Posts tagged ‘fiat’

Coyote's first rule of government authority: Never support any government power you would not want your ideological enemy wielding

Way back in 2014 I wrote:

I often wonder if Democrats really believe they will hold the White House forever.  I suppose they must, because they seem utterly unconcerned, even gleeful in fact, about new authoritarian Presidential powers they would freak out over if a Republican exercised.

Coyote's first rule of government authority:  Never support any government power you would not want your ideological enemy wielding.

As Damon Root writes:

In December 2007 presidential candidate Barack Obama told The Boston Globe that if he won the 2008 election, he would enter the White House committed to rolling back the sort of overreaching executive power that had characterized the presidency of George W. Bush. "The President is not above the law," Obama insisted.

Once elected, however, President Obama began to sing a different sort of tune. "We're not just going to be waiting for legislation," Obama announced. "I've got a pen and I've got a phone...and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions."...

To make matters worse, many of Obama's fervent liberal supporters pretended to see nothing wrong with such obvious abuses of executive power. For example, consider the behavior of the prestigious editorial board of The New York Times. Back in 2006, when George W. Bush had the reins, the Times published an unsigned editorial lambasting Bush for his "grandiose vision of executive power" and his foul scheme to sidestep the Senate and unilaterally install his nominees in high office. "Seizing the opportunity presented by the Congressional holiday break," the Times complained, "Mr. Bush announced 17 recess appointments—a constitutional gimmick."

But guess what the Times had to say a few years later when President Obama had the reins and he utilized the exact same gimmick? "Mr. Obama was entirely justified in using his executive power to keep federal agencies operating," the Times declared in defense of Obama's three illegal appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. (Those three NLRB appointments, incidentally, were ruled unconstitutional by a 9-0 Supreme Court.)

I remember a conversation with my mother-in-law, who is a fairly accurate gauge of New England Left-liberal thought.  She was absolutely adamant that the Republican Congress, from the very beginning, had dug in and refused to work with Obama and that the resulting gridlock gave Obama the absolute right to work around Congress and govern by fiat.   I remember asking her, are you comfortable giving President Lindsey Graham that power too? (Trump was not even a glimmer in the eye of the body politic at that point so Graham was the best Republican bogeyman I could think up on short notice).  I don't remember an answer to this, which reinforced the sense I had at the time that Democrats honestly did not think they would lose the White House in their lifetimes -- I suppose they thought that 8 years of Obama would be followed by 8 years of Clinton.

Well, the freak out is officially here and I will happily embrace all Democrats who want to make common cause in limiting Presidential power.

 

Update:  Glenn Greenwald makes many of the same points

Sen. Barack Obama certainly saw it that way when he first ran for president in 2008. Limiting executive-power abuses and protecting civil liberties were central themes of his campaign. The former law professor repeatedly railed against the Bush-Cheney template of vesting the president with unchecked authorities in the name of fighting terrorism or achieving other policy objectives. “This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide,” he said in 2007. Listing an array of controversial Bush-Cheney policies, from warrantless domestic surveillance to due-process-free investigations and imprisonment, he vowed: “We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers.”

Yet, beginning in his first month in office and continuing through today, Obama not only continued many of the most extreme executive-power policies he once condemned, but in many cases strengthened and extended them. His administration detained terrorism suspects without due process, proposed new frameworks to keep them locked up without trial, targeted thousands of individuals (including a U.S. citizen) for execution by drone, invoked secrecy doctrines to shield torture and eavesdropping programs from judicial review, and covertly expanded the nation’s mass electronic surveillance.

Blinded by the belief that Obama was too benevolent and benign to abuse his office, and drowning in partisan loyalties at the expense of political principles, Democrats consecrated this framework with their acquiescence and, often, their explicit approval. This is the unrestrained set of powers Trump will inherit. The president-elect frightens them, so they are now alarmed. But if they want to know whom to blame, they should look in the mirror.

Advice and Consent

I will begin by saying that I am the last one in the world to bemoan Congressional "gridlock".  I have this argument all the time, but I just don't see that we Americans are facing some imminent shortage of laws and so lack of productive lawmaking by Congress doesn't pose any great problem for me.  And gridlock certainly is not an adequate reason for rule by Presidential fiat, as I have seen argued a number of times in the past couple of years.  There is no Constitutional clause allowing Executive action if Congress won't pass the President's preferred legislation.  The narrow party split in Congress is a reflection of a real split in American voters --  gridlock on particular issues in Congress will pass, as it always has, when the electorate coalesces into a majority on the issue.

All that being said, I have always thought that the Senate's advice and consent functions should be exempt from the filibuster.  Presidential appointments need to get an up or down vote in some reasonable amount of time.  It is fine if the Senate wants to say "no" to a particular judge or appointment, but there needs to be a vote.  I say this obviously in the context of the current Supreme Court vacancy.  I am almost certain not to like Obama's appointment, so I say this now before I get tempted to move off my principles here in the exigency of politics.  But not voting on a Supreme Court nominee for a full year is just stupid  (btw Republicans, for all your love of the Constitution, show me anywhere in the document where it says "lame duck" presidents have less power).   If Republicans want to run out the clock by voting down one candidate after another, then they can of course do that, and suffer the political consequences -- positive or negative -- of doing so.  And suffer the future precedent as well (if a one year wait is the precedent now, what about 2, or 4, next time?)   If Republicans wanted to pick Supreme Court nominees in 2016, they should have won the last Presidential election.

Politics is a multi-round game that goes on for decades and centuries.  This is one reason the filibuster still exists.  Both parties have come achingly close to eliminating it when they had slim majorities in the Senate, but both walked away in part because this was a move that worked for one round of the game (whatever vote was at hand) but has downsides in a multi-round game (where one's party will be in the Senate minority again and will want the filibuster back).  It just infuriates me that the current participants in this game seem bent on making decisions that seem indifferent to future rounds of the game.  GWB and Obama have both done this with expansions of executive power - the Left is cheering Obama on to govern by fiat but will they really be happy with these precedents in a, for example, Cruz administration?  Ditto now with the Republicans and trying to run a full year off the clock on a Supreme Court nomination.

Postscript:  By the way, the very fact a Supreme Court nomination is so politically radioactive is a sign of a basic governmental failure in and of itself.  The libertarian argument is that by giving the government so much power to intervene in so many ways that creates winners and losers by legislative diktat, we have raised the stakes of minutes points of law to previously unimaginable levels.  In a world where the government is not empowered to micro-manage our lives, a Supreme Court nomination would be as interesting as naming the postmaster general.

Bundy Ranch the Wrong Hill for Libertarians to be Dying On

Here is something I find deeply ironic:  On the exact same day that Conservatives were flocking to the desert to protest Cliven Bundy's eviction from BLM land, San Francisco progressives were gathering in the streets to protest tenant evictions by a Google executive.   To my eye, both protests were exactly the same, but my guess is that neither group would agree with the other's protest.  I think both protests are misguided.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I agree with John Hinderaker, right up to his big "But...."

First, it must be admitted that legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The Bureau of Land Management has been charging him grazing fees since the early 1990s, which he has refused to pay. Further, BLM has issued orders limiting the area on which Bundy’s cows can graze and the number that can graze, and Bundy has ignored those directives. As a result, BLM has sued Bundy twice in federal court, and won both cases. In the second, more recent action, Bundy’s defense is that the federal government doesn’t own the land in question and therefore has no authority to regulate grazing. That simply isn’t right; the land, like most of Nevada, is federally owned. Bundy is representing himself, of necessity: no lawyer could make that argument.

It is the rest of the post after this paragraph with which I disagree.  He goes on to explain why he is sympathetic to Bundy, which if I may summarize is basically because a) the Feds own too much land and b) they manage this land in a haphazard and politically corrupt manner and c) the Feds let him use this land 100 years ago but now have changed their mind about how they want to use the land.

Fine.  But Bundy is still wrong.  He is trying to exercise property rights over land that is not his.   The owner gave him free use for years and then changed its policy and raised his rent, and eventually tried to evict him.  Conservatives and libertarians don't accept the argument that long-time tenancy on private land gives one quasi-ownership rights (though states like California and cities like New York seem to be pushing law in this direction), so they should not accept it in this case.   You can't defend property rights by trashing property rights.   Had this been a case of the government using its fiat power to override a past written contractual obligation, I would have been sympathetic perhaps, but it is not.

I would love to see a concerted effort to push for government to divest itself of much of its western land.  Ten years ago I would have said I would love to see an effort to manage it better, but I feel like that is impossible in this corporate state of ours.  So the best solution is just to divest.  But I cannot see where the Bundy Ranch is a particularly good case.  Seriously, I would love to see more oil and gas exploration permitted on Federal land, but you won't see me out patting Exxon on the back if they suddenly start drilling on Federal land without permission or without paying the proper royalties. At least the protesters in San Francisco likely don't believe in property rights at all.  Conservatives, what is your excuse?

I suppose we can argue about whether the time for civil disobedience has come, but even if this is the case, we have to be able to find a better example than the Bundy Ranch to plant our flag.

Obamacare Mandates Delayed -- And That Other Shoe

Well, it certainly comes as happy news to this correspondent that the Administration announced this week it will delay health insurance mandates on businesses.  Our company has spent a ton of time since last November trying to minimize the expected cost of the mandates -- the initial cost estimates of which for our business came in at three times our annual net income.  Our preparation has been hampered by the fact that the IRS still has not finalized rules for how these mandates will be applied to a seasonal work force.  Like many retail service businesses, we have studied a number of models for converting most of our work force to part time, thus making the mandates irrelevant for us.

I know this last statement has earned me a fair share of crap in the comments section as a heartless capitalist swine, but the vitriol is just absurd.   Many of the folks criticizing me can't or don't want to imagine themselves running a business, so let's say you have an annual salary of $40,000.  Now, on top of all your other expenses, the government just mandated that you have to pay an extra $120,000 a year for something.  That is the situation my business is in.  Are you just going to sit there and allow your savings to become a smoking hole in the ground, or are you going to do something to avoid it?  Unlike the government, I cannot run a permanent deficit and I cannot create new revenues by fiat.  Congress allowed business owners a legal way to avoid the health insurance mandate, and I am going to grab that option rather than be bankrupted.  So are every other service business I know of, which is why I have predicted that full-time jobs are on the verge of disappearing in the retail service sector.

Anyway, it appears that the IRS and the Administration could not get their act together fast enough to make this happen.  Not a surprise, I suppose.  You and I have both been in committee meetings, and have seen groups devolve into arguments aver useless minutia.  This is not a monopoly of the government, it happens in the private sector as well.  But in the private sector, in good companies, a leader steps in and says "I have heard enough, it is going to be done X way, now go do it."  In government, the incentives work against leaders cutting through the Gordian knot in this way, so the muddle can carry on forever.

There are at least two more shoes that are going to drop, one bad, one good:

  1. On the bad side, while companies like mine complain about the cost of the PPACA, they are going to freak when they see the paperwork.  My sense is that we are going to be required to know in great detail what kind of health insurance policy every one of our employees have, even if it was not obtained through our company, and will have to report that regularly to the government.  In addition, there are gong to be new reporting requirements to new agencies for wages and hours.  It is going to be a big mess, and my uneducated guess is that someone in the last week or so looked at that mess and decided to hold off announcing it.

    But readers can expect a Coyote freak out whenever it is announced, because it is going to be bad.  Wal-mart will be fine, it has the money to build systems to do that stuff, but companies like mine with 500 employees but only 2 staff people are going to get slammed.  There is a reason government agencies, even government schools, have more staff than line personnel -- they live and breath and think in terms of complex reporting and paperwork.  They love it because for many it is their job security.  Swimming every day in that water, it is no surprise they impose it without thought on the private sector.  This makes it hard for companies like ours that try to have 99% of our employees actually serving customers rather than pushing paper.

  2. The individual mandate is toast for next year.  No way it happens.  If the Administration cannot get the corporate piece done on time, there is no way in hell it is going to get the exchanges up and running.  And even if they do, some prominent states with political influence with this President, like Illinois and California, likely will not get their exchanges done in time and will beg for a delay.

Health Care and Prices

Kevin Drum is lauding the transparency an Oregon health insurance exchange which was initiated some apparently welcome price competition into a market for now standardized products.  My response was this:

I applaud any effort by this Administration and others to improve the transparency of pricing in the medical field.  I would have more confidence, though, if all of you folks were not pushing for 100% pre-paid medical plans that will essentially eliminate price-shopping by individuals, and in so doing effectively eliminate the enormous utility of prices.  Prices will soon be meaningful for one thing -- insurance -- in the health care field and absolutely meaningless for everything else in the field.

By the way, at the same time you are improving competition on price, you are eliminating by fiat all competition on features (e.g. what is covered, what deductible I want, etc).  This "success" is like the government mandating one single cell phone design, and then crowing how much easier shopping is for consumers because there is now only one choice.  A simple world for consumers is not necessarily a better world.  I am sure Medieval peasants had a very simple shopping experience as well.

The Only Cost Reduction Ideas Socialized Medicine Has

I have said for quite a while that despite all the hand-waving about  efficiency and electronic records and other BS  (efficiency from owner of the Post Office?) the only two cost reduction tools that state-run health care have are 1) Price Controls and 2) Rationing.  This has become clear yet again in California.  Allocation of scarce resource by bureaucratic fiat has NEVER worked, not only leading to mis-allocations but generally reducing the size of the pie to be allocated in the process.  The only solution is returning health care to a world (that most every other product and service is in) where consumers have the incentive to shop and make price-value tradeoffs for themselves using prices set by the free operations of supply and demand.

Statists Defend Their Power By Taking Markets Hostage

Megan McArdle posted a hypothetical list of what would have to stop if the government shrunk 40%, which is grabbed gleefully by folks likeKevin Drum to support the continued fiat power of government officials to demand that the public sector be as large as they, not we, want it.

