Posts tagged ‘lobbying’

The World's Most Famous Investor Is Now Investing in...

...government access.  Clearly Warren Buffet saw the writing on the wall in 2009, that the way to make money in the US was no longer to build products and factories but to invest in lobbying to get crony advantages and giveaways.

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This Administration and Senate makes all kinds of progressive noises, but all the while they are running perhaps the greatest expansion of cronyism in US history.  And the smart money knows it.

 

EPA Enhancing Its Power with Sue and Settle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Cronyism Private Enterprise's Fault or the Government's?

Oddly enough, this is perhaps the most frequent argument I have with people on the Left in cocktail party conversations.

It begins this way -- some abuse of "private enterprise" is cited.  Almost every time, I have to point out that the abuse in question could not occur if private companies were not availing themselves of government's coercive power to [fill in the blank: step on competitors, limit choice, keep prices high, rake in subsidies, etc.] Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story is very much in this mold, blaming bad outcomes that result in government interventions on free market capitalism.

Kevin Drum has a great example of this.  Asthma inhalers are expensive because certain companies used the government to ban less expensive competitive products.

Nick Baumann picks up the story from there:

The pharma consortium transformed from primarily an R&D outfit searching for substitutes for CFC-based inhalers into a lobbying group intent on eliminating the old inhalers. It set up shop in the K Street offices of Drinker Biddle, a major DC law firm. Between 2005 and 2010, it spent $520,000 on lobbying. (It probably spent even more; as a trade group, it's not required to disclose all of its advocacy spending.) Meanwhile, IPAC lobbied for other countries to enact similar bans, arguing that CFC-based inhalers should be eliminated for environmental reasons and replaced with the new, HFC-based inhalers.

The lobbying paid off. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an outright ban on many CFC-based inhalers starting in 2009. This June, the agency's ban on Aerobid, an inhaler used for acute asthma, took effect. Combivent, another popular treatment, will be phased out by the end of 2013.

In other words, pharmaceutical companies didn't just take advantage of this situation, they actively worked to create this situation. Given the minuscule impact of CFC-based inhalers on the ozone layer, it's likely that an exception could have been agreed to if pharmaceutical companies hadn't lobbied so hard to get rid of them. The result is lower-quality inhalers and fantastically higher profits for Big Pharma.

Rosenthal has a lot more detail in her piece about how the vagaries of patent law make this all even worse, and it's worth reading. But she misses the biggest story of all: none of this would matter if drug companies hadn't worked hard to make sure the old, cheap inhalers were banned. How's your blood doing now, Dr. Saunders?

No one has more disdain than I for companies that attempt to use the coercive power of the government as a competitive weapon in their favor.  Heck, I have barely gone 2 hours since the last time I bashed an industry for doing so.

But the implication that this is all the fault of corporations is just wrong, as is the the inevitable Progressive conclusion that somehow more government regulation and powers are necessary to combat this.

The Left has been the prime cheerleader over the past decades in creating the Federal behemoth that not only allows this to happen, but actively facilitates it.   We have created a government whose primary purpose is to redistribute spoils from one group to another.

Just look at the example he uses.  These drug manufacturers could have protected their markets and products the free market way, by investing tens of millions in more research, manufacturing cost reduction, and customer marketing.   But instead, we have a system where - entirely legally - a company can spend a fraction of this (the chump change amount of half a million dollars) to market to a few dozen people in DC and get the same benefits as investing tens of millions in satisfying customers.    The wonder is not that losers like these drug companies go this route, but that anybody at all still has enough sense of honor to actually invest in the customer rather than in DC bureaucrats.

I put it this way - "invest in customers rather than DC bureaucrats" - because every new regulation, every new government power over commerce is essentially a dis-empowerment of consumers in the marketplace.  Nowhere is this more true than in pharmaceuticals, where the government tells consumers what they can and cannot buy.

In a free market, accountability is enforced by consumers defending their own best interests and new competitors seeking fortunes by striving to serve consumers better than market incumbents.  Every government intervention is essentially saying to consumers that the government is going to make yet another decision for them.  So, having taken over so many decisions of consumers in those huge office buildings in DC, is it any wonder that companies go to DC to market to bureaucrats rather than bother marketing to consumers?

The problem, then, is not that some corporations avail themselves of legal shortcuts to profits.  The problem is that these legal shortcuts exist at all.  The problem is the coercive power of government to intervene in markets, chill competition through incensing, subsidize one competitor over another, etc.  These kinds of stories are going to proliferate endlessly until  that power is scaled back.

The Progressives I argue with come back with one of two answers.

This is a crock, and is the worst bit of enablement for a bad system ever invented.   The folks in government are not bad people -- they are normal people with bad information and bad incentives, and that is never going to change.  After all, something that Drum glosses over here, the agency in hid example went along and did the industry's bidding.  I know why the industry was doing what it did, but why did the agency roll over?  The whole theory is that these are public spirited people without commercial incentives.  Yet they rolled over none-the-less.  And it's not like these government employees are Rothbardian libertarians.  I work with the government all the time.  Their employees are there because they believe in public solutions over private ones.  In outlook and biases and beliefs they look a lot more like Kevin Drum than myself.  So why do they get a pass?  Of the two people here -- the drug company guy and the regulator guy -- which one is not doing his job right for his constituents?  So why does the drug company get the blame?

