Tag: special interests

Attorneys General Aim at New Targets, Who Respond as Expected

The New York Times launches a series of investigative reports on corporate lobbying of state attorneys general. But you have to read fairly far down in the story to find the “nut graf” on why this is happening now. Radley Balko summed it up in a tweet: “As prosecutors get increasingly powerful, lobbyists will increasingly spend money to try to influence them.” And the article does note that: 

A robust industry of lobbyists and lawyers has blossomed as attorneys general have joined to conduct multistate investigations and pushed into areas as diverse as securities fraud and Internet crimes….

The increased focus on state attorneys general by corporate interests has a simple explanation: to guard against legal exposure, potentially in the billions of dollars, for corporations that become targets of the state investigations.

It can be traced back two decades, when more than 40 state attorneys general joined to challenge the tobacco industry, an inquiry that resulted in a historic $206 billion settlement.

Microsoft became the target of a similar multistate attack, accused of engaging in an anticompetitive scheme by bundling its Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system. Then came the pharmaceutical industry, accused of improperly marketing drugs, and, more recently, the financial services industry, in a case that resulted in a $25 billion settlementin 2012 with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicing companies.

The trend accelerated as attorneys general — particularly Democrats — began hiring outside law firms to conduct investigations and sue corporations on a contingency basis.

I wrote about this 30 years ago in the Wall Street Journal, citing Hayek’s assessment from 40 years before that:

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek explained the process 40 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

As the size and power of government increase, we can expect more of society’s resources to be directed toward influencing government.

Those who work to increase the size, scope, and power of government need to recognize: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer – and reallocate through prosecution – $3.8 trillion a year, if you want it to supply Americans with housing and health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste. And that special interests will find ways to influence such momentous decisions, no matter what lobbying restrictions and campaign finance regulations are passed.

If an Interest Group Says We Need to Spend More Money, Check It Out

Young journalists are told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Every day journalists follow that advice, protecting us all from reading rumors and unconfirmed stories in the morning papers (though of course the increasing pressure to be first with the news is threatening this rule).

But journalists are still too quick to take the word of special interests without seeking other viewpoints, especially in stories about things the taxpayers need to spend money on. Take this morning’s story about water infrastructure on Marketplace Radio:

Following the expensive water-main break that flooded UCLA’s campus, Los Angeles officials say they’re trying to aggressively fix the city’s aging infrastructure. 

The costs are daunting. It’s going to take the city of Los Angeles billions of dollars to fix.

“They estimate some over 20 millions of gallons of water were lost and of course it wound up on that new floor at the Pauley Pavilion Basketball Arena,” says Greg DiLoreto, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “We have some 240,000 water main breaks a year in this country. And the age of our water infrastructure continues to get older and older and older.”

Big Government Wants in Your (Spare) Bedroom

It’s very expensive to visit many cities in the United States. New York City is perhaps the most expensive, not only because of the finite space in such a densely populated city, but because of numerous taxes on lodging and regulations like rent control that artificially create lodging shortages.

Nevertheless, there is still high demand to visit cities like New York and the market has found a way to make those visits more affordable. AirBnB is an online service that allows members to stay in people’s spare rooms, apartments, and homes in cities all over the world, often much more cheaply than the average hotel stay in the area.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, however, is challenging the entrepreneurial innovation—probably under pressure from special interests who would like the government to stifle their competition. This is crony capitalism as usual. As we’ve seen here in DC, established businesses like brick and mortar restaurants and taxicab drivers use their connections to government to squeeze out competition like food trucks and the Uber personal car service that challenge the status quo.

Cato has long supported free markets, entrepreneurship, and innovations to make goods and services more affordable. Government overreach like General Schneiderman’s campaign punishes not only AirBnB hosts and travelers, but also the New York economy as a whole as fewer people will be able to visit New York. I was on Fox Business last night talking about this protectionist government overreach. You can watch that here:

Water Infrastructure Bill: Bipartisanship Lives!

Last week, the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly passed a water infrastructure bill with only three members (two Republicans and one Democrat) voting against. In what must have been a moving scene for beleaguered supporters of unabated big government, tea party “radicals” joined hands with Democrats to support special interests at the expense of taxpayers. 

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) authorizes $8 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects like dam construction and river dredging that will benefit parochial constituencies and commercial interests. It’s called a “reform” bill, but a study of the bill by Taxpayers for Common Sense completely undermines that claim (see here). 

From Reuters: 

Colorado High Court Rejects School-Finance Litigation

By a 4-2 margin, the Colorado Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit claiming that the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional. It overturned a lower court ruling that had held that the current arrangement of funding fails to meet a requirement in the Colorado constitution that the state operate a “thorough and uniform” system of education. [decision in State v. Lobato via KDVR coverage

For years, pushing their Lobato case in the court of public opinion, school-spending advocates have been decrying Colorado schools as underfunded. The state has been given a series of bad ratings on education scorecards, many of which turn out on inspection to measure quality by how much money is spent—thus ensuring that Colorado, which spends less than many other states, will come off badly. This one, for example, ranks Colorado at “C-minus” for reasons that include low overall spending, low teacher salaries, and the state’s failure to fund “induction, mentoring or reduced workloads for new teachers.” 

When you measure outputs as opposed to inputs, on the other hand, the state comes off looking far better. In this ranking of SAT scores, Colorado scores 15th among the 50 states, the best performance of any Western state. In this ranking based on 4th and 8th grade testing, Colorado comes in 11th among the 50 states, trailing only Washington among Western states. 

But modern school-finance litigation only poses as being about educational quality. Its deeper mission is control—specifically, transferring control over spending from voters and their representatives to litigators whose loyalty is to a mix of ideologues and interest groups sharing a wish for higher spending. As I wrote in a draft chapter on school finance litigation cut for space from my book Schools for Misrule:

In the forty years since the pioneering Serrano v. California (California Supreme Court, 1971) school finance lawsuits have been filed in nearly every state, courts in around half the states have thrown out existing finance systems as unconstitutional, and many of them have ordered states to raise school budgets, not merely change the way in which they are financed. Vast sums have been redistributed as a result. Lawmakers in Kentucky enacted more than a billion dollars in tax hikes. New Jersey adopted its first income tax. Kansas lawmakers levied an additional $755 million in taxes after the state’s high court in peremptory fashion ordered them to double their spending on schools.

While filed on a state-by-state basis, the suits have been very much a coordinated national project. For many years their impetus came from the Ford Foundation and its various grantees, notably the American Civil Liberties Union. Furnishing, presumably, the brains of the operation, law-school-based groups have been instrumental, particularly the Education Law Center at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. …

The educational establishment had always resented the periodic need to go hat in hand – such a demeaning phrase! – to local electorates for tax and bond measures, as if the voters were somehow the bosses and they the servants. School finance litigation promised a more indulgent master, a jurist or panel of them who (it was hoped) would glance over the rows of costing-out numbers, nod appreciatively and feel good afterward about having done something for the children. … School finance litigation is the ultimate monument to the triumph of governance by litigation at the cost of democracy itself. 

Despite the victory in Colorado, there’s no reason to think this war of forty years’ duration (so far) is drawing to a close. 

The Defense Lobby, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron reports that Congress is nearing a deal to postpone some of the most contentious provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) until March 2013, or later. This is good news for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which has been lobbying since late last year to undo at least that portion of the BCA that pertained to the Pentagon’s budget (i.e. that portion that threatens to cut most deeply into its members’ profits).

Although the mechanics of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts are problematic, the scale of the Pentagon build-down would be modest by historical standards. And yet, the mere suggestion that sequestration might actually occur has sent the industry into apoplexy. The AIA’s campaign has included the release of a new report claiming that the BCA cuts could result in over 1 million lost jobs, and warnings that hundreds of thousands of workers would be receiving pink slips just a few days before the November elections.

In short, sequestration is a horror show, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the AIA’s public relations effort is designed to scare the wits out of the audience. “Sequestration,” explains Della Williams, the chief executive of Fort Worth-based Williams-Pyro Inc., “is surgery with a chain saw.”

But just as some people aren’t easily scared by campy slasher flicks, there are still a few people in Washington—especially Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)—who are cheering for the guy with the chainsaw.

The two sides squared off in separate events last Thursday. At the Bloomberg Government Defense Conference, AIA President Marian Blakey, Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for bipartisan compromise on taxes in order to fund further Pentagon spending increases. Judging from the number of times that speakers invoked his name, Norquist posed a greater threat to national security than China or Iran. Levin, in particular, scorned ATR’s famed taxpayers’ pledge, and suggested that it was largely responsible for the impending catastrophe.

Norquist is characteristically unfazed by all this special interest pleading for more money. While Blakey and her congressional friends were attempting to rally the troops and rustle up more money, Norquist was reaffirming his opposition to higher taxes—including the closing of tax loopholes that generate more revenue—at a meeting on Capitol Hill. There is no Pentagon budget escape hatch in ATR’s pledge. If the defense industry wants more, it will have to get it from elsewhere in the budget.

The fight over sequestration, taxes, and the defense budget reveals text book cases of two perennial public policy realities: the politics of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; and the economics of the seen vs. the unseen.

With respect to the first case, the defense industry, broadly defined, benefits disproportionately from Pentagon spending. And that industry can count many interested parties within its coalition. In addition to the defense companies, including the executives and the shareholders, there are also the workers’ at these firms (often represented by a union). Then there are the mayors and local officials who represent communities that are home to defense firms.

