Topic: Regulatory Studies

Love the Cards, Hate the Card Issuers

God hates the sin but loves the sinner, we are told.  Americans have a similar attitude towards credit cards.  They love the cards but hate the card issuers.

Naturally, President Barack Obama has picked up on this sentiment and wants the credit card companies to be “fair.”  Reports the Washington Post:

The Obama administration yesterday called for an end to unfair credit card industry practices such as retroactive interest rate increases for any reason, late-fee traps that penalize borrowers with weekend or middle-of-the-day deadlines and teaser rates that last less than six months.

In a written statement released by the Treasury Department, the administration outlined practices it would like Congress to reform as it considers two bills that would crack down on the industry. One proposal would force card companies to apply payments above the minimum amount to the highest interest rate debt. To crack down on over-limit fees, the administration would also like Congress to require card companies to get customers’ permission to set up accounts so transactions over the limit can still be processed.

There are lots of reasons to criticize the practices of  credit card companies, but many of the rules are simply mechanisms to charge riskier borrowers more.  If you pay off your bill every month, you don’t pay the extra fees and interest.  If you are more disorganized, short on cash, or both, you pay more. 

Higher charges make it possible to provide more credit to more people.  Of course, politicians believe in the latter but not the former.  Banks should provide credit cards, make loans, and issue mortgages to everyone, irrespective of credit standing, at rates akin to those charged Bill Gates.  Anything more is viewed as a variant of “predatory” lending deserving condemnation.

Maybe it would be best for some people not to buy so much on credit, but that isn’t – at least so far – the government’s decision.  However, it would be more honest if government branded people with the Scarlet C and banned them from borrowing than prohibiting companies from charging higher rates and fees to reflect higher credit risks.

The credit card debate is stranger than most in Washington.  Listening to critics you’d think that the card companies were dragooning people off the streets, forcing them at gunpoint to sign up for cards, and demanding that they spend money else their children will be kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Precisely who was forced to accept and use these terrible cards with their terrible terms?  No one.

Instead of posturing as defenders of the body politic, crusading politicians should, as my friend Don Boudreaux of George Mason University suggested,  give up their day jobs and start credit card companies.   These entrepreneurs then could offer consumers better cards with less onerous terms, making everyone better off.

Any takers?

Cleveland Park Embraces Free Markets

Cleveland Park, an upscale neighborhood here in the District of Columbia, might be the last place you would expect appeals to the principles of the free market.  It is, after all, the home of what David Brooks once called ”Ward Three Morality,” an outlook that celebrates government control of the economy. But not always.

Recently an entrepreneur proposed opening a new wine store in Cleveland Park. He sought the support of the advisory neighborhood commission, a local government board, before making his case for a liquor license to DC’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board.  The most serious opposition to the entrepreneur’s plans seems to have come from an existing wine store nearby. According to its attorney, the existing wine store was “a beloved extension of the community.” More candidly he noted the new store would offer competition to the existing business. At this point, you might think: the Cleveland Park commission blocked opening of the new business while congratulating themselves on protecting the town from a ruthless “capitalist logic.”

Well, not quite. Peter Fonseca, the lawyer for the entrepreneur, reportedly “urged the commissioners to consider free-market principles when making their decision. ‘This is America.’” And they did: “Commissioner Richard Rothblum agreed, saying commissioners should not get in the way of free enterprise. ‘I don’t think we have any place telling people what their business plan should be.’” The commission then voted 8-0 to support the entrepreneur’s effort at the Alcohol Control Board. The appeal to “free market principles” seems to have carried the day in Cleveland Park!

Perhaps this is only the beginning. If the free market is desirable for fine wines, why not the auto industry and the banks?

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.

Fight Moral Panics — With Beer!

In the UK and here at home, brewers have increasingly been producing specialty beers with the alcohol content of wine. Naturally, it’s time for a moral panic:

The new breed of bitters, with their intense flavours and alcohol contents of up to 12 per cent, are the work of young brewing entrepreneurs trying capture the attention — and cash — of lager-guzzling twentysomethings.

Beer writers and aficionados have welcomed the speciality bottles, which can contain 10 times as much hops as a traditional pint, as a necessary revitalisation of a market dominated by corporate giants turning out similar 4 per cent brown bitters.

But alcohol campaigners have complained that drinkers may be unaware of the strength of the new products, a single 330ml bottle of which is enough to make an adult exceed their daily recommended alcohol intake.

In January the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, ruled the brashest exponent of the movement, BrewDog brewery in Aberdeen, had broken its code on responsible marketing for its Speed Ball beer, named after the cocktail of cocaine and heroin which killed the actor John Belushi, star of The Blues Brothers.

Despite the group rejecting complaints against three of BrewDog’s other beers, Punk IPA, Rip Tide and Hop Rocker, its managing director, James Watt, accused Portman of being “outdated” and “out of touch”. He did, however, concede that his company had been provocative. “We thought we would give them something worth banning us for,” he said.

Good for them.

