Topic: Regulatory Studies

Court Tosses D.C. Tour Guide Licensing Scheme

Since there isn’t any other legal news this or next week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today decided to strike down D.C.’s absurd licensing regulations regarding Uber food trucks raw milk guns campaign finance tour guides. Believe it or not, until today District law required people to pay the government $200 and pass a 100-question test on 14 subjects, covering material from no less than eight different publications, before they can give city tours—all for the purpose of “protecting” tourists from misinformation. If you didn’t comply, you faced a fine and 90 days in jail.

I previously wrote about this case when Cato filed a brief last fall, so I’ll just provide some key excerpts from the court opinion (written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, whom we had the honor to publish in the Cato Supreme Court Review the first year I edited it). Here’s how it starts:

This case is about speech and whether the government’s regulations actually accomplish their intended purpose. Unsurprisingly, the government answers in the affirmative. But when, as occurred here, explaining how the regulations do so renders the government’s counsel literally speechless, we are constrained to disagree.

The court later describes the reason for its disagreement:

The District’s reliance on a Washington Post article dating from 1927 to justify the exam requirement is equally underwhelming. [Citation omitted.] The article merely establishes that, nearly a century ago, the newspaper expressed concern about unscrupulous or fraudulent charitable solicitation and that an unidentified number of persons said self-styled tour guides were overly aggressive in soliciting business. Reliance on decades-old evidence says nothing of the present state of affairs. Current burdens demand contemporary evidence. [Citations of last term’s big voting right case, Shelby County v. Holder, and other cases are omitted.]

Continuing the theme that D.C. failed to justify its speech regulation, the court says:

Even if we indulged the District’s apparently active imagination, the record is equally wanting of evidence the exam regulation actually furthers the District’s interest in preventing the stated harms. Curiously, the District trumpets as a redeeming quality the fact that, once licensed, “[t]our guides may say whatever they wish about any site, or anything else for that matter.” [Citation omitted.] But we are left nonplussed. Exactly how does a tour guide with carte blanche to—Heaven forfend—call the White House the Washington Monument further the District’s interest in ensuring a quality consumer experience? [Footnote omitted.]

Salon Writer Not a Fan of Sharing Economy Start-up or ‘Transnational Neocolonialist Libertarian Arrogance’

Over at Salon, Andrew Leonard has written an article headlined “Libertarians’ anti-government crusade: Now there’s an app for that,” in which he criticizes MonkeyParking, a start-up that enables users to auction off information about parking spaces. MonkeyParking recently received a cease and desist demand from San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, stating that it is in violation of a provision in San Francisco’s Police Code that “specifically prohibits individuals and companies from buying, selling or leasing public on‐street parking.”

According to Leonard, MonkeyParking and another app that offers to pay car owners to occupy parking spaces “is an example of how the ‘sharing economy’ can be totally bullshit.”

He contrasts MonkeyParking with Forage Oakland, which allows residents to “share” produce from local fruit trees such as figs and lemons.

Forage Oakland sounds great, and a libertarian would be the last person to object to residents setting up a way to give away produce for free. Indeed, last month it was reported that lawmakers and regulators in 33 American cities have restrictions or are considering implementing restrictions that hamper those hoping to hand out food to homeless people.

Leonard argues that Forage Oakland is different from MoneyParking because

Monkey Parking’s [sic] solution intended to generate profit off of a public good by rewarding those who are able to pay — and shutting out the less affluent. That’s outrageous and not something any civilized society should tolerate.

He doesn’t elaborate on what measures a “civilized society” should take in order to prevent MonkeyParking from operating, especially given the fact that the technology being used by MonkeyParking isn’t going anywhere soon and that, according to Pew, the number of Americans who own smartphones has increased over the last few years.

He goes on to criticize MonkeyParking’s “obvious self interest”:

The entitlement and obvious self-interest that led MonkeyParking to decide it could solve a San Francisco municipal problem with a blatantly illegal business model is shared by many “disruptive” entrepreneurs—often cloaked under the cover of libertarian ideology.

