Topic: Regulatory Studies

More Drinking Hours, Fewer Accidents

Does restricting access to alcohol reduce traffic accidents? Not necessarily, according to a recent study by economists from the University of Lancaster: 

Recent legislation liberalised closing times with the object of reducing social problems thought associated with drinking to “beat the clock.” Indeed, we show that one consequence of this liberalization was a decrease in traffic accidents. This decrease is concentrated heavily among younger drivers. Moreover, we provide evidence that the effect was most pronounced in the hours of the week directly affected by the liberalization; late nights and early mornings on weekends.

The authors also suggest that the restrictive closing times caused more traffic congestion (everyone left the pubs at the same time), increasing the scope for accidents.

So more freedom seems to generate better outcomes, presumably because most people use increased freedom sensibly.

BLM vs. the Nevada Rancher

The battle between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might be viewed as an overly aggressive federal bureaucracy enforcing misguided environmental regulations vs. an oppressed individual and his overly enthusiastic supporters with guns.

However, like the ongoing battles in California between farmers and environmentalists over water, the Nevada story is more complex than that. The issues are not divided neatly along left-right political lines. In both cases, the property rights issues are complicated, and the federal government has long subsidized the use of land and water resources in the West. The first step toward a permanent solution in both cases is to revive federalism. That is, to transfer federal assets to state governments and the private sector.

To understand the Nevada situation, it is useful to consider the history of federal land ownership in the West. From an essay by Randal O’Toole and myself:

“From the founding of the nation, the federal government began accumulating large tracts of land … As the federal government was accumulating land, it was also trying to unload it. The government’s general policy for more than a century was to sell or transfer its western lands to settlers, railroad companies, and state governments … With the rise of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, federal policy began to change toward land retention and land additions. Progressives believed that federal agencies would manage western lands better than states, businesses, or individuals.”

It turned out that the Progressives were dead wrong. In his book Public Lands and Private Rights, Robert H. Nelson describes how the Progressive ideas of scientific management and federal land planning have failed repeatedly. The last century of federal land management has been “filled with laws that had lofty purposes and achieved dismal results,” he concludes. He also notes that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.” Federal policymakers should start fixing that anomaly.

The BLM faces a complex task in juggling all the competing uses of its timberlands, rangelands, minerals, watersheds, wildlife, water, and other resources located across a huge area. Livestock grazing, timber cutting, and mineral extraction all potentially conflict with wildlife habitat, watershed protection, and outdoor recreation.

The situation is made worse by BLM officials operating in a nonmarket environment. Essentially, they run a giant socialist enterprise in trying to centrally plan vast lands and resources. The decisions the agency makes are often infuriating to Westerners because they are made by unaccountable officials on the other side of the country.

The solution is to transfer most federal lands in Nevada to the State of Nevada. Charges for the use of the land—such as grazing fees—should be set in the marketplace. Where feasible, environmentally significant land should be owned and managed by private non-profit land trusts, as discussed here. But these sorts of decisions should be made by the Nevada legislature. Politicians in Washington lack the knowledge to make the crucial land-use decisions that affect the lives of people such as Cliven Bundy, and they are far too distracted with all the other issues on the federal agenda.

California Shouldn’t Be Able to Impose Regulations on Businesses Outside of California

One of the several failures of the Articles of Confederation was the incapacity of the central government to deal with trade disputes among the states. The Constitution resolved this problem by empowering the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. It has since become a basic principle of American federalism that a state may not regulate actions in other states or impede the interstate flow of goods based on out-of-state conduct (rather than on the features of the goods themselves).

That principle was axiomatic until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld one particular extra-territorial California regulation. California recently established a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (“LCFS”) that attempts to rate the “carbon intensity” of liquid fuels, so that carbon emissions can be reduced in the Golden State. California considers not only the carbon emissions from the fuel itself being burnt, however, but also the entire “lifetime” of the fuel, including its manufacture and transportation.

This has led to complaints from Midwestern ethanol producers, whose product—which is in all other ways identical to California-produced ethanol—being severely disadvantaged in California’s liquid fuel markets, simply because it comes from further away. Groups representing farmers and fuel manufacturers sued, arguing that the LCFS constitutes a clear violation of the Commerce Clause (the Article I federal power to regulate interstate commerce) by discriminating against interstate commerce and allowing California to regulate conduct occurring wholly outside of its borders. The Ninth Circuit recently upheld the LCFS, finding the regulation permissible because its purpose was primarily environmental and not economic protectionism (although judges dissenting from the court’s denial of rehearing pointed out that this is the wrong standard to apply).

