Posts tagged ‘licensing’

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.

Why Equal Marriage Needs to Be Legalized, Even if You Don't Think Government Should Have A Role in Marriage

This is an update of a post I wrote here.

One question that keeps coming up, both from libertarians as well as others, is why should government define marriage at all?  Can't anyone get married in any kind of private ceremony?

My response is that yes, in some sort of libertarian small-government world, the state would be irrelevant -- what I used to call separation of marriage and state.

But it turns out that the state is already deeply involved in marriage.  The explicit state licensing of marriage already exists, and our laws in Arizona for this licensing are unequal -- some couples get access to this state license, and some cannot.

What makes this important is that marriage is embedded in hundreds, even thousands, of laws.   I searched the Arizona Revised Statutes for mentions of the words "spouse" or "spouses".  These words are used 1133 times in 373 different statutes!  The Our America team told me they counted over a thousand references in Federal code.  In other words, our law codes give -- in thousands of instances -- specific rights, responsibilities, and privileges to married couples who have access to a state-granted marriage license.  Those left out of the current unequal definition of marriage face any number of challenges imposed on them by these specifics of spousal rights and privileges embedded in our law code.  I call this the non-marriage penalty.

There is no way to rip all these references to marriage out of the law and tax code.  Likewise, there is no way to create an equable marriage alternative such as a civil union -- to do so, we would have to go through and rewrite 373 statutes to incorporate this terminology.   The fairest solution -- the one that most respects individual freedoms -- is to accept that such government licensing of marriage exists and then make it as open and as equal and as fair and as accessible as we possibly can.

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.

The Thought Experiment That First Made Me A Climate Skeptic

Please check out my Forbes post today.  Here is how it begins:

Last night, the accumulated years of being called an evil-Koch-funded-anti-science-tobacco-lawyer-Holocaust-Denier finally caught up with me.  I wrote something like 3000 words of indignation about climate alarmists corrupting the very definition of science by declaring their work “settled”, answering difficult scientific questions with the equivalent of voting, and telling everyone the way to be pro-science is to listen to self-designated authorities and shut up.  I looked at the draft this morning and while I agreed with everything written, I decided not to publish a whiny ode of victimization.  There are plenty of those floating around already.

And then, out of the blue, I received an email from a stranger.  Last year I had helped to sponsor a proposal to legalize gay marriage in Arizona.  I was doing some outreach to folks in the libertarian community who had no problem with gay marriage (after all, they are libertarians) but were concerned that marriage licensing should not be a government activity at all and were therefore lukewarm about our proposition.  I suppose I could have called them bigots, or homophobic, or in the pay of Big Hetero — but instead I gathered and presented data on the number of different laws, such as inheritance, where rights and privileges were tied to marriage.  I argued that the government was already deeply involved with marriage, and fairness therefore demanded that more people have access to these rights and privileges.  Just yesterday I had a reader send me an email that said, simply, “you changed my mind on gay marriage.”  It made my day.  If only climate discussion could work this way.

So I decided the right way to drive change in the climate debate is not to rant about it but instead to continue to model what I consider good behavior — fact-based discussion and a recognition that reasonable people can disagree without that disagreement implying one or the other has evil intentions or is mean-spirited.

This analysis was originally published about 8 years ago, and there is no longer an online version.  So for fun, I thought I would reproduce my original thought experiment on climate models that led me to the climate dark side.

I have been flattered over time that folks like Matt Ridley have picked up on bits and pieces of this analysis.  See it all here.

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.


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"

@kdrum Missing the Point. Doctors May Control the Cartel, but Government Gives it Power.

The other day, Kevin Drum wrote a post wondering why we had so few doctors per capital in the United States and observing, reasonably, that this might be one reason to explain why physician compensation rates were higher here than in other countries.

He and Matt Yglesisus argued that this smaller number of doctors and higher compensation rates were due to a physician-operated cartel.  This is a proposition I and most libertarians would agree with.  In fact I, and many others apparently, wrote to him saying yes there is a cartel, but ironically it owed its existence to government interventionism in the economy and health care.  In a true free market, such a cartel would only have value so long as it added value to consumers.

Drum seems to have missed the point.  In this post, he reacts to themany commenters who said that government power was at the heart of the cartel by saying no, it's not the government because doctors control the nuts and bolts decisions of the cartel.  Look!  Doctors are in all the key positions in the key organizations that control the cartel!

Well, no sh*t.  Of course they are.   Just as lawyers occupy all the key slots in the ABA.  But neither the ABA nor these doctors cartels would have nearly the power that they have if it were not for government laws that give them that power (e.g. giving the ABA and AMA monopoly power over licensing and school credentialing).  I had never heard of the RUC before, which apparently controls internship slots, but its ability to exercise this control seems pretty tied to the billions in government money of which it controls the distribution.

