We mentioned Philip K. Howard’s new book “The Rule of Nobody” the other day. Here’s another excerpt (which also appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s “Notable and Quotable”:
The 2009 economic stimulus package promoted by President Obama included $5 billion to weatherize some 607,000 homes—with the goals of both spurring the economy and increasing energy efficiency. But the project was required to comply with a statute called the Davis-Bacon Act (signed into law by President Hoover in 1931), which provides that construction projects with federal funding must pay workers the “prevailing wage”—basically a union perk that costs taxpayers about 20 percent more than actual labor rates. This requirement comes with a mass of red tape; bureaucrats in the Labor Department must set wages, as a matter of law, for each category of construction worker in each of three thou- sand counties in America. There was no schedule for “weatherproofers.” So the Labor Department began a slow trudge of determining how much weatherproofers should be paid in Merced County, California; Monmouth County, New Jersey; and several thousand other counties. The stimulus plan had projected that California would weatherproof twenty-five hundred homes per month. At the end of 2009, the actual total was twelve.
Mark Steyn revisits the subject of Kinder Surprise eggs, the chocolate-wrapped toys popular in much of the rest of the world but forbidden under a distinctive U.S. law which bans the “embedding of non-nutritive items” in confectionery. According to the Department of Homeland Security, border agents confiscated more than 25,000 of the prohibited treats in more than 2,000 seizures during one recent year. Earlier here (Steyn: “The real choking hazard is the vise-like grip of government”), here, etc.
For those who freaked out at those headlines Thursday, Daniel Fisher at Forbes has a corrective to the New York Times’ latest story advancing the trial lawyer campaign against arbitration. More: Eric Goldman. Sequel: General Mills quickly withdraws new policy, perhaps reasoning that even when the New York Times is wrong, a consumer marketing company really can’t win trying to argue with it.
Over “incessant filing of frivolous lawsuits.” [Lowering the Bar, opinion in Conrad v. AM Community Credit Union et al. (PDF)]
I’ve got a new post at Cato about the latest federal court smackdown of overreaching enforcement by the Obama administration, this time in a Department of Labor prosecution regarding a Texas company’s wage-and-hour classification. I mention some greatest hits of the past couple of years reversing DoL, the EEOC, the EPA and other agencies, and suggest that a useful step might be for regulated businesses to contest unreasonable cases more often rather than, as is so often the norm now, paying to get them over with.
Time mag asked arch-leftwinger Barbara Ehrenreich about the best single way to reduce income inequality. I’d never have dreamed that David Henderson would agree with the answer she gave — or that I would too. More here on Ehrenreich’s views on the “criminalization of poverty” (which, not surprisingly, head off in directions very different from mine once you’re past the initial area of agreement).
One reader points out that laws against behaviors like driving with broken headlights or lapsed insurance are of universal benefit and improve road safety. But I don’t think Ehrenreich’s point (or Henderson’s or mine) amounts to “let’s legalize driving with broken headlights.” Not so long ago, many petty offenses of traffic and street life were illegal but the consequences of violation were much less harsh. The other day I got a transponder toll in the mail amounting to maybe $10, which would jump to $150+ if I didn’t get in a payment within 20 days; being your basic organized middle-class person, I dashed off a check that same day. Add one complicating factor — say I was a person whose mail was forwarded to me from another address — and it would have been a closer thing.
Why has government chosen to escalate once-petty fines over the past couple of generations? 1) It wants revenue and likes the idea of making agencies self-financing or better; 2) it listens more closely to its own agencies than to the populace; 3) when middle class policymakers (as they nearly always are) consider the issue, they think of what level of fine it would take to deter someone like themselves and worry less about whether fines at that level might capsize the little guy or small business (I hear often about how this framework of punitive small fines is a key deterrent to trying to run a small business with a couple of delivery trucks and maybe an urban commercial building or two to run up inspection and property fines.)
The reformist consumer finance literature, to which Elizabeth Warren was a big contributor as an academic, and with which Ehrenreich is no doubt well acquainted, decries $30 late fees and 20 percent interest rates as a business plan by which credit card companies can turn small debts into big ones at the expense of persons without middle-class money habits and skills. Which raises the question: why spend so much time belaboring the banks if government’s own policy on late fees, bounced checks, etc. is going to be so much less merciful?
P.S. An example? South Carolina man says he didn’t realize you needed to pay for a soda refill at VA hospital canteen. Contemplated consequences: $525 fine, federal criminal conviction, unable to return to workplace. (Update: following national publicity, let off with warning).
Megan McArdle has some thoughts on the role of changing divorce law among a broader shift of social mores and expectations on marriage, cohabitation, and childbearing in and out of wedlock.
