Archives: 03/2017

How Strawberries and The Clash Helped Save Separation of Powers

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in the case of National Labor Relations Board v. SW General that an “acting” officer cannot simultaneously stand as a nominee to hold that office permanently, regardless of how the acting officer was appointed. The ruling is a double victory, both for the separation of powers between the president and Senate and for textualism.

Though technical, the statutory interpretation issue in this case was not overly complicated. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) lays out three methods by which someone can become an acting officer in three separate clauses, subsections (a)(1), (a)(2), and (a)(3). It also has a “disqualifying clause,” declaring that (with some exceptions not relevant here) “a person may not serve as an acting officer” if he has also been nominated for a permanent position as that same officer.

There would be no dispute that the disqualifying clause applies to all acting officers, except for one wrinkle: the disqualifying clause begins with the preamble “Notwithstanding subsection (a)(1).” Based only on this preamble, the government argued that the disqualifying clause applies only to those who became acting officers under subsection (a)(1). This would mean that anyone who became an acting officer under subsections (a)(2) or (a)(3) (including the man at the center of this case, former NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon) could never be disqualified by the clause.

The decisive moment in the case may have come during oral argument, when Justice Kagan delivered a simple textual analogy to drive home the implausibility of the government’s argument:

I’m at a restaurant and I’m talking to my waiter, and I place three orders. I say, number one: I’ll have the house salad. Number two: I’ll have the steak. Number three: I’ll have the fruit cup. And then I tell the waiter: notwithstanding order number three, I can’t eat anything with strawberries.

As those in the courtroom recognized, this hypothetical maps onto the disputed text of the FVRA: the three orders are the three subsections, and “I can’t eat anything with strawberries” is the disqualifying clause. Then comes the punchline:

So on your theory, the waiter could bring me a house salad with strawberries in it. And that seems to me a quite odd interpretation of what’s a pretty clear instruction: No strawberries.

In the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (which Kagan joined), fruit salad is sadly nowhere to be found. But in its place is a nearly identical analogy, which shows just how powerful Kagan’s argument was in shaping the Court’s textual analysis:

Suppose a radio station announces: “We play your favorite hits from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Notwithstanding the fact that we play hits from the ’60s, we do not play music by British bands.”

You would not tune in expecting to hear the 1970s British band “The Clash” any more than the 1960s “Beatles.” The station, after all, has announced that “we do not play music by British bands.” The “notwithstanding” clause just establishes that this applies even to music from the ’60s, when British bands were prominently featured on the charts.

In other words, the Court placed the textual emphasis squarely where it belonged, on the all-encompassing phrase “a person may not serve as an acting officer.”

Wrong Lessons from Canada’s Private Currency, Part 2

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part article.)

Intervention or Private Initiative?

As I argued in my previous post addressing Fung et al.’s article on Canada’s private banknote currency, the imperfections of that currency appear, on close inspection, far less substantial than Fung et al. suggest. Moreover, what blemishes there were didn’t imply any market failure, or a need for more government regulation, for the simple reason that “imperfect” doesn’t mean “inefficient.” On the contrary: the facts suggest that heavy-handed government interventions aimed at correcting the supposed imperfections more rapidly than bankers’ own efforts might would probably have done Canadians more harm than good.

By making those points, I don’t mean to deny that the various reforms Fung et al. describe, culminating in the Bank Act of 1890, led to some genuine improvements. Yet even if they did, the reforms still don’t imply any market failure, for the simple reason that those reforms appear, for the most part, to have been ones that Canada’s private bankers themselves recommended and implemented, often in anticipation of legislation that enshrined them.

The specific reforms to which Fung et al. refer are:

  • The provision of the 1870 Bank Act imposing double liability on banks’ shareholders[1];
  • That of the 1880 Act giving note holders a first lien on banks’ assets; and
  • Those of the 1890 Act requiring banks to establish note-redemption agencies in “all of Canada’s major commercial centers,” together with a Bank Circulation Fund for the redemption of notes of failed banks, and also to provide for the payment of interest to holders of failed banks’ notes as compensation for any settlement delay.

