Topic: Regulatory Studies

The Social Security Administration Shouldn’t Be Deciding Who’s Too “Mentally Defective” to Own a Gun

Unable to legislate new restrictions on what kind of arms can be sold, the government has embarked on a long-term effort of adding an untold number of Americans to “no buy” lists—based on the unfounded conjecture that they pose a “danger” to others—and deprive them of a fundamental constitutional right. The Gun Control Act of 1968 and NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 requires that agencies with pertinent records on who is or is not “a mental defective” disclose those records to the attorney general so those people can be excluded from purchasing arms through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has proposed a new regulation that would create a process for transferring the records of those who seek a “representative payee” (legal proxy) under Social Security disability benefits programs to NICS, so that they may be considered a “mental defective” and thus lose their Second Amendment rights. The proposed SSA rule is arbitrary—there’s no evidence that someone who needs help with SSA paperwork can’t be trusted with a gun—and inconsistent with the regulatory and statutory scheme, not to mention blatantly unconstitutional.

Accordingly, for the first time ever, Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, with the help of law professors Josh Blackman and Gregory Wallace, has filed a public comment objecting to the rule on 10 different grounds. No one disputes that the government has an interest in keeping guns out of the hands of those who could harm themselves or others, but depriving a constitutional right requires due process of law. Under existing law, the root requirement of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause is that an individual receive a hearing before she is deprived of a constitutional right by a federal agency, one where the government must justify its restriction.

Postal Reform: Timid Americans and Bold Europeans

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost more than $50 billion since 2007, even though it enjoys legal monopolies over letters, bulk mail, and access to mailboxes. The USPS has a unionized, bureaucratic, and overpaid workforce. And as a government entity, it pays no income or property taxes, allowing it to compete unfairly with private firms in the package and express delivery businesses.

As we discussed yesterday at a Cato forum on Capitol Hill, the USPS needs a major overhaul. It should be privatized and opened to competition.

But instead of reform, congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation that tinkers around the edges. Their bill adjusts retiree health care, hikes stamp prices, and retains six-day delivery despite a 40 percent drop in letter volume since 2000. The bill would also create “new authority to offer non-postal products,” thus threatening to increase the tax-free entity’s unfair competition against private firms.

The Democrats overseeing postal issues are happy as larks with the GOP bill, which appears to be a victory for unionized postal workers. You might wonder what the point of electing Republicans to Congress is if they are just going to let Democrats run the show in defense of unions and monopolies.

Republicans see their party as the one favoring free enterprise and competition. Yet those pro-growth goals are obliterated in America’s tightly regulated postal monopoly. When it comes to the postal industry, federal law defends bureaucracy and bans entrepreneurship, and the GOP seems to have no problem with that.

GE Capital: Smaller Is Just Better

Earlier this week, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) removed GE Capital from its list of systemically important financial institutions (or SIFIs).  How big a deal is this?  Big.  And not so big.  And a little bit scary.  Let’s back up a bit to see why.

FSOC is a new entity created by Dodd-Frank.  Its members are the heads of the federal financial agencies, with the Secretary of the Treasury serving as Chair.  In comparison to other similar bodies, which only advise the president, FSOC has broad authority to act.  Chief among its tools is the ability to designate an entity as a SIFI, and to impose stringent oversight and regulatory requirements on it thereafter. 

The SIFI designation and attendant oversight have been promoted as a means to end Too Big to Fail.  Many people, myself among them, have questioned how labeling entities as systemically important and putting them under greater oversight can possibly end Too Big to Fail.  Isn’t a SIFI designation essentially the same as slapping a big “TBTF” label on the thing?  Well, here’s where GE Capital’s story gets scary.

Reason on the House GOP Health Plan: “Like Obamacare—Except, Possibly, Worse”

Echoing concerns I expressed last week, Reason’s Peter Suderman notices a problem with House Republicans’ new plan to replace ObamaCare:

As it turns out, the health care policy that Republicans might pursue looks, well, a lot like Obamacare—except, possibly, worse.

Rather than offer ObamaCare-lite, Congress should repeal ObamaCare and then make health care better, more affordable, and more secure by moving toward a market system.
 
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) have introduced legislation that contains the building blocks of such an approach.

New In the Summer Issue of Regulation

The latest issue of Regulation magazine has been released on the Cato website.

The cover article, by Christopher Robertson and Jamie Cox Robertson of the University of Arizona, examines the extent of over incarceration in the U.S.  Why are so many innocent people convicted of crimes? They review recent scholarship that concludes that many types of evidence introduced by prosecutors to convince jurors of guilt, such as bite mark, fingerprint, and bullet analysis, are not scientifically reliable. The authors suggest various remedies to the wasteful incarceration problem including public rewards for attorneys who demonstrate that a prisoner should be released.

