Zoning Regulations Empower Control Freaks—and Bigots

“Imagine you’re a member of a religious minority that’s on the receiving end of a lot of hate, and the local zoning board is giving you a hard time over plans to expand your house of worship. Is it regulators being their nitpicky selves? Are the neighbors weaponizing rules to squeeze out the cars and foot traffic that accompany any successful endeavor? Or could it be hostility directed at your faith? Zoning has been used and abused in all these ways, which underlines the need for reform.”

https://reason.com/2024/05/15/zoning-regulations-empower-control-freaks-and-bigots/

The Supreme Court decides not to trigger a second Great Depression

“The Supreme Court delivered a firm and unambiguous rebuke to some of America’s most reckless judges on Thursday, ruling those judges were wrong to declare an entire federal agency unconstitutional in a decision that threatened to trigger a second Great Depression.
In a sensible world, no judge would have taken the plaintiffs arguments in CFPB v. Community Financial Services Association seriously. Briefly, they claimed that the Constitution limits Congress’s ability to enact “perpetual funding,” meaning that the legislation funding a particular federal program does not sunset after a certain period of time.

The implications of this entirely made-up theory of the Constitution are breathtaking. As Justice Elena Kagan points out in a concurring opinion in the CFPB case, “spending that does not require periodic appropriations (whether annual or longer) accounted for nearly two-thirds of the federal budget” — and that includes popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Nevertheless, a panel of three Trump judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — a court dominated by reactionaries who often hand down decisions that offend even the current, very conservative Supreme Court — bought the CFPB plaintiffs’ novel theory and used it to declare the entire Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unconstitutional.

In fairness, the Fifth Circuit’s decision would not have invalidated Social Security or Medicare, but that’s because the Fifth Circuit made up some novel limits to contain its unprecedented interpretation of the Constitution. And the Fifth Circuit’s attack on the CFPB still would have had catastrophic consequences for the global economy had it actually been affirmed by the justices.

That’s because the CFPB doesn’t just regulate the banking industry. It also instructs banks on how they can comply with federal lending laws without risking legal sanction — establishing “safe harbor” practices that allow banks to avoid liability so long as they comply with them.

As a brief filed by the banking industry explains, without these safe harbors, the industry would not know how to lawfully issue loans — and if banks don’t know how to issue loans, the mortgage market could dry up overnight. Moreover, because home building, home sales, and other industries that depend on the mortgage market make up about 17 percent of the US economy, a decision invalidating the CFPB could trigger economic devastation unheard of since the Great Depression.

Thankfully, that won’t happen. Seven justices joined a majority opinion in CFPB which rejects the Fifth Circuit’s attack on the United States economy, and restates the longstanding rule governing congressional appropriations. Congress may enact any law funding a federal institution or program, so long as that law “authorizes expenditures from a specified source of public money for designated purposes.””

https://www.vox.com/scotus/24158216/supreme-court-cfpb-clarence-thomas-community-financial

Rent Control Remains the Wrong Solution to Housing Woes

“They point out that restricting the price of housing discourages owners from maintaining and improving their property. It can also make it attractive for landlords to pull apartments from the rental market and put them up for sale as owner-occupied dwellings. Those enjoying deals on housing costs might also find themselves in the equivalent of golden handcuffs.
“Tenants in rent‐controlled units become less mobile to avoid losing access to below‐market rents,” add Miron and Aldighieri.

The authors point to studies finding that rent control has reduced the supply of rental housing in communities as far apart as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco.”

“the 2019 study cited last month by Miron and Aldighieri looked at a 1994 law change in San Francisco that suddenly extended rent control to housing constructed before 1980. Sure enough, tenants benefiting from controlled rents became less likely to move, while landlords subject to restrictions converted their properties to condos and co-ops or redeveloped them to escape regulation.

Rent controls “reduced the supply of available rental housing by 15 percent,” the study concluded. “This reduction in rental supply likely increased rents in the long run.” Contrary to housing activists’ intentions, “the conversion of existing rental properties to higher-end, owner-occupied condominium housing ultimately led to a housing stock increasingly directed toward higher income individuals.””

https://reason.com/2024/05/03/rent-control-remains-the-wrong-solution-to-housing-woes/

Ron DeSantis Says Letting People Buy Cultivated Meat Is Like Forcing Them To Eat Bugs

“It is not yet clear whether the alternative protein products known variously as “lab-grown,” “cell-cultivated,” or “cultured” meat will deliver the environmental benefits touted by their boosters or when they will be appealing and cheap enough to be competitive with conventional poultry, beef, and pork. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis already has made up his mind, deeming these products so repellent that selling them should be a crime.
When he signed the nation’s first ban on cultivated meat last week, DeSantis said he was “fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals.” That bizarre, Orwellian spin, which portrays legal restrictions on consumer choice as a blow against authoritarianism, illustrates how right-wing virtue signaling—in this case reinforced by protectionism—compromises conservative principles by turning even activities as mundane as a trip to the supermarket into a political issue.

The technology that revolts the governor, first developed in 2013, uses cell samples to grow meat in bioreactors, obviating the need to raise and slaughter animals. Worldwide, more than 150 companies are working on such products, but they have been approved for sale only in Singapore and the United States, where their distribution so far has been limited to chicken sold by restaurants in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

DeSantis nevertheless claims to think the threat posed by this nascent industry is grave enough to justify its criminalization. His reference to mandatory bug eating, bewildering on its face, goes to the meat of his complaint.

As DeSantis tells it, a “global elite” is conspiring to stop people from eating good, old-fashioned meat based on dubious environmental concerns, leaving consumers with icky alternatives that include insects as well as “fake meat.” As evidence of that conspiracy, DeSantis cites a 2021 World Economic Forum article describing insects as “a credible and efficient alternative protein source,” which he says reflects “the World Economic Forum’s goal of forcing the world to eat lab-grown meat and insects.””

“Although the Yale-educated, Harvard-trained lawyer’s populist pose is hard to take seriously, he evidently thinks it will appeal to Republican voters gullible enough to accept his equation of coercion with freedom. DeSantis is also playing to entrenched economic interests, as reflected in his promise to protect “100% real Florida beef” produced by “local farmers and ranchers.””

https://reason.com/2024/05/08/ron-desantis-says-letting-people-buy-cultivated-meat-is-like-forcing-them-to-eat-bugs/

The reckless policies that helped fill our streets with ridiculously large cars

“What lies behind this shift? Some Americans prefer bigger cars, especially when gas prices are low, for their ample storage space, ability to see over other vehicles on the road, and perceived safety benefits (more on that later). But shifting consumer demands tell only part of the story.
For half a century, a litany of federal policies has favored large SUVs and trucks, pushing automakers and American buyers toward larger models. Instead of counteracting car bloat through regulation, policymakers have subtly encouraged it. That has been a boon for car companies, but a disaster for everyone else.”

“After the 1970s OPEC oil embargo triggered a spike in gas prices, the federal government adopted an array of policies intended to reduce energy demand.

One of Congress’s most consequential moves was creating the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which require that the average fuel economy (miles per gallon, or MPG) of a carmaker’s vehicles remain below a set threshold.

Pressed by auto lobbyists, Congress made a fateful decision when it established CAFE. Instead of setting a single fuel economy standard that applies to all cars, CAFE has two of them: one for passenger cars, such as sedans and station wagons, and a separate, more lenient standard for “light trucks,” including pickups and SUVs. In 1982, for instance, the CAFE standard for passenger cars was 24 mpg and only 17.5 mpg for light trucks.

That dual structure didn’t initially seem like a big deal, because in the 1970s SUVs and trucks together accounted for less than a quarter of new cars sold. But as gas prices fell in the 1980s, the “light truck loophole” encouraged automakers to shift away from sedans and churn out more pickups and SUVs (which were also more profitable).”

“In the early 2000s, the federal government made these distortions even worse.

During the George W. Bush administration, CAFE was revised to further loosen rules for the biggest cars by tying a car model’s efficiency standard to its physical footprint (which is basically the shadow cast by the vehicle when the sun is directly above it). President Obama then incorporated similar footprint rules into new greenhouse gas emissions standards that are overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Dan Becker, who led the Sierra Club’s global warming program from 1989 to 2007, told me that he and others warned federal lawmakers that adopting footprint-based standards was a mistake. “People like me were saying, ‘give carmakers another loophole and they’ll use it,’” he said. “But we lost.”

Those concerns proved justified. The average vehicle footprint expanded 6 percent between 2008 and 2023, a “historic high,” according to an EPA report, which also found that some carmakers, such as General Motors, actually had lower average fuel economy and higher average carbon emissions in 2022 than in 2017. To its credit, the EPA recently announced revisions to its vehicle GHG rules that would narrow (but not close) the gaps between standards for large and small cars.”