It’s the importance Fung et al. assign to these reforms, in perfecting Canada’s commercial banknote currency, as well as their belief that the reforms were compulsory, that informs their conclusion that “some intervention by government” will be called for if digital currencies are to be made safe and uniform.

But to what extent were those 19th century reforms truly compulsory, in the sense meaning that they had to be imposed upon Canada’s bankers by government authorities?

GOP Responses to Trump Budget

President Donald Trump’s budget issued last week would cut $54 billion from nondefense spending. Budget director Mick Mulvaney did a nice job assembling an array of sensible cuts, as I discuss in this CNN op-ed and this blog.

Recipients of handouts and pro-spending activists are not happy with the proposals. But many of Mulvaney’s proposed cuts are for local activities, such as housing and schools. If programs are important, then local governments can fund them with their own taxes, which would be a more efficient, transparent, and democratic fiscal approach.

Some GOP members of Congress are not happy about the cuts either. Republicans generally consider themselves to be fiscal conservatives. But for some members, their oft-expressed concerns about deficits might be just philosophical musings, not a guide to their actual policy positions:

  • Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) responded to Trump’s cuts by coming to the defense of federal funding for Lake Erie restoration, which he called “critical.” Yet the senator’s official website complains about the federal “spending spree, piling up new deficits onto our massive debt … Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility passes the problem to future generations.”
  • Representative Michael Conway (R-TX) opposes farm subsidy cuts, saying “Agriculture has done more than its fair share” in restraining deficits. (That’s not true—farm aid has risen in recent years). Yet on his website, Conway says, “Our nation is in a budgetary crisis … As a CPA and fiscal conservative, I am committed to working with my colleagues to cut spending and put our fiscal house in order. Congress does not have a blank check; it is vitally important that we balance the federal budget.”
  • Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) complained about the Trump budget as well. She “attacked plans to cut or eliminate programs that help the poor pay heating bills, provide aid for localities to deal with wastewater and subsidize air travel in rural areas like her home state of Alaska.” Yet her website says, “Senator Murkowski believes one of the most essential functions of Congress is to pass a balanced budget that sets a responsible spending plan for federal government services. For too long, the U.S. government has been spending more than it takes in and borrowing large sums of money to make up the difference. To set the nation on a more stable financial path, it is critical for Congress to set sustainable funding levels for the federal government, reduce overall spending levels.”
  • House appropriator Hal Rogers (R-KY) complained about Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign affairs activities. Yet his website says that he will “remain steadfast in fighting against government waste and any bills that increase the government’s reach on your dime.” As it turns out, foreign affairs has greatly increased its reach on our dime, and so Trump’s proposed cuts make a lot of sense.

President Trump recently signed an Executive Order requiring agencies to eliminate two regulations for each new one imposed. He should ask members of Congress to be similarly responsible on spending. For each proposed spending cut they disapprove, they should identify and pursue two similar-sized cuts elsewhere in the budget.   

The Age and Sex of Criminal Immigrants

In our recent brief on immigrant crime, we focused on the 18 to 54 age range when looking at the incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations. This was necessary because the American Community Survey data for weighted responses does not distinguish between the type of group quarters – which are prisons, universities and colleges, mental health facilities, nursing homes, and others.

By narrowing our focus to those in the 18 to 54 age range we were able to cut out about 1.4 million folks in elderly care facilities but only excluded about 206,000 prisoners or about 9.2 percent of the total. Excluding those under the age of 18 also removed most respondents in mental health facilities but only decreased the adult criminal population by 0.2 percent.

Figure 1 did not make it into our final brief but it shows a big difference in the distribution of ages between the three groups we examined. The median age of illegal immigrants and natives is 35 – almost exactly in the middle of the 18 to 54 age range. Interestingly, there is a dip in the age distribution for natives in their late thirties and early forties while the age distribution of illegal immigrants is shaped like a bell. In contrast, the median for legal immigrants was 41 which is on the older side of the distribution.

Figure 1
Age (18-54) Distribution of Illegal Immigrants, Legal Immigrants, and Natives

Source: ACS and authors’ calculations.

