Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category.

LMAO At the Nerve of Solar Companies. Please Don't Corrupt The Term "Free Market" By Trying to Apply it to Yourselves

Our public utility APS wants to enter the rooftop solar business.  As a ratepayer and taxpayer, I have deep concerns about this because of the numerous ways this venture could end up with various hidden subsidies.

However, I find it simply hilarious that current rooftop solar providers, including #1 subsidy whore and crony capitalist SolarCity.  Here is what trade group Arizona Solar Energy Industry Association wrote in an email to me today.  I have highlighted some of the bits that got my blood boiling this morning:

In an unprecedented announcement that took the solar industry by surprise, Arizona’s largest utility, APS, announced that it intends to begin competing directly with Arizona solar installers. APS announced Monday that it is seeking permission to spend between $57 and $70 million -not including its profits- of ratepayer money to install solar on the roofs of homes in its service territory and to compete directly with solar installers of all sizes.

The idea of our members who compete in the free market today having to all of a sudden compete with a regulated monopoly is frightening. How would you like it if the government just stepped in and started competing with your business?” said Corey Garrison, CEO of Arizona based Southface Solar and treasurer of Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association (AriSEIA). "APS has proposed subsidizing certain customers that allow it to put solar on their rooftops while the free market gets no more utility subsidy and actually gets charged for going solar."

It has been well publicized that APS spent much of the last year in a battle with the very industry it now seeks to dominate. Throughout 2013 APS urged the Arizona Corporation Commission to install a huge monthly tax on those who would put solar on their roof. It has also been reported that APS urged the Department of Revenue to institute a new property tax on rooftop solar panels that are leased to customers.

“After spending a year misleading the public with well-publicized lies and misdirection, APS seems to think this is a good time for it to be rewarded with an expansion of its monopoly franchise” said Corey Garrison

Unlike rooftop solar companies that must compete with each other on a level playing field, APS earns a guaranteed rate of return off of its assets including these proposed rooftop solar installations. If approved, APS would be permitted to advertise its solar product in its customer bills and to use its customer lists to market and sell, all with employees paid for by ratepayers. Unlike traditional, free market rooftop solar which is paid for only by the customer that installs the system, APS will be asking all its ratepayers to pay the cost of, and guarantee its profits on, each of the systems it installs under this program.

This is a massive expansion of the monopoly into an area that is well served by the free market” continued Garrison, “what’s next; will APS ask to sell electric cars or ovens or some other set of goods or services?”

This is hilarious.  The rooftop installers in AZ lost some of the subsidy from power companies (e.g. APS) over the past years but still get a myriad of subsidies for themselves and their customers.  We will use one of the larger installers, SolarCity, as an example.  This is from the SolarCity web site:

Federal, state and local governments offer incredible solar tax credits and rebates to encourage homeowners to switch to renewable energy to lower their energy usage and switch to solar power. The amount of the rebate subsidy varies by program, but some are generous enough to cover up to 30% of your solar power system cost.

The federal government allows you to deduct 30% of your solar power system costs off your federal taxes through an investment tax credit (ITC). If you do not expect to owe taxes this year, you can roll over your credit to the following year.

.... Some locations have additional incentives to make solar even more affordable.  SolarCity will get the most for your project

SolarCity is committed to helping you benefit from every federal, state and utility rebate and tax credit available for your energy upgrade projects.

Navigating through government rebate programs on your own can be intimidating. SolarCity will identify all of the qualifying tax credit and rebate programs for your system and file the required paperwork for you. We will even credit you for the state rebate upfront so that you do not have to wait for the government to send you a check later.

This language is a bit odd, since in most cases SolarCity captures these credits for themselves and then passes on the savings (presumably, but maybe not) to customers via lower power costs, exactly the same model APS is proposing.

Customers, however, must sign a contract agreeing to cede "any and all tax credits, incentives, renewable energy credits, green tags, carbon offset credits, utility rebates or any other non-power attributes of the system" to SolarCity. The tax credits are passed on to its investors, which include the venture-capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson, DBL Investors and Al Gore's Generation Investment Management LLP.

The description by solar installers that they somehow represent the "free market" is simply hilarious, given the dependence of their industry on taxpayer subsidies (either of the installers or the customers).  SolarCity admits that their business would actually never be able to operate in a free market:

SolarCity officials, including Musk’s cousins and fellow Obama donors Lyndon and Peter Rive, acknowledged the company’s dependence on government support in its 2012 IPO filing. “Our business currently depends on the availability of rebates, tax credits and other financial incentives,” they wrote. “The expiration, elimination or reduction of these rebates, credits and incentives would adversely impact our business.”

A more recent SolarCity filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission notes: “[The company’s] ability to provide solar energy systems to customers on an economically viable basis depends on our ability to finance these systems with fund investors who require particular tax and other benefits.”

Rooftop installers also have their business buoyed by government mandates that power companies pay residential solar producers 2-3x the going wholesale market rate for any electricity they put into the grid

SolarCity also benefits from "net metering" policies that 43 states, including California, have adopted. Utilities pay solar-panel customers the retail power rate for the solar power they generate but don't use and then export to the grid. Retail rates can be two to three times as high as the wholesale price of electricity because transmission and delivery costs, along with taxes and other surcharges that fund state renewable programs, are baked in.