Here are two examples:

The market for guaranteed student loans plunges into chaos. Hope your kid wasn't going to college this year!

The mortgage market evaporates. Hope you didn't need to buy or sell a house!

Wow - this is a great example of how statists defend their power.  Here is the basic process:

Step 1:  Take over a traditionally private offering and move it into the public domain.  Mortgage lending is a good example.  Wipe out the private sector either by fiat, or by subsidizing the government offering.

Step 2: Once the traditionally private offering has been made a public good, use its loss as a threat against any decrease in government size or power.

Just because the government does not provide the offering does not mean it won't exist.  Private mortgages and private student loans without government guarantees existed for years and can again.

Yes, it would be a mess if done overnight, but this just demonstrates that the government has gone past government service to hostage-taking.  If you threaten us and our power, we will bring everything crashing down.  It is obscene, and all the more reason, when the near term budget problems are sorted out, we need to start moving all these activities back to the private sector.

By the way, this is a great demonstration of how, while the private sector can screw up, giving the public sector power to supposedly tame the private sector just creates a worse problem.  Sure, some private mortgage lenders screwed up and contributed to the bubble.  Some even committed fraud.  But none of them had the power to shut down the entire market, as in the implied threat here.

McArdle's list may be a good reason not to let the debt limit expire, but it is an even better reason to get these activities out of the Federal government so that a few politicians can no longer hold us hostage.

 

Perhaps My Only Defense of the Income Tax

The other day I was watching a show on extreme tax protesters, specifically those who believe the entire income tax system to be illegal and thus they actually owe no taxes.

While I am sympathetic to issues folks have with taxation, from a legal and Constitutional perspective the income tax actually comes from a better, almost more quaint time.  Why?  Because instead of dealing with the Constitutional problems with the income tax by having a series of judges stare at the Constitution with their eyes crossed until the problem disappears, they actually wrote and passed a freaking Constitutional amendment.  Granted that the amendment was passed under false pretexts (e.g. that the tax would never apply to more than the top 1% of earners or earners with less than $1 million in income).  But they sought an amendment.  The took the wording of the Constitution seriously.

In fact, the 18th Amendment (prohibition) and the 21st Amendment (its repeal) were the last times the Constitution has been amended to give or take away Federal powers (everything since has been related to voting and elections).  Ever since 1933, we have effectively added non-enumerated powers by essentially ignoring the Constitution, such amendment process being seen as too much of a hassle to stand in the way of critical regulations on seat belts or marijuana.

Everyone knows it took a Constitutional Amendment to get alcohol prohibition, but think about this in today's world.  Would we even bother?  No way!  Congress has taken on the power to regulate or prohibit just about anything it wants by stretching the commerce clause form its original meaning of preventing states from setting up barriers to interstate trade to an all-encompassing power of fiat to do anything Congress freaking wants.

My kids and I were watching 2081, the excellent short movie based on the Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergerson."  That story posits a government department of handicapping that solves the inequality issue once and for all by handicapping the most able down to some lowest common denominator.

Anyway, the intro to the movie said it was based on something like the 280th amendment to the Constitution.   But I don't think we are ever going to get that high.  Certainly those who want more government power don't need any more amendments, as the Constitution is no longer constraining in the least and an increasing number of the Bill of Rights are either bad jokes (9,10) or are being gutted as we speak (2,4).

I don't expect another Amendment in my lifetime.  The only way I think we will see one is if we get some sort of libertarian revolution, and the only Amendment we would need would be the one saying "Look, we were't freaking kidding in the 10th amendment, go read it again."  OK, maybe some clarity on the commerce clause would be good as well.

I am not a big fan of the income tax, or of Prohibition, but it was a better world when we knew we had to at least amend the Constitution to do these things because we took the enumerated powers seriously.

Chutzpah Award -- "Decoupling" Revenues from Actually Having to Deliver Services

I read this article three times to see if it made any sense, and it still does not, except as an incredibly ballsy attempt by a member in good standing of the corporate state to get more revenues out of its customers by government fiat.

A major shift in business is occurring at Arizona Public Service Co. and other regulated utilities in the state.

APS, Southwest Gas and other utilities are beginning to ask regulators to "decouple" their prices from the volume of their sales, which proponents said will encourage conservation.

If approved by the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission, decoupling would allow APS to collect a certain amount of revenue per customer regardless of how much energy was sold.

It would wipe out utilities' incentive to sell more power and be akin to a fast-food restaurant paying loyal customers to go on a diet.

