Tag: regulation

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.

Competing Naïvetés: How to Produce a Privacy-Protective Society

My Economist.com debate on whether governments should “do far more to protect online privacy” has now concluded. The vote on the motion went to my opponent, supporting government involvement by a margin of 52 to 48 percent.

I won a moral victory, perhaps, moving the vote from 70 percent in favor of government intervention to the very close ending tally. My commentary highlighting the substantial role of government in undermining privacy seems to have begun moving the dial in my direction.

A pleasant side-effect of the debate was to open lines of communication with a number of my privacy-advocate colleagues, many of whom do not share my libertarian outlook. One called me naïve to think consumers can successfully demand privacy given the imposing wall of corporate practices that rely on intensive and comprehensive data collection.

Full health privacy, for example, would require a marketplace in which consumers can pay cash for services or demand that information about their treatments not be shared. It is illegal for a pharmacy to fill a prescription without identifying the patient apparently, a requirement that sets up the conditions for nationwide tracking of patients’ medicines and, inferentially, their health conditions.

This prescription tracking is facilitated and reinforced by government regulation, of course. Consumers cannot exercise privacy self-help when the law requires pharmacies to collect information about them. Freedom to pay cash for medicines, and to do so unidentified, is at best a long way off, to be sure.

But I had suggested the naïveté of the pro-government view as well:

The arguments for government control certainly seem to rest on good-hearted premises: if we just elect the right people, and if they just do the right thing, then we can have a cadre of public-spirited civil servants dispassionately carrying out a neutral, effective privacy-protection regime.

But this romantic vision of government seems never to come true. Crass political dealmaking inhabits every step, from the financing of elections, to logrolling in the legislative process, to implementation that favours agencies’ interests and the preferences of the politically powerful.

For government to protect privacy, the ideal of “clean government” would have to be realized. But proposals to move policy in that direction, such as regulations on how elections are financed, happen to conflict with fundamental American rights like freedom of speech and petition. Public financing would make the government itself politicians’ most important constituent, ripping it loose from the moorings that protect individual rights and liberties.

A host of legislative process reforms might only begin to drive a wedge between politicians and what they do best. And the ideal of a neutral, scientific regulatory process has not materialized. Regulation is a different, more obscure forum for expressions of political power. For this reason and others, regulation is poorly suited to balancing all the interests of consumers compared to market processes, which are the best method we have for discovering consumers’ true interests and apportioning resources accordingly.

I’ll take my naïveté over the alternative. Reducing the power of government and thereby setting the conditions for consumer-centered privacy protection seems a more likely prospect than taking the politics out of politics, which is an even bigger, even more forbidding project.