May 14, 2017

QotD: Big business, crony capitalism and regulatory capture

Now, Pope Francis has the beginnings of a point about large “private corporations” (note the oxymoron), which in their wealth may grow (though only temporarily) to a size rivalling the smaller national governments. And I would add, they become nearly as centralized and monopolistic (through “regulatory capture”), and faceless and bureaucratic as the agencies of State. Whenupon, unlike the self-perpetuating agencies of the State, they begin to disintegrate from their own lack of enterprise.

It is not enough, as the libertarians suppose, to leave them to their fate, in the knowledge that if they are inefficient they’ll be gone tomorrow. For new large corporations rise to take their place, and at every moment the great majority of people are reduced to wage-slaves of one large corporation or another. Indeed, part of the power of large corporations comes from their scale as employers. A democratic government which tries to stand up to them will quickly relent, and switch to subsidies instead, when they threaten to create mass unemployment.

The question must be asked: What makes vast, morally obtuse, centralized corporations possible? And the answer should be easy to see. It is vast, morally obtuse, centralized governments, which command regulatory regimes that are consistent over huge areas. That has actually become our model for global “free trade”: making regulations and taxation consistent not only across nations, but across continents. This creates an order which large corporations, and only large corporations, are well-equipped to exploit.

Imagine instead they were to face different regulatory regimes, parish by parish. They could still operate, but would have to adapt each franchise to local conditions, as defined by the sovereign local authority. This immediately flips the onus, and gives the local merchant or producer the advantage over his multinational competitor, in being on the spot. It reduces that competitor’s economy of scale, while also imposing upon him a new model of corporate governance, as network, that must of necessity become decentralized and responsive (just as creatures in nature) to every single environmental niche.

The re-focusing on what is local, and what is doable locally, would have tremendous ramifications on “the environment” at large — overwhelmingly positive, given some time. Yet it would also have the happy effect of disempowering the ecological whack cases.

David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.

February 5, 2017

QotD: Gaming the LEED certification for fun and profit

Some of my favorites include environmental building requirements tied to government contract approval. The LEED certification is such a joke. There are a ton of “real” categories, like motion detecting lights, solar / thermal filtering windows, CO2 neutral engineering. But if you can’t get enough of that, you can also squeeze in with points for “environmental education”. For instance, a display in the lobby discussing the three solar panels on the roof, or with a pretty diagram of the building’s heat pump system. You can end up getting a platinum LEED certification and still have the highest energy consumption density in the city of Chicago, as it turns out.

The proprietor of the Finem Respice blog, quoted by Warren Meyer, “Diesel Emissions Cheating, Regulation, and the Crony State”, Coyote Blog, 2017-01-14.

December 3, 2016

Trudeau government to approach legalizing marijuana as an explicitly crony capitalist exercise

Jay Currie was woken up at an ungodly early hour to talk on a radio show about the leaked portions of the Canada Marijuana Task Force Report. It’s apparently not good news for consumers but really great news for the existing favoured “legal” producers:

The leak itself is interesting and more than a little outrageous. The Report clearly favours Health Canada Licenced Medical Marijuana growers and many of those corporate grow shows are publically traded companies. Allowing the report to come out in dribs and drabs (because “translation”) could cause deep uncertainty in the public markets. The government should release the report, in toto, immediately.

Substantively, the Report apparently recommends that legalization efforts be directed at “getting rid of the $7-billion-a year black market. Sources familiar with the report, which is expected to be made public Dec. 21, say all the other recommendations flow from that guiding principle.”

It is not clear whether that “black market” includes the grey market of dispensaries and pot shops which has grown up in Canada and which continues to expand.

Using “legalization” as a weapon against the “black market” is pretty much the level of restrictive thinking I expected from the Task Force. Rather than seeing legalization as an opportunity to regularize the marijuana market, the language suggests a resumption of the war on drugs by other means.