Response 2:  We just need to ban lobbying and contact with the regulated industry.  The whole theory of regulation is that the regulators are totally knowledgeable about the industry, but they have different incentives so they can work in the public interest.  But how are they going to be totally knowledgeable about the industry without frequent contact?  Or even experience in the industry?  And as to lobbying, lobbying is just speech.  It would be Constitutionally impossible to ban lobbying, and wrong anyway.  Think of it this way-- let's say you ran a restaurant but had to get a government agency's permission for each change in your menu (just as drug companies have to get permission for each change in their product offering).  Would you be happy with a situation in which the government made decisions on your menu without consulting you?  You would want to explain your desired changes and the logic behind them, right?   That's called lobbying, and you would not be happy to see it banned.

Other Views on Teach for America

Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.

Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.

I guess my reaction to the article is this:  TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***.  However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.

The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system.  Think of it this way:  TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform.  It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids.  It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps.  It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it.  If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.

 

** I confess it may be my sample.  When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school.  Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance.  The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.

*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it.  I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful.  They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive).  Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.

New Feature Here: Trend That Is Not A Trend

Some have asked me why I have not updated my climate blog in a while.  Frankly, the climate debate has become like the movie Groundhog Day, with the same handful of scientists releasing the same flawed studies making the same mistakes.  What used to be exciting is frankly boring.  I still blog here on updated climate news, and perhaps the IPCC will give us new things to write about soon, but for now most of my climate work will just be making appearances and presentations  (let me know if you have a large group, I don't charge any sort of fee).

For a while now I have been contemplating a new focus area, perhaps even a new blog.  I call this new focus "trend that is not a trend."  It refers to the tendency I find in the media to cite a trend without any supporting data, sometimes even when the actual trend in the data turns out to have the opposite sign.  Sometimes the reporter is motivated by conventional wisdom, sometimes by passion in advocating for a certain issue, and sometimes they are fooled by their own coverage, mistaking increases in coverage of a phenomenon for increases in the phenomenon itself (for example, this year everyone believes wildfires are up, when in fact this is a very low year).  We get a lot of this type of thing in climate, so it will give me a chance to continue to blog on climate but from a slightly different angle.

The best way to explain the phenomenon is with an example, and the Arizona Republic presented me with a great one today, in the form of an article by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press.  This in an article that reads more like an editorial than a news story.  It is about the Federal requirement for railroads to put safety electronics called Positive Train Control (PTC) on trains by a certain date.  The author has a pretty clear narrative that this is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for the public good, and that railroads are using scheming and lobbying to unfairly delay and dilute this critical mandate (seriously, I am not exaggerating the tone, you can read it for yourself.)

My point, however, is not to challenge the basic premise of the article, but to address this statement in her opening paragraph (emphasis added).

Despite a rash of deadly train crashes, the railroad industry’s allies in Congress are trying to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions until at least 2020, half a century after accident investigators first called for such safety measures.

The reporter is claiming a "rash of deadly train crashes"  -- in other words, she is saying, or at least implying, that there is an upward trend in deadly train crashes.  So let's ask ourselves if this claimed trend actually exists.  She says it so baldly, right there in the first seven words, that surely it must be true, right?

Here is the only data she cites:

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety system been in place.

Astute readers will note that this is not a trend, it is one data point.   Has the number increased or decreased over the decade?  For comparable decades, are 27 crashes and 63 deaths a lot or a little?  Is it a "rash", or a tapering off?  We have no idea.   As we get further into this series, readers will be surprised at how often the media uses single data points to "prove" a trend.

The only other evidence we get of a "rash" are three examples:

  • The July high speed rail accident in Spain, which killed scores of people.  Of course, readers may note that she actually had to go to another country for her first example, an example involving high-speed passenger rail which has very little in common with private railroads in the US.
  • A 2008 crash blamed on inattention of a Metrolink driver -- a government employee on a government train, which sort of undermines the basic thrust of the story that this is about evil private railroads using lobbying to endanger the public.  Few readers are likely to consider a 2008 crash to constitute a recent "rash."
  • A 2005 crash at a private freight railroad that killed 9 people from a chlorine gas leak.  Fewer readers are likely to consider a 2005 crash to constitute a recent "rash".

So let's go to the data.  It is actually very easy to find, and I would be surprised if Ms. Lowy did not actually have this data in her hands.  It is at the Federal Railway Administration Office of Safety Analysis.  2013 data is only current through June and seems to be set up on an October -September fiscal year.  So I ran the data only for October-June of every year to make sure the results were comparable to 2013.  Each year in the data below is actually 9 months of data.

By the way, when one is looking at railroad fatalities, one needs to understand that railroads do kill a lot of people every year, but the vast, vast majority of these -- 99% or more -- are killed at grade crossings.  People still do not understand that a freight train takes miles to stop.  (see postscript below, but as an aside, I would be willing to make a bet: Since deaths at grade crossings outnumber deaths from collisions by about 100:1, I would be willing to bet any amount of money that I could take the capital the author wants railroads to invest in PTC and save far more lives by investing it in grade crossing protection.  People like Ms. Lowy who advocate for these regulations never, ever seem to consider prioritization and tradeoffs.)

Anyway, looking at the data, here is the data for people killed each year in US railroad accidents (as usual click to enlarge any of the charts):

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So, rather than a "rash", we have just the opposite -- the lowest number of deaths in a decade.  One.  I will admit that technically she said rash of "fatal accidents" and this is data on fatalities, but I'm going to make a reasonable assumption that one death means one fatal accident -- which certainly cannot be higher than the number of fatal accidents in previous years and is likely lower.

Most of you will agree that this makes the author's opening statement a joke.  Believe it or not -- and this happens a surprising number of times -- this journalist is claiming a trend that not only does not exist, but is of the opposite sign.  But let's go further with a few other charts.  Maybe we just got lucky and there is a rash of accidents but just not fatal ones:

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Not only is there not a "rash" but the number of accidents have actually been cut in half.   But let's give the author one last try at a benefit of the doubt.  She says the technology she is advocating reduces human error caused accidents.  The FRA actually tracks these separately.  I wonder what that trend is?

