Topic: Regulatory Studies

Law and Disorder in Philadelphia

This mini-documentary does a great job of capturing how the drug war is wreaking havoc in our cities.  Police engage in a futile game of cat & mouse with low level “corner boys.”  Gang members kill one another over turf (drug sales territory).  And the chasm between the ordinary residents and the government (police, prosecutors) is palpable.  The police are frustrated by the lack of citizen cooperation.  Witnesses and victims do not come forward with information, for example.  But there is little mystery here.  If the police cannot protect witnesses from retaliatory attacks, coming forward is practically suicidal.   Criminals oversee a thriving black market drug trade while policymakers dither about drug courts and “Plan Colombia.”

Excellent work, Mr. Theroux.  These festering problems are too often ignored by our MSM.  Americans get excessive coverage of OJ Simpson, Natalie Holloway, and Caylee Anthony.  For scholarly work on the drug war go here, herehere, and here.     If you liked this mini-doc, be sure to check out The Wire.

Obama Transition Transparency: A Good Start

The President-elect’s Change.gov Web site announced a new feature on Friday, called Your Seat at the Table: “The Obama-Biden Transition Team will be hearing from many groups over the next several weeks. On this page, you can track these meetings, view documents provided to the Transition, and leave comments for the team.”

Says a memo from transition head John Podesta, itself posted online, “[A]ny documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

This is a very good start at transparency. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation wonders what this might look like across the entire executive branch. If the default rule were online disclosure of documents submitted to government agencies, that would make a big change in the conduct of the public’s business.

There are many dimensions of transparency, of course. Along with openness in political and regulatory processes, we should also have openness in functional information, and in results. Where is the money going? What are we getting in return? Answers to these questions can validate or invalidate government programs in ways never before thought possible.

Wednesday at noon, we’ll be having a policy forum here at Cato entitled: Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses. Ed Felten, Gary Bass, and Jerry Brito will discuss how access to government data in useful formats might revolutionize public oversight.

Register here now.

David Hyman Now Blogging at Volokh Conspiracy

Fans of Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman – you know, the guy who claimed that Medicare is a tool of the devil – will be happy to know that he is now blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Hyman’s inaugural post – the first in a series on capping non-economic damages in medical-malpractice cases – can be found here.

And seriously, he was just kidding about that whole Medicare/devil thing.  Honestly.

Larry Summers on Employer Mandates

President-elect Barack Obama has named former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to head his National Economic Council.  Obama also wants to require employers to offer health insurance to their workers.

It is therefore instructive to recall what the head of Obama’s National Economic Council has written about employer mandates:

Economists have generally devoted little attention to mandated benefits- regarding them as simply disguised tax and expenditure measures. Uwe Reinhardt’s reaction is probably typical: “[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.”

Suppose, for example, that there is a binding minimum wage. In this case, wages cannot fall to offset employers’ cost of providing a mandated benefit, so it is likely to create unemployment….

Mandated benefit programs can work against the interests of those who most require the benefit being offered…

If policymakers fail to recognize the costs of mandated benefits because they do not appear in the government budget, then mandated benefit programs could lead to excessive spending on social programs. There is no sense in which benefits become ‘free’ just because the government mandates that employers offer them to workers…

It can plausibly be argued that mandated benefits fuel the growth of government.

The Surreptitious Socialism of the Strong

George Will despairs that we already have a good bit of the socialism that John McCain warned about in the waning moments of his decade-long quest for Rooseveltian power. That is, we already have a lot of government redistribution of wealth, though we have almost no overt advocacy of socialism:  ”This is partly because Americans are an aspirational, not an envious, people. It is also because the socialism we do have is the surreptitious socialism of the strong, e.g., sugar producers represented by their Washington hirelings.”

Rent-seeking, economists call it–using the government to get privileges, such as a grant, a subsidy, a tariff, or a restriction on one’s competition. It’s one of those things we free-marketers rail against all the time, in papers on free trade, corporate welfare, government spending, and virtually every other activity of the modern state. More broadly, we point out, as Will did, that it’s impossible to have nonpolitical allocation of trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money handed out by government. If you don’t want the powerful to lobby and manipulate in order to get their share of the money, then leave it in the marketplace. If you put it in the hands of politicians, expect political allocation.

Responding to Will, Christopher Orr at the New Republic says, “insofar as there are two kinds of spreading the wealth around, ‘rent-seeking’ (which we can all agree is bad) and ‘socialism’ (which Will implicitly concedes is less bad), conservatives are relatively more friendly to the former and liberals are relatively more friendly to the latter.” Hmmm. Is that so? I suppose if you think of the Bush administration as “conservatives,” then you have a good case. And Orr may be too young to remember actual conservatives back in the days B.G.W.B.

But I’m not. And I recall, for instance, the first program that Democrats rallied around when the Reaganites stormed ashore in 1981 with their pitchforks and meat cleavers in hand. Nexis confirms that a day after the administration made a broad budget-cutting proposal, these words led page A1 of the Washington Post: “The entire Democratic leadership in the House joined yesterday in warning the Reagan administration to keep its budget-cutting hands off the synthetic fuels subsidy program Congress created last year.” Democrats love corporate welfare, and even liberal intellectuals are far less critical of it than are libertarians and free-market conservatives.

And it’s not just corporate welfare. All the elements of the liberal interventionist state are both product and generator of rent-seeking. You can say that rent-seeking is an unfortunately inevitable by-product of having the government do good. But to want a $3 trillion federal government with vast regulatory powers that isn’t awash in rent-seeking is, as Milton Friedman wrote, like saying “I would like to have a cat, provided it barked.” Cats meow, and government money flows to those with political power.