Topic: Regulatory Studies

A Reprieve For Online Freedom? DoJ Gets Cold Feet On ADA-For-The-Web

Did our message finally get through? (See “How ADA-for-the-Web Regulations Menace Online Freedom,” 2013). Or that of other commentators like Eric Goldman, who warned (of a related court case) that “all hell will break loose” if the law defines websites as public accommodations and makes them adopt “accessibility”? At any rate, the U.S. Department of Justice, after years of declaring that it was getting ready any day now to label your website and most others you encounter every day as out of compliance with the ADA, has suddenly turned around and done this:

In an astonishing move, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will not issue any regulations for public accommodations websites until fiscal year 2018 — eight years after it started the rulemaking process with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM).

Yes, eight years is a very long time for a rulemaking, especially one pursuing issues that have been in play for many years (that link discusses testimony I gave in 2000). And predictably, some disabled interest-group advocates are already charging that the latest delay is “outrageous” and shows “indifference.” More likely, it shows that even an administration that has launched many audacious and super-costly initiatives in regulation has figured out that this one is so audacious and super-costly that it should be – well, not dropped, but left as a problem for a successor administration.

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.

Does Drug Prohibition Inhibit Economic Development?

Even the most dedicated opponent of drug prohibition might not guess that this policy harms economic development.

Yet claims in a recent WSJ story, combined with research on the relation between banking and development, suggests just such an impact.

The reason is that drug prohibition fosters anti-money laundering laws; which then discourage U.S. banks from doing business in Mexico; which then impedes Mexican banking; which then negatively impacts development.

The WSJ story says,

U.S. banks are cutting off a growing number of customers in Mexico, deciding that business south of the border might not be worth the risks in the wake of mounting regulatory warnings.

At issue are correspondent-banking relationships that allow Mexican banks to facilitate cross-border transactions and meet their clients’ needs for dealing in dollars—in effect, giving them access to the U.S. financial system. The global firms that provide those services are increasingly wary of dealing with Mexican banks as well as their customers, according to U.S. bankers and people familiar with the matter.

And why are U.S. banks worried about regulation?  Because 

U.S. financial regulators have long warned about the risks in Mexico of money laundering tied to the drug trade. The urgency spiked more than a year ago, when the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a unit of the Treasury Department, sent notices warning banks of the risk that drug cartels were laundering money through correspondent accounts … Earlier, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency sent a cautionary note to some big U.S. banks about their Mexico banking activities.

As for evidence that banking is important for economic development, see this paper by Scott Fulford of Boston College (featured soon in a Cato Research Brief).  Fulford writes:

Do banks matter for growth and how? This paper examines the effects of national banks in the United States from 1870–1900. I use the discontinuity in entry caused by a large minimum size requirement to identify the effects of banking. For the counties on the margin between getting a bank and not, gaining a bank increased production per person by 10%. National banks in rural areas improved agriculture over manufacturing, moving counties towards geographic comparative advantage. Since these banks made few long-term loans, the evidence suggests that the provision of working capital and liquidity matter for growth.

Bad policies (drug prohibition) breed more bad policies (anti-money-laundering laws), which have additional adverse consequences that few could plausibly have forseen.  This is one reason why any government interference with liberty, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly well justified, should face extreme skepticism.

Supreme Court Should Police Class Action Settlements

In 2009, Duracell, a subsidiary of Proctor & Gamble, began selling “Duracell Ultra” batteries, marketing them as their longest-lasting variety. A class action was filed in 2012, arguing that the “longest-lasting” claim was fraudulent. The case was removed to federal court, where the parties reached a global settlement purporting to represent 7.26 million class members.

Attorneys for the class are to receive an award of $5.68 million, based on what the district court deemed to be an “illusory” valuation of the settlement at $50 million. In reality, the class received $344,850. Additionally, defendants agreed to make a donation of $6 million worth of batteries over the course of five years to various charities.

This redistribution of settlement money from the victims to other uses is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.

Accordingly, class members objected to the settlement, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in approving the agreement and failed to engage in the required rigorous analysis to determine whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the settlement, however, noting the lack of “precedent prohibiting this type of cy pres award.”

Academics vs. Populism

It is an appalling story: A thoughtful academic uses his training and profession’s tools to analyze a major, highly controversial public issue. He reaches an important conclusion sharply at odds with the populist, “politically correct” view. Dutifully, the professor reports his findings to other academics, policymakers, and the public. But instead of being applauded for his insights and the quality of his work, he is vilified by his peers, condemned by national politicians, and trashed by the press. As a result, he is forced to resign his professorship and abandon his academic career.

Is this the latest development in today’s oppressive P.C. wars? The latest clash between “science” and powerful special interests?

Nope, it’s the story of Hugo Meyer, a University of Chicago economics professor in the early 1900s. His sad tale is told by University of Pisa economist Nicola Giocoli in the latest issue of Cato’s magazine, Regulation. Meyer is largely forgotten today, but his name and story should be known and respected by free-marketers and anyone who cherishes academic freedom and intellectual integrity.

Here’s a brief summary: At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. economy was dramatically changing as a result of a new technology: nationwide railroading. Though small railroads had existed in America for much of the previous century, westward expansion and the rebuilding of southern U.S. railways after the Civil War resulted in the standardization, interconnection, and expansion of the nation’s rail network.

As a result, railroading firms would compete with each other vigorously over price for long-distance hauling because their networks provided different routes to move goods efficiently between major population centers. However, price competition for short-hauls over the same rail lines between smaller towns wasn’t nearly as vigorous, as it was unlikely that two different railroads, with different routes, would efficiently serve the same two locales. The result was that short-distance hauls could be nearly as expensive as long-distance hauls, which greatly upset many people, including powerful politicians and other societal leaders.

Meyer examined those phenomena carefully, ultimately determining that there was nothing amiss in the high prices for short hauls.

Supreme Court Poised to Free Public-Sector Workers from Compelled Union Fees

The conventional wisdom is that Justice Scalia is the swing vote in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but he gave no indication at this morning’s argument that he was anywhere but on the plaintiffs’ side. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy – other potential defectors from the pro-workers, anti-compelled-speech side – were similarly solid. With Justice Alito having written the two recent labor-related opinions, the most likely fifth vote for the unions (supported by California and the United States) becomes Justice Thomas, but only because he said nothing, as is his wont.

Not surprisingly, the biggest issue for the more conservative justices was the matter of compulsion: why should non-unionmembers in the public sector be forced to pay “agency fees” for so-called collective bargaining when (a) all issues that are collectively bargained by public-sector unions are matters of public policy (not simply wages and conditions of labor as in the private sector), and (b) those workers disagree with the supposed “benefits” that the unions want them to pay for (e.g., tenure protections versus merit pay). “Is it even okay to force someone to contribute to a cause you do believe in?”, asked Justice Scalia. “We’re not talking about free riders, but compelled riders,” posited Justice Kennedy.

“Since public employment contracts are submitted for public comment, that suggests this is different than private-sector collective bargaining,” explained Chief Justice Roberts, who was silent during the plaintiffs’ half of the argument and an active questioner of the union and governments (typically a sign of agreement with the former and disagreement with the latter). 

While the progressive justices focused on the importance of stare decisis – respecting precedent and the reliance interests built up around it – that didn’t appear to be a major concern for anyone else, regardless of the age of the ruling that’s now under attack (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education from 1977). “Everything that’s collectively bargained [in the public sector] is necessarily a political question,” thundered Justice Scalia in describing why a ruling to strike down agency fees would even comport with Abood’s statement that states can’t force workers “to contribute to the support of an ideological cause [they] may oppose as a condition of holding a job.”

In other words, to the extent we can predict anything based solely on oral argument – take this with a mine of salt – I’d much rather be us (those who support the teachers) than them (those who support the teachers’ union and state and federal governments). If that’s how the case goes, it would be a huge victory for workers’ rights, the First Amendment, and educational freedom – and probably the most important ruling this term. 

We’ll find out by the end of June.

For background and commentary about the case, see this two-minute primerCato’s brief, my two recent op-eds, and this podcast.

Hobby Lobby 2: Executive-Agency Boogaloo

The Supreme Court said in Hobby Lobby that, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could not apply its contraceptive mandate to closely held for-profit corporations when doing so would violate the owners’ sincere religious beliefs. Around the time of that decision, the Court stayed the application of the mandate to a group of nuns known as the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters—like the plaintiffs in six other cases that have now been consolidated under the name Zubik v. Burwell—object to the “accommodation” that HHS crafted for their religious beliefs and the Supreme Court will now be evaluating their claims.