Topic: Regulatory Studies

In Defense of Truthiness

If you only read one Cato brief this Supreme Court term, it should be this one.

Believe it or not, it’s illegal in Ohio to lie about politicians, for politicians to lie about other politicians, or for politicians to lie about themselves. That is, it violates an election law—this isn’t anything related to slander or libel, which has higher standards of proof for public figures—to make “false statements” in campaign-related contexts.

During the 2010 House Elections, a pro-life advocacy group called the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), published ads in Ohio claiming that then-Rep. Steven Driehaus, who was running for re-election, had voted to fund abortions with federal money (because he had voted for Obamacare). Rather than contesting the truth of these claims in the court of public opinion, Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission (OEC) under a state law that makes it a crime to “disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”

While the complaint was ultimately dropped, the SBA List took Driehaus and the OEC to federal court, seeking to have this law declared unconstitutional and thus enable advocacy groups to have more freedom going forward. The case has now reached the Supreme Court.

Joined by legendary satirist (and Cato’s H.L. Mencken Research Fellow) P.J. O’Rourke, our brief supports the SBA List and reminds the Court of the important role that “truthiness”—facts you feel you in heart, not in your head—plays in American politics, and the importance of satire and spin more broadly. We ask the Court a simple yet profound question: Doesn’t the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protect one man’s truth even if it happens to be another man’s lie? And who’s to judge—and on what scale—when a statement slides “too far” into the realm of falsehood?

However well intentioned Ohio legislators may have been, laws that criminalize “false” speech don’t replace truthiness and snark with high-minded ideas and “just the facts.” Instead, they chill speech, replacing the sort of vigorous political dialogue that’s at the core of the democratic process with silence. The Supreme Court of all institutions should understand that just because a statement isn’t fully true, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in public discourse. Moreover, pundits and satirists are much-better placed to evaluate and send-up half-truths than government agencies.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus on April 22.

Obama Administration Rips Off Middle Class and Threatens Elephants

As I’ve written before, the Obama administration plans to effectively ban the sale of all ivory in America, even if purchased or inherited legally years ago. If you can’t prove its age, you can be arrested and have your property confiscated—unless you are well-connected and exempted.

Elephants are being killed for their ivory. Activists unable to protect the animals now are targeting Americans who followed the law in buying and selling legal old ivory objects. 

But as I point out my latest piece in the American Spectator:

advocates of banning antique sales seem more interested in punishing people who bought and sold ivory legally because they bought and sold ivory, not because doing so would prevent poaching.  It is an exercise in moral vanity and political posturing, not practical conservation.

Some ban proponents complain of the difficulty of distinguishing between new and old ivory. Actually, European carving disappeared decades ago. Asian carving continues, but old and new differ in character, subject, wear, age, coloring, quality, and more. 

Nor do collectors of and dealers in antiques seek out poached ivory. Punishing people who followed the law and invested in legal objects might make a few extremists feel good, but won’t save a single elephant today.

Ivory entered America legally until 1989. Antiques with proper certification could be imported after that. But in mid-February the administration announced that if you had followed the law, it planned to render your collection or inventory essentially valueless.

The new guidance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that most every auctioneer, collector, and dealer—and anyone else who has purchased or received something made of ivory—better hire a lawyer before selling their ivory possessions. 

The prospective rules are biased against average folks. If you represent the non-profit cultural establishment, you’ll get around the rules.

Point one, no “commercial” imports even of antiques will be allowed. However, the rules apparently will exempt “museum and educational specimens.” According to the administration’s reasoning, non-profit institutions will have a unique right to continue driving elephants to extinction.

Point two, exports are banned, except antiques in what the government calls “exceptional circumstances.” But “certain noncommercial items” will be allowed, so people with friends in government likely will be able to hurdle any new burdens in a single bound. Everyone else better hire a lawyer or lobbyist.

Political Poster Week Continues: “Safety First”

Art Deco prohibition poster, traffic "Safety First"

Countless gorgeous posters, many of them French, promote the consumption of alcohol, but few achieve high style while arguing the Prohibitionist cause. Anti-saloon campaigners were better known for sketches of sentimentally drawn children, drunks in gutters, and pinstriped tycoons in top hats raking in bucks from the liquor traffic (imagery that reminds us of the close affinity between that and other Progressive-era anti-business movements). 

So where’d this Art Deco gem come from? It’s not immediately clear. It would be easy to mistake it for a simple traffic-safety poster, until you notice that as the vehicles whiz past each other in their Futurist way, the red diagonal that keeps them separate is labeled “PROHIBITION.” My online quest for its origins came up blank: among the few clues is the artist signature “LEW” at lower left, which also appears on this almost equally striking poster for the anti-alcohol cause. The latter poster includes the phrase “Outlawed or Legalized,” and the use of “z” rather than “s” in “Legalized” suggests American rather than British origin. 

