Archives: 08/2015

Who Could Have Seen That Coming?

Several recent news stories report information that was hardly surprising to anyone who has studied economics or read Cato at Liberty. We talk a lot about unintended or unanticipated consequences around here, but in these cases the consequences were anticipated and even predicted by a lot of people.

First, consider this front-page story from the Washington Post on Monday:

The [fast-food] industry could be ready for another jolt as a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour nears in the District and as other campaigns to boost wages gain traction around the country. About 30 percent of the restaurant industry’s costs come from salaries, so burger-flipping robots — or at least super-fast ovens that expedite the process — become that much more cost-competitive if the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is doubled….

Many chains are already at work looking for ingenious ways to take humans out of the picture, threatening workers in an industry that employs 2.4 million wait staffers, nearly 3 million cooks and food preparers and many of the nation’s 3.3 million cashiers….

The labor-saving technology that has so far been rolled out most extensively — kiosk and ­tablet-based ordering — could be used to replace cashiers and the part of the wait staff’s job that involves taking orders and bringing checks. 

Who could have predicted that? Well, Cato vice president Jim Dorn in his 2014 testimony to the Maryland legislature. Or Bill Gates around the same time.

Then there’s this all-too-typical AP story out of California:

Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act and the Folly of Antidumping Laws

A Michigan-based supermarket trying to expand into Wisconsin has come up against an absurd law against selling products at “unfairly low” prices.  As reported by MLive, the Meijer grocery store chain is facing complaints that its grand opening sales violated Wisconsin law for offering products at prices below cost. Why is that bad?

The official rationale behind Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act of 1939 is revealing:

The practice of selling certain items of merchandise below cost in order to attract patronage is generally a form of deceptive advertising and an unfair method of competition in commerce. Such practice causes commercial dislocations, misleads the consumer, works back against the farmer, directly burdens and obstructs commerce, and diverts business from dealers who maintain a fair price policy. Bankruptcies among merchants who fail because of the competition of those who use such methods result in unemployment, disruption of leases, and nonpayment of taxes and loans, and contribute to an inevitable train of undesirable consequences, including economic depression.

Some of these are simply a consequence of any market competition, a process that inevitably results in some companies failing.  But the idea that there is something uniquely harmful called “unfair competition” that occurs once a product is sold below cost is just false.  There are many reasons companies sell certain products at certain times for less than the cost of production.  For example, grand opening sales and seasonal sales are ordinary forms of competition.  It’s common in many retail sectors to use a low-priced “loss leader” product to draw customers into your store hoping they will buy other high-priced items as well.  

In short, the existence of regular below-cost sales is in fact a sign of a healthy, competitive market that serves consumers and suppliers. 

Trump, Ford, and Trade Policy

I don’t think anyone likes the idea of responding to all of the various statements that Donald Trump makes, but when he says something vaguely – emphasis on vaguely – substantive on an issue, a short response might be of value. In a recent interview with Chris Cuomo, Trump talked about trade policy, and had this to say (starting around the 7:00 mark) about Ford doing some of its manufacturing in Mexico:

Trump: … Ford is building a $2.5 billion … manufacturing plant for cars, trucks, and parts in Mexico.

Cuomo: How do you keep them?

Trump: Uh you keep them by…

Cuomo: … ‘cause the labor’s cheap that’s why they go.

Trump: For one thing, you keep them by talking to them. But I would say you keep them … if they go there, you know… they’ll make cars, and they’ll sell them to the United States no tax, no nothing. Just come right across the border. …

Cuomo: …and they say the labor’s cheaper over there.

Trump: And you know what, then we’ll say that’s fine. If the labor’s cheaper over there that’s good, but you know what, you’re gonna have to pay a tax to get those cars back in. You’re gonna have to pay a penalty. And if you put a… a penalty on, a tariff or whatever you call it … 

My sense is that Trump’s conception of Ford as a company is rooted in the 1950s, or maybe even the 1920s. In his mind, Ford is owned by Americans, produces in America, and sells to Americans. In reality, though, Ford has long been a global company. Here’s something I wrote about Ford a while back in the context of a paper on international investment:

Washington Is Too Cozy with Certain Dictators

U.S. leaders routinely emphasize that America’s foreign policy is based on support for the expansion of freedom around the world.  But as I point out in a recent article in the National Interest Online, Washington’s behavior frequently does not match the idealistic rhetoric.  Too often, U.S. policymakers seem to favor even brutal and corrupt authoritarian allies over boisterous, unpredictable democratic regimes.

During the Cold War, U.S. administrations enthusiastically embraced “friendly” autocratic governments in such places as South Korea and the Philippines—even when there were viable democratic alternatives.  Because it was uncertain whether democratic governments would be as cooperative with U.S. foreign policy aims, officials preferred dealing with more compliant autocrats.  Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly misrepresented such allies to the American people as noble members of the “free world.”

The tendency was especially pronounced in the Middle East, and that cynical policy has persisted longer there than in other regions.  It began early, as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and restore the Shah to power as an unconstrained monarch.  The Shah became America’s chosen Persian Gulf gendarme for the next quarter century, despite the regime’s appalling human rights record and pervasive corruption.  Elsewhere in the region, Washington developed a cozy relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak that lasted three decades, even as he and his military cronies looted and brutalized that unhappy country. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems just as hypocritical as its predecessors when it comes to relations with Egypt and other Middle East countries.  U.S. leaders were reluctant to cut Mubarak loose even as pro-democracy demonstrations surged throughout Egypt in 2011.   In a PBS interview, Vice President Joe Biden even objected to describing Mubarak as a dictator and rejected calls for him to step down.

Spin Cycle: EPA Deflates Climate Impacts, Inflates Significance

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

Well, well, well. The EPA has finally gone and done it. They have actually calculated the climate change impacts projected to result of one of their climate change regulations—in this case, the proposed rules for the efficiency standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles.

What they found was hardly surprising—the climate impacts from the proposed regulations will be vanishingly small.

The EPA calculates that the amount of global temperature rise averted by the end of the 21st century from the proposed regulations to be… wait, this is too good to paraphrase. From the EPA:

The results of the analysis demonstrate that relative to the reference case, by 2100 projected atmospheric CO2 concentrations are estimated to be reduced by 1.1 to 1.2 part per million by volume (ppmv), global mean temperature is estimated to be reduced by 0.0026 to 0.0065 °C, and sea-level rise is projected to be reduced by approximately 0.023 to 0.057 cm.

Did you catch that? According to the EPA’s own calculations, their regulation mandating the fuel economy of medium and light duty trucks avoids somewhere between twenty-six ten-thousandths and sixty-five ten-housandths of a degree of future global warming. In other words, it is a useless measure when it comes to influencing the future course of global temperature. If the EPA wants to regulate the fuel efficiency of trucks, it needs to justify it for reasons that don’t relate to climate change.

“A Fundamental Lack of Faith That Our Legal System Is Working Properly”

I’ve got a new piece in City Journal analyzing the record of New York’s powerful, very left-wing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. It ranges over topics that include his close ties to labor unions, his campaigns against AirBnB, Craigslist sellers, and herbal-supplement retailers, his role in overturning already-negotiated mortgage and banking settlements, and much more, including the unique role of state AGs in American politics. Very few businesses can resist the pressure a New York attorney general can bring to bear on them, with the sorts of troublesome results I explain in a sidebar

When New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman filed charges of unlawful redlining against two banks in the Rochester and Buffalo areas — they had concentrated their lending in the suburbs — he drew an unusual rebuke from Frank H. Hamlin III, CEO of another small upstate bank, Canandaigua National Bank and Trust, which had not been charged. In a letter to shareholders, Hamlin reassured them that his own bank’s relations with its regulators “are healthy. I am, however, extremely suspicious of the arbitrary and capricious manner in which various agencies (prosecutors) are abusing the legal system in order to further their own political and economic interests.” And he noted a foundational problem: “The regulations are vague in explaining what conduct is actually prohibited.” That gives enforcers plenty of discretion as to when to file complaints and against whom.

Hamlin went on to explain that one of the two banks that Schneiderman targeted “has chosen to merely fold while the other has chosen to fight. I can understand the decision to fold. The potential sanctions are severe on both corporate and personal fronts. One must decide whether to put the livelihood of their employees and potentially their own personal liberty on the line or merely cry ‘uncle’ and give the ‘people’ its pound of flesh and go on with life.

