Topic: Regulatory Studies

Consumer Product Info - Regulation or Markets?

60 Minutes had an interesting and balanced piece last night on proposals to mandate that fast-food restaurants promote calorie information by placing it directly on their menus.

This fits in a category of regulation that is increasingly prominent: mandated disclosure and promotion of product information. There are plenty of examples: financial privacy notices, real estate purchasing notices, nutrition labeling, etc.

If consumers had unlimited attention, the surfeit of notices would be an unqualified good thing. But consumer attention is not unlimited. Consumers quickly learn to ignore notices that don’t interest them. Notices can easily confuse consumers. Mandated notices often provide information that consumers would already get in more accessible ways.

Nutrition labeling is the sacred cow of mandated disclosure, of course, and mandating calorie notices in restaurants is one of its calves. Everyone who talks about nutrition labeling uses nutrition labeling and so can’t believe that anyone doesn’t. But it certainly hasn’t done anything to change the trend in U.S. obesity since the 1990 law requiring nutrition labeling went into effect.

Note in the 60 Minutes piece how proponents of calorie labeling really are just social engineers. They can’t outlaw you buying that Big Mac, so they’re going to put discouragement in your face using the intermediary of Mickey D’s. They mean well, but I’d just as well have them mind their own business.

Information about products and services is subject to market demand just like every other feature of the things we buy. If you don’t believe me, try running a grocery store without putting price tags on or near the canned peaches.

Renewable Energy BS at U.S. News & World Report

In an article posted the other day at U.S. News & World Report, Marianne Lavelle reports on the state of affairs in the renewable energy industry. While the story she tells is a good one, she makes two stunning errors that lead me to question every other figure reported in the article.

Error #1 -

Historically, ethanol has been more expensive than gasoline, but crude oil prices are now so high that ethanol would be cheaper even without its 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy. Indeed, one reason pump prices have not skyrocketed along with the price of crude oil is that so much fuel is blended with 10 percent ethanol.

Really? Ethanol (E100) prices on U.S. spot markets last week averaged $1.87 a gallon. That is indeed cheaper than the price of conventional gasoline in those same markets ($2.25 per gallon), but ethanol has only two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. If you want to buy enough ethanol to displace the energy you get from a gallon of gasoline, you would have to spend $2.80 per gallon. Hence, ethanol is not cheaper than gasoline, and federal mandates to use ethanol in transportation fuel does not reduce pump prices.

Error #2 -

The plug-in advocacy group CalCars estimates that with today’s electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon [were they to run their cars on electricity rather than gasoline].

Again, really? Electricity prices last week averaged 9.57 cents per kilowatt hour. Given that there are 3,400 BTUs in a kilowatt hour of electricity and about 124,000 BTUs in a gallon of gasoline, simple math dictates that it would cost almost $3.50 to buy enough electricity to get the same amount of energy we get from a gallon of gasoline.

Reporters have got to stop taking figures at face value from policy activists with political axes to grind. And editors have got to start asking reporters to independently back their numbers up. Until that happens, don’t bother with the print media. The “facts” bandied about therein are a crap shoot. Some are correct, some are not, but you never know which.

Globalization and Food Safety

The Washington Post has an interesting story today about E. coli on lettuce. A batch of lettuce produced in California last month passed through numerous screenings and was sent to U.S. grocery stores. Some of it was also sent to Canada, and the government there found E. coli, which led to a major recall across both countries.

Here are some speculations:

  • Globalization increases the safety of American-produced goods because those goods must often pass muster in foreign markets where consumers and governments have different standards and safety procedures.
     
  • I don’t know whether American or Canadian food safety procedures are better, but a diversity of systems generates greater information, which allows producers and governments everywhere to improve quality.
     
  • Globalization doesn’t lead to a “race to the bottom” on environmental standards as critics often claim. Some countries, such as Japan, apparently have very high standards on food, and that tends to push up standards elsewhere. When Japanese importers demand strict standards from Chinese food producers, Americans consuming Chinese products also benefit.

Yet Another Reason Not to Be Too Enamored of SCHIP

The U.S. health care sector is fundamentally broken.  Yet most reform proposals, including Congress’ plan to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, would just throw more money at the dysfunction without doing anything to fix it.  (Mind you, that suits the health care and insurance industries just fine.) 

Another example of what such reforms won’t fix emerged in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine.  Researchers examined the medical records of 1,500 children and found that the kids received (what the evidence suggests is) high-quality care only 47 percent of the time. 

Similar studies have found that adults receive recommended care only 55 percent of the time.  One of those studies even found that having insurance doesn’t much improve the quality of care that adults receive:

Although having insurance increases the ease of access to the health care system, it is not sufficient to ensure appropriate use of services or content of care. Indeed, within systems where access to care is more equitable … substantial gaps between observed and optimal quality remain.  In the United Kingdom, with universal coverage, a study using our methods found that the overall proportion of recommended health care that was received was similar to what we have reported.

This week’s study on the quality of pediatric care did not compare the quality of care received by insured children to that received by uninsured children.  Nonetheless, the researchers closed with an illuminating comment on the current debate over SCHIP:

Expansion of access to care through insurance coverage, which is the focus of national health care policy related to children, will not, by itself, eliminate the deficits in the quality of care.

Yeah … but … oh, what the hell.  Who’s up for throwing more money at the problem?

Tim Carney on SCHIP’s Bootleggers

Amid the debate over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, author and Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney asks the question, “Does SCHIP insure kids or subsidize savvy HMOs?”:

[W]hile Democrats are dragging children to the White House for photo ops, as if the children are the primary constituency of this bill, federal lobbying records tell a different tale.

Lobbying records from the first half of 2007 show that the health care industry spent more than $227 million lobbying Washington. Congressional Quarterly Healthbeat News reported last month: “What’s behind health care lobbyists’ spending frenzy? Most signs point to … SCHIP.”

Sure enough, the biggest lobbyists in the industry all support the Democratic bill. America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the trade association for HMOs, supports the bill, as do its biggest members, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association (PhRMA), one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, is also behind the bill. So is the American Medical Association.

Because the details of any substantial bill or regulation will be complex, the mainstream media will always portray the debate as a battle between the interested parties. In this case, the official storyline is that it’s poor children against a president overly concerned about the boogie man “government-run health care.”

But poor children don’t have clout on Capitol Hill. They’re not the reason this bill got 68 votes in the Senate and 265 votes in the House.

It’s got to be nice [for] the Democrats now. You get to do a favor for the HMOs, and everyone’s convinced it’s “for the children.”

I include the nation’s governors – who are always in favor of more federal money – in the bootleggers category.

Kudos to Tim Carney for reporting what less-rigorous reporters will not. (Why, oh, why can’t we have a better press corps?)

Regulatory Competition Leads to Better Policy in France

The Financial Times reports that France is deregulating and cutting taxes in hopes of competing with London in the financial services market. The article also notes that Switzerland and Germany also are trying to attract business by reducing the burden of government. Needless to say, these positive reforms would not happen if the bureaucrats in Brussels had the authority to create a continent-wide regulatory regime. Another threat to deregulation and better policy is IOSCO (the International Organization of Securities Commissions), which wants to impose one-size-fits-all regulation on all jurisdictions - particularly ones with a more laissez-faire approach:

The French government yesterday unveiled its plans to boost Paris as a financial centre, proposing a more lightly regulated market for companies and funds on the Euronext exchange. Several of the measures are closely modelled on UK structures, as the French capital seeks to make up ground lost to London. The new market segment would operate according to European Union minimum standards in terms of listing and disclosure. …Switzerland’s leading financial services companies launched their own campaign last month for tax cuts, a relaxation of immigration rules and other measures to turn their country into the world’s third largest financial centre after London and New York. Frankfurt launched its own more lightly regulated market segment two years ago… Ms Lagarde said the government had already shown serious commitment to financial services by cutting taxes, particularly for higher earners. France’s high taxation is one reason why so many young French bankers flock to London.

The Antitrust Religion

Many successful American businesses have been accused of anti-competitive practices. In The Antitrust Religion, a new book published by the Cato Institute, attorney and author Edwin S. Rockefeller argues that much of the conventional wisdom about antitrust is wrong. Drawing on 50 years of experience with U.S. antitrust laws, Rockefeller sheds light on why lawmakers, bureaucrats, academics, and journalists use arbitrary and irrational laws and enforcement mechanisms to punish capitalists rather than promote competition.

Rockefeller also participated in a Cato daily podcast about the book.