Topic: Regulatory Studies

Five Questions I Will Use to Evaluate the Phantom Senate Health Care Bill

Rumor has it that tomorrow is the day Senate Republican leaders will unveil the health care bill they have been busily assembling behind closed doors. So few details have emerged, President Trump could maybe learn something from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about how to prevent leaks. Even GOP senators are complaining they haven’t been allowed to see the bill.

Here are five questions I will be asking about the Senate health care bill if and when it sees the light of day.

  1. Would it repeal the parts of ObamaCare—specifically, community rating—that preclude secure access to health care for the sick by causing coverage to become worse for the sick and the Exchanges to collapse?
  2. Would it make health care more affordable, or just throw subsidies at unaffordable care?
  3. Would it actually sunset the Medicaid expansion, or keep the expansion alive long enough for a future Democratic Congress to rescue it?
  4. Tax cuts are almost irrelevant—how much of ObamaCare’s spending would it repeal?
  5. If it leaves major elements of ObamaCare in place, would it lead voters to blame the ongoing failure of those provisions on (supposed) free-market reforms?

Depending on how Senate Republicans—or at least, the select few who get to write major legislation—answer those questions, the bill could be a step in the right direction. Or it could be ObamaCare-lite.

Minimum Wage: The Plural of Anecdote…

…is data, as the late UC-Berkeley political scientist Ray Wolfinger once said.

David Boaz used Wolfinger’s quote when emailing me this short note from the Economic Policy Journal’s website about the apparent harmful effects on employment of Washington state’s recent minimum wage increase. A snippet:

As we were seated, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no busboys in sight—waitresses and the manager were busy clearing and cleaning tables. There were no young people in sight either, only employees in their late-20s and up.

I waited for the manager to man the checkout register and couldn’t pass up a brief economic discussion. I commented that I’m from out of state (Idaho, where the minimum wage is the federally mandated $7.25/hr) and couldn’t help but notice the impact that Washington’s minimum wage ($11/hr) was having on his restaurant.

Well-intended proponents of higher minimum wages will likely dismiss this note using the far-more-common but very wrong misquotation that “the plural of anecdote isn’t data.” More sophisticated proponents will go further and cite David Card and Alan Kreuger’s 1994 American Economic Review paper on the apparent beneficial effects on employment of a minimum wage increase on fast-food restaurant employment in the Philadelphia metropolitan area in the early 1990s.

Thing is, there has been an awful lot more empirical research on the effects of minimum wage increases than this one paper by Card and Kreuger. The overwhelming balance of that research has found harmful employment effects, falling mainly on an especially disadvantaged population: young black males. In a review of this academic literature, economists David Neumark and William Wascher find:

Nearly two-thirds [of the 102 analyses they reviewed] give a relatively consistent (although by no means always statistically significant) indication of negative employment effects of minimum wages while only eight give a relatively consistent indication of positive employment effects. … [Further, of the 33 analyses we] view as providing the most credible evidence; 28 (85 percent) of these point to negative employment effects. Moreover, when researchers focus on the least-skilled groups most likely to be adversely affected by minimum wages, the evidence for disemployment effects seems especially strong. … We view the literature—when read broadly and critically—as largely solidifying the conventional view that minimum wages reduce employment among low-skilled workers.

The plural of anecdote, indeed.

For more on minimum wage research, see this Cato Policy Analysis by former U.S. deputy assistant labor secretary Mark Wilson. Or this brilliant little Cato Handbook on Policy chapter.

Supreme Court to Slants: Rock On!

In a unanimous judgment that splintered on its reasoning, the Supreme Court correctly held that the “disparagement clause” of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark law) violated the Constitution. The ruling boils down to the simple point that bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding what’s “disparaging.”

Trademarks, even ones that may offend many people—of which plenty are registered by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)—are private speech, which the First Amendment prevents the government from censoring. As Justice Samuel Alito put it in a part of the opinion that all the justices joined (except Neil Gorsuch, who didn’t participate in the case), “If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.”

At this point, the Court split. Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer, explained why trademarks don’t constitute a subsidy or other type of government program (within which the government can regulate speech), and that the “disparagement clause” doesn’t even survive the more deferential scrutiny that courts give “commercial” speech. The remaining four justices, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, would’ve ended the discussion after finding that the PTO here is engaging in viewpoint discrimination among private speech. The end of his opinion is worth quoting in full:

A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.

Fundamentally, this somewhat unusual case brought by an Asian-American electronic-rock band shows that government can’t make you choose among your rights. The Lanham Act’s disparagement clause placed an unconstitutional condition on those who consider the use of an edgy or taboo phrase to be part of their brand: either change your name or be denied the right to use it effectively. Whether you’re a musician, a politician, or a sports team—the Washington Redskins’ moniker will now be safe—it’s civil society (consumers, voters, fans) who should decide whether you’re being too offensive for polite company.

For more, see my previous writings here and here—and of course reading Cato’s “funny brief” is all the sweeter after this ruling.

“Everyone Is Terrible”

That is the subject line from a friend’s email that passed along this story about the latest proposed escalation of the Drug War:

Congress is considering a bill that would expand the federal government’s ability to pursue the war on drugs, granting new power to the attorney general to set federal drug policy. 

