Economy

Post image for CEI Sues National Park Service and Interior Department under FOIA over Government Shutdown Documents

Last night, CEI filed suit against the United States Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for failing to produce documents in response to two pairs of Freedom of Information Act requests. Those requests, sent to them way back on October 9, dealt with these agencies’ closures of private businesses and privately-run tourist attractions in the 2013 federal government shutdown, and also with their closures of public monuments and spaces, which are often open to the public even when no federal employee is on duty.

The agencies have neither produced documents, nor set an estimated date for when they will be produced, nor indicated how many documents they might produce or withhold, even though FOIA contains a 20-day deadline for an agency to comply with a FOIA request. They have not provided the basic information that FOIA requires within that deadline, such as telling us how many documents they expect to produce (or, if the documents are exempt from production, how many they will withhold under a valid FOIA exemption), even though that information is required under the appeals court ruling in C.R.E.W. v. F.E.C., 711 F.3d 180, 186 (D.C. Cir.2013).

During the shutdown in early October, these agencies closed down, or blocked access to, many private businesses that had apparently been allowed to operate in earlier shutdowns under prior Presidents (even as politically-connected businesses were allowed to remain open). After lawyers and legal commentators suggested that these closures of private businesses were illegal departures from past agency practice, I filed FOIA requests seeking to find out which officials were responsible for these improper closures, and how the decision to close them was made. Of all the agencies involved, the National Park Service was probably the worst offender, according to CEI’s Myron Ebell. A judge later ruled against the National Park Service’s closure of a state park used by children, and against the U.S. Forest Service’s suspension of timber operations.

The Obama administration’s behavior during the shutdown was controversial, to say the least. As part of the so-called “shutdown” (which did not actually shut down most of the government – most federal workers kept working), agency officials shut down tourist attractions — even when doing so cost the government more money than leaving them open. It rented costly barricades to keep people out of open-air outdoor monuments that don’t need to be manned, and are typically open even when unstaffed (like the World War II Memorial).

And it sent Park Police to drive people out of privately-run tourist attractions on public land, like the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, endangering tourism-related jobs in the process. On October 2, PJ Media’s Bryan Preston reported that the federal government was “ordering hundreds of privately run, private funded parks to close,” using the government shutdown as an excuse.

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Senior Fellow John Berlau argues that a bill from Senators Tim Johnson and Mike Crapo intended to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would only make things worse.

Post image for Taxable Bitcoins 2: We’re Not Gonna Pay it!

Reason magazine’s Brian Doherty recently addressed the IRS’s recent announcement that bitcoin transactions are taxable. As I addressed in my last piece, while the IRS may have sought to clarify their taxation process for bitcoins, it has only caused further confusion. I agree with Doherty that this announcement is not detrimental to bitcoin, but there are unresolved issues that need to be considered.

The plan is for the IRS requires users to self-report their transactions to the IRS; it is easy to see why compliance might be a problem. For a currency based upon subverting government regulations, there will likely be a group of Bitcoin users who choose to avoid payment of taxes to the IRS wherever possible. The question at this point is how likely is it that the IRS will be able to actually enforce taxation on bitcoins.

This is where the debate gets messy. The block chain, bitcoin’s public ledger, is a record of all transactions that have occurred between bitcoin users. The block chain uses digital wallets as a medium for storing and transferring bitcoins between individuals. It is possible for the IRS to monitor the block chain — which is publicly available for viewing online — and discern when a transaction occurs that meets the taxation threshold.

Each wallet has a unique 32-character address that does not tie itself directly to an individual’s real identity offline. So while the IRS could note certain transactions as being taxable on the block chain ledger system, they could not directly identify whether the person was within the U.S. or who they are. Of course, it is possible for the IRS to track down the IP address of the wallet’s computer and find the location of the computer used for the transaction. But this would take a lot of time and effort, and would have to be done for every individual instance in which a transaction is not reported to the IRS.

Furthermore, there is already a project called Dark Wallet which is seeking to further anonymize bitcoin wallets, through encryption. This would further complicate the ability for the IRS to enforce taxation. It is feasible to imagine the IRS enforcing taxation within this environment, but only if bitcoin became more widely adopted so that the effort to enforce taxation would be worth the resources needed.

The question facing the bitcoin community is whether it is better to conform with the standards set by government agencies, like the IRS, or do bitcoin users want to challenge government by developing more complex technologies to circumvent said agencies? We could be witnessing the early stages of an arms race.

Argentina President Cristina Kirchner

Argentina President Cristina Kirchner

Can a country seeking to welsh on its debts invoke sovereign immunity to evade not just court orders to pay those debts, but also post-judgment discovery aimed at collecting on those judgments? Can it do so to prevent not just discovery directed at it, but also at third-party banks? Most importantly, perhaps, can it do so even though it contractually waived sovereign immunity? The answer is yes, according to Argentina, which is seeking to stiff many of its bondholders. Thankfully, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed with this attack on property and contract rights in a 2012 decision.