Note the comically low, and comically named, “recommended daily alcohol intake,” which would apparently forbid splitting a standard bottle of wine with another drinker. (Is there any better way to drink wine?) Incidentally, today’s 750 mL bottle derives from the “fifth,” or fifth of a gallon, which in the good old barrel-chested days of yore may well have been a single-serving portion.

It’s fascinating how the narrative of moral panic just keeps getting recycled, as if journalists only ever had this one idea in their heads. Is it their fault, or is it the watchdog groups? A question worth asking.

Either way, it works like this: Someone does something faux-provocative, often as a marketing stunt (to beer connoisseurs, brews with 12% alcohol are a fine old tradition, not a terrible new menace). But a group of Very Concerned People takes it all quite seriously and issues a worried press release. An interview is set up. The young are always invoked, as are previous moral panics. Anxious stories are written. Entirely fake concerns arise. (Hops, for example, don’t intoxicate, and strong hop flavors incline one to drink less beer, not more.)

If a moral panic keeps up for long enough, the legislators will get called in, because it’s their job to protect us naive ordinary folk from the dangers of the world. Maybe something will be done about it, or maybe not. Either way, the average member of the public goes away worried, which is just what the Very Concerned People want. They feed on worry.

They hope for a perpetual climate of worry, a feeling of unease that will carry over from this issue to the next one and to the one after that. It makes what they do — taking away freedoms — that much easier. It’s our job, as freedom-loving citizens, to deny them this perpetual undercurrent of worry. And if we can do it while drinking beer, then so much the better.

Government Motors

Washingtonpost.com collected and posted sundry opinions about Rick Wagoner’s dismissal as GM CEO yesterday. Those opinions, including mine, are posted here. But to spare you the click, here’s what I wrote:

President Obama’s newly discovered prudence with taxpayer money and his tough-love approach to GM and Chrysler would both have more credibility if he hadn’t demanded Rick Wagoner’s resignation, as well. By imposing operational conditions normally reserved for boards of directors, the administration is now bound to the infamous “Pottery Barn” rule: you break it, you buy it. If things go further south, the government is now complicit.

It also means that Wagoner was perceived as an obstacle to whatever plans the administration has for GM. And that’s the real source of concern. If getting these companies back on their feet is the objective, a bankruptcy judge can make a determination pretty quickly about the viability of the firms and the steps necessary to get there. But if the objective is something more grandiose, such as transforming the industry into a model of green production, government oversight and close scrutiny of operations will be necessary. CEOs must be compliant and pliant. It is worth noting that a return to profitability and the metamorphosis of the industry according to a government script work at cross purposes.

Real Regulators: Madoff’s Accomplices

In his “Talking Business” column, Joe Nocera explores Bernie Madoff’s accomplices: the victims themselves, and the SEC. He quotes James R. Hedges IV of LJH Global Investments:

“It is a real lesson that people cannot abdicate personal responsibility when it comes to their personal finances.” And that’s the point. People did abdicate responsibility — and now, rather than face that fact, many of them are blaming the government for not, in effect, saving them from themselves. Indeed, what you discover when you talk to victims is that they harbor an anger toward the S.E.C. that is as deep or deeper than the anger they feel toward Mr. Madoff. There is a powerful sense that because the agency was asleep at the switch, they have been doubly victimized. And they want the government to do something about it.

Nocera ably acknowledges the hurt and suffering of Madoff’s victims while pointing out their thoroughgoing irresponsibility — especially in the suggestion that someone else should pick up the pieces.

I’m less sanguine: The more thoroughly their cascading delusions of government aid and protection are shattered, the better. And yours, too. And mine. No bailout.

(Earlier posts in this “real regulators” thread here and here.)

Not-so-COOL Rules Stoke Xenophobia

Come Monday you can thank the federal government for making food more expensive by requiring retailers to provide useless information.

On March 16, federal regulations will finally kick in that require perishable food at the grocery store to sport “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL. The rules were originally passed by Congress as part of the 2002 farm bill, but are only being implemented now because of understandable resistance from retailers.

The COOL regulations will require that all perishable food products be labeled at retail to indicate the country of origin. The regulations cover beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng.

In a recent statement announcing final implementation, Obama administration agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said, “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling — it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.”

This is nothing but a form of regulatory harassment designed to play to anti-foreign prejudices. COOL provides zero health or safety information; foreign meat and produce must conform to exactly the same health and safety standards that apply to domestic-made goods.

In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had estimated that COOL regulations will cost $89 million to implement in the first year and $62 million annually. (My Cato colleague Dan Ikenson wrote the definitive critique of COOL not long after Congress first mandated the rules.)

The fact that a piece of meat or a fresh vegetable comes from a foreign country tells us nothing about its quality or safety. In the past three years, Americans have been sickened and even killed by baby spinach from California and ground beef from Nebraska tainted by E. coli bacteria, chicken from Pennsylvania tainted with listeria, and peanut butter and peanut products from Georgia tainted with salmonella. Would Americans have been any safer if those products had been labeled, “From California” or “From Georgia” or “From Nebraska”?

Country-of-origin labeling was not meant to serve the public but instead to provide yet another unfair advantage to domestic producers at the expense of the public.