Let's get out of medicine for a second.  I am sure Best Buy wishes it had some mechanism to control new entrants into its business.  Theoretically (and it may have even done this) it could form the Association of Bricks and Mortar Electronics Retailers (ABMER).  It could even stake a position that it did not think consumers should shop at upstarts who are not ABMER members.  Take that Amazon!  Of course, without any particular value proposition to do so, consumers are likely to ignore the ABMER and go buy at anyway.

Such cartel schemes are tried all the time, and generally fail (the one exception I wonder about is the Visa/Mastercard consortium, but that is for another post).  Anyway, the only way the ABMER would really work is if some sort of government licensing law were passed that required anyone selling consumer electronics to be ABMER members.  And my guess is that the ABMER might not invite to join.  All of a sudden, Amazon is out of the electronics business.  Or maybe it just gets forced to deliver all its product through Best Buy stores, for a fee of course.

Crazy stupid, huh?  The government would never write licensing laws to protect a small group of incumbent retailers, right?  Well, tell that to Elon Musk.  Tesla has been trying for years to bring its cars to consumers in innovative ways, but have time and again run up against state auto dealership laws that effectively force all cars to be sold through the state dealer cartel.  Or you can talk to California wine growers, who have tried for years to sell directly to consumers in other states but get forced into selling through the state liquor wholesaler cartels.

All these cartels are controlled and manned by the industry, but they are enforced -- they are given their teeth -- by the government.

Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of cartel actions in the medical field admittedly initiated and supported and administered by doctors, that are enforced by state and federal law:

  • Certificate of need laws prevent hospitals from expanding or adding new equipment without government permission.  The boards in this process are usually stacked with the most powerful local hospitals, who use the law to prevent competition and keep prices high.  This is a great example where Drum could say that the decisions are essentially being made by hospitals.  Yes they are, but they only have the power to do so because the government that grants them this licensing power over competitive capacity.  Without this government backing, new hospitals would just laugh at them.
  • Government licensing laws let the AMA effectively write the criteria for licencing doctors, which are kept really stringent to keep the supply low.  Even if I wanted to only put in stitches all day to busted up kids, I would still have to go through 8 years of medical school and residency. Drum and Yglesias focus on the the number of medical schools and residencies.  I do not know if these are an issue or not.  But what clearly is an issue is the fact that one has to endure 8 expensive years or more just to be able to hand out birth control or stitch up a skinned knee.
  • Government licensing laws help doctors fight a constant rearguard action against nurse practitioners and other less expensively trained folks who could easily do half or more of what doctors do today.
  • The FDA and prescription drug law not only helps pharma companies keep profits up, but also increases business to doctors as people have to have a prescription for certain drugs they could easily buy on their own (e.g birth control pills, antibiotics).
  • The government limits immigration and thus labor mobility, reducing the ability of doctors from other countries to move here.

I am sure there are more.

There is no denying that in the middle of every industry cartel are insiders who are maneuvering to increase the rents of the incumbent players.  In fact, I am sure that every industry has participants who dream about getting off the competitive treadmill and creating a nice industry cartel, and would be the first to sign up.  But none of these dreams are ever going to happen unless they are enabled by the coercive power of government.

Of course, the consistent answer is, well, we just have the wrong guys running things.  If we had the right guys, it would work great.  But this kind of co-option always happens.   Look at taxis and liquor license holders and the entire banking sector.  Five years ago I would bet that progressives thought they finally had that right guy in the administration.  And look what has happened.  Banking cronyism is as strong as ever.  Obama's signature health legislation is full of crony giveaways.  In 6 months the health insurers are going to be running the entire PPACA infrastructure to their own benefit.

update:  This post is verging on the "is cronyism capitalism's fault" argument.  Rather than go into that again, it is here.

Update #2:  Related

Arkansas orthodontist Ben Burris was hauled in front of the state dental board in September after dentists in northeast Arkansas complained that he was offering dental cleanings to the general public in his Braces by Burris orthodontics clinics. The price for dental cleanings was $98 for an adult and $68 for a child, which Burris has said is about half of what dentists in northeast Arkansas typically charge.

Burris said most of the patients who need cleanings don’t have a dentist, but are checked by one of the three orthodontists in his clinic. Also, Burris said he offered the service because it was good for his business and good for the public. Some of his competitors “have gone absolutely ballistic” over the price and complained to the board, Burris said.

MP: Of course, the Arkansas dental cartel has no basis to complain directly about the low prices for dental cleaning at Braces by Burris clinics, so they are instead complaining that the clinic’s low-cost teeth cleaning services violate the states Dental Practice Act, which prohibits orthodontists and other specialists from practicing “outside their specialty.”

