Tag: regulation

End the Credit Rating Monopoly

Earlier this week, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro appeared before Congress to suggest ways to fix the failings in our credit rating agencies.   Sadly her proposals miss the market, although that shouldn’t be so surprising as her suggestions appear to rest upon a misunderstanding of the problem.

The thrust of the SEC’s current approach is more disclosure, such as releasing “pre-ratings” that debt issuers may get before final issuance.  Additional disclosure of ratings methodology and assumptions is likely to be useless.  Almost all that information was available during the building housing bubble.  The problem is that the rating agencies had little incentive to go beyond the consensus forecasts of increasing to at most modest declines in home prices.  These same assumptions were the foundation of almost all government economic forecasting as well, yet few believe that forcing CBO or OMB to disclosure more of their forecasts will cure our budget imbalances.  What is needed is a change in incentives.

Here again the SEC seems to misunderstand the incentives at work, but then recognizing such would force the SEC to admit its own role in creating those some perverse incentives.  The SEC’s notion that agencies issue favorable ratings in order to gain business misses the most basic fact of the ratings business - they don’t have to compete for business, any debt issuer wanting to place “investment grade” debt has to use the agencies, and often has to use more than one of them.  Due to a variety of SEC and bank regulations, there is almost no competition among the rating agencies.  They have been given a government created monopoly.  If the rating agencies were, as the SEC proposes, competing strongly for business, then they wouldn’t have been earning huge profits on that business.  Competition erodes a business’ profits.  During the housing boom, the rating agencies continued to make ever more profits - more the sign of a monopoly than one of competition.

The truth is not that the agencies were captive to the debt issuers, but the other way around.  And like any monopolist, the agencies became lazy, slow and fat.  The real fix for the failure of the credit raters is to reduce the excessive reliance on their judgements inherent in most securities, banking and insurance regulations.  An investment grade rating should never serve as a substitute for appropriate due diligence on the part of investors (especially pension fund managers) or regulators.

Yoga Instructors: Enemies of the State(s)

The NY Times reports today on various state government efforts to regulate yoga classes by forcing instructors to obtain a government license. 

I’m not going to get into why government licensing is a pernicious racket here. Rather, I just want to make a point about the nature of the mini–Washington DCs currently in charge of laundering Uncle Sam’s so-called economic “stimulus” money.

From the NYT article:

In March, Michigan gave schools on the list one week to be certified by the state or cease operations. Virginia’s cumbersome licensing rules include a $2,500 sign-up fee — a big hit for modest studios that are often little more than one-room storefronts.

Lisa Rapp, who owns My Yoga Spirit in Norfolk, Va., said she had canceled her future classes and was preparing to close her seven-year-old business this summer. “This caused us to shut down the studio all together,” Ms. Rapp said. “It’s too bad, because this community really needs yoga.”

A nice little story to keep in mind the next time you hear some politician or government apologist claim that the states’ current inability to spend as they did before the recession is somehow endangering an economic recovery.

I think what disgusts me the most about this story is the fact that the yoga “industry” opened itself up for attack by creating an online registry “to establish teaching standards in an effort to have the industry regulate itself.” As a friend sarcastically intoned to me in an email, “They tried to self-regulate and Leviathan just ended up using it to impose regulation.  Brilliant.” 

The NYT captures the mentality of these bureaucratic thugs:

The conflict started in January when a Virginia official directed regulators from more than a dozen states to an online national registry of schools that teach yoga and, in the words of a Kansas official, earn a “handsome income” in the process…

“If you’re going to start a school and take people’s money, you should play by a set of rules,” said Patrick Sweeney, a Wisconsin licensing official, who believes that in 2004 he was the first state official to discover the online registry and use it to begin regulating yoga teaching.

