Tag Archives: standards

Why Mandating Higher Quality is Regressive

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the fact that millions of Americans are seeing their health insurance plans cancelled as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Some pundits have gone so far as to argue this is a good thing. The cancelled plans, the logic goes, were lower in quality than the plans being offered in the new government health insurance exchanges. Many people will end up paying more for the replacement plans, but since the new plans cover a wider variety of health services, they are better off, right?

Actually, no. Imagine if the same logic were applied to automobiles. I drive a 2003 Toyota Matrix. Would I be better off if my current model was banned and I was forced to buy a brand new Ferrari instead? The President made a similar comparison in a recent press conference when he said:

We made a decision as a society that every car has to have a seat belt or air bags. And so you pass a regulation. And there’s some additional cost, particularly at the start, of increasing the safety and protections, but we make a decision as a society that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of all the lives that are saved. So what we’re saying now is if you’re buying a new car, you got to have a seat belt.

If the President’s comparison were appropriate, people would be able to keep their current plans, and might only have to add a new feature or two when they buy a new plan. Instead, people are being dumped from their current coverage and forced into the government run exchanges where they are being forced to buy all kinds of options they don’t want or need. Some might get a subsidy to help with the purchase, but this is still like forcing everyone to buy a Ferrari when all they really want is their trusty old Honda Accord.

Sure, if I had to buy a new Ferrari, it might have all kinds of amazing features that my current car lacks. But I would also have a lot less money to spend on other things that I value a lot more, like my monthly gym membership, or taking my girlfriend out to a nice restaurant on occasion. If banning low quality goods and services is so good for consumers, why not extend this logic even further? Why not ban row boats and force people to buy yachts instead? Imagine how much better dressed Americans would be if we banned all of the clothes sold at Target and Walmart and only allowed people to purchase Christian Dior or Armani!

The problem with this logic is that quality is what economists call a “normal” good. A normal good is something people demand more of when their income rises. By contrast, an “inferior” good is something we demand more of when our income falls. Think macaroni and cheese dinners or sneakers from Payless, for example.

There’s nothing inherently “inferior” about an inferior good. Rather, people with lower incomes often prefer to trade off quality in exchange for a lower price. This is a perfectly rational decision. Since people demand more quality as income rises, banning lower quality products, like catastrophic only health insurance coverage, is actually banning the products that lower income people prefer. And it’s not just the poor who make tradeoffs between price and quality. (For example, I know for a fact that one of my more senior colleagues at the Mercatus Center buys most of his clothes at Walmart!). When prices rise in response to the mandated improvement in quality, the preferences of the poor are ignored and their options limited. As such, each individual must decide for him or herself what the right balance is between quality and price.

Once this becomes clear, one has to wonder who a lot of regulations are really designed to serve. For example, the FDA recently announced it will be setting standards for the production of pet food. Are regulations like this designed to cater to the preferences of the poor, who probably opt for the 79 cent can of cat food? Or are they more in line with the preferences of people who already buy organic food for their cats, people who might not mind paying a little extra to ensure that their pet food has met the new standards set by the FDA?

Mandating rearview cameras in automobiles is regressive for the same reason. This item was originally found mostly in luxury cars, but, thanks to market innovation, these cameras are rapidly becoming commonplace features in cars, all without government regulation.

One of the benefits of the market system is that when a new product is first introduced, the wealthy often pay a lot for it. Over time, the kinks in the product are worked out, and prices fall as the new technology becomes more affordable. Eventually, low income people can afford the product as well, but each consumer must decide for herself when the price has fallen sufficiently to make the purchase worthwhile.

Banning low quality items may seem like a noble way to protect consumers, but not when that removes lower-priced options for those consumers who have the fewest resources to spare. Rather than forcing consumers to buy luxury items, regulatory agencies should respect consumer preferences, especially the preferences of the poor.

Energy Efficiency as Foreign Aid?

A recent suite of energy efficiency regulations issued by the Department of Energy (DOE) have been criticized due to the DOE’s claim that consumers and businesses are behaving irrationally when purchasing appliances and other energy using devises. The Department believes it is bestowing benefits on society by “correcting” these faulty decisions. Mercatus Center scholars have written about this extensively here, here, and here.

However, even if we set aside the Department’s claims of consumer and business “irrationality,” a separate rationale for these regulations is also very problematic. The vast majority of the environmental benefits of these rules stem from reductions in CO2 emissions due to lower emissions from power plants. However, in a 2010 report, the US government estimated only 7 to 23 percent of these benefits will be captured by Americans. The rest will go to people in other countries.

