Archives: 09/2014

The FDA vs. Fine Cheese: A Wedge Too Far

[cross-posted, slightly adapted, from Overlawyered]

It’s happening just as warnedJanet Fletcher at the Los Angeles Times reports:

…cheese counters could soon be a lot less aromatic, with several popular cheeses falling victim to a more zealous U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Roquefort — France’s top-selling blue — is in the agency’s cross hairs along with raw-milk versions of Morbier, St. Nectaire and Tomme de Savoie. …

Of course, French creameries haven’t changed their recipes for any of these classic cheeses. But their wheels are flunking now because the FDA has drastically cut allowances for a typically harmless bacterium by a factor of 10.

The new rules have resulted in holds even on super-safe Parmigiano Reggiano, and the risk of losing a costly shipment of a perishable commodity is likely to be enough to drive many European producers out of the market for export to America entirely. Highly praised artisanal cheese makers in the United States are facing shutdown as well.

Earlier on the FDA and cheese regulation in this space here (predictions before the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, or FSMA, passed) and at Overlawyered hereherehere, etc.

They told us this administration was going to be run by wine-and-cheese liberals. Now where are they when they could do us some good?

Auto Dealers Attempt to Ban Tesla from Georgia

Rather than selling cars through independent dealers, the upstart electric car maker Tesla sells its automobiles directly to consumers. However, many states prohibit direct auto sales, thanks to laws from the mid-20th century that ostensibly were intended to protect dealers from automakers’ market power. The need for that protection was questionable when the laws and regulations were adopted and are even more dubious in today’s highly competitive auto market. But they are especially inappropriate when applied to a small new automaker that solely wants to engage in direct sales.

This week, the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association filed a petition with the state’s Department of Revenue in an attempt to bar further sales of Tesla sedans. Such battles have erupted in numerous states, from Missouri to New Jersey. In the latest issue of Regulation, University of Michigan Law professor Daniel Crane argues that dealer distribution restrictions are based on faulty ideas of consumer protection. Traditional dealers claim that competition among a brand’s dealers prevents the manufacturer from “gouging” consumers and extracting monopoly profits. Crane argues that standard economic theory demonstrates that these claims are nonsense. Firms with market power will be able to claim monopoly profits, regardless of whether middlemen, such as dealerships, are involved.

Moreover, by restricting competition among business models for auto sales, laws such as those in Georgia stifle competition among automakers. When companies such as Tesla seek to lower costs through innovative business designs, they face costly regulatory hurdles and legal challenges such as the sales ban in Georgia. These laws protect existing dealers and hurt consumers.

Savings and the Decline of Small Business Entry

A recent paper from the Brookings Institute raises an important observation that businesses are “becoming older,” that is, the age profile of American business is increasingly dominated by older firms.  One reason is that the entry rate of new businesses has been steadily declining for decades. 

While this decline has been witnessed across firm size, it has been most dramatic among small firms.  One potential contributor to the decline in new small businesses is the long run decline in the personal savings rate.  According to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, the number one, by a long shot, source of capital for new businesses is the personal savings of the owner.  For firms with employees, about 72 percent relied upon personal/family savings for start-up capital.  The other dominate sources of capital, credit cards and home equity, were much less frequently used.  Recent legislative changes (2009 Card Act) and a volatile housing market have made those sources less reliable in recent years.

The chart below compares the trend in entry rates for new business establishments with less than five employees with the personal savings rate.  The correlation between the two is 0.62.  While both the decline in business entry and savings are likely driven by common macroeconomic factors, it seems plausible that if households have fewer saving, they are also less likely to be able to start a business.  My preferred response would be to eliminate policies, such as those in the tax code or current monetary policy, which penalize savings.  I suspect others might have different suggestions.

The D.C. Circuit Grants En Banc Review of Halbig

My reaction to the D.C. Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review of Halbig v. Burwell in a nutshell:

  1. It is unnecessary.
  2. It is unwise.
  3. It is unfortunate.
  4. It appears political, as would a decision to overrule Halbig.
  5. It will likely only delay Supreme Court review.
  6. En banc review does not necessarily mean the court will overturn Halbig, though it doesn’t look good.
  7. I predict that even if the court overturns Halbig, the Obama administration will lose ground.
  8. The D.C. Circuit will not have the last word.

If you want to go outside the nutshell, where I unpack all this with more words and facts and links, go here

The D.C. Circuit Vacates Its Panel’s Halbig Decision

A quick note on unfortunate happenings at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this morning: The court vacated its excellent July 22 decision in Halbig v. Burwell, which had held that Obamacare’s plain language precluded the federal government from subsidizing the health insurance premiums of policies people obtain through exchanges established by the federal government. Just hours after that July 22 decision came down, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the other way on the question in King v. Burwell, setting up a circuit split and a reason for the Supreme Court to promptly decide the question, especially given the scope and magnitude of the issues at stake (36 states have declined to establish state exchanges, for which Obamacare does provided subsidies).