The Task Force is apparently suggesting that the 40 Health Canada approved licencees remain the only legal source of marijuana and proposes that recreational pot, like medicinal pot, continue to be delivered by Canada Post. A nostalgic bow to the mail and a suggestion pretty certain to keep dispensaries and “Bob on the corner” in business for the foreseeable future. Here is a free clue for the Liberal government: recreational pot users are impulse buyers. As I say in my book, “The most common triggers for the decision is that, by their lights, a customer is running low on pot, has run out of pot or has been out of pot for some time but only now has the money to buy more pot.” In short, not likely to wait a week for Canada Post to deliver.

September 1, 2016

Don’t blame the market for the EpiPen price hike – blame the FDA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Scott Alexander explains why “the market” has very little to do with the outrageous price hike for EpiPens:

EpiPens, useful medical devices which reverse potentially fatal allergic reactions, have recently quadrupled in price, putting pressure on allergy sufferers and those who care for them. Vox writes that this “tells us a lot about what’s wrong with American health care” – namely that we don’t regulate it enough:

    The story of Mylan’s giant EpiPen price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.

Let me ask Vox a question: when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot? And why do you think that is?

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that they’re unregulated just like chairs and mugs. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that they’re part of a highly-regulated cronyist system that works completely differently from chairs and mugs.

If a chair company decided to charge $300 for their chairs, somebody else would set up a woodshop, sell their chairs for $250, and make a killing – and so on until chairs cost normal-chair-prices again. When Mylan decided to sell EpiPens for $300, in any normal system somebody would have made their own EpiPens and sold them for less. It wouldn’t have been hard. Its active ingredient, epinephrine, is off-patent, was being synthesized as early as 1906, and costs about ten cents per EpiPen-load.

Why don’t they? They keep trying, and the FDA keeps refusing to approve them for human use. For example, in 2009, a group called Teva Pharmaceuticals announced a plan to sell their own EpiPens in the US. The makers of the original EpiPen sued them, saying that they had patented the idea epinephrine-injecting devices. Teva successfully fended off the challenge and brought its product to the FDA, which rejected it because of “certain major deficiencies”. As far as I know, nobody has ever publicly said what the problem was – we can only hope they at least told Teva.


Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.

(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)

Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA spends millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you’ve got really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.

And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.

August 13, 2015

Grand Theft, banking style

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Salon, David Dayen tells the astounding tale of American banks going feral and mass-forging legal documents to foreclose mortgages on houses they had zero claim on:

If you know about foreclosure fraud, the mass fabrication of mortgage documents in state courts by banks attempting to foreclose on homeowners, you may have one nagging question: Why did banks have to resort to this illegal scheme? Was it just cheaper to mock up the documents than to provide the real ones? Did banks figure they simply had enough power over regulators, politicians and the courts to get away with it? (They were probably right about that one.)

A newly unsealed lawsuit, which banks settled in 2012 for $95 million, actually offers a different reason, providing a key answer to one of the persistent riddles of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The lawsuit states that banks resorted to fake documents because they could not legally establish true ownership of the loans when trying to foreclose.

This reality, which banks did not contest but instead settled out of court, means that tens of millions of mortgages in America still lack a legitimate chain of ownership, with implications far into the future. And if Congress, supported by the Obama administration, goes back to the same housing finance system, with the same corrupt private entities who broke the nation’s private property system back in business packaging mortgages, then shame on all of us.

July 22, 2015

Price Floors: Airline Fares

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In this video, we cover how price floors lead to wasteful increases in quality and a misallocation of resources. Using the real-world example of airline regulations from 1938-1978, we show how price floors can be used to restrict entry and reduce competition within an industry. When the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airline fares, airlines couldn’t compete on price so they instead had to compete by increasing quality. This may sound like a good thing, but we’ll show how this actually created quality waste since the cost of that quality was higher than the value to the customers. Price floors also lead to the misallocation of resources by preventing competition and responsiveness to consumer demand. In this video, we’ll show you how consumers are negatively affected by price floors.