“In the early 1960s, Europe raised the ire of American officials by slapping a 50 percent tariff on chicken exported from the United States. In retaliation, the US enacted a 25 percent tax on pickup trucks imported from abroad. The dispute is long forgotten, but the “Chicken Tax” lives on.

Although the tariff was initially aimed at Germany’s immense auto industry (Volkswagen in particular), it also applies to pickups imported from newer automaking powers such as Japan and South Korea, where carmakers are often adept at building vehicles much smaller than those available to Americans.”

“In 1984, Congress stopped allowing small business owners to take a tax deduction for the purchase price of cars used for work. But the bill included a giant loophole: To protect those who need a heavy-duty vehicle (think farmers or construction workers), Congress made an exception, known as Section 179, for cars that weigh over 6,000 pounds when fully loaded with passengers and cargo. Today such behemoths are eligible for a tax deduction of up to $30,500, while business owners who opt for a smaller car can claim nothing at all.”

“Every time a car owner fills her gas tank, a portion of the bill goes into the federal Highway Trust Fund, a central source of funding for roads and mass transit. That tax rate is set at $0.184 per gallon, a level that has been frozen since 1993, when Bill Clinton was less than a year into his presidency. Congressional proposals to increase the gas tax to close a yawning highway budget gap, or at least tie it to inflation, have gone nowhere.

Over the last 31 years, consumer prices have risen 113 percent, making the real value of the gas tax less than half what it was in 1993. That decline has reduced the cost of powering a huge SUV or truck with abysmal gas mileage”

“Car safety rules are laid out in the encyclopedic Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), which touches on everything from power windows to seat belts. But the FMVSS revolves around protecting a vehicle’s occupants; nothing within its 562 pages limits a car’s physical design to protect someone who might come into contact with it in a collision. That omission invites an arms race of vehicle size — precisely what the US is experiencing.”

“consider who benefits from oversized vehicles. American carmakers like Ford and GM (which are headquartered in Michigan, a crucial swing state) rely on juicy margins from big SUVs and pickups, which are more expensive and profitable than smaller models. They enjoy protection from foreign competition through tariffs like the Chicken Tax, as well as favorable policies like CAFE’s light-truck loophole.

The regulatory status quo suits domestic automakers just fine — and they act as a roadblock to even modest attempts to change it.”

“As American sales of big SUVs and trucks have surged, their owners are likely to resist policy moves they see as penalizing them. Many are likely to be unaware of the federal loopholes and policy oversights that have distorted their vehicle choices.”

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/24139147/suvs-trucks-popularity-federal-policy-pollution

States Keep Passing Unconstitutional Age-Verification Laws for Porn Sites

“”There will always be websites willing to provide porn without carding viewers. These platforms are also less likely to take other steps to stay within regulatory or creator-protective limits,” Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in March. “By driving viewers away from platforms like Pornhub—sites that engage in at least some content moderation, are relatively receptive and responsive to authorities, and are willing to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with porn creators—age verification laws could actually increase viewership of exploitative or otherwise undesirable content.””

https://reason.com/2024/04/11/states-keep-passing-unconstitutional-age-verification-laws-for-porn-sites/

California Won’t Let Homeowners Insurance Companies Raise Rates, so They’re Leaving the State Instead

“The state’s leaders are acting like this is some unexpected perfect storm, but it’s one that’s been on the horizon for several years. “California’s one-two punch—forcing companies to write risky policies while also limiting their ability to charge market rates—would leave insurers with little choice but stop writing new policies,” I wrote in 2021. Last March, I warned insurance companies are “quietly fleeing” the state. Two months later, they stopped being quiet about it. In May, State Farm announced its freeze on writing new homeowner policies.”

https://reason.com/2024/03/29/california-wont-let-homeowners-insurance-companies-raise-rates-so-theyre-leaving-the-state-instead/

The Bad Science Behind Jonathan Haidt’s Call to Regulate Social Media

“Haidt cites 476 studies in his book that seem to represent an overwhelming case. But two-thirds of them were published before 2010, or before the period that Haidt focuses on in the book. Only 22 of them have data on either heavy social media use or serious mental issues among adolescents, and none have data on both.
There are a few good studies cited in the book. For example, one co-authored by psychologist Jean Twenge uses a large and carefully selected sample with a high response rate. It employs exploratory data analysis rather than cookbook statistical routines.