Here’s a recent example. In August, the DOE proposed a rule setting energy efficiency standards for metal halide lamp fixtures. In the agency’s analysis, it estimated total benefits from CO2 emission reductions at $1,532 million. Using the more optimistic estimate of the percentage of CO2 related benefits going to the US citizens (23%), Americans should capture about $450 million in environmental benefits from the rule (once we include benefits from reductions in NOx emissions as well). At the same time, the DOE estimates the rule will cost $1,294 million, much of which will be paid by American consumers and businesses. How can the DOE, which is tasked with serving the American public, support such a policy?

One might argue America is imposing costs on the rest of the world with its carbon emissions, and therefore should pay a type of tax to internalize this external cost we impose on others. However, the rest of the world is also imposing costs on us. In fact, US emissions are actually in decline, while global emissions are on the rise.

Even if we assume it is a sensible policy for Americans to compensate other countries for our carbon emissions, is paying for more expensive products like household appliances the best way to accomplish this goal? Given that no amount of carbon dioxide emission reductions in the US will do much of anything to reduce anticipated global warming, wouldn’t the rest of the world be better off with resources to adapt to climate change, instead of (at best) the warm feeling they might get from knowing Americans are buying more expensive microwave ovens? A more efficient policy would be a cash transfer to other countries, or the US could create a fund the purpose of which would be to help other countries adapt to climate change.

Energy efficiency regulations from the DOE are already difficult enough to justify. Knowing they are really just a roundabout form of foreign aid makes these rules look even less sensible.

“Regulatory Certainty” as a Justification for Regulating

A key principle of good policy making is that regulatory agencies should define the problem they are seeking to solve before finalizing a regulation. Thus, it is odd that in the economic analysis for a recent proposed rule related to greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites “regulatory certainty” as a justification for regulating. It seems almost any regulation could be justified on these grounds.

The obvious justification for regulating carbon dioxide emissions would be to limit harmful effects of climate change. However, as the EPA’s own analysis states:

the EPA anticipates that the proposed Electric Generating Unit New Source Greenhouse Gas Standards will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, energy impacts, quantified benefits, costs, and economic impacts by 2022.

The reason the rule will result in no benefits or costs, according to the EPA, is because the agency anticipates:

even in the absence of this rule, existing and anticipated economic conditions will lead electricity generators to choose new generation technologies that meet the proposed standard without the need for additional controls.

So why issue a new regulation? If the EPA’s baseline assessment is correct (i.e. it is making an accurate prediction about what the world would look like in absence of the regulation), then the regulation provides no benefits since it causes no deviations from that baseline. If the EPA’s baseline turns out to be wrong, a “wait and see” approach likely makes more sense. This approach may be more sensible, especially given all the inherent uncertainties surrounding predicting future energy prices and all of the unintended consequences that often result from regulating.

Instead, the EPA cites “regulatory certainty” as a justification for regulating, presumably because businesses will now be able to anticipate what emission standards will be going forward, and they can now invest with confidence. But announcing there will be no new regulation for a period of time also provides certainty. Of course, any policy can always change, whether the agency decides to issue a regulation or not. That’s why having clearly-stated goals and clearly-understood factors that guide regulatory decisions is so important.

Additionally, there are still costs to regulating, even if the EPA has decided not to count these costs in its analysis. Just doing an economic analysis is a cost. So is using agency employees’ time to enforce a new regulation. News outlets suggest “industry-backed lawsuits are inevitable” in response to this regulation. This too is a cost. If costs exceed benefits, the rule is difficult to justify.

One might argue that because of the 2007 Supreme Court ruling finding that CO2 is covered under the Clean Air Act, and the EPA’s subsequent endangerment finding related to greenhouse gases, there is some basis for the argument that uncertainty is holding back investment in new power plants. However, if this is true then this policy uncertainty should be accounted for in the agency’s baseline. If the proposed regulation alleviates some of this uncertainty, and leads to additional power plant construction and energy creation, that change is a benefit of the regulation and should be identified in the agency’s analysis.

The EPA also states it “intends this rule to send a clear signal about the current and future status of carbon capture and storage technology” because the agency wants to create the “incentive for supporting research, development, and investment into technology to capture and store CO2.”

However, by identifying the EPA’s preferred method of reducing CO2 emissions from new power plants, the agency may discourage businesses from investing in other promising new technologies. Additionally, by setting different standards for new and existing power plants, the EPA is clearly favoring one set of companies at the expense of another. This is a form of cronyism.

The EPA needs to get back to policymaking 101. That means identifying a problem before regulating, and tailoring regulations to address the specific problem at hand.

Do Energy Efficiency Regulations Create Jobs?

Earlier this year, the Department of Energy (DOE) finalized a regulation setting energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens. At the time, Heather Zichal, the Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, had this to say about the regulation:

…in his State of the Union Address this year, the President set a bold new goal: to cut in half the energy wasted in our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. Part of how we will achieve that goal is by making appliances more energy efficient. Not only will that help Americans keep more money in their pockets, it will also curb pollution and spark innovation that creates jobs and ultimately brings better products to the marketplace. That’s why we are proud to announce today that the Department of Energy has finalized new energy efficiency standards for microwaves… (emphasis added)

I’ve written elsewhere about why Americans should be skeptical of the environmental benefits from this regulation, as well as other energy efficiency regulations emanating from the Department of Energy. Putting that aside for a moment, I’d like to focus on the last part of Ms. Zichal’s comment, that energy efficiency regulations will create jobs.

As an example, let’s look at the microwave oven regulation that Ms. Zichal cites in her blog post. According to the Department of Energy’s own employment analysis, the employment effects of this regulation are negligible. Since American consumers import roughly 99% of microwaves purchased, the DOE expects that effects on domestic production jobs will be virtually zero.

In addition, DOE models indirect employment effects on other industries as a result of changes in consumer behavior and investment decisions resulting from the regulation. While these numbers are highly uncertain given the inherent difficulty in predicting these things, the DOE estimated the rule will probably eliminate jobs in the short term, estimating between 551 jobs destroyed and 17 jobs created by 2016. In the long run, employment effects may be positive, with the regulation potentially creating between 153 and 697 jobs by 2020. However, the DOE notes there are limitations inherent in its model when calculating these effects, especially when trying to predict jobs created years in the future. For example, the DOE states:

Because [the agency’s model] does not incorporate price changes, the employment impacts predicted by [the model] would over-estimate the magnitude of actual job impacts over the long run for this rule.

The DOE goes on:

…in long-run equilibrium there is no net effect on total employment since wages adjust to bring the labor market into equilibrium. Nonetheless, even to the extent that markets are slow to adjust, DOE anticipates that net labor market impacts will be negligible over time due to the small magnitude of the short-term effects.

Creating jobs should never be the primary reason for justifying a regulation.  In most cases, jobs created by regulations are compliance jobs, which constitute a cost of regulating, not a benefit. More importantly, these types of predictions about jobs created and destroyed ignore the true employment costs of regulation that occur when individuals lose their jobs because of a rule. These costs include things like lost earnings, loss of health insurance, stress, additional health effects, etc. Despite this, by the DOE’s own estimates job creation does not appear to be a solid justification for this particular energy efficiency standard.

Should Regulation Prohibit Self-Penalizing Behavior?

Last weekend, a guy ordered the “Sourtoe Cocktail” at a hotel bar in Dawson City in the Yukon.  The drink is garnished with a real (preserved) human toe. The patron downed the drink, deliberately swallowed the toe, then paid the bar a $500 fine for swallowing the toe.

sour toe

Photo credit: Philippe Morin/CBC

This is the kind of anecdote that would prompt health and safety advocates in that less-civilized country south of the border (the United States) to call for a new regulation — probably one prohibiting the use of human body parts in cocktails. In my humble opinion, the story is a good example of why it’s a waste of government’s time to regulate against behavior that carries its own penalty.

In fact, there’s a double penalty in this case. First is the yuk factor.  I wouldn’t order a drink with a toe in it, much less swallow the garish garnish.  Second is the monetary fine imposed by the bar. And the bar subsequently raised the fine to $2500, since now the establishment has to pull a backup toe out of mothballs. (Presumably that’s the one on the plate of salt in the photo.)

That double-whammy already ensures that swallowing a toe in one’s drink will be a rare occurrence. Yet there is still some risk that it will happen again; a precautionary approach would suggest that a new regulation is indeed needed unless the drink can be proven absolutely safe.

The tale of the Sourtoe Cocktail is a fanciful (but real) example of self-penalizing behavior that is (apparently) not yet prohibited by the Canadian government. The U.S. government, however, has seen fit to enact regulations prohibiting much more mundane behavior that carries its own penalty.

For example, consider energy efficiency standards for appliances used by consumers and businesses. These standards effectively ban the sale of appliances that cost more to operate because they use more electricity or gas. Energy efficiency can have environmental benefits, but in many cases, most of the benefits the government claims for energy efficiency standards come in the form of lower energy bills for the users. In other words, the decision to buy a less-efficient washing machine, furnace, or refrigerator carries its own penalty in the form of higher energy costs.

The Department of Energy’s proferred justification for these regulations is that consumers harm themselves by placing too low a value on the future energy savings. That’s a debatable point that Ted Gayer and Kip Viscusi have amply dealt with in a recent study supported by the Mercatus Cetner and published in the Journal of Regulatory Economics. My colleague Sherzod Abdukadirov listed a bunch of regulations that employ similar logic in his recent post.

Even more questionable is the regulation regarding commercial washing machines that I reviewed for the Mercatus Regulatory Report Card. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for this regulation seriously argued that greedy, profit-oriented businesses would leave money on the table by refusing to invest in cost-saving, energy-efficient washing machines that would generate a high rate of return due to the energy savings!

