Topic: Regulatory Studies

Madison Officials Recommend Misguided Rideshare Regulations

Earlier this week, members of a Madison, Wisconsin city subcommittee recommended misguided rideshare regulations relating to insurance, surge pricing, and hours of service that reveal a confused understanding of how ridesharing works.

If the subcommittee’s recommended regulations are implemented, companies such as Uber and Lyft, both of which provide ridesharing services, will have to provide at least $1 million worth of insurance coverage once a rideshare driver is logged into their app, regardless of whether there is a passenger in the car. In Madison, taxis are required to be covered by auto liability policies worth at least $1 million per accident. 

The $1 million insurance requirement in place for Madison taxis is higher than the insurance requirements in many other cities. In New York and Los Angeles, regulations require taxis to have at least $300,000 of coverage per incident. In Washington, D.C., taxis must have at least $50,000 per incident in coverage. Chicago requires taxis to be covered up to a combined single limit of $350,000 per incident.

It should be noted that both Uber and Lyft already have a $1 million policy in place from when a driver accepts a ride request to when a passenger is dropped off. What ridesharing companies will almost certainly object to is the recommended $1 million of coverage for the time when a rideshare driver has a rideshare app open but has not accepted a ride request. As it stands, both Uber and Lyft offer coverage for this time period worth up to $50,000 per individual per incident, $100,000 per incident, and $25,000 per incident for property damage. This coverage is designed to kick in if a driver’s personal auto insurance declines a claim.

California and Colorado, which have both passed legislation related to ridesharing insurance, mandate coverage very similar to the coverage already offered by Uber and Lyft for the period when a driver is logged into a ridesharing app but has not accepted a ride request. The differences between Uber’s and Lyft’s policies and the California and Colorado legislation are that the laws in Colorado and California require that the coverage be primary and that the property coverage be $30,000 rather than $25,000. The laws’ requirements go into effect on January 15, 2015 in the case of Colorado and on July 1, 2015 for California. 

In addition to insurance requirements subcommittee officials have also recommended a ban on “surge pricing” at times of peak demand. Both Uber and Lyft change the price of rides at busy times such as holidays when demand is high. Uber’s surge pricing policy was in the news shortly after Halloween this year when it emerged that a few individuals had paid enormous fares after they took an Uber ride during a time of increased demand. While some might think that Uber fares during “peak demand” are excessive, it is worth keeping in mind that before an Uber passenger can request a ride while surge pricing is in effect she must input the amount of the surge in the Uber app. In addition, the Uber app allows for users to estimate their fare. Likewise, Lyft informs users “prime time” fares are in effect before they request a ride.

What the surge price ban proposal reveals is a misunderstanding of how ridesharing works. Ridesharing drivers are not professional drivers and drive whenever they want. During popular times of partying or celebration (such as New Year’s or Halloween), rideshare drivers may have to decide between partaking in the festivities and driving. Surge pricing helps incentivize rideshare drivers to meet demand during busy times by allowing for increased profit. If passengers do not like surge pricing, the market will reflect that very quickly, so there is no need for Madison officials to interfere with the surge pricing systems in place.

Another set of recommendations made by the Madison subcommittee relates to hours of service. According to the recommended regulations, ridesharing companies will have to ensure that drivers are available 24/7 after one year of licensed service in Madison. This requirement, like the surge pricing ban, reveals a misunderstanding of ridesharing. Uber and Lyft do not control when drivers turn on ridesharing apps, rideshare drivers drive when they want. Regulators ought to leave the issue of driver availability to market forces rather than concern themselves with when private car owners use an app.

The regulations proposed by the Madison subcommittee betray a misunderstanding of an industry officials ought to welcome rather than burden with unnecessary regulations. Let’s hope that when the recommendations are put before the Madison Transit and Parking Commission next month, its members will realize how misguided these recommendations are. 

Illegal “No Child” Waivers Should Raise Much Louder Alarms

If the outcry over unilateral executive moves we’ve seen over the last few years remains consistent, Obamacare and immigration are likely to keep sucking up most of Republicans’ attention and the media’s coverage. But just as sweeping have been executive waivers issued from the hated No Child Left Behind Act – really the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – that have been instrumental in connecting numerous states to, among other things, the Common Core national curriculum standards. And yesterday, the Education Department issued guidance offering states the chance to obtain waivers – if they do the administration’s bidding, of course – lasting well into the term of the next president: the 2018-19 school year.

These waivers are almost certainly illegal – even a Congressional Research Service report often cited to suggest the opposite says they are unprecedented in scope and, hence, an untested case – and even if they are not deemed technically illegal, the reality is they still amount to the executive department unilaterally making law. NCLB does grant the Secretary of Education the authority to issue waivers from many parts of the Act, but it grants no authority to condition those waivers on states adopting administration-preferred policies. Indeed, as University of South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black writes in a recent analysis of waivers, not only does NCLB not authorize conditional waivers, even if a court were to read any waiver authorization as implicitly authorizing conditions, the actual conditions attached – “college- and career-ready standards,” new teacher evaluations, etc. – fundamentally change the law. In fact the changes, Black notes, are essentially what the administration proposed in its 2010 “blueprint” to reauthorize NCLB. And quite simply, the executive fundamentally changing a law is not constitutional.

