Tag Archives: USDA

What the Affordable Care Act Can Teach Us about Government Failure

Most people probably believe that the recent failures of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are an anomaly, and that most areas the federal government involves itself in, from education to transportation, operate quite smoothly, or at least adequately well. This belief is misguided, however, and the issues we see from the ACA should not be viewed as anomalies. Problems like unintended consequences of policy, privilege granting to special interests, adverse selection in insurance markets, and other issues, are widespread in countless areas of public policy. It just so happens that we usually fail to associate the pernicious effects of laws with their source: public policy.

First, public policies create many unintended consequences. People will change their behavior in response to altered incentives from policies and when these behavior changes are not anticipated by lawmakers, unintended consequences occur. As an example, the ACA has altered incentives for many employers. Business owners are now likely to cut worker hours and keep their staffs under 50 employees in order to avoid paying penalties imposed by the law. The intention was that people will get insurance through their jobs, while a result is that many people will lose their jobs or work fewer hours.

A similar effect occurred after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This well-intentioned Act of Congress was supposed to level the playing field for disabled workers by requiring that businesses with disabled workers provide accommodations, such as wheelchair access. The Act also sought to prevent discrimination of disabled workers, such as firing someone for having a disability. The reality once the law was in place was very different, however. Economists have found that the law was followed by a steep decline in employment among disabled workers, likely because of increased costs associated with hiring them, exactly the opposite result the law intended. Perhaps the most famous unintended consequence of all is the fact that minimum wage laws actually hurt low skilled workers.

A lot of these effects, while unintentional, are actually quite predictable and any good economist should be able to identify potential unintended consequences before a law is even implemented. So why do these policies get adopted? A big reason is because special interests have enormous influence in shaping policy. The Affordable Care Act literally has provisions allowing handouts to insurance companies to make up for losses they face in the new government health insurance exchanges. Unfortunately, cronyism like this shapes policy at all levels. For example, a recent USDA regulation will require additional food safety inspection of imported catfish. This may sound like a sensible idea, until one finds out there is no evidence of a significant problem from tainted catfish. The new program was actually lobbied for by domestic catfish producers who wanted to hurt their foreign competitors by driving up the price of imports, all at the expense of American consumers.

A final problem created by the Affordable Care Act relates to adverse selection in insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs because of information problems between buyers and sellers of insurance. Healthy people may have trouble signaling that they are a low risk to insurers, and so the healthy drop out of insurance markets when insurers don’t offer them a low priced product that serves their needs. This can lead to mostly sick people signing up for insurance coverage, while the healthy decide to go without coverage. Over time this leads to higher prices, causing more healthy people to decline coverage and the pool of insured to become ever sicker.

The ACA creates this problem through community rating requirements and other regulations, like guaranteed issue, that don’t allow insurance companies to price policies based on the riskiness of the applicant. As insurance premiums rise (because of regulations and because insurance companies must cover many new services), more and more healthy people will find these policies unattractive. The insurance pool will become ever sicker over time. To avoid this problem, the ACA includes a mandate that everyone purchase insurance. However, it is far from clear whether the current mandate is strong enough to prevent adverse selection problems from taking place.

This problem is hardly new. New York State passed extremely strict community rating regulations several decades ago. This led to higher premiums and lots of young, healthy people dropping out of the insurance pool. I should know, I lived in New York and went without insurance for most of my 20s. The prices of policies were simply too high for me to justify paying.

The list of government failures likely to result from the Affordable Care Act is too long for one blog post. The ACA also has regressive effects that tend to favor the wealthy at the expensive of the middle class, and the law will add to moral hazard problems in our healthcare system (i.e. people over-utilizing medical services or not taking adequate care of themselves because the costs of their behavior are passed on to others).

The ACA may have serious problems, but it works great as a teaching device. Nearly every day we see another example of government failure in action.  Maybe once Americans see the effects of the ACA, they will look more closely at the effects of other policies as well.

Do We Need a Strategic Cherry Reserve?

What do national public interest and cherries have in common? If you follow national politics on a regular basis, the answer probably will not surprise you. It is federal regulation. This week, the USDA issued an interim rule that revised the deadlines for cherry growers submitting their plans to comply with or applications to divert from the centrally planned production of tart cherries. The plan is approved each year by the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, which is elected by cherry growers. The USDA has the power to sanction any grower that deviates from the plan. Yes, the United States has a federally imposed cartel for cherries (among many other agricultural products; you can check here if your favorite fruit made the list). Take that, Canada.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act, which gave the USDA power to regulate the volume of cherries produced in the country, originally passed in 1937. It is doubtful that it had much economic rationale back then (other than granting privilege to favored interest groups). It certainly makes little sense today. Granted that as a key ingredient in cherry pies tart cherries are dear to many Americans, but counting them as “agricultural commodities with a national public interest,” as the federal government does under the Act, is at best an overstatement. In the end, the best way to protect the national public interest is to for the federal government to stop telling farmers when and how to grow their crops.

Why Regulations Fail

Last week, David Fahrenthold wrote a great article in the Washington Post, in which he described the sheer absurdity of a USDA regulation mandating a small town magician to develop a disaster evacuation plan for his rabbit (the rabbit was an indispensible part of trick that also involved a hat). The article provides a good example of the federal regulatory process’ flaws that can derail even the best-intentioned regulations. I list a few of these flaws below.

  1. Bad regulations often start with bad congressional statutes. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, the statute authorizing the regulation, was meant to prevent medical labs from using lost pets for experiments. Over time, the statute expanded to include all warm-blooded animals (pet lizards apparently did not merit congressional protection) and to apply to zoos and circuses in addition to labs (pet stores, dog and cat shows, and several other venues for exhibiting animals were exempt).The statute’s spotty coverage resulted from political bargaining rather than the general public interest in animal welfare. The USDA rule makes the statute’s arbitrariness immediately apparent. Why would a disaster plan benefit circus animals but not the animals in pet stores or farms? (A colleague of mine jokingly suggested eating the rabbit as part of an evacuation plan, since rabbits raised for meat are exempt from the regulation’s requirements).
  2. Regulations face little oversight. When media reported on the regulation’s absurdity, the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered the regulation to be reviewed. It seems that even the agency’s head was caught off guard by the actions of his agency’s regulators. Beyond internal supervision, only a fraction of regulations face external oversight. Of over 2600 regulations issued in 2012, less than 200 were subject to the OMB review (data from GAO and OMB). Interestingly, the OMB did review the USDA rule but offered only minor revisions.
  3. Agencies often fail to examine the need for regulation. In typical Washington fashion, the agency decided to regulate in response to a crisis – Hurricane Katrina in this case. In fact, the USDA offered little more than Katrina’s example to justify the regulation. It offered little evidence that the lack of disaster evacuation plans was a widespread problem that required the federal government to step in. In this, the USDA is not alone. According to the Mercatus Center’s Regulatory Report Card, which evaluates agencies’ economic analysis, few agencies offer substantial evidence justifying the need for promulgated regulations.
  4. Agencies often fail to examine the regulation’s effectiveness. The USDA’s plan to save animals in case of a disaster was to require owners to draw up an evacuation plan. It offered little evidence that having a plan would in fact save the animals. For example, the magician’s evacuation plan called for shoving the rabbit into a plastic bag and getting out. In the USDA’s view, the magician would not have thought of doing the same had he not drawn up the evacuation plan beforehand.
  5. The public has little influence in the process. By law, agencies are required to ask the public for input on proposed regulations. Yet, small businesses and individual consumers rarely have time or resources to keep an eye on federal agencies. In general, organized interests dominate the commenting process. The article describes the magician’s surprise to learn that he was required to have a license and a disaster evacuation plan his rabbit, even though the regulation was in the works for a few years and was open for public comments for several months. Most small businesses, much like this magician, learn about regulations only after they have passed.
  6. Public comments are generally ignored. Most public comments that the USDA received argued against the rule. They pointed out that it would impose substantial costs on smaller businesses. The agency dismissed the comments with little justification. This case is not unique. Research indicates that agencies rarely make substantial changes to regulations in response to public comments.