Don't Ever Have an Ear Emergency in Phoenix

A couple of weeks ago, I started losing hearing in one ear.  A bit later, it started to hurt.  Suspecting an infection, I called my ENT's office.  They said they couldn't see me for four weeks, and would not let me switch to see anyone else in their 10-person practice (against their practice rules, which raises the question of, from a customer point of view, why there is any benefit to a large practice at all -- the large pool of doctors provides the illusion of more customer service capability but in fact the sole logic of the practice is cost-sharing of overhead and support staff).  So eventually I just went to one of those walk-in urgent care clinics in a strip mall near me and had the GP there look at it.  I found that I did in fact have an infection and got an antibiotic scrip and some drops and was told if it did not get better in 7 days, go see a specialist.

So it has been a week and the pain is mostly gone but I still have lost most of my hearing in the ear.  So I tried to make an appointment at my ENT again -- 4 weeks.  I described my situation, and said something seemed wrong.  4 weeks.

So I talked to two friends who are both semi-retired ENT's.  They said to get my butt to a doctor ASAP because it could be nothing or it could be something really bad that needs immediate intervention.  But no ENT would see me for weeks.  So one of my friends said they would help me, but they needed audiology tests.  Turns out, those are being scheduled 3 weeks out.  I finally called in a favor with a friend of a friend and found someone to test me next Monday, just four days from now.  Four days seems a long wait for something that could be an emergency, but it beats the hell out of 4 weeks.

This is what we have done to the practice of medicine.  With a myriad of professional licensing requirements and regulatory burdens that raise the fixed cost of opening a practice, we have managed to simultaneously raise prices while limiting supply.

The Non-Marriage Penalty

First, I am interviewed today at Reason on our Equal Marriage Arizona initiative.

One question that keeps coming up, both from libertarians as well as others, is why should government define marriage at all?  Can't anyone get married in any kind of private ceremony?

My response is that yes, in some sort of libertarian small-government world, the state would be irrelevant -- what I used to call separation of marriage and state.

But it turns out that the state is already deeply involved in marriage.  The explicit state licensing of marriage already exists, and our laws in Arizona for this licensing are unequal -- some couples get access to this state license, and some cannot.

What makes this important is that marriage is embedded in hundreds, even thousands, of laws.   I searched the Arizona Revised Statutes for mentions of the words "spouse" or "spouses".  These words are used 1133 times in 373 different statutes!  The Our America team told me they counted over a thousand references in Federal code.  In other words, our law codes give -- in thousands of instances -- specific rights, responsibilities, and privileges to married couples who have access to a state-granted marriage license.  Those left out of the current unequal definition of marriage face any number of challenges imposed on them by these specifics of spousal rights and privileges embedded in our law code.  I call this the non-marriage penalty.

There is no way to rip all these references to marriage out of the law and tax code.  The fairest solution -- the one that most respects individual freedoms -- is to accept that such government licensing of marriage exists and then make it as open and as equal and as fair and as accessible as we possibly can.  That is what we are trying to achieve with Equal Marriage Arizona.

Software Patent Horror

Ever since Amazon managed to patent one-click ordering, I have been skeptical of software patents.  When I was in the Internet field, I saw companies patent some, uh, patently obvious stuff, roughly akin to patenting an on/off switch.  Or even worse, multiple companies would get patents for the equivalent of an on/off switch, with this company claiming it has the patent for on-off switches for lighting, and this one for appliances, and this one for all electrical devices, and then all three end up sitting in court for about 10 years arguing about who has the patent for turning on the bulb in your refrigerator.

Kevin Drum brings us an amazing horror story of a patent that apparently I owe licensing fees for -- and probably you do too.

Vicinanza soon got in touch with the attorney representing Project Paperless: Steven Hill, a partner at Hill, Kertscher & Wharton, an Atlanta law firm.

"[Hill] was very cordial and very nice," he told Ars. "He said, if you hook up a scanner and e-mail a PDF document—we have a patent that covers that as a process."

It didn’t seem credible that Hill was demanding money for just using basic office equipment exactly the way it was intended to be used. So Vicinanza clarified:

"So you're claiming anyone on a network with a scanner owes you a license?" asked Vicinanza. "He said, 'Yes, that's correct.' And at that point, I just lost it."

Drum has a good discussion, including some prior art with which he actually participated.

Cronyism and Corporate Welfare, in Hawaii

I don't know if its the distance from the Mainland or something about its history, but Hawaii often appears to be among the worst states for regulatory capture by local businesses.  This example was brought to me by a co-worker, who lives in AZ but wants to buy a condo in Hawaii.  They want the condo for their own use, but also hope to rent it out.  This kind of model is more appealing nowadays given the ease (and low cost) with which one can advertise rentals on various Internet sites.

