Archives For constitutional law

U.S. antitrust law focuses primarily on private anticompetitive restraints, leaving the most serious impediments to a vibrant competitive process – government-initiated restraints – relatively free to flourish.  Thus the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should be commended for its July 16 congressional testimony that spotlights a fast-growing and particularly pernicious species of (largely state) government restriction on competition – occupational licensing requirements.  Today such disciplines (to name just a few) as cat groomers, flower arrangers, music therapists, tree trimmers, frozen dessert retailers, eyebrow threaders, massage therapists (human and equine), and “shampoo specialists,” in addition to the traditional categories of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, are subject to professional licensure.  Indeed, since the 1950s, the coverage of such rules has risen dramatically, as the percentage of Americans requiring government authorization to do their jobs has risen from less than five percent to roughly 30 percent.

Even though some degree of licensing responds to legitimate health and safety concerns (i.e., no fly-by-night heart surgeons), much occupational regulation creates unnecessary barriers to entry into a host of jobs.  Excessive licensing confers unwarranted benefits on fortunate incumbents, while effectively barring large numbers of capable individuals from the workforce.  (For example, many individuals skilled in natural hair braiding simply cannot afford the 2,100 hours required to obtain a license in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.)  It also imposes additional economic harms, as the FTC’s testimony explains:  “[Occupational licensure] regulations may lead to higher prices, lower quality services and products, and less convenience for consumers.  In the long term, they can cause lasting damage to competition and the competitive process by rendering markets less responsive to consumer demand and by dampening incentives for innovation in products, services, and business models.”  Licensing requirements are often enacted in tandem with other occupational regulations that unjustifiably limit the scope of beneficial services particular professionals can supply – for instance, a ban on tooth cleaning by dental hygienists not acting under a dentist’s supervision that boosts dentists’ income but denies treatment to poor children who have no access to dentists.

What legal and policy tools are available to chip away at these pernicious and costly laws and regulations, which largely are the fruit of successful special interest lobbying?  The FTC’s competition advocacy program, which responds to requests from legislators and regulators to assess the economic merits of proposed laws and regulations, has focused on unwarranted regulatory restrictions in such licensed professions as real estate brokers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, dentists, dental hygienists, nurses, eye doctors, opticians, and veterinarians.  Retrospective reviews of FTC advocacy efforts suggest it may have helped achieve some notable reforms (for example, 74% of requestors, regulators, and bill sponsors surveyed responded that FTC advocacy initiatives influenced outcomes).  Nevertheless, advocacy’s reach and effectiveness inherently are limited by FTC resource constraints, by the need to obtain “invitations” to submit comments, and by the incentive and ability of licensing scheme beneficiaries to oppose regulatory and legislative reforms.

Former FTC Chairman Kovacic and James Cooper (currently at George Mason University’s Law and Economics Center) have suggested that federal and state antitrust experts could be authorized to have ex ante input into regulatory policy making.  As the authors recognize, however, several factors sharply limit the effectiveness of such an initiative.  In particular, “the political feasibility of this approach at the legislative level is slight”, federal mandates requiring ex ante reviews would raise serious federalism concerns, and resource constraints would loom large.

Antitrust law challenges to anticompetitive licensing schemes likewise offer little solace.  They are limited by the antitrust “state action” doctrine, which shields conduct undertaken pursuant to “clearly articulated” state legislative language that displaces competition – a category that generally will cover anticompetitive licensing requirements.  Even a Supreme Court decision next term (in North Carolina Dental v. FTC) that state regulatory boards dominated by self-interested market participants must be actively supervised to enjoy state action immunity would have relatively little bite.  It would not limit states from issuing simple statutory commands that create unwarranted occupational barriers, nor would it prevent states from implementing “adequate” supervisory schemes that are designed to approve anticompetitive state board rules.

What then is to be done?

Constitutional challenges to unjustifiable licensing strictures may offer the best long-term solution to curbing this regulatory epidemic.  As Clark Neily points out in Terms of Engagement, there is a venerable constitutional tradition of protecting the liberty interest to earn a living, reflected in well-reasoned late 19th and early 20th century “Lochner-era” Supreme Court opinions.  Even if Lochner is not rehabilitated, however, there are a few recent jurisprudential “straws in the wind” that support efforts to rein in “irrational” occupational licensure barriers.  Perhaps acting under divine inspiration, the Fifth Circuit in St. Joseph Abbey (2013) ruled that Louisiana statutes that required all casket manufacturers to be licensed funeral directors – laws that prevented monks from earning a living by making simple wooden caskets – served no other purpose than to protect the funeral industry, and, as such, violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.  In particular, the Fifth Circuit held that protectionism, standing alone, is not a legitimate state interest sufficient to establish a “rational basis” for a state statute, and that absent other legitimate state interests, the law must fall.  Since the Sixth and Ninth Circuits also have held that intrastate protectionism standing alone is not a legitimate purpose for rational basis review, but the Tenth Circuit has held to the contrary, the time may soon be ripe for the Supreme Court to review this issue and, hopefully, delegitimize pure economic protectionism.  Such a development would place added pressure on defenders of protectionist occupational licensing schemes.  Other possible avenues for constitutional challenges to protectionist licensing regimes (perhaps, for example, under the Dormant Commerce Clause) also merit being explored, of course.  The Institute of Justice already is performing yeoman’s work in litigating numerous cases involving unjustified licensing and other encroachments on economic liberty; perhaps their example can prove an inspiration for pro bono efforts by others.

Eliminating anticompetitive occupational licensing rules – and, more generally, vindicating economic liberties that too long have been neglected – is obviously a long-term project, and far-reaching reform will not happen in the near term.  Nevertheless, while we the currently living may in the long run be dead (pace Keynes), our posterity will be alive, and we owe it to them to pursue the vindication of economic liberties under the Constitution.

Once again, my constitutional law professor has embarrassed me with his gross misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution.  First, he insisted that it would be “unprecedented” for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a statute enacted by a “democratically elected Congress.”  Seventh-grade Civics students know that’s not right, but Mr. Obama’s misstatement did have its intended effect:  It sent a clear signal that the President and his lackeys would call into question the legitimacy of the Supreme Court should it invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Duly warned, Chief Justice Roberts changed his vote in NFIB v. Sebelius to save the Court from whatever institutional damage Mr. Obama would have inflicted.

Now President Obama – who chastised his predecessor for offending the constitutional order and insisted that he, a former constitutional law professor, would never stoop so low – has both violated his oath of office and flouted a key constitutional feature, the separation of powers.  I’m speaking of the President’s “administrative fix” to the ACA.  That “fix” consists of a presidential order not to enforce the Act’s minimum coverage provisions, a move that President Obama says will allow insurance companies to continue offering ACA non-compliant policies to those previously enrolled in them if the companies wish to do so and are able to obtain permission at the state level.

This is, of course, nothing more than a transparent attempt to shift blame for the millions of recently canceled policies.  Having priced their more generous ACA-compliant policies on the assumption that there would be an influx of healthy customers now covered by high-deductible, non-compliant policies, insurance companies would shoot themselves in the foot by accepting Mr. Obama’s generous “offer.”  Moreover, state insurance commissioners, aware of the adverse selection likely to result from this last-minute rule change, are unlikely to give their blessing.  (Indeed, several have balked – including the D.C. insurance commissioner, who was promptly fired.)

But putting aside the fact that the administrative fix won’t work, the main problem with it is that it is blatantly unconstitutional.  The Constitution divides power between the three branches of government.  Article I grants to the Congress “all legislative Powers,” including “Power to lay and collect Taxes.”  Article II then directs the President to “take Care that the laws be faithfully executed.” With his administrative fix, President Obama has essentially said, “I promise not to execute the law Congress passed.”

