The stakes in the Supreme Court’s vaccine cases are even bigger than they seem

“Governments make choices that shape millions of lives. Workers and businesses are taxed to provide health care to the elderly and to the least fortunate. Men and women are incarcerated or even killed for crimes defined by the state. Wars are fought. Refugees are given a place of safety or turned away at the border.

If you believe in democracy, such power is justified only because it flows from the will of the people. “Governments,” the United States declared in its formational document, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The premise of any democratic republic is that there are some decisions that must be made collectively, and that these decisions are legitimate because they are made by elected officials.

On Friday, the Supreme Court will hear two sets of cases that test the justices’ commitment to the idea that the right to govern flows from the will of the people, and both involve challenges to President Joe Biden’s efforts to encourage vaccination against Covid-19.

The first bloc of cases, which is likely to be consolidated under the case name Biden v. Missouri, challenges a federal rule requiring nearly all health care workers to become vaccinated. The second bloc, which is likely to be consolidated under the name NFIB v. Department of Labor, challenges a rule requiring workers at companies with 100 or more employees to either get vaccinated or be regularly tested for Covid-19.

Even on their faces, the stakes in Missouri and NFIB are enormous. These cases ask what steps the United States can realistically take to quell the spread of a disease that has already killed more than 820,000 Americans. But the full stakes in these cases are even higher.

Someone has to decide how the United States will respond to a global pandemic, and the Biden administration’s argument essentially boils down to a case for democracy. An elected Congress authorized the executive branch to take certain steps to encourage vaccination, and Joe Biden was elected to lead that branch. So that means that President Biden and his duly appointed subordinates get to make difficult decisions, even if some Americans don’t like those decisions.

The parties challenging Biden’s policies, meanwhile, effectively argue that the Supreme Court should decide America’s vaccination policy. They couch their arguments in arcane legal doctrines, with weighty-sounding names like the “Major Questions Doctrine” or “nondelegation,” But these doctrines are vague — so vague that they are easily manipulated by justices who disagree with the Biden administration’s policies and wish to conceal their desire to halt those policies behind a patina of legal reasoning.

I don’t want to minimize the significance of the policies at issue in Missouri and NFIB. In creating these policies, the Biden administration determined that its fundamental duty to preserve human life overrides many individuals’ interest in refusing medical treatment. This is a weighty decision, placing the collective health of the nation before the individual liberties of many of its citizens.

But the Biden administration estimates that its two vaccine regulations will save hundreds or even thousands of lives every month. And it decided that saving those lives is worth requiring some Americans to do something they don’t want to do. This decision is no more significant than many of the decisions governments make — to send troops to a distant conflict, to tax and to spend that money in service of a nation’s people, to save lives, or to take them. This is what governments do.

Again, someone needs to decide what America’s vaccination policy will be. It will either be made by the man chosen by the American people, or the Supreme Court will wrest that decision away from him and give it to themselves.”

Feds Pledge $30 Million To Fund Drug Harm Reduction Programs

“The money for the program was included in the American Rescue Plan—passed back in March—a massive $1.9 trillion spending bill that was sold as a COVID-19 response but contained very little that had to do with the epidemic. The bill set aside $4 billion for use for drug addiction programs and mental health treatment.”

Rent Control Is Fashionable Again. It’s Still a Bad Idea.

“Another housing development in St. Paul, Minnesota, is on hold after losing its financing partner this week.

On Monday, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that developer Alatus had a previously-committed equity partner renege on its commitment to invest $23 million in a proposed 304-unit project in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood. Two other investors who had proposed preliminary financing terms for the project—in which half the units would be rented out at below-market rates—have also walked away.

The reason? St. Paul’s newly-passed rent control ordinance, which Alatus’ principals say is making their once-eager investors skittish about doing business in the city.”

“It’s a near-universal consensus—held in common by progressive policy wonks, radical free marketeers, and the three most recent presidential administrations—that America’s highest-cost cities are so unaffordable because government zoning regulations prevent enough new housing from being built.

So why are a growing number of politicians, wonks, and pundits suddenly embracing a policy that’s been long maligned for further reducing the supply of housing?

The argument from rent control proponents boils down to the need to create short-term stability for renters. That will then, hopefully, give cities some breathing room to get to work on fixing their pressing supply issues.”

“That study looked at a 1994 San Francisco ballot initiative that expanded preexisting rent controls to cover four-unit apartment buildings constructed prior to 1980, but which exempts four-unit apartments built after 1980.