In retrospect, of course, we know the traffic-safety message was to prove far more effective as an impetus to legal restriction of alcohol than most of the others. It would seem strange today for public officials to lecture us against enjoying a glass of Merlot based on moral disapproval or concern for our family responsibilities, but few flinch when the police chief of Austin proposes criminalizing driving on a meager 0.05 blood alcohol, with a Texas state senator explaining: “Some people shouldn’t be driving after one drink.”

Proposed IRS Rulemaking Would Chill Public Advocacy

Tomorrow ends the comment period for a proposed IRS rule that would change the way groups from the Sierra Club to the NRA advocate on behalf of their members. By defining “candidate-related political activity” as the rule has, election time could compel these groups to scrub their websites and Twitter feeds of almost any mention of political candidates.
 
On March 4, join us for an event exploring the proposed rule. And you can learn more by listening to today’s Cato Daily Podcast with Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Center for Competitive Politics.

You can always subscribe to the podcast here.

Folly of Federal Flood Insurance

Subsidized flood insurance is one of the many federal programs that is counter to both sound economic policy and sound environmental policy. Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968 to help homeowners in flood-prone areas purchase insurance. The FEMA-run program covers floods from river surges and storms on the seacoasts.

In recent years, the NFIP has gone hugely into debt and it may be bailed-out by taxpayers at some point. The program has encouraged people to build homes in areas that are too hazardous to safely occupy. It has encouraged towns to expand development in flood-prone areas. And the program undermines constitutional federalism by prompting the federal government to reach its regulatory tentacles into local zoning issues.

The NFIP subsidizes wealthy people with multiple payouts after their homes on the seacoasts are repeatedly destroyed. The program is very bad policy—a seemingly good idea to policymakers in the 1960s that has ended up creating growing distortions.

When I started reading about the NFIP recently, I was surprised to learn that Congress made sensible reforms to it in 2012 under the Biggert-Waters Act. The best reform would be a complete repeal of the NFIP, but in the meantime the 2012 law was a good start at reducing the program’s costs and distortions.

Alas, the prospect of Congress staying on a pro-market, pro-environment reform path was apparently too good to be true. No sooner had the ink dried on the 2012 law than members of Congress began trying to reverse the reforms.

This week, Congress will be voting on a bill that backtracks on the 2012 reforms. I have not studied the details of the new bill, but Diane Katz at the Heritage Foundation has penned a nice overview.

Political Poster Week Continues: “I Need Smokes”

U.S. World War I Poster, "I Need Smokes"As I noted in my book The Rule of Lawyers, it’s not by happenstance that the sharpest increases in Americans’ smoking rates have come in wartime. Nicotine staves off the boredom, fear, and loneliness of life on the front lines, and the smoking habit encourages socialization among troops. Years later, the federal government was at pains to downplay its vigorous promotion of tobacco use as part of both the WWI and WWII war effort. (It had a sideline in promoting some other important forms of substance abuse as well, notably amphetamine-munching.)

This poster, of World War I vintage, would have made a good illustration for the article I wrote in Reason a while back on government contributions to product-related risk. For some other tobacco-related war poster themes, check the Hoover Institution political poster database

A Tough Day in Court for the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations

The Obama Administration appeared prepared to abandon a major portion of its initial greenhouse gas regulatory scheme in oral argument before the Supreme Court today. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, defending a series of EPA rules, sought to preserve regulations reaching large industrial sources by offering up a more aggressive gambit by the agency that could potentially reach millions of smaller businesses, apartment buildings, and schools.

The problem, as EPA itself has conceded, is that EPA’s regulatory approach renders the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration program “unrecognizable” to the Congress that enacted it. That’s because GHGs are emitted in far greater quantities than traditional pollutants and PSD requirements are based on the quantities of emissions, with facilities emitting more than either 100 or 250 tons per year of any applicable pollutant being subject to an expensive pollution-control regime. For GHGs, those tonnage triggers would transform the PSD program from one aimed at only the nation’s largest sources of emissions. For that reason, after deciding to use PSD to regulate GHGs, EPA then issued a “tailoring rule” to avoid the absurd result by discarding the numerical thresholds that are specified in the law and adopting new ones thousands of times larger.

That decision was under heavy scrutiny at oral argument. Businesses challenging the rule, represented by Peter Keisler, argued that the PSD program is structured to address local air quality concerns and therefore does not extend to emissions of carbon dioxide. PSD’s triggers, monitoring requirements, requirement for local air-quality analysis, and administration by 90 separate state and local permitting authorities all demonstrate that Congress did not intend the statute to address anything like GHG, Keisler argued. So while the statute does apply to “any air pollutant,” that term cannot be interpreted to reach pollutants that cause these other statutory requirements to fail