The latest waiver guidance goes beyond even the toxic status quo. Not only is the President using his vaunted pen and phone to unilaterally make education law, but law that would continue well into his successor’s term. It is a very dangerous move that, quite frankly, deserves at least as much alarmed coverage as Obamacare waivers and immigration actions. If for no other reason, because the action is moving us swiftly toward a de facto federal curriculum. In other words, direct control over what the vast majority of the nation’s children learn.

Federal power can’t get much more invasive than that.

Reviving Growth: A Cato Online Forum

In conjunction with the upcoming conference on the future of U.S. economic growth, the Cato Institute has organized a special online forum to explore possible avenues for pro-growth policy reforms. We have reached out to leading economists and policy experts and challenged them to answer the following question:

If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?

Their responses will all be made available here. We will post a few new essays each day in the run-up to the conference.

Assembling this impressive roster of contributors was a lot of fun. I strove for real diversity in outlooks – diversity not only in ideological orientation but in specific domains of expertise as well. I did this for a couple reasons. First, the U.S. economy’s growth slowdown is a serious and underappreciated problem and I want to spread awareness of the challenges ahead as broadly as possible. My hope is that a diverse set of writers will attract a broad set of readers. Furthermore, the problem of improving long-term U.S. economic performance is incredibly complex: there are no silver bullets, so meaningful progress will take the form of policy reforms on a whole host of different fronts. It makes sense then to look for promising approaches from as many different angles as possible.

No doubt the participants in this forum disagree about a great deal, and you will likely disagree with some of their proposals. The point of this forum, though, is to look past this and search for surprising areas of convergence and agreement. Back in the 1970s, during another protracted period of poor economic performance, the wholesale elimination of damaging price and entry controls came about as a result of an unusual left-right coalition: don’t forget that Ted Kennedy and Ralph Nader were major supporters of airline and trucking deregulation. It is my hope that similar coalitions can emerge to lift us out of our current predicament.

With that said, here are the first four essays:

1. Arnold Kling proposes alternatives to the regulatory status quo at the FCC and FDA, respectively: a spectrum arbitration board and prize-grants for medical research.

2. Robert Litan calls for more high-skill immigration and higher pay for teachers in exchange for an end to tenure.

3. Douglas Holtz-Eakin provides an overview of structural reforms needed to reduce government debt levels and restore growth.

4. Lee Drutman argues that tripling the budget for congressional staff can lead to improved policymaking.

Nominal Earnings Growth and Money Illusion (Real Wages Are Rising)

Wall Street Journal columnist E.S. Browning presents a graph titled “Wages Still Soft …  hourly wage gains have been sluggish.”   It shows the percentage change in average hourly earnings from a year earlier.  That rate of change slowed from about 3.5 percent in early 2009 to 1.5 percent in late 2012 before rising to 2.2-2.4 percent in recent months.   The upside, in Browning’s view, is that “wage gains still aren’t big enough to push inflation higher.”  In reality, wage gains never push inflation higher, but inflation can certainly push real wages lower.

The trouble with Browning’s graph is that it shows only changes in nominal earnings – unadjusted for the huge drop in inflation after July 2008 when the year-to-year increase in consumer prices reached 5.5 percent in July 2008 (up from 1.9 percent in August of 2007).  Nominal wage gains miss the real story.

In the graph shown below, I adjust the same hourly earnings figures for inflation by using the PCE deflator.  Note that real earnings rose rapidly when inflation dropped to zero or less in 2009 – when Browning’s chart begins.  But employers could not afford to pay rising wages when their prices were falling, so employment collapsed.

Measured in 2009 dollars, real average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers have been rising slowly but surely for two years – from $18.55 in October 2012 to $18.95 in October 2014, or 1.1 percent a year.  That’s not so terrible considering the slow pace of growth of GDP and productivity.

Despite hazardous chatter from the likes of Paul Krugman and Larry Summers about U.S. inflation being too low, the truth is that low inflation has been raising U.S. real wages even as confused politicians and journalists erroneously bemoan slow growth in nominal wages.

Can a State Punish You for Advertising Your Business Without a License?

Under Ohio law, it isn’t illegal to buy gold, it isn’t illegal to sell gold, and it isn’t illegal to talk about buying and selling gold. But—and it’s a significant “but”—if you talk about buying gold, you’re not allowed to actually buy any. At least not without a license.

That’s right: in Ohio, it’s illegal for anyone who advertises a willingness to buy gold to do so without a license. Obtaining and maintaining that license isn’t easy, or cheap. Licenses must be renewed every year, and license holders have to make daily reports to the police detailing their purchases. This law creates a two-tiered system: dealers who have complied with the onerous licensing regime may freely advertise their businesses, while others can’t so much as put up a sign reading “We Buy Gold” without facing criminal prosecution and fines of up to $10,000 per transaction.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that these sorts of regulations are tantamount requiring a “license to speak”—which are universally reviled as violations of the First Amendment (although some do exist). That should have been the end of this case: laws restricting commercial advertising are only constitutional if they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant state interest. The Ohio law, however, because it targets speech instead of the behavior connected to the speech couldn’t possibly survive that test. And that’s exactly what the federal district court held in this case brought by a coin and precious-metal business.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was less willing to follow the First Amendment, and reversed the district court. While that is bad enough in itself, the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning law is especially frightening. The court didn’t hold that Ohio’s law survived strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, but instead that the First Amendment didn’t apply. The Sixth Circuit found that an advertisement—a simple statement offering to buy gold—was “unprotected speech” beyond the scope of the First Amendment.

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Court to take this case and reverse the Sixth Circuit’s erroneous conclusion about the nature of free speech. While there certainly are types of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment, such as incitement to violence and child pornography, the existing rule is that truthful commercial advertising is protected unless it advertises criminal conduct. 

It’s not a crime to buy gold in Ohio, so it shouldn’t be illegal to talk about buying gold, with or without a license. Upholding the Sixth Circuit’s rule—which allows states to freely prohibit speech about conduct which is only illegal if discussed in public—would deprive nearly all advertising of constitutional protection, undoing 70 years of jurisprudence in the process. 

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Liberty Coins v. Goodman later this year or early in 2015.

You Shouldn’t Have to Register with the Government to Engage in Political Advocacy

Vermont Right to Life Committee, Inc. (VRLC) is a non-profit advocacy group organized as a “social welfare organization” under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It seeks to achieve “universal recognition of the sanctity of human life from conception through natural death.” To accomplish this, VRLC publishes pamphlets, newsletters, brochures, mass e-mails, newspaper articles, and radio ads. The group does not advocate for the election of any candidate or coordinate its actions with any candidate. It simply take donations from supporters and tries to educate people about the sanctity of human life.

Nevertheless, Vermont has required VRLC to register as a political committee because it takes in more than $1000 in donations and seeks to “influence elections.” This means that VRLC has to (1) register with the state, which includes appointing a treasurer and creating a special bank account; (2) keep extensive records about its activities; and (3) regularly give the government extensive reports. All of these requirements add up to a significant burden on VRLC’s educational activities and advocacy while not furthering any real government interest. After all, if VRLC is talking about issues not candidates, then, according to the Supreme Court, there is little or no chance that it will corrupt candidates.

Or, to put it another way, if VRLC has to register and report to the government—and just think for a moment how ridiculous and Orwellian (and Putinesque) that statement is—then who doesn’t have to register with the government to speak about political issues?

The registration and reporting burdens on VRLC are so great, in fact, that the group has said it’s “simply not worth it” to engage in constitutionally protected speech if it has to comply with Vermont’s regulations. VRLC thus brought a First Amendment challenge to many of the state’s convoluted campaign finance laws. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the state government, however, and held that the burdens on VRLC’s speech were constitutionally acceptable.

VRLC has now petitioned the Supreme Court. Cato, joining the Center for Competitive Politics, has filed a supporting brief.

We argue that the Court should take the case in order to clarify the test for when an organization’s “major purpose” is the “nomination or election of candidates.” The “major purpose test,” which derives from the foundational campaign finance case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976), exists to save issue-advocacy groups from burdensome requirements like Vermont’s. Unfortunately, courts throughout the country misapply this test and place heightened burdens on organizations that simply want to talk about issues of public concern.

We also argue that regulations like Vermont’s place unique and often insurmountable burdens on small organizations. These laws are expensive to comply with, so larger organizations with more resources for accountants and lawyers—overhead that can be better absorbed—have a comparative advantage over smaller players. If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case, states will continue to find it easy to shut down the political speech—particularly of feisty small idea entrepreneurs—while labeling such censorship as ordinary campaign finance regulations.

The Supreme Court will decide later this year or early next year whether to review Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell.

Three Quick Thoughts on the Election’s Implications for the Judiciary

#1: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be reconsidering her decision not to retire. President Obama or a future President Hillary Clinton will have much less leeway with replacing her in a Republican-controlled Senate.

#2: There will be very few lower court judicial confirmations. Those that get through will be completely uncontroversial. Forget the nuclear option that removed judicial filibusters. At this point, with no political capital, President Obama will only get a small number of milquetoast nominees through the Senate.

#3: Expect even more litigation regarding executive actions. With no chance of getting his expansive regulatory project through Congress, President Obama will increasingly use the executive branch–particularly the EPA, the IRS, and HHS–to advance his policy agenda. That is good news only for litigators.