That created something of a natural experiment on the effects of rent control.

The Stanford study concluded that tenants living in the older, rent-controlled buildings were 10–20 percent more likely to stay at their same address than people living in newer, unregulated buildings. The study also concluded that the expansion of rent control caused a 15 percent decline in the availability of rental housing among affected units.

In short, there’s a clear tradeoff in rent control policies between creating stability for existing tenants and preserving and expanding rental housing supply for new tenants. The goal of politicians, according to some, should be to strike the right balance between the two.”

“We actually have a good, real example of what this balance striking in the real world looks like: San Francisco.

The rent stabilization ordinance that’s been in place in San Francisco since 1979, and which the Stanford study examined, has all the features Demsas would want in a well-designed rent control policy: post-1979 construction is exempt from price controls, landlords can raise rents by the lesser of 60 percent of yearly inflation or 7 percent, and there’s vacancy decontrol.

Some 40 percent of San Francisco’s housing stock is covered by these rules. Another 9 percent is deed-restricted affordable housing, meaning that rents can’t generally consume more than 30 percent of tenants’ pretax earnings.

That leaves only 16 percent of housing stock in the city where rents follow the ebb and flow of market forces. (That was at least the case prior to January 2020, when California’s statewide rent control law went into effect.)

The result is, again, San Francisco; a synonym for housing dysfunction and unaffordability. That obviously makes it a place that’s antagonistically expensive to newcomers. Copious amounts of rent control also haven’t stopped it from ranking first among American cities in some measurements for gentrification and displacement, either.”

“Rent control is always going to disincentivize housing construction, regardless of how tight or loose the zoning code is. Repealing zoning restrictions will allow for more housing. It will also make the supply-killing effects of rent control all the more apparent and relevant.”

“Rent control also could disincentivize renters—who should be natural proponents of new housing construction—from supporting zoning reforms.

If government price controls are keeping your rent stable, you have much less of an incentive to support new market-rate construction. At best, it would just be doing more of the same. At worst, it would be adding more construction noise, more traffic, and, God forbid, more shadows.

Indeed, rent-controlled tenants have an incentive to oppose any rezoning on the grounds that it might make their own rental unit a candidate for redevelopment. They’re at risk of losing the below-market rents they’re currently being charged.”

“if rent control isn’t the answer to short-term housing affordability issues and displacement, what is? I’d argue it’s zoning reform, and, failing that, federalism.

New housing units, even if they’re really expensive housing units, act almost immediately to lower the costs of rent for everyone. That addresses both affordability and displacement in the short-term thanks to the magic of the “moving chain.”

When a new “luxury” apartment comes online (and basically all new construction is high-cost “luxury” housing), it’s often filled by a high-income person who moves from his previous, older apartment building in the city. His now-vacant home is then snapped up by a middle-income person who leaves behind an even older unit that a third, lower-income person can now move into.

Follow this “moving chain” back far enough, and soon enough you see that each new unit of luxury housing is freeing up lots of housing in the lowest-cost, lowest-income neighborhoods in the city. That presumably puts downward pressure on prices and displacement.”

“An August 2021 paper from Finnish researchers looking at moving chains in Helsinki found that for every 100 new market-rate apartments built in the city center, “29 units get created through vacancy in bottom-quintile income zip codes and 60 units in bottom-half income zip codes” within two years.”

“Research by economist Evan Mast on the effects of luxury apartment construction in 12 American cities has also found that new, pricey units open up more housing options for middle- and lower-income neighborhoods.”

“relying on rent control to keep that renter in the same home comes at the expense of new housing supply, which in turn raises rents for everyone else in the city and prevents others from moving there entirely.”

Biden’s cash fuels DeSantis’ budget wishlist

“The Florida governor..unveiled a $99.7 billion proposed spending plan that comes as DeSantis gears up for his 2022 reelection and continues to generate buzz as a top-tier potential 2024 White House hopeful. The governor’s budget is packed with federal stimulus funds from the Biden administration that DeSantis wants to use for his most politically popular programs, including a gas tax break and $1,000 bonuses for police and teachers.

The governor made it clear..that he wants to use $3.5 billion from Biden’s American Rescue Plan to help fund nearly every high-profile piece of his budget, setting up a scenario where the Biden administration could pay for policies DeSantis will use to campaign on during his reelection bid.