Note, however, that reformers might take an interest in reconsidering the no-fault revolution from many motives other than a simple wish to discourage the rate of divorce across the board. (Contrary to some imaginings, critics of no-fault are a diverse crew, including social scientists, economists, lawyers and judges writing from secular, liberal, and classical-liberal as well as religious-conservative standpoints.) Some see no-fault as deficient in fairness in deciding between the claims of offending and innocent spouses. Some worry that it results in a first-mover advantage in favor of whichever spouse initiates the unraveling of a marriage (by removing assets, for example) and that such an advantage might have destructive effects if not corrected for in some way. And while (as McArdle argues) an expectation of marriage as being a hassle to leave might discourage entry into the institution, it is also possible that an expectation of it as being easily dissolved and lacking in real security might discourage entry by other persons.
“No-fault,” incidentally, may not be the most accurate term for the new system (“unilateral” would be more precise, sometimes combined with “relatively speedy”). While fault as such in contested cases may be kicked out the front door, it very often comes back in through the window in the form of arguments about parental fitness, appropriate asset division and other issues that are still open for argument in court.
The state legislature adjourned last week having abandoned a threat to seize the hit TV show “House of Cards” through the use of eminent domain, with negotiations over the extent of tax subsidies to the show still hanging in part. I’ve got an update at Cato, with specific attention to the use of eminent domain to confiscate moveable and intangible assets, as opposed to land; in earlier episodes, Maryland has gone after the Baltimore Colts football team (which escaped) and the Preakness horse race (which agreed to stay).
“It’s Doctors’ Duty to Promote Gun Safety With Patients” [Art Caplan, Medscape via Bill of Health] Next step: giving patients a hard time about kitchen or camping knives? [A. Barton Hinkle]
If you imagine that Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is some sort of constitutional conservative, Josh Blackman wants to direct your attention to the Property Clause as well as the Supremacy Clause of the (actually existing) U.S. Constitution. He also has some thoughts on the Equal Footing Doctrine (states come into the union on an equal footing to the original 13), and on the rule of law in the context of the alleged right to flout court orders. Earlier here, with many reader comments, and more from Charles C. W. Cooke.
P.S.: Yet more views from Coyote and from Brian Doherty.
Sorry, say the feds: a drone ban is a drone ban [Steve Chapman]
Nick Gillespie reviews the new book by the author of The Death of Common Sense:
The Rule of Nobody updates and expands Howard’s original brief, and it helps to explain why government at all levels not only is on autopilot but on a flight path that can only end in disaster.
Every Philip Howard book is notable for its horror stories of regulation and systemic dysfunction, and reviewer Kyle Smith in the New York Post relates one I hadn’t heard, about the mammoth Deepwater Horizon spill:
When the oil rig started leaking mud and gas, the crew should have simply directed the flow over the side. Dumped it in the gulf. That would have been a small oil spill, of course, and no oil spill is a good thing. But in trying to avoid that, the crew caused a gigantic oil spill. Eleven lives were lost.
Safety protocol called for the men to aim the flow into a safety gizmo called an oil and gas separator, but that became backed up and made matters worse. Explosive gas filled the air around the rig, which finally exploded.
Then some workers who escaped in a raft almost died. Why? They were tied to the burning rig, and regulations forbade them to carry knives so they couldn’t cut themselves free.
More on the book here.
“How Breast Implant Size is Relevant to Tax Policy” [Alan Cole, Tax Foundation]
My knowledge of baccarat never got beyond James Bond novels, but this is quite a story of the Borgata casino’s suing a world-leading player over his having taken advantage of a defect in playing card manufacture, to the tune of nearly $10 million. There are some echoes of the perennial controversy over blackjack card counters (see here and here) [Kyle Wagner, DeadSpin].
Huge win for justice and good sense: facing a mounting public furor, “The Social Security Administration announced Monday that it will immediately cease efforts to collect on taxpayers’ debts to the government that are more than 10 years old.” [WaPo] Credit goes above all to the Washington Post and its reporter Marc Fisher for exposing the most outrageous features of the IRS’s refund-interception program last week, as recounted in this space; I like to think I helped as well by beating the drum early and repeatedly since then with Cato’s help. Overlawyered’s Facebook post on the subject has been seen by more than 60,000 people and shared more than 700 times in the past few days. (Have you liked us yet?)
The next step should be to establish for the public record how the provision in question got slipped into the farm bill, and at whose behest. Congress’s refusal to be forthcoming on this topic speaks volumes about its lack of a felt sense of responsibility toward the people it represents.
And a theme I’ve been repeating for almost as long as I’ve been writing about law: statutes of limitations developed in civilized legal systems for a reason. They protect us not only from cost, uncertainty, and the misery of legal process, but from injustice of a hundred other kinds, and they protect society itself from spiraling into a legal war of all against all. Stop trying to abolish them!
More: Ed Morrissey, Megan McArdle. And here’s a Cato podcast just out on the subject in which Caleb Brown interviews me on the topic: