Topic: Regulatory Studies

Congress Grows Fed Up

The Wall Street Journal reported that Congress likes Fed Chairman Bernanke, but not the institution that he heads. There is growing consensus that the Fed needs to be reformed and restructured.  Most notably, there are calls to strip the Fed of its supervisory authority.  In practice, the new sentiment reflects the failure of the Fed to rein in risk taking by the largest banks.

The Fed is pushing back.  One reserve bank president said that removing the Fed’s supervisory authority “would affect our ability to conduct monetary authority effectively.” He went on to say that without the supervisory authority, the Fed wouldn’t know enough about risks brewing in the economy.  This argument is shop worn. The Fed had the authority. It fueled the housing boom with its monetary policy and failed to head off the banking crisis with its supervisory powers. And let us not forget the regional banking crises of the 1990s; the fallout of the Latin American debt crisis for Citibank; and others (e.g., the failure of Continental Illinois National Bank).  All on the Fed’s watch.

Around the world, some central banks have supervisory authority over banks and some do not.  There is no clear pattern for either monetary policy or bank regulation with respect to how the powers are structured and distributed.  Other factors seem to matter much more. It would be useful to identify what they are.

Congress is moving a few deck chairs around as the ship sinks. No fundamental rethinking of bank regulation is occurring. The Fed is probably being made a scapegoat for Congress’s own failings.  But that is how Washington works.

The Negative Feedback Loop Begins

I wrote on the Tech Liberation Front blog a couple of months ago about the shady practice among a few Internet retailers of handing off customers who accept a “special offer” to a company that charges people a monthly fee for some kind of credit monitoring service. And I argued hopefully that maybe technologists and the Internet community could generate a response to this problem:

Being a smart, informed, and aggressive consumer is each person’s responsibility if a free market is to operate well. The alternative is a negative feedback loop in which government authorities protect us, we rely on that protection and stop policing retailers. Thereby we abandon the field of consumer protection to government authorities, who—try as they might—can never do as good a job for us as we can for ourselves.

The Senate Commerce Committee is having a hearing today on “Aggressive Sales Tactics on the Internet and Their Impact on American Consumers.”

Big Business Not Investing

In a recent post, I argued that while third-quarter GDP was positive, the underlying data revealed that U.S. private investment was still in the toilet. While government spending might be providing a short-term “sugar high” for the economy, U.S. business investment remains in recession. I speculated that Obama’s anti-business agenda is likely one cause of the problem.

For those observations, economist Brad DeLong called me an “utter fool.”

Let me draw your attention to an article in the Washington Post today entitled “Corporate giants sit on piles of cash.” Nucor Steel is sitting on piles of cash that it is unwilling to invest. Nucor’s chief executive Daniel Dimicco explains:

Everything is still on hold because we don’t have a lot of confidence that the right things are being done in Washington to reinvigorate the economy.

To story goes on:

Nucor isn’t alone. The balance sheets of large U.S. corporations are for the most part in good shape. Many big companies have piles of cash on hand and credit markets have thawed so that they can raise new funds… But most U.S. executives lack enough confidence in the economy to expand their businesses.

The article explains how big businesses are “jittery” for various reasons, such as memories of last year’s credit crunch. It doesn’t mention President Obama’s policies, but at this point in the economic cycle when world growth is returning, the lack of excitement by U.S. businesses regarding domestic investment is very curious.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is giving them nothing to get excited about. The President is promising them higher health care costs, higher corporate taxes, more labor regulations, higher energy costs with cap-and-trade, and a lack of interest in further trade agreements.

The Post article says that some U.S. multinationals are using their hoards of cash to invest abroad, allowing them to avoid punitive treatment under the high-rate U.S. corporate income tax.

How do we get U.S. multinationals to start investing their “piles of cash” in the United States? Cut the U.S. corporate rate permanently to 15 percent, as I’ve described in Global Tax Revolution. With just about every other advanced economy having slashed their corporate rate in recent years, we are “utter fools” for not following suit, especially with the unemployment rate now topping 10 percent.

The Real Story Behind the Chrysler Bankruptcy

If you worry about the abuse of executive power and declining respect among elected officials for the rule of law, you should watch this eloquent illumination of what really went down in the Chrysler bankruptcy earlier this year. The speaker is Richard Mourdock, Treasurer of the state of Indiana. The setting is a Cato Institute policy forum on October 15 about the “sordid details of the Bush/Obama auto industry intervention.”