“I think the most ironic piece about his budget is that the governor wants to take $1.2 billion in American Rescue Plan money and use that for the gas tax break,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) told reporters after the budget announcement. “As the governor continually attacks President Biden, the reality is we could not balance this budget, or give out tax breaks without President Joe Biden.””

White House lights up Manchin after he crushes Biden’s megabill

“Biden left negotiations with Manchin this week thinking the two men could cut a deal next year on his sweeping agenda. Then the West Virginia Democrat bluntly said he is a “no” on the $1.7 trillion in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“If I can’t go home and explain to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” Manchin said. “This is a no on this piece of legislation. I have tried everything I know to do.”

Those comments prompted an immediate war with the White House, who took personal aim at Manchin for what officials saw as a breach of trust. White House press secretary Jen Psaki released an unusually blunt statement saying that Manchin’s comments “are at odds with his discussions this week with the President, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances.”

In announcing his opposition, Manchin raised the same concerns about the bill that he’s had all along: inflation, rising debt and a mismatch between the package’s 10-year funding and its shorter-term programs. But until Sunday, Manchin had never taken a hard line on the legislation. In the past week, he’s spoken directly to Biden several times, with the president and other Democrats furiously lobbying him to support the bill.

With an evenly split Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs every Democrat to go along with the legislation, which only requires a simple majority vote. That dynamic gives Manchin enormous leverage over Biden’s agenda, allowing him to single-handedly sink a priority that Democrats have spent much of the year working on.

Manchin’s rollout on Fox News infuriated Democrats Sunday morning. Psaki said that the senator had brought Biden an outline of a bill similar in size and scope that “could lead to a compromise acceptable to all.”

“If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” Psaki said. “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”

And while the centrist senator’s staff informed White House and Democratic aides about his forthcoming blow to Biden’s agenda, some Democrats were steamed that Manchin himself hadn’t called Biden or Schumer.”

“now may be an opportunity to revisit a concept of the bill that included fewer programs but was paid for over more years — an option that moderate House Democrats and party leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed for previously. Centrist New Democrat Coalition Chair Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) said in a statement Sunday that including fewer programs in the legislation but for longer durations “could open a potential path forward for this legislation.””

“The West Wing saw Manchin’s Sunday comments as a shocking about-face — White House officials believed he had been sending signals that a deal could eventually be struck.”

“Manchin’s position is a validation of progressive fears — they believed passing that infrastructure bill was a mistake without an explicit guarantee from all 50 Democratic senators to support the rest of Biden’s agenda. Progressive House Democrats fumed at Sunday’s developments, though the nearly 100-member caucus had not regrouped to find a path forward.
“I wish we would have kept both bills together. That was the plan throughout several months of negotiation,” Bowman said. “I was frustrated then and obviously frustrated now that we decided to decouple those bills, because, as Manchin has shown in the past, we cannot just take his word for something.””

Allowing the expanded child tax credit to expire would be a major mistake

“For the past six months, families with kids have received monthly payments from the federal government as part of the expanded child tax credit — a policy that has slashed child poverty in the US.
If Congress doesn’t act, however, this measure is set to expire for future payments near the end of the month. The last monthly payment was scheduled to go out on December 15, after which these installments will end.”

“The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank focusing on social programs, estimates 9.9 million children could fall back into poverty or deeper into poverty if the credit is not extended. It estimates, too, that poverty rates for Black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) children, in particular, will be hardest hit. If BBB doesn’t pass, poverty rates would be 22 percent for Black children compared to 13 percent if it did, 21 percent for Latino children compared to 12 percent, and 18 percent for AIAN children compared to 10 percent.”

Democrats have no plan to fight housing inflation

“Over the course of the pandemic, home prices have skyrocketed; the underlying issue is simply that there are not enough homes for the people who need them (in particular in the places where people need to live for their jobs). This supply crisis is forcing a growing number of people to bid on a small number of available homes, thus increasing prices.
But not all “housing investments” are created equal. Generally, there are two ways you can attack an affordability crisis: 1) You work to make the item itself less expensive (supply-side policies), or 2) You give people more money to be able to afford the item (demand-side policies).

Both have their place in policymaking. But if you pursue demand-side policies when you are facing a massive supply shortage, you end up increasing prices, not decreasing them. And the nation is facing an estimated 3.8 million unit shortage.”