Wow, what a fabulous business concept!   It's obviously a holdover from some horrible past wherein we pay for services based on, you know, actually getting those services.  End the tyranny of giving consumers something in return for their money!  In the modern corporate state, everyone knows a corporation earns revenue in proportion to how much influence it has with the government, and how much that government can be cajoled to let the company take by fiat from consumers.  Silly old me, actually charging people in my business for camping when they actually camp.  I should have been running to the government to get them to let me charge everyone in the country whether they camp or not.  By all means, let's let McDonald's decouple taking your money from actually giving you a Big Mac in return.

Seriously, beyond the fact that this concept is obscene, it makes zero sense even against its stated goal of conservation.   They are basically talking about shifting the consumer's marginal cost for electricity to zero.  How in the hell is that going to spur conservation?  Charge me the same amount each month for gas whether I drive or not, and that is going to cause me to drive less??

Apparently, in the weird mental world of utilities, conservation only results form utility subsidies of  efficient appliances.  So the big benefit here is utilities can somehow better afford their subsidies for more efficient appliances.  Left unexplained is why anyone would want to buy even a subsidized such device once their marginal cost for electricity goes to zero.  This is such a typical government-think, assigning much more value to government intervention and choice of winners in balancing supply and demand than they do to the operation of markets and prices.

Here is an idea -- just freaking stop subsidizing this stuff.  See, problem solved.   We now no longer need a new pricing model.  Either a conservation makes sense for the end user to invest in or it doesn't.  Here is an example they cite

An example of how APS promotes efficiency is found at the 250-student Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix, which replaced $23,000 in lights last year. APS contributed $20,000 to the project.

The school said it saves about $2,000 a month in energy costs with the new lights and recovered its costs for the project in two months.

The new lights use less energy and produce less heat, reducing the air-conditioning needed.

Why the hell is our utility using my money to subsidize this particular institution?  If the numbers are right, the investment, without a subsidy has a 12-month payback.   Very respectable.  So why does this even need to be subsidized in the first place? Why is my money needed to give the Arts Institute a 1.5 month payback instead of a 12-month payback?

This is a total ripoff.  I can't possibly believe they are even considering giving this to these guys.

Coyote's Pre-Response to Obama's Budget Speech

No, Mr. Obama, the fecklessness of politicians does not obligate me to send more of my money to the government.

Three times in my life I have lent money to people in serious financial straits.  In every case, they came back to me for more.  "X more dollars and I will be home free and can pay you back."  In a few cases I came up with a second infusion and in one case I (embarrassingly) actually gave money a third time.   In no case was I ever paid back.    I haven't heard this phrase in years, but when I was young stock investors had a saying -- "your first loss is your best loss."  This was just another way of saying don't throw good money after bad.

Obama and Bush (I haven't forgotten your culpability in all this George) sold the country, or at least Congress, on emergency spending for wars and bailouts and stimulus.  This was supposedly one-time spending only for the duration of the emergency.  But now Democrats and Obama are treating the peak of this emergency spending as the new baseline, from which cuts are impossible.

This lack of desire to cut spending and a resetting of norms as to "what is normal" is not just a government problem, it is endemic to every organization.  Private organizations face this problem all the time.  The difference is that when times go bad, private organizations do not have fiat taxation power, so that when they are underwater, they must cut bloated budgets or die.  Either way, the problem goes away.  Private companies differ from government not in that they don't have problems with beauracracy and risk aversion and deadwood and bloat and bad incentives - because they do.  The difference is that private companies cannot get away with allowing this stuff to linger forever, and governments can.

Government will never, ever, ever, ever cut spending unless all hope of new taxes is removed, and even then they will likely try to cut spending on the most, rather than the least, popular programs to build public support for more taxes.

In the early 90's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we talked about a peace dividend from reductions in military spending.  I want a sanity dividend.

Postscript: We like to think that financial problems are due to bad luck, but they usually are due to poor management.  The guy I lost the most money with was producing a really interesting boat concept, basically as fun and lithe and fast as a jetski but enclosed so boaters who were less daring would not actually be in contact with the water.  I wanted a bunch for rental service at our marinas.  But he kept asking for money, saying that he had bad luck with this supplier or that supplier.  Eventually, I found out he was in this incredibly expensive commercial lease, and was burning all the money I lent him on useless rent payments.  Stupid.

After I graduated from college, I cashed in about $7000 in savings bonds I had accumulated.  I was going to make a fortune in the market.  After three years I had lost almost all of it -- right in the heart of one of the greatest bull markets in history!  A few years later, I was in a situation where I could have really used this money.  This was not bad luck or circumstances, I did stupid things.  I recognized something that many dentists and doctors never learn - it was possible to be a smart guy who sucked at investing.  I was one of them.  My investing has been in index funds ever since.

Health Care Fail

For the last three weeks, I have been writing about the informationincentive, and rent-seeking issues that will doom Obamacare -- for example, how its impossible for a centralized board to set prices, and why a complete end to individual shopping will doom us to both rising prices and increasing frivolous demand.

I really didn't have to bother, though, because it is unnecessary to hypothesize -- we can just look at Massachusetts, which embarked on a proto-Obamacare several years ago.  John Calfee has a great column in the WSJ today.  Some excerpts

  • On costs

Massachusetts reformers deferred cost control to the vague prospect of a "Round 2" of reform—much as congressional Democrats did a year ago when they passed ObamaCare. Meanwhile, economists John Cogan, Glenn Hubbard and Daniel Kessler reported in the Forum for Health Economics & Policy (2010) that insurance premiums for individuals (alone or in employer-sponsored group plans) increased 6% to 7% beyond what they would have without the reform. For small employers, the increases are about 14% beyond those in the rest of the nation. Four years after reform, Massachusetts still has the highest insurance premiums in the nation, and the gap is getting wider.

In 2010, insurance firms announced premium increases of 10% to 30% in the individual and small-group market. Gov. Patrick, on the verge of a tough re-election race, had the state insurance commissioner deny the higher rates.

  • On frivolous demand

But the number of emergency room visits, which everyone expected to drop once people had to purchase insurance, is still going up. Surveys show roughly half the visits are unnecessary. Surveys also indicate that finding a primary care physician is becoming more difficult.

  • On the end game of a centralized price-control regime

Last month Round 2 arrived. Gov. Patrick introduced a bill that will impose de facto price controls on everyone from solo primary care doctors to prestigious academic hospital systems. An 18-member board will decide how and how much providers should be paid, and the bill gives regulators the power to force private insurers to accept these fiats. Some 30 states experimented with such rate-setting in the 1970s and '80s. Except for Maryland, all of them—including Massachusetts—deregulated in the 1990s because costs rose even as quality and choice declined

  • On politicization of decision-making

Insurance firms protested that they increased premiums because they had to deal with entrenched providers, especially hospitals, most notably the academic giants of Boston and Cambridge. Then the state prepared to introduce highly intrusive price controls over those providers—only to discover that this would provoke formidable political opposition while encountering myriad practical difficulties

To the last point, what happens to prices when providers know that a) consumers aren't shopping any more; b) consumers will take the service at any price, because they aren't paying; and c) insurance companies have to pay the bill, not matter how high, based on government rules.  Of course prices go up, because the entire price-discovery mechanism has been eliminated by government fiat.  Then the government has to step in with a doomed-to-failure price-setting plan.  In the end, those with political connections get the prices they want, and those who do not get throttled to make up the difference.

The Payoff

Hollywood delivered for Obama in the last election, and he is ready to pay them back.  The world's most open and honest administration is again using closed hearings and executive fiat to force legal changes that likely would create a firestorm of controversy in a normal legislative process.

It's hard to know, then, which is more appalling: the fact that the Obama Administration has conducted the ACTA negotiations in secret, or that it has indicated that it plans to adopt the final Agreement as an "Executive Order," one that does not require submission to or ratification by the Senate (or any Congressional action whatsoever) to become effective. ...

But even this summary makes it clear that, once again (see Clinton Administration) the Democratic Party has caved in to Hollywood's demands regarding intellectual property enforcement. As David Fewer of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic and the University of Ottawa noted, "if Hollywood could order intellectual property laws for Christmas what would they look like? This is pretty close."

Paying Back TARP

Apparently a number of the lenders to Chrysler were recipients of TARP money, and thus were especially susceptible to Obama Administration blackmail to take less money for their Chrysler debt than they would normally get in bankruptcy court.   In effect, Obama is asking for partial payment for the TARP money in the form of concessions to Chrysler's other parties in the bankruptcy, mainly their unions.

But the TARP money is MY money.  And I don't want to get paid back this way.  If these lenders have the ability now to pay out billions of dollars (in the form of forgiven loans) then I would rather see them returning this money to the Treasury rather than sticking it in the pocket of the UAW or propping up a zombie auto company that hasn't made a car I would even consider buying in over 10 years.

TARP is going to turn out to be the greatest tool ever invented for increasing the power of government in the economy and accelerating the development of the American corporate state.  And Obama can laugh all the way to the bank(s) knowing that it was a Republican administration that handed him this power.

Postscript: I thought this was funny, via Instapundit:

And though I'm not a gearhead, I'm a little surprised to hear the administration saying that Chrysler is going to be saved by"“Fiat's world-class engineering.

All the more so given that Daimler couldn't help.

Is Obama Exchewing Executive Power, Or Just Redirecting It?

Radley Balko is justifiably happy that Obama is chucking the the theory that the President can detain people indefinitely at his whim:

President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the "war on terror," as President George W. Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the U.S. government in battling its enemies will not be limitless.While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing U.S. laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office.

Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration's lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

It's worth emphasizing again here these steps Obama's taking effectively limit his own power. That's extraordinary.

But here is my cynical side coming out:  It is easy to limit your own power in areas in which you have no desire to exercise it.  Obama is doing great work here that needs to be done, but he is also not really giving up anything he cares to have.  I could just as easily have written a story that said that Bush took brave steps to limit the power of the executive branch over CO2 emissions.

When Bush wanted to listen to phone conversations or to hold people incommunicado for years, he could have gone to Congress to seek such authority, or used the authority he already had but which was (rightly) limited by oversight from the judiciary.  But terrorism was "too important" to bother with that stuff, so he did it by executive fiat.

So the real test, in my mind, is to see Obama's attitude towards executive power in an area where he really wants to get something done, and might not have the patience to wait for Congress.   Obama is a different kind of guy, right?  He would never expand executive power and short-circuit Congress just because he was in the hurry for something, would he?

President Barack Obama signed an executive order to force the auto industry to produce more fuel-efficient cars, an act he says will begin a new era of global leadership for the U.S.

I thought this was particularly clever rhetoric for continuing to gut the 10th Ammendment.

"The days of Washington dragging its heals are over," he declared, saying it should be easier for states to adopt tough fuel-efficiency rules. "My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or pass the burden onto the states."

We are not grabbing power here in Washington, we are just relieving them of the burden of governing themselves.

Update: By the way, I do believe the current version of the CAFE legislation gives the NHTSA and the EPA the ability to change the standard, so technically the administration has this power.  However, typically changes to regulations must go through a public disclosure, comment, and review process, with a number of key requirements like economic impact studies.  The reasons for these requirements is to try to offset (imprefectly) the enormous power Congress is delegating to the Administration in these regulations.

Per Wikipedia (yeah, take it with a grain of salt) the CAFE legislation says:

Congress specifies that CAFE standards must be set at the "maximum feasible level" given consideration for

  1. technological feasibility;
  2. economic practicality;
  3. effect of other standards on fuel economy; and
  4. need of the nation to conserve energy.

Obama, impatient with following the process (where have we seen that before?) cuts through it with an executive order.   No one has gone through this process of making these tradeoffs -- Obama and a few advisors picked a number and ordered it into being.  By doing so, he is in effect violating the spirit if not the actual text of the legislation in which the power to set CAFE standards was delegated to the agencies under him.

How Mussolini-Style Fascism Almost Came to the US

First, it was the National Recovery Act, where FDR explicitly tried to creat an economic system modelled on Mussolini-style fascism.  This was killed by the Supreme Court.  But the will of government to create an economic system where private companies win and lose based on how well connected they are to politicians never goes away.  The lastest attempt to set up such a managed system was via the Lieberman-Warner climate bill:

But perhaps even more pernicious is the way that "carbon credits" are distributed.

The credits are best described as a pulled-out-of-thin-air government-created fiat currency,
that is accepted only by the government in exchange for the
government's permission to let you emit CO2. (If ever a system was perfectly set up to be abused and politicized by politicians, this is it.)

Government bureaucrats will decide
sector by sector and industry by industry which companies get the
credits. Implicitly, that same decision by government regulators also
determines which companies will need to buy credits from the politically-connected companies who could get their carbon credits for free.

On Presidential Power

While I find the torture recommendations in John Yoo's memos awful, they worry me less than the general assumptions embodied in them about presidential power.  After all, the issue of allowable tortures is a narrow issue that can be dealt with efficiently through Congressional legislation, and is almost certainly something to be disavowed by the next administration.

Based on historical precedent, what is less likely to be disavowed by the next administration are the broader definitions of presidential power adopted by GWB.  It is in this enhanced theory of presidential power where the real risk to the nation exists, and, unfortunately, there are all too few examples since George Washington's declining to run for office a third time of president's eschewing power.  Already, folks on the left are crafting theories around using the imperial presidency to address their favored issues, such as the University of Colorado's proposal for implementing greenhouse gas controls by executive fiat.

What Does "Negotiate" Mean in this Context?

Via Hit and Run:

As part of their 100 hours, the House plans to pass legislation that
would enable the federal government to negotiate Medicare Part D drug
prices.

My experience is that when the government "negotiates" prices via their standard procurement processes, they end up paying higher prices than a private firm might (see "$6000 hammer").  I am not a very experienced political observer who understands all the insider-speak, so maybe someone out there can tell me.  In this context, does "negotiate" actually mean "use the government's fiat power to demand that prices be set at whatever hell level they want?"

