Economics

Teacher pay raise funding passes House | Local | idahostatejournal.comWhy can’t governments ever clean up their messes? Occasional spring cleanings are essential not only for keeping our own homes tidy and in good working order, but also for keeping our government systems functioning effectively. What can be done? In a new essay with my Mercatus Center colleagues Patrick McLaughlin and Matthew Mitchell, we note that Idaho Governor Brad Little has just issued a smart Executive Order that aims to clean house by bringing state rules in line with common sense. Specifically, the governor’s order addresses what to do with the 150-plus regulations that Idaho state agencies waived in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a great model for other states, and it tracks a proposal that Patrick, Matt, and I floated in a white paper just a few months ago. The entire essay, which originally ran on The Bridge, is reprinted below.

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Idaho “Spring Cleaning” Order a Model for Other States

by Patrick McLaughlin, Matthew D. Mitchell & Adam Thierer

Regulations tend to accumulate endlessly. Today there are over 1 million restrictive words (think “shall” or “must”) in the Code of Federal Regulations. Some states, like California and New York, layer on hundreds of thousands of additional regulatory restrictions. Fewer than 1 percent of these rules have been subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analyses. And once regulations are on the books, it is fairly rare to see them subjected to any sort of retrospective review to see how they have performed. Continue reading →

[Co-authored with Walter Stover]

Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems have grown more prominent in both their use and their unintended effects. Just last month, LAPD announced that they would end their use of a predicting policing system known as PredPol, which had sustained criticism for reinforcing policing practices that disproportionately affect minorities. Such incidents of machine learning algorithms producing unintentionally biased outcomes have prompted calls for ‘ethical AI’. However, this approach focuses on technical fixes to AI, and ignores two crucial components of undesired outcomes: the subjectivity of data fed into and out of AI systems, and the interaction between actors who must interpret that data. When considering regulation on artificial intelligence, policymakers, companies, and other organizations using AI should therefore focus less on the algorithms and more on data and how it flows between actors to reduce risk of misdiagnosing AI systems. To be sure, applying an ethical AI framework is better than discounting ethics all together, but an approach that focuses on the interaction between human and data processes is a better foundation for AI policy.

The fundamental mistake underlying the ethical AI framework is that it treats biased outcomes as a purely technical problem. If this was true, then fixing the algorithm is an effective solution, because the outcome is purely defined by the tools applied. In the case of landing a man on the moon, for instance, we can tweak the telemetry of the rocket with well-defined physical principles until the man is on the moon. In the case of biased social outcomes, the problem is not well-defined. Who decides what an appropriate level of policing is for minorities? What sentence lengths are appropriate for which groups of individuals? What is an acceptable level of bias? An AI is simply a tool that transforms input data into output data, but it’s people that give meaning to data at both steps in context of their understanding of these questions and what appropriate measures of such outcomes are.

Continue reading →

[First published by AIER on April 20, 2020 as “Innovation and the Trouble with the Precautionary Principle.”]

In a much-circulated new essay (“It’s Time to Build”), Marc Andreessen has penned a powerful paean to the importance of building. He says the COVID crisis has awakened us to the reality that America is no longer the bastion of entrepreneurial creativity it once was. “Part of the problem is clearlyforesight, a failure of imagination,” he argues. “But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.”The Mind of Marc Andreessen | The New Yorker

Andreessen suggests that, somewhere along the line, something changed in the DNA of the American people and they essentially stopped having the desire to build as they once did. “You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally,” he says. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” He continues:

“The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things.”

Accordingly, Andreessen continues on to make the case to both the political right and left to change their thinking about building more generally. “It’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support from the right for aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.”

What’s missing in Andreessen’s manifesto is a concrete connection between America’s apparent dwindling desire to build these things and the political realities on the ground that contribute to that problem. Put simply, policy influences attitudes. More specifically, policies that frown upon entrepreneurial risk-taking actively disincentivize the building of new and better things. Thus, to correct the problem Andreessen identifies, it is essential that we must first remove political barriers to productive entrepreneurialism or else we will never get back to being the builders we once were.     Continue reading →

[Co-authored with Trace Mitchell and first published on The Bridge on April 21, 2020.]