But not so fast, not in Hawaii.  In legislation that reminds be of stuff from the 1990's when businesses tried to fight Internet-driven disintermediation, Hawaii is proposing to force non-Hawaiians to use a local broker to list their rental properties.  Apparently local residents can still list their properties on low-cost Internet sites, but folks on the mainland (also known as "the United States") must use a high-cost locally licensed broker, who typically charge 50% of rental fees as a commission.  These type of commission rates are farcical - they imply that fully half the value of a one-week condominium stay is due to the broker, not the condo itself, its location, etc.  The only way brokers can charge these fees is by maintaining a tight cartel enforced by government licensing laws.

Any reasonable person will look at this law and immediately know it is about crony protection of local real estate brokers.  Of course, that is not what the law says.  It is all about "consumer protection"

The legislature also finds that requiring nonresident owners to employ a licensed professional such as a real estate broker or salesperson or a condominium hotel operator is an important consumer protection measure. Consumers who use real estate companies, real estate brokers, real estate salespersons, or condominium hotel operators for their transient accommodation rental needs can do so with the knowledge that all money generated will flow through a client trust account, the appropriate federal tax form 990s will be generated, and accurate transient accommodations taxes and general excise taxes will be paid. Real estate companies, real estate brokers, real estate salespersons, and condominium hotel operators must comply with specific licensing and bonding requirements, thus offering additional protections for consumers.

So consumer protection is defined as making sure taxes get paid and the government forms get filled out.  Because God knows my entire vacation would be ruined if Federal tax form 990 was not filled out properly.

This is total BS, and Milton Friedman called it years ago when he wrote on licensing:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

This is also a great example of voters agreeing to add costs on everyone but themselves.  If the almost inevitable Constitutional concerns with this law forced in-state and out-of-state condo owners to be treated equally, local owners would immediately push back, hard, against the costs this law would impose.  Only  by structuring this law to apply to those annoying out-of-staters could it ever be passed.

I have been considering taking advantage of low prices in Hawaii to buy a condo, but I may rethink that plan given this pending legislation.

Demand at Price = $0

These two articles were back to back in my feed reader this morning.  First, Joe Biden argues that medical procedures should be free if you feel you need one

“Everyone knows, everyone in this room knows that President Obama has increased the benefits available to people on Medicare by the action he took,” Biden said. “You are now able to go get a wellness exam, and guys, if you conclude you need a colonoscopy because of the feeling you had or you need a breast health examination, you don’t have to pay a co-pay for that.”

And then I got this from China

As part of its 8 day Golden Week celebration, China's central planners decided to do a good thing for the people and remove all tolls from expressways. That was the populist explanation. The fundamental one was that this act would somehow spur the economy. Alas, while the same people may have saved some transit money in the process, what they did not save was on transit times. As South China Morning Post reports, millions were promptly stuck in traffic jams as a result of the politburo's generosity. From SCMP: "A bid by authorities tostimulate the economy by suspending road tolls for the "golden week" holiday brought huge tailbacks across the mainland yesterday as almost 86 million travelers took to the roads. That's 13.3 per cent more than on the first day of the National Day holiday last year." And then the fun began.

"One traveller blogged that he could only move 200 metres in an hour on the Zhengzhou to Shijiazhuang expressway in Henan province. Others said the queue of cars on the Guangzhou to Shenzhen expressway was 40 kilometres long. All roads leading out of Guangdong were jammed, with cars moving at about a kilometre an hour in front of some toll gates. Provincial traffic-management authorities estimated traffic on expressways would increase by 40 to 80 per cent compared with the same period last year, the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily reported. The People's Daily reported dozens of accidents on 24 highways across the mainland, further aggravating the congestion."

Since the government still keeps hammering down doctor supply, through enforcement of tough licensing procedures and through price caps (that keep getting cut) on doctor visits, we should soon be seeing the equivalent of this highway traffic jam in medicine.  Which is why every socialized medicine country in the world has queues and why their citizens keep flying to the US for treatment.

How Government Interventions Affect Health Care Supply and Demand

My son is in Freshman econ 101, and so I have been posting him some supply and demand curve examples.  Here is one for health care.  The question at hand:  Does government regulation including Obamacare increase access to health care?  Certainly it increases access to health care insurance, but does it increase access to actual doctors?   We will look at three major interventions.

The first and oldest is the imposition of strong, time-consuming, and costly professional licensing requirements for doctors.  At this point we are not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, just portraying its inevitable effects on the supply and demand for doctors.

I don't think this requires much discussion. For any given price for doctor services, the quantity of doctor hours available is certainly going to increase as the barriers to entry to the profession are raised.

The second intervention is actually a set of interventions, the range of interventions that have encouraged single-payer low-deductible health insurance and have provided subsidies for this insurance.  These interventions include historic tax preferences for employer-paid employee health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, the subsidies in Obamacare as well as the rules in Obamacare that discourage high-deductible policies and require that everyone buy insurance rather than pay as they go.  The result is a shift in the demand curve to the right, along with a shift to a more vertical demand curve (meaning people are more price-insensitive, since a third-party is paying).

