Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Deep Thoughts with Thom Tillis

Bringing the blog out of semi-retirement just for newly-elected Senator Thom Tillis, proudly representing my home state by taking a stand against hand-washing:
Speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Tillis recounted a story from 2010. “I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'" he said. When the conversation turned to restaurant regulations, Tillis recalled saying, “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.’ The market will take care of that. It’s one example.”
Democrats are having a pretty good laugh about this, Republicans are annoyed that no one's paying attention to the moral of Tillis's little parable (see above: "The point here is not a revolutionary movement to fight for the freedom of diners to serve you feces with your Denver omelet. The idea is that, even in the most extreme or absurd situations, the common sense of Americans and the self-correcting nature of the free market take care of many woes.").

But what no one seems to be saying is that his example is actually a perfect illustration of why regulation sometimes is needed. After all, requiring Starbucks to post a sign describing its hand-washing policies, as Tillis suggests, is a form of regulation, almost exactly as onerous as straightforwardly requiring employees to wash their hands. And that sign is necessary because even Thom Tillis does not expect Consumer Reports to follow individual employees into the bathroom, monitor their hand-washing activity, and publish their findings, all in the service of the golden and glorious ideal of perfect market information. That Which Happens In Bathrooms is pretty much the definition of asymmetric market information, and therefore precisely the kind of thing we need regulation in order to correct if we're going to avoid suboptimal market outcomes, e.g., consumers ingesting feces.

It's pretty telling that Thom Tillis, trying to explain why government solutions are unnecessary, could himself only resolve the Great Bathroom Hygiene Conundrum by resorting to a government solution. Sure, his uses information and the other uses a straight-up mandate, but tomato, tomahto, right? I'd personally advise him to think even more deeply about this important policy question -- maybe he'll start to wonder if he's hit upon something pretty fundamental about the role of the government in the marketplace. And then maybe, like, announce his support for annuity disclosure regulations or something. We can dream?

Monday, June 30, 2014

The six best lines from RBG's Hobby Lobby dissent

In the spirit of this Mother Jones article, here are my nominations for the six best Ruth Bader-Ginsburg zingers from her fearsome dissent in Hobby Lobby. I hope you're sitting down for this:

  • "The Court's reading is not plausible."
  • "In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded."
  • "The Court's 'special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations," Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 14), however, is just that."
  • "That Hobby Lobby and Conestoga resist coverage only 4 of the 20 FDA-approved contraceptives does not lessen these compelling interests."
  • "As altered by the Women's Health Amendment's passage, the ACA requires new insurance plans to include coverage without cost share of 'such additional preventive care and screenings . . . as provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration [(HRSA)]," a unit of HHS. 42 U.S.C. §300gg-13(a)(4)."
  • Cf. supra, at 7-8; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 177 (1944) (Jackson, J., dissenting) ("[The] limitations which of necessity bound religious freedom . . . begin to operate whenever activities begin to affect or collide with liberties of others or of the public.").

Alito will probably think twice before he crosses Ginsburg again. What can we expect next from the acid pen of this liberal lioness?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why Obama Shook Raul Castro's Hand, in One Graph

The media is in a tizzy over Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand.  John McCain called it "appeasement." The New York Times is looking for signs of an American-Cuban rapprochement.  Here at 4:17 A.M., however, we prefer a more empirical approach.  Click the picture for a graph that explains everything:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Unpaid internships are a bad deal for workers, unless you're rich

I have to admit, I was fairly horrified by Yglesias's recent piece in defense of unpaid internships. He seems to think that opposition to the practice is primarily rooted in a desire by currently-working unpaid interns to improve their compensation and standing:
Critics of the unpaid internship seem to assume that tighter regulation would simply mean today’s interns would magically become paid employees. In some cases, that might happen. But many positions would simply be eliminated. More to the point, those positions that were converted into paid ones would likely be given to different people than the unpaid interns of today. There’s a reason there are lots of paid internships and salaried entry-level jobs in the world—you can recruit better people by offering money, so if you have to offer money, you’ll go after those people rather than the current pool of underexperienced students and recent graduates. 
 Matt's way, way off the mark here. Everyone knows that many working interns would lose their jobs if the practice were curtailed; in many ways that would be exactly the point of reform. The concern over unpaid internships is not just over the interns themselves. Sure, they get a pretty raw deal, but that's not the real issue. The deeper problem is that unpaid internships effectively screen out people who can't work for free, distorting the labor market in favor of those who already have some degree of economic security. In the meantime, capable-but-economically-disadvantaged workers are forced into less-competitive, higher-paid positions where employers have to provide compensation in order to attract qualified applicants.

Before getting into the fairness issue, it's also worth mentioning that unpaid internships do hurt low-end workers as a class. One way to think about this is to think about who loses what if unpaid internships go away. Potential interns lose nothing financially, but do lose the opportunity to earn job experience which could eventually translate into financial gain. But of course the interns only receive the financial gain if they do ultimately find their way into a paid position. Since killing off internships would probably actually increase the number of paid positions available (though not at a 1:1 ratio), the financial opportunity available to this class of workers would increase, just in a different distribution than before.