Given what is at stake, it is understandable that all of these groups have amped up their lobbying efforts to fend off sequestration. To take just one example, a single F-35 will cost, on average, nearly $125 million ($112.5 million for the aircraft, plus another $22 million for the engine). Prime contractor Lockheed Martin spent $15 million on lobbying in 2011 and is expected to spend even more this year. Such expenses can easily be justified to investors and shareholders if they are seen as protecting the company’s cash cow.

Individual taxpayers, by contrast, have little incentive to organize, and even less incentive to pool their money to fight against the AIA. The cost of the F-35, spread around to every taxpayer, amounts to about a dollar (if we just count the 122 million people who paid federal income taxes). Generally speaking, people do not scrutinize where every tax dollar goes; indeed, payroll tax withholding causes Americans to ignore what they pay in monthly taxes.

A few groups, including Norquist’s ATR, try to offset this imbalance of interests, and they have been reasonably successful. But Norquist’s pledges would be worthless if voters didn’t agree with him. But many do. In this poll (.pdf), for example, half of all respondents were opposed to having their taxes go up in order to pay for higher Pentagon spending.

The AIA’s other line of attack—the claim that substantial cuts in military spending will have a devastating impact on the economy, resulting in a million or more lost jobs—reveals the age-old broken-window fallacy. The AIA wants people to focus on that which is seen—defense workers who are laid off—and to ignore any consideration of how the economy as a whole will be better off if the resources that had previously gone to building planes and rockets are allocated elsewhere in the economy. These transitions are certainly difficult and painful for the individuals and firms involved, but they can be expected, all other factors being equal, to have salutary aggregate effects, especially over the long term. I’ll have more to say on that point later this week, drawing on my previous study of San Diego in the late 1950s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read a succinct explanation of the broken-window fallacy from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. And, if you’re really motivated, consider reading a less succinct, but more colorful, discussion of the phenomenon by Hazlitt’s intellectual forefather, the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Institute for Justice Exposes the Plague of Occupational Licensing

Today, the Institute for Justice released a 200-page, comprehensive study on occupational licensing in the United States. The report details the plague of occupational licensing that has swept the country over the past 60+ years. According to the study, “In the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed the government’s permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, that figure stands at almost one in three.”

Fifty years ago, in Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman warned against the dangers of professional licensing. At that time, Friedman quoted a previous study on licensure by Walter Gellhorn:

By 1952 more than 80 separate occupations exclusive of ‘owner-businesses,’ like restaurants and taxicab companies, had been licensed by state law; and in addition to the state laws there are municipal ordinances in abundance, not to mention the federal statutes that require the licensing of such diverse occupations as radio operators and stockyard commission agents. As long ago as 1938 a single state,North Carolina, had extended its law to 60 occupations. One may not be surprised to learn that pharmacists, accountants, and dentists have been reached by state law as have sanitarians and psychologists, assayers and architects, veterinarians and librarians. But with what joy of discovery does one learn about the licensing of threshing machine operators and dealers in scrap tobacco? What of egg graders and guide dog trainers, pest controllers and yacht salesmen, tree surgeons and well diggers, tile layers and potato growers? And what of the hypertrichologists who are licensed in Connecticut, where they remove excessive and unsightly hair with the solemnity appropriate to their high sounding title?

The Institute for Justice’s study found that licensing has only become more wide-spread and more absurd. But an increase in licensure is expected when interest groups are allowed to capture government and violate our economic liberties. Public choice theory predicts a growth in licensing if the anti-competitive interests of trades are not checked by constitutional rights. As Friedman observed,

In the absence of any general arrangements to offset the pressure of special interests, producer groups will invariably have a much stronger influence on legislative action and the power that be than will the diverse, widely spread consumer interest. Indeed from this point of view, the puzzle is not why we have so many silly licensure laws, but why we don’t have far more.

There are significant real-world effects to these laws. In a world of nine percent unemployment, barriers to work should be the last thing we want, particularly if those barriers do not make us safer or better off. The study found that the average license forces would-be workers to pay an average of $209 in fees, take one exam, and complete nine months of training. In the four places in which they are licensed (three states and DC), interior designers have the highest barriers to entry, apparently to save us from shag carpeting and misuses of the Pottery Barn. In the face of such requirements, particularly the months of training, it’s easy to see how someone can be discouraged from even looking for a job.

In addition, out-of-control licensing has other, more human costs, such as the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey, who were prohibited from building caskets in their monastery unless they obtained a funeral director license. The Institute for Justice won that case. Here’s hoping the new study gives IJ’s attorneys the data they may need to defeat other unconstitutional licensing regimes.

Below is the video announcing the study: