Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category.

Doing Business In California

"Brown signed more than 1,000 bills this year. The governor Tweeted that he decided on nearly 20,000 bills in his 16 years." (source)

This is 100% the reason we have been exiting most of our business in CA and will not accept any new business there. All of our training time with managers there goes to compliance with a myriad of new interventions from the legislature.  There is no time left to improve the business, serve customers better, or get more efficient.  California has hit, at least for us, the regulation singularity where new regulations are written faster than we can manage compliance to them.

Now all these veterans of California regulation madness are fanning out into national government.  Beware.

Reducing Hiring Information About Unskilled Workers Available to Employers Reduces Employment of Unskilled Workers

From the recently released study, "The Unintended Consequences of 'Ban the Box': Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories Are Hidden"

Jurisdictions across the United States have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal records until late in the hiring process. Their goal is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. However, removing criminal history information could increase statistical discrimination against demographic groups that include more ex-offenders. We use variation in the timing of BTB policies to test BTB’s effects on employment. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of employment by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men.

This is a pretty predictable outcome, and one that was discussed in my recent paper "How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers."  The effects of these regulations are synergistic.  Taken alone, one might expect this outcome from ban-the-box.  But combine it with minimum wage laws, rules that increase the monetary risk to employers for hiring unsuitable employees, and the increased regulatory difficulty in terminating employees (particularly minorities) and the effect is likely greater.  I explain this all in depth in the paper but here is a taste:

It used to be that the worst human resource risk a company faced was hiring employees who simply did not justify their salary. However, given the current body of regulation, any poorly selected employee is a potential ticking bomb who, through bad behavior with customers or other employees, could tie up the company for years in expensive litigation or regulatory actions. But as a firm’s liability for the negative activity of a poorly chosen
employee rises, regulations are making it harder to get good information to make better hiring choices,while simultaneously making it harder to terminate employees who were poorly chosen and present threats to the workplace or customers. When employers begin to look at their employees not as valuable assets but as potential liabilities, fewer people are going to be hired.

One potential way employers can manage this risk is to shift their hiring from unskilled employees to college graduates. Consider the risk of an employee making a racist or sexist statement to a customer or coworker (and in the process creating a large potential liability for the company). Almost any college graduate will have been steeped in racial and gender sensitivity messages for four years, while an employer might have an hour or two of training on these topics for unskilled workers. Similarly, because good information on prospective employees—credit checks, background checks,reference checks, discussions of past employment and salary—all have new legal limitations, employers who hire college graduates benefit from the substantial due diligence universities perform in their admissions process.

I made a vow a while back to try to get better at appealing to progressives using their assumptions, not mine.  So here is my shot at it here.  Prejudice exists among some employers that hold a stereotype of African-Americans as disproportionately criminal.  The best way to fight prejudice is through information and education.  But ban-the-box laws and other restrictions on background checks do just the opposite -- they restrict information.  Employers who see full criminal record information, say for African-American applicants, will be struck by how few have criminal records.  "Hey, these guys are OK," I can imagine someone saying.  Without this information, all that the employer has to work with are his pre-existing prejudices and misinformation, and in that context he might avoid African-Americans thinking "they are probably all criminals."

By A Super Weird Coincidence, Largest Supporters of Net Neutrality Restrictions on ISPs Are The Largest Free Riders of ISP Bandwidth

Want to know who the largest financial supporters of "net neutrality" regulations are?  Find them here: (source)

Think about the billions of dollars your ISP has spent to upgrade the bandwidth and speed of their network.  15% of that investment went to supporting Netflix's business, often without any compensation.  Net neutrality supporters always pitch their fears as concern that little guys might get shut out or have to pay to play.  But Comcast et. al. don't give a flip about the little guys.  They are concerned about the amount of their network infrastructure used by, sometimes choked by, Netflix, Google/Youtube and Amazon.  I have run projects to put internet access into large communities (in this case campgrounds with long-term campers).  There is just an astronomical difference between the cost of a system that serves the majority of internet traffic but no video streaming and one that allows video streaming.

Let's use an analogy.  Let's say that the highways in our state are getting torn up and we want to charge users for their use so we can repair and upgrade the roads.  We propose to charge much more per semi-trailer than per car because semi-trailers with their up to 80,000 pound weight really tear up highways more than does your Prius.  But the trucking companies object!  They want road neutrality, and propose that the roads should not treat any traffic differently and all vehicles should be charged the same amount regardless of size.  In fact, they go further -- all entities should be charged the same amount so that UPS with its 1000's of trucks on the road should pay the same flat fee (or no fee) as you pay with your one Prius.  Fair?

This sort of supply chain / value chain negotiation goes on in every industry.  It is also not unusual for participants in this negotiation to run to the government to try to get rules that tilt the playing field in their direction.  This is the context in which I see the net neutrality discussion, an attempt by large content providers to hamstring bandwidth providers in this negotiation.

Amazon's $15 Minimum Wage Proposal is A Brilliant Way To Get The Government to Hammer Amazon's Competition

Via the WSJ today

Amazon.com on Tuesday said it was raising the minimum wage it pays all U.S. workers to $15 an hour, a move that comes as the company faced increased criticism about pay and benefits for its warehouse workers.

The new minimum wage will kick in Nov. 1, covering more than 250,000 current employees and 100,000 seasonal holiday employees. The company said it also will start lobbying Congress for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was set nearly a decade ago and is currently $7.25 an hour.

“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, in a statement. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.”

Here is the cynical view of this:  Amazon likely is being pressured by the tightening labor market to raise wages anyway.  But its call for a general $15 minimum wage is strategically brilliant.  The largest employers of labor below $15 are Amazon's retail competitors.  If Amazon is successful in getting a $15 minimum wage passed, all retailers will see their costs rise but Amazon's competition will be hit much harder.

(Source)

The reason is that due to its internet sales model, Amazon's revenue per employee is MUCH higher than for most retailers -- you can see this in the chart above in a comparison to Sears.  If we had data on revenues per employee in small retail, the numbers would be even lower.  So a minimum wage increase raises costs to Amazon's competitors by a much larger percentage of revenue than it does for Amazon.  In short, Amazon's cost advantage over bricks and mortar retailers would be enhanced by a $15 minimum wage.

Update: Labor Regulation and How It Harms Unskilled Labor

This summer I had the cover story in Regulation Magazine with my article "How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers:  As government expands regulation of employers, they will increasingly turn to fewer, higher-skilled workers and automation."  (pdf here).  The article was not an academic project, but based on my own experience as a business owner who employs hundreds of workers in unskilled positions.  The premise is that many labor regulations -- not just the minimum wage -- have the perverse effect of making it harder to employ unskilled labor while simultaneously providing incentives to shift hiring from unskilled labor to folks with college degrees, even for unskilled positions.

Because it was not an academic research project, I did not spend a lot of time researching labor statistics, but I can't resist posting this analysis which appeared on Seeking Alpha:

As the economy has grown, employment numbers for unskilled labor have flatlined, never recovering from the last recession.  As I observed:

Fifteen years ago I started my current service business. I love my company and my employees. But if I had it all to do over again, I would never start a business based on employing unskilled labor.  The government makes it too difficult, in far too many ways, to try to make a living employing unskilled workers. Given a new start, I would find a business with a few high-skill employees creating a lot of value.

And I don’t think I’m alone. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there was a wave of successful large businesses built on unskilled labor (e.g., ServiceMaster, Walmart, McDonalds). Today, investment capital and innovation attention is all going to companies that create large revenues per employee with workers who have college educations and advanced skills. Only 4% of the employees at Apple, for example, have less than a college degree.
Even in large service-sector companies that employ unskilled labor, much of their investment today is in finding ways to reduce their reliance on that labor. I remember a number of years ago when the Chili’s restaurant chain started putting little electronic displays on their tables. At first the displays just showed advertising and I thought they were an annoying waste of space. But over time the chain began using the devices first to accept payment for one’s food and more recently to take food orders. They are progressively eliminating the need for most of their wait-staff. Every major restaurant chain is doing the same thing: investing in technology to eliminate unskilled workers. Why bother trying to figure out how to serve a rapidly evolving customer demand with workers who are limited by government in a hundred different ways in how and when they can labor? A website or iPad never sleeps, never sues, never needs a lunch break (let alone documentation of that break), never has to have overtime, and doesn’t have its labor taxed.

 

Staggering Cronyism In San Francisco, At The Expense of Workers

In San Francisco, you have to pay your employees $14 an hour, you have to schedule their shifts at least 7 days in advance, you have to provide them with a meal break, but God forbid that you give them a free meal:

Two San Francisco supervisors want to do away with employer-provided free lunches, a perk enjoyed by thousands of people who work in the City. That’s because restaurant owners say they can’t compete.

It’s lunchtime at Perennial in SOMA but you wouldn’t know it. The seats are empty. Anthony Myint is the restaurant’s owner and says it’s extremely challenging owning a restaurant so close to big companies that have their own onsite free employee cafeterias.

“I think it’s never been harder to run a restaurant in the city then right now,” he said.

Other restaurant owners in the area agree.

“We see it in our business,” says Ryan Corridor, owner of Corridor. “We see thousands of employees in a block radius that don’t go out to lunch and don’t go out in support of restaurants every day — it’s because they don’t have to”

I really do not understand the business mindset that companies are somehow owed a minimum amount of revenue, but the same "logic" driving this law is also driving the Trump tariffs.  You asked for bipartisanship, and here it is -- Trump and San Francisco progressives are united in their belief that the job of government is to force consumers to shift their business, even at high personal cost**, to crony favored suppliers.

Thanks to several readers who sent me this story.

** Note that the cost is not just in dollars but also in extra time travelling from the office to an offsite restaurant.

How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers

As a reminder, I have the cover story in Regulation magazine's Summer 2018 issue.  You can find links to the article and the issue, as well as a growing FAQ, here.

I Have The Cover Story In Regulation Magazine -- How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers

I have written the cover story for the Summer 2018 issue of Regulation magazine, titled "How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers."  The link to the Summer 2018 issue is here and the article can be downloaded as a pdf here.  I meant to be a bit more prepared for this but it was originally slated for the Spring issue and it (rightly) got kicked to the later issue to add a more timely article on tariffs and trade.  The summer publication date sort of snuck up on me until I saw that Walter Olson linked it.

FAQ  (I will keep adding to this as I get questions)

How did a random non-academic dude get published in a magazine for policy wonks? This piece started well over  a year ago, back when my friend Brink Lindsey was still at Cato (he has since moved to the Niskanen Center).   I had told him once that I was spending so much of my personal time responding to regulatory changes affecting my company that I had little time to actually focus on improving my business.  I joked that we were approaching the regulatory singularity when regulations were added faster than I could comply with them.

Brink asked that I write something on small business and regulation.  After about 10 minutes staring at a blank document in Word, I realized that was way too broad a topic.  I decided that the one area I knew well, at least in terms of compliance costs, was labor regulation.  After some work, I eventually narrowed that to the final topic, the effect (from a business owner's perspective who had to manage compliance) of labor regulation on unskilled labor.

Once I finished, I was ready to just give up and publish the piece on my blog.  I sent it to Brink but told him I thought it was way too rough for publication.  He told me that he had seen many good published pieces that looked far worse in their early drafts, so I buckled down and cleaned it up.  My editor at Regulation took on the heroic task of getting the original monstrosity tightened down to something about half the length.  As with most good editing processes, the piece was much better with half the words gone.

The real turning point for me was advice I got from Walter Olson of Cato.  I "know" Walter purely from blogging but I love his work and had been a substitute blogger at Overlawyered in its early years.  At one point, I was really struggling with this article because I kept feeling the need to address the broader viability of the minimum wage and the academic literature that surrounds it.  But I am not an academic, and I have not done the research and I was not even familiar with the full body of literature on the subject.  Walter's advice boiled down to the age-old adage of "write what you know."  He encouraged me to focus narrowly on how a business has to respond to labor regulation, and how these responses might effect the employment and advancement prospects of unskilled workers.  As such, then, the paper evolved away from a comprehensive evaluation of minimum wages as a policy choice (a topic I have opinions about but I don't have the skills to publish on) into a (useful, I think) review of one aspect of minimum wage policy, a contribution to the discussion, so to speak.

Update:  Eek, I forgot since I started this so long ago.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to about 8 of our blog readers who own businesses and volunteered to be interviewed for this article so I could make sure I was being comprehensive.

There are many positive (or negative) aspects of labor regulation you have excluded!  Yes, as discussed above this paper is aimed narrowly at one aspect of labor regulations -- understanding how businesses that employ unskilled workers respond to these regulations and how those responses affect workers and their employment and advancement prospects

Everyone knows employer monopsony power means there are no employment or price effects to minimum wage increases.  Some studies claim to have proved this, others dispute this.  I would say that this statement has always seemed insane from my perspective as a small business owner.  It sure doesn't feel like I have a power imbalance in my favor with my workers.   I address this with a real example in the article but also address it in much more depth here.  The short answer is that for minimum wages to have no employment or price effects, a company has to have both monopsony power in the labor market AND monopoly power in its customer markets.  Without the latter, all gains from "underpaying" a worker due to monopsony power get competed away and benefit consumers (in the form of lower prices) rather than increase a company's profit.

The costs of these regulations are supposed to come out of your bloated profits.  Perhaps that is what happens at Google, where compliance costs are a tiny percentage of what their highly-compensated employees earn and where the company enjoys monopoly profits in its core businesses.  For those of us in highly-competitive businesses that employ unskilled workers, our profit margins are really thin (as explained in more depth here).  When profits are close to the minimum that supports further investment and participation in the business, then labor regulatory costs are going to get paid by consumers and workers.

Then maybe the best thing for workers is to create monopolies.  Funny enough, this idea was actually one of the centerpieces of Mussolini's corporatist economic model, a model that was copied approvingly by FDR in the centerpiece New Deal legislation the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA).  The NRA sought to create cartels in major industries that would fix prices, wages, and working conditions, among other things.   The Supreme Court struck the legislation down, a good thing since it would have been a disaster for consumers and for innovation and probably for most workers too.  As a bit of trivia, this year's Superbowl winner the Philadelphia Eagles was named in honor of this law.  More here.

So do you think minimum wages are a good policy overall or not?  Hmm, mostly not.  For a variety of reasons, minimum wages are a very inefficient way to tackle poverty (and also here), and tend to have cronyist effects that help one class of worker at the expense of other classes (this latter should be unsurprising since many original supporters of the first federal minimum wages were explicitly hoping to disadvantage black workers competing with whites).

Why are you opposed to all these worker protections?  Or, more directly, why do you hate workers?  This is silly -- I am not and I don't.  However, this sort of critique, which you can find in the comments below, is typical of how public policy discussion is broken nowadays.  When I grew up, public policy discussion meant projecting the benefits of a policy and balancing them against the costs and unintended consequences.  In this context, I am merely attempting to air some of the costs of these regulations for unskilled workers that are not often discussed.  Nowadays, however, public policy is judged solely on its intentions.  If a law is intended to help workers (whether or not it will every reasonably achieve its objectives), then it is good, and anyone who opposed this law has bad intentions.  This is what you see in public policy debates all the time -- not arguments about the logic of a law itself but arguments that the opposition are bad people with bad intentions.  For example, just look in the comments of this and other posts I have linked -- because Coyote points out underappreciated costs to laws that are intended to help workers, his intentions must be to harm workers.  It is grossly illogical but characteristic of our post-modernistic age.

I will retell a story about Obamacare or the PPACA.  Most of my employees are over 60 and qualify for Medicare.  As such, no private insurer will write a policy for them -- why should they?  Well, along comes Obamacare, and it says that my business has to pay a $2000-$3000 penalty for every employee who is not offered health insurance, and Medicare does not count!  I was in a position of paying nearly a million dollars in fines (many times my annual profits) for not providing insurance coverage to my over-60 employees that was impossible to obtain -- we were facing bankruptcy and the loss of everything I own.  The only way out we had was that this penalty only applied to full-time workers, so we were forced to reduce everyone's hours to make them all part-time.  It is a real flaw in the PPACA that caused real harm to our workers.  Do I hate workers and hope they all get sick and die just because I point out this flaw with the PPACA and its unintended consequence?

I've heard that raising the minimum wage increases worker productivity so much that businesses are better off.    I know there is academic literature on this and I am frankly just not that familiar with it.  I can say that I have never, ever seen workers suddenly and sustainably work harder after getting a wage increase.  What I see instead is employers doing things like cutting back employee hours and demanding the same amount of work gets done.  This could result in more productivity if there was fat in the system beforehand but it also can result in things like lower service levels (e.g. the bathrooms get cleaned less frequently).   Without careful measurement, these changes could appear to an outsider to be productivity gains.  In addition, as discussed in the article, with higher minimum wages employers can substitute more skilled for less skilled workers, which can result in productivity gains but leave unskilled workers without a job.

Workers are human beings.  It is wrong to think of them as "costs" or "resources".  The most surprised I think I have ever been on my blog is when I got so much negative feedback for writing that the best thing that could happen to unskilled workers is for someone to figure out how to make a fortune hiring them.  I thought this was absolutely obvious, but the statement was criticized as being heartless and exploitative.  My workers are my friends and are sometimes like family.  I hire hundreds of people over 60 years of age, people that the rest of society casts aside as no longer useful.  They take pride in their ability to continue to be productive.   You don't have to tell me they are human beings.  Just this week I have helped modify an employee's job responsibilities to help them manage their newly diagnosed MS, found temporary coverage for a manager who needs to get to a relative's funeral, found a replacement for a manager that wants to take a sabbatical, and loaned two different employees money to help them through some tough financial times.  From a self-interested point of view, I need my employees to be happy and satisfied in their work or they will provide bad, grumpy service.  But at the end of the day I can only keep these people employed if customers are willing to pay more for the services they provide than the employees cost me.  If the cost of employing people goes up, then either customers have to pay more or I can hire fewer employees.

You probably support child labor too.   Child labor laws are an entirely reasonable zone of government regulation.  The reason this is true stems from the definition of a child -- a child is someone considered under the law to lack agency or the ability to make adult decisions due to their age.   We generally give parents, rightly, a lot of the responsibility for protecting their children from bad decisions, but I am fine with the government backstopping this with modest regulations.  In other words, I have no problem with the law treating children like children.  Instead, I have a problem with the law treating adults like children.

Aren't you just begging to get audited?  Hah!  That's what my wife says.  To me, the logical response of a regulator should be, "wow, this guy knows the law way better than most of the business folks we deal with, so he probably is not a compliance risk" -- but you never know.  Actually, we have been audited many times on many of these laws.  So much so that practically the first series of posts I did on this blog, way back in the blog pleistocene era of 2004, was 3 part series on surviving a Department of Labor audit.  Looking back on the series, everything in it (which included experience from a number of different audits) still seems valid and timely.

Uber Drivers Just Killed All the Parts of the Job They Supposedly Liked the Most

At the behest of a group of Uber drivers, the California Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are Uber employees, not independent contractors, under California law:

In a ruling with potentially sweeping consequences for the so-called gig economy, the California Supreme Court on Monday made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision could eventually require companies like Uber, many of which are based in California, to follow minimum-wage and overtime laws and to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and payroll taxes, potentially upending their business models.

I believe that this will pretty much kill Uber (though it will take some time to bleed out) for reasons discussed here.  Rather than discuss consequences for the company (everyone is finally doing this, following the general media rule I have stated before that it is OK to discuss downsides of new government regulations only after the regulations have been passed and become essentially un-reversible).

People don't always seem to have a good grasp of cause and effect.  I don't know if this is a general problem programmed into how humans think or one attributable to the sorry state of education.  My favorite example is all the people who flee California due to the high taxes, housing prices, and stifling regulation and then  -- in their new state -- immediately start voting for all the same things that caused them to flee California.

One of the aspects of being an Uber driver that supposedly attracts many people to it is the flexibility.  I summarized the advantages in an earlier post:

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk

You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).

The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

This all ends with the California decision.  You drivers are all thinking you won this big victory because you are going to have the same job you loved but you will just get paid more.  This is not going to happen.  As I implied above, in the long-term this job will not exist at all, because Uber will be dead.  But in the near-term, if Uber tries to make this work **, Uber is going to excercise a LOT more control of your work.

That is because if Uber is on the hook for a minimum cost per hour for your work, then they are going to damn well make sure you are productive.  Do you enjoy sitting around near your suburban and semi-rural home at 3AM waiting to get some business?  In the future, forget it, Uber is not going to allow this sort of thing now that Uber, rather than its drivers, is carrying the risk of your being unproductive.  They are going to take a lot more control of where and when you can drive.  And if you do not get with the program, you are going to be kicked out.  It won't be three months before Uber starts tracking driver productivity and kicking out the least productive drivers.

Congratulations Uber drivers, in the quest to try to use the power of government to extract more money for yourselves from the company, you just killed your jobs as you know it.  You may have had freedom before but now you are working in Office Space like the rest of us.

This whole case just goes to support my frequent contention that the only labor model the US government will fully accept is an hourly worker working 9-5 punching a time clock.  Every new labor model that comes along eventually runs head-on into the government that tries to pound that square peg into the round hole of a time-punching factory worker.  The Obama administration even did its best to force a large number of salaried workers into punching a time clock.

 

** If I were the leader of Uber, I would announce today that we are exiting California.  This is an existential issue and the only way to fight it is right now on your home turf.  Any attempt to try to muddle through this is going to lead to Uber's death, and would thus be a disservice to its shareholders.   Whether this happens will be interesting.  Uber is owned by a bunch of California VC's who generally support exactly this sort of government authoritarian interventionism.  It will be interesting to see if a bunch of California progressives let $50 billion in equity go down the drain just to avoid offending the sensibilities of their fellow California progressives.

Activist Government vs. Emergent, Bottom-Up Solutions

From Engadget, on rental scooters in SF:

San Francisco is a city where companies frequently like to try out new ideas. Uber had its start here many years ago, as did success stories like Twitter and Airbnb. So it's no surprise that San Francisco happens to be one of many cities experiencing a new form of transportation: sharable electric scooters. They appeared in downtown SF seemingly out of nowhere, taking over sidewalks and pedestrian paths. But what was marketed as a low-cost, eco-friendly way to get around town soon became a public nuisance.

It all started in late March when three companies -- BirdSpin and LimeBike -- unveiled their scooter-sharing solutions in San Francisco. All three work the same way: You unlock the scooter with an app, pay a nominal amount -- $1 to unlock and 15 cents a minute thereafter. When you're done, simply lock it with the app and it'll be ready for the next person to hop on.

Unlike docked bicycles, like the Ford GoBikes in San Francisco or New York City's Citi Bikes, you don't have to park them in designated spaces; they can be left anywhere. These scooters are then rounded up and collected every night for any necessary repairs or charging and then redistributed the next day.

In the meantime, though, they're often strewn aside carelessly, blocking the public right-of-way, thus making it especially difficult for wheelchairs and those with disabilities to move past them. Further, scooter riders are using them on the sidewalk, which is not only illegal but dangerous. I've personally had scooter riders zoom up past me, yelling "Watch out!" as they whizzed by. According to California state law, motorized scooters must be used in the bike lane or on the road. This means it's also against the law to ride them without a helmet and without a driver's license (therefore user must be 16 years or older).

So San Francisco is cracking down. Not only is the city working on legislating the scooters, but on April 16th, the city attorney sent cease-and-desist letters to all three companies to end operations until regulations are in place. The city also passed a law, demanding that all scooters have permits. Scooters found without permits will be subject to impoundment. San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) hopes to open up the permitting process starting May 1st.

So these things have been out on the streets for less than 30 days and now a handful of people in the SF government are going to ossify the whole thing with a set of rules that these couple of people dream up.  The impatience here is just staggering.  Clearly the riders and the owners both know that there are problems with the early implementation.  What about allowing them some time to iron out the bugs and figure things out?  What about giving the millions of people who live in this city some time to cooperate and create new social norms?  Nah, we are just going to let a couple of yahoos who are totally uninvolved with this new service and who know nothing about it and who likely are not even customers or potential customers (since they probably have a government car and driver) shut the whole thing down and make up some arbitrary new rules.  Jeez, how many of the products and services we now value would never have made it out of their infancy if the government started hammering them with uninformed new rules within 4 weeks of their introduction?

Problems With Pigouvian Taxes

Pigouvian taxes are taxes meant to help markets and prices better account for certain externalities that wouldn't otherwise be priced in.  A good example is that to the extent one thinks that CO2 is having a deleterious effect on the environment, a carbon tax would be a pigouvian tax.  This brief note at Cato discusses some problems with Pigouvian taxes.  This note reminded me of another issue:  in real life, Pigouvian taxes are more likely to reflect biases and faulty assumptions and virtue signalling of politicians rather than real science and economics.  Here are two situations that come to mind, presented without comment:

As I Predicted, Another Diesel Emissions Shoe Drops

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

Since then Fiat-Chrysler has been accused of the same behavior, and GM has been accused as well, though only in  a civil suit.

Now, most recently, Daimler is being accused of the same behavior

Daimler has been under suspicion of cheating on US emissions tests for quite a while now -- in 2016, a number of customers even sued the automaker, claiming their cars had sneaky software made to trick testers similar to Volkswagen's. Now, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, US authorities investigating the Mercedes maker have discovered that its vehicles are equipped with illegal software to help them pass United States' stringent emission tests. Citing confidential documents, the publication said Daimler's employees doubted their vehicles would be able meet US standards even before Volkswagen's diesel scandal blew up. Internal testing apparently revealed that some Mercedes models emit ten times the country's nitrogen oxide limit.

Daimler reportedly developed software with several functions to be able to trick US regulators. One called "Bit 15" was designed to switch off emissions cleaning after 16 miles of driving, while another called "Slipguard" can detect if the car is being tested based on speed and acceleration. Bild am Sonntag said it found emails from Daimler engineers questioning whether those functions were legal.

To this day, I wonder how much European officials knew about all this as it was happening.  European officials really went all-in on promoting diesel years ago as an approach to combating climate change.  This has, by the way, turned out to be a great example of the danger of government picking winners, as diesel has really turned out to be one of the worst approaches for reducing emissions in transportation vehicles, both economically and environmentally.  Never-the-less, given the big commitment by European regulators in promoting diesel as a key part of their climate change plans, I wonder how much they were looking the other way through all of this -- such that their current "shock" at all this cheating might be equivalent to Reynault's shock that there was gambling going on in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

This is The Right Way To Encourage Local Investment: Regulation Reform, Not Subsidies

Via Zero Hedge:

Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, is set to launch a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but with no human driver behind the wheel. Officials in Arizona granted Waymo a permit to operate as a transportation network company (TNC) across the state on Janurary 24, following the company’s initial application on Janurary 12, Bloomberg  reported.

The imminent release of a robotic fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans could be flooding the highways of Arizona, causing major headaches for Uber.

Since April of last year, Waymo has been experimenting with its self-driving fleet on the human guinea pigs of Phoenix, offering residents 24/7 access to the free ridesharing service. TNC status is a significant step for Waymo, because it now authorizes the company to start charging its passengers.

Waymo’s vehicles in the Phoenix area have driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. In November, the company said a portion of its cars in the Phoenix area were operating in fully autonomous mode, what’s known in industry parlance as level four autonomy.

My understanding is that Phoenix has become the world's center for testing and refining self-driving vehicles mainly by simply allowing it to happen when other municipalities threw up numerous regulatory hurdles (not just to self-driving cars but also, like Austin and Las Vegas, to ride-sharing companies).  I wish more business relocation competition among municipalities was on this basis rather than competing subsidy proposals.

I have seen driver-less Waymo vans a number of times around town, mostly around Tempe and Chandler.  They seemed to do fine once one gets over the shock of seeing the driver's seat empty.  I tried to sign up for their early rider program but apparently they are focusing on Phoenix's southeastern suburbs (e.g. Mesa, Tempe) right now.  I will try again as the program rolls out so I can publish a ride report here.  Probably I will hate it because the car will faithfully stay within the speed limit and thus drive me crazy.

Do We Really Have to Craft Legislation With the Stupidest 0.0001% in Mind?

Via Zero Hedge:

A pair of New York politicians has introduced legislation that would force consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble to make their Tide Pod product less appetizing to human beings.

If passed, Senate bill S100A would require liquid detergent packets sold in the state of New York to be “designed in an opaque, uniform color that is not attractive to children and is not easily permeated by a child’s bite.”

The bill further states that each Tide Pod packet should be “enclosed in a separate, individual, non-permeable, child-resistant wrapper” and that the package they come in should have a warning label saying the product is “harmful if swallowed.”

These two legislators get their one news cycle of fame from this and 24 hours of virtue signalling how much they care, and the rest of humanity has to live with their stupidity for decades.

Even beyond the self-serving stupidity of even introducing such legislation, its specifics are even dumber, making sense only if the recent Tide pod consumption was somehow accidental, like an infant putting it in her mouth.  This regulation would have done pretty much zero to stop the recent insane social media challenge that drove a few people to eat these things.  Now when I put my little pod in the dishwasher, am I really going to have to struggle to get the thing out of some child-proof wrapper?  We can't just put every one in unopenable blister pack and be done with it?

Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)

I thought this letter from Dan Hanson to Tyler Cowen was really thought provoking:

I wonder how many of the people making predictions about the future of truck drivers have ever ridden with one to see what they do?

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

I’ve been working in automation for 20 years. When you see how hard it is to simply digitize a paper process inside a single plant (often a multi-year project), you start to roll your eyes at ivory tower claims of entire industries being totally transformed by automation in a few years. One thing I’ve learned is a fundamentally Hayekian insight: When it comes to large scale activities, nothing about change is easy, and top-down change generally fails. Just figuring out the requirements for computerizing a job is a laborious process full of potential errors. Many automation projects fail because the people at the high levels who plan them simply do not understand the needs of the people who have to live with the results.

Take factory automation. This is the simplest environment to automate, because factories are local, closed environments that can be modified to make things simpler. A lot of the activities that go on in a factory are extremely well defined and repetitive. Factory robots are readily available that can be trained to do just about anything physically a person can do. And yet, many factories have not automated simply because there are little details about how they work that are hard to define and automate, or because they aren’t organized enough in terms of information flow, paperwork, processes, etc. It can take a team of engineers many man years to just figure out exactly what a factory needs to do to make itself ready to be automated. Often that requires changes to the physical plant, digitization of manual processes, Statistical analysis of variance in output to determine where the process is not being defined correctly, etc.

A lot of pundits have a sense that automation is accelerating in replacing jobs. In fact, I predict it will slow down, because we have been picking the low hanging fruit first. That has given us an unrealistic idea of how hard it is to fully automate a job.

Based on this I can still think of some labor-saving, but not labor-eliminating, automation roles in trucking.

  • Convoying, allowing one driver to lead multiple additional automated trucks
  • Reduction in team driving.  Currently Federal rules (e.g. for rest breaks and maximum driving times) have created incentives for teams of two drivers to move priority freight that needs to be moving constantly and not parked while the driver sleeps.  Automation might allow one person plus the automated driver to keep trucks moving continuously and safely.

One thing not mentioned by Mr. Hanson is the role of regulation.  Safe automated trucks will likely exist LONG before Federal regulatory changes will occur to allow them much use.  This is not just because there is some delay with regulators getting comfortable with the safety aspects, but because affected groups with political pull who wish to keep the status quo will use safety concerns, real or imagined, to hold up the regulatory process.

If you think I am being too pessimistic, here is a story.  The typical steam engine of the 1930's needed a driver and a fireman -- the latter's job was to make sure the furnace was correctly fueled and operating well.  When diesel locomotives came along, one benefit among many was that the fireman was no longer needed.  Seeing this on the horizon, the fireman's union was ready to dig in their heals.  They actually, boldly, took the position NOT that a diesel locomotive needed a fireman, but that it should be required to have 2 firemen!  This was partially a subject for union negotiation, but in the dysfunctional world of railroad labor regulation, it also required some regulatory changes  (as the first industry with large workforces, the government took its first shot at labor regulation in a railroad-specific manner and the result was largely dysfunctional; fortunately for the rest of industry it did a better job with labor regulation later for everyone else).  It took years to totally eliminated fireman from diesel engines.  In fact, nearly every railroad labor saving technology like this (e.g. automatic brakes rather than men on roofs turning break wheels) led to regulatory foot-dagging that allowed the new technology but resisted the reduction in personnel.

Transparent and Visible Cross-Subsidy: Unethical; Invisible Legally-Mandated Cross-Subsidy at the Behest of a Special Interest: A-OK

From Engadget, apparently the EU has banned retailers for adding a surcharge on credit card purchases.  Since it is an absolute fact that credit card sales cost retailers at least 3% more (due to merchant processing fees) than cash sales, I likely would have written about this story something like "EU knuckles under special interest lobbying from credit card processors and forces non-customers (ie those paying in cash) to subsidize credit card purchases."  Of course, given the consistent and predictable economic ignorance of Engadget, that is not how the story actually was written:

Thanks to new EU regulations, you won't have to put up with irritating card surcharges for much longer. Unfortunately, minimum card spends you come across in small shops and such will stick around, but from January 13th, the Payment Services Directive comes into play. This stops retailers from charging you more for, say, using a credit card than a debit card, or generally just passing the transaction fee onto the customer. It won't, however, make your Just Eat delivery any cheaper. That's because yesterday, ahead of the new EU rules being implemented, Just Eat did away with its 50p fee for paying by card, and instead created a new 50p "service charge" that applies to all orders.

What's particularly cheeky is pay-by-cash customers now also have to fish between the sofa cushions for an extra coin -- a move Just Eat calls "fairness for all" (lol) -- meaning it's making even more moolah while sticking a middle finger up to the spirit of the EU directive. Just Eat told the BBC it had previously thought about tweaking charges, while also totally confessing that "the change to legislation did play a part in prompting the review." A spokesperson also said, predictably, that it'll enable the company to keep providing its stellar services: "The 50p charge simply means that along with our restaurant partners, we can continue to deliver the best possible takeaway experience."

The law essentially forces cash customers to subsidize credit card customers.  I know what retail profits look like (think small single digits) and the lost surcharge is not coming out of profits, it is going to be covered by establishments in generally higher prices paid by everyone, including cash customers.  In my mind, this retailer is a hero, by actually making this legally-mandated cross subsidy transparent.

Uber Is About To Become A Much Worse Place To Work

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

  • You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk
  • You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).
  • The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

All of this is going to change.  Why?  Due to lawsuits in most countries that seek to redefine Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.  One such suit just succeeded in England:

Is Uber a taxi firm or a technology company, and are its drivers self-employed or mistreated employees? These questions are being asked of Uber the world over, and last year an employment tribunal case in the UK concluded two drivers were, in fact, entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other benefits. The ride-hailing service contested this potentially precedent-setting decision, as you'd expect, but today Uber lost its appeal. In other words, the appeal tribunal upheld the original ruling that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed.

The appeal tribunal agreed that when a driver is logged in and waiting for a job, that's still tantamount to "working time." Working time they aren't getting paid for, of course. Interestingly, the ruling also noted that Uber basically has a monopoly on private hire via an app. Therefore, drivers are beholden to them and can't reasonably engage in other work while also being at Uber's disposal.

GMB, the union for professional drivers that's behind the original case, is calling it "a landmark victory." Naturally, the law firm representing the GMB and Uber drivers feels much the same. No points for guessing who has a slightly different opinion.

Despite Engadget's usual economic ignorance that this must be all good for drivers, in fact this is going to destroy about everything that makes Uber attractive as compared to 9-5 office jobs.  That is, if rulings like this don't kill the company entirely, as I have previously prophesied.

This is going to add a new cost for Uber, forcing them to pay money to drivers for dead time when they are not actually driving a passenger.  Let's make the reasonable assumption that Uber's first response to this is to A) stay in business and B) attempt to keep prices to customers from rising.  The only way they can do this is to minimize dead time.

Want to park at your house in an unpromising neighborhood with little business?  Forget it, Uber can't allow that in the future.  Want to work at an unproductive hour of your choosing?  Forget it.  Uber is going to have to set quotas on certain regions and hours of the day that are less productive and find a way to ban drivers from working those times.   In addition, they are likely to institute some sort of productivity metric for drivers, ie something like revenue minutes as a percent of total, and then they are going to rank all the drivers and start cutting drivers from the bottom of the list.  If Uber survives, it is going to be a very different company to work for, and is going to feel much more like a regular office job with a boss hanging around your cubicle pestering you about TPS reports.

San Francisco & Austin: Cities So Woke and Progressive That Blacks Are Forced To Leave

I found this interesting from Randal O'Toole

Between 2015 and 2016, the total population of the San Francisco-Oakland urban area grew by 13,773 people, but the black population shrank by 5,839, suggesting that Bay Area land-use policies continue to push low-income people out of the region by making housing unaffordable. The Austin urban area, to its shame, saw a decline of 4,439 blacks despite a total population growth of 25,316.

 

One Onerous New Regulation Down, Zillions More to Go

A while back I wrote about the Obama Administration's near exponential expansion of EEO reporting

 It takes the current EEO-1 (the annual exercise where we strive for a post-racial society by racially categorizing all of our employees) and makes it something like 15-20 times longer.  In addition, rather than simply "count" an employee as being on staff in a certain race-gender category, we now have to report their income and hours worked.  Either I will have to hire staff just to do this stupid report, or I will again (like with Obamacare) have to pay a third party thousands of dollars a year to satisfy yet another government reporting requirement.  This is utter madness.

Get this -- the report has 3600 individual cells that must be filled in.  And this is in addition to the current EEO-1 form, which also still has to be filled out.  The draft rule assumes 6-7 hours per company per year for this reporting.  They must be joking.

Fortunately, the Trump Administration has at least temporarily suspended this requirement:

On Tuesday, the White House suspended a burdensome reporting requirement for employers that would have cost them $400 million while yielding information of questionable value. It did so in rejecting changes to the EEO-1 form made at the end of the Obama administration.

The White House Office of Management and Budget stated that the pay collection and reporting requirements “lack practical utility, are unnecessarily burdensome, and do not adequately address privacy and confidentiality issues.” It explained its reasoning in a letter to the Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Victoria Lipnic.

The Obama administration had claimed that rewriting the form to include 3,660 boxes for companies to check or fill out would help identify wage discrimination. But very little of the information it sought would have shed any light on potential wage discrimination.

Yep, I Was Right. Opioid Proposals Going Forward With No Discussion Of Their Effect on Legitimate Users

A few weeks ago I wrote:

If you want to convince me of the need for restrictions on any substances, such as narcotics, you have to convince me of three things:

  1. That incarcerating users is somehow better for them than their addiction
  2. That ethically abusers of the substance are more worthy of our attention and intervention than legitimate users who benefit from the substance and whose access will likely be restricted
  3. That the negative social costs of the substance's use are higher than the inevitable social costs of the criminal black market (including the freedom-reducing policing laws implemented in response) that will emerge when its use or purchase is banned

Think in particular about point #2 when reading this:

Arizona would limit all initial opioid prescriptions to five days for new patients under sweeping guidelines recommended Wednesday by Gov. Doug Ducey's administration.

The plan also would limit maximum doses for pain medication, implement steps to taper down pain medications and require pain prescriptions to be filed electronically, rather than on paper, to limit diversion of drugs.

Consider that many legitimate users will need more than the legal maximum dosage to control their pain, and thus the issue becomes whether we want to essentially torture innocent sick people by forcing them to remain in excruciating pain in exchange for (possibly) reducing the number of accidental deaths from abusers of these drugs (I say possibly because over the last 40 years the government war on drugs has had such a super stellar track record in reducing narcotic usage).

To me the answer to this tradeoff is obvious but I am willing to admit it is a tradeoff subject to debate.  But the article linked has no debate.  There is not a single mention of any downsides to the rules, or any potential harm to legitimate users.

Regulation and Innovation

We often talk about the direct costs of regulation, but in the long run perhaps the most worrying problem is a cost that is impossible to measure -- its effect on innovation.  From a labor regulation paper I am writing:

Labor regulations are written in consideration of existing, well established business models, and are not written for business models that might someday exist.  Often my employees ask me why labor law will not allow practices that would make a lot of sense in our business, both for employer and employee.  I tell them to imagine a worker in a Pittsburg factory, punching a timeclock from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, working within sight of their supervisor, taking their breaks in the employee lunch room.  This is the labor model regulators and legislators had in mind when writing the bulk of labor law.  Any other labor model – seasonal work, part-time work, working out of the home, telecommuting, working away from a corporate office or one’s supervisor, the gig economy – become square pegs to be jammed in the round hole of labor law.

When someone does try to stick an innovative square peg in the round hole of existing regulation, there tend to be concerted efforts by regulators to kill the new model.  Just look at Uber and the efforts to force it out of its labor model and into a more traditional one.  Most of us see innovation as good and value-creating.  Regulators - by training, by their incentives, by the culture - see innovation as threatening.  They see innovations as viruses trying to bypass the immune systems they have spent years constructing.

Here is an example from pharmaceuticals that really struck me.  Alex Tabarrok is writing on promising anti-aging and cancer reduction drugs:

The assembled scientists and academics focused on one obstacle above all: the Food and Drug Administration. The agency does not recognize aging as a medical condition, meaning a drug cannot be approved to treat it. And even if the FDA were to acknowledge that aging is a condition worthy of targeting, there would still be the question of how to demonstrate that aging had, in fact, been slowed—a particularly difficult question considering that there are no universally agreed-on markers.

 

Net Neutrality , White Supremacy, and Baking Cakes

I was thinking about these two stories in the context of net neutrality (the theory if not the practice)

The folks who are cheering this on seem to be the same folks who support net neutrality (Venn Diagram, Professor Perry?)  Look, if I had an Internet business, I would not want to serve or subsidize these folks.  But then again, I have always opposed net neutrality rules.  I suppose that one could argue net neutrality is narrowly about ISP's, so this stuff is not relevant, but what if Cox Communications decided the same thing?  Do they not have the same rights of association that GoDaddy and GoFundMe have?  And if every registrar and web hosting company refuse to serve a certain person or viewpoint, does net neutrality at the ISP level even matter?  This is part of the hypocrisy of companies like Google, which demand Cox act as a common carrier for its YouTube traffic (because Google does not want to foot the full cost of the amount of bandwidth they use) but act as anything but a common carrier in its core search business.

And while we are on rights of association, am I legally required to bake a cake for James Fields?

Postscript:  I wonder if people on the Left, which dominate most of the calls for net neutrality, would be demanding net neutrality if they thought most ISP's were controlled by folks on the Left?  Google and Facebook are known to be controlled by the Left, and thus no one on the Left demands neutrality of them  -- in fact the Left likely would oppose calls for neutrality at Google and Facebook as their hope is that opposing voices to theirs will be disproportionately screened out by these companies.

The More We Talk About the Opioid "Crisis", The More Likely Stupid and Unproductive Legislation Will Be Passed

If you want to convince me of the need for restrictions on any substances, such as narcotics, you have to convince me of three things:

  1. That incarcerating users is somehow better for them than their addiction
  2. That ethically abusers of the substance are more worthy of our attention and intervention than legitimate users who benefit from the substance and whose access will likely be restricted
  3. That the negative social costs of the substance's use are higher than the inevitable social costs of the criminal black market (including the freedom-reducing policing laws implemented in response) that will emerge when its use or purchase is banned

Not only have I not been convinced on any of these dimensions on any of the substances we currently call illegal drugs, I have yet to see anyone seriously even attempt to address these trade-offs or acknowledge they exist.

Employing People in California Really is Harder

California is a uniquely difficult place for companies trying to actually employ people rather than robots.   Owning a business in that state, you could be forgiven that the legislation actually embarked on a program to explicitly punish companies for hiring people.  The state has spent the last ten or twenty years defining a myriad of micro offenses employees for which  may sue employers and make large recoveries -- everything from having to work through lunch to having the wrong chair and not getting to sit in that chair at the right times of day.

To illustrate this, I want to show you the insurance application I just received.  Most companies have something called employment practices liability insurance.  This insurance helps pay legal and some settlement expenses if and (nowadays) when a company is sued by an employee for things like discrimination or harassment or any of the variety of sue-your-boss offenses California has established.  In that multi-page application, after the opening section about name and address, the very first risk-related question asks this:

They specifically ask about your California employment, and no other state, in order to evaluate your risk.

The other insurance-related result of California's regulatory enviroment is that if one is in California, it is almost impossible to get an employee practices insurance deductible under $25,000.  This turns out to be just about exactly the amount of legal costs it takes to get a nuisance suit filed with no real grounding dismissed.  It essentially means that any disgruntled ex-employee, particularly one in a protected class, can point their finger at a company without any evidence whatsoever and cost that company about $25,000 in legal expenses.  Rising minimum wages is not the only reason MacDonald's is investing so much in robotics.

The Progressive Left Becomes State Rights Advocates. Who'd Have Thought?

Many libertarians like state's rights because it creates 50 different tax and regulator regimes, and libertarians assume that people and businesses will flow to the most free states.  However, California progressives have discovered they like state's rights as well, though they are in more of the antebellum South Carolina category of desiring state's rights in order to be less free than the Federal government allows.

After a bid to launch a California secession movement failed in April, a more moderate ballot measure has been approved, and its backers now have 180 days to attain nearly 600,000 signatures in order to put it up to vote in the 2018 election.

The Yes California movement advocated full-on secession from the rest of the country, and it gained steam after Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. However, as the Sacramento Bee noted, that attempt failed to gather the signatures needed and further floundered after it was accused of having ties to Russia.

But as the Los Angeles Times reported this week:

On Tuesday afternoon, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office released an official title and summary for the initiative, now called the ‘California Autonomy From Federal Government’ initiative.

The new measure that seeks to set up an advisory commission to inform California’s governor on ways to increase independence from the federal government. It would reportedly cost $1.25 million per year to fund “an advisory commission to assist the governor on California’s independence plus ‘unknown, potentially major, fiscal effects if California voters approved changes to the state’s relationship with the United States at a future election after the approval of this measure,’” the Los Angeles Times reported.

With Becerra’s approval, its backers can now seek the nearly 600,000 signatures required to place the measure on the 2018 ballot.

As the outlet explained:

The initiative wouldn’t necessarily result in California exiting the country, but could allow the state to be a ‘fully functioning sovereign and autonomous nation’ within the U.S.’”

According to the Attorney General’s official document on the measure, it still appears to advocate secession as the ultimate goal — even if it doesn’t use the term outright.“Repeals provision in California Constitution stating California is an inseparable part of the United States,” the text explains, noting that the governor and California congress members would be expected “to negotiate continually greater autonomy from federal government, up to and including agreement establishing California as a fully independent country, provided voters agree to revise the California Constitution.”