If it is the latter, then does anyone really believe that with populist political pressures, prices are going to be set anywhere near high enough to continue to justify intense drug R&D?  Already most of the world pays just above marginal cost for drugs, such that we in America pay for most all the drug R&D that occurs  (a form of charity we never get credit for).  If the US government "negotiates" US drug prices down to marginal cost, who will be funding the new life extension therapies I will be needing in about 20 years?

Update: One clarification based on the comments.  There is nothing wrong per se with American drug companies selling pharmaceuticals outside the US near marginal cost.  Profit is where you find it.  However, the issue is that US politicians tend to use these international drug prices as a benchmark, as in "US customers should get the same low price foreigners are getting."  The result is all the drug re-importation battles we have from time to time.  (By the way, its funny that politicians who support drug re-importation to reduce the US drug price differential vs. other countries never seem to apply the same solution to the entirely parallel situation of other countries having much lower labor costs than ours -- in fact in these cases they actively resist labor re-importation, which we also call immigration or outsourcing.)

A second point I want to make is that we cannot say for certain whether US customers are getting a good value or a bad value at current drug prices, though both supporters and opponents of the current health care system try to draw conclusions about the "fairness" of drug prices.  This is an odd situation to be in.  In other situations when people challenge the "fairness" of pricing, say gasoline prices, we libertarians can always retort "Well, buyers and suppliers both agreed to the transaction at X price, so X price was fair for both."   

But we can't do this with drug prices.  The reason we can't determine whether individuals are getting a good value is that, as I wrote at length in this post, our health care system is not structured in a way where individuals make cost-benefit tradeoffs for themselves.  Our employer's insurance company, via their coverage policies, or the US Government, via its rule-making and tort law, make these trade-offs for us.  Some drugs you might never pay for yourself, but you take because your insurance company pays for them.  Some drugs (e.g. Vioxx) you might dearly love to take, but the American litigation mess effectively precludes your access to it.  My suspicion is that, given the value I put on my life, prices for many US drugs are still a bargain for me, but who knows what trade-offs other people would make in a free society?  At the end of the day, we don't know what the real market price for pharmaceuticals is.  All we can say with confidence is that whatever price the government "negotiates," it will most likely be wrong.

Home Improvement in London

I write in this blog often on my frustrations with regulation, but last night I learned, if I did not know it already, that things could be much worse.  I had dinner with some friends in London who are in the middle of a home improvement and renovation project on their 1830's era townhouse.  Now, I just completed a renovation of my own (1980's era) home in Phoenix, and, while home improvement is always frustrating, I at least had few problems with the city.  Phoenix will let you do about anything you want to your home as long as you respect your setbacks and don't install a nuclear reactor.

My London friends were not so lucky.  Their home is rated a class 2 historic structure, which means it gets a bit less scrutiny than class 1 palaces and stuff, but it still comes in for a lot of regulation.  Their plans had to be approved in detail, and I mean in gory detail, with the local history Nazis.  And this is for a building that really has little historic or aesthetic value (the owners would be the first to admit this) in a neighborhood that was nearly blighted thirty years ago. 

My hosts pointed out the dining room lighting, which was really dim (you could not see your food very well) band told me that the authorities would not let them add lighting fixtures to the room.  No doorways, moldings, or walls could be changed.  The funniest example of this was a doorway cut in a wall 20 years ago.  The government inspector came through the house and said "well, that door is not historic but I like it so you can't change it."  They thought the inspector was joking, but, after a lot of effort to get approval to change the door, found out she was not kidding. 

The staircase to the top floor (originally the servant's quarters) was steep and unsafe for their children, but the inspector insisted it could not be changed because the "logic" of having the servant's quarters accessible by a difficult staircase needed to be maintained.  The homeowners rebuttal that they had no servants and were more concerned with safety than the history of class differences in Britain had no effect.  In several cases where the homeowners argued that the portions of their house they wanted to change was not original to the house (and therefore not covered by restrictions) it was made clear that the burden of proof was on them, the homeowners, and not on the government.

As one other funny sidebar, the basements and below grade areas of these homes apparently don't fall under this scrutiny or are exempted in some way.  As a result, everyone in his neighborhood seems to be tunneling out into their backyards to expand their house.  One homeowner bought three adjacent homes and tunneled out enough area for an indoor underground swimming pool.

Can you imagine if someday the US government decided that those 1970's homes were subject to such historic restrictions?  Suddenly, by government fiat, instead of being stuck forever with insufficient lighting and unsafe staircases, you might get stuck with orange shag carpet and gold-mirrored walls.  If you think this is ridiculous, read this.

Suffice it to say, I am tired of a relatively small group of people imposing their wishes on other people's property, a practice I call eminent domain without compensation.  If you want something specific done to a piece of property, then buy it and have at it.