Criminals are disproportionately young so it would be reasonable to expect natives to be more crime-prone before the age of 27 and illegal immigrants to have a higher crime rate than legal immigrants. That could explain part of the difference in crime rates between natives and illegal immigrants. The surprising result is that illegal immigrants are so much less crime prone when immigration-only offenders are excluded even though they are younger than legal immigrants and have a median age that is the same as natives.  The young age and low education of illegal immigrants are consistent with more criminality in other populations.

The most surprising finding from our brief is that illegal immigrant women are less than half as likely to be incarcerated as women who are legal immigrants or natives (Figure 2). Illegal immigrants are slightly less likely to be women in this age range, only 48.5 percent compared to 51 percent for legal immigrants and 50 percent for natives, but that doesn’t explain the difference in rates. It could be related to low female illegal immigrant labor force participation rates (LFPR) or caused by the same mechanism that induces those lower LFPRs.

Figure 2
Characteristics of Prisoners by Sex and Nativity, Ages 18-54

 

Natives

Legal Immigrants

lllegal Immigrants

All

Female

11.47%

10.73%

4.58%

11.06%

Male

88.53%

89.27%

95.42%

88.94%

 Source: ACS and authors’ calculations.

 

 

Government Can’t Ban Businesses from Telling their Customers the Truth

In a unanimous decision yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vindicated Ocheesee Creamery’s free speech rights when it reversed a district court’s decision that prevented the creamery from telling its customers the truth about the products it sells.

Ocheesee Creamery is a small, all-natural dairy farm located in rural Florida that prides itself on selling organic products to its customers. This mission requires that they not add ingredients to the food they sell. One such product the creamery offered was “skim milk”—which is simply milk that has had the cream removed. For a number of years, Ocheesee sold its milk and accurately labeled it as pure pasteurized skim milk—nothing more, nothing less.

In 2012, however, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) told the small business that it had to inject its all-natural milk with artificial vitamins or quit telling its customers that what they were offering was skim milk, and instead call it “imitation milk product.” FDACS regulations define skim milk as milk that is not just milk, but as milk injected with vitamins A and D. Now, you might ask yourself how injecting artificial ingredients into all-natural product transforms it into something that is considered “imitation”. Yet that’s precisely what the FDACS requires under its regulations.

This left Ocheesee with a Hobson’s choice: it could mislead its customers by labeling its milk as “imitation”; it could pump the milk full of artificial ingredients and thus violate its mission to sell all-natural products; or it could quit selling skim milk and lose substantial profits. Faced with this dilemma, the creamery offered to put a disclaimer on its labels that would tell customers that its milk doesn’t include added vitamins. But this wasn’t good enough, so, aided by the Institute for Justice, the creamery sued the Florida bureaucrats in federal court.

Ocheesee lost its opening battle when a district court granted the government’s Motion for Summary Judgment, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision. The court found that the First Amendment protects the creamery’s labeling of its skim milk because the labeling did not relate to an illegal activity and it is not false or inherently misleading speech. The court pointed to Webster’s Dictionary, which defines “skim milk” as “milk from which the cream has been taken”—which is exactly what the creamery was offering its customers. The court elaborated that while “[i]t is undoubtedly true that a state can propose a definition for a given term … it does not follow that once a state has done so, any use of the term inconsistent with the state’s preferred definition is inherently misleading.” Because if the government were allowed to do so, “[a]ll a state would need to do in order to regulate speech would be to redefine the pertinent language in accordance with its regulatory goals… . Such reasoning is self-evidently circular.”

House GOP Leadership Gives ObamaCare-Forever Bill a Touch-Up Job

Responding to conservative protests that the American Health Care Act would immortalize ObamaCare rather than repeal it, the House Republican leadership has announced several amendments. (See my initial analysis of the bill here, and my analysis of the Congressional Budget Office score).

The amendments do not even come close to fixing the problems with this fatally flawed bill. Indeed, by expanding the AHCA’s tax-credit entitlement, it will make the bill resemble ObamaCare even more.

ObamaCare’s Medicaid Expansion                                 

Original AHCA provisions:

As introduced, the AHCA includes language that supposedly repeals ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied, childless adults. In fact, it would expand the Medicaid expansion and make it permanent.