Researchers John Lott and Gary Mauser explore empirical research on firearms. They found that the findings of such research vary systematically with the disciplinary orientation of the authors.  A large majority of articles written by economists find that expanded legal access to firearms reduces crime and does not increase the suicide rate, and that gun owners who are approved for concealed-carry are less likely to commit crimes than ordinary Americans. In contrast Criminologists were more evenly divided on these questions.

Two articles critique regulatory rationales rooted in behavioral economics. In Infantilization by Regulation law professors Jonathan Klick and Greg Mitchell argue that protecting people from the effects of their choices reduces their ability to think critically about them.  Georgetown ethics professor John Hasnas explores how much liberty is preserved under modern “libertarian paternalism.” He then asks whether the insights of behavioral economics apply to public decisions, argues yes, and concludes that U.S. Constitution is an excellent example of choice architecture.

One of the most discussed topics in higher education policy is the rate of inflation in university tuition. Top William and Mary economists find empirical evidence that highly selective schools reduce financial aid to students who receive federal tuition support.

In our Briefly Noted articles economist Ike Brannon argues that cities harm transit riders by over-providing subsidized parking near street corners. Brannon and the American Action Forum’s Sam Batkins question whether expanded family leave policies would harm workers. University of California, Irvine emeritus professor Richard McKenzie shares the results of his survey that found servers at fast-casual restaurants would not support substituting higher hourly wages for the current tipped-wage system. Finally, University of Michigan professor Thomas Hemphill lays out a practical approach to reforming occupational licensing laws.

Book reviews include Free Market Environmentalism reviewed by Timothy Brennan, Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth reviewed by David R. Henderson, and Phil Murray’s review of Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules.

 

My Working Papers column describes papers on cigarette taxes and food stamps, e-cigarettes and adolescent smoking, corporate inversions, and public housing and crime.

Special Favors for IEX Will Not Fix Bad Regulation

It isn’t often that an SEC decision involves the star of a best seller, a “magic shoe box,” and fundamental questions about the meaning of words like “immediate” and “fair.”  The SEC made such a decision on Friday. 

Last fall, the trading system IEX applied for designation as a stock exchange.  IEX, and its CEO Brad Katsuyama, rose to fame several years ago with the publication of Michael Lewis’s popular book Flash Boys.  Lewis, ever the artful storyteller, cast Katsuyama as the likeable underdog, exposing and undermining high-frequency traders (HFTs) through the development of IEX.  IEX, an alternative trading system, or in the more colorful industry jargon, a “dark pool,” has allowed investors to trade away from market scrutiny and the HFTs that populate “lit” exchanges.  But there are advantages to being an exchange, and IEX wants in.

At issue in determining whether to approve the application was the meaning of the word “immediate” in an SEC regulation known as Regulation NMS.  Regulation NMS, approved by the SEC in 2005, was intended to increase competition among trading exchanges, resulting in better execution of trades and better prices for investors.  In furtherance of that goal, a part of the regulation requires that trades be made at the best price listed on any exchange and that exchanges make their quotations “immediately” and automatically available.  In the past “immediate” has been defined as “immediately and automatically executable, without any programmed delay.”  Seems clear enough, right?

Philadelphia’s Soda Tax

The Philadelphia City Council has voted to become the second city in the United States to impose a tax on the sale of particular types of sweetened beverages. The tax applies to sugared soda, diet soda, sports drinks and more, while excluding drinks that are more than half milk or fruit, as well as drinks to which sugar is added such as coffee. The tax will be 1.5 cents per ounce, amounting to 18 cents per standard size can of soda or $1 per two-liter bottle.

Public health advocates often propose taxes on sugary drinks, colloquially known as “soda taxes,” as a means of improving public health outcomes. They argue that such beverages disproportionately cause obesity and that consumers of sugary beverages impose external costs on others through higher medical costs associated with obesity.

The evidence supporting the disproportionate effect of sugar beverages on obesity is not powerful.  An article in Obesity Review concluded, “The current evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that nutritively sweetened beverage consumption has uniquely contributed to obesity or that reducing NSB consumption will reduce BMI levels in general.” 

And the externalities of the obese also appear to be minimal.  “The existing literature … suggests that obese people on average do bear the costs and benefits of their eating and exercise habits.”

But for purposes of discussion assume that consumption of such beverages does result in obesity and its health effects, which, in turn, create costs for others.  Are the taxes a good corrective?