The result is a substantial rise in prices, as we have seen over the last 30 years as health care prices have risen far faster than inflation

As the government pays more and more of the health care bills, this price rise leads to unsustainably high spending levels, so the government institutes price controls.  Medicare has price controls (the famous "doc fix" is related to these) and Obamacare promises many more.  This leads to huge doctor shortages, queues, waiting lists, etc.  Exactly what we see in other state-run health care systems,  The graph below posits a price cap that forces prices back to the free market rate.

So, is this better access to health care?

I know that Obamacare proponents claim that top-down government operation is going to reap all kinds of savings, thus shifting the supply curve to the right.  Since this has pretty much never happened in the whole history of government operations, I discount the claim.  When pressed for specifics, the ideas typically boil down to price or demand controls.  Price controls we discussed.  Demand controls are of the sort like "you can't get a transplant if you are over 70" or "we won't approve cancer treatments that only promise a year more life."

Most of these do not affect the chart above, since it is for doctor services and most of these cost control ideas are usually doctor intensive - more doctor time to have fewer tests, operations, drugs.  But even if we expanded the viewpoint to be for all health care, it is yet to be demonstrated that the American public will even accept these restrictions.  The very first one out of the box, a proposal to have fewer mamographies for women under a certain age, was abandoned in a firestorm of opposition from women's groups.  In all likelihood, there will be some mish-mash of demand restrictions, determined less by science and by who (users and providers) have the best lobbying organizations.

My longer series of three Forbes articles on this and other economic issues with Obamacare begin here:  Part 1 Information, Part 2 Incentives, Part 3 Rent-Seeking

Update:  Pondering on this, it may be that professional licensing also makes the supply curve steeper.  It depends on how doctors think about sunk cost.

Attention Lawyers, We need a Hand, Not a Brain: A Licensing Parable

Several sites have reposted this Craigslist ad, gasping in shock at it as evidence of massive foreclosure fraud

We are a collection agency/debt buyer. What we are looking for is a part time attorney to work for us as our corporate counsel, on our payroll, about 5 to 6 hours a week. This is a short term employment arrangement, no longer than 90 to 120 days.

Your job will be to sign pleadings, praecipe for entry of appearances, praecipe for writ of execution, and garnishment orders. Our paralegal will prepare all paperwork for your signature. This is very standard stuff for us.

If you are an attorney looking for challenging legal work, this is not for you. WE DO NOT NEED F LEE BAILEY- we are fee shopping. If you passed your boards with a D+, and you can sign your name, you possess all the credentials required for this job. If this opportunity interests you, please feel free to reply to this email with a brief description of who you are, when you got your law license, and what you will be needing from us in the way of compensation.

I would instead offer it as a lesson in the stupidity of state-enforced professional licensing arrangements.  Let me rewrite it:

We have all the legal knowlege we need.  We know exactly what the forms look like and mean.  We have written all the documents and tested them over time during our long presence in this business and we know them to meet our legal needs.   We have no need, in other words, for legal help.

However, attorneys have gotten together and created an attorneys guild, and, what's more, have convinced the government to pass laws that require membership in the guild to perform certain gate-keeping functions.  In our case, we need a member of the guild to sign some forms to make them legal, both because the guild has strong influence and because certain folks have convinced everyone that all mortgage pain in this country came from having a machine perform this signature function rather than a flesh and blood hand.  So we need a flesh and blood hand rather than a machine to sign foreclosure documents.  Unfortunately, that hand has to be attached to a brain that has passed the bar exam, and because the guild is pretty good at limiting its membership, we expect to have to pay an absurd amount of money for this trivial function that could be duplicated by a six-year-old (and used to be performed by a simple $100 machine).

Don't get us wrong -- if we were on trial for our lives or facing a nasty, complicated lawsuit or wanted to draft a custom contract to protect our interests, we would be very happy to consider the opinion of third party licensing groups as to the merit of a particular attorney.  Ironically, though, even then current licensing would be absurd, for in this case it would not greatly exceed our quality requirements (as it does for signing our foreclosure paperwork) but it would vastly undershoot our need due diligence needs.   Perhaps there is some legal function for which attending an ABA-accredited school and passing the bar exam is the perfect level of quality assurance, but we have not found it yet.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

The whole topic of licensing as anti-consumer efforts to restrict competition is a long-running one here.   Since I am sort-of-kind-of not-blogging right now, I won't excerpt or comment on it a lot, but this is a very interesting piecelooking at internal documents of the American Dietetic Association discussing their efforts to pass laws in various states that essentially ban anyone but their members from giving diet and nutrition advice.  It is one such law in North Carolina which required that Steve Cooksey take down all his blog posts about his dieting experiences (since he is not licensed by the state, it is illegal for him to speak on the topic).

