Topic: Government and Politics

How The Supreme Court Can Stop Consumers From Getting Ripped Off

Today, the Supreme Court hears a case about whether dentists and other professions should be allowed to use state licensing boards to engage in anti-competitive behavior that would be illegal if not done under the auspices of state governments. The case is North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, and involves actions taken by that state’s dental board to prevent non-dentists from providing teeth-whitening services.

In the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Cato Institute adjunct scholars David Hyman and Shirley Svorny explain:

A majority of the courts of appeals gives state licensing boards and similar entities considerable latitude to engage in anticompetitive conduct, even when that conduct would be clearly unlawful were it undertaken individually by the licensed providers that typically dominate these licensing boards…

[T]he North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners (N.C. Board) became concerned that non-dentists were providing teeth whitening services. In North Carolina, teeth-whitening was available from dentists, either in-office or in take-home form; as an over-the-counter product; and from non-dentists in salons, malls, and other locations. The version provided by dentists was more powerful and required fewer treatments, but was significantly more expensive and less convenient. In response to complaints by dentists that non-dentists were providing lower-cost teeth-whitening services, the N.C. Board sent dozens of stern letters to non-dentists, asserting that the recipients were engaged in the unlicensed practice of dentistry, ordering them to cease and desist, and, in some of the letters, raising the prospect of criminal sanctions if they did not do so. The N.C. Board also sent letters to mall owners and operators, urging them not to lease space to non-dentist providers of teeth whitening services.

The Supreme Court will decide whether the North Carolina dental board should be able to claim a “state action” exemption to federal laws against anti-competitive conduct. Hyman and Svorny argue they should not, noting that doctors, lawyers, and other professions have used government licensing to stamp out competition, to the detriment of consumers:

Other occupations provide no shortage of similar examples, whether it is states requiring hair braiders to obtain cosmetology licenses (even though the requisite training has absolutely nothing to do with hair braiding), laws prohibiting anyone other than licensed funeral directors from selling coffins, states prohibiting anyone other than veterinarians from “floating” horse teeth, or ethics rules prohibiting client poaching by music teachers. 

“Antitrust has historically focused on private restraints on competition, but publicly imposed limitations can pose greater peril,” they write, “since they are likely to be both more effective and more durable.”

Hyman and Svorny make three further recommendations for the courts:

First, in reviewing the decisions of licensing boards, courts should presume that states were not actively supervising the boards, absent compelling evidence to the contrary. Second, defendant–licensing boards should be required to present persuasive evidence of actual harm that their proposed licensing restrictions or restraints will prevent and should be required to show that private market and non-regulatory forces (including brand names, private certification, credentialing, and liability) are insufficient to ensure that occupations maintain a requisite level of quality. Finally, we argue that legislators should take steps to roll back existing licensing regimes.

Hyman signed onto an amicus brief filed by antitrust scholars. (Here are two more amicus briefs filed by public-choice economists and the Cato Institute.) Svorny argues for the complete repeal of government licensing of medical professionals, and illustrates how the market for medical-malpractice liability insurance does more to promote health care quality than licensing

(Cross-posted at Darwin’s Fool.)

Greg Abbott Tells Fifth Circuit Court That Gay Marriage Won’t Stop Heterosexual Irresponsibility

In a brief filed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott says that the state’s gay marriage ban may help to reduce out-of-wedlock births:

Texas’s marriage laws are rationally related to the State’s interest in reducing unplanned out-of-wedlock births. By channeling procreative heterosexual intercourse into marriage, Texas’s marriage laws reduce unplanned out-of-wedlock births and the costs that those births impose on society. Recognizing same-sex marriage does not advance this interest because same-sex unions do not result in pregnancy.

As I’ve written before, this is a remarkably confused argument. There are costs to out-of-wedlock births. Too many children grow up without two parents and are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to find stable jobs, and more likely to engage in crime and welfare dependency. All real problems. Which have nothing to do with bans on same-sex marriage. One thing gay couples are not doing is filling the world with fatherless children. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that allowing more people to make the emotional and financial commitments of marriage could cause family breakdown or welfare spending.