It’s a shame that he doesn’t appreciate that the price system is extremely efficient at communicating information to producers and customers and that the regulatory environment that is affecting MonkeyParking is only the latest example of regulators and lawmakers not being able to keep up with changes in technology.

23andMe Closer to FDA Approval

 23andMe, the Google-backed personal genomics company ordered by the Food and Drug Administration to stop marketing its health-related services in November last year, is closer to a reconciliation with the government agency. The FDA did not object to the ancestry information 23andMe provides, but rather the information on inherited risks it released to customers.

Before halting the release of health information 23andMe had provided its customers with information on their ancestry and health. 23andMe gathered genetic information from customers by having them send saliva in a $99 kit.

What had the FDA concerned was the possibility that a false result from a 23andMe test could lead to customers undergoing drastic procedures such as “prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions.” Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey pointed out such a fear is misplaced because not only is the biochip used by 23andMe and researchers around the word very accurate, anyone who received worrying health news from a 23andMe test would almost certainly consult a doctor and/or get a more comprehensive screening done before undergoing any surgery or procedure.

Last week 23andMe’s Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer, Kathy Hibbs, wrote on the company’s blog that the FDA had “accepted for review 23andMe’s submission for a new 510 (k) application,” which Reuters describes as “a regulatory process that applies to most medical devices sold in the United States.” The FDA considers the 23andMe saliva collection kit a device.

Although 23andMe’s submission focuses on one condition — Bloom Syndrome — Hibbs wrote the following:

Once cleared, it will help 23andMe, and the FDA, establish the parameters for future submissions. More importantly, for our customers, it marks a baseline on the accuracy and validity of the information we report back to them. The submission includes robust validation data covering major components of our product such as the genotyping chip, software and saliva kit.

While it is good news that 23andMe seems to be on its way to being in good standing with federal regulators, Stephanie M. Lee of SFGate.com notes that 23andMe could potentially face months of questions and data requests before being granted FDA approval.

 

Senseless in Seattle: The Minimum-Wage Follies

Meet the Marxist behind Seattle’s wage hike,” read the headline of the lead item at CNN Money late this morning. It seems that one Kshama Sawant, an immigrant from India who earned a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University before taking a teaching position at Seattle Central Community College, is credited by the local press with being the political force behind the city council’s recent vote to raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour, phased in for large businesses by 2017 and all businesses by 2021.

A self-described Marxist, Ms. Sawant went from Occupy Wall Street to occupying Seattle City Council, the story says, adding that she was “radicalized politically by the gaping inequality she observed upon arriving in the world’s richest country.” Thus, she ran for city council last year “under the banner of Socialist Alternative, an organization that calls for ‘international struggle’ against global capitalism.”

Say this for Ms. Sawant: Whatever she learned about economics in the course of getting her degree, at least she’s not hiding her views. But what can we say about the Seattle City Council, which passed her proposal unanimously? Perhaps there’s something in the coffee out there. Or perhaps they really believe, as Ms. Sawant does, that this measure will “transfer $3 billion from businesses to low-wage workers over the next decade.”

Well it turns out that you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that economies are not static. That elementary insight from Econ 101 was captured, in fact, in an earlier lead item at CNN Money, “Seattle $15 wage plan is unfair to me.” Quoting several small business owners on what’s in store for them—and their employees—here we find Subway franchise owner Matthew Hollek lamenting that, although he has only eight employees, he’ll have to start paying them 60 percent more by 2017—while the sandwich shop next door will be immune from the law for another four years. The reason? The law counts him as a large employer because he’s part of a national chain. It looks like these “gaping inequalities” are more difficult to close than Ms. Sawant seems to have realized.

Indeed, not only are economies dynamic and is Seattle not an island, but if the benefits of a minimum wage were as good as its advocates believe, then why stop at $15? Why not $20, or $30, or more? You never hear an answer to that because there is none. For a sampling from Cato of a more serious approach to the subject, see here, here, and here.