Employers, however, would unequivocally lose out. They'd have to pay to get something they were previously getting for free. That payment would represent a net transfer of wealth from employer to employees, even before distributional consequences are examined.

And what about those distributional consequences? Matt sort of implicitly handwaves away this concern by presupposing that employers will replace internships with higher educational requirements, effectively recreating the same dynamic where the wealthy are favored, but I'm not sure there's any real evidence that this is the case. After all, employers seeking interns still make an effort to hire the most-qualified applicant, so it's not like unpaid internships necessarily reduce the problem of overcredentialing or competitive advantages conferred by a degree. Rich kids aren't skipping college or grad school in order to take an imternship; they're just doing both. What's more, while Matt correctly speculates that a post-internship world would favor more-experienced applicants over less-experienced applicants (a dystopia otherwise known as "meritocracy"), employers still need to fill their lower ranks eventually. Getting rid of unpaid internships would simply remove the windfall employers receive by hiring affluent young workers who don't demand pay. There are obvious problems with a system where employers can benefit financially by giving their most sought-after entry-level positions to workers already possessing significant financial resources, and yet that's precisely the system unpaid internships create. The rich kids are getting enough help already, thanks.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I really feel like it's worth breaking this blog's employment-induced hiatus to note...

the filibuster is dead

dead dead dead

it actually happened

after all these years

the filibuster is gone






...not completely dead.  But a big chunk of it is, and the life expectancy of the remainder has got to be pretty short at this point.

Today's vote only eliminates the filibuster with regards to non-Supreme Court judicial nominations, so executive appointments can still be vetoed by a Senate minority, as can, you know, actual legislation.  But: the biggest obstacle to removing the filibuster was the taboo against removing the filibuster.  As today's vote proved, the Senate, if it felt sufficiently motivated, could override that taboo any time it pleased.  And now the taboo is broken.  That means, almost certainly, one of the parties will, in the future, break it again, and with even less fuss. And again, and again, until every vestige of the whole dumb rule is thoroughly expunged from the legislative process.

And there are a lot of factors speeding that day along.  Democrats know that the increasingly polarized GOP probably won't hesitate to deploy the nuclear option if they recapture the Senate, so they have a real incentive to go ahead and fire first, as it were.  (Indeed, that calculation seems to be largely responsible for today's vote.)  And today's vote isn't likely to cow Republicans into cooperating on legislation or appointments--though cooperation would probably better preserve their influence for the time being--but might well induce even more intransigence.  Now that the Senate majority has discovered its own strength, the further breakdown of trust and cooperation can only lead inexorably towards true majority rule in the chamber.

This is just fantastic, guys.  Really.  Congratulations!  America is 30% more democratic than when you woke up this morning.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The lie on Times front page

The headline and first half of the blurb are true.  The last bit--"in part because the plans come with serious trade-offs"--simply isn't.  To the extent that the subsidies have been ignored, it's because the problems with the federal exchanges, and then Republican hysteria over the individual market, have attracted all the media attention and drowned out anyone who points out the law's many positive features.  Most signs suggest the media doesn't actually understand the law very well and tends to report on it by looking at whatever aspect is generating the most heat at any given moment.

It's a tiny thing but it's irritating because the Times is straight-out lying.  It's lying to give itself cover for a journalistic omission.  What really happened is that the paper, like the rest of the media, first focused on the (justifiable) bipartisan anger over the broken exchanges, and then focused on the (unjustifable) GOP anger over cancelled individual policies, and finally seems to be catching up with reality.  But it won't say that, so instead it's made up a completely fictional policy rationale for a political phenomenon.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Boehner saves himself

One of the odder consequences of the shutdown is that I'm visiting National Review Online many times per day, because it's basically the only outlet with any access to the House GOP.  Here's an interesting passage from Jonathan Strong's reporting today:
While some on the right have been sniping about peripheral issues, Boehner largely embraced the playbook put together by conservatives like Senators Ted Cruz, who wanted to use the continuing-resolution bill to wage a fight over Obamacare. 
So now that the fight has been lost, it’s not Boehner whom they blame, but the GOP’s moderates, who pushed to end the government shutdown earlier. 
“Actually I think the speaker stood up and said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ I remember at conference on Thursday he said ‘there’s only one way out of this, and that’s to win.’ Well, that’s not the way it ended up,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp. 
“But it’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’ I mean, whining and whining. I would say surrender caucus, but it’s a whiner caucus. And all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job,” he says.
There are two interesting things to take away from this article.

The first is that Boehner has successfully threaded the needle.  By shutting down the government until the last possible second, he's convinced his caucus that he'll go to bat for them and the only thing holding him back is the weenies in the center.  That's an amazing bit of political judo.  Virtually everyone sees Boehner's inability to unite his party around a single set of demands as being tremendously damaging for Republicans, but by holding fast and letting the damage occur, Boehner has deflected the blame (at least within his own party) on to moderates.  Conversely, if he'd folded early and saved the party the embarrassment, there'd be people calling for his head.

The other takeaway?  It sure seems a lot like Boehner shut down the country for two weeks, skirted with the threat of default, raised US borrowing costs, slowed job growth, and undermined Americans' confidence in their government and economy, all for the sake of saving his job.