But amazingly enough, the Obama administration has taken Argentina’s side at the Supreme Court. It is joined by the government of France, which has experienced downgrades in its credit rating due to stubbornly-high government spending under Socialist Francois Hollande that consumes well over half of France’s economy. The willingness of the Obama administration to take Argentina’s extreme position is disturbing given that the Second Circuit’s ruling was unanimous.

CEI and several former State Department officials have filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the appeals court’s ruling, and reaffirm the availability of the post-judgment discovery needed to protect property and contractual rights. The former State Department officials include counsel of record John Norton Moore, former Counselor on International Law to the Department of State; Robert F. Turner, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs; Abraham D. Sofaer, a former federal judge and former Legal Adviser to the Department of State; Professor Malvina Halberstam, former Counselor on International Law to the State Department; and Davis R. Robinson, former Legal Adviser to the State Department. John Norton Moore, who teaches international law and national-security law at the University of Virginia, was extensively involved in drafting the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) involved in the case. Judge Sofaer was appointed by President Carter to the federal bench in 1979.

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Iain Murray, CEI’s Vice President for Strategy, along with Freedom Association Director Rory Broomfield, won second place in the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Brexit Competition. The goal of the competition is to devise a strategy for Britain’s exit from the European Union.

NLRB Ambush Election HearingOn three separate panels, I testified last week against the flaws inherent in the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) latest proposed rule.

The NLRB benignly purports to re-examine “Representation Case Procedures.” The rulemaking is commonly known as the ambush elections rule, as a result of a key component that could require elections in as few as ten days.

FIRST PANEL

On the first panel, I addressed the election date at the heart of the proposal. Approvingly quoting a letter from eighteen United States Senators who commented against the proposed rule, I noted that, “then-Senator John F. Kennedy stated that it was essential to allow ‘at least a 30-day interval between the request for an election and the hold of an election’ in order to ‘safeguard against rushing employees into an election where they are unfamiliar with the issues.’”

The crux of then-Senator Kennedy’s statement is a focus on safeguarding employees and on ensuring that effectively educating employees remains the Board’s focus.

ANALOGY TO STUDENTS’ STUDIES

Pointing out that the median times for elections are on the order of 40 days and that the proposal could call for elections in as few as ten days, I asked, “Would your students benefit from a 75-percent reduction in study time?”

I pointed out that workers, who already have a job and many of whom have families and hobbies, are challenged with essentially learning a crash course in labor law and labor economics—two arcane and intricate areas normally pursued by highly trained specialists with advanced degrees.

An absolute minimum of 30 days and really a routine minimum of sixty days are appropriate to learn such material.

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Post image for First Ever Constitutional Ruling against Dodd-Frank Voids Destructive “Conflict Minerals” Section

Today’s ruling of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that Dodd-Frank’s “conflict minerals” disclosure mandate violates the First Amendment is the first time ever a court has ruled that a provision of Dodd-Frank violates the Constitution. Regulations issued under Dodd-Frank have been struck down for reasons such as inadequate cost-benefit analysis and other procedural violations, but this is first time a provision has been found to be unconstitutional.

And it couldn’t happen to a more misguided and destructive provision of the law! As my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Hans Bader and I have written in blog posts, articles, and regulatory comments, the conflict disclosure mandate creates a compliance nightmare, hurts American miners and manufacturers, and does the greatest harm to those it was intended to help — the struggling worker in and nearby the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As explained by Mercatus Center scholars Hester Peirce and James Broughel in their book Dodd-Frank: What It Does and Why It’s Flawed, the “conflict minerals” mandate of Section 1502 is one the law’s many “miscellaneous provisions” that offer “a clear example of how a statute invoked as the answer to the financial crisis is, in reality, an odd conglomeration of responses to issues, many of which had nothing to do with the financial crisis.” Section 1502, championed by celebrities, including Ashley Judd and Ben Affleck, requires all types of firms to disclose their products’ use of five “conflict minerals” — including gold, tin, and tungsten — that can be sourced to war-torn regions of the Congo.

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“In this case the EEOC sued the defendants for using the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.” So began a 3-to-0 ruling Wednesday by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in EEOC v. Kaplan Higher Education Corp. (Apr. 9, 2014). CEI joined the Pacific Legal Foundation’s amicus brief in support of the employer sued by the EEOC, the federal civil-rights agency. (EEOC stands for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.) As former assistant attorney general Roger Clegg (now at the Center for Equal Opportunity) notes,

The Obama Administration sued Kaplan for running credit checks on employee applicants – similar, by the way, to the ones the EEOC itself uses. Kaplan had learned that some of its employees had misappropriated student payments and, to provide safeguards against this behavior, it began screening its applicants for major red flags in their credit history. The EEOC sued Kaplan, arguing that it cannot use credit checks, because use of credit checks has a disparate impact on black applicants.

Anyway, putting aside the inherent dubiousness of the whole lawsuit, there were also severe methodological problems with the Obama Administration’s evidence, which relied on “race raters” to determine, by scrutinizing driver’s license photos, the race of the applicants. So the trial judge threw out the case. Today, I’m happy to report, the court of appeals affirmed that decision – and in no uncertain terms, I might add, much I’m sure to the Obama administration’s chagrin.

At the Washington Post, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh provides these excerpts from the court’s ruling:

The EEOC’s personnel handbook recites that “[o]verdue just debts increase temptation to commit illegal or unethical acts as a means of gaining funds to meet financial obligations.” Because of that concern, the EEOC runs credit checks on applicants for 84 of the agency’s 97 positions. The defendants (collectively, “Kaplan”) have the same concern; and thus Kaplan runs credit checks on applicants for positions that provide access to students’ financial-loan information, among other positions. For that practice, the EEOC sued Kaplan. Specifically, the EEOC alleges that Kaplan’s use of credit checks causes it to screen out more African-American applicants than white applicants, creating a disparate impact in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), (a)(2), (k). Proof of disparate impact is usually statistical proof in the form of expert testimony; and here the EEOC relied solely on statistical data compiled by Kevin Murphy, who holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology. For two reasons, however, the district court excluded Murphy’s testimony on grounds that it was unreliable. First, the EEOC presented “no evidence” that Murphy’s methodology satisfied any of the factors that courts typically consider in determining reliability under Federal Rule of Evidence 702; and second, as Murphy himself admitted, his sample was not representative of Kaplan’s applicant pool as a whole. The district court therefore granted summary judgment to Kaplan. The EEOC now argues that the district court “erred” — a telling, oft-repeated, and mistaken choice of word here — when it excluded Murphy’s testimony. We reject the EEOC’s arguments and affirm.

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The EEOC brought this case on the basis of a homemade methodology, crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself. The district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding Murphy’s testimony.

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Post image for Professional Licensing: A Risk to the Free Markets and Freedom of Speech

From physicians to dentists to lawyers, the licensing requirements of many professions are well known—but for bloggers? A recent case in North Carolina demonstrates the dangers that mandatory occupational licensing poses to liberty and how established interests use such requirements to protect their bottom line.

North Carolina resident Steve Cooksey was ill, obese, and struggling with type 2 diabetes. In 2009, after being rushed to the hospital, nearly in a coma, he decided to do everything in his power to get healthy. By following a low-carbohydrate diet, Cooksey claims he was able to drop 45 pounds and get off insulin and drugs. He documented his story on his personal blog, where he provided advice to others practicing the “paleo” diet that he believes saved his life.

That sounds like a win-win situation, but not according to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition (NCBDN), which decided to go after Cooksey for the “crime” of offering nutritional advice without a dietitian’s license. In 2011, it sent Cooksey a letter, claiming that his blog, by giving readers “unlicensed dietetic advice,” even for free, violated North Carolina law. The NCBDN included a 19-page copy of his online writings with comments in red ink pointing out what he could and could not say.

Even more surprising, the notice asserted that Cooksey’s private conversations with readers and friends via email and telephone also constituted a violation of the state’s dietitian licensing law!

Unfortunately, Cooksey’s case is far from an isolated incident. In just about every state, there is a dizzyingly long list of jobs that require would-be workers to go through a long, expensive, and sometimes arduous process to earn the privilege of entering into a given profession. While the stated reason for requiring occupational licenses is public safety, established players operating under existing licensing schemes usually fight tooth and nail to maintain occupational license requirement in place, to make it harder for potential competitors to enter the market.

Today, roughly 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require some form of license (a sharp increase from a low back in 1950, when the share was only 5 percent). Fortunately, some workers are fighting these licensing regime—and many are winning.

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On 60 Minutes, Michael Lewis accused high-frequency traders of front-running. Apparently it’s become necessary to remind critics of high-frequency trading of the definition of “front-running.”

Front-running  - n. “The practice by market makers of dealing on advance information provided by their brokers and investment analysts, before their clients have been given the information.”  — Oxford English Dictionary

There is room for reasonable debate about the merits of HFT. And there is room for multiple exchanges catering to multiple types of investors.  But one thing critics should be wary of is distorting the terms of debate. Many, if not most, HFT firms are ”prop shops.” That is, they are proprietary traders, trading on behalf of their own accounts, not clients. There are no clients for these particular high-frequency traders to “front-run.”

Front-running is already illegal under current law. If firms that do take in outside capital are front-running, then they should be prosecuted. But indiscriminate use of that term detracts from the HFT debate.