Topic: Regulatory Studies

Tuesday Links

  • Price controls have failed in the past and there is no reason to think they will work now. So why is the president proposing price controls on health care? Michael Tanner: “Attempts to control prices by government fiat ignore basic economic laws – and the result could be disastrous for the American health-care system.”

Government-Mandated Spying on Bank Customers Undermines both Privacy and Law Enforcement

I recently publicized an interesting map showing that so-called tax havens are not hotbeds of dirty money. A more fundamental question is whether anti-money laundering laws are an effective way of fighting crime – particularly since they substantially undermine privacy.

In this new six-minute video, I ask whether it’s time to radically rethink a system that costs billions of dollars each year, forces banks to snoop on their customers, and misallocates law enforcement resources.

Obama’s ‘Best’ Idea? Rationing Care via Clinton-esque Price Controls

Hoping to revive his increasingly unpopular health care overhaul, President Obama has invited Republicans to a bipartisan summit this Thursday and plans to introduce a new reform blueprint in advance of the summit.  On Sunday, the White House announced that a key feature of that blueprint will be premium caps, a form of government price control that helped kill the Clinton health plan when even New Democrats rejected it.

The New York Times reports on President Obama’s blueprint:

The president’s bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators.

It bears repeating what Obama’s top economic advisor Larry Summers thinks about price controls:

Price and exchange controls inevitably create harmful economic distortions. Both the distortions and the economic damage get worse with time.

For example, as I have written elsewhere, artificially limiting premium growth allows the government to curtail spending while leaving the dirty work of withholding medical care to private insurers: “Premium caps, which Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is currently threatening to impose, force private insurers to manage care more tightly — i.e., to deny coverage for more services.”  No doubt the Obama administration would lay the blame for coverage denials on private insurers and claim that such denials demonstrate the need for a so-called “public option.”

As the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Kendall explained in a 1994 paper, the Clinton health plan contained similar price controls.  Kendall explains why they would be a disaster:

In spite of the late hour in the health care debate, Congress has not yet decided how to restrain runaway health care costs. The essential choices are a top- down strategy of government limits on health care spending enforced by price controls or a bottom-up strategy of consumer choice and market competition. History clarifies that choice: Previous government efforts to regulate prices in peacetime have invariably failed. Moreover, government attempts to control prices in the health care sector would undermine concurrent efforts to restructure the marketplace…

The idea of controlling costs by government fiat is seductively simple. But it rests on a conceit as persistent as it is damaging: that government bureaucracies can allocate resources more wisely and efficiently than millions of consumers and providers pursuing their interests in the marketplace. The alternative – one rooted in America’s progressive tradition of individual responsibility and free enterprise – is to improve the market’s ground rules in order to decentralize decision-making, spur innovation, reward efficiency, and respect personal choice.

As centrally planned economies crumble around the world, many in the United States seem bent on erecting a command and control economy in health care. This policy briefing examines the reasons why government price regulation would fail to constrain health care costs and create many adverse side effects…

Ultimately, government price regulation will always fail because it does not change the underlying economic forces driving up prices. If we are serious about slowing the growth of health care costs, we have to change the ways we consume and provide medical care. Price controls evade the hard but essential work of structural reform in health care markets: They are a quintessentially political response to an economic problem. The alternative is to allow well-functioning markets to set prices and allocate resources, while ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care coverage. The market-oriented approach leaves decisions to cost-conscious consumers and health care providers rather than bureaucrats.

Any of that sound familiar?  It’s worth reading the whole thing.

This is not hope.  This is not change.  (Much less a game-changer.)  It is, to pinch a phrase, a return to “the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis.”

In Before the Ban

From the Washington Post:

Travel along a two-block stretch of Central Avenue in Prince George’s County, and you’ll find a staggering 11 fast-food restaurants.

For community activist Arthur Turner and state Sen. David C. Harrington (D-Prince George’s), the strip is evidence of the proliferation of burger joints and Chinese takeouts in the county, especially in poorer, inner Capital Beltway communities.

Pointing to studies that rank Prince George’s residents among the least healthy in Maryland, Turner and Harrington want to limit new fast-food restaurants in the county, a far stricter approach than what has been enacted in such places as New York City and Montgomery County, which banned the use of trans fats in those establishments…

“Our county is inundated with unhealthy food choices,” Turner said. “In some areas, if someone wants a healthy choice, there are no options. We want healthy options in our community.”

Opponents of such efforts say that what people eat is a matter of personal choice and that it should be up to the free market to determine which restaurant goes where…

Turner said that his group identified Panera Bread and Chipotle as preferable alternatives to a fast-food burger restaurant and that he plans to seek similar compromises with other developers.

Given the weak correlation between dieting and long-term weight loss, and the very, very weak correlation between dieting and the marginal difference between Chipotle and McDonald’s, basically all that we have here are politicians and activists remaking the community to suit their personal tastes, as if Prince George’s County were just SimCity with slightly cooler graphics.

My prediction: This is a very good deal for any fast food restaurant that gets in before the ban.

Reforming Previous Reforms, ad Infinitum

In the forthcoming issue of Cato Policy Report, Jeffrey Friedman describes the cumulative effects of regulations that led to the 2008 financial collapse:

So deposit insurance begat bank-capital regulations. Initially these were blunderbuss rules that required banks to spend the same levels of capital on all their investments and loans, regardless of risk. In 1988 the Basel accords took a more discriminating approach, distinguishing among different categories of asset according to their riskiness — riskiness as perceived by the regulators. The American regulators decided in 2001 that mortgage-backed bonds were among the least risky assets, so they required much lower levels of capital for these securities than for every alternative investment but Treasurys. And in 2006, Basel II applied that erroneous judgment to the capital regulations governing most of the rest of the world’s banks. The whole sequence leading to the financial crisis began, in 1933, with deposit insurance…

Deposit insurance, hence capital minima, hence the Basel rules, might all have been a mistake founded on the New Deal legislators’ and regulators’ ignorance of the fact that panics like the ones that had just gripped America were the unintended effects of previous regulations.

Friedman is talking about financial and housing regulation. But I was reminded of them when I heard President Obama tell congressional Democrats, “Today we are on the doorstep of accomplishing something that Washington has been talking about since Teddy Roosevelt was President, and that is reforming health care and health insurance here in America.” And his formal speech to Congress in September: “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”

But of course we’ve been “reforming” health care ever since Teddy Roosevelt, and those reforms have brought us to our present difficulties. The Flexner Report 100 years ago reduced the supply of doctors and drove up the price. Wage and price controls during another Roosevelt era led to the system of employer-provided insurance, again driving up costs. Medicare and Medicaid poured more third-party payments into the system and added layers of government bureaucracy. HMOs and other cost-containment measures were a response to a problem created by the absence of normal consumer pressure. Then we got HIPAA, Kennedy-Kassebaum, the Mental Health Parity Act, state mandated-coverage laws, and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

And here we are today, with a health care system that everyone agrees needs reform. Maybe it’s time to recognize that we’re just piling new regulations on top of old regulations, like some compulsory Rube Goldberg device, and to try instead free markets, in which consumers pay for what they want from providers, insurance companies, managed care organizations, and other entities that compete for their business by seeking to provide better care at lower prices. Otherwise, we can be sure that Barack Obama won’t be the last president to stand before Congress and declare that our health insurance system needs reform. Indeed, we can bet that if he signs the current bill, he himself will be back before Congress in a year or two asking for reforms to reform the reforms that were intended to reform the previous reforms.

Where Are the Jobs?

The Washington Post’s “Mega-Jobs” section, ballyhooed all week in radio ads and placards, turns out to be a pathetic six pages of classifieds. Not a great indication of recovery. At his December jobs summit, the president said, “I want to hear from CEOs about what’s holding back our business investment and how we can increase confidence and spur hiring.” Since then, and most recently in his Saturday radio address, he has promised to focus relentlessly on jobs.

But he refuses to take a serious look at the burdens he and his administration are placing on job creation. American businesses already face the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says her agency will seek to enact 90 rules and regulations this year to give more power to unions, and President Obama is appointing NLRB members who have said that that the NLRB could enact “card check” without congressional authorization. If Congress resists expensive “cap and trade” regulation, the EPA has announced that it can impose even costlier regulations on its own. The media blitz about state and local fiscal crises has employers worried that states will raise taxes and/or that the federal government will spend more to bail them out. The “health insurance excise tax” looks like a tax on hiring, especially for the biggest companies. Beyond any of these specific concerns is the general impact of uncertainty – employers and investors don’t know what might be coming down the pike, but none of the prospects look like making it cheaper or more profitable to hire new workers.

And in response to all this, the only idea President Obama and congressional Democrats put forward is to spend more money. There may be arguments for Keynesian stimulus. But it’s hard to imagine that the economy will benefit from a deficit larger than the currently projected $1.5 trillion, which is already a trillion dollars more than any previous deficit except for 2009. If $3 trillion in deficits in two years hasn’t stimulated the economy, it might be time to think about different strategies – like lifting the burdens on entrepreneurship, investment, and job creation.

Cross-posted at Politico Arena.