My friend explained in a follow-up call that, as he started reading, he assumed the bill reflected Jeff Sessions’ passion for the Drug War, but he then realized the bill is bi-partisan insanity:

The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by powerful committee chairs in both chambers of Congress, would allow the attorney general to unilaterally outlaw certain unregulated chemical compounds on a temporary basis. It would create a special legal category for these drugs, the first time in nearly 50 years that the Controlled Substances Act has been expanded in this way. And it would set penalties, potentially including mandatory minimum sentences, for the manufacture and distribution of these drugs.

Hence my friend’s assessment that “everyone” is terrible (on drug policy).

This is an important point. Much discussion assumes liberals are more libertarian-leaning on drug policy than conservatives. This is partly right; liberals are more likely to favor marijuana legalization, for example.

But many liberals endorse marijuana legalization because they view marijuana as relatively benign, not because of a principled stance for freedom or a consistent understanding that prohibition of any substance almost certainly causes more harm than good. Thus politicians across the spectrum are indeed “terrible” on drug policy.

 

Of Guns and Immigrants

Free society came under attack twice this month, first when Islamists rammed a van into pedestrians and went on a knife-slashing rampage in the Southwark district of London, and then when a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers in the Del Ray neighborhood of Northern Virginia.

In both cases, police had barely begun their investigations when an American politician—first the Republican president, then a Democratic governor—seized on the carnage to advocate political causes via electronic media.

In the hours after the London attack, President Trump took to Twitter to push his administration’s proposed travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries:

Then, in the first police briefing on the Del Ray shooting, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for expanded gun control:

It’s reasonable for a politician to advocate policies that he thinks will reduce future recurrences of a fresh tragedy. However, Trump’s immigration proposals are supported by people who typically oppose McAuliffe’s gun control proposals, and McAuliffe’s are supported by people who typically oppose Trump’s. This is puzzling because the proposals themselves are remarkably similar: they would constrain individuals’ freedoms in an effort to improve public safety. So why do the two proposals get such different responses from different people?

It’s not that there’s a big difference in the risk to public safety posed by immigrants or guns. Both have proven to be harmful, in the sense that both immigrants and guns have caused violence. But the risk posed by the typical gun or immigrant is tiny.

Financial Alphabet Soup

On Monday, the Treasury Department released the first of four planned reports on the U.S. financial system. While the 150-page report, focusing on banks and credit unions, includes a number of observations and recommendations worth discussing, there is one page I’d like to highlight here. It’s a single chart. And yet it speaks volumes about the current state of regulation in the financial sector. Here’s the chart:

Those in Washington often talk about the “alphabet soup” of federal agencies. We do love our acronyms here. But this chart shows that the financial sector has a complete soup all of its own. There are nine federal regulators who oversee the financial sector. Additionally, each state has its own regulators, typically one each for securities, insurance, and banking. Plus, there are the self-regulatory organizations—quasi-private bodies whose decisions can have the effect of law on the companies and individuals they oversee. A single organization can be subject to as many as six regulators. An organization that does business in multiple states can potentially be subject to regulation in each of them, in addition to regulation at the federal level.

Feds: Your Magnet Sets Are Lawful, Melt Them Down Anyway

In 2012 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched a barrage of legal and enforcement actions seeking to ban sales of tiny rare-earth magnet sets, popular under various names as a desk amusement with artistic and scientific applications. While the sets do not cause injury when used as intended by adults, they can cause serious harm to children when swallowed, so a key question was whether they may be sold for adult use with appropriate warnings against letting them into kids’ hands.  As we noted at the time, the leading maker of the sets, which sold them under the name Buckyballs, launched an unusual public campaign criticizing the logic of the ban being sought, even though “it’s rare for a regulated company to mount open and disrespectful resistance to a federal regulatory agency,” let alone in sarcastic Internet memes. The CPSC responded directly and some would say vindictively with an unprecedented recall action naming Buckyballs co-founder personally as well as his company. After expensive ventures in legal defense, Zucker agreed to exit the business, leaving only one leading maker to bid defiance to the commission, Zen Magnets. 

While the CPSC pursued recalls and jawboned retailers to drop the product, the centerpiece of its campaign was to enact a ban on the product itself. Last year, however, the Tenth Circuit struck down the ban, ruling that the commission had improperly stacked its cost-benefit analysis. (Then-Tenth Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch concurred in throwing out the ban.) The commission has gone back to the drawing board, and perhaps at some future date it will justify a ban to courts’ satisfaction, but for now the products are lawful to sell, and in fact are being sold

None of which, however, has undone the effects of the various allied enforcement actions the CPSC took in its campaign. In one of those actions, a federal judge agreed with the commission that Zen Magnets had improperly ignored a CPSC recall order and ordered it to destroy the remainder of its relevant stock – even though that stock was indistinguishable from other magnets that are sold lawfully. 

The company recently held a “funeral” for the sets it was forced to destroy, $40,000 worth, with a slightly pointed “eulogy” read aloud by company operations director Eric Sigurdson. You can watch it here: 

More at the Denver Post and, on newer developments on the magnet issue at the CPSC, from former commissioner Nancy Nord.