Which seems like a more pressing concern at the moment: Ensuring that we get hand sanitizer onto shelves or making sure that children don’t drink it once we do? Getting face masks out to the public quickly, or waiting until they can be manufactured to precise federal regulatory specifications?

These questions are currently being raised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency’s rules have been making it hard for distilleries to address the hand sanitizer shortage. Companies looking to supply more face masks to the nation as quickly as possible have been similarly stymied.

Sometimes government regulation is so out of touch with reality and common sense that it should force us to rethink the way business is done in Washington. As our Mercatus Center colleague Scott Sumner concludes, the past month has witnessed “a torrent of governmental incompetence that is breathtaking in scale” and “regulations so bizarre that if put in a novel no one would believe them.” Sadly, he’s right, and the strange world of FDA hand sanitizer and face mask regulation provides us with two teachable moments.

As we write, the FDA has repealed or at least examined many of the immediate barriers to the production of face masks and hand sanitizers. Still, precious time was lost waiting for the agency to clear out unneeded regulations. Going forward, regulators should be sure to review and prune their cache of rules before calamity strikes, perhaps in the form of an independent regulatory review commission or a regulatory budget. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper by Patrick A. McLaughlin, Matthew D. Mitchell, and me entitled, “A Fresh Start: How to Address Regulations Suspended during the Coronavirus Crisis.” Here’s a quick summary.

As the COVID-19 crisis intensified, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels started suspending or rescinding laws and regulations that hindered sensible, speedy responses to the pandemic. These “rule departures” raised many questions. Were the paused rules undermining public health and welfare even before the crisis? Even if the rules were well intentioned or once possibly served a compelling interest, had they grown unnecessary or counterproductive? If so, why did they persist? How will the suspended rules be dealt with after the crisis? Are there other rules on the books that might transform from merely unnecessary to actively harmful in future crises?

Once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, there is likely to be considerable momentum to review the rules that have slowed down the response. If policymakers felt the need to abandon these rules during the current crisis, those same rules should probably be permanently repealed or at least comprehensively reformed to allow for more flexible responses in the future.

Accordingly, when the pandemic subsides, policymakers at the federal and state levels should create “Fresh Start Initiatives” that would comprehensively review all suspended rules and then outline sunsetting or reform options for them. To this end, we propose an approach based on the successful experience of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

Read the entire paper here to see how it would work. This is our chance to finally do some much-needed spring cleaning for the regulatory state.

In a new essay in The Dallas Morning News (“Licensing restrictions for health care workers need to be flexible to fight coronavirus“), Trace Mitchell and I discuss recent efforts to reform occupational licensing restrictions for health care workers to help fight the coronavirus. Trace and I have written extensively about the need for licensing flexibility over the past couple of years, but it is needed now more than ever. Luckily, some positive reforms are now underway.

We highlight efforts in states like Massachusetts and Texas to reform their occupational licensing rules in response to the crisis, as well as federal reforms aimed at allowing reciprocity across state lines. We conclude by noting that:

It should not take a crisis of this magnitude for policymakers to reconsider the way we prevent fully qualified medical professionals from going where they are most needed. But that moment is now upon us. More leaders would be wise to conduct a comprehensive review of regulatory burdens that hinder sensible, speedy responses to the coronavirus crisis.

If nothing else, the relaxation of these rules should give us a better feel for how necessary strict licensing requirements truly are. Chances are, we will learn just how costly the regulations have been all along.
Read the entire piece here.

Coauthored with Mercatus MA Fellow Jessie McBirney

Flat standardized test scores, low college completion rates, and rising student debt has led many to question the bachelor’s degree as the universal ticket to the middle class. Now, bureaucrats are turning to the job market for new ideas. The result is a renewed enthusiasm for Career and Technical Education (CTE), which aims to “prepare students for success in the workforce.” Every high school student stands to benefit from a fun, rigorous, skills-based class, but the latest reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act, which governs CTE at the federal level, betrays a faulty economic theory behind the initiative.