Thus, with the D.C. Circuit now having vacated its three-judge panel’s decision and having agreed to rehear the case en banc (by the entire court), there is no longer a circuit split and less urgency for the Supreme Court to take up the issue. Other cases challenging the federal subsidies are coming along, but for the moment, this is where things are. For more on these issues, see Ilya’s latest post and a WSJ op-ed by Adam White, both written before this morning’s decision. It’s rare for any circuit, but especially for the D.C. Circuit, to grant en banc rehearings. But then nothing has been normal about Obamacare, which is what you should expect when so politicized a program is thrust upon the nation.

Supreme Court Must Resolve Obamacare Chaos

When the Affordable Care Act was being debated in Congress, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously insisted that “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.”  It turns out, however, that the Obama administration—which has been making it up as it goes along with regard to ACA enforcement—doesn’t care “what’s in it.”

The IRS in particular has been implementing Obamacare as it thinks the law should be, not as it is. The ACA encourages states to establish health insurance exchanges by offering people who get their health coverage “through an Exchange established by the State” a tax credit—a subsidy to help them pay their premium. In the event a state declines to establish an exchange, Section 1321 further empowers the Department of Health and Human Services to establish federal exchange in states that decline to establish their own exchanges (without providing for the premium subsidy).

When, contrary to the expectations of the law’s achitects, 34 states declined to establish an exchange—two more have since failed—the IRS decided that those getting their insurance on federally established exchanges should qualify for tax credits regardless of the statutory text. In conflict with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a similar case called Halbig v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell found the legal text to be ambiguous and thus deferred to the IRS interpretation.

The so-called Chevron doctrine counsels that statutory text controls when Congress has spoken clearly on an issue. But where Congress is ambiguous or silent, the agency can fill the regulatory gap with its own rules and policies. The problem here is that the ACA’s text was not ambiguous and there is no evidence that Congress intended to delegate to the IRS the power to determine whether billions of taxpayer dollars should annually be dispersed to those purchasing health care coverage on federal exchanges. That the Fourth Circuit has bent over backwards to accommodate the administration’s latest Obamacare “fix shows that it, too, is not so concerned with “what’s in” the law. 

To that end, Cato joined four other organizations to support the plaintiffs’ petition for review by the Supreme Court. Our brief argues that the Court should hear the case because it offers the opportunity to reverse potentially grave harm to the separation of powers, to correct a misapplication of the Chevron doctrine, and to restore the idea that drastically altering the operation of a major legislative act belongs to the political process and not in a back rooms of an administrative agency. Just because those who voted for the ACA didn’t care what it said doesn’t mean that the executive and judicial branches should also turn a blind eye.  

To see the legal machinations now at play in these cases regarding the Obamacare-IRS-tax-credit, see my recent op-ed in the National Law Journal. Since that was published this past Monday, the government received a 30-day extension in which it has to file its response to the King cert petition. That means that the Supreme Court will be considering at some point next month whether to take the case.

For Cato’s previous briefs in Halbig and King, respectively, see here and here.

FSOC’s Arbitrary, Ever-Changing Double Standard

In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress, without irony, decided the best way to end “too big to fail” was to have a committee of regulators label certain companies “too big to fail.”  That committee, established under Title I of Dodd-Frank, is called the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and is chaired by the Treasury Secretary. Like so much of Dodd-Frank, FSOC gets to write its own rules. Unfortunately FSOC won’t even write those rules, but instead it has decided that it knows systemic risk when it sees it. This has led to an ad hoc process that almost makes the bailouts of 2008 look systematic.

Compare the process for asset management firms and that for insurance companies. In late 2013, the Treasury released a report on the asset management industry. It was widely viewed as an attempt to make the case for labeling some asset management firms “systemic.”  The report was widely criticized. Such criticism did not stop FSOC from conducting a public conference on the asset management industry in May 2014.  Whether it was the public reaction to the conference or the paper, FSOC has largely abandoned labeling asset managers as “too big to fail.”  That was an appropriate outcome as firms in that industry are not systemic and shouldn’t be lead to expect a federal rescue.

Now don’t get me wrong: A shoddy report and a conference do not constitute a thorough process. As someone who has overseen a rulemaking process, I can say they do not even meet the basics of the Administrative Procedures Act. But just when that process seemed wholly inadequate, along comes the “process” for insurance companies.

Not unexpectedly, AIG went along without a peep. Given its role in the crisis that’s not a surprise. But there’s been no report or even a conference on whether insurance companies pose systemic risk. Completing either one would, of course, require FSOC to define systemic risk and to offer some minimal metrics. Instead, what we have is unelected bureaucrats simply making it up as they go along.

And here I was thinking Dodd-Frank was meant to end the haphazard behavior of regulators in 2008 and lead us towards a predictable rules-based approach to ending systemic risk!