The funniest part for me in the ADA materials is that they constantly seem to be put out that their efforts to  ban competition from anyone outside of their organization are described by critics as creating a monopoly.  Who, us? Monopoly?  We are just trying to help customers.  Missing in all this, of course, is any evidence of a grass roots effort by nutrition customers.  I will remind everyone of this great Milton Friedman quote:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

How About A Left-Right Coalition Against the Corporate State?

I am encouraged to see this from the Left.  Kevin Drum writes, in response to a proposal for California state licensing of dog groomers:

What's unfortunate, I guess, is that this would all be unobjectionable if it were a voluntary certification program. If you want to pay more to take Fido to a certified groomer, go right ahead. If you want to save money, then don't. But critics are almost certainly right that a voluntary license would become a required license in pretty short order. After all, Vargas's proposal may be for a voluntary license right now, but that's only because he's failed to get support for a required license in the past.

What's more, if the program were voluntary I'm not sure why you'd need the state involved in the first place. If there's really a demand for this kind of certification, it seems likely that a trade association of some kind would set something up. And if there isn't, then why bother?

Right on!  I wish Drum would carry this same thinking further into other economic spheres (why are consumers powerful enough to handle dog grooming choices suddenly infantile when it comes to health care decisions) but I am encouraged none-the-less.  There is room, I think, for a left-right coalition against corporate cronyism (of which licensing is among the worst forms, helping to protect incumbent businesses against upstart competitors).  Unfortunately, such cronyism is so deeply ingrained in both Romney and Obama that it is certainly not going to happen in this election.

Licensing Craziness

Seriously, it takes over $1000, 1460 hours of special education, and the passing of two tests to be a floor sanding contractor in Nevada.  This is an amazing roundup of state licensure requirements, via Reason.  Note the profession at the top of the list of requirements, which by implication is the most dangerous possible activity to customers if it is done poorly.

A reminder from Milton Friedman on professional licensing:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

When Julia Tried To Start A Small Business

I already had this column at Forbes in the works, but I could not resist switching the protagonist from myself to Obama's Julia.  Every tax, license, and story here are real ones I have experienced in my business.  Here is just a small sample:

So twelve registration numbers and 12 monthly/quarterly/yearly reports later, surely Julia has fulfilled all her obligations to the government.  Unfortunately, no, because she has not even begun to address licensing issues.  To begin, the County will require that she get an occupancy permit for her campground, which must be renewed annually.  This seemed surprisingly easy, until someone from the County noticed she had removed an old rotting wooden deck from the back of her store that had been a safety issue and an eyesore.   It turns out she was in violation of County law because she did not get a removal permit first.  She was required to get a permit retroactively, which eventually required payments to seven different County agencies and at one point required, for a reason she never understood, the collection and testing of a soil sample.

Because she will be selling packaged foods in her store (e.g. chips and pop-tarts), she also has to get a health department license and inspection.  She had originally intended to keep some fresh-brewed coffee for customers in the store, but it turned out that required a higher-level health license and eight hours training in food handling.  She might have been willing to pursue it, but the inspector told her that to make coffee, she would need to install a three-basin stainless steel wash-up sink plus a separate mop sink in her store, and she decided that coffee would have to wait.

Once through the general health licensing process, she then needed to obtain licenses for individual products.  She wanted to sell aspirin, so she had to get a state over-the counter drug sale license.  She knew that customers would want cigarettes, so she had to obtain a tobacco sales license.  One day as she was setting up, a state inspector noticed she had a carton of eggs in her cooler, and notified her she needed  a state license to sell eggs  (as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up).  And then there was the problem of beer.

Health Care Trojan Horse

I have written a lot about government-provided health care as a Trojan Horse for government micro-management of individual behaviors.  The logic is that once the government is paying for your health care, your decisions that once only affected yourself now affect public costs.  Here is a great example:

Touting new recommendations from an Institute of Medicine panel on obesity on Tuesday's NBC Nightly News, science correspondent Robert Bazell proclaimed to viewers: "...a sea change in how we perceive obesity. No longer a question of individual responsibility, but a need to change what's called an 'obesity-promoting environment.' Calling on corporations, government and individuals to act."...

Bazell further pushed the findings: "With the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses approaching $200 billion a year, many on the panel say the nation is ready to act."

I wonder how many feminists who were pretended to be libertarian rather than just pro-abortion by arguing "keep government policy out of my body" are all-in on this type of food consumption regulation?  I would bet a lot.

Update:  Here is an idea -- let's deal with the perceived issue of people eating poorly by ... licensing nutritionists to make their advice scarcer and more expensive.  And here too.