“Those who choose to fight are forced to depend upon a legal system that has mutated its focus from time-honored legal principle and justice to efficiency and political expediency,” he wrote. “I can assure you, there is no such thing as ‘efficient justice.’ ”

Finally, Hamlin warned against assuming that any decision to fold was an indicator of ultimate guilt. “The reason that 98 percent of prosecutions are settled instead of taken to trial is not the result of defendants saying, ‘Aw shucks, you caught me.’ It has to do with a fundamental and reasonable lack of faith that our legal system is working properly.”

When the letter began to attract press notice, the bank declined further comment, saying that the letter spoke for itself. Speaking out is all well and good, but in New York, it’s important not to rile up the authorities by doing so too loudly.

Read the whole thing here.

Is Birthright Citizenship Constitutionally Required?

Lord help me if I have to write about anything else Donald Trump says, but I do have a few thoughts on the birthright citizenship debate he’s launched. I’ll set aside the policy aspects, which have been covered in previous years in the Cato Journal, at a Cato Hill briefing, on this blog, by my colleague Alex Nowrasteh in a pithy oped, and I’m sure many other places on our website. (Alex also posted this week an extended analysis of Trump’s new position paper on immigration.) My main take-away on the policy side is that we don’t want to create a permanent state-less underclass like what exists in many countries.

Now, on the law – on the question of whether you would need a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship or could just do it by amending the relevant immigration statutes – the picture is actually less clear. The first thing that the Fourteenth Amendment says, before we get to privileges or immunities, due process, and equal protection, is the following: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It’s that italicized “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” that’s at the heart of the debate.

Here’s the basic history: The common law at the time of the Founding gave birthright citizenship to all except slaves and Indians. The Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Dred Scott (1857) confirmed the denial of citizenship to slaves, even if they were freed. The Fourteenth Amendment overturned Dred Scott with respect to blacks (and other non-white races), though Indians were still denied citizenship because they owed allegiance to their tribes, not to the United States. (Native Americans were granted citizenship by statute in 1924, though that allegiance/dual-loyalty paradox still clouds much of Indian law.) 

The proponents of the Fourteenth Amendment added “subject to the jurisdiction” to the Fourteenth Amendment in order to exclude from citizenship two groups beside Indians: the children of (1) foreign diplomats and (2) enemy forces engaged in hostile occupation. That understanding was affirmed by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), when it recognized the U.S. citizenship of a man who was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. Wong’s parents weren’t citizens, although they were legal residents. 

But what about illegal immigrants? Illegal aliens and their children are subject to our laws and can be prosecuted and convicted of violations – unlike diplomats, who enjoy certain immunities, and unlike foreign invaders, who are generally subject to the laws of war rather than domestic civil law. The illegal immigrants’ countries of origin can hardly make a “jurisidictional” claim on kids born in America (at least while they’re here). Thus, a natural reading of “subject to the jurisdiction” suggests that the children of illegals are citizens if born here.

On the other hand, the Fourteenth Amendment’s enactors probably didn’t intend birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants. At ratification in 1868, there were no illegal immigrants and no law had ever restricted immigration. “Subject to the jurisdiction” probably meant primary allegiance to the United States as a sovereign.

My sense of the constitutional question – again setting aside my policy view that more liberal immigration laws (accompanied by vigorous border control to prevent crime, terrorism, and public-health issues) would resolve much of the illegal-alien problem – is as follows.  

When the original public meaning of a legal text is unambiguous, you have to adopt that meaning unless it leads to absurd consequences. Here, the consequences may well be irrational and self-defeating: We prohibit unauthorized entry while offering an inducement, giving citizenship to the children of those who violate the law. So if Congress were to deny citizenship to children of illegal aliens, the Supreme Court might not declare that law unconstitutional. It’s a close call (read the strong arguments pro and con constitutional birthright citizenship by my friends Jim Ho and John Eastman, respectively).

Would the Court consider the consequences of a textual meaning that gives birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants to be absurd?  If so, the intent or purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment’s enactors might trump the text. On the other hand, and being realistic, if Chief Justice John Roberts can find that a mandate is a tax and that a federal exchange was established by a state, there’s no way that the current Supreme Court would eliminate birthright citizenship for anyone.

So really, let’s debate some serious policy issues. It’s just not classy or luxurious to keep pressing this birthright-citizenship stuff.