Moreover, the President went further to say, “I promise not to collect a tax the Congress imposed.”  Remember that the penalty for failure to carry ACA-compliant insurance is, for constitutional purposes, a tax.  That was the central holding of last summer’s Obamacare decision, NFIB v. Sebelius.  When the President assured victims of insurance cancellations that he would turn a blind eye to the law and allow their insurers to continue to offer canceled policies, he also implied that he would order his administration not to collect the taxes owed by those in ACA-noncompliant policies.  Indeed, this matter was clarified in the letter the Department of Health and Human Services sent to state insurance commissioners notifying them of the Obama Administration’s decision not to enforce the law as written.  That letter stated that the Department of the Treasury, which is charged (through the IRS) with collecting the ACA’s penalties/taxes, “concur[red] with the transitional relief afforded in this document.”  That means the IRS, pursuant to the President’s order, is promising not to collect a tax the Congress has imposed.

This, my friends, is a major disruption of the constitutional order.  If the President of the United States may simply decide not to collect taxes imposed by the branch of government that has been given exclusive “Power to lay and collect Taxes,” the whole Constitution is thrown off-kilter.  Any time a president wanted to favor some individuals, firms, or industries, he wouldn’t need to go to Congress for approval.  No, he could just order his IRS not to collect taxes from those folks.  Can’t get Congress to approve subsidies for green technologies?  No worries.  Just order your IRS not to collect taxes from firms in that sector.  Or maybe even order a refundable tax credit.  You think Congress has enacted job-killing regulations on an industry?  Just invoke your enforcement discretion and ignore those rules.  Whew!  This sure makes things easier.

President Obama twice promised, under oath, to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  Unfortunately, he also rammed through a terrible law.  Our Constitution now gives him the option to enforce the enacted law and pay the political price, or seek Congress’s assistance to change the law.  On the particular matter at issue here, Congress is willing to help the President out.  On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to amend the law to allow insurance companies to continue to offer ACA non-compliant policies.  Mr. Obama doesn’t like some details of the legislative fix he’s been offered.  Unfortunately for him, though, he’s not a king.  He has to work within the constitutional order.

At least, that’s what I thought I learned in constitutional law.

William Buckley once described a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Ironically, this definition applies to Professor Tim Wu’s stance against the Supreme Court applying the Constitution’s protections to the information age.

Wu admits he is going against the grain by fighting what he describes as leading liberals from the civil rights era, conservatives and economic libertarians bent on deregulation, and corporations practicing “First Amendment opportunism.” Wu wants to reorient our thinking on the First Amendment, limiting its domain to what he believes are its rightful boundaries.

But in his relatively recent piece in The New Republic and journal article in U Penn Law Review, Wu bites off more than he can chew. First, Wu does not recognize that the First Amendment is used “opportunistically” only because the New Deal revolution and subsequent jurisprudence has foreclosed all other Constitutional avenues to challenge economic regulations. Second, his positive formulation for differentiating protected speech from non-speech will lead to results counter to his stated preferences. Third, contra both conservatives like Bork and liberals like Wu, the Constitution’s protections can and should be adapted to new technologies, consistent with the original meaning.

Wu’s Irrational Lochner-Baiting

Wu makes the case that the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect things that aren’t really within the First Amendment’s purview. He starts his New Republic essay with Sorrell v. IMS (cf. TechFreedom’s Amicus Brief), describing the data mining process as something undeserving of any judicial protection. He deems the application of the First Amendment to economic regulation a revival of Lochner, evincing a misunderstanding of the case that appeals to undefended academic prejudice and popular ignorance. This is important because the economic liberty which was long protected by the Constitution, either as matter of federalism or substantive rights, no longer has any protection from government power aside from the First Amendment jurisprudence Wu decries.