April 7, 2015

Regulating the US railroads

Filed under: Business, Government, History, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander recently reviewed David Friedman’s latest revision to his 1973 book, The Machinery of Freedom (sometimes called The Machinery of Friedman by libertarian wags). Scott wasn’t totally sold on Friedman’s proposals, but he posted several highlights from the book, including this discussion of how the US government was persuaded to regulate the railroad industry and then the airlines:

One of the most effective arguments against unregulated laissez faire has been that it invariably leads to monopoly. As George Orwell put it, “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” It is thus argued that government must intervene to prevent the formation of monopolies or, once formed, to control them. This is the usual justification for antitrust laws and such regulatory agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board.

The best historical refutation of this thesis is in two books by socialist historian Gabriel Kolko: The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads and Regulation. He argues that at the end of the last century businessmen believed the future was with bigness, with conglomerates and cartels, but were wrong. The organizations they formed to control markets and reduce costs were almost invariably failures, returning lower profits than their smaller competitors, unable to fix prices, and controlling a steadily shrinking share of the market.

The regulatory commissions supposedly were formed to restrain monopolistic businessmen. Actually, Kolko argues, they were formed at the request of unsuccessful monopolists to prevent the competition which had frustrated their efforts.


It was in 1884 that railroad men in large numbers realized the advantages to them of federal control; it took 34 years to get the government to set their rates for them. The airline industry was born in a period more friendly to regulation. In 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), initially called the Civil Aeronautics Administration, was formed. It was given the power to regulate airline fares, to allocate routes among airlines, and to control the entry of new firms into the airline business. From that day until the deregulation of the industry in the late 1970s, no new trunk line — no major, scheduled, interstate passenger carrier — was started.

The CAB had one limitation: it could only regulate interstate airlines. There was one major intrastate route in the country — between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pacific Southwest Airlines, which operated on that route, had no interstate operations and was therefore not subject to CAB rate fixing. Prior to deregulation, the fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles on PSA was about half that of any comparable interstate trip anywhere in the country. That gives us a good measure of the effect of the CAB on prices; it maintained them at about twice their competitive level.

In this complicated world it is rare that a political argument can be proved with evidence readily accessible to everyone, but until deregulation the airline industry provided one such case. If you did not believe that the effect of government regulation of transportation was to drive prices up, you could call any reliable travel agent and ask whether all interstate airline fares were the same, how PSA’s fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles compared with the fare charged by the major airlines, and how that fare compared with the fare on other major intercity routes of comparable length. If you do not believe that the ICC and the CAB are on the side of the industries they regulate, figure out why they set minimum as well as maximum fares.

November 24, 2014

Allow more competition in the broadband marketplace

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Techdirt, Karl Bode points out the existing problem with lack of competition in the US broadband industry is largely due to various levels of government meddling with the market:

While Title II is the best net neutrality option available in the face of a lumbering broadband duopoly, it still doesn’t fix the fact that the vast majority of customers only have the choice of one or two broadband options. It’s this lack of competition that not only results in net neutrality violations (as customers can’t vote down stupid ISP behavior with their wallet), but the higher prices and abysmal customer service so many of us have come to know and love. Stripping away protectionist state laws can help a little, as can the slow rise of services like Google Fiber. But even these efforts can only go so far in blowing up a broadband duopoly, pampered through regulatory capture and built up over a generation of campaign contributions.

One solution is the return to the country’s barely-tried implementation of unbundling and network open access, or requiring that the nation’s subsidy-slathered monopolists open their networks to allow other competitors to come in and compete. There are many variations of this concept, and it’s something Google Fiber promised in its markets before backing away from it (much like their vocal support of net neutrality). Obviously being forced to compete is an immensely unpopular concept for the nation’s incumbent ISPs. Given that those companies dictate and often literally write the nation’s telecom laws, these requirements were eliminated in a number of policies moves starting in 2001 and culminating in the FCC’s Triennial Review Remand Order of 2004 (pdf).