Resources for a Potential Ruling Today in Halbig v. Sebelius

The D.C. Circuit is due to rule any day now, quite possibly today, on Halbig v. Sebelius. For those who haven’t been watching the vigil I keep over at DarwinsFool.comNewsweek calls Halbigthe case that could topple ObamaCare.”

First a little background. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act offers refundable “premium-assistance tax credits” to qualified taxpayers who purchase health insurance “through an Exchange established by the State.” The PPACA contains no language authorizing tax credits through the 34 Exchanges established by the federal government in states that declined to establish one themselves, nor does it authorize the Internal Revenue Service to treat those federally established Exchanges as if they had been “established by the State.” Offering benefits only in compliant states was proposed by numerous Republicans and Democrats in 2009, for obvious reasons: Congress cannot force states to implement federal programs, but it can create incentives for states to act, such as by offering health-insurance subsidies to residents of compliant states.

Halbig is one of four cases challenging the IRS’s decision to rewrite the statute and offer tax credits in the 34 states with federal Exchanges. The plaintiffs are individuals and employers who are injured by the IRS’s overreach because, due to the PPACA’s many inter-locking pieces, issuing those illegal tax credits subjects them to illegal penalties.

Since a ruling may come today (or some Tuesday or Friday hence, as is the D.C. Circuit’s habit), here are some materials for those who want to hit the ground running.

Update: The D.C. Circuit has handed down rulings for today, and Halbig is not among them. Click here to check on the court’s most recent rulings.

Should Taxi Medallion Owners Be Compensated?

The Sunday Washington Post published a very interesting long article on the effects of Uber and other similar ride-sharing services on the value of the medallions required for operation of conventional taxis in Chicago and other cities.

The medallions have value because the supply of rights to operate taxis, restricted by city regulation, is low relative to demand. The Post article presents data on the number of taxis per 100,000 residents. Washington D. C. licenses cabs, but does not restrict the number of cabs operating through a medallion requirement, and has almost 900 taxis per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Chicago and New York, which have medallion restrictions, only have approximately 230 to 250 taxis per 100,000 residents.[1] The supply restrictions in Chicago and New York lead to excess profits, which reveal themselves in the bids for medallions in the secondary market. The present value of the profits from owning the “rights to cruise for passengers” relative to the profits of other investments is the market value of the medallions, which until recently ranged from $500,000 to a million dollars depending on the city and the severity of the medallion restrictions.

Uber, which supplies luxury town-car service, and especially UberX, which supplies service similar to cabs, in effect, have increased the supply of taxis to eliminate some, if not all, of the difference between the number of vehicles per capita in Washington D.C. and those cities with medallion supply restrictions. This increased supply reduces the market value of the medallions. The article asks whether reductions in the value of the medallions are a “taking” by the government that deserves compensation like any normal taking of “property” by government action.

I (along with Richard Sansing, a Professor at Dartmouth Business School) wrote an article in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (volume 13, issue 3, Summer 1994 pp. 565- 570) that analyzed the question of whether governments should compensate those citizens who lose wealth because public policies change. (Here is a version published in Regulation in Winter 1997)

We analyzed data on lease versus purchase of tax medallions in New York City. If there were no risk, the purchase price of a medallion would reflect the present value of leasing in perpetuity. Unlike other assets the medallion’s only value is the entry restrictions created by government. At the time we conducted our analysis the present value of leasing in perpetuity at 5 percent interest was $240,000 whereas the sale price of medallions was only $100,000. That is the purchase price of a medallion at that time amortized the cash flows over a period of 20 years as if they would go to zero in year 21. Unlike other investments the only reason that cash flows might go to zero was the possibility of deregulation or reduction in enforcement of the entry restrictions. If policy change created any reduction in cash flows in years one through 19 investors made less than normal profits. Investors made “excess” profits if any reduction in cash flow occurred after year 20. Thus the medallion market was like a fairly priced lottery ticket that took into account the possibility of deregulation, even though at the time we did this calculation no change in taxi regulation had ever taken place since it was instituted in the late 1930s. We concluded that no compensation was required to preserve equity or fairness because the price for medallions reflected the risk investors faced from policy change.