With all the ways people find to harm each other, do we really need regulators to police behavior that carries its own penalty?

Asymmetric Information and Taxicabs

Under traditional taxi service models, consumers are at an informational disadvantage when hailing a cab. Since they can see the cab only from the outside as it screeches to a halt, people can’t tell whether the inside is clean, whether the driver is well-kempt, whether he will drive safely or whether the price is reasonable.

So, the argument goes, government regulators like the D.C. Taxicab Commission can solve the problem by establishing uniform codes of conduct and by pre-screening drivers for the consumers’ benefit. To this end, the commission establishes detailed cost and quality regulations, mandating everything from the per-mile fare that cabs may charge to the appropriate shade of carmine (or is it chestnut?) with which to paint cabs. Ideally, these rules make sure that cabs and their drivers meet the highest standards of quality and customer service.

Taxi

One company has found a way to solve this asymmetric information problem without government regulation. How have regulators reacted?

You can read the rest of my piece in the Washington Times to find out.

FDA is Finally Gluten-Free

by OngjulianBrady Dennis reported in the Washington Post that after nine excruciating years FDA finally came up with a “gluten-free” standard. It took so long for the usual reasons, as Dennis explains in his article:

Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the FDA took an “excruciating” amount of time to finalize its gluten-free definition in part because it had to consider a massive amount of research on celiac disease as well as varying opinions from activists who wanted even more stringent standards and industry officials who argued for more lenient requirements. In the end, he said, the agency struck the right balance.

The question that the article failed to ask was whether the FDA standard was even necessary. As Dennis points out, there are several independent private organizations that certify gluten-free products. Thus, not only do markets provide gluten-free certification, they also give consumers a choice on the standard’s stringency. Consumers who are highly sensitive to gluten can pick the labels that impose more stringent standards. Less sensitive consumers could choose products with higher gluten content.

Instead of fighting for nine long years for a single government imposed standard, why not let markets do what they do best – offer consumers better choices at lower prices?

A government that hands out privileges can expect corruption

According to the Washington Post, the mafia is heavily involved in Italy’s renewable energy market. This is not particularly surprising given that firms in that market compete on a manifestly uneven playing field.

The Godfather Movie in TextIn a market characterized by a genuinely level playing field—one in which no firm or industry benefits from government-granted privilege—the only way to profit is to offer something of value to customers. If you fail to create value for voluntarily paying customers, they won’t volunteer their money. It’s that simple.

But things are different when the playing field can be tilted through government-granted privileges. This is because when the playing field can be tilted, firms have an incentive to find some way to persuade the government to tilt it their way. And the most persuasive techniques aren’t always above board.

The problem is that objective standards for playing favorites are hard to come by. This can corrupt even well-intentioned programs that privilege particular behavior in the name of serving the general good.

Imagine you are a politician and you want to reward firms that specialize in renewable energy. How do you determine who makes the cut? What if you want to reward companies that securitize mortgages for low-income households. How do you decide whom to reward? Or say you want to bailout “systemically important” banks. Where do you draw the line between systemically important and systemically unimportant?

Without objective guideposts, subjective factors loom large: whom do you interact with the most? Whom have you known the longest? Which firms share your ideological perspective? Which are headquartered in your hometown?

Even the most well-intentioned of politicians are susceptible to these considerations because all humans are susceptible to these considerations. That’s why a slew of research has found government-granted privileges are often associated with corruption. For example, in an examination of 450 firms in 35 countries, economists Mara Faccio, Ronald Masulis, and John McConnell found that politically connected firms are more likely to be bailed out than non-connected firms. It’s possible that more deserving firms just happen to be politically connected, but this strains credulity. A more plausible explanation is that in the absence of an objective standard for dispensing privileges, politicians reward those they know.

And when that is the case, firms make it their business to get to know politicians. Just ask Angelo Mozilo, the politically ensconced former head of Countrywide Financial. Countrywide supplied the loans that were repackaged by the federally backed Fannie Mae. And since Countrywide’s business model depended on the favor of politicians, Mozilo made sure he was in good standing with his benefactors. Under a program known internally as the “Friends of Angelo” program, Countrywide offered favorable mortgage financing to the likes of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

The conventional route to profit is to please one’s customers. But when firms are able to profit by pleasing politicians, they will do whatever it takes to please politicians. Which brings us back to Italy and renewables. The current investigation (known as operation Eolo after the Greek god of wind) first bore fruit in 2010 when eight people were arrested for bribing officials with cash and luxury cars. Armed with more evidence, officials have now arrested another dozen crime bosses.

It is good, of course, to have police who investigate these matters. But a far simpler, equitable, and efficient solution is to create a truly level playing field for business. When politicians cannot tilt the playing field in favor of particular firms or industries, businesses have nothing to gain from bribery and connections.

Put away the honey jar and you won’t have an ant problem.