The brief repeatedly says that “same-sex marriage fails to advance the State’s interest in reducing unplanned out-of-wedlock births.” Well, that may be true. But lots of state policies fail to advance that particular interest, from hunting licenses to corporate welfare. Presumably Abbott doesn’t oppose them because they don’t serve that particular purpose.

The brief does note that same-sex marriage may very well produce other societal benefits, such as increasing household wealth or providing a stable environment for children raised by same-sex couples [or] increasing adoptions.” But the attorney general wants to hang the state’s ten-gallon hat on the point that it won’t reduce out-of-wedlock births by opposite-sex couples.

In a previous case, Judge Richard Posner declared that the states of Indiana and Wisconsin had not produced any rational basis for banning gay marriage. Attorney General Abbott seems determined to prove him right.

Falling Oil Prices Put Producers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Over the last few months, the price of Brent crude oil lost over 20% of its value, dropping below $90 just yesterday and hitting its lowest level in over two years. In consequence, oil producers will no longer be able to rely on oil revenues to pay their bills. The fiscal break-even price – a metric that determines the price per barrel of oil required for a nation to balance its budget at current levels of production – puts the problem into perspective.

Using data from Bloomberg and Deutsche Bank, I prepared a chart showing the break-even prices for the world’s major oil producers and the price on Brent crude. Over the past six months, Brent crude fell far below the break-even price for eleven of the top oil producers in the world; Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even Saudi Arabia can no longer finance their governments’ largess through oil revenues.

The combination of oil markets flying into a perfect storm and excessive government spending puts most of the world’s oil producers between a rock and a hard place, where they will stay for some time.

China’s Curious Restraint

Beijing’s behavior on the international stage over the past few months has been surprisingly restrained—in marked contrast to an earlier, lengthy period of assertive, if not abrasive, conduct toward its neighbors. Not too long ago, policymakers in the United States and throughout East Asia were alarmed by China’s initiatives. Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were breathtakingly broad, leading to nasty incidents with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations.  Even worse were the confrontations between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, along with Beijing’s unilateral proclamation of an extensive Air Defense Identification Zone in that same area, which led to a surge of tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Two developments illustrate the new, less confrontational trend in China’s policy. One is Beijing’s concerted diplomatic courtship of such countries as South Korea, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. As I discuss in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, even such longstanding rivals as Japan and India have been recipients of this Chinese “charm offensive.” 

The other sign of uncharacteristic restraint is Beijing’s handling of the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. True, there are indications that the Chinese government may have organized and paid for counterdemonstrators to confront and harass democracy activists.  But, at least to this point, there is no indication that Xi Jinping’s government intends to intervene directly with its security forces, much less trigger a bloodbath reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Instead, Beijing has allowed its appointed authorities in Hong Kong to manage the turbulence.  

That is a smart move because the United States and the nations of East Asia are closely watching how the Chinese government handles the democratic ferment in Hong Kong. Taiwan is an especially interested spectator, and if Beijing wants to preserve the possibility of the island’s eventual return to the Chinese fold, a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong would doom those hopes for a generation or more. Conversely, the toleration of even limited moves toward free elections for Hong Kong’s leadership would increase the chances of seducing Taiwan regarding the desirability of gradual re-unification. It appears that Xi and his associates may understand that.

Of course, further developments bear close watching, since they could move quickly in an undesirable direction. It is possible that Beijing’s more conciliatory stance toward its Asian neighbors and its restraint regarding Hong Kong is merely a temporary tactical shift, and that we will soon see a return to a bold, confrontational approach. But if the current restraint instead is the harbinger of a more cautious, cooperative policy over the long term on geopolitical issues, China would become easier to accommodate as a rising great power. That would be good for the peace and security of East Asia and for harmonious relations between Beijing and Washington.

