Tag: regulation

Barack Obama, Mr. Deregulation?

In today’s much talked-of Wall Street Journal op-ed, President Obama reaches for common ground with critics of excessive government regulation – not a constituency he’s had much time for in the past. He announced an executive order requiring agencies to review existing regulation for outdated or unwise rules deserving of being struck from the books. That drew measured praise from organized business groups, something the President has not had much of lately.

Many left partisans are aghast, just as they were when Bill Clinton dashed for the political center after his own mid-term electoral “shellacking.” Salon complains that Obama’s op-ed “reads like an apology to the business community,” while Rena Steinzor fears the move signals a decline in influence for the administration’s regulatory ultras, such as Margaret Hamburg (FDA), Lisa Jackson (EPA), and David Michaels (OSHA).

Environmental law expert Jonathan Adler thinks the new executive order might do some good:

The Executive Order is here. It reaffirms the basic principles outlined in President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866, issued in September 1993, and continues to require agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules. As noted in the President’s op-ed, it also requires agencies to engage in “retrospective analysis” of existing rules so as to accelerate the pace at which outdated regulations are revoked. Specifically, it requires all agencies to develop a plan for such retrospective review within 120 days. If the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs ensures such reviews are meaningful, this could be a significant and positive step.

That’s a big “if.” Over the past two years, OIRA has not restrained its administration colleagues from making 2010 by far the biggest year for new regulatory burdens in memory (Heritage helpfully assembles details.) The most burdensome new rules are not from the best-known areas of new legislation, such as ObamaCare and financial reform, but from the environmental area. That makes it especially disturbing that, as Ted Frank points out, the President’s op-ed “singles out the top-down and economically inefficient fuel-economy regulation as a good one.”

So what does Obama see as an example of an excessive regulation needing repeal? The example he offers is the inclusion of the sweetener saccharin in the category of hazardous waste. Really? Saccharin as hazardous waste? Amid dozens of high-stakes, much-studied regulatory controversies, the only one he could come up with is one that – with all due respect to the people who make the little pink packets – is of hardly any significance to the wider economy, and not much more as a matter of principle?

Even this administration could have made better deregulatory boasts than that. For example, in a fit of sense, the Obama Justice Department a while back adopted regulations specifying that the Americans with Disabilities Act should no longer (as of this March) be interpreted to require restaurants, theaters and other Main Street businesses to admit patrons’ non-canine “service animals” such as monkeys, goats, snakes and spiders.

But it was almost as if his point was to pick a regulation so minor that no one cared much about it one way or the other. Had the President’s speechwriters been looking for an example of a hazardous-substance rule that would actually get people talking about regulatory overreach, they might have picked EPA’s dairy-spill regulations, which (in the words of one report) “treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans….” That one does have big and widespread economic costs.

Whoops – not a good example. That one’s not being repealed – EPA at last report intended to go forward with it. Can we really assume anything much is changing here besides the atmospherics?

The IRS Run Amok

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but I try not to demonize the bureaucrats because politicians actually deserve most of the blame for America’s complex, unfair, and corrupt tax system. The IRS generally is in the unenviable position of simply trying to enforce very bad laws.

But sometimes the IRS runs amok and the agency deserves to be held in contempt by the American people

Let’s look at a grotesque example of IRS misbehavior. It deals with a seemingly arcane issue, but it has big implications for the US economy, the rule of law, and human rights.

On January 7, the tax-collection bureaucracy proposed a regulation that, if implemented, would force American financial institutions to put foreign tax law above US tax law. Banks would be required to report to the IRS any interest they pay to foreigners, but not so the US government can collect tax, but in order to let foreign governments tax this US-source income.

This isn’t the first time the IRS has tried to pull this stunt. At the very end of the Clinton years, the agency proposed a rule to do the same thing. But the bureaucrats were thwarted because of overwhelming opposition from Capitol Hill, the financial services industry, and public policy experts. There was near-unanimous agreement that it would be crazy to drive job-creating capital out of the US economy and there was also near-unanimous agreement that the IRS had no authority to impose a regulation that was completely inconsistent with the laws enacted by Congress.

But like a zombie, this IRS regulation has risen from the grave.

I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this proposed rule, but there are five serious flaws in the IRS’s back-door scheme to turn American banks into deputy tax collectors for foreign governments.

1. The IRS is flouting the law, using regulatory dictates to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

Ever since 1921, and most recently reconfirmed by legislation in 1976 and 1986, Congress specifically has chosen not to tax interest paid to non-resident foreigners. Lawmakers wanted to attract money to the U.S. economy.

Yet rogue IRS bureaucrats want to impose a regulation to overturn the outcome of the democratic process. Heck, if they really think they have that sort of power, why don’t they do us a favor and unilaterally junk the entire internal revenue code and give us a flat tax?

2. The IRS has failed to perform a cost-benefit analysis, as required by executive order 12866.

Issued by the Clinton Administration, this executive order requires that regulations be accompanied by “An assessment of the potential costs and benefits of the regulatory action” for any regulation that will, “Have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities.”

Yet the IRS blithely asserts that this interest-reporting proposal is “not a significant regulatory action.” Amazing, we have trillions of dollars of foreign capital invested in our economy, perhaps $1 trillion of which is deposited in banks, and we know some of which definitely will be withdrawn if this regulation is implemented, but the bureaucrats unilaterally decided the regulation doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis.

During a previous incarnation of this regulation, the IRS’s failure to comply with the rules led the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration to denounce the tax-collection bureaucracy, stating that “…there is ample evidence that the impact of the regulation is significant and that a substantial number of small businesses will be impacted.”

3. The IRS is imposing a regulation that puts America’s economy at risk.

According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have invested more than $10 trillion in the U.S. economy.

And according to the Treasury Department, foreigners have more than $4 trillion in American banks and brokerage accounts.

We don’t know how much money will leave America if this regulation is implemented, but there are many financial centers – such as London, Hong Kong, Cayman, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurch, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Panama – that would gladly welcome the additional investment if the IRS makes the American financial services sector less attractive.

4. The IRS is destabilizing America’s already shaky financial system.

Five years ago, when the banking industry was strong, the IRS regulation would have been bad news. Now, with many banks still weakened by the financial crisis, the regulation could be a death knell. Not only would it drive capital to banks in other nations, it also would impose a heavy regulatory burden.

How bad would it be? Commenting on an earlier version of the regulation, which only would have applied to deposits from 15 countries, the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation warned that, “[a] shift of even a modest portion of these [nonresident alien] funds out of the U.S. banking system would certainly be termed a significant economic impact.” He also noted that potentially $1 trillion of deposits might be involved. And a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that $87 billion would leave the American economy. And remember, that estimate was based on a regulation that would have applied to just 15 nations, not the entire world.

So what happens if more banks fail? I guess the bureaucrats at the IRS would probably just shrug their shoulders and suggest another bailout.

5. The IRS is endangering the lives of foreigners who deposit funds in America because of persecution, discrimination, abuse, crime, and instability in their home countries.

If you’re from Mexico you don’t want to put money in local banks or declare it to the tax authorities. Corruption is rampant and that information might be sold to criminal gangs who then kidnap one of your children. If you’re from Venezuela, you have the same desire to have your money in the United States, but perhaps you’re more worried about persecution or expropriation by a brutal dictatorship.

There are people all over the world who have good reasons to protect their private financial information. Yet this regulation would put them and their families at risk. The only silver lining is that these people presumably will move their money to other nations. Good for them, bad for America.

Let’s wrap this up. Under current law, America is a safe haven for international investors. This is good news for foreigners, and good news for the American economy. That’s why it is so outrageous that the IRS, unilaterally and without legal justification, is trying to reverse 90 years of law for no other reason than to help foreign governments.

By the way, you can add your two cents by clicking on this link which will take you to the public comment page for this regulation. Don’t be bashful.

One last point. The Obama Administration says this regulation is part of a global effort to improve tax compliance. But unless Congress changes the law, the IRS is not responsible for helping foreign tax collectors squeeze more money out foreign taxpayers. Moreover, the White House has been grossly misleading about U.S. compliance issues (as this video illustrates), so their assertions lack credibility.

The Fall of the House of Waxman

While others wish the new Congress well today on its swearing-in, I plan to light a 100-watt incandescent bulb and hoist a caffeinated alcoholic beverage in honor of a different milestone: starting today, the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee will no longer be under the control of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Some lawmakers can talk a decent game about lean ‘n’ smart regulation, but no one ever accused Waxman of having a light touch. (The 900-page Waxman-Markey environmental bill, mercifully killed by the Senate, included provisions letting Washington rewrite local building codes.) He’s known for aggressive micromanagement even of agencies run by putative allies: his staff has repeatedly twisted the ears of Obamanaut appointees to complain that their approach to regulation is too moderate and gradual. More than any other lawmaker on the Hill, he’s stood in the way of any meaningful reform of the 2008 CPSIA law, which piles impractical burdens on small makers of children’s products, thrift stores, bicycles and others.

Like his predecessor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Waxman and his subcommittee chairs have famously used hearings as a club to discipline interest groups that don’t cooperate. Last spring he menaced large employers with hearings after several of them announced (contrary to some predictions) that ObamaCare was going to hurt their bottom lines. In September, subcommittee chair Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) announced hearings on regulating precious-metal companies, in a remarkable press release that devoted much attention to the firms’ role in sponsoring “several conservative pundits … including Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Laura Ingraham, and Fred Thompson. By drumming up public fears during financially uncertain times, conservative pundits are able to drive a false narrative,” the release said. In other words, the committee was investigating private firms in part because it disapproved of their advertising on, and reinforcing the economic message of, conservative talk shows. Didn’t anyone on Weiner’s staff have a sudden overhead flash about the whole “First Amendment” idea? Or had that particular light bulb been banned too?

The committee was an unending source of ghastly new legislative proposals for regulatory manacles to be fastened on one or another sector of the economy , ideas that with any luck we may now be spared for the next two years. Thus it appears unlikely that the Republican-led committee will give its blessing to something called the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 (H.R. 5786), introduced by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), which – by mandating that all compounds found in personal-care items at any detectable level be expensively tested for and disclosed on labels – could have added tens of thousands of dollars of cost overhead to that little herbal-soap business your sister is trying to start in her garage. (Fragrance expert Robert Tisserand explains why most small personal-care product makers would not survive if the bill passed). Nor is it likely that the new leadership of chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) will be in a hurry to adopt Rep. Schakowsky’s H.R. 1408, the Inclusive Home Design Act, which would mandate handicap accessibility features in most new private homes.

I look forward to learning more about the plans of Rep. Upton and his new majority colleagues. For today, however, it’s enough just to know that they are Not Henry Waxman.

The Constitutional Vision of The New York Times

The editorialists at the The New York Times are out of sorts this morning over a Tea Party backed constitutional amendment that would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved. Despite the backing of incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor and legislative leaders in 12 states, the proposal has little chance of succeeding, the Times avers, “but it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right.” Indeed, it expresses “with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad.”

Well? Isn’t that what the election last month was all about? But right there, for the Times, is the problem: “In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty.” With the Tea Party, however, the tables have turned. What most troubles the Times, it seems, are Tea Party signs that say “We Want Less!”

And nowhere is that better captured than when the Times speaks of “the mistaken vision of federalism on which [this amendment] rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.”

If that vision is “mistaken,” so too, apparently, were the Founders, because it was their vision as well. To be sure, the Constitution they crafted held “competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it,” as the Times writes. And true also, the government they shaped was meant “to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people” – but mainly by securing the framework for liberty, the rule of law, not by pursuing prosperity through government programs. In particular, the Framers believed in personal, not government, responsibility; private, not collective, property; and a free, not a planned, economy. And they left most power with the states, where it would be exercised responsibly, or not – something to keep in mind as we watch our “failed states” asking Washington (read, the other states) to bail them out.

Take Your Stinking Paws Off My Benjamins You Damn Dirty Statist

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not quite as memorable as Charlton Heston’s famous line from Planet of the Apes, but it certainly captures my sentiments after reading an article in Slate that calls for the elimination of the $100 bill. The author, Timothy Noah, says that large bills are only for “criminals and sociopaths.” Here’s the crux of his argument.

…why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes…? Technological change has reduced much further the plausible need of any law-abiding American to carry a C-note in his wallet or to stash a pile of C-notes in his mattress.

Noah’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. First, he is underestimating the degree to which “law-abiding” Americans use “Benjamins.”  And with higher inflation almost certainly around the corner, one can safely expect that $100 bills will become even more common in the future. Second, his entire argument rests on the statist assumption that government should restrict honest people because this will somehow make life more difficult for criminals. Yet he debunks his own anti-money laundering argument by noting that the government already has stopped printing larger bills, such as the $500 note. Has that stopped the drug trade? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

Like much of what government does, the campaign against money laundering is a costly exercise with very few tangible benefits. This video examines the cost-benefit issues.

I actually think the moral arguments against anti-money laundering laws are even more powerful. As Americans, we should have a presumption of innocence in our daily lives. What business is it of government whether we want to carry $20 bills or $100 bills? And think about the implications of these laws. What if the government said we need to ban cars, or put government-monitored homing devices in all vehicles, because bank robbers occasionally use automobiles as getaway vehicles? In this case, there is a theoretical benefit to the policy, just like there is a somewhat plausible case for anti-money laundering laws, but presumably we would reject such a policy as too intrusive.

Anti-money laundering laws are a classic case of bad policy leading to more bad policy. The government passes drug laws that create huge profits for criminals. But rather than getting rid of victimless crimes, the government imposes policies that make life more difficult and costly for everyone else.

The Seen and the Unseen

Quote of the day from outgoing Chairman (and soon-to-be Ranking Member) of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson (D., MN):

“I’ll be able to take care of sugar, that’s not even a question,” Peterson said. “We’ll keep the same program; it doesn’t cost anything. That won’t be hard.”

(Source: the North Dakota InForum, which has many more gems from the Chairman about why the election is not a problem for Big Ag)

Au contraire, Mr Peterson.  The U.S. sugar program costs sugar consumers, including food manufacturers, billions of dollars a year, by the government’s own figures.

I just love the way that so many politicians (and bureaucrats) assume that if something doesn’t show up as a line item in the budget, then it is essentially free.  Tens of thousands of pages added to the Federal Register every year, placing staggering regulatory burdens on business? Costless! The immense inconvenience to travellers and business people from debilitating lines at airports because of security measures? No need to consider those costs against any supposed security benefits; they’re paid for by the fairies. And the sugar program, which shifts the burden of supporting sugar prices onto consumers rather than taxpayers? Well, it simply “doesn’t cost anything.”

For more of Cato’s work on sugar policy, see here,  here, and here.

Bubbles, Uncertainty, and QE2

Within the Federal Reserve System, there is a tug of war over QE2 (2nd Quantitative Easing).  Some, mostly outside the system, are calling for $1 trillion-plus purchases of long-term bonds.  Within the Fed, there is little taste for purchases that large. I expect a compromise, with an initial purchase perhaps as low as $100 billion.

There is widespread doubt as to the efficacy of further purchases of long-term bonds. They will supply additional liquidity, but liquidity isn’t what is needed. Businesses and banks are suffering from fear and uncertainty: new taxes, new regulations, new mandates, and, for financial services, the uncertainty of the Dodd-Frank banking bill. 

Lower interest rates on long-term bonds will do nothing to diminish fear and uncertainty. Instead, QE2 will further inflate the bond bubble and the commodities bubbles.