The farmers and fuel manufacturer groups have now submitted a petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Reason Foundation, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, and the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute on an amicus brief supporting the petition.

We argue that the lower court’s ruling provides a template for other states to follow should they want to evade Supreme Court precedents barring obstruction of interstate commerce and extraterritorial regulation. As the Founders fully recognized, ensuring the free flow of commerce among the states is vital to the wellbeing of the nation, and California’s actions—and the Ninth Circuit’s endorsement of them—threaten to clog up that flow. Not only does the appellate ruling allow California to throw national fuel markets into disarray, it invites other states to destabilize interstate markets and incite domestic trade disputes—precisely the type of uncooperative behavior the Constitution was designed to prevent.

The Supreme Court will likely decide whether to take Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey before it recesses for the summer. For more on the case, see this blogpost by PLF’s Tony Francois.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

TV Broadcasters Should Have Same Rights As Everyone Else

Remember broadcast television? Amid the avalanche of new streaming services, DVRs, and Rokus, not to mention cable TV, some people may have forgotten—or, if they’re under 25, never known—that there are TV shows in the air that can be captured with an antenna. The Supreme Court certainly hasn’t forgotten, given that it maintains an outdated rule that broadcast TV gets less First Amendment protection than cable, video-on-demand, or almost anything else–a rule dating to the 1969 case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.

That lower standard of protection comes from the belief that the broadcast-frequency spectrum is scarce, and thus that the Federal Communications Commission is properly charged with licensing the spectrum for the public “interest, convenience, and necessity.” But if newspapers or magazines were similarly licensed, the First Amendment violation would be obvious to all but the most hardened censor.

Hence the case of Minority Television Project v. FCC. Minority Television Project is an independent, noncommercial license-holding TV station in San Francisco. Unlike most noncommercial license holders, Minority TV receives no PBS money. Because it’s an over-the-air broadcaster, however, it must comply with the restrictions placed on the licenses by Congress and the FCC, including prohibitions on paid commercials and political ads. Minority TV challenged these restrictions as violating the First Amendment.

Applying Red Lion’s lower First Amendment standard, the district court, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the en banc Ninth Circuit (11 judges rather than the usual 3) all ruled against Minority TV. On petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Minority TV argues that Red Lion’s rationale for reducing broadcasters’ rights is outdated and should be overruled.

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Minority TV, agreeing that it’s time to give broadcast TV full First Amendment protection. Just as we argued in 2011’s FCC v. Fox Television Stations—where the Court chose to evade the question—it’s time to update our law to fit current realities. The way that people consume information and entertainment has changed dramatically since 1969. Rather than three broadcast networks, we have hundreds of channels of various kinds, and increasingly people are forgoing traditional TV altogether. The FCC can still license broadcasters—that system isn’t going away anytime soon regardless of the next mind-boggling innovation—but the conditions it places on those licenses have to satisfy strict First Amendment scrutiny, especially when they pertain to political speech.

The Supreme Court should take this case in order to update its treatment of broadcasters’ speech rights, including a requirement that the government offer a truly compelling justification any time it wants to restrict them. 

Judge Rebukes Labor Department Over Shoddy Case

It seems every week or two another federal agency gets smacked down in court for trampling the rights of regulated parties in enforcement litigation. This week it’s the Labor Department’s turn:

The U.S. Department of Labor must pay more than $565,000 in attorney fees to an oilfield services company it accused of wage-and-hour violations totaling more than $6 million, a federal judge has ruled….

Officials, who opened their investigation in 2010, alleged the business [Texas-based Gate Guard Services, LLC] improperly classified 400 gate attendants as independent contractors.

The agency would have learned that the guards weren’t employees had it talked to more than just a few of them, [federal judge John] Rainey wrote in a 24-page order. Because the probe was not “substantially justified,” Gate Guard was entitled to recover its attorney fees, he said.

“The DOL failed to act in a reasonable manner both before and during the course of this litigation,” Rainey wrote.

Goaded by labor unions and other interested parties, the Obama Labor Department has made wage-and-hour law a big priority, with the President himself pushing the law into new ways of overriding private contractual choice. As for the overzealous enforcement, it’s coming to look less like inadvertence and more like systematic Administration policy.  Last year we noted an Eleventh Circuit decision rebuffing as “absurd” a Labor Department claim of authority regarding the H-2B guest worker program. The pattern extends to agency after agency, from the EPA (ordered to pay a Louisiana plant manager $1.7 million on a claim that hardly ever succeeds for defendants, malicious prosecution), to white-collar enforcement, to a series of Justice Department prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Probably the agency to suffer the most humiliating reversals is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominally independent but in fact reshaped in recent years into a hyperactive version of its already problematic self. You can read here about some of the beatings the EEOC has taken in court in recent years, including a case last summer where the federal judge dismissed the commission’s lawsuit over a Maryland company’s use of criminal and credit background checks using words like “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” And just last week, as reported in this space, the Sixth Circuit memorably slapped around the commission’s amateurish use of expert testimony in another credit-check case, this time against the Kaplan education firm. As I noted at Overlawyered

The Sixth Circuit has actually been one of the EEOC’s better circuits in recent years. For example, it reversed a Michigan federal judge who in 2011 had awarded $2.6 million in attorneys’ fees to Cintas, the employee-uniform company, and reinstated the lawsuit. In doing so, the appellate panel nullified what had been the lower court’s findings of “egregious and unreasonable conduct” by the agency, including a “reckless sue first, ask questions later strategy.” The commission hailed the reversal as one of its big legal wins — although when one of your big boasts is getting $2.6 million in sanctions against you thrown out, it might be that you don’t have much to brag about….

If you wonder why the commission persists in its extreme aggressiveness anyway, one answer may be that the strategy works: most defendants settle, and the commission hauled in a record $372 million in settlements last year. 

 Perhaps it is time for defendants to start settling less often.

 

Revisiting Central Clearing for Derivatives

The Dodd-Frank requirement that over-the-counter derivatives be centrally cleared is one of the (slightly) less controversial provisions of the Act, at least in spirit if perhaps not always in substance. But for a time, a few observers have worried - myself included - that concentrating derivatives clearing activities in one or two single-purpose entities may increase, rather than reduce, the risk to the broader economy posed by the default of a counterparty.

As it turns out, we skeptics are not alone. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the good folks at BlackRock are cited as having raised concerns in a recent study about the lack of clarity regarding where the risk ultimately falls in the event of default by a large counterparty. Banks and investors want the clearinghouses themselves to backstop some of this risk. The BlackRock study notes that “post-crisis rules have forced a large swath of risky trades… and this risk needs to be addressed.”

It is perhaps, therefore, a good time to hark back to Craig Pirrong’s Cato Policy Analysis from 2010, released on the day the Act was signed into law. In it, Mr. Pirrong argues that central clearing leads to better and more efficient risk pricing ONLY if the clearinghouse has perfect information. He notes the risk sharing that occurs through the clearinghouse mechanism encourages excessive risk taking, which creates moral hazard. Pirrong also highlights that “if the clearinghouse has imprecise information, the margin levels it chooses will sometimes overly constrain the trading of its members and sometimes constrain them too little…all of these factors mean that it is costly for the clearinghouse to control moral hazard.” As Pirrong notes, a clearing mandate reduces market efficiency and poses “its own systemic risks in a world where information is costly.”

One of the major criticisms of the previous or “bilateral” approach to derivatives clearing was that banks and investors could not adequately monitor their own risk exposure to counterparties (with some side complaints about banks mispricing risk etc.). However, as the BlackRock study notes, it is not clear that the central clearing approach addresses this concern, especially since the rules governing outcomes in the event of a major default have yet to be finalized. In particular, if a major counterparty defaults and the clearinghouse is not holding sufficient collateral to cover that counterparty’s trades, who loses out? Is it the members? The Federal Reserve? (Remember, one of the Board’s first actions under Dodd-Frank was to allow clearinghouses to borrow at the discount window in the same way that commercial banks do). Will the clearinghouse perhaps declare bankruptcy (and, if so, what impact will the failure of a major utility have on operational stability)?

More importantly, just when counterparties have realized these products must be treated with caution, the system is incentivizing the market participants with the best information (the members) to pool and therefore increase the riskiness of their activities. Derivatives are an important economic tool and vital to most companies’ (financial or otherwise) risk management. But we should not assume that the framework created by Dodd-Frank will eliminate risk in the derivatives trade, real or perceived.

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

historical-size-of-govt

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.