Uncle Sam’s Vestigial Feudalism

In the feudal era, rulers funded their households by taking a share of the crops farmers in their territory produced. The lords called this tribute and the peasants would’ve called it extortion.

We like to think that we’ve come quite a ways since then. After all, taxes are now paid withmoney—or even a digital abstraction of money—and forms, not cartloads of grain. We can even feel good (well, sanguine) about paying taxes, because we know that we’re funding the government of our own choosing—a democratically elected leadership restrained by the Constitution—not just feeding the avarice of a local warlord.

Except if you’re a raisin farmer in California, a state responsible for 40% of the world’s and 99% of America’s raisins. If you’re a California serf raisin farmer, you’re required by federal law to hand over up to 47% of each year’s crop to the U.S. government so the government can control the supply and price of raisins under a New Deal-era regulatory scheme.

The Fifth Amendment says that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation,” however, so it’s hard to see how it would be constitutional for the government to take nearly half a farmer’s harvest without any payment—let alone “just compensation.” (To be clear, if you grow grapes for use in wine or juice, you’re fine. It’s only if you dry out those grapes that you have to watch your property rights evaporate.)

Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has done just that, repeatedly. In 2012, the en banc court held that nobody could challenge this taking in federal court. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. (For more background and to read Cato’s merits brief in that case go here.)

Failing to take the hint, the Ninth Circuit has now held that the Fifth Amendment’s protection against state expropriation simply doesn’t apply to personal property (as opposed to real estate). To put it bluntly, that’s an arbitrary, unprecedented, and ahistorical distinction, so raisin farmers are once again forced to ask the Supreme Court to correct lower court’s failure to protect their rights.

Joined by the five other organizations, Cato has filed a brief urging the Court to take this case, thus insuring that the farmers’ constitutional rights aren’t left to wither on the vine. We argue that the Ninth Circuit’s distinction between real and personal property has no basis in the text and history of the Constitution, Supreme Court precedent, or a reasonable understanding of the English language.

The Fifth Amendment embodies the notion that property rights are central to a free people and a just government. It could not be more clear that property can’t be taken without “due process,” and that when it is taken, the government must pay “just compensation.” These guarantees reflect the many values inherent in private property, such as individual achievement, privacy, and autonomy from government intrusion.

By devaluing property rights of all sorts, the Ninth Circuit weakens the values of autonomy and reliance that undergird the Takings Clause and conflicts with the very foundations of our constitutional order.

Raisin farming ain’t easy; five pounds of grapes yield only one pound of raisins. Raisin farmers shouldn’t have to hand over half of that pound to the federal government.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Horne v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture later this fall.

Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner co-authored this blogpost.

The 95 Percent Rule, Bulgaria, and the New York Times

Recent reportage in the New York Times reminded me of my 95 Percent Rule: “95 percent of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.” In her piece on the Bulgarian elections, Mariana Ionova wrote:

“[Bulgaria’s] economy is growing at an annual rate of about 1.6 percent, but that is the slowest pace in the union, and about half the European average.”

These alleged facts aren’t even in the ballpark (see the accompanying chart). Bulgaria is neither the slowest growing economy in the European Union, nor is it growing at half the European average. In fact, Bulgaria is growing slightly faster than the European average.

Once again, the 95 Percent Rule rules.

E.U. Austerity, You Must Be Kidding

The leading political lights in Europe – Messrs. Hollande, Valls and Macron in France and Mr. Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. They don’t like it. And now Greece has jumped on the anti-austerity bandwagon. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists – from Nobelist Krugman on down – to carry their water.

But, with Greece’s public expenditures at 58.5% of GDP, and Italy’s and France’s at 50.6% and 57.1% of GDP, respectively – one can only wonder where all the austerity is (see the accompanying table). Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the Unites States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largess, the government (federal, plus state and local) only accounts for a whopping 38.1% of GDP.

As Europe sinks under the weight of the State, it’s austerity, not anti-austerity, that should be on the menu.