As state treasurer, Mourdock is the person responsible for investment decisions concerning Indiana’s state employee pension funds, some of which owned a small share of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion in secured debt and some of which opposed the administration’s offer of $.29 on the dollar for that debt. Though these small secured holders were publicly castigated by President Obama as “unpatriotic” and unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good, Mourdock led the effort to stop the “sale” of Chrysler all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mourdock’s presentation gives a flavor for the tactics employed by the  Obama administration to “encourage” senior, priority creditors to back off their claims so that chosen parties could take priority—tactics that included backroom reminders that some of those creditors had received and might seek more TARP funding, threats of bringing the full weight and measure of the White House press office to bear down on dissenters, public condemnation, and other forms of arm-twisting most Americans would find unseemly for a U.S. presidential administration.

At the Cato event, Mr. Mourdock was joined by University of Pennsylvania Law School professor and corporate law expert David Skeel, who demonstrated quite clearly that the “sale” of Chrysler, as orchestrated by the Obama administration under cover of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, was indeed a sham sale. Skeel’s presentation begins at 20:15 of this video.

If you want to have a better sense of what’s going on in Washington (or to affirm your worries), I recommend you watch Mourdock here, listen to Mourdock here, read the Indiana Pensioners’ petition for Writ of Certiorari (appeal to the Supreme Court), and read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in support of the Indiana pensioners here.

Online Privacy and the Commerce Clause

I fear that with the PATRIOT Act on the brain, I’ve been remiss in continuing the colloquy on behavioral ads and privacy regulation that I’d been having with Jim Harper—who flattered me by responding in a long and thoughtful essay a couple weeks back. Because there’s so much interesting stuff there, I hope he won’t mind if I restrict myself to the first part of his reply here, in the interest of making this all a bit more digestible to those whose fascination with the topic may not be quite as consuming as ours. I’ll consider briefly the constitutional issue Jim raises, and turn to some of the specifics of the issue—and the relative merits of the common law alternative—in another post.

So like every good dorm room bull session, we begin in the weeds of  policy and quickly find ourselves breathing the rarefied air of constitutional theory. Supposing for the moment that we thought it were a good idea on policy grounds, would it be within the power of Congress to set ground rules for online advertisers who gather personal data from Web browsers? Recall that there are two particular rules that I’ve said I’d be tentatively open to, but which Jim rejects: a requirement of notice when information is being collected (say via a small link from the adspace to a privacy policy) and a rule establishing that privacy policies are enforceable, so that individual users can sue for damages if a company knowingly  violates its stated policy (thus far, courts have not generally found these to be binding). Does this fall within the power to “regulate commerce … among the several states”? I think so. I’ll start with what I hope will be some uncontroversial arguments and go from there.

So first, let’s grant that there’s one type of “original intent” that everyone ought to care about, whatever their more general interpretive stance: what Ronald Dworkin calls the linguistic intent of the Framers. That is, if words like “commerce” and “regulate” had narrower meanings in 1787 than they do today, we must, of course, read them now in that light: “Commerce” means actual interstate traffic in goods and services, rather than economic activity more generally, and “regulation” is centrally about establishing uniform rules and procedures.  With these appropriately narrowed readings in mind, I think it’s still a slam-dunk that online ads are covered.

There are, in fact, at least three different senses in which behavioral ads might be classed as interstate commerce. First, the purchase of the ad space itself is obviously a commercial transaction—frequently though not necessarily between entities in different states—and there’s a reasonable question of whether a host site with posted privacy policy is implicitly committed to applying that policy as a condition on ad space sold to third parties. The ads themselves will typically propose a commercial transaction, and in a more direct way than other ads are, can plausibly be seen as the first step in the transaction itself, as clicking on the ad will often bring you directly to a page where you can complete the purchase it recommends. Finally, the personal and behavioral user data collected is itself a valuable commodity, and many sites function with a pretty explicit informational quid pro quo: You will receive access to our content in exchange for registering and providing us with certain data. Since the Internet is borderless, most sites will be getting most of their traffic from people located in different states or countries, and even narrowly state-focused sites are likely to have substantial border-crossing traffic. So on a pretty straight reading of the constitutional language, I find very little reason to doubt that Congress may set uniform default rules for these interstate transactions, rather than leaving it to a patchwork of state rules.

Now, Jim’s reason for questioning this seems to be that the primary concern of the Framers was to prevent states from creating trade barriers. That may be, but if we skip ahead to Article 1, Section 10, we find that Congress knew perfectly well how to enact general and purely prohibitory bans on such shenanigans  using more apt “no state shall” language. Instead, they used precisely the same language for interstate commerce as they did for international commerce, where history suggests that the Framers (many of them steeped in the mercantilist economic theories of the day) had been above all concerned to preserve the ability to erect protectionist trade barriers. So we’re left with a choice between ascribing to the Framers a frankly stunning level of linguistic incompetence or supposing that the Constitution actually does grant the affirmative power that a facial reading suggests.

Needless to say, this does not require us to adopt the post–New Deal reading that places anything with the least potential influence on economic activity under Congressional purview. But we’re pretty close to the core here. Indeed, one of the early cases I know Jim considers a lodestone for the “no trade barriers” reading, Gibbons v. Ogden, involves a congressional grant of a license to operate steamboats. The court found that this superseded the monopoly New York had sought to grant another steamboat operator, which fits Jim’s point to an extent, but it’s crystal clear from that (1824) ruling that the power of Congress here is a broad authority to grant or withhold a privilege to operate interstate vessels, and establish conditions on such vessels, including restrictions on ownership and personnel. It seems to me you’d have to get awfully creative to read the clause in a way that authorizes that kind of authority over an “instrumentality” of commerce (water navigation) but forbids Congress from specifying the kind of notice a merchant must provide when initiating an actual interstate commercial transaction.

A slightly more controversial suggestion: When the specific substantive intent of the Framers is not explicitly embedded in the Constitution’s language—by which I mean, the specific use they thought a wise Congress would make of enumerated powers in light of contemporary economic theories, whether liberal or mercantilist—I am not inclined to give it very great weight. Or more bluntly, when the legal language is abstract, I don’t think we’re bound by an original conception of how or where it applied in specific cases—to the extent such a consideration is even intelligible when we’re talking about Internet advertising. Manifestly, very few people at the time of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment believed that the abstract guarantee of “equal protection” entailed a substantive right of black children to attend public schools the states restricted to whites. But insofar as what they wrote into law was the abstract guarantee, I don’t think we’re required to care what they believed. Our modern reading should be constrained by the original sense of the words used, and to some extent by the original structural purpose served (translated as necessary). But in specific application—whether privacy rules for online ads are encompassed within “regulation” of “commerce”—then even if you pulled out the Ouija board and got a personal verdict from James Madison, it would just be one more opinion.

Finally, and maybe most controversially: What kind of recommendations should we make in a world where our preferred interpretation of the Constitution lost the fight a long time ago? If the question is what we should recommend to judges, presumably we want to recommend that they start shifting back in the direction of a reading we regard as better justified. But what about when, as Jim imagines, we’re advising legislators? Should we only recommend what we believe to be authorized by what we hold to be the best reading of the Constitution, or will it sometimes make sense to endorse legislation that is plainly allowed by the current regnant interpretation, but that might be outside the scope of the interpretation we regard as superior? I think it will, partly for theoretical, and partly for pragmatic reasons.

At a practical level, both legislators and citizens widely believe Congress to have broader policy discretion than most of the authors here. So very generally speaking, I don’t think it serves limited government to refrain from weighing in on the relative merits of policy options that wouldn’t be on the table at all if our arguments had fared better at the meta-level. (Recall the old joke about the principled pacifist answer to how to respond to World War II: Don’t sign the Treaty of Versailles!) Now, on this particular question it’s not a sure thing that Congress or the FTC will act, and maybe “hands off” is the best advice to give. But there are plenty of areas where there’s no realistic chance that Congress is going to abstain altogether, even if we think that’s what the best interpretation of the Constitution requires. In those cases, I think it’s at least sometimes appropriate to flag the meta objection and then say something about the policy merits. Obviously there are limits—I don’t expect I’ll ever express a view on the “best” way to run a torture chamber—but there are plenty of issues where it seems perverse for the people most concerned with limited government to sit out the day-to-day debates and focus on getting Wickard v. Filburn overturned, glad as I am that there are folks hammering that.

That dovetails with the theoretical reason, which has to do with the broader question of why constitutional principles are binding on us at all. I assume it is not because the Founders, brilliant though they were, enjoyed some divine right of command that the inheritors of their institutions are compelled to obey. Partly it’s that the principles embedded in the Constitution are good ones, but a substantial piece of the answer, I think, is that they provide a stable framework within which we conduct our political and private lives. Judges give weight to stare decisis even when they think the case at the fountainhead of a line of precedent was poorly decided, in part because the legitimacy and authority of law are to a great extent a function of its predictability, of the way it allows us to take actions and make agreements and know pretty much what the legal consequences will be, however much else may remain unpredictable. Constitutional restraints do this one level up, establishing (albeit roughly) a domain of legal variation over the longer term. This is  not, for what it’s worth, wacky postmodern Critical Legal Studies stuff; it’s an extrapolation from Hayek. To imagine that you can remake a society’s institutions wholesale—even if your guide is the best interpretation of a founding document, and even if you’re pretty sure that interpretation held sway a couple centuries ago—is the fallacy of constructivist rationalists.

Now, I think the right account of why we should regard the Constitution as binding starts with considerations along these lines, but this has the (perhaps unfortunate) consequence that even if you had a super-awesome unanswerable argument for why the Constitution mandates libertopia, at least when read properly absent the accretions of precedent, you still wouldn’t have an argument that judges, legislators, and government officials must all start acting on this understanding as of tomorrow. What you’d have is a good starting point for a much more gradual process of paring government back down. Not, to be clear, because I think the Constitution “means whatever the Supreme Court says it does”—that would be incoherent, since the court’s practice is unintelligible, and its legitimacy illusory, unless we assume there’s an independent meaning for them to strive toward.  But an “independent” meaning can be located in a community of interpretation and practice that extends beyond the framing generation. By analogy: If I want to use language “correctly” to communicate, I don’t get to just assign whatever meanings I like to words. It’s even possible to make a strong argument that the majority of speakers at a particular historical moment are using a word—like “decimate” or “hopefully” or “brutalize”—improperly. But neither does it mean that the first person to coin the term gets to specify its legitimate uses forever. And, in fact, anyone who insisted on using “decimate” to mean only “reduce by ten percent” would probably find his attempts at communication misfiring badly. To say that meaning is necessarily public and independent—consult Hayek’s cousin Wittgenstein here—does not require a baptismal view of meaning. Or at any rate, whether it does or not depends on the function your interpretive practice serves.

So yeah, that’s all pretty far removed from our original discussion—and I’m hoping far enough below the fold that it doesn’t put me on the wrong end of another dozen arguments with colleagues. I’ll do another post later this week where I actually get to the policy question, and some potent objections that both Jim and Tim Lee have raised.

What Is Regulation?

The New York Times tries to spin the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson as not anti-regulation:

Neither Ms. Ostrom nor Mr. Williamson has argued against regulation. Quite the contrary, their work found that people in business adopt for themselves numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior — called “governance” in economic jargon — doing so independently of government or without being told to do so by corporate bosses.

But none of us “anti-regulation” folks are against “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” The world is full of rules, from wearing clothes in the office to customary trade practices to the rules for managing common-pool resources that Ostrom studied. Anyone who opposed such “forms of regulation” wouldn’t be a libertarian or even an anarchist – he’d be a nihilist. (Of course, one could sensibly oppose particular rules; but no one seriously wants a world without rules of behavior.)

David Henderson analyzes one of the misunderstandings about the laureates’ findings:

Some have summarized their work by saying that institutions other than free markets often work well. But that statement can mislead you to conclude that government solutions are the answer. Free markets are only a subset of free institutions. A better way to sum up their work is that what Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Willamson really show is that voluntary associations work.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics defines “regulation” this way: “Regulation consists of requirements the government imposes on private firms and individuals to achieve government’s purposes.” That’s the kind of regulation that is controversial among economists and often criticized by libertarians. It is entirely different from “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” Those sorts of rules – often called “governance,” as the New York Times notes – are private and voluntary, made by the voluntary interactions of a few or many people.

The work of Ostrom and Williamson supports the idea of spontaneous order, an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not through the commands of government. Spontaneous order can be hard to grasp, though it is the background of our entire world – language, common law, money, and the economy are all spontaneous orders (though government has intruded into some of those orders). It’s misleading to say that work of Ostrom and Williamson is somehow supportive of “regulation,” given the way that word is commonly used.

Sheldon Richman made a similar point back in June and wrote a Facebook note on the same paragraph that caught my eye.

Your Choices Are Unacceptable

Through my work on agriculture, I get occasional media calls on obesity and the agri-industrial complex supposedly behind it.  On Sunday, for example, I gave an interview on NPR about the USDA’s push for – and subsidisation of – farmers markets and “eating locally” as the solution to poor nutrition. (This a recurrent theme of the Obama administration: Michelle Obama has made people’s food habits her business, growing a White House Garden and driving in a convoy of 36 vehicles to the H Street farmers’ market in a photo-op to promote it. The USDA even has a “People’s Garden”.)

So an article in today’s New York Times caught my eye. According to a recent study, the push for calorie postings in restaurants has had no affect on people’s eating habits in certain low-income areas of New York City.  People’s choices are, apparently, pretty impermeable to the information that nutrition and public health advocates assured us was the key to better choices.

You would be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter and we could go on eating what we like unharassed. Think again:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

I hope I’m not coming across as hyperbolic, but I find it difficult to believe that healthy eating advocates will be content to accept that people are making choices, unpalatable though they may be to the ”slow food” movement, based on the benefits and costs of the alternatives available to them. If people won’t voluntarily submit to the food police – even when information is available – then I suspect calls for regulation will soon follow.

(HT: Radley Balko)