The original bill would have allowed the 19 non-participating states to implement the expansion until 2020, allowed participating states to expand enrollment until 2020, and would have kept paying states the enhanced, 90 percent federal “match” for each expansion enrollee until that enrollee disenrolled. Expansion advocates in those 19 states hailed the bill for removing obstacles to those states implementing the expansion.

The bill thus would have repealed the Medicaid expansion in name only. By 2020, there would have been so many more Medicaid expansion states and enrollees, that Congress would rescind the repeal and keep the expansion in perpetuity.

Amendment:

The amendment would prevent the 19 states that have not implemented the expansion from doing so. This is a welcome change—but it is not nearly sufficient.

Even with this change, there would more Medicaid-expansion enrollees after “repeal” than before. The 31 expansion states could keep adding new enrollees to the expansion until 2020, and keep receiving the enhanced, 90 percent federal “match” for those enrollees after 2020. The AHCA would still reward state officials who did the wrong thing (expanding Medicaid) and punish state officials who did the right thing (refused to implement the expansion). The bill would still create increased pressure on Congress to rescind this “repeal” before 2020.

The amendment would allow states to impose work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid enrollees. Again, this is a welcome change, but not nearly sufficient.

Work requirements could reduce dependence on Medicaid, reduce Medicaid spending, and reduce pressure for Congress to preserve the expansion. Yet work requirements are only (politically) feasible for able-bodied adults. And the states where work requirements are most needed—the 31 states that have implemented the Medicaid expansion—are the least likely to impose a work requirement. Why would they? States that use work requirements to help Medicaid-expansion enrollees achieve financial independence would see only 10 percent of the savings. The other 90 percent goes to Washington. The amendment’s optional work requirements are a fig-leaf proposal that does little if anything to improve the AHCA.

Trading with Germany

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the strange idea apparently supported by some in the Trump administration that the U.S. government should conduct trade talks with individual EU member states, even though the EU itself has responsibility for trade policy and under EU law member states are not allowed to negotiate on these issues bilaterally.  The Trump administration view on this issue may be based on a number of factors, including a general skepticism about international institutions such as the EU.  But I suspect one reason is their misguided focus on bilateral U.S. trade deficits.  They see a big trade deficit with Germany, and they want to go after it.  

The issue came up last Friday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Trump.  Trump offered the following comment on trade with Germany:

On trade with Germany, I think we’re going to do fantastically well.  Right now, I would say that the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States.  But hopefully we can even it out.  We don’t want victory, we want fairness.  All I want is fairness.  

Germany has done very well in its trade deals with the United States, and I give them credit for it, but – and I can speak to many other countries.  I mean, you look at China, you look at virtually any country that we do business with.  It’s not exactly what you call good for our workers.  

When Trump says German negotiators have “done very well,” presumably he is referring to the existence of a U.S. trade deficit with Germany.  In his mind, a trade deficit means the U.S. negotiators did a bad job, and the Germans “won” the negotiation.  But as Merkel pointed out, “When we speak about trade agreements, … the European Union is negotiating those agreements for all of the member states of the European Union, … .”  So regardless of the U.S. trade balance with Germany, German negotiators did not play much of a role here.

Earlier this month (before the Merkel visit), White House Trade Council Director Peter Navarro (read more about him herespelled out the Trump view in a little more detail, during a Q & A session after a talk he gave:

Question: Let’s move to Germany now. Here’s a question about Germany. You mentioned the possibility of negotiating a trade deal with Germany. Is that a goal of the administration, and how would you do that, since Germany is a member of the EU and doesn’t have an independent trade policy?

Peter Navarro: Sure. This is the problem with Germany. It is able, basically, to use the argument that they’re in the eurozone, therefore they can’t have any kind of discussions with the United States about reducing their almost $70bn trade deficit. That may or may not be true. I think that it would be useful to have candid discussions with Germany about ways that we could possibly get that deficit reduced outside the boundaries and restrictions that they claim that they are under. But it’s a serious issue. Germany is one of the most difficult trade deficits that we’re going to have to deal with, but we’re thinking long and hard about that and I know that Angela Merkel is coming here soon, and perhaps there will be some discussions about how we can improve the German-U.S. economic relationship. And I’m sure they can teach us a thing or two about how to get more of the workforce in manufacturing.

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