Topic: Regulatory Studies

Told Ya Toyota

Readers of Cato at Liberty knew all about this last July, and now the Obama Department of Transportation is confirming it publicly:

The Obama administration’s investigation into Toyota safety problems has found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration and other safety problems. …
“We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended acceleration in Toyotas,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

If, as retiring NHTSA official George Person charged last July, DoT officials dragged their heels in making public the exculpatory findings, there were very real costs to the economy. Not only did lawsuits proliferate which one hopes are now on their way to sputtering out, but Toyota (as Reuters reports) “was the only major automaker in the United States to report a drop in sales last year” even though the Japanese-owned automaker has ramped up costly dealer and sales incentives. Did it make a difference that the federal government has taken a proprietor’s interest in major Toyota competitors GM and Chrysler, or that a former trial lawyer lobbyist heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration? Those questions might be worth a hearing at the newly reconstituted House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Occupational Licensing: It Isn’t Just for Doctors and Lawyers Any More

“Cat groomers, tattoo artists, tree trimmers and about a dozen other specialists across the country …  are clamoring for more rules governing small businesses,” reports the Wall Street Journal in a front-page story today. “They’re asking to become state-licensed professionals, which would mean anyone wanting to be, say, a music therapist or a locksmith, would have to pay fees, apply for a license and in some cases, take classes and pass exams.” And despite all the talk about deregulation and encouraging entrepreneurship, “The most recent study, from 2008, found 23% of U.S. workers were required to obtain state licenses, up from just 5% in 1950,” according to Morris Kleiner of the University of Minnesota.

The Cato Institute has been taking on this issue for decades. In 1986 Stanley Gross of Indiana State University reviewed the economic literature on the impact of licensing on cost and quality. Kleiner wrote in Regulation in 2006:

Occupational regulation has grown because it serves the interests of those in the occupation as well as government. Members of an occupation benefit if they can increase the perception of quality and thus the demand for their services, while restricting supply simultaneously. Government officials benefit from the electoral and monetary support of the regulated as well as the support of the general public, whose members think that regulation results in quality improvement, especially when it comes to reducing substandard services.

Adjunct scholar Shirley Svorny noted that even in the medical field, “licensure not only fails to protect consumers from incompetent physicians, but, by raising barriers to entry, makes health care more expensive and less accessible.” David Skarbek studied the temporary relaxation of licensing requirements in Florida after Hurricanes Katrina and Frances and concluded that Florida should lift the rules permanently. In his book The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law, Timothy Sandefur devotes a chapter to “protectionist” legislation such as occupational licensing.

The Feds’ Squeeze on Farmstead Cheese

This weekend the Washington Post and New York Times took a closer look at a development mentioned in this space a while back and in a related Cato audio, namely growing federal pressure on small producers of artisan and farmstead cheeses. Here’s the Post:

….artisanal cheesemakers, and their boosters in the local-food movement, say they are being unfairly targeted. They say the FDA does not understand their craft and is trying to impose standards better suited for industrial food companies. …

Listeria is ubiquitous in the environment, but the FDA has a zero-tolerance rule for it in ready-to-eat food such as cheese. If the bacteria are present, the food is considered adulterated and cannot be sold. Some countries, including cheese-loving France, tolerate minute amounts of listeria in food.

Why can’t we in America enjoy at least as much freedom at our dinner tables as the French?

Many artisan cheese producers favor the use of raw (unpasteurized) milk and the rules on that subject are coming in particular to (as it were) a non-boil. The Food and Drug Administration has long required that cheeses made from raw milk be aged for 60 days in hopes of killing all potentially harmful bacteria. Trouble is, it’s been known for a while that 60 days is not long enough to guarantee that the survival rate of such bacteria is 0.00000 percent. Here’s the Times:

The F.D.A. has not tipped its hand [on its review of the aging rule], but some in the industry fear that raw milk cheese could be banned altogether or that some types of cheese deemed to pose a higher safety risk could no longer be made with raw milk. Others say they believe the aging period may be extended, perhaps to 90 days. That could make it difficult or impossible for cheesemakers to continue using raw milk for some popular cheese styles, like blue cheese or taleggio-type cheeses, that may not lend themselves to such lengthy aging.

“A very important and thriving section of the American agricultural scene is in danger of being compromised or put out of business if the 60-day minimum were to be raised or if raw milk cheeses were to be entirely outlawed,” said Liz Thorpe, a vice president of Murray’s Cheese, a Manhattan retailer where about half the cheese is made with raw milk.

As Virginia Postrel pointed out the other day in a Wall Street Journal piece, the artisan food folks are relatively lucky: “proponents of small-scale farming are organized, ideological, and well represented in the elite media”. Other producers victimized by overreaching regulation have much more trouble getting their voices heard in New York and Washington. That’s one reason small food producers were able to achieve at least a limited and modest carve-out in the recent federal food safety bill, while small producers of children’s apparel and other craft goods continue to flounder without relief under the impossible strictures of CPSIA.

Speaking of the Times, I think it sums up everything wrong with the world that Mark Bittman has quit his stellar food column to start a NYT politics column that begins with a “manifesto” whose planks include the following public policy proposal:

Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices.

Talk about artists in uniform. Also speaking of the Times, reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg quotes me today on Wal-Mart’s nutrition deal with Michelle Obama, which takes a series of changes the giant retailer might well have been considering anyway for market reasons, rolls it together with some long-pursued public policy objectives like getting the opportunity to open stores in big cities despite union resistance, and clothes it all in a First Lady endorsement. Clever, no?

‘1099’ Repeal Speaks Volumes About ObamaCare

From my latest Kaiser Health News op-ed:

When 34 Senate Democrats joined all 47 Republicans last week to repeal ObamaCare’s 1099 reporting requirement, their votes confirmed what their talking points still deny: ObamaCare will increase the deficit, no matter what the official cost projections say…

This public-choice dynamic [of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs] is why the Congressional Budget Office, the chief Medicare actuary, and even the International Monetary Fund have discredited the idea that ObamaCare will reduce the deficit. It is one of the principal reasons why, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” In other words, the game is rigged in favor of bigger government.

It also explains why the Obama administration is sprinting to implement ObamaCare in spite of a federal court having struck down the law as unconstitutional. The White House needs to get some concentrated interest groups hooked on ObamaCare’s subsidies – fast.

Read the whole thing here.

A Ban On “Walking While Wired”?

New York state senator Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) is crusading to ban pedestrians’ use of cellphones and other mobile devices while crossing the street. It’s for your own good, you must understand:

“When people are doing things that are detrimental to their own well being, then government should step in.”

The Daily Caller asked me to write an opinion piece about this proposal so I just did. Excerpt:

Phone use on the street has become near-ubiquitous in recent years, yet over nearly all that time — nationally as in Gotham — pedestrian death rates were falling steadily, just as highway fatalities fell steadily over the years in which “distracted driving” became a big concern.

In the first half of 2010, the national statistics showed a tiny upward blip (0.4 percent), occasioned by a relative handful of fatalities in a few states. Even a spokesman for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, Jonathan Adkins, seems to agree it’s premature to jump to conclusions: “You don’t want to overreact to six months of data,” he told columnist Steve Chapman.

Like others who seek quasi-parental control over adults, Sen. Kruger tends to infantilize his charges. He told the Times: “We’re taught from knee-high to look in both directions, wait, listen and then cross. You can perform none of those functions if you are engaged in some kind of wired activity.”

This drew proper scorn from columnist Chapman: “Actually, you can perform all those functions and dance an Irish jig, even with text messages or rock music bombarding you.” That some ear bud devotees don’t take due caution is no reason to pretend they can’t.

C.S. Lewis, Lily Tomlin and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood all get walk-on parts as well.

Not a Good Week for Obamacare

It has not been a good week for Obamacare.  Another court ruled that the bill was unconstitutional, while it took a party-line vote in the U.S. Senate to avoid a legislative repeal.  Meanwhile, chipping away at the legislation began, with the Senate voting to repeal one of the bill’s most unpopular provisions, a requirement that businesses file 1099 tax forms on even small purchases.  Supporters of the bill are bailing as fast as they can, but the ship is sinking rapidly.

Citizens United Turns One

The Supreme Court majority in Citizens United asserted plainly that the federal government’s powers are few and defined in the realm of political speech. The decision has since been cast as one that does little more than give “corporations and unions the freedom to spend as much as they like to support or attack candidates.” Of course, the stakes were far higher. As the government’s attorney asserted during the initial oral argument, the Federal Election Commission retained the authority to ban the sale of certain books (e-books included) in the weeks leading up to an election, a fact opponents of Citizens United rarely mention.

Shortly after that oral argument, Austin Bragg and I made a short video with Steve Simpson of the Institute for Justice, Allison Hayward of George Mason University School of Law (and now of the Center for Competitive Politics) and John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.