Unfortunately for Haidt, that study undercuts his claim. The authors did find that heavy television watchers, video game players, and computer and phone users were less happy. But the similar graphs for these four ways of spending time suggest that the specific activity didn’t matter. This study actually suggests that spending an excessive amount of time in front of any one type of screen is unhealthy—not that there’s anything uniquely dangerous about social media.”

https://reason.com/video/2024/04/02/the-bad-science-behind-jonathan-haidts-anti-social-media-crusade/

No, Biden’s New Rail Crew Mandate Doesn’t Make ‘Common Sense’

“The 53-car freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last year was operated by a crew of three men, none of whom were able to prevent the cascade of mechanical and communication failures that led to the unfortunate accident.
In response to that crash, the federal Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday a new policy requiring freight trains to operate with at least two-person crews—a mandate that the Biden administration says will enhance rail safety.

If you’ve passed first grade, you might now find yourself asking a rather basic question: Isn’t three more than two?

Rest assured that it is. However, in Washington, the policy-making calculus often relies on fuzzy math that is heavily influenced by the pull of special interests and the strong sense of do-something-ism.

Both are on display in the new freight railroad mandate. The derailment in East Palestine was bad, and something must be done. This is something, so now it is being done—and bonus points can be scored because doing this specific thing will please the Biden administration’s labor union allies, which have been lobbying the government for years to impose exactly this two-person crew mandate.

On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it should be “common sense” that “large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crew members on board.”

The length of the train has absolutely nothing to do with it, but Buttigieg is gesturing toward the idea that a second person on board could bring the train to a halt if the driver is somehow incapacitated. And, indeed, it was longstanding railroading practice to have multiple people in the cab of freight trains for exactly this reason.

These days, however, it is automation and not a backup engineer that is responsible for a dramatic decline in railway accidents and injuries. Thanks to positive train control (PTC)—essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions, and which railroads have been mandated by Congress to use since 2008—rail accidents have fallen by 30 percent while employee injuries are down 40 percent since 2000, according to data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group.

Additionally, Buttigieg’s claim about “common sense” comports with neither the specifics of the East Palestine accident nor recent governmental reviews of the two-person crew mandate.

The Federal Railroad Administration spent three years investigating a proposed two-person crew mandate before concluding in 2019 that the rule was not “necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely,” largely because of the safety gains already made by automation. More recently, Congress considered—but, notably, did not enact—a two-member crew mandate in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.

As for the the East Palestine incident, having a crew of 10 people driving the train likely wouldn’t have made any difference. The crash was caused by an overheated wheel bearing, which failed and derailed the train as the crew was attempting to bring it to a stop. The three-person crew should have been alerted to the problem sooner, but at least one track-side detector meant to spot the wheel issue was not working properly.”

https://reason.com/2024/04/02/no-bidens-new-rail-crew-mandate-doesnt-make-common-sense/

Political Stupidity and Bureaucratic Bungling Created New York’s Pot Legalization ‘Disaster’

“New York’s rollout of marijuana legalization has been a “disaster,” as Hochul conceded in January. “Every other storefront” is an unlicensed pot shop, she told The Buffalo News. “It’s insane.”
That disaster has frustrated would-be retailers, left farmers in the lurch, played havoc with tax revenue projections, and made a joke out of any expectation that New York, by learning from the experience of states that legalized marijuana earlier, would do a better job of displacing the black market. The insanity that Hochul perceives is a product of bad decisions by politicians who should have known better and obstruction by regulators who sacrificed efficiency on the altar of diversity.

Unlike states such as New Jersey, where voters approved legalization in 2020, and Maryland, where a similar ballot initiative passed two years later, New York did not initially allow existing medical dispensaries to start serving the recreational market. Its slow and complicated licensing process, which was skewed by an “equity” program that prioritized approval of applicants with marijuana-related criminal records or their relatives, is maddeningly hard to navigate.

Those preferences invited lawsuits by people who were excluded, which further delayed approval of licenses. Guidance and financial help for people struggling to jump through the state’s hoops never materialized. And as in other states, high taxes and burdensome regulations have made it hard for licensed businesses to compete with unauthorized dealers.”

https://reason.com/2024/03/22/political-stupidity-and-bureaucratic-bungling-created-new-yorks-pot-legalization-disaster/