This was amazingly presented at the time as a way to improve competition and spur investment, but primarily resulted in a bloodbath as dozens of consumer-friendly, smaller independent ISPs and CLECs were killed off, perpetuating and further cementing the noncompetitive duopoly we have today.


Despite the fact this model clearly works, it’s never considered in policy discussions as a serious possibility. Why? Quite simply because the incumbent providers don’t want it. Through the use of their various PR folk, astroturfers, think tankers, fauxcademics and assorted hired mouthpieces, they’ve successfully managed to utterly vilify the concept, painting it as the very worst sort of government meddling in (not actually) free markets. Instead, we’ve chosen to head down the path of letting the nation’s duopolists dictate telecom policy, and the end result should at this point be painfully obvious to everyone. Well, except the industry lobbyists who still somehow insist we’re all living in a competitive broadband Utopia.

May 16, 2014

The built-in confusion about net neutrality

While I’ve been following the net neutrality debate, I was still unconvinced that either side had the answers. In a post from 2008, ESR helps to explain why I was confused:

Let it be clear from the outset that the telcos are putting their case for being allowed to do these things with breathtaking hypocrisy. They honk about how awful it is that regulation keeps them from setting their own terms, blithely ignoring the fact that their last-mile monopoly is entirely a creature of regulation. In effect, Theodore Vail and the old Bell System bribed the Feds to steal the last mile out from under the public’s nose between 1878 and 1920; the wireline telcos have been squatting on that unnatural monopoly ever since as if they actually had some legitimate property right to it.

But the telcos’ crimes aren’t merely historical. They have repeatedly bargained for the right to exclude competitors from their networks on the grounds that if the regulators would let them do that, they’d be able to generate enough capital to deploy broadband everywhere. That promise has been repeatedly, egregiously broken. Instead, they’ve creamed off that monopoly rent as profit or used it to cross-subsidize competition in businesses with higher rates of return. (Oh, and of course, to bribe legislators and buy regulators.)

Mistake #1 for libertarians to avoid is falling for the telcos’ “we’re pro-free market” bullshit. They’re anything but; what they really want is a politically sheltered monopoly in which they have captured the regulators and created business conditions that fetter everyone but them.

OK, so if the telcos are such villainous scum, the pro-network-neutrality activists must be the heroes of this story, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Your typical network-neutrality activist is a good-government left-liberal who is instinctively hostile to market-based approaches. These people think, rather, that if they can somehow come up with the right regulatory formula, they can jawbone the government into making the telcos play nice. They’re ideologically incapable of questioning the assumption that bandwidth is a scarce “public good” that has to be regulated. They don’t get it that complicated regulations favor the incumbent who can afford to darken the sky with lawyers, and they really don’t get it about outright regulatory capture, a game at which the telcos are past masters.


In short, the “network neutrality” crowd is mainly composed of well-meaning fools blinded by their own statism, and consequently serving mainly as useful idiots for the telcos’ program of ever-more labyrinthine and manipulable regulation. If I were a telco executive, I’d be on my knees every night thanking my god(s) for this “opposition”. Mistake #2 for any libertarian to avoid is backing these clowns.

In the comments, he summarizes “the history of the Bell System’s theft of the last mile”.

January 17, 2014

The Nanny State ethos – you’re too thick, so we’ll do the thinking for you

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:37

At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall talks about the way regulatory agencies approach problems:

It’s claimed as one of the great victories for enlightened (sorry) regulation, the way that the EU and US have both banned the incandescent light bulb through bureaucratic action. The ban came about by raising the efficiency standards required: this meant that the traditional bulb could no longer be sold.

The argument in favour of doing things this way was, in public at least, that everyone’s too stupid (or, in a more polite manner, subject to hyperbolic discounting) to realise that the new bulbs will actually save them money in the long term by consuming less electricity. There are also the more cynical in the industry who insist that it’s actually a case of regulatory capture. The light bulb manufacturing companies managing to get us all away from using cheap as spit bulbs and onto something with a decent margin on it.


