Should The Government Mandate Less Smog?

It is reported that Obama is being praised by Republicans for deciding not to toughen the federal smog regulations because the extra cost to businesses would hurt jobs in a weak economy. Now these reports must be false, because we all know that Republicans automatically oppose everything Obama does (okay, except for when Obama kills Osama). But Obama is taking significant criticism from the left for caving to Republicans, big business, polluters, and other bad guys. Apparently this is so bad that MoveOn.org members are wondering “how they can ever work for President Obama’s re-election.” I’m not going to make vacuous conjectures about whether or not Obama’s move will win him more votes from independents or fewer votes from the left, because vacuous conjecturing irritates me, but I will offer some background information for the uninformed reader and try to summarize the different political and economic arguments at play.

It all starts with the Clean Air Act, “passed in 1963 and significantly amended in 1970, 1977 and 1990.” Among other things, it requires the EPA to set new standards for pollutants every five years. One of those pollutants is “ground-level ozone,” or smog, which is said to be caused by things like power plants and vehicle exhaust. Last review time was 2008. At that time the ozone level was down to 84 parts per billion, but EPA scientists said it needed to go down to 60-70 ppb to properly protect Americans from negative health effects. Stephen Johnson, EPA head under the Bush Administration, didn’t quite agree, and set it at 75 ppb. Next review time isn’t until 2013, but since the last guy apparently didn’t set the recommended amount for good health, Obama’s EPA, led by Lisa Jackson, has been thinking about changing things ahead of time to correct the previous error. But apparently the latest unemployment numbers were too disturbing, because literally a few hours after they were announced we learned that any update to the mandate had been taken off the table until 2013. [Cue praise and dismay from appropriate parties.]

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How Ridiculous Was the Federal Raid on Gibson Guitar Factory?

Last week federal agents from the Department of Justice raided Gibson Guitar factories, on suspicions of using illegally imported wood from Madagascar (Gibson claims it has documentation to prove it is following all laws). The story is spreading across the Internet, and there are a number of serious accusations flying around that make this look like a ridiculous and infuriating raid. In summary:

1. The raid forced Gibson to send workers home and is hurting production, so the Obama administration is essentially destroying jobs at a time when it says it is trying to create them.

2. The charges against Gibson are not that they broke US law but that they broke Indian law, and the “action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India,” making it seem like the Obama administration cares more about following foreign laws than our own.

3. There are accusations that other companies like Martin import the same kind of wood from the same places but they have not been raided. The suggested motive is that Gibson is a big Republican donor while Martin is a Democratic donor, or that Gibson’s factories are in a right-to-work (anti-union) state, and that the Obama administration is engaged purely in political warfare against conservatives who might oppose his re-election.

4. To top everything off, Gibson was raided in a similar manner two years ago, but they claim no charges have been filed over that raid and the federal government still has the guitars.

That’s all pretty bizarre and infuriating… has our federal government really stooped to bullying its political enemies, even at the cost of destroying jobs? This looks like blatant corruption and a complete disregard for freedom if federal agents can accuse you of breaking a law, raid your business, keep your stuff without ever charging files against you, all because you support an opposing political party and your competitors happen to be on the right side!

Still, I’ve learned over the years that some things seem like ridiculous oversteps by the federal government and reverberate through the conservative blogosphere, but such accusations are later revealed as guilty of containing partial truth. Last year conservatives were freaking out about the EPA classifying spilled milk as oil so they could regulate it, although apparently the regulations only applied to farmers storing milk in giant containers of thousands of gallons and that such milk has been known to leak out and cause damaging externalities to the surrounding environment. (Not saying that this completely justifies the regulation, but having that contextual knowledge moves the regulation from “This is a preposterous power-grab by the government!” to a more civilized “I disagree with this action for such-and-such reasons…”)

So I’ve been looking for some more facts about this guitar raid, possibly by leftist sources, to at least make this raid not seem so much like… I don’t know.. a blatant move by a corrupt third-world government?

As for as the foreign law thing goes, it appears to actually stem from the Lacey Act (yes, one of our laws), and supposedly if the wood was finished in India it would be legal but if they import it to the states before it is finished, then it’s illegal. So supposedly our law means we have to respect India’s law, or something like that. So maybe that makes the law (or its interpretation) seem ridiculous instead of Obama’s Justice Department seeming ridiculous, and apparently we can blame all this on an amendment to the very old law sponsored in 2008 by a Democrat that affects wood products and endangers U.S. manufacturing. (The Economist has a short diatribe arguing about the ridiculousness of being expected to “abide by every plant and wildlife regulation set by any country on Earth.“)

But that still doesn’t explain the lack of charges from the old raid or the political accusations that the similar competitors are getting away with it. There are claims that Gibson doesn’t treat its employees very well, but that doesn’t have to do with the topic. I could find nothing about the raid on Think Progress, or any good answers from various forums.

Then NPR came to the rescue. In their feature yesterday on the Gibson guitar raid, they have a quote from Martin’s CEO claiming that the law is “a wonderful thing” and that they’ve committed to following it. This creates an interesting liberal narrative: The Democratic company has figured out how to follow the law and respect the environment, while the Republican company is breaking the law – and treating its employees poorly! Of course, this requires taking Martin’s statements at face value while accusing Gibson of lying when it says it’s not breaking any laws, either.

Today, the Wall Street Journal has a new piece on the controversy, bringing out some new facts that suggest that there may indeed be some evidence that Gibson broke part of the law – although it also notes that Gibson has worked with Greenpeace and other groups to “promote better forestry practices.”

It sounds like we don’t have enough facts yet to conclude very much yet. If it turns out that Gibson was breaking a law, and Martin uses a completely different importing process, then we could perhaps argue that the raid was justified  – although I’m still not sure I like the idea of federal agents swooping into factories and shutting down production because they suspect an imported package was fraudulently labeled. And my bias leads me to wonder if both companies aren’t breaking some minor laws but an arbitrary administration chooses to only enforce them on its opponents. But that’s just one scenario that fits the facts thus far.

For now we could still have healthy discussions about the costs and benefits of the Lacy Act itself, and what the proper balance is between respecting the world’s resources and exploiting them, and what side of that balance the United States currently falls on and whether or not that position is unfair if the Chinese are illegally importing wood, or many other such things. But we can’t yet say whether or not the federal raid on Gibson was justified or unjustified. I think we have enough facts to postulate some reasonable scenarios where the raid was not completely ridiculous, but we can also postulate scenarios where the raid was extremely ridiculous and infuriating. Let your bias choose…

Missouri Criminalizes Teachers As Facebook Friends?

Maybe I shouldn’t have started listening to St. Louis Public Radio again on my drive home from work. I keep discovering too many things to blog about. Thursday it was an NPR interview that made dangerous implications about productivity and joblessness. Yesterday it was local news that the Missouri State Teachers Association is filing suit to block a new law that prohibits teachers and students from being Facebook friends.

Say what?? Hold up just a minute, there, lady announcer, I seem to be a little behind on my local news…

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Banks Charging Customers To Make Up For Lost Fees

The 2009 “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” was one of those mega-bus bills that got passed for the good of the people by the new Democratic-controlled government. Now as a rule, I’m always skeptical of mega-bus bills because there’s so much lobbying and fraternizing that goes on behind the bill-making that I don’t believe such things are automatically as good for the people as the title would imply (how can you object to “consumer protection”?), and even when things do seem good there is always that little beast of unintended consequences, often ignored but never forgotten.

Today I am going to talk about just one of the many, many details of this legislation: it severely limits the amount of money that banks or credit card companies are allowed to charge merchants for running debit cards (I admit I’m a little hazy on who’s doing the charging, especially whether or not it’s online or with a physical card swiper). You may not even realize that these charges exist, but businesses don’t just get to collect money from Visa and Mastercard for free. Internet Retailer says “online retailers typically pay Visa and MasterCard interchange of 1.60% plus 15 cents a transaction, or $1.40 on a $78.70 purchase” (the average online purchase). These hidden costs almost certainly affect the price you pay for almost anything these days. (This is also why many gas stations now offer a few cents less per gallon if you pay in cash – they’re saving money too.)

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Do Fines Help Regulations Pay For Themselves?

Recently in a comment on a news article, I read someone arguing that the beauty of government regulations is that usually pay for themselves through fines, so it doesn’t make sense to blame regulations in discussions of debt and deficit. This was an interesting point, as I had never really thought before about fines from violated regulations as a source of income for the government. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this viewpoint contains an inherent contradiction – even if fines completely offset the cost of implementing and enforcing a regulation.

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