Feds Make Illegal What We Already Thought Was Illegal

Via Zero Hedge

today, in a unanimous vote, "The U.S. futures regulator approved on Monday a rule that puts tighter limits on how brokerage firms can use customer funds, a measure that the now-bankrupt MF Global had encouraged the agency to delay." In other words, while before commingling client accounts was assumed to be a clear violation of every logical fiduciary imperative, now it is set in stone. For real. The CFTC means it.

In the past, I believed that a lot of financial regulations were honest (though often misguided) attempts to create transparent and trustworthy markets.  I am increasingly being pushed to the cynical conclusion that financial regulations, like, say, licensing of funeral homes, are mainly aimed at making it impossible for small competitors to survive, while larger competitors either have the scale to pay for compliance departments, or in the case of MF Global, have the political muscle to get themselves exempted (by Administrations of both parties, I should be clear, though the current one certainly gets a hypocrisy award for standing beside OWS while handing out finance and health care law exceptions to the powerful).

MF Global is far worse in my mind than, say, Enron.  In Enron's case, the management was at least mostly pursuing the activities and investments that they were supposed to be pursuing.  They were making bets of the type shareholders expected, though they were likely masking the cost and risk of these bets by aggressive pushes at the margins of accounting rules.

MF Global was doing exactly what everyone supposedly knew to be an absolute no-no, ie using client funds to make leveraged bets for their own account.  If Joe Schmoe in Florida did the same thing, he would already be incarcerated.  In the case of MF Global, no one even seems to be interviewing Corzine and so far the bankruptcy committee has put a higher priority on repaying JP Morgan and Goldman for Corzine's bad bets than on getting investors' money back.

Amazing Regulatory Over-Reach

I want bother to except this, you really need to see the post in its entirety.  Popehat looks at 98 pages of Colorado state regulations on day care centers.  The breadth and depth of the regulations, down to exactly how many of what type blocks kids should have to play with, is just amazing.

This is job security for life for a bunch of bureaucrats.  If we require all this stuff, we need regular reporting don't we, on compliance.  And inspections. And a detailed licensing and application process.  And ten years from now, when all the day care centers are closed or cost too much, we will need extensive government programs to provide subsidized day care.

Regulatory Accumulation

There are certain regulatory agencies where it is clear from the outset that most of the agency's activity is merely aimed at protecting their own jobs and power.

The one such agency I run up against are Alcoholic Beverage Commissions in various states, from whom one must obtain a liquor license.  In the type of small store we run, there are really only two things the state should care about, and even the second is a bit weak

  • That we don't sell alcohol to underage kids
  • That we don't allow alcohol consumption on the premises

But the liquor licensing process can be interminable.  In Arizona, for example, I have had my applications kicked back to me, which resulted in 2-month delays in the process, because I wrote an address as 1313 48th Pl.  rather than 1313 48th Place.  They spend incredible man-hours looking for nit-picky mistakes like this, and then kick it back so that the whole review process must begin again.  Many states and counties have a second layer of review, to make sure that your new competition is "needed" - after all, we wouldn't want to upset the position of incumbent businesses who are entitled to their market share and who make nice campaign contributions.

Each application has to have a drawing of the store layout and where one plans to put the beer.  If you want to move the beer at a later date, you have to get the state's approval.  (Bizarrely, the drawing in most states has to be by hand -- they will kick back an application with a CAD drawing or architect's drawing).  And don't get me started on the fact I have to be finger-printed by the FBI (so they can be sure I am not Al Capone) before a store I own can sell beer.

All this being said -- and I didn't mean to run on so long but liquor licensing just drives me nuts -- it is nothing to this example from the pharmaceutical manufacturing business. I won't repeat it all, but take this example:

a drug manufacturer must get approval for how much of a drug it plans to produce, as well as the timeframe. If a shortage develops (because, say, the FDA shuts down a competitor’s plant), a drug manufacturer cannot increase its output of that drug without another round of approvals. Nor can it alter its timetable production (producing a shortage drug earlier than planned) without FDA approval.

They have to get their production schedules approved?  What possible justification can there be for this?  But even more outlandish is the apparent drive to regulate drugs that have been on the market for over 70 years and have to date been relatively unregulated because they were on the market before the FDA got its current powers.   Why should a bureaucrat lose her job when there are still unregulated items out there?  Besides, some uneducated American might use these examples of safe, unregulated drugs to question the who regulatory mission!

Several drug shortages (e.g., concentrated morphine sulfate solution, levothyroxine injection) have been precipitated by actual or anticipated action by the FDA as part of the Unapproved Drugs Initiative, which is designed to increase enforcement against drugs that lack FDA approval to be marketed in the United States. (These drugs are commonly called pre-1938 drugs, referring to their availability prior to passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of that year.) Some participants noted that the cost and complexity of completing a New Drug Application (NDA) for those unapproved drugs is a disincentive for entering or maintaining a market presence.

I have heard several medical people joke that it would be tough to get aspirin through the FDA today if it were a new drug and not grandfathered.  Don't know if that is true, but it feels believable.

Licensing Has Nothing to Do With Consumer Protection

Yeah, I know, this is volume one hundred and something in a series, but it is such a crystal clear example of government licensing working primarily to protect incumbent competitors in an industry I have to share it.

Suppose you’re the owner of a taxicab company in a largish metropolitan area. One day you notice some taxis tooling around town—and they’re not yours. They belong to an upstart competitor. His cars are newer, his drivers are nicer, and his fares are lower. Pretty soon your profits start shrinking. What are you going to do about it?

You have a couple of choices. Option A: Invest a lot of money in new vehicles, customer-service training for your drivers, GPS systems to map faster routes and so on. A lot of expense. A lot of effort.

So you go for Option B: Invest a little money in a few politicians, who adopt a medallion law: Only licensed operators with city-issued taxi medallions may operate cabs. The oldest cab companies get first dibs on the medallions, at the lowest rates. Only a few medallions are left over for the new guy, and he can’t afford them anyway. Bingo—your competition problem is solved. The customers might not like it, but what are they going to do—walk?

Apparently this is exactly what is happening in DC

Now it’s the District of Columbia’s turn. Four members of the D.C. City Council have introduced a bill that would create a medallion system for the nation’s capital. Medallion prices would start at $250 for the most established taxi companies and, for the newer entrants, run as high as $10,000. At least initially. As time wore on, it’s likely that the price of a medallion would go up for everyone. That’s what has happened in places such as New York, where a government permission slip to drive a cab costs about $600,000. In Boston, which initially capped medallions at 1,525 in the 1930s—and more than a half-century later had added only 250 more—a medallion will cost you $400,000.

At present the District has more than 10,000 licensed taxi drivers; the proposed legislation would establish only 4,000 medallions. Needless to say, such artificially imposed scarcity also drives up prices. A study by Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer, found that fares in cities with medallion systems are 25 percent higher than in cities with open taxi markets.

By the way, for extra points, here is a lawsuit right out of Atlas Shrugged

That story has played out in many cities across the United States, with sometimes amusing variations. A decade or so ago, Minneapolis (population 300,000-plus) allowed a grand total of 343 taxis to operate until Luis Paucar, an immigrant, filed suit. The city council decided to allow another 45 cabs. Then the existing cab companies sued, using the creative legal theory that they had a constitutional right not to face competition. (They lost.)

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

Via Carpe Diem, yet another group of market incumbents using licensing and regulation to limit competition and, in particular, ban business models different than those of the incumbents.

From the Institute for Justice: "Until 2010, sedan and independent limo services were an affordable alternative to taxicabs in the Music City. A trip to the airport only cost $25. But in June 2010, the Metropolitan County Council passed a series of anti-competitive regulations requested by the Tennessee Livery Association - a trade group formed by expensive limousine companies. These regulations force sedan and independent limo companies to increase their fares to $45 minimum.

The regulations also prohibit limo and sedan companies from using leased vehicles, require them to dispatch only from their place of business, require them to wait a minimum of 15 minutes before picking up a customer and forbid them from parking or waiting for customers at hotels or bars. And, in January 2012, companies will have to take all vehicles off the road if they are more than 7 years old for a sedan or SUV or more than 10 years old for a limousine.

Really This Much Value Left?

Dish Network is going to buy Blockbuster out of bankruptcy for $320 million.  I am frankly floored there is that much value.  I have found that one can make a surprising amount of money riding an obsolete business down over the years if it is managed correctly -- but this is generally for product businesses.  Retail businesses are really hard to ride down because you need to be closing stores every year and that is hard to do cost-effectively given typical lease terms.  Never-the-less, I expected the winning bid to be from a liquidation company, someone like the folks who took wound down Circuit City.

But the purchase by Dish Network implies that the buyer wants to continue operating Blockbuster in some form, and the identity of the buyer implies some sort of on-demand or streaming service.  But what does Blockbuster offer?  Is the brand valuable in this context, or a liability?   Does it have customer loyalty with a segment (old people?) who have so far shied away from Netflix / Hulu?  Does Blockbuster have favorable royalty / licensing contracts with studios that are transferable to other video delivery models?

If I had to guess, I would bet on the latter.  There have been examples of whole businesses built from legacy contracts.   One of the best examples is a little noticed contract Carl Icahn had with TWA, which spawned a huge new travel agency and later really helped to build  Here was the story:

When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the URL was bought by … Priceline.

I wonder if Blockbuster has something of similar value in their royalty / licensing agreements?