoriously hard to assure that either new or renovated buildings are 100% compliant with ambitious interpretations of the law; a design fix that satisfies three ADA consultants may displease a fourth. Criminal liability should arise from very clear, preannounced standards of conduct. That’s not the ADA.
Maybe the U.S. Attorney’s office is just raising the criminal issue as a bit of bravado to please its friends in the advocacy world and strong-arm the city into settling. But as playwrights know, if a shotgun is shown above the fireplace in Act I, by the middle of Act III a shot will ring out. This misguided extension of federal fraud law is worth challenging now.
If you missed the news (Obama actually made a “big” speech about it), the federal government, along with 49 state AGs, reached a settlement with the largest mortgage servicers over servicing violations. In some ways, what little detail has been offered raises more questions than answers.
Perhaps the biggest question is how much of the actual losses will be borne by the banks and how much will be passed along to investors, who were not even represented at the table. One hears that both first and second mortgages would be written down “in proportion” so that if the first loan is reduced 10%, then the second is also reduced 10%. Obviously this flies in the very face of what a first and second loan are. The first shouldn’t take any loss until the 2nd is completely wiped out. But since investors often hold the first while banks hold the second, it looks like Obama has blessed the banks sticking a good deal of their losses to the investors, which include pension funds, retirement accounts etc.
And while I was of course moved by the touching picture of a couple and their child featured so predominantly on the settlement’s website, I was also left wondering, what is the process for determining which foreclosed homeowners receive assistance. The settlement is actual quite clear that “$1.5 billion will be distributed nationwide to some 750,000 borrowers” but that such borrowers need not have actually been harmed. This really seems little more than a lottery trying to pass as consumer protection. But then I suspect your chances for getting a piece are bigger if you happen to live in a swing state (sorry California).
What really worries me is the massive payment to states. Of course they claim this is going to help “fund consumer protection” but then we also told that the tobacco settlements would help smokers; it instead turned into state government slush funds. Even more troubling is the high probability that such funds will flow to various non-profits, whatever the current incarnation of ACORN is calling itself.
Fortunately the entire settlement has to be approved by a federal judge. Given that these issues really should have been decided in the courts in the first place (separation of powers, anyone?), this is the opportunity for the courts to ask for the AGs and Obama to actually produce some evidence of wrong-doing. And also to ask that parties actually harmed be the ones compensated. Anything else would be a perversion of justice.
My Cato colleague John Cochrane – who is way smarter than I am – has a generally excellent op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on ObamaCare’s contraception mandate:
Salting mandated health insurance with birth control is exactly the same as a tax—on employers, on Catholics, on gay men and women, on couples trying to have children and on the elderly—to subsidize one form of birth control…
The tax rate and spending debates that occupy the media are a small part of the effective taxes and spending that the government achieves by these regulatory mandates…
The natural compromise is simple: Birth control, abortion and other contentious practices are permitted. But those who object don’t have to pay for them. The federal takeover of medicine prevents us from reaching these natural compromises and needlessly divides our society…
Sure, churches should be exempt. We should all be exempt.
My only quibble is with his claim, “Insurance is a bad idea for small, regular and predictable expenses.”
That’s generally true. But medicine is an area where, potentially at least, small up-front expenditures (e.g., on hypertension control) could prevent large losses down the road. So it may be economically efficient for health plans to cover some small, regular, and predictable expenses. Both the carrier and the consumer would benefit. In fact, that would be the market’s way of telling otherwise uninformed consumers, “Hey! Controlling your hypertension is a really good for you!” And really, if someone is so risk-averse that they want health insurance with first-dollar coverage of everything – and they’re willing to pay the outrageous premiums that would accompany such coverage – why should we take issue with that?
ObamaCare’s contraceptive-coverage mandate demonstrates that government does a horrible job of picking only those types of “preventive” services for which first-dollar coverage will leave consumers better off. But I also think advocates of free-market health care generally need to let go of the idea that health insurance exists only for catastrophic expenses.
There are good reasons to suspect that big government is bad for growth. Taxation is perhaps the most obvious (Bergh and Henrekson 2010). Governments have to tax the private sector in order to spend, but taxes distort the allocation of resources in the economy. Producers and consumers change their behavior to reduce their tax payments. Hence certain activities that would have taken place without taxes, do not. Workers may work fewer hours, moderate their career plans, or show less interest in acquiring new skills. Enterprises may scale down production, reduce investments, or turn down opportunities to innovate. …Over time, big governments can also create sclerotic bureaucracies that crowd out private sector employment and lead to a dependency on public transfers and public wages. The larger the group of people reliant on public wages or benefits, the stronger the political demand for public programs and the higher the excess burden of taxes. Slowing the economy, such a trend could increase the share of the population relying on government transfers, leading to a vicious cycle (Alesina and Wacziarg 1998). Large public administrations can also give rise to organized interest groups keener on exploiting their powers for their own benefit rather than facilitating a prosperous private sector (Olson 1982).
The authors then put forth a theoretical hypothesis.
…economic models argue that the excess burden of tax increases disproportionately with the tax rate—in fact, roughly proportional to its tax rate squared (Auerbach 1985). Likewise, the scope for self-interested bureaucracies becomes larger as the government channels more resources. At the same time, the core functions of government, such as enforcing property rights, rule of law and economic openness, can be accomplished by small governments. All this suggests that as government gets bigger, it becomes more likely that the negative impact of government might dominate its positive impact. Ultimately, this issue has to be settled empirically. So what do the data say?
Figure 7.9 groups annual observations in four categories according to the share of government spending in GDP during that year. Both samples show a negative relationship between government size and growth, though the reduction in growth as government becomes bigger is far more pronounced in Europe, particularly when government size exceeds 40 percent of GDP. …we provide new econometric evidence on the impact of government size on growth using a panel of advanced and emerging economies since 1995. As estimates can be biased due to problems of omitted variables, endogeneity, or measurement errors, it is necessary to rely on a broad range of estimators. …They suggest that a 10 percentage point increase in initial government spending as a share of GDP in Europe is associated with a reduction in annual real per capita GDP growth of around 0.6–0.9 percentage points a year (table A7.2). The estimates are roughly in line with those from panel regressions on advanced economies in the EU15 and OECD countries for periods from 1960 or 1970 to 1995 or 2005 (Bergh and Henrekson 2010 and 2011).
These results aren’t good news for Europe, but they also are a warning sign for the United States. The burden of government spending has jumped by about 8-percentage points of GDP since Bill Clinton left office, so this could be the explanation for why growth in America is so sluggish.
Last but not least, they report that social welfare spending does the most damage.
Governments are big in Europe mainly due to high social transfers, and big governments are a drag on growth. The question is whether this is because of high social transfers? The answer seems to be that it is. The regression results for Europe, using the same approach as outlined earlier, show a consistently negative effect of social transfers on growth, even though the coefficients vary in size and significance (table A7.4). The result is confirmed through BACE regressions. High social transfers might well be the negative link from government size to growth in Europe.
The last point in this passage needs to be emphasized. It is redistribution spending that does the greatest damage. In other words, it’s almost as if Obama (and his counterparts in places such as France and Greece) are trying to do the greatest possible damage to the economy.
In reality, of course, these politicians are simply trying to buy votes. But they need to understand that this shallow behavior imposes very high costs in terms of foregone growth.
To elaborate, this video discusses the Rahn Curve, which augments the data in the World Bank study.