“The major constraint on building housing in the places where people are demanding it the most is zoning laws. These laws restrict what kinds of homes can be built and where, and regulate the size of homes to the point that smaller or “starter” homes are becoming incredibly scarce. For instance, a law mandating that lots of land be no less than 4,000 square feet means that starter homes (smaller than 1,400 square feet) are illegal. The history behind these laws is complicated, but essentially they are a way for some homeowners to block change in their communities, and in their original form were a tool of segregationists.

Beyond even small, single-family homes, it is illegal in most of the United States to build duplexes or small apartment buildings that could bring down the cost of housing. The White House has repeatedly acknowledged this problem, but in the Build Back Better bill, Democrats have metaphorically thrown up their hands, abrogating responsibility for the driving force behind skyrocketing home prices.

The best way to have tackled this problem would have been to tie the dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure framework to zoning reform. Iowa law professor Greg Shill suggested tying existing highway dollars to zoning reform, quipping that “there’s no reason Iowans should be subsidizing a highway from Silicon Valley to SF when the Valley makes it illegal to build homes under $1M.”

Essentially, if California wants federal dollars to build highways or transit, it’s going to need to reform policies like parking minimums and minimum lot sizes to get it. Instead, states are being handed money from the federal government to construct transportation networks that exclude large swaths of the American public from using them.

The federal government has held highway funding hostage for other reasons in the past — notably was the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which “requires that States prohibit persons under 21 years of age from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages as a condition of receiving State highway funds.” President Ronald Reagan also conditioned highway dollars on setting a national minimum speed limit; this was later repealed, which one study shows may have cost over 12,500 lives

If Democrats are serious about attacking housing inflation, they should put real money into incentivizing states to hold localities accountable. States are ultimately in control of local zoning policy “

Josh Hawley Wants to Make the Supply Chain Crisis Permanent

“In an op-ed for The New York Times published Friday, Hawley uses the temporary supply chain problems as an excuse to push for a permanent expansion of federal power over the affairs of private businesses. We must “fundamentally restructure our country’s trade policy,” Hawley demands, and that means injecting both the Pentagon and Commerce Department bureaucrats into companies’ purchasing decisions. Under the terms of a bill that Hawley is proposing, any product determined to be “critical for our national security and essential for the protection of our industrial base” would have to have at least 50 percent of its value made in the United States.

Why is it necessary for the government to get significantly more involved in the system of global trade that’s allowed Americans to enjoy unparalleled prosperity in recent years? Because “the global pandemic has exposed this system for what it is—a failure,” Hawley writes.

One must assume that if the lights in his home went out due to a storm, Hawley would respond by declaring electricity to be a mistake and demanding that the government require homes to be lit with candles and gas lamps. After all, what is the electrical grid but a complicated supply chain that leaves Americans woefully dependent on production and distribution systems (power plants, substations, and lines) that they do not fully control? Better to produce your own lighting, right? If that means you have to live without television or the internet, well, those are just the trade-offs required to achieve self-sufficiency.

A storm—or a pandemic—can create temporary problems in the highly complex systems that run so much of the modern world. That’s hardly a reason to abandon them. If Hawley is imagining a world in which the United States is wholly self-sufficient, then he’s asking you to accept a scenario in which the United States is significantly poorer than it is today.”

“Hawley says the supply chain crisis is the result of “a crisis of production.” Wrong again. American manufacturing is stronger than it has ever been, in part because outsourcing low-level production has allowed companies here to focus on higher-value goods (which means higher wages for the people who make and sell them). The true cause of the current mess is a disconnect between supply and demand—supplies have been constrained by a number of pandemic-related issues like temporarily closed factories and worker shortages, while demand has shifted in unexpected ways.”

“If his thesis is correct, then items that are already mostly produced domestically should be exempt from the problems with foreign supply chains, right? Except, no, that’s not true. As Scott Lincicome, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, points out, the vast majority of food consumed in the United States is grown, raised, and otherwise produced here. And yet Americans are seeing higher prices and supply issues at the grocery store too.

“That a mostly‐domestic U.S. food supply chain hasn’t protected American consumers from recent shortages and price increases is unsurprising,” Lincicome writes. “For starters, many of the same things that stress global supply chains—COVID-19 outbreaks; supply‐demand imbalances; labor shortages in the trucking and warehousing industries; misguided trade, transportation, and immigration policies; etc.—stress domestic ones too.””