So in California, solar ratepayers on average are credited about 16 cents per kilowatt hour on their electric bills for the excess energy they generate—even though utilities could buy that power at less than half the cost from other types of power generators.

This was the battle referred to obliquely in the press release above.  The electric utility APS wanted to stop overpaying for power from these rooftop solar installations.   Rooftop installers fought back.  In the end, a fixed charge was placed on homeowners to account for part of this over-payment, an odd solution in my mind that seems to have ticked off both sides.

So the supposedly "free market" rooftop companies are competing successfully with regulated utilities because they got Federal, state, and local subsidies; are exempted from things like paying property tax on leased equipment that every other business has to pay; and get a mandate from the state that utilities have to pay double the market price for their power.  Is it any wonder that a regulated utility, which is no stranger to cronyism and feeding at the subsidy trough, might want to get a piece of that action?

ASEIA, you are welcome to duke it out for first spot at the trough with APS, but don't corrupt the word "free market" by trying to apply the term to yourselves.

Perfect Example of Government Doublespeak

An Obama Administration executive order / regulation (hard to tell the difference any more)

Department of Labor
29 CFR Part 10
Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors; Proposed Rule

34568 Federal Register / Vol. 79, No. 116 / Tuesday, June 17, 2014 / Proposed Rules

This document proposes regulations to implement Executive Order13658, Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors, which was signed by President Barack Obama on February 12, 2014.

The Executive Order therefore seeks to increase efficiency and cost savings in the work performed by parties that contract with the Federal Government by raising the hourly minimum wage paid by those contractors to workers performing on covered Federal contracts to: $10.10 per hour, beginning January 1, 2015; and beginning January 1, 2016, and annually thereafter, an amount determined by the Secretary of Labor.

Liberal and leftish economists in the audience, please explain the line in bold.

The administration wants to apply this to concessionaires as well.  This will force us to raise a $20 camping rate by $4 a night.

When Regulation Makes Things Worse -- Banking Edition

One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written.   Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced.  But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basil II standards and US equivalents.  The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.

In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were "risk-free" in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency.  Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations.  This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.

Without the regulation, one might imagine  banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets.  But the capital standards created a new decision rule:  find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%.  They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture.  One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks.  Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets.  When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,

Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.  So, not surprisingly, banks then rushed into government bonds as the last "risk-free" investment that counted 100% towards their capital sufficiency.  But again the standard was flawed, since every government bond, whether from Crete or the US, were considered risk-free.  So banks rushed into bonds of some of the more marginal countries, again since these paid a higher return than the bigger country bonds.  And yet again we got a disaster, as Greek bonds imploded and the value of many other countries' bonds (Spain, Portugal, Italy) were questioned.

So now banking regulators may finally be coming to the conclusion that a) there is no such thing as a risk free asset and b) it is impossible to give a blanket risk grade to an entire class of assets.  Regulators are pushing to discount at least some government securities in capital calculations.

This will be a most interesting discussion, and I doubt that these rules will ever pass.  Why?  Because the governments involved have a conflict of interest here.  No government is going to quietly accept a designation that its bonds are risky while its neighbor's are healthy.  In addition, many governments (Spain is a good example) absolutely rely on their country's banks as the main buyer of their bonds.  Without Spanish bank buying, the Spanish government would be in a world of hurt placing its debt.  There is no way it can countenance rules that might in any way shift bank asset purchases away from its government bonds.

Why Private Companies May Stop Taking Incidental Government Contracts

Bruce McQuain has an article on how McDonald's is closing some contract-operated fast food outlets at military bases.  The article speculates that the closures on new government minimum wage regulations for government contracts.

Frankly, I doubt this explanation.  I know something of the world of government contracting, and contractors in these cases routinely just pass on wage increases to their customers in the form of higher prices.  After all, their contracts give them a monopoly of sorts in these bases.

I would like to offer an alternative explanation.

In March, a new regulation took effect that all contractors with anything larger than a $50,000 a year contract with the government must go through an expensive affirmative action planning process for ALL of their locations, not just for the people involved in that particular contract (41 CFR 60-2.1  and 41 CFR 60-4.1)

We don't do government contracting work.  We lease government facilities, but get paid 100% by customers -- since we don't take government money, we are not a contractor.  But there is one exception.  We have a $52,000 a year contract to clean bathrooms near the campgrounds we operate in California.  Basically, we bid this contract at cost because we want the bathrooms cleaned well -- if they are not, it hurts our nearby businesses.

In this contract, we have government-mandated wage requirements under the Service Contract Act.  When these mandated wages go up, we just raise the price to the government in proportion.  No big deal.

We were informed that having this contract, under the new March Obama regulations, now made us liable to go through an expensive and time consuming affirmative action planning process for every location -- of which we have over 120 -- not just for this one contract.  So this one contract was going to force us to create 120 annual written plans and presumably get them approved by someone in the government.  No way.  I might have done it if I only had to do a plan for the contract, but it is just too much work to do this everywhere merely because I have a $52,000 contract on which I make no profit.  So we told the Feds we were dropping the contract.

I think it is very unlikely that private businesses will be accepting government contracts as 5 or 10% of their business any more.   This new regulation just imposes too much cost on the other 95% of the business.  Many will drop the government contracts.

I wonder if this is what is really going on with McDonalds.  A regulatory requirement that applied just to the base operations, like a minimum wage, strikes me as manageable.  But having these three or four contracts drive an expensive requirement to create some sort of affirmative action plan for every location - essentially every one of their tens of thousands of stores, so tens of thousands of plans - that would drive them out of these contracts VERY fast.

California State-Mandated Employee Leaves of Absence

We just worked with an attorney to rewrite our California employee handbook.  For your enjoyment, here are all the state-mandated leaves of absence we are required to provide employees (most unpaid, but some paid) and for which we must write detailed rules in our employee manual.  We'd likely provide most of this stuff anyway if asked, but the administrative hassle of having this all be a point of law (backed with the threat of expensive litigation if we make even the smallest mistake) is expensive and irritating.

  • Family/medical leaves (including more restrictive California Family Medical Leave Act)
  • Pregnancy disability leave
  • Organ donor and bone marrow donor leave
  • Military leave of absence
  • Military spouse’s leave of absence
  • Civil air patrol leave
  • Drug/alcohol rehabilitation accommodation
  • Time off for adult literacy programs
  • Time off for required attendance at school of suspended pupil
  • Time off for attending activities at child’s school or licensed day care facility
  • Time off for duty as election official
  • Time off for jury and witness duties
  • Time off for victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking – obtaining relief for victim and children
  • Time off for victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking –additional time for victim’s participation
  • Time off for victim of certain felonies
  • Time off to attend court proceedings for certain crimes
  • Time off for volunteer firefighter, reserve peace officer or emergency rescue personnel duties
  • Time off for volunteer firefighter, reserve peace officer or emergency rescue personnel training
  • Time off for voting
  • Workers' compensation leave

PS-  this is not necessarily a comprehensive list and it is published at the risk of having a California lawyer see it and say "aha!  They have forgotten time off for the death of a beloved hamster.  Let's sue him."

Let's Not Paint the Toyota Move to Texas Too Much as A Drive For Free Markets

I totally understand why Toyota would want to leave California.   I often wonder why any manufacturing business would remain in California.  I actually have thought about whether there is a private equity opportunity to buy California manufacturers and make money by moving them to lower cost jurisdictions.

I am particularly sympathetic this year.  We have four or five campground opportunities where we could be making money this year by making investments in these facilities.  But these initiatives would all take my time, and my time has been 110% devoted to catching up on regulatory compliance issues, particularly in California.   Every state has stupid compliance requirements, but California stands out for two reasons

  1. It has a lot, lot more of these requirements
  2. The cost of non-compliance is way higher than in other states.  You don't just get an order to clean up your act in 60 days, you get slammed with tens of thousands of dollars of legal fees from predatory law firms that have been given a hunting license by the state legislature to seek out and reward themselves when they find non-compliance minutia (e.g. numbers on the paycheck in the wrong font size).

So  I totally understand why Toyota is coming to Texas.  But also note that the state of Texas handed Toyota tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money for the move, money for which smaller and less politically-connected companies don't qualify.  This corporate relocation incentive game is one of the worst uses of tax money, as it produces no new economic activity, but simply shifts it across arbitrary lines on the map.

California Food Sales Tax Rules Are Madness

We have invested a fair amount of time to try to get sales tax treatment on food items in our California stores correct.  But the rules are insane.   Beyond all the crazy rules (e.g. if a customer buys a refrigerated burrito it may be non-taxable, but if he puts it in the microwave in the store to heat it up it becomes taxable for sure) is the fact that sometimes customer intent matters (e.g. will they consume it at one of the picnic tables on site, or take it back to their home or camp site)

When searching for more resources on the topic, I found this flow chart on deciding if CA sales tax applies to food

click to enlarge

Here is more, from the same article

Under California law, foods eaten on the premise of an eatery is taxed while the same item taken to go is not: "Sales of food for human consumption are generally exempt from tax unless sold in a heated condition (except hot bakery items or hot beverages, such as coffee, sold for a separate price), served as meals, consumed at or on the seller's facilities, ordinarily sold for consumption on or near the seller's parking facility, or sold for consumption where there is an admission charge." Exactly which type of foods do and do not fall under the scope of this provision is the frustrating devil in the detail.

Eskenazi notes a few of the ridiculous results of drawing an artificial distinction between hot and cold foods. "A hot sandwich to go would be taxable," for example, "While a prepackaged, cold one would not -- but a cold sandwich becomes taxable if it has hot gravy poured onto it. Cold foods to go are generally not taxable -- but hot foods that have cooled are taxable (meaning a cold sandwich slathered in "hot" gravy that has cooled to room temperature is taxable)."

 

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

Today's Lesson In Unintended Consequences: Safety Mandates That May Reduce Safety

Via the WSJ (emphasis added)

Nomar may be the most extreme example of a problem plaguing 911 response centers nationwide: false emergency calls made from cellphones that no longer have a contract or prepaid minutes with a wireless carrier and so can avoid being tied to a user. Under federal rules these disabled phones, which can't make ordinary calls, must retain the ability to dial emergency numbers.

Abuse of these phones has become enough of a concern that many 911 officials and some in the telecom industry are urging the Federal Communications Commission to shut off or phase out the emergency feature in the interest of public safety.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, anonymous dialers have made tens of thousands of false 911 calls since 2007—with Nomar alone believed responsible for over 30,000. (Call-center operators can detect a disabled phone in part because no phone number shows up on their screen.)

During a 24-hour period on Thanksgiving Day 2012, dispatchers at the city's Department of Emergency Management reported 1,527 false 911 calls—more than one a minute. They believed all the calls came from just five phones, based in part on the cellphone towers from which the calls were connected...

At the root of the problem is a 1997 FCC requirement that all carriers include emergency-dialing capability on cellphones whether they have working service or not. Back then, 911 centers supported the feature as a potential lifeline.

"Cell service was still a new thing," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group of 911 centers in Washington. "We wanted people in dire straits to have reliable access to 911."

Expensive Legislation Whose Only Benefit is a Politician's Talking Point During Re-election

I absolutely despise legislation like this.  Some legislator wants to pat him or herself on the back during their re-election that they "did something" about human trafficking so they pass this law:

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez approved a law requiring employers to post a notice containing information about the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. The new law, H.B. 181, unanimously passed by both legislative chambers, becomes effective July 1, 2014.

Employers subject to the state Minimum Wage Act must post a sign containing the following notice in English and in Spanish and in any other written language where at least 10 percent of the workers or users of a covered facility speak that language:

NOTICE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING: OBTAINING FORCED LABOR OR SERVICES IS A CRIME UNDER NEW MEXICO AND FEDERAL LAW. IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS A VICTIM OF THIS CRIME, CONTACT THE FOLLOWING: IN NEW MEXICO, CALL OR TEXT 505-GET-FREE (505-438- 3733); OR CALL THE NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING RESOURCE CENTER HOTLINE TOLL-FREE AT 1-888-373-7888 FOR HELP. YOU MAY ALSO SEND THE TEXT “HELP” OR “INFO” TO BEFREE (“233733”). YOU MAY REMAIN ANONYMOUS, AND YOUR CALL OR TEXT IS CONFIDENTIAL

Oh yeah, that is going to make a big difference.  Have you seen a labor poster wall lately?  Probably not, because no employees ever look at these things unless they are by the microwave and they have nothing better to do while waiting for their popcorn.  But every time some legislator wants to "do something" about an employment related issue, another poster is added.

Here is the really hilarious part -- do they really think that a person who who is so lawless as to engage in forced labor is going to post this poster?  Seriously?    I have this picture in my head of a southern plantation owner in 1864 tacking the Emancipation Proclamation up in the slave quarters.

I will take a picture of all the posters required in California, because I was just working on it, but here is a list of what has to be posted.

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

Reverse Repo

 

Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Reverse Repo April 1 2014

Apparently, Los Angeles Has Banned Oil Production in the City

Most folks who talk about oil production know very little about it.  One reality of oil production, particularly for older fields like those around Los Angeles, is that oil wells have to be frequently reworked to maintain such production  (fracking, by the way, is one of those rework techniques and has been used for over 50 years).  By  banning well rework and re-injection of water (most fluid flowing from older wells is water), the city council has effectively banned oil production.

The linked article is a good reminder of a technique used by many environmental activists.  Despite portraying themselves as being driven by science, they actually often make progress by taking words and both obscuring their meaning and adding emotional baggage to them.  Such is the case with "fracking"

Because with its pun-friendly name, the term fracking has become an effective nonspecific rallying point for extreme activist groups aiming to scare the public about environmental harms that have yet to be demonstrated. Amid the cheering after the vote, some of the national activists behind the effort acknowledged the true goal behind measure. The term fracking, it seems, is actually intended to be a catch-all phrase to describe all aspects of oil and gas production, conventional and unconventional alike, according to Washington-based Food and Water Watch, one of the activist groups behind the measure. In an interview with online publication Streetsblog Los Angeles after the vote, FWW organizer Brenna Norton boldly stated as much when she acknowledged, “It’s easier to engage and organize people around ‘fracking’ than a complicated list of practices.”

Baptist and Bootlegger

I can't think of a better illustration of the "bootlegger and Baptist" coalition supporting prohibition than the case of California state senator Leland Yee.  By day, he was one of the most outspoken advocates of gun control.  By night, he was apparently trafficking in illegal weapons.

Smuggling only earns high rents if the underlying goods are illegal.  Who ever heard of cucumber smugglers, or dealers in the illegal cat 5 cable trade?  Every time Leland Yee took another action to make guns harder to own in California, he not only got pats on the back from gun control "baptists" on the Left, but he also made his criminal friends more money.

Occupational Licensing and Goldilocks

Don Boudreax has a good editorial up on occupational licensing

The first hint that the real goal of occupational licensing isn't to protect consumers' health and welfare is that far too many of the professions that are licensed pose practically zero risks to ordinary people. Among the professions that are licensed in various U.S. states are florists, hair braiders and casket sellers. What are the chances that consumers will be wounded by poorly arranged bouquets of flowers or that corpses will be made more dead by defective caskets?

The real goal of occupational licensing is to protect not consumers, but incumbent suppliers. Most occupational-licensing schemes require entrants into a trade to pass exams — exams designed and graded by representatives of incumbent suppliers....

But what about more “significant” professions, such as doctors and lawyers?

The case for licensing these professions is no stronger than is the case for licensing florists and hair braiders. The reasons are many. Here are just two.

First, precisely because medical care and legal counsel are especially important services, it's especially important that competition to supply these services be as intense as possible. If the price of flowers is unnecessarily high or the quality poor, that's unfortunate but hardly tragic. Not so for the prices and quality of the services of doctors and lawyers.

Too high a price for medical visits will cause too many people to resort to self-diagnosis and self-medication. Too high a price for legal services will cause too many people to write their own wills or negotiate their own divorce settlements. Getting matters wrong on these fronts can be quite serious.

Won't, though, the absence of licensing allow large numbers of unqualified doctors and lawyers to practice? No.

People are not generally stupid when spending their own money on themselves and their loved ones. Without government licensing, people will demand — and other people will supply — information on different physicians and attorneys. Websites and smartphone apps will be created that, for a small fee, collect and distribute unbiased information on doctors and lawyers. People in need of medical care or legal advice will be free to consult this information and to use it as they, rather than some distant bureaucrat, choose

One thing I think sometimes gets lost -- the critique of licensing often focuses on where licensing is too restrictive - e.g. hair braiding or taxis or simple medical procedures.

But it is just as likely to fail because it is insufficiently restrictive. People will always say to me that they certainly want their brain surgeon to be a licensed physician, implying that licensing is appropriate for certain extreme skills. But would you really choose a brain surgeon merely because he or she was licensed? I would do a ton of research in choosing a brain surgeon, research that would go well beyond their having managed to pass some tests 20 years ago.

The same applies for restaurants - my standards go way beyond whether they have a 3 basin cleanup sink and have sufficiently high temperatures in their dishwasher.

The criteria for licensing is never "just right". Either it is too restrictive and eliminates competition that would provide me value; or else it is insufficiently stringent such that I have to perform the same due diligence I would have in the absence of any licensing regime (though perhaps with less robust tools since licensing likely stunts development of such consumer tools). And even if it happened to be well-calibrated for me, it will not be well-calibrated for my neighbor who will have a different set of criteria and preferences.

Obama's Demand for Wage Rules for Salaried Workers Will Have Far More Impact Than Proposed Minimum Wage Changes

The $10.10 minimum wage discussion has gotten a lot of attention.   But in 2011 only 3.8 million workers made at or below the minimum wage, and of these, at least half earn substantially more in reality through tips.

Obama's announcement yesterday that he wanted to substantially change the way salaried workers will likely have far more negative impacts on employment than his minimum wage proposals.

President Barack Obama is expected to order a rule change this week that would require employers to pay overtime to a larger number of salaried workers, two people familiar with the matter said.

Currently, many businesses aren't required to pay overtime to certain salaried workers if they earn more than $455 a week, a level that was set in 2004 and comes to roughly $24,000 a year. The White House is expected to direct the Labor Department to raise that salary threshold, though it is unclear by how much.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, recently proposed the limit be increased to $984 a week, or roughly $50,000 a year.

"That would mean between five- and 10-million people could be affected, but they might choose a lower number," Mr. Eisenbrey said about the White House plans.

5-10 million is potentially 3x or more the people affected by a minimum wage change.  But in some sense, this still underestimates the impact.  Here is one example.  Last year the average starting salary of college graduates is about $45,000.  The median is likely lower.  This means that over half of all college graduates going into the work force will be taking hourly jobs that used to be salaried.   Teachers will be hourly.  Budget analysts will be hourly.  Etc.

So all these folks are saying - Yeah!  I get overtime!   Wrong.  They will be eligible for overtime.  But companies will quickly restructure their work processes to make sure no one works overtime.  And since their new hires are working just a straight 40 hours (with mandatory unpaid lunch break time in CA), they will likely pay less.   If I am paying $40,000 a year for someone who will work extra hours for me, I am not going to pay that amount to someone just punching a time clock.  And the whole psychological relationship is changed - a salaried person is someone on the management team.  A person punching a timeclock may not be treated the same way.

Further, when someone gets switched from salary to hourly, they lose a minimum pay guarantee.  When I get a $3,500 a month offer, I know that no matter how slow things are, until I am fired I get $3500 a month.  There is a floor on my earnings.  As an hourly worker, my hours can be adjusted up or down constantly.  There is no floor at all.

Oh, and by the way, remember Obamacare?  The PPACA penalizes companies who do not provide a health plan that meets certain (expensive) criteria.  But that penalty is not applied for workers who are "part-time" or work less than 30 hours a week.  Salaried workers are automatically full time.  But once you convert all those people to hourly and make sure they are working no more than 40 hours a week, is it really so large a step to getting them under 30 hours a week?

PS-  Well, for those who think schools assign too much homework, this could well be the end of homework.  The most dangerous possible thing with hourly workers is to give them the ability to assign themselves unlimited overtime.  Teachers could do this at home with grading papers.  If I were a school, I would ban teachers from doing any grading or schoolwork prep at home -- after all, it's hourly and probably overtime and they could work unlimited hours at home and how would you get it under control?  The only way to manage it would be to ban it entirely.

PPS- What about travel?  Would you ever let workers paid hourly travel?  You would have to pay all the travel time and maybe part of the hotel time and there would be huge potential for ending up with overtime bills so better to just ban travel all together.  I know this seems knee-jerk to ban something that might impose a lot of extra labor costs seems extreme, but just look at California.  In California, employees have the right to a half-hour lunch break without work.  They can work through lunch if they choose, but courts have imposed enough onerous reporting standards around this that most companies (like mine) have just banned working through lunch.  It is a firing offense in my company, and in many others in CA, to be caught working during lunch.  We are going to see the same thing working from home.  In fact, we already see this, as there are class actions right now against companies who provided employees with cell phones saying that giving them a cell phone put them "on call" and subject to overtime hours that had to paid at home.  Companies are now making it a firing offense to take one's company cell phone home.

Sorry this post is so disorganized, but this initiative caught be by surprise and I have not been thinking about it for very long.  I will try to work out a more rigorous article in the next few weeks.

The Regulation Singularity

Yesterday, I came home exhausted.  I have been working late nearly every night for weeks, at a time of year when most of my business is not even open yet (the business is seasonal).  I realized to my immense depression that I have been spending all my time on regulatory compliance.  I have not been pitching new clients or bidding on new prospects or making investments or improving our customer service processes -- though I have ideas for all of these.  I have been 100% dedicated through 14 hour days to just trying to keep up with and adapt to changing government rules.

Break rules, changing minimum wages, heat stress plans, mandatory sexual harassment training, OSHA reporting, EEO reporting, Census reporting, and most recently changing rules on salaried workers that Obama just waived his wand and imposed -- this is what has been consuming me.  I have been trying to roll out a new safety program to the field and can't do it because I keep having to train for one of these new requirements (one learns there is only a limited number of things one can simultaneously roll out to front-line staff).

At some point regulation will accrete so fast that it will be impossible to keep up.  I am going to call that the Regulation Singularity, and for businesses my size, we are fast approaching it.

Prominent libertarian think tanks often rank state business climate by their tax regimes.  I am all for low, sensibly-structured taxes.  But for most of my time, taxes are irrelevant.  We are shutting down businesses left and right in California and it has zero to do with taxes.

Speaking of Crazy Labor Laws

Business gets held liable for the unpaid wages of the previous tenant of the building they are using.

An employer that acquired the assets of a defunct bar and restaurant and continued to operate a restaurant on the same premises was liable for unpaid wages owed to the defunct restaurant’s former employees, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled. Blachana LLC v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. S060789 (Ore. Jan. 16, 2014).

Reversing the Oregon Court of Appeals, the Court found that the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) did not err in deciding the employer was a successor for state wage liability purposes because it conducted “essentially the same business as conducted by the predecessor,” even though it did not employ any of the predecessor’s employees.

I Am Guessing San Francisco Doesn't Provide Any Liability Protection For Employers In Exchange For This

San Francisco has put deep restrictions employers' ability to check the criminal records of people they hire.  Yesterday the Senate blocked the nomination of Debo Adegbile to run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.  Senators were concerned about his actions as defense attorney for a man convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.  Honestly, I have no problem with defense attorneys going to extremes to defend their clients.  I was more concerned with his historic support for ideas like this one in San Francisco:

Private sector employers in the City of San Francisco will have to comply with new “ban the box” legislation restricting questions about applicants’ criminal records on applications for employment and during job interviews.

The Fair Chance Ordinance, No. 17-14, prohibits employers with at least 20 employees from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history on an employment application, including “checking the box” to indicate criminal convictions or other criminal justice system involvement. It also prohibits covered employers from asking about criminal history during an initial interview. The law applies not only to regular employees, but also those performing contracted or contingent work, or working through a temporary agency. The Ordinance becomes operative on August 13, 2014.

After the initial interview, the Ordinance prohibits the employer from asking the applicant about the following:

  • arrests that did not result in conviction, unless charges remain pending;
  • completion of a diversion program;
  • sealed or juvenile offenses;
  • offense s that are more than seven years old from the date of sentencing; and
  • offenses that are not misdemeanors or felonies, such as infractions.

The employer must provide the applicant with a written notice before making any inquiry into the applicant’s criminal history and display a poster in the workplace developed by the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).

The Ordinance also restricts an employer’s ability to consider criminal history disclosed by an applicant. The information may be used in the selection process only if it has “a direct and specific negative bearing on that person’s ability to perform the duties or responsibilities necessarily related to the employment position.”

This is just stupid.  First, I cannot tell you how many government forms (e.g. corporate registrations) require me to report my criminal background -- this is outright hypocrisy, holding private employers to  a different standard than public agencies.  If they really are consistent, truly believing that criminal background checks are discriminatory because they have disparate impact, then they should be pushing to remove them for things like gun ownership.  Anyone really believe they will do this?

The bigger issue for businesses is that we don't make these checks because we are jerks, we make them for real financial reasons.  Specifically, we are worried about the health and safety of our employees and customers.  And for those that think that business owners are all evil and wouldn't care about such things, then we certainly care about getting sued for the actions of our employees.  As a business owner I have been made, particularly in California, responsible for any dumbass thing my employees do.  I will get sued if these employees do something wrong.  And worse, can you just see the trial -- plaintiff's attorney is going to be in front of the jury and say things like "this employee has a long criminal record and defendant did not even check, he did not even care about my client's safety."

Wherein My Schadenfreude Takes on My Ideological Purity

Despite the title, I should make it clear that I oppose the proposed legislation in Arizona to allow warrant-less searches of  abortion clinics.  The stated justification for the law is to ensure safety and healthy conditions at clinics, but the law is transparently about harassing a particular type of business.

However,  I must admit I get some schadenfreude from this.  Supporters of the bill say that they are only extending the current standards applied to many other businesses, such as restaurants and bars, to abortion clinics.

Regulators from OSHA to the health department have tremendous powers to barge into private businesses and conduct searches without a warrant, whatever the text of the Fourth Amendment might say.  They justify this with licensing regimes that require these businesses to have state licenses, and then require businesses accept these extra-Constitutional searches as a prerequisite for the license.

I have opposed these licensing regimes for years, in part because the consumer protection justification is often a sham -- what they really want is to be able to exercise control of private businesses.  In some cases, these laws are used to protect incumbents.  In some cases (e.g. here) they are used to try to shut down the entire (legal) industry.

Statists on the Left have generally poo-pooed these concerns.  Their typical response is that businesses are just whining, and that only those in violation of the law have something to fear.  Now, they suddenly are recognizing that an unannounced search per se is threatening.

Update:  I find abortion proponents on the Left to be among the worst examples of faux libertarians.  They claim their issue is about choice regarding one's body, but then tend to simultaneously support all kinds of government interventions in personal medical decision-making.  They are all for the sanctity of private property when there is an abortion clinic on the site;  not so much otherwise.

Is Occupational Licensing Meant to Block Competition from Ethnic Minorities?

Looking at this map of state licensing regimes (darker is more onerous, with AZ being the worst), it is hard to correlate with states being Republican or Democrat.  That doesn't surprise me, because I have always thought the urge to restrict competition and protect incumbents has always been a bipartisan enterprise.

click to enlarge

 

So I sat and thought for a minute about my home state of AZ.  Why is it the worst?  We have a pretty good libertarian history here, from Goldwater onwards.  We have at least one fairly libertarian Senator (Jeff Flake).  So what is the deal?

My hypothesis is that it is related to immigration.  The same majority Republican legislators who are generally open to free markets simultaneously have an incredible fear and loathing of immigration.  Perhaps our onerous business licensing regime is driven by nativists wanting to protect themselves from competition by new immigrants, immigrants who would struggle to compete onerous licensing requirements?

So what does this map look like vs. immigrant population density?  Via Wikipedia, here are the states on density of Hispanics

click to enlarge

 

Hmm, we might be getting somewhere, but its not a perfect fit.  So instead, let's hypothesize that business licensing is aimed at non-white, non-hispanic groups in general (similar to early justifications for the minimum wage as a way to keep black workers migrating from the south out of traditionally "white" jobs).  I cannot get it by state, but the map below by county looks pretty dang similar to the licensing map.  Areas in blue have above average percent of non-whites, red is below average.

Not a perfect fit certainly (one would expect Texas to be more onerous), but perhaps close enough to treat the hypothesis seriously.  I had always thought that I would be the last one to play the race card in a policy analysis, but business licensing tends to have an inherently base motive (protect one group from competition from another group) that is pretty easy to square with racial and ethnic fear.

 

Yet Another Absurd Obamacare-Related Requirement: Business Oaths

This is just sick, via Fox News and Bryan Preston

Consider what administration officials announcing the new exemption for medium-sized employers had to say about firms that might fire workers to get under the threshold and avoid hugely expensive new requirements of the law. Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. How will the feds know what employers were thinking when hiring and firing? Simple. Firms will be required to certify to the IRS – under penalty of perjury – that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs. You can duck the law, but only if you promise not to say so.

As I have written about before, our company closed some California operations in December and laid off all the employees.  As with most business closures, we had multiple reasons for the closure.  The biggest problems were the local regulatory issues in Ventura County that made it impossible to make even simple improvements to the facilities.  But certainly looking ahead at costs soon to be imposed due to looming California minimum wage increases and the employer mandate contributed to the decision.

So, did I fire the workers over Obamacare?  If Obamacare were, say, 10% of the cause, would I be lying if I said I did not fire workers over Obamacare?  Or does it need to be 51% of the cause?  Or 1%?    Or 90%.  Business decisions are seldom based on single variables.  I am just exhausted with having my life run by people whose only experience with the real world was sitting in policy seminars at college.

Update:  The actual effect of this will not likely be to change business behavior, but change how they talk about it.  Worried that there will be too many stories next election about job losses due to Obamacare, the Administration is obviously cooking up ways not to limit the job losses, but to limit discussion of them.

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

Gee, I Wonder Why US Business Investment Is Sluggish?

From Jon Gabriel:

Trader Joe’s wanted to build a new store in Portland, Oregon. Instead of heading to a tony neighborhood downtown or towards the suburbs, the popular West Coast grocer chose a struggling area of Northeast Portland.

The company selected two acres along Martin Luther King Blvd. that had been vacant for decades. It seemed like the perfect place to create jobs, improve customer options and beautify the neighborhood. City officials, the business community, and residents all seemed thrilled with the plan. Then some community organizers caught wind of it.

The fact that most members of the Portland African-American Leadership Forum didn’t live in the neighborhood was beside the point. “This is a people’s movement for African-Americans and other communities, for self-determination,” member Avel Gordly said in a press conference. Even the NAACP piled on, railing against the project as a “case study in gentrification.” (The area is about 25 percent African-American.)

After a few months of racially tinged accusations and angry demands, Trader Joe’s decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple,” a corporate statement said. “If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe's, we understand, and we won't open the store in question.”

Hours after Trader Joe’s pulled out, PAALF leaders arrived at a previously scheduled press conference trying to process what just happened. The group re-issued demands that the now-cancelled development include affordable housing, mandated jobs based on race, and a small-business slush fund. Instead, the only demand being met is two fallow acres and a lot of anger from the people who actually live nearby.

How Regulators Strangle Legal Businesses

Apparently the Feds are using banking regulation to strangle businesses, even legal ones, that they don't like by cutting off their access to the banking system (via Overlawyered).

Wall Street Journal reporter Robin Sidel, along with Andrew Johnson, reported on the success that the federal government is having in barring access to the banking system for a number of businesses. As we've discussed previously, "Operation Choke Point" and related arm-twisting efforts by the Feds are aimed at making life difficult for a variety of targeted businesses. Among those disfavored businesses are online lenders, payday lenders, check cashers, virtual currency dealers, gaming businesses, and marijuana-related businesses (although our beloved US Attorney General has been making noises that he simply will look the other way when it comes to enforcing federal drug laws against marijuana businesses that are operating legally under state law)....

In the article and a companion audio interview, Sidel states that the primary concern appears to be with the difficulty of complying with BSA and money laundering risk. While that's certainly true with many of the businesses, it's also true that some of the businesses have been targeted by the regulators for extra scrutiny because they're in a line of business, like payday lending, where the regulators simply don't like the business model on social policy grounds. If we see the Feds back off of weed but still keep the heat on payday lenders, then the argument that it's all about money laundering risk becomes a bit tenuous.

EPA Enhancing Its Power with Sue and Settle

Congress has ceded far, far too much legislative power to Administration agencies like the EPA.  The only check that exists for that power is process -- regulators have to go through fairly elaborate and lengthy steps, including several full stops to publish draft rules and collect public comment.  A lot of garbage gets through this process, but at least the worst can be halted by a public or Congressional outcry to draft rules.

But like most government officials, regulators resent having any kind of check on their power.  Just like police look for ways to conduct searches without warrants, and even the President looks for ways to rule without Congress, the EPA wants to regulate unfettered by public comment process.

The EPA has found a clever and totally scary way around this.  In short, they collude with a friendly environmental group which sues the EPA seeking certain rules that the EPA believes to be too controversial to survive the regulatory process.  The EPA settles with the friendly group, and a consent decree is issued imposing the new rules, entirely bypassing any rules-making or public comment process.  The EPA then pretends that they were "forced" into these new rules, and as a kicker, the taxpayer funds the whole thing by making large payoffs to the environmental group who initiated the suit part of the settlement.  Larry Bell describes the process:

“Sue and settle “ practices, sometimes referred to as “friendly lawsuits”, are cozy deals through which far-left radical environmental groups file lawsuits against federal agencies wherein  court-ordered “consent decrees” are issued based upon a prearranged settlement agreement they collaboratively craft together in advance behind closed doors. Then, rather than allowing the entire process to play out, the agency being sued settles the lawsuit by agreeing to move forward with the requested action both they and the litigants want.

And who pays for this litigation? All-too-often we taxpayers are put on the hook for legal fees of both colluding parties. According to a 2011 GAO report, this amounted to millions of dollars awarded to environmental organizations for EPA litigations between 1995 and 2010. Three “Big Green” groups received 41% of this payback, with Earthjustice accounting for 30 percent ($4,655,425).  Two other organizations with histories of lobbying for regulations EPA wants while also receiving agency funding are the American Lung Association (ALA) and the Sierra Club.

In addition, the Department of Justice forked over at least $43 million of our money defending EPA in court between 1998 and 2010. This didn’t include money spent by EPA for their legal costs in connection with those rip-offs because EPA doesn’t keep track of their attorney’s time on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has concluded that Sue and Settle rulemaking is responsible for many of EPA’s “most controversial, economically significant regulations that have plagued the business community for the past few years”. Included are regulations on power plants, refineries, mining operations, cement plants, chemical manufacturers, and a host of other industries. Such consent decree-based rulemaking enables EPA to argue to Congress: “The court made us do it.”