Why Dogs Lick Their Asses

Copeland estimates that kosher laws add about 20 to 30 percent to the cost of production. That might sound bad for business. In fact, the owners of Manischewitz told me that kosher law could be the best thing they have going for them.

Alain Bankier, co-president of Manischewitz, said that the capital investment in the company’s state-of-the-art matzo machinery poses a huge barrier to entry for potential competitors.

So rather than being bad for business, all those kosher rules mean Manischwitz won’t have much competition.

Why Matzo Makers Love Regulation

Those crafty matzo makers might be onto something!  When news of this gets around, all kinds of businesses will probably start lobbying congress to write regulations that create barriers to entry for potential competitors.  Ah, NPR.  It’s like they found a heretofore unknown tribe of people in the Amazon that had just discovered fire, and then wrote a story about it, as if the discovery of fire was the news.

“Conflict of Interest”

So, the CFTC (Commodities Futures Tra…whatever—one of the banking regulators) holds a “public hearing” on derivatives reform and eight people show up.  Guess how many of those people are from the banking industry?  Now guess how many regular, concerned citizens show up?  If you guessed 8 and 0, respectively, you are correct!

The informational hearing for regulators somehow turns into a job interview for banking people. Banking people who are advising regulators about writing the new rules, and who happen to have millions riding on the outcome of those rules.

Here’s the thing. You ask both lobbyists and regulators about this conflict of interest and they will tell you it’s not ideal, but of course it works that way.

“You can’t possibly expect people in the government at all levels to understand all this stuff,” says Tim Ryan, a lobbyist who represents many big Wall Street firms. “They’re not market participants.”

The idea of regulations being written by the very industries being regulated isn’t terribly noteworthy, at least not to those of us who view this sort of collusion between government and business as, well, business as usual (ho ho), but the thing that gets me is how this is described as a “conflict of interest.”  What conflict of interest?  Seems to me that the problem here is that there’s no conflict of interest.

Let a thousand hot dog carts bloom

But despite the resurgence of interest in street food, local regulations still thwart would-be vendors. Glaeser cites “complex licensing and zoning regulations” in the case of Boston, but such restrictions apply to most of America. Police in San Francisco’s Mission District, home to one of the nation’s most vibrant street food scenes, have been cracking down on vendors who haven’t shelled out $1,000+ for the proper permits and licenses and untold thousands for approved equipment. In Los Angeles, Reason.tv has noted an underground industry of bacon-wrapped hot dot [sic] vendors who serve a product that the city has jailed others for selling. Even legal vendors are at risk, as evidenced by last week’s call by restauranteurs in the trendy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan to shutter the two-year-old Latino market that takes place in a local park on weekends. The food may have changed since the 19th century, but the arguments against street food – it’s unfair competition, it’s not clean, it’s run by illegal immigrants – have not.

“Deregulating food,” Market Urbanism

Whenever conventional liberals talk about deregulation, it’s usually to denounce it as a ploy by businesses to weasel out of having to concern themselves with things like workers’ safety or consumer or environmental protections.  Which it often is.  But what’s rarely discussed is the many ways regulations serve, in effect, to prevent poor people from making a living for themselves, often at the behest of those same aforementioned business interests.

In the case of food the rationale is always safety, but as the article quoted above points out (or as common sense, or having worked in a restaurant or two, would tell you), just because a place has the proper license hanging on the wall doesn’t mean they’re actually following any of the rules they’re supposed to follow.  As Anthony Bourdain says in Kitchen Confidential, if you want to know whether a restaurant is clean, check out the bathrooms.  If they can’t be bothered to clean the bathrooms, which they know the customers are going to see, there’s a good chance they’re not too concerned about their food-handling practices either.  Food regulations and licensing are as much about creating the illusion of safety as they are about actual safety.

Politics and safety issues aside, though, a vibrant food culture is, to me, a sign of a vibrant society (and, conversely, an over-regulated society is a sterile society).  I’d like nothing more than to see entire city blocks filled with street food vendors and open-air markets, “legal” or “illegal,” whatever.  I’d rather see a Mexican selling tacos from a cart than another one of those dreadful corporate franchise shitholes, with their faux-cheerful atmospheres and dull, focus-grouped menus.

One of my most persistent memories from a trip to Italy seven years ago is of a meal from a street cart my wife and brothers and I ate on a sidewalk in Atri, the town where my great-grandfather came from.  Atri is in Abruzzi, not far from the Adriatic coast.  It’s one of those medieval towns built on the top of a steep hill, surrounded by a wall, with a church in the center square and cobble stone streets winding in all directions.  The cart sold roast pork sandwiches, an entire pig turning on a spit, its skin a glistening amber.  The setting is part of what made it so memorable, no doubt, but I can still recall eating the sandwich, the crunch of that pork skin, while standing around a wooden bench and being circled by three or four stray dogs.

(Via Rad Geek.)

The Drive-By Media

I caught this interview the other day on NPR, and this particular question by interviewer Melissa Block jumped out at me (from the transcript):

BLOCK: I wonder, Governor Barbour, if this oil gusher is testing your political philosophy in any way. You and many of your fellow Republicans champion smaller government, less regulation, more freedom for industry. Do you think maybe there is a role looking at what’s happened in the Gulf for robust intervention for regulation?

Now Barbour’s pat response that more regulation doesn’t necessarily mean better regulation, and that equating the two is “suspect,” and, further, that the “market system” will work it all out is suspect itself, considering that the market system is rigged, by the very regulations that are supposed to govern it, in order to shield companies like BP from having to pay the full costs of their reckless behavior.

But nevermind all that.  The thing that occurred to me when I heard this is that you’d never hear NPR, or any other major news outlet, ask a proponent of more regulation whether the oil spill is testing their philosophy.  Can you imagine Melissa Block asking such a question to, say, Chuck Schumer?

BLOCK: I wonder, Senator Schumer, if this oil gusher is testing your political philosophy in any way. You and many of your fellow Democrats champion bigger government and more robust regulation. Do you think maybe there is a role looking at what’s happened in the Gulf for less government intervention?

You can rest assured it will never happen.

Why Regulations Are a Joke

This is sort of a companion piece to my teabagger post–more specifically, an expansion on my suggestion that maybe regulations themselves are part of the problem when dealing with corporate crimes.  I’ll let Kevin Carson explain (emphasis added):

Interestingly, an Alternet commentator on the Tea Party story wrote:  “I’m sure those people cheering every insane thing he [CEO Don Blankenship of Massey Energy] said at that rally will blame the government for failing to stop him, thus proving once again that it can’t do anything right.”

Well, yeah.  The mine safety and anti-pollution regulations, in this case, are a good illustration of why the corporate state replaced traditional tort liability standards under the common law with a regulatory state in the first place.

Now, you’d think tort liability for the full damages of wholesale devastation of the entire countryside, the poisoned water and coal dust, the deaths from gross negligence, and all the rest of it, would seriously undermine the profitability of mountaintop removal.  And you’d be right.

That’s exactly what the regulatory state was created to avoid.  Let’s look at a little history.  I can’t recommend strongly enough “The Transformation of American Law,” by Morton Horwitz.  According to Horwitz, the common law of tort liability was radically altered by state courts in the early to mid-19th century to make it more business-friendly.  Under the traditional standard of liability, an actor was responsible for harm that resulted from his actions — period.  Negligence was beside the point.  Courts added stricter standards of negligence and intent, in order to protect business from costly lawsuits for externalities they might impose on their neighbors.  The regulatory state subsequently imposed far weaker standards than the traditional common law; the main practical effect was to preempt what remained of tort liability.  A regulatory standard amounts to a license to commit torts below the threshold of that standard, and lawsuits against polluters and other malfeasors can be met with the defense that “we are fully in compliance with regulatory standards.”  In some cases, as with food libel laws or product disparagement laws, even voluntarily meeting a more stringent standard may be construed as disparagement of products that merely meet the regulatory standard.  For example, Monsanto has had mixed success in some jurisdictions suppressing the commercial free speech of those who advertise their milk as free from rBGH; and conventional beef producers have similarly managed in some cases to prevent competitors from testing for mad cow disease more frequently than the law mandates.

So a class action suit against a coal mining company for the public nuisance created by mountaintop removal could be thwarted by simply demonstrating that the operation met EPA regulatory standards, even if such operations caused serious harm to the property rights and quality of life of the surrounding community.

This is why I have to laugh whenever I hear some politician–or, worse yet, some d0-gooder “progressive”–braying about the need for more stringent regulations of this or that industry.  I mean, shit.  Who do you think is going to be in the room, campaign donation check in hand, when these things get written?

Back to Carson:

I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Blankenship is one of the most loathsome pigs ever to contaminate the Earth with his presence.  And the dumbed-down regulatory state — by offering wrist-slap fines worth a tiny fraction of the harm caused by his terrorism, as a substitute for free juries of his neighbors nailing his scrote to the wall for his crimes — has played a key role in enabling him.

Whole article here.

There’s a Teabagger Under My Bed

Over at True/Slant, Allison Kilkenny is worried about the teabaggers.  It’s not so much the would-be Travis Bickles or Rupert Pupkins who’ve made the news lately (and who may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with the tea party movement, but nevermind), although they are a cause for concern; no, the real worry is that the teabaggers “will convince and/or provide the federal government with the excuse to withdraw from the public at a time when the country badly needs government-provided services and regulation.”

But, as Kilkenny herself notes, the government is already not doing such a great job, teabaggers or no, of providing those badly needed services and regulations:

First, there actually aren’t enough independent regulators to cover all industries. Second, the criminals who get caught violating codes and breaking laws don’t get punished very seriously — if at all. Finally, there has been zero effort to seriously reform the worst-offending industries like the financial sector. Too Big To Fail and the complex derivatives, which created the Economic Armageddon, are both still in place — untouched by the government or regulators.

And she acknowledges that this has something to do with campaign contributions and the “revolving door” between jobs in the government and jobs in the industries being regulated.

At this point you might think that it would be at least worth considering the possibility that there’s something inherent in government regulation itself that’s the problem, and that the anti-government folks, misguided as a lot of them may be, might have a point.

But no. 

That could undermine the entire progressive myth about how the function of government is to protect the little guy from the rapacious capitalist fat cats (rather than being a tool used by the fat cats to keep the little guy in his place).  The more plausible scenario, apparently, is that a bunch of yahoos wearing fuzzy tricornered hats, who yearn for the freedom to “roam the woods, chopping their own firewood and stitching together clothing made from deer hide” are discouraging the government from doing its job and allowing the bankers and corporate CEOs to plunder and pollute with impunity.

I have an alternative theory: That people like Kilkenny, by focusing their ire at a bunch of nobodies who are aware, no matter how dimly, that the system does not exist to serve their interests, are helping to divert people’s attention from the government’s role in screwing them over.