The bright side is that these yoga instructors are feeling the government’s boot on their throat and not liking it:

Brette Popper, a co-founder of Yoga City NYC, a Web site that has closely chronicled licensing developments, said that the yoga community — described on the site as “a group that doesn’t even always agree about how to pronounce ‘Om’ ” — was finally uniting around a common enemy. (Emphasis mine.)

The NYT quotes one regulation opponent as saying the conflict is about “bureaucracy versus freedom.”  Amen, my friend.  I don’t know much about yoga, and I’m as flexible as steel, but today we lovers of liberty are all yoga instructors!

Does the PASS ID Act Protect Privacy?

I’ve written about PASS ID here a couple of times before - first on whether or not it’s a national ID and, second, on the politics of this REAL ID revival bill. Now I’ll take a look at whether it fixes the privacy issues with REAL ID. Privacy is complicated. Buckle up.

The day the bill was introduced, the Center for Democracy and Technology issued a press release giving it a privacy stamp of approval.

“The PASS ID Act addresses most of the major privacy and security concerns with REAL ID,” said Ari Schwartz, Vice-President of CDT. The release cited four ways that PASS ID was an improvement over the bill it’s modeled on, REAL ID.

Interstate Data Sharing?

First, CDT said, PASS ID “[r]emoves the requirement that states ‘provide electronic access’ allowing every other state to search their motor vehicles records.” It’s technically true: The language from REAL ID directly requiring states to share information among themselves came out of PASS ID. But the requirements of the law will cause that information sharing to happen all the same.

Like REAL ID did, PASS ID would require states to confirm that “a person submitting an application for a driver’s license or identification card is terminating or has terminated any driver’s license or identification card” issued by another state.

How do you do that? You check the driver license databases of every other state. Maybe you do this by directly accessing other states’ databases; maybe you do this indirectly, through a “pointer system” or “hub.” But to confirm that you’re talking about the right person, you don’t just compare names. You compare names, addresses, pictures, and other biometrics.

Just like REAL ID, PASS ID would require states to share driver data on a very large scale. It just doesn’t say so. As with REAL ID, the security weaknesses of any one state’s operations would accrue to the harm of all others.

Mission Creep?

Second, CDT says that PASS ID “[l]imits the ‘official purposes’ for which federal agencies can demand a PASS ID driver’s license, thereby helping prevent ‘mission creep.’” Again, it’s technically true, but materially false.

REAL ID had an open-ended list of “official purposes” - things that the homeland security secretary could require a REAL ID for. PASS ID is not so open-ended, but that is a small impediment to only one form of mission creep.

PASS ID places no limits on how the DHS, other agencies, and states could use the national ID to regulate the population. It simply requires the DHS to use PASS ID for certain purposes. A simple law change or amendment to existing regulation would expand those uses to give the federal government control over access to employment, access to credit cards, voting - CDT’s own PolicyBeta blog called a plan to use REAL ID to control cold medicine a “terrifying” example of mission creep. And these are just the ideas that have already been floated.

When I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on REAL ID in May 2007, I spoke about what we had recently heard in a meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee:

Ann Collins, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles from the State of Massachusetts, … said, “If you build it, they will come.” What she meant by that is that if you compile deep data bases of information about every driver, uses for it will be found. The Department of Homeland Security will find uses for it. Every agency that wants to control, manipulate, and affect people’s lives will say, “There is our easiest place to go. That is our path of least resistance.”

PASS ID is the same medium for mission creep that REAL ID is. The problem is with having a national ID at all - not with what its enabling legislation says.

Privacy Protections?

Next, CDT says that PASS ID requires “privacy and security protections for PII stored in back-end motor vehicle databases.” (“PII” means “personally identifiable information.”)

A glaring oversight of REAL ID - and the competition for glaring oversights was fierce - was to omit any requirement for privacy and security of the databases states would maintain and share on behalf of the federal government. The DHS took pains in the REAL ID rulemaking to drain this swamp. It tried to require minimal information collection for identity verification and minimal information display on the card and in the machine readable zone. (It failed in important ways, as I will discuss below.) The REAL ID regulation required states to file security plans that would explain how the state would protect personally identifiable information. And it said it would produce a set of “Privacy and Security Best Practices.” None of this mollified REAL ID opponents, and the privacy bromides in the PASS ID Act won’t either.

One of the more interesting privacy “protections” in the PASS ID Act is a requirement that individuals may access, amend, and correct their own personally identifiable information. This is a new and different security/identity fraud challenge not found in REAL ID, and the states have no idea what they’re getting themselves into if they try to implement such a thing. A May 2000 report from a panel of experts convened by the Federal Trade Commission was bowled over by the complexity of trying to secure information while giving people access to it. Nowhere is that tension more acute than in giving the public access to basic identity information.

The privacy language in the PASS ID Act is a welcome change to REAL ID’s gross error on that score. At least there’s privacy language! But creating a national identity system that is privacy protective is like trying to make water that isn’t wet.

Limits on Use of Card Data?

CDT’s final defense of PASS ID is the presence of meager limits on how data collected from national ID cards will be used. Much like with mission creep, the statutory language is beside the point, but CDT points out that PASS ID “prohibits states from including the cardholder’s social security number in the MRZ and places limits on the storage, use, and re-disclosure of that information.”

“MRZ” stands for “machine-readable zone.” In the PASS Act and REAL ID Act, this is referred to as “machine-readable technology,” and in the REAL ID rulemaking, the DHS selected a 2D barcode standard for the back of REAL ID licenses and IDs. Think of government officials scanning your license the way grocery clerks scan your toilet paper and canned peaches.

It’s true that the PASS ID Act bars states from including the Social Security number in that easily scanable data, but it doesn’t prohibit anything else from being scanned - including race, which was included in DHS’ standard for REAL ID.

And don’t think that limits on the storage, use, and re-disclosure of card information would have any teeth. It would create a new crime: scanning licenses, reselling or trading information from them, or tracking holders of them “without lawful authority,” but it’s not clear what “without lawful authority” means. It would probably allow people to give implied permission for all this data-collection and -sharing by handing their cards to someone else. It would certainly allow governments to authorize themselves to collect and trade data from cards en masse.

Not that we should want this “protection.” The last thing we need is another obtusely defined federal crime. Nearly as bad as being required to carry a national ID is making it illegal for people to collect information from it when you want them to!

And in Some Ways PASS ID is Worse

But let’s talk some more about that machine-readable zone. When Congress passed REAL ID, suspicion was strong that the “MRZ” would be an RFID chip - a tiny computer chip that can be read remotely by radio.

Recognizing the insecurity of such devices - and the strong public opposition to it - DHS declined to adopt RFID for the REAL ID Act. It did, however, work with a few states and the U.S. State Department to develop an RFID-chipped license that it calls the “enhanced driver’s license.” This has a long read-range chip that will signal its presence to readers as much as fifteen or twenty feet away. The convenience gain DHS and State sought for themselves at the border would be a privacy loss, as scanning cards could become commonplace in doorways and other bottlenecks throughout the country - your whereabouts recorded regularly, as a matter of course, by public and private entities.

Why do we care about “enhanced drivers licenses”? Because the PASS ID Act would ratify them for use as national IDs. States could push their residents into using these chipped cards if they didn’t want to implement every last detail of PASS ID.

Needless to say, ID cards with long-distance (including surreptitious) tracking are a step backward for privacy. This is one sense in which PASS ID is worse than REAL ID.

Consider more carefully also what PASS ID and REAL ID are about in terms of biometrics. Both require states to “[s]ubject each person applying for a driver’s license or identification card to mandatory facial image capture.”

States across the country are using driver license photos to implement facial-recognition software that will ultimately be able to track people directly - nevermind whether you have an RFID-chipped license or show your card to a government official. They are aiming at preventing identity fraud, of course, but with advancing technology, before too long you will be subject to biometric tracking simply because you posed for an unsmiling digital photo at the DMV. REAL ID and PASS ID are part and parcel of promoting that.

Does PASS ID address “most of the major privacy and security concerns with REAL ID”? Not even close. PASS ID is a national ID, with all the privacy consequences that go with that.

Changing the name of REAL ID to something else is not an alternative to scrapping it. Scrapping REAL ID is something Senator Akaka (D-HI) proposed in the last Congress. Fixing REAL ID is an impossibility, and PASS ID does not do that.

A New Regulation I Can Support

Normally I would be happy to leave labelling decisions to retailers and manufacturers, but here’s a proposal for a new mandatory labelling scheme that I can get behind.

James Gibney, a reporter from the Atlantic, called me last week to ask some questions about dairy supports. He was preparing a blog post to propose a new labelling idea that might help break the frustrating stranglehold that the farm lobby has over U.S. agricultural policy. Here’s James’ idea:

To wit, every product whose ingredients benefit from a subsidy should include the following language on the label:

“This product has been subsidized by the U.S. government at taxpayer expense. For more information, please visit usda.gov.”

And every product that benefits from tariff protection should have the following language on the label:

“This product is protected from foreign competition by U.S. import tariffs. Its price is higher as a result. For more information, please visit usitc.gov.”

I like it. For more on Cato’s work on agricultural policy, see here and here.

The Failure of Do-Nothing Policies

A news story from today in a slightly alternate universe:

Jobless Rate at 26-Year High

Employers kept slashing jobs at a furious pace in June as the unemployment rate edged ever closer to double-digit levels, undermining signs of progress in the economy, and making clear that the job market remains in terrible shape.

The number of jobs on employers’ payrolls fell by 467,000, the Labor Department said. That is many more jobs than were shed in May and far worse than the 350,000 job losses that economists were forecasting.

Job losses peaked in January and had declined every month until June. The steep losses show that even as there are signs that total economic activity may level off or begin growing later this year, the nation’s employers are still pulling back.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “President Obama proposed a $787 billion stimulus program to get this country moving again. He tried to save the jobs at GM and Chrysler. But the do-nothing Republicans filibustered and blocked that progressive legislation, and these are the results.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference, “We begged President Bush to save Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, AIG, the rest of Wall Street, the banks, and the automobile industry. We begged him to spend $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out America’s great companies. We begged him to ignore the deficit and spend more money we don’t have. But did he listen? No, he just sat there wearing his Adam Smith tie and refused to spend even a single trillion to save jobs. And now unemployment is at 9.5 percent. I hope he’s happy.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill agreed that the “do-nothing” response to the financial crisis had led to rising unemployment and a sluggish economy. If the Bush and Obama administrations had been willing to invest in American companies, run the deficit up to $1.8 trillion, and talk about all sorts of new taxes, regulations, and spending programs, then certainly the economy would be recovering by now, they said.

The European Union Stops Banning Ugly Veggies

The European Union has helped create a continental European market and knock down protectionist barriers, which is good.  But it also has created another opportunity for meddling bureaucrats to interfere with people’s lives. 

Now consumer protests have led to at least one victory for liberty.  Reports London’s Sun newspaper:

Now the European Commission has finally scrapped the 20-year ban on 26 types of fruit and veg including asparagus, celery and aubergines.

They ruled they can now be sold - as long as they are labelled as “intended for processing”.

Sainbury’s spokeswoman Lucy Maclennan said: “We are delighted to have played a part in winning the wonky veg war against these bonkers EU regulations.”

Tesco spokesman Adam Fisher said: “It’s not before time. We welcome this move.”

And last night it was predicted the change could see some prices fall by 40 PER CENT.

A Commission official said: “Times have changed - now household budgets are tighter and there is the problem of wasting food.”

One bad regulation down.  Who knows how many to go?

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.