Topic: Regulatory Studies

What’s Left at the Supreme Court?

After yesterday’s colorful opinion day – involving raisins, motels, and Spiderman – the Supreme Court announced that it would be handing down more rulings on Thursday and Friday, with Monday also currently indicated as a decision day. So what’s left to decide? (Not to be confused with “why are Court decisions moving left? – a remarkably premature assessment given the cases remaining, not to mention coding issues regarding liberal/conservative.)

Summer Regulation: Does the Internet Need Saving?

Yesterday was the first day of Summer, and you know what that means? Sun, sand, the great outdoors…and a new issue of Regulation magazine. This issue contains a number of interesting articles that will be discussed in the coming months.

The cover articles provide perspective on the FCC decision to impose traditional public utility regulation on the internet. “What Hath the FCC Wrought”, by University of Pennsylvania professor and former FCC chief economist Gerald Faulhaber, argues that service quality will suffer to the extent that service providers can’t charge more for streams that require greater provider resources. Kansas State professor Dennis Weisman argues that internet regulation will likely protect competitors from competition rather than serve consumer interests just like the old telephone regulatory scheme.

A pair of articles discuss healthcare policy. West Texas A&M’s Neil Meredith and Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Moffit examine provisions of the Affordable Care Act encouraging the development of multi-state health plans (MSPs) intended to provide larger insurance pools while overcoming some of the regulatory burdens of state-regulated plans. They argue that eliminating questionable requirements would give consumers more opportunities to use MSP insurance.  University of Arizona professors Christopher Robertson and Keith Joiner propose two changes to health insurance to improve efficiency.  The first would set the stop-loss limit as a constant percent of wages rather than a fixed dollar amount.  The second would pay patients directly a portion of the cost of high-cost low-evidence-of-benefit procedures regardless of whether they obtained the procedure.  This would induce patients to think more carefully about the benefits of expensive uncertain-benefit procedures.

This issue continues Regulation’s long history of examining housing policy. Some Federal housing programs subsidize developers through tax credits to build affordable rental housing while other programs provide assistance directly to tenants in the form of vouchers. Edgar Olsen of the University of Virginia makes the case for moving to an all-voucher housing assistance program.

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) fund will run out of money in 2016. Consultants A. Bentley Hankins and Jeffrey Joy propose five reforms that would update the program to reflect increased life expectancy and the changing skill requirements of jobs.

For many decades, articles in Regulation have referenced work of the late Gordon Tullock to explain the political economy of regulatory policy. Zachary Gochenour examines Tullock’s legacy, and speculates about future trends in the field of public choice economics that he helped build.

For these articles and many more, read the full issue of Regulation here.

The Government Has to Pay for the Raisins It Confiscates

The near-unanimous Supreme Court decided today in favor of the farmers whose raisins the federal government wanted to take as part of a cockamamie New Deal-era regulatory scheme. The Court ruled 8-1 in support of Cato’s position that taking personal property is a compensable action, regardless of whether the government purports to act on the property owner’s behalf, and 5-4 on the question of compensation for that taking. (This is two years after the Court ruled 9-0 that the Marvin and Laura Horne could have their day in court and raise their constitutional challenge, rather than being stuck in some byzantine administrative purgatory.)

Of course, it should be rather obvious that when the government takes your property, its actions are subject to the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which requires that such taking be (a) for a “public use” and (b) subject to the owner receiving “just compensation.” And it should be equally obvious that the Constitution doesn’t distinguish between real property (your house) and personal property (your car). Yet the government insisted here that, at least in the context of agricultural-marketing/price-setting programs, it can take your crops and do whatever it likes with them so long as it’s all hypothetically for your own benefit.

Chief Justice Roberts swatted away that contention. Here are the key paragraphs (pages 4-5 of the slip opinion):

There is no dispute that the “classic taking [is one] in which the government directly appropriates private prop­erty for its own use.” Nor is there any dispute that, in the case of real property, such an appropriation is a per se taking that requires just compensation.

Nothing in the text or history of the Takings Clause, or our precedents, suggests that the rule is any different when it comes to appropriation of personal property. The Government has a categorical duty to pay just compensa­tion when it takes your car, just as when it takes your home. (citations omitted)

There are some other nuggets in the opinion, including a riff on the government’s contention that raisin farmers, to avoid the Raisin Administrative Committee’s attentions, could simply sell wine: “ ‘Let them sell wine’ is probably not much more comfortable to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history.” Moreover, “[r]aisins are not like oysters: they are private property – the fruit of the growers’ labor – not “public things subject to the absolute control of the state.”

In any event, thus the Hornes’ multi-year fight against the U.S. Department of Agriculture ends in a definitive ruling that the USDA cannot assess them nearly half a million dollars for the value of the raisins they refused to relinquish (nor a $200,000 civil penalty that added insult to injury). Let’s not forget that this epochal battle involved two trips to the Supreme Court, where the government only got one of a possible 18 votes.

For more background on the case, see Trevor Burrus’s commentary when we filed our brief. For early reaction to the ruling, see Ilya Somin’s post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

The Patent & Trademark Office Has a Slanted View of the First Amendment

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling regarding Confederate-flag license plates isn’t the last word on First Amendment protection for “offensive” speech. Indeed, it doesn’t even resolve all the issues related to government-insinuated expression. One case working its way through the lower courts regarding a controversial trademark – but not this one! – illustrates some of the pitfalls inherent in allowing the government to act as censor, for whatever reason.

A musician named Simon Tam wanted to “take back” and “own” what had previously been used as an ethnic slur by calling his Asian-American rock band “The Slants.” The Patent and Trademark Office found that this trademark was disparaging to Asians, however, so refused to register it under § 2(a) of the Lanham Act. This provision says, among other things, that the PTO may refuse to register a trademark that “[c]onsists of … matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

This refusal to register the trademark was affirmed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. But then the entire Federal Circuit—without being asked!—decided to erase that decision and consider whether § 2(a), or at least its application here, violates the First Amendment.

California Labor Commission: Uber Driver Is Employee

According to the California Labor Commission, a San Francisco-based Uber driver who filed a claim against the rideshare company is an employee and not, as Uber argued, an independent contractor. The ruling orders Uber to pay the driver about $4,000 for expenses.

The ruling, which Uber considers non-binding, could potentially have devastating implications for the rideshare company in California. If similar rulings are issued regarding other rideshare companies like Lyft or sharing economy players such as Airbnb, Instacart, and TaskRabbit, we could see the growth of these popular and innovative companies stifled as they cope with the costs associated with having providers classified as employees.

The California Labor Commission ruling states that Uber is “involved in every aspect of the operation.” It is true that Uber provides a technology and that it carries out background checks on drivers. But Uber does not provide vehicles or set any hours or for its rideshare drivers. In fact, according to research on Uber wages conducted by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Uber’s Jonathan Hall, only 38 percent of Uber drivers rely on Uber as their sole source of income.

Regulators and lawmakers ought to realize that Uber drivers, who are often driving for Uber part-time while using their own vehicles on their own schedule, shouldn’t be treated the same as traditional workers.

Uber might seem like something relatively new given that it relies on users hailing rides with smartphones, but fundamentally it is making a very familiar experience easier. People were offering car rides in exchange for money long before the rise of the Internet, let alone smartphones. What makes Uber and other rideshare companies like Lyft so popular is that if someone wants a ride, they no longer have to find a friend ready and willing to give a ride at a particular time or stand on a street corner waving their hands in the hope of hailing a taxi. Rather, they can simply open an app and find a driver who is ready and willing to give a ride in exchange for a fare in a matter of minutes.

Uber and the sharing economy more broadly fit awkwardly into existing regulatory frameworks, but this should be welcomed as an opportunity to revise outdated regulations and laws, not an opportunity to regulate popular new companies as if they are the older incumbents they are competing with.

As the commission itself noted, Uber would not exist without drivers like the one who filed the claim. Certainly, Uber as we know it will become a very different company if its drivers in California are classified as employees. It will begin to look more like its traditional competitors rather than an innovative technology company, which would be a great shame.

The FDA’s Trans Fat Ban: Their Laws, Your Body

The Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration today announced a near-ban, in the making since 2013, on the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fats (“trans fats”) in American food manufacturing. Specifically, the FDA is knocking trans fats off the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. This is a big deal and here are some reasons why:

  • It’s frank paternalism. Like high-calorie foods or alcoholic beverages, trans fats have marked risks when consumed in quantity over long periods, smaller risks in moderate and occasional use, and tiny risks when used in tiny quantities. The FDA intends to forbid the taking of even tiny risks, no matter how well disclosed.
  • The public doesn’t agree. A 2013 Reason-RUPE poll found majorities of all political groups felt consumers should be left free to choose on trans fats.  Even in heavily governed places like New York City and California, where the political class bulldozed through restaurant bans some years back, there was plenty of resentment.
  • The public is also perfectly capable of recognizing and acting on nutritional advances on its own. Trans fats have gone out of style and consumption has dropped by 85 percent as consumers have shunned them. But while many products have been reformulated to omit trans fats, their versatile qualities still give them an edge in such specialty applications as frozen pizza crusts, microwave popcorn, and the sprinkles used atop cupcakes and ice cream. Food companies tried to negotiate to keep some of these uses available, especially in small quantities, but apparently mostly failed.

Court Finds Government Actions in AIG Bailout Were Illegal

Ask any first year law student “what did you learn in school today” and you’ll probably get some version of the answer: “duty-breach-causation-harm.”  While this applies specifically to tort claims, it seems axiomatic, even for non-lawyers, that you can’t sue someone who hasn’t hurt you.  Or can you?

Former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg caused a ripple of shock in late 2011 when he filed suit against the U.S. government, alleging that the government’s 2008 bailout and subsequent take-over of AIG was unlawful, and claiming $40 billion in damages.  Despite skepticism throughout the legal community, the case not only survived dismissal, but went on to a full trial, during which such heavyweights as Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson, and Ben Bernanke took the stand. 

Throughout the trial, Judge Thomas Wheeler seemed sympathetic to the claims that Greenberg brought on behalf of Starr International Company, an AIG shareholder.  Few believed that AIG had any alternative to the government’s money, except bankruptcy.  In bankruptcy, shareholders (like Starr) are paid last out of whatever remains after all the company’s debts are paid.  Which typically (and most likely in AIG’s case) means not paid at all.  Would the judge really grant Starr a $40 billion judgment – against the U.S. government – when the alternative was bankruptcy?

No.  But that doesn’t mean the government got off scot free either.  Judge Wheeler found that the federal government committed an illegal exaction.  That is, it took something it had no right to take.  (This, the judge carefully notes, is not the same as a “takings” under the Fifth Amendment.  When there is a takings, the government lawfully uses its authority to take private property for public use and then must pay the owner “just compensation” for that property.  An illegal exaction means the government took properly unlawfully.)