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LOL, if anything it declines more.    The only thing I can possibly find in her favor is that number of train accident injuries spiked in 2013 after 10 years of declining, but since fatalities and accidents went down, the odds are this is a statistical anomaly and not part of any trend.

Postscript:  To my point above, 1 person died from train accidents in the last 9 months or so.  We don't know why or how they died, but let's just say it was preventable by PTC.  The author is therefore castigating railroads for not racing ahead with hundreds of millions to prevent one death, when the railroads know their chief focus for reducing preventable deaths should be on the 588 other people who died on the railroad in the same period, mainly from grade crossing and trespasser/pedestrian accidents.

Screwed Up Speech Law

I am not sure the WSJ has the law right (I don't really trust the media any more to get basic facts correct), but assuming for a moment they know what they are talking about, this caught my attention vis a vis the IRS scandal:

Officials explained that the unit had made the change [to their targeting criteria] because it was receiving many applications for groups that focused on lobbying, which is a permitted activity, and that weren't involved in political activity, which is restricted.

So its OK to kiss a Senator's ass but not OK to advocate for his defeat in the next election?  They may screw everything else up, but Congress is really good at making sure it takes care of itself.

US Doctor Salaries

Kevin Drum thinks he has found the smoking health care gun - US doctors are paid more than everyone else.  That is why we have too-expensive medical care!  A few quick thoughts

  • I am the last one to argue that doctors salaries are set anywhere like at a market clearing price.  Our certification system, crazy third-party payer systems, lack of price transparency, and absurd arguments over the "doc fix" and Medicare reimbursement rates all convince me that doctor salaries must be "wrong"
  • The charts he shows have absolutely no correction for productivity, at least as I read the methodology.  Per the text, they don't even have correction for hours worked.  A McKinsey report several years ago found that US doctors made more, but also saw a lot more patients in a day.  GP care cost more than expected vs. other country's experience, but is due mostly to number of visits, not cost per visit.
  • There is no correction for doctor expenses.  Malpractice insurance, anyone?  We have the most costly malpractice insurance in the world because we have the most broken system.  Doctors pay that out of their salary
  • US GP salaries in Drum's linked report are actually falling, unlike all the other countries studied.  Seem to have fallen 6% in 10 years (page 18), whereas France, for example, has increased more than 10%.

To the last point, I have a hypothesis.  When you first overlay a government health care / price control regime, you get an initial savings.  Doctors are forced to work for less and they still, out of habit and momentum, abide by past productivity standards.  But over time, productivity, like any government-captured function falls.  And over time, doctors, like other civil service groups, become better at organizing and lobbying and begin to get increasing pay packages.  After all, if teachers and fire-fighters can scare Californians into absurd pay and benefit packages, what do you think doctors will be able to do once they learn the game?

Behind the Curtain in the Corporate State

How the recent "fairness" tax bill became a vehicle for subsidizing connected corporations.

Baucus' Finance Committee passed a bill in August extending 50 expiring deductions and credits for favored industries. At Obama's insistence, the Baucus bill was cut and pasted word for word into the cliff legislation. Set aside for a moment how this contradicts Obama's talk about "fair shares" and the need to diminish the influence of lobbyists, and look at what this raft of tax favors shows us about the Baucus Machine.

Pick any one of the special-interest tax breaks extended by the cliff deal, and you're likely to find a former Baucus aide who lobbied for it on behalf of a large corporation or industry organization.

General Electric may have been the biggest winner from the cliff deal. GE makes more wind turbines than any other U.S. company, and it lobbied hard for extension of the wind production tax credit. But more important for the multinational conglomerate was an arcane-sounding provision that became Section 222 of Baucus' bill and then Section 322 of the cliff bill: "Extension of subpart F exception for active financing income."

In short, this provision allows multinationals to move profits to offshore financial subsidiaries and thus avoid paying U.S. corporate income taxes. This is a windfall for GE: The exception played a central role in GE paying $0 in U.S. corporate income tax in 2011 when it made $5.1 billion in U.S. profits.

Peter Prowitt, formerly Baucus' chief of staff, is now an in-house lobbyist and VP at GE. GE filings show Prowitt on the lobbying teams that won wind-tax credits, electric-vehicle tax credits, and "Extension of Subpart F Deferral for Financial Services."

The examples in the article go on and on.  The best way to get rich in America is not to have a great idea or work hard but to hire an ex-staffer from Senator Baucus's office.

Some Privatization Updates

I just wrote three new articles for the Privatization Blog.

The first looks at which types of public decisions should stay public in a privatization effort

The second looks at implementation issues and learning in privatization

The third acknowledges that privatization efforts can fall into cronyism, but points out that generally in these cases the public alternative falls into the same behaviors.  A great example is prisons, where privatization is derided by folks like Think Progress for the lobbying the prison companies do both for contracts and harsher laws, but they never acknowledge that public prison unions have demonstrated the same behaviors and for much longer.

Things You Didn't Know About the European Debt Crisis

Apparently the most important issue is not the unsustainability of deficit spending, lack of fiscal responsibility, or the tough problems of balancing expensive bailouts with expensive defaults.  It is making sure the timing of a Greek default does not negatively affect Obama's re-election.  From the Independent (UK) entitled, "Obama asks eurozone to keep Greece in until after election day"

American officials are understood to be worried that if they decide Greece has not done enough to meet its deficit targets and withhold the money, it would automatically trigger Greece's exit from the eurozone weeks before the Presidential election on 6 November.

They are urging eurozone Governments to hold off from taking any drastic action before then – fearing that the resulting market destabilisation could damage President Obama's re-election prospects. European leaders are thought to be sympathetic to the lobbying fearing that, under pressure from his party lin Congress, Mitt Romney would be a more isolationist president than Mr Obama.

 

When Microsoft Was Forced to Join the Corporate State

Via Radley Balko.  He is quoting Tim Carney in turn

People think money drives politics. It doesn’t. Money is merely the vehicle. Power drives Washington. As Carney points out, Hatch has spent a good deal of his time on the Judiciary Committee targeting Microsoft. So he wasn’t mad that the company wasn’t giving him money—they weren’t giving to his opponents, either. Hatch was angry that the company wasn’t acknowledging that it needs Washington, that it needs people like him. He finds that offensive. So people like Hatch make companies like Google need people like Hatch.

More:

 . . . it grated on Hatch and other senators that Gates didn’t want to want to play the Washington game. Former Microsoft employee Michael Kinsley, a liberal, wrote of Gates: “He didn’t want anything special from the government, except the freedom to build and sell software. If the government would leave him alone, he would leave the government alone.”

This was a mistake. One lobbyist fumed about Gates to author Gary Rivlin: “You look at a guy like Gates, who’s been arrogant and cheap and incredibly naive about politics. He genuinely believed that because he was creating jobs or whatever, that’d be enough.”

Gates was “cheap” because Microsoft spent only $2 million on lobbying in 1997, and its PAC contributed less than $50,000 during the 1996 election cycle.

“You can’t say, ‘We’re better than that,’ ” a Microsoft lobbyist told me on Friday. “At some point, you get too big, and you can’t just ignore Washington.”

You know what happens next . . .

After the Hatch hearings, Microsoft complied. Its PAC increased spending fivefold in each of the next two elections. In the 2010 elections, Microsoft’s PAC contributed $2.3 million to House and Senate candidates. The PAC has contributed the maximum $10,000 to each of Hatch’s last two campaigns.

Back before the antitrust case, Microsoft’s tiny lobbying contingent sat in the company’s local sales office in Chevy Chase. Since the Hatch hearings, Gates’ company has poured more than $100 million into K Street’s economy, hiring up members of congress and Capitol Hill staff, many of whom then became top fundraisers — such as Republican Jack Abramoff and Democrat Steve Elmendorf.

And of course now that Microsoft has a strong Washington presence, it uses its influence to lobby the government to harass its competitors. Like Google, which must then open its own Washington lobbying outfit in response. And the cycle starts all over again. (If you’re really on your game, you then hire the government regulators you’ve lobbied to investigate your rival to come work for you.)

Money is not the problem in politics, and is not the root of the corporate state.  Power is.  Money in politics will never go away as long as the government has the power to micromanage winners and losers.  Take the power away, and the money would disappear.

Thoughts on the Contraception Debate

1.  It is insane that "insurance" covers routine birth control in the first place.  It makes as much sense as your home insurance covering air filter replacements

2.  This is what one should expect when the government engages in coercion to force everyone to a single standard.  We have seen arguments like this for decades in public schools over what should and should not be taught.

3.  Expect a lot more of this  -- the benefits you will be forced to pay for in your health insurance will increasingly be determined by the political power of lobbying groups, as interest groups fight to have their members subsidized by everyone else and businesses work to get their product or procedure on the coverage list.   Economic and medical rationality will have nothing to do with what's actually covered.  And you can be damn sure that your personal preferences will be considered irrelevant.

Another Problem With Campaign Finance Legislation

There used to be two Americas -- the small portion who were criminals and the large majority of law-abiding citizens.  Now there is just one America, since with the proliferation of regulations, we all are guilty of something.  If we fall out of favor, we can all be rung up on charges.

Local Conservative pundit Greg Patterson makes this observation about the looming Jon Edwards prosecution, and observes that as much as he may dislike Edwards, his prosecution is downright scary

It looks like former Presidential candidate John Edwards is about to get indicted. Edwards is an awful person who embodies the characteristics that most of us despise.  His hypocrisy and hubris together with his unbelievably boorish behavior while his wife was dying of cancer are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

However, Edwards' downfall is also a great example of how the US has so criminalized the political process that the Government can indict anyone who falls out of favor. Once it was clear that Edwards no longer enjoyed any personal political authority, prosecutors combed through his entire political history and found this charge:

Much of the investigation, however, focused on money that eventually went to keep mistress Rielle Hunter in hiding along with former campaign aide Andrew Young, who claimed paternity of Hunter's child in 2007 so that Edwards could continue his White House campaign without the affair tarnishing his reputation. Investigators have been looking at whether those funds should have been considered campaign donations since they arguably aided his presidential bid.

Really?  Someone gave Edwards a bunch of money so that he could hide his mistress...and those funds "arguably aided" his presidential bid? That means that every dime that any candidate has ever received could later be classified as a political contribution because it "arguably aided" his candidacy.

How many millions has Edwards spent defending himself from this charge?  How much time is he going to spend in jail?  How many other candidates--or contributors--can be indicted for falling out of favor?

By the way, kudos to Patterson for bringing up this point in the context of his political opposition.  All too often groups seek to establish terrible precedents in the name of counting coup on political opponents.  For example, I have been depressed at how hard certain of my fellow climate skeptics have labored to try to bring warmist Michael Mann up on criminal charges.

By the way, I disagree with the second half of Patterson's post, wherein he tries to draw a parallel between the Edwards affair and shenanigans and political payoffs around the Fiesta Bowl.  Patterson describes politicians as having been "victimized" by the Fiesta Bowl, such victimization taking the form of the politicians accepting luxurious trips to college football games and failing to do all the necessary reporting for these boondoggles.

I have a hard time seeing this as victimization.  It would take a really, really, really naive and stupid politician to credibly argue that these trips were purely fact-finding trips and that they had no idea these expenditures represented an effort of the Fiesta Bowl to woo them in return for various quid pro quo's.  Politicians should not even be considering public subsidies of college football games, particularly ones that are so incredibly lucrative to the schools and bowl organizations.  Politicians could have avoided being "victimized" by such lobbying by simply saying that their city/county/state was not going to be handing out taxpayer-funded goodies to sports teams and games.  I don't necessarily want to send these guys to jail, but calling them victims is a joke.

It is interesting to see this attitude from a Conservative.  My mother-in-law the Boston Liberal takes the same line, that the evils that result from lobbying and outright bribery are entirely the fault of private enterprises and not of the politicians themselves.  Of course, the libertarian position on this is simple -- the fault is not any particular person, but the changes in government power that have put so many chips on the table.   If the government has the power to give or take billions, to make or kill whole industries, then it is worth a lot of money for individuals to harness this power or at least to protect themselves from being gutted by those who do manipulate the power.  To this end, 19th century corruption arguments are almost quaint, where the biggest concern was politician's ability to appoint their friends as postmaster.  Reduce government's power to give and take arbitrarily, and the amount of money spent on lobbying, elections, and outright bribery will fall precipitously.

Who Makes the Price-Value Tradeoffs?

I have written a ton in the past on what I consider the fundamental problem in health care:  The taking of price-value tradeoffs out of the hands of consumers, first through encouragement of first-dollar employer plans and now through a Federal government takeover.  For example:

The computer keyboard I am typing on right now costs about $55 on Amazon.com.  Is that a fair price?

At some level, the answer must be “yes.”  Why?  Because I bought it – simple as that.  No one was compelling me to buy this particular model, so if I thought the price too high or the features too skimpy, I would have just passed on the purchase.  If I desperately wanted or needed a keyboard, I might have bought one of literally hundreds of others for sale at Amazon, priced from a low of $1.49 (used) to a high of $2400 (I kid you not).  After shopping through the various options, I chose my keyboard as the best match, for me, of price and features.

For decades, this seemingly prosaic act of individual “shopping” has been steadily eroded in health care with the growth of third party payers, particularly Medicare.   How much did you pay for you last doctor visit?  Your last x-ray?  Your last blood test?  Believe it or not, it is still possible to price-shop medical care — I do it myself, because I have a high deductible health insurance plan under which I pay all but the most bankrupting bills out of pocket.  As an example, three x-rays last month of my son’s ankle would have been billed to my insurance company at over $100, but I asked for their cash price and they pulled a separate book from a hidden place under the counter and quoted me $35.  I got a 70+% discount merely for caring about the price.

But my health plan, which includes this seemingly positive incentive to shop, will soon be illegal as high-deductible insurance plans, as well as medical savings accounts, are effectively banned.  Under Obamacare, virtually all individual payments for medical products and services will cease — the government and a few large, highly regulated insurers will pay for nearly every visit, drug, or procedure.  The government will be making price-value trade-offs for our care, and they will be doing it incredibly imperfectly, because by eliminating individual shopping they have cut off a, excuse the pun, priceless source of information.

And here:

If we are all forced to have the same, low deductible, first-dollar health plans, what incentive is one going to have to stay out of the health care system, even for something minor?  What is to stop you from going to the doctor every day because you are hypochondriacal, or you are lonely, or bored, or just because you want to save on buying your own subscription to Highlights Magazine?  The buffet will be open and everything will be essentially free – what’s to stop people from gorging themselves?

You might say that you are more responsible than that, and perhaps you are.  But think about this:  Twenty years ago we used to all complain about the 2 or 3 pieces of junk mail we might find a day in our mailbox.  That was when the each piece of mail cost real money to send.  Today, junk mail in the form of email is essentially free to send.  How many pieces of junk mail do you get today?  Even if you are not hitting the system up for free health care, you know someone else will be spamming the system, and eventually all of us as taxpayers will have to pay for it.

The only way to stop this behavior is for the government to create a department of “No” to head off this behavior — what Sarah Palin so famously called “Death Panels.”

Both Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle discuss individual vs. the government in making price-value tradeoffs for health care in the context of Paul Ryan's proposal to voucherize Medicare.

McArdle:

Expect there to be a lot of angry back and forth over this in the next week or so.  But one thing to keep in mind is that this Medicare plan is not effectively very different from what the Democrats claim ObamaCare is going to do:  which is to say, cap the amount of money spent on providing health benefits to those who are not rich enough to opt out of the public system.  The Democrats want to do so by having a central committee of experts decide what our health dollars get spent on; the GOP wants to put those decisions into the hands of consumers.  But this is not an argument about who loves old, sick people more.  Both parties are promising to halt the rapid growth of government health care expenditures, which is definitionally going to fall hardest on old, sick people....

There are also the tradeoffs to consider.  It seems quite likely to me that vouchers are going to be better at controlling health care cost growth than a central committee.  Every committee decision that cuts off a potentially useful treatment (and I'm afraid it can't all be back surgery and hormone replacement therapy) will trigger a lobbying explosion from affected groups.  Each treatment is a decision with a small marginal cost to the taxpayer; it's in aggregate that they become expensive.  Which means that the congressional tendency is always going to be to override--and while there are supposed to be structural barriers against this in the bill, they aren't very strong . . . about like trying to quit smoking by hiding your cigarettes from yourself.

New Year's Resolution

In my column this week at Forbes, I discuss my New Year's Resolution, which has not changed over several decades, and how it helped me this year to solve some difficult philosophical issues regarding my business.

Almost exactly thirty years ago, I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, probably the single most influential book I have read in my lifetime.  Before I read it, I was on a path to becoming a traditional Conservative in the mold of my parents, and in retrospect my thinking on a lot of issues was quite muddled.

I am no longer the exclusive Rand fanboy I was back in college, if for no other reason than I have since found many authors who come at the topic of capitalism and freedom from many different angles, but Rand was certainly my gateway drug to liberty.

Like many people, around the new year I set various goals for myself over the coming year.  Some I have achieved (e.g. getting myself out of corporate America and into my own business) and on some I have fallen short (e.g. learning to play the guitar).  But every year I have renewed just one resolution, which I took from Atlas Shrugged.  It is

I swear"“by my life and my love of it"“that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

I then discuss this resolution in the context of approaches my business has had this year from lobbyists.  I discuss how lobbyists have approached me about an effort to make some tweaks to the health care law (it is particularly punitive to our labor model where we hire seniors part time and seasonally) as well as efforts to promote privatization of recreation (my business) and to help me obtain new contracts.    The article has much more discussion about details, but my resolution for a lobbying policy turned out as follows, in a rough parallel to the resolution above:

"We will use lobbyists to defend ourselves when the government is trying to gut us like a fish, but we will attempt to do so with generic amendments rather than through special exemptions for our company alone.  We will not use lobbyists to create new business opportunities, even when the legislation to do so is consistent with our principals."

By the way, I actually sent notes to several readers out there (you know who you are) asking them their opinions on some of the ethical issues I saw in these issues, and I appreciate the feedback from all of you.

Happy new year to all of you.

Exxon is Not the Audubon Society

Kevin Drum writes a post that I would interpret as saying "I really can't dispute the Supreme Court speech decision on principles but I am going to anyway because I don't like the result.  He ends by saying

In the end, I guess I think the court missed the obvious "” and right "” decision: recognizing that while nonprofit corporations created for the purpose of political advocacy can be fairly described as "organized groups of people" and treated as such, that doesn't require us to be willfully oblivious to the fact that big public companies are far more than that and can be treated differently. Exxon is not the Audubon Society and Google is not the NRA. There's no reason we have to pretend otherwise.

This is silly.  Just because people are not organized primarily as an influence group does not mean that those folks, once they are pursuing their goals, don't find the need to try to have influence, or have somehow given up their right to try to have influence.  And whose fault is this anyway if Exxon shareholders feel the need to influence the political process?  If the Left hadn't targeted commerce with a never-ending proliferation of restrictions and wealth-confiscations, commercial enterprises probably would not see much reason to waste money on advocacy.  I can tell you that the last possible thing I want to spend money on in my company is kissing some Senator's ass or buffing up the NY Times ad budget, and would spend money to do so only under a pretty existential threat.

But why is there some mythology that members of Audubon or the NRA somehow have more control of the organization's advocacy than Exxon's shareholders?  Sure, when you join the NRA you probably have a good idea what their positions are going to be, but are you really any less able to predict Exxon's positions on most issues?  As I wrote in his comment section:

When you say "Exxon is not the Audubon society," I am not sure how? I am a stockholder of the first and a member of and contributor to the second. I have bought products from both. I have written both (well, actually I wrote Mobil once but it is the same now as Exxon) about their issue advocacy, each time with equally small effect. It is as difficult as a stockholder of Exxon to even get a disclosure of their issue advocacy and lobbying efforts as it is for Audubon (though I am smart enough to take a pretty good guess at both). Neither allows me, as a shareholder/member/contributor to vote on their advocacy/lobbying, either in terms of amount spent or direction. Each carry substantial influence in particular government realms.

So I am confused how they are different, except perhaps that you are personally sympathetic to one and not the other.

Just to remind you the existential threat that causes corporations to want to speak out in public, I will take an example from Drum himself, when he said:

It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they've shown fear, and now it's time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let's get to it.

So I guess Exxon is indeed different from the Audubon Society - no one is trying to gut the Audubon Society like trouts.

The Evolution of Activism

A couple of years ago I wrote:

Activist: A person who believes so strongly that a problem needs to be remedied that she dedicates substantial time to "¦ getting other people to fix the problem.   It used to be that activists sought voluntary help for their pet problem, and thus retained some semblance of honor.  However, our self-styled elite became frustrated at some point in the past that despite their Ivy League masters degrees in sociology, other people did not seem to respect their ideas nor were they particularly interested in the activist's pet issues.  So activists sought out the double shortcut of spending their time not solving the problem themselves, and not convincing other people to help, but convincing the government it should compel others to fix the supposed problem.  This fascism of good intentions usually consists of government taking money from the populace to throw at the activist's issue, but can also take the form of government-compelled labor and/or government limitations on choice.

So now, we have the next step -- advocating that others spend their time convincing government to use compulsion to solve some imagined problem.  Kevin Drum urges:

The only real way to address climate change is to make broad changes to laws and incentives.  It puts everyone on a level playing field, it gives everyone a framework for making their own choices, and it gives us a fighting chance of making the deep cuts we need to.  So listen to Tidwell: "Don't spend an hour changing your light bulbs. Don't take a day to caulk your windows. Instead, pick up a phone, open a laptop, or travel to a U.S. Senate office near you and turn the tables: 'What are the 10 green statutes you're working on to save the planet, Senator?'"

Jackboots seem to be "in" this season.

Postscript: In the language of mathematics (I mentioned before I am in the middle of Goedel-Escher-Bach) if actually aiding someone is "helping," then I guess organizing people to help is meta helping, and lobbying government to force other people to help is meta meta helping and so advocating on your blog that people should lobby the government to force other people to help is meta meta meta helping.  Must really warm Drum's heart to be so directly connected with helping people.

Economics of Lobbying

I was familiar with the dynamics of the all-pay auction (I always called it the Wargames auction -- the only winning move is not to play).  I had never thought of it as a good analog for lobbying expenditures, but it makes a lot of sense once David Zetland made the point.  Good video at the link.

The Corporate State

From Henry Payne:

Rent-seeking is the new venture capital model, Kleiner Perkins managing partner Ray Lane explained to an electric car-conference here Wednesday.

In an extraordinary speech, Lane laid out how market socialism can guarantee profits for politically connected VC firms like Kleiner -- far more preferable to the old model of "throwing a dart at a dart board," as Lane has put it. While Silicon Valley-based Kleiner made its reputation as a financier of tech startups like Netscape, Lane confided that they are inherently risky ventures in uncertain, fast-moving markets.

By contrast, Lane expressed admiration for communist governments like China and market-socialist economies like France where government determines new markets, thus providing a more certain investment climate for rent-seekers. With Kleiner partner Al Gore lobbying for federal mandates from wind to electric cars, Kleiner would be assured of a return on otherwise risky investments like Fisker Automotive, a California electric car company.

Regulating the Process, not Actual Safety

Kevin Drum says:

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.

He can't understand, though, why its effects seem so perverse and Draconian when its core is such a "perfectly fine idea."  It is amazing to me that the law of unintended consequences is so hard even for seasoned political observers to grasp.

A sensible restriction might be that a child cannot by any reasonable use of the product ingest more than X concentration of lead.  But of course that is not what the government does.  The government requires that every toy undergo expensive testing and batch tracking (almost like that of an aircraft part).  This is not by any means the same as simply requiring products to limit lead exposure.  It is a one-size-fits-all regulation of process, rather than true safety.  It imposes huge testing and tracking expenses on products that can't possibly have any lead in them.

And, like many laws of this kind, it imposes a huge penalty on small competitors and new entrants and rewards larger toy makers who both have the scale to pay for the testing and the political clout to shape the law in their favor.  In fact, the big winner from the legislation has actually been Matel, the company whose recalls actually led to the law in the first place.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires third-party testing of nearly every object intended for a child's use, and was passed in response to several toy recalls in 2007 for lead and other chemicals. Six of those recalls were on toys made by Mattel, or its subsidiary Fisher Price.

Small toymakers were blindsided by the expensive requirement, which made no exception for small domestic companies working with materials that posed no threat.

So while most small toymakers had no idea this law was coming down the pike until it was too late, Mattel spent $1 million lobbying for a little provision to be included in the CPSIA permitting companies to test their own toys in "firewalled" labs that have won Consumer Product Safety Commission approval.

The million bucks was well spent, as Mattel gained approval late last week to test its own toys in the sites listed above"”just as the window for delayed enforcement closed.

Instead of winding up hurting, Mattel now has a cost advantage on mandatory testing, and a handy new government-sponsored barrier to entry for its competitors.

Update: Brad Warbiany has similar thoughts.

This is Easy To Explain

John Stossel has a story on errors found in new textbooks in Texas public schools  (the word "we," for example, was misspelled).

One high school textbook misspelled the word "we." When describing an actor's "role" in a play, the book spells it "r-o-l-l."

A 9th grade literature book refers to a poem as a piece of 21st century literature, even though it was written in 1911 and the author died in 1933.

How do you misspell the word "we"? They spelled it, "wee."

The publishing companies said the textbooks were just first drafts that would be "cleaned up" before they make it into classrooms. But that doesn't wash with the TV station:

(P)ublishers said the same thing about math books... in 2007 that were eventually found to contain more than 100,000 mistakes...

Those math books are now in classrooms, and teachers continue to find errors.

Stossel is usually pretty quick to the jugular, but I think he misses the true reason for the screw-up.  In a private market, suppliers must compete on price and performance because they know that companies will buy their product based on those criteria.  In the government market, however, suppliers often can sidestep that whole product quality hassle and shortcut the process via political lobbying.  Get a few key legislators or other government officials on your side, and that textbook order or military toilet seat contract is yours.  Get John Murtha on your side, for example, and you can make money selling the government just about anything, or even nothing.

I think it's pretty clear that like defense contractors, municipal bond underwriters, and other government suppliers, textbooks suppliers have shifted resources from the product to political lobbying.  Makes one pretty excited about prescription drug procurement under government health care, huh?  Do we really want to see arguments for Viagra vs. Cialis played out on the house floor, as we do today for political footballs like the V-22 Osprey?

Global Warming Alarmists Have Your Best Interests At Heart

Sent to me by a bunch of readers, from the Atlantic interview with Thomas Schelling:

I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening -- you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth -- that would get people very concerned about climate change. But I don't think that's going to happen.

This reminds me of a post from way back, when Kevin Drum wrote:

Seeking to shape legislation before Congress, three major energy trade
associations have shifted their stances and decided to back mandatory
federal curbs on carbon dioxide and other man-made emissions that could
accelerate climate change.

I responded:

Having some Washington lobbying organizations switch which side of this incredibly difficult trade off they support is not "good news."  Good news is finding out that this trade off may not be as stark as we think it is.  Good news is finding some new technology that reduces emissions and which private citizens are willing to adopt without government coercion (e.g. sheets of solar cells that can be run out of factories like carpet from Dalton, Georgia).  Or, good news is finding out that man's CO2 production has less of an effect on world climate than once thought.  Oddly enough, this latter category of good news, surely the best possible news we could get on the topic, is seldom treated as good news by global warming activists.  In fact, scientists with this message are called Holocaust deniers.

Postscript: It is particularly telling of a certain mindset that Schelling specifically wishes bad things to occur in the Midwest.   By most leftish standards, people in flyover country (except maybe Ohio since it is a key swing state) don't really count.

Well, I Am Down To Two Health Insurance Choices

Apparently in the future I will have two health plan choices -- my current plan or the government plan.  And the only reason I will be able to keep my current plan is that is will be grandfathered in.  A few years ago I switched plans, to get one with a better price and mix of benefits for my family.  I will never be allowed to do this again under the new health care bill:

It didn't take long to run into an "uh-oh" moment when reading the House's "health care for all Americans" bill. Right there on Page 16 is a provision making individual private medical insurance illegal.

When we first saw the paragraph Tuesday, just after the 1,018-page document was released, we thought we surely must be misreading it. So we sought help from the House Ways and Means Committee.

It turns out we were right: The provision would indeed outlaw individual private coverage. Under the Orwellian header of "Protecting The Choice To Keep Current Coverage," the "Limitation On New Enrollment" section of the bill clearly states:

"Except as provided in this paragraph, the individual health insurance issuer offering such coverage does not enroll any individual in such coverage if the first effective date of coverage is on or after the first day" of the year the legislation becomes law.

So we can all keep our coverage, just as promised "” with, of course, exceptions: Those who currently have private individual coverage won't be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers....

Wow, even for this cynical libertarian, this is a new low of technically complying with a promise while in substance completely violating the spirit of that promise.

By the way, how long will my current insurer even be able to offer me my plan given that it cannot generate any new business  (I use Assurant, who specializes in individual policies for self-employed people like myself).

This is a great example of what I have been saying all along - regulation always helps large companies more than small.   Everything in this legislation is tailor-made to help large companies who already have health plans and pound small companies and the self-employed.  This is in part because the large companies have the lobbying muscle to get themselves a seat at the table as the bill is crafted.   But it is more than just neglect, it is an outright attack.  Large companies most fear competition from smaller, lower cost competitors.  Anything to make the life of small business more expensive and difficult helps cement the big guys market position.

Update: Here is a scary thought -- what will it do to entrepeneurship in this country when a decision to leave a large company and go into business for oneself bascially means giving up private health insurance and going on Medicare?

Update #2: For readers, as well as a place for me to find it in the future, here is a link to all 1000+ pages of the bill.  Enjoy.

Where's Coyote?

Believe it or not, I am actually in Washington DC.  I am on the executive committee of our little industry's trade group, and as such it is expected that once a year we venture to DC to talk to Senate and House staffers about what legislation is pending that may affect our business.  I won't call this "lobbying" as that word implies we have any influence over outcomes.  It is more of a grim due dilligence to see what we are going to have to try to deal with next.

As this activity has roughly the same appeal for me as being dragged naked by a truck down the Interstate, I have avoided this task for years.  I finally relented to my duty, and here I am.

Welcome to the Emergency Room. Can I See Your Insurance Card and Polling Numbers, Please?

From Mickey Kaus:

Democratic blogger Ezra Klein appears to be positioning Dem health care reforms as a way to cut costs, on the grounds that a reformed system will be able to make "hard choices" and "rational" coverage decisions, by which Klein seems to mean "not providing" treatments that are unproven or too expensive--when "a person's life, or health, is not worth the price." Matthew Yglesias' recent post seems to be saying the same thing, though clarity isn't its strong suit. (He must have left it on Journolist.)

...

The "rational," cost-cutting, "hard-choices" pitch isn't just awful marketing--I don't even think it's accurate. Put it this way: I'm for universal health care in large part precisely because I think the government will be less tough-minded and cost-conscious when it comes to the inevitable rationing of care than for-profit insurance companies will be. Take Arnold Kling's example of a young patient with cancer, where "the best hope is a treatment that costs $100,000 and offers a chance of success of 1 in 200." No "rational bureaucracy" would spend $20 million to save a life, Kling argues. I doubt any private insurance company is going to write a policy that spends $20 million to save a life.  But I think the government--faced with demands from patient groups and disease lobbies and treatment providers and Oprah and run, ultimately, by politicians as terrified of being held responsible for denying treatment as they are quick to pander to the public's sentimental bias toward life--is less likely to be "rational" than the private sector.

That is to say, the government's more likely to pay for the treatment (assuming a doctor recommends it). So it's government for me.

He comes oh-so-close to getting it right, but then falls short.

Klein is right that the pressure will be to ration care -- we already see such rationing being seriously considered in Massachusetts (the model of choice for Democrats) under the weight of massive expenditures.

But Kaus is correct that if some high-powered and well-funded interest group gets behind a certain procedure, cost-effective or not, the government overlords of the program will likely approve it.   As a result, for example, no potential treatment for breast cancer will ever be denied given the proven strength of women's groups lobbying for breast cancer treatment (already, breast cancer research is hugely over-funded vs. other diseases given its mortality, due in large part to this powerful lobbying).

But it is not one dynamic or the other.  Both will exist.  There will be huge pressures to cut back somewhere, as costs skyrocket.  And there will be huge pressure from certain interest groups to fund treatment for certain diseases in unlimited amounts.  The result will not be, as Kaus posits,  that everything will be funded more than it is today -- the result will be that certain procedures and conditions with strong lobbying and political muscle will get funded more, with the difference being made up from cutting funding for conditions and procedures without a well-organized lobby.

Access to care will no longer be determined by money, but by political pull.  (Yeah, I know, it's Ayn Rand's world and we all just live in it).