This has a number of implications in the larger world as well: for example, it means that bureaucratic regulation on car mileages (like CAFE in the US) is contra-indicated. A simple tax on petrol will drive up average mpg because we’re not all as thick as bricks. Assuming that climate change really is a problem that must be dealt with then a carbon tax is going to do the job. For we’re not all so dim that we cannot work out the utility of using fossil fuels or not given the change in prices.

That is, we don’t need to be regulated into behaviour, we can be influenced into it through the price system. Something that really shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise to us market liberals: for we’re the people who already insist that people do indeed respond to price incentives in markets.

April 12, 2011

A “gun-crazed oil-drunk Albertan” on the NDP and Green platforms

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Economics, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:00

Colby Cosh tries to be nice about the Green Party and NDP platforms:

The contrast between the parties’ platforms is interesting: the Green ideas induce slightly more sheer nausea of the “literally everything in here is eye-slashingly horrible” kind, but at the same time there is a consoling breath of radicalism pervading Vision Green, a redeeming Small Is Beautiful spirit. At least, one feels, their nonsense is addressed to the individual. A typical laissez-faire economist would probably like the Green platform the least of the four on offer from national parties, but the Greens may be the strongest of all in advocating the core precept that prices are signals. At one point, denouncing market distortions created by corporate welfare, Vision Green approvingly quotes the maxim “Governments are not adept at picking winners, but losers are adept at picking governments.” (The saying is attributed to a 2006 book by Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute, but a gentleman named Paul Martin Jr. had uttered a version of it as early as 2000.)

That has always been the biggest failing of the regulatory view of politics: no matter how carefully you select the regulators, the regulated have many, many ways to (eventually) suborn them. Regulatory capture is the most common result, as the regulators become more closely attuned to the needs of their “charges” and work to protect them from competitors and social and technological change. What may have started as an attempt to rein-in over powerful industrial interests slowly becomes a de facto arm of government protection over the existing major players in that industry.

The New Democratic platform is more adult and serious than the Greens’ overall, which comes as no surprise. But it occurs to me, not for the first time this year, how much some folks love “trickle-down politics” when they are not busy denouncing “trickle-down economics”. How does Jack Layton hope to remedy the plight of the Canadian Indian? By “building a new relationship” with his politicians and band chiefs. How does he propose to improve the lot of artists? By flooding movie and TV producers, and funding agencies, with money and tax credits. He’ll help parents by giving money to day care entrepreneurs; he’ll sweeten the pot for “women’s groups” and “civil society groups”. One detects, perhaps mostly from prejudice, a suffocating sense of system-building, of unskeptical passion for bureaucracy, of disrespect for the sheer power of middlemen to make value disappear.

It’s useful to check who would be the actual beneficiaries of this kind of increased bureaucratization of life — and we’re generally not talking about the putative winners, but the actual ones — the ones who will staff the new agencies, bureaux, and commissions, the ones who will provide consulting services, and the ones who will study the results.

The Greens get a big thumbs-up from this corner for this particular clause of their platfom:

In 2008, according to the Treasury Board, Canada spent $61.3 million targeting illicit drugs, with a majority of that money going to law enforcement. Most of that was for the “war” against cannabis (marijuana). Marijuana prohibition is also prohibitively costly in other ways, including criminalizing youth and fostering organized crime. Cannabis prohibition, which has gone on for decades, has utterly failed and has not led to reduced drug use in Canada.

The Greens promise that cannabis would be removed from the schedule of illegal drugs and that the growth and sale of cannabis products would be regularized (and taxed), although with the usual shibboleth about the market needing to be restricted to small producers. If you’re making the stuff legal to sell, you shouldn’t try to micro-manage the product and producers you’re moving into the legal marketplace.

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