We then analyzed the efficiency consequences of a no-compensation regime. The lack of compensation for policy change increases the riskiness (variance) of returns on assets even though it does not change the average return. Investors handle risk by diversification: owning assets whose returns do not all increase or decrease at the same time. As long as the risk of policy change in taxi medallions does not occur at the same time as the risk to assets in all other markets, the risk of taxi medallion policy change can be managed through asset diversification. Thus in the case of taxi medallion deregulation due to changes such as the advent of Uber and Lyft, compensation is not required for efficiency either.


[1] Chicago has 6904 medallions according to the Post article and 2,718,782 population in 2013 for 254 cabs per 100k people. NYC has 13,605 medallions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicabs_of_New_York_City  In December 2011, Governor Cuomo signed law allowing 18,000 new outer borough medallions. 6, 000 of the outer borough medallions have been issued. Thus New York City has 19,605 medallions and 8,405,837 people in 2013 according to the census, which equals 233 cabs per 100k people.

TaskRabbit to Become “Uber For Everything” Thanks to Makeover

TaskRabbit, a site that connects people looking to outsource tasks such as household repairs and keg deliveries, recently announced that its business model will be changing from one that resembles an eBay-style auction house to one that more closely resembles companies like Uber. The new TaskRabbit will be launched “before the end of July.”

As Casey Newton noted at The Verge last week in an article titled “TaskRabbit is blowing up its business model and becoming the Uber for everything,” when the new system goes live next month users will find a landing page that steers them to the platform’s four most popular types of service: handyman, house cleaning, moving, and personal assistants. (You can still request other services, though it takes a few more clicks.) After you submit some details about the job, TaskRabbit will present three contractors, along with their hourly rates, who represent a range of prices and experience levels. After you select one, you can schedule a time for the job and communicate with the “Tasker” in real time using a custom messaging platform built by the company.

It seems that news of TaskRabbit’s makeover has increased interest in the company. TaskRabbit PR chief Johnny Brackett tweeted on Wednesday, the day after TaskRabbit announced the planned changes, that TaskRabbit had “15X more user signups yesterday than an average day.”

While Uber’s rideshare service, UberX, makes it simple for users to do one familiar thing (catching a ride), TaskRabbit allows for its users to easily find help carrying out a range of common tasks such as assembling furniture, replacing light switches, and so-called “virtual” tasks such as vacation planning and proofreading.

It remains to be seen if TaskRabbit’s redesign will yield the sort of growth enjoyed by other “sharing economy” companies. If Brackett’s tweet is accurate, there is at the very least some new interest in TaskRabbit, the “Uber for everything.” Investors have shown that they believe in the potential of the “sharing economy” despite numerous domestic and international regulatory battles, having provided Uber and Airbnb with huge valuations earlier this year.

If the new version of TaskRabbit takes off, it will likely have to contend with its own share of regulatory obstacles. In particular, many of the jobs that it helps people to get done could be subject to state and local occupational licensing rules. Established service providers may try to use these laws to squelch unlicensed competition from TaskRabbit, just as taxi services have sought to stop Uber.

It will be interesting to see how TaskRabbit does with its Uber-like system. I was quite eager to use TaskRabbit myself, but after signing up as a TaskRabbit (a term that will be changed to “Tasker” once the new site is launched) in Washington, D.C. I received a message that said in part:

There is high application volume in your city right now so we’ve temporarily put a hold on all new applications. The number of tasks on our site is growing rapidly, so it shouldn’t be long before we start accepting new applications.

So, it doesn’t look like I’ll be helping strangers out with IKEA furniture assembly via TaskRabbit any time soon, but that seems to be because of the popularity of the “Uber for everything,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise.