Topic: Regulatory Studies

Pessimism in Historical Perspective

Pessimism about potentially life-enhancing technologies is not new. The Twitter account Pessimist’s Archive (a favorite of the internet guru Marc Andreessen) chronicles the unending stream of pessimism with old newspaper excerpts. 

Pessimistic reactions range from merely doubtful (such as this response to the idea of gas lighting in 1809, or this one to the concept of anesthesia in 1839) to outright alarmist (such as this 1999 warning that e-commerce “threatens to destroy more than it could ever create”). 

In some cases, the pessimists insist that an older technology is superior to a new one. Some, for example, have claimed that an abacus is superior to a computer and a pocket calculator, while others claimed that horses are longer-lasting than the dangerous “automobile terror.” 

Time to Rein in Judicial Deference to Executive Agencies

Bryana Bible defaulted on her student loans. Upon her default, the guarantor of her loans, United Student Aid (USA) Funds, paid the default claim and took over the loan. Bible and USA Funds agreed to a $50-a-month repayment plan. Per the applicable Higher Education Act and Department of Education regulations, however, the agreement included a collection fee of 18.5% of the unpaid loan balance.

Bible balked at this fee and filed a class action against USA Funds, alleging that the company violated both the terms of the promissory note and the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (!). The district court agreed with USA Funds because both the law and applicable regulations allowed for exactly that fee to be imposed. But when the case got to the appellate stage, it went off the rails.

The Seventh Circuit panel fractured, with one judge considering the regulatory text unambiguously permitting the fee, one judge considering the regulatory text unambiguously prohibiting the fee, and one just finding the regulations altogether ambiguous. The judges decided to resolve the case by deferring to the Department of Education’s opinion on the matter.

The Secretary of Education filed an amicus curiae brief, siding with Bible—which contradicted both the agency’s previous regulations and the statute’s express terms. Still, because the Secretary’s brief offered novel interpretative guidance, the court was forced to defer to the agency’s interpretation of its own guidance under a rule called Auer (or Seminole Rock)deference—a doctrine requiring courts to defer to agencies’ interpretation of their own guidance unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation—instead of hazarding its own interpretation.

USA Funds has asked the Supreme Court to clean up this mess. Cato has joined the American Action Forum and Judicial Education Project on a brief urging the Court to take up the case and overrule both Auer v. Robbins (1997)and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co. (1945).

Auer deference is simply outdated—and was superseded by statute from its inception. In 1946, one year after the Court decided Seminole Rock, Congress passed the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The APA distinguished between legislative and interpretative rules. Legislative rules are subject to notice-and-comment practice but interpretative rules are not. Accordingly, judicial deference to a rule that results from an open notice-and-comment procedure may be justifiable, while deference to an interpretative rule—like the one at issue here—which is not subject to such a process, is inappropriate.

Will Senate Use Energy Bill to Weaken FHA Mortgages?

As I recall from my time in the Senate, there’s nothing like an energy bill to attract misguided proposals.  This week the Senate begins consideration of S.2012 — the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015.  Among the almost two hundred filed amendments is a proposal (Amendment #3042) from former real estate broker, Senator Isakson, to mandate that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) reduce the quality of its loans in order to encourage more efficient energy use.

The two most concerning aspects of Amdt 3042 are 1) it would allow “estimated energy savings” to be used to increase the allowable debt-to-income (DTI) ratios for the loan and; 2) require “that the estimated energy savings…be added to the appraised value…”

These changes might not be so bad in the abstract but when combined with existing FHA standards, they set the borrower up for failure and leave the taxpayer holding the bag. Let’s recall that borrowers can already get a FHA mortgage at a loan to value (LTV) of 96.5%, and that’s assuming an accurate appraisal.  If borrowers were required to put 20 percent down, then this amendment would be a minor problem, but under existing standards, borrowers would mostly likely leave the table with an LTV over 100%, that is already underwater before they’ve even moved in.  Did Congress learn nothing from the crisis?

The increase in DTI might not matter if FHA did not already allow a DTI as high as 43% of income.  Under Amdt 3042 borrowers could easily leave the closing table devoting over half their income to their mortgage.  Again, did Congress learn nothing from the crisis?

To illustrate that the intent of the proposal is to have the taxpayer take more risk, Amdt 3042 actually prohibits FHA from imposing any standards that would offset this risk.  If these new loans perform worse, as one would expect, FHA cannot put them back to the lenders.   And let’s not forget FHA allows the borrower to have a credit history deep in the subprime range.  So you could have a subprime borrower, say FICO down to 580, LTV > 100% and DTI > 43% - what could go wrong?

If indeed energy savings actually increased the value of the home, that would be reflected in the price.  There would be no need to mandate such.  Not only does this proposal weaken FHA standards, and expose the taxpayer to greater risk, it takes us further down the path of an already politicized housing policy, where instead of relying on market prices, values are dictated by Soviet-style bureaucratic guesswork.

A Reprieve For Online Freedom? DoJ Gets Cold Feet On ADA-For-The-Web

Did our message finally get through? (See “How ADA-for-the-Web Regulations Menace Online Freedom,” 2013). Or that of other commentators like Eric Goldman, who warned (of a related court case) that “all hell will break loose” if the law defines websites as public accommodations and makes them adopt “accessibility”? At any rate, the U.S. Department of Justice, after years of declaring that it was getting ready any day now to label your website and most others you encounter every day as out of compliance with the ADA, has suddenly turned around and done this:

In an astonishing move, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will not issue any regulations for public accommodations websites until fiscal year 2018 — eight years after it started the rulemaking process with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM).

Yes, eight years is a very long time for a rulemaking, especially one pursuing issues that have been in play for many years (that link discusses testimony I gave in 2000). And predictably, some disabled interest-group advocates are already charging that the latest delay is “outrageous” and shows “indifference.” More likely, it shows that even an administration that has launched many audacious and super-costly initiatives in regulation has figured out that this one is so audacious and super-costly that it should be – well, not dropped, but left as a problem for a successor administration.

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.

Does Drug Prohibition Inhibit Economic Development?

Even the most dedicated opponent of drug prohibition might not guess that this policy harms economic development.

Yet claims in a recent WSJ story, combined with research on the relation between banking and development, suggests just such an impact.

The reason is that drug prohibition fosters anti-money laundering laws; which then discourage U.S. banks from doing business in Mexico; which then impedes Mexican banking; which then negatively impacts development.

The WSJ story says,

U.S. banks are cutting off a growing number of customers in Mexico, deciding that business south of the border might not be worth the risks in the wake of mounting regulatory warnings.

At issue are correspondent-banking relationships that allow Mexican banks to facilitate cross-border transactions and meet their clients’ needs for dealing in dollars—in effect, giving them access to the U.S. financial system. The global firms that provide those services are increasingly wary of dealing with Mexican banks as well as their customers, according to U.S. bankers and people familiar with the matter.

And why are U.S. banks worried about regulation?  Because 

U.S. financial regulators have long warned about the risks in Mexico of money laundering tied to the drug trade. The urgency spiked more than a year ago, when the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a unit of the Treasury Department, sent notices warning banks of the risk that drug cartels were laundering money through correspondent accounts … Earlier, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency sent a cautionary note to some big U.S. banks about their Mexico banking activities.

As for evidence that banking is important for economic development, see this paper by Scott Fulford of Boston College (featured soon in a Cato Research Brief).  Fulford writes:

Do banks matter for growth and how? This paper examines the effects of national banks in the United States from 1870–1900. I use the discontinuity in entry caused by a large minimum size requirement to identify the effects of banking. For the counties on the margin between getting a bank and not, gaining a bank increased production per person by 10%. National banks in rural areas improved agriculture over manufacturing, moving counties towards geographic comparative advantage. Since these banks made few long-term loans, the evidence suggests that the provision of working capital and liquidity matter for growth.

Bad policies (drug prohibition) breed more bad policies (anti-money-laundering laws), which have additional adverse consequences that few could plausibly have forseen.  This is one reason why any government interference with liberty, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly well justified, should face extreme skepticism.

Supreme Court Should Police Class Action Settlements

In 2009, Duracell, a subsidiary of Proctor & Gamble, began selling “Duracell Ultra” batteries, marketing them as their longest-lasting variety. A class action was filed in 2012, arguing that the “longest-lasting” claim was fraudulent. The case was removed to federal court, where the parties reached a global settlement purporting to represent 7.26 million class members.

Attorneys for the class are to receive an award of $5.68 million, based on what the district court deemed to be an “illusory” valuation of the settlement at $50 million. In reality, the class received $344,850. Additionally, defendants agreed to make a donation of $6 million worth of batteries over the course of five years to various charities.

This redistribution of settlement money from the victims to other uses is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.

Accordingly, class members objected to the settlement, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in approving the agreement and failed to engage in the required rigorous analysis to determine whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the settlement, however, noting the lack of “precedent prohibiting this type of cy pres award.”