Modern CTE is more than a rebranding of yesterday’s vocational programs, which earned a reputation as “dumping grounds” for struggling students and, unfortunately, minorities. Today, CTE classes aim to be academically rigorous and cover career pathways ranging from manufacturing to Information Technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Most high school CTE occurs at traditional public schools, where students take a few career-specific classes alongside their core requirements.

Continue reading →

by Walter Stover and Anne Hobson

Franklin Foer’s article in the Atlantic on Jeff Bezos’s master plan offers insight into the mind of the famed CEO, but his argument that Amazon is all-powerful is flawed. Foer overlooks the role of consumers in shaping Amazon’s narrative. In doing so, he overestimates the actual autonomy of Bezos and the power of Amazon over its consumers. 

The article falls prey to an atomistic theory of Amazon. The thinking goes like this: I am an atom, and Amazon is a (much) larger atom. Because Amazon is so much larger than I am, I need some intervening force to ensure that Amazon does not prey on me. This intervening force must belong to an even larger atom (the U.S. government) in order to check Amazon’s power. The atomistic lens sees individuals as interchangeable and isolated from each other, able to be considered one at a time.

Foer’s application of this theory appears in his treatment of Hayek, one of the staunchest opponents of aggregation and atomism. For example, when he summarizes Hayek’s paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” he phrases Hayek’s argument as that “…no bureaucracy could ever match the miracle of markets, which spontaneously and efficiently aggregate the knowledge of a society.” Hayek found the notion of aggregation highly problematic, as seen in another of his articles, “Competition as a Discovery Procedure,” in which he criticizes the idea of a “scientific” objective approach to measuring market variables. His argument against trying to build a science on macroeconomic variables notes that “…the coarse structure of the economy can exhibit no regularities that are not the results of the fine structure… and that those aggregate or mean values… give us no information about what takes place in the fine structure.”

Neither Amazon nor the market can aggregate the knowledge of a society. We can try to speak of the market in aggregate terms, but we end up summing up all of the differences between individuals and concealing the action and agency of the individuals at the bottom. We cannot speak of market activity without reference to the patterns of individual interactions. It is best to think of the market as an emergent, unintended outcome of a constellation of individual actors, not atoms, each of whom have different talents, wants, knowledge, and resources. Actors enter into exchanges with each other and form complicated, semi-rigid, multi-leveled social networks.

Continue reading →

by Adam Thierer and Trace Mitchell

This essay originally appeared on The Washington Examiner on September 12, 2019.

You won’t find President Trump agreeing with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on many issues, but the need for occupational licensing reform is one major exception. They, along with many other politicians and academics both Left and Right, have identified how state and local “licenses to work” restrict workers’ opportunities and mobility while driving up prices for consumers.

Of course, not everybody has to agree with high-profile Democrats and Republicans, but let’s at least welcome the chance to discuss something important without defaulting to our partisan bunkers.

This past week, for example, ThinkProgress published an article titled “Koch Brothers’ anti-government group promotes allowing unlicensed, untrained cosmetologists.” Centered around an Americans for Prosperity video highlighting the ways in which occupational licensing reform could lower some of the barriers that prevent people from bettering their lives, the article painted a picture of an ideologically driven, right-wing movement.

In reality, it’s anything but that. Continue reading →

Jaron Lanier was featured in a recent New York Times op-ed explaining why people should get paid for their data. Under this scheme, he estimates the total value of data for a four person household could fetch around $20,000. 

Let’s do the math on that.

Data from eMarketer finds that users spend about an hour and fifteen minutes per day on social media for a total of 456.25 hours per year. Thus, by Lanier’s estimates, the income from data would be about $10.95 per hour. That’s not too bad!

By any measure, however, the estimate is high. Since I have written extensively on this subject (see this, this, and this), I thought it might be helpful to explain the four general methods used to value an intangibles like data. They include income methods, market rates, cost methods, and finally, shadow prices.  Continue reading →