Lochner v. New York is a 1905 Supreme Court case that has received more scorn, left and right, than just about any case that isn’t dealing with slavery or segregation. This has led to the phenomenon (my former Constitutional Law) Professor David Bernstein calls “Lochner-baiting,” where a commentator describes any Supreme Court decision with which he or she disagrees as Lochnerism. Wu does this throughout his New Republic piece, somehow seeing parallels between application of the First Amendment to the Internet and a Liberty of Contract case under substantive Due Process.

The idea that economic regulation should receive little judicial scrutiny is not new. In fact, it has been the operating law since at least the famous Carolene Products footnote four. However, the idea that only insular and discrete minorities should receive First Amendment protection is a novel application of law. Wu implicitly argues exactly this when he says “corporations are not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, unpopular outsiders needing a safeguard that legislators and law enforcement could not be moved to provide.” On the contrary, the application of First Amendment protections to Jehovah’s Witnesses and student protesters is part and parcel of the application of the First Amendment to advertising and data that drives the Internet. Just because Wu does not believe businesspersons need the Constitution’s protections does not mean they do not apply.

Finally, while Wu may be correct that the First Amendment should not apply to everything for which it is being asserted today, he does not seem to recognize why there is “First Amendment opportunism.” In theory, those trying to limit the power of government over economic regulation could use any number of provisions in the text of the Constitution: enumerated powers of Congress and the Tenth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, the Contracts Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection Clause, etc. For much of the Constitution’s history, the combination of these clauses generally restricted the growth of government over economic affairs. Lochner was just one example of courts generally putting the burden on governments to show the restrictions placed upon economic liberty are outweighed by public interest considerations.

The Lochner court actually protected a small bakery run by immigrants from special interest legislation aimed at putting them out of business on behalf of bigger, established competitors. Shifting this burden away from government and towards the individual is not clearly the good thing Wu assumes. Applying the same Liberty of Contract doctrine, the Supreme Court struck down legislation enforcing housing segregation in Buchanan v. Warley and legislation outlawing the teaching of the German language in Meyer v. Nebraska. After the New Deal revolution, courts chose to apply only rational basis review to economic regulation, and would need to find a new way to protect fundamental rights that were once classified as economic in nature. The burden shifted to individuals to prove an economic regulation is not loosely related to any conceivable legitimate governmental purpose.

Now, the only Constitutional avenue left for a winnable challenge of economic regulation is the First Amendment. Under the rational basis test, the Tenth Circuit in Powers v. Harris actually found that protecting businesses from competition is a legitimate state interest. This is why the cat owner Wu references in his essay and describes in more detail in his law review article brought a First Amendment claim against a regime requiring licensing of his talking cat show: there is basically no other Constitutional protection against burdensome economic regulation.

The More You Edit, the More Your <sic> Protected?

In his law review piece, Machine Speech, Wu explains that the First Amendment has a functionality requirement. He points out that the First Amendment has never been interpreted to mean, and should not mean, that all communication is protected. Wu believes the dividing lines between protected and unprotected speech should be whether the communicator is a person attempting to communicate a specific message in a non-mechanical way to another, and whether the communication at issue is more speech than conduct. The first test excludes carriers and conduits that handle or process information but have an ultimately functional relationship with it–like Federal Express or a telephone company. The second excludes tools, those works that are purely functional like navigational charts, court filings, or contracts.

Of course, Wu admits the actual application of his test online can be difficult. In his law review article he deals with some easy cases, like the obvious application of the First Amendment to blog posts, tweets, and video games, and non-application to Google Maps. Of course, harder cases are the main target of his article: search engines, automated concierges, and other algorithm-based services. At the very end of his law review article, Wu finally states how to differentiate between protected speech and non-speech in such cases:

The rule of thumb is this: the more the concierge merely tells the user about himself, the more like a tool and less like protected speech the program is. The more the programmer puts in place his opinion, and tries to influence the user, the more likely there will be First Amendment coverage. These are the kinds of considerations that ultimately should drive every algorithmic output case that courts could encounter.

Unfortunately for Wu, this test would lead to results counterproductive to his goals.

Applying this rationale to Google, for instance, would lead to the perverse conclusion that the more the allegations against the company about tinkering with its algorithm to disadvantage competitors are true, the more likely Google would receive First Amendment protection. And if Net Neutrality advocates are right that ISPs are restricting consumer access to content, then the analogy to the newspaper in Tornillo becomes a good one–ISPs have a right to exercise editorial discretion and mandating speech would be unconstitutional. The application of Wu’s test to search engines and ISPs effectively puts them in a “use it or lose it” position with their First Amendment rights that courts have rejected. The idea that antitrust and FCC regulations can apply without First Amendment scrutiny only if search engines and ISPs are not doing anything requiring antitrust or FCC scrutiny is counterproductive to sound public policy–and presumably, the regulatory goals Wu holds.

First Amendment Dynamism

The application of the First Amendment to the Internet Age does not involve large leaps of logic from current jurisprudence. As Stuart Minor Benjamin shows in his article in the same issue of the U Penn Law Review, the bigger leap would be to follow Wu’s recommendations. We do not need a 21st Century First Amendment that some on the left have called for—the original one will do just fine.

This is because the Constitution’s protections can be dynamically applied, consistent with original meaning. Wu’s complaint is that he does not like how the First Amendment has evolved. Even his points that have merit, though, seem to indicate a stasis mentality. In her book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel described this mentality as a preference for a “controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.” But the First Amendment’s text is not a grant of power to the central authority to control or permit anything. It actually restricts government from intervening into the open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways.

The application of current First Amendment jurisprudence to search engines, ISPs, and data mining will not necessarily create a world where machines have rights. Wu is right that the line must be drawn somewhere, but his technocratic attempt to empower government officials to control innovation is short-sighted. Ultimately, the First Amendment is as much about protecting the individuals who innovate and create online as those in the offline world. Such protection embraces the future instead of fearing it.

“[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

These words from the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment lurk behind a great many news stories these days.  For the next two days, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether they guarantee a right to same-sex marriage (or, more narrowly, whether they preclude a state from banning gay marriage after it’s been permitted).  The Court will also consider whether similar words in the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government, preclude Congress from denying same-sex married couples the rights that are available to other married couples under federal programs.  Just today, the Court announced that it will consider whether the words preclude a state, by referendum, from eliminating the use of affirmative action in higher education.

But do the words place any meaningful restrictions on regulations of purely economic activity?  For the last two-thirds of a century, most people have assumed they don’t.  Sure, economic regulations are officially subject to Fourteenth Amendment constraints.  But the “rational basis review” courts have applied in scrutinizing economic regulations has generally amounted to  a rule of per se validity.

As Alan Meese explains, a recent Fifth Circuit decision suggests that might be changing, if ever so slightly.  Conservatives may balk (e.g., “you can’t have Lochner without Roe!”), but, as Alan discusses, the Fifth Circuit’s scrutiny was far less stringent than that engaged in by the courts that struck down economic regulations in the so-called Lochner era.  As Chip Mellor and Jeff Rowes explain, it seems the Fifth Circuit was just doing its constitutionally assigned job here.

The Case for Copyright

Adam Mossoff —  20 November 2012

Mark Schultz, law professor and specialist in copyright law, has written an excellent response to the Republican Study Committee policy brief on copyright law that has been making the rounds on the Internet the past several days.  Although the RSC promptly retracted the policy brief, the blogosphere has erupted in commentary on what appeared to be a radical shift in IP policy by one of the explicitly free market caucuses of GOP members.

Mark’s response is a tour-de-force, if only because in a very brief blog posting, he reveals that much of the RSC policy brief is, at best, based on assumptions about copyright that really require a lot more analytical heavy lifting than anything attempted by its author, or, at worst, simply a highly tendentious reading of copyright law and policy.

Here’s just a small taste of some of Mark’s response:

Some also see copyright as a morally suspect interference with economic freedom because they reject the contention that copyright is property. They instead vilify copyright as an odious monopoly or a government-granted privilege or subsidy.

The monopoly accusation is an elementary and persistent error in the economic analysis of intellectual property, as Edmund Kitch once explained in an article with that very title. Edmund W. Kitch, Elementary and Persistent Errors In The Economic Analysis Of Intellectual Property, 53 Vand. L. Rev. 1727 (2000). Dozens of scholarly articles, hundreds of court cases, and thousands of economics classes have repeated the claim that intellectual property grants a monopoly. As Kitch points out, the persistence of the claim does not lessen the error.

Ownership of a property right alone does not accord the owner a monopoly. The hallmark of a monopoly is market power. Owning something that is unique—whether it is a song, a story, or a house—does not give one that kind of power. Even a beautiful house in a nice location cannot command monopoly prices. The same is true of copyrighted works.

There’s more, including a great discussion about whether copyright really is justified, either morally or constitutionally, as only a social utility enhancing monopoly grant, something near and dear to my own scholarly work in the related field of patent law.  Mark concludes his response with a brilliant exposition on how, contrary to the RSC policy brief author’s claim that copyright violates laissez faire capitalism, copyright in fact makes it possible for private ordering to develop and to take root in a flourishing free market.

As Instapundit likes to say: Read the whole thing!

DISCLOSURE: Mark’s response is posted on the blog for the Copyright Alliance, and Mark and I are both members of the Academic Advisory Board of the Copyright Alliance.

I’ve recently posted to SSRN a new paper with the same name as this post.  The paper asserts, in greater detail, a number of points I’ve previously made on TOTM:

  • Health insurance premiums will rise under the (SCOTUS-modified) ACA, because the Act’s “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” mandates will generate widespread adverse selection that cannot be corrected through the (now constitutionally constrained) penalty system the Act imposes.
  • Underlying medical costs will continue to outpace inflation because the ACA does nothing to alleviate the primary driver of health inflation: the lack of price competition among providers, an artifact of the federal tax code’s encouragement of overly generous health insurance policies that ultimately amount to “pre-paid health care.”
  • Insurance coverage will expand far less than ACA proponents promisedbecause (1) the Act encourages employers to drop insurance coverage for lower-income workers, and (2) SCOTUS has largely disabled the Act’s Medicaid expansion.

I’ve been talking about these matters quite a bit lately.  On Constitution Day, I participated in this discussion of the ACA with my Missouri colleagues Phil Peters (a health law expert), Josh Hawley (a constitutional scholar and former Roberts clerk), and Stan Hudson (associate director of MU’s Center for Health Policy).  (My remarks begin at 23:45.)  On September 25, I presented a lecture on the ACA at my undergraduate Alma Mater, Wheaton College.  My PowerPoint presentation is not visible in the Wheaton video, but I’m happy to share it with anyone who’s interested.  Just email me at lambertt at missouri dot edu.

For those who follow these things (and for those who don’t but should!), Eric Goldman just posted an excellent short essay on Section 230 immunity and account terminations.

Here’s the abstract:

An online provider’s termination of a user’s online account can be a major-and potentially even life-changing-event for the user. Account termination exiles the user from a virtual place the user wanted to be; termination disrupts any social network relationship ties in that venue, and prevents the user from sending or receiving messages there; and the user loses any virtual assets in the account, which could be anything from archived emails to accumulated game assets. The effects of account termination are especially acute in virtual worlds, where dedicated users may be spending a majority of their waking hours or have aggregated substantial in-game wealth. However, the problem arises in all online environments (including email, social networking and web hosting) where account termination disrupts investments made by users.

Because of the potentially significant consequences from online user account termination, user-rights advocates, especially in the virtual world context, have sought legal restrictions on online providers’ discretion to terminate users. However, these efforts are largely misdirected because of 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2) (“Section 230(c)(2)”), a federal statutory immunity. This essay, written in conjunction with an April 2011 symposium at UC Irvine entitled “Governing the Magic Circle: Regulation of Virtual Worlds,” explains Section 230(c)(2)’s role in immunizing online providers’ decisions to terminate user accounts. It also explains why this immunity is sound policy.

But the meat of the essay (at least the normative part of the essay) is this:

Online user communities inevitably require at least some provider intervention. At times, users need “protection” from other users. The provider can give users self-help tools to reduce their reliance on the online provider’s intervention, but technological tools cannot ameliorate all community-damaging conduct by determined users. Eventually, the online provider needs to curb a rogue user’s behavior to protect the rest of the community. Alternatively, a provider may need to respond to users who are jeopardizing the site’s security or technical infrastructure. . . .  Section 230(c)(2) provides substantial legal certainty to online providers who police their premises and ensure the community’s stability when intervention is necessary.

* * *

Thus, marketplace incentives work unexpectedly well to discipline online providers from capriciously wielding their termination power. This is true even if many users face substantial nonrecoupable or switching costs, both financially and in terms of their social networks. Some users, both existing and prospective, can be swayed by the online provider’s capriciousness—and by the provider’s willingness to oust problem users who are disrupting the community. The online provider’s desire to keep these swayable users often can provide enough financial incentives for the online provider to make good choices.

Thus, broadly conceived, § 230(c)(2) removes legal regulation of an online provider’s account termination, making the marketplace the main governance mechanism over an online provider’s choices. Fortunately, the marketplace is effective enough to discipline those choices.

Eric doesn’t talk explicitly here about property rights and transaction costs, but that’s what he’s talking about.  Well-worth reading as a short, clear, informative introduction to this extremely important topic.

A couple of weeks ago, I argued that the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act will ultimately doom the Act to failure. The problem, I argued, is that the ACA’s guaranteed issue and community rating provisions create a perverse incentive for young, healthy people not to buy insurance until they need it, and the Supreme Court’s reasoning that the penalty for failure to carry insurance is a “tax” because it is small relative to the price of insurance precludes Congress from increasing the no-insurance penalty to the point at which it prevents young, healthy people from dropping coverage. As those folks remove themselves from the pool of insureds, insurance premiums (reflective of the per capita expected health care costs of the covered population) will rise, leading even more relatively healthy people to exit the pool and thereby exacerbating the “healthy flight” problem. In short, guaranteed issue (i.e., insurers have to insure you regardless of your health) + community rating (i.e., insurers can’t charge you more if you’re sick) + constitutionally limited low penalties for failure to carry insurance (a result of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in NFIB v. Sebelius) = adverse selection that will drive insurance premiums through the roof.

Some readers noted flaws in my analysis. One correctly observed that I had ignored the premium support subsidies the ACA provides for lower- and middle-income people (those earning from 1.33 to four times the Federal Poverty Level). Those subsidies may prevent many younger, healthier people from failing to buy or dropping coverage because the no-insurance penalty will exceed the out-of-pocket cost of insurance (i.e., the policy price minus the amount of the federal subsidy). Someone else observed that I had ignored the ACA’s employer mandate, which requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide insurance coverage or else pay a penalty for each employee that buys her own subsidized insurance on a state exchange. Since most people get their insurance coverage through their employers—an unfortunate result of the federal tax code—perverse incentives in the individual insurance market might not be that significant.

Unfortunately, neither the ACA’s premium support subsidies nor its employer mandate will save the Act from failure. Here’s why:

Premium Support Subsidies

The ACA’s premium support subsidies are unlikely to prevent substantial “healthy flight” for two reasons. First, they’re too small. When a young, healthy person is deciding whether to buy insurance now or to hold off, pay the penalty, and sign up for coverage when her family needs it, she will compare the no-insurance penalty with her out-of-pocket expense for a subsidized policy. If the penalty exceeds out-of-pocket expenses (policy price minus available subsidies), then it makes sense to purchase insurance. Otherwise, it makes sense to pay the “tax” until insurance coverage is needed, at which point it will be available (guaranteed issue) at rates not reflecting the family’s particular health care needs (community rating). To assess the risk of adverse selection, then, we must consider the magnitude of penalties, expected insurance premiums, and available subsidies.

The ACA provides that the penalty for failure to purchase insurance shall be the greater of:

  • A flat dollar amount per person (for adults, $95 in 2014, $325 in 2015, $695 in 2016 and beyond, adjusted for inflation; for children, half the adult penalty), with the flat amount per family never exceeding three times the adult amount; or
  • A percentage of income (1% in 2014, 2% in 2015, and 2.5% in 2016 and beyond) above the tax-filing threshold (estimated to be around $10,250 for single filers and $20,500 for joint filers in 2016).

For four-person families eligible for premium support subsidies (those earning from 133% to 400% FPL), the flat rate will always exceed the income percentage, so the maximum penalty will be $2,085 (adjusted for inflation from 2016 dollars). Insurance premiums will be substantially higher than that amount. According to Kaiser Family Foundation estimates, the 2014 price of “silver level” (70% actuarial value) insurance coverage for a family of four living in a moderate cost region will range from $10,108 for a family headed by a 30 year-old to $19,750 for a family headed by a 55 year-old. Since the ACA mandates only “bronze level” (60% actuarial value) coverage, so we can estimate prices of qualifying policies to be about 86% (60/70) of those levels, or from $8,693 for the 30 year-old’s family to $16,985 for the family of the 55 year-old.

The important comparison, however, is between the penalty amount ($2,085) and the subsidized price of qualifying insurance. For qualifying individuals and families, the ACA lavishes generous subsidies that are inversely related to income. Even after accounting for available subsidies, though, most families will find it more advantageous to pay the penalty than to purchase insurance.

The following table, based on Kaiser’s Health Reform Subsidy Calculator, shows for different family income levels the maximum income percentage and out-of-pocket dollars the family would have to pay for subsidized insurance, the percentage difference in outlays for the family’s two options (buy insurance or pay penalty), and the family’s likely decision (buy or don’t buy):

 Family   income

Maximum % of income to be spent on insurance

Maximum dollar amount to be spent on insurance

Comparison of insurance expenses
vs. penalty

Likely decision

$35,000

3.97%

$1,388

 Penalty is 50% more than ins.

Buy

$40,000

4.96%

$1,982

 Penalty is 5.2% more than ins.

Buy

$45,000

5.94%

$2,672

 Ins outlays are 1.28 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$50,000

6.77%

$3,385

 Ins outlays are 1.62 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$55,000

7.52%

$4,135

 Ins outlays are 1.98 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$60,000

8.23%

$4,937

 Ins outlays are 2.36 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$65,000

8.85%

$5,751

 Ins outlays are 2.76 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$70,000

9.47%

$6,626

 Ins outlays are 3.18 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$75,000

9.50%

$7,125

 Ins outlays are 3.42 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$80,000

9.50%

$7,600

 Ins outlays are 3.65 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$85,000

9.50%

$8,075

 Ins outlays are 3.87 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$90,000

9.50%

$8,550

 Ins outlays are 4.1 times penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$95,000

No maximum.

Policy cost

 Ins outlays (dependent on ages) significantly exceed penalty amount.

Don’t buy

$100,000

No maximum.

Policy cost

 Ins outlays (dependent on ages) significantly exceed penalty amount.

Don’t buy

 

As the table reveals, at all but the lowest income levels it makes more sense for healthy families to refrain from purchasing insurance and pay the penalty until insurance coverage is needed. In fact, until 2016, even families with the lowest two income levels on the table would be better off foregoing insurance purchases. Because the no-insurance penalties are phased in between 2014 and 2016 (they’re only $285 in 2014 and $975 in 2015), they are initially less than the out-of-pocket cost of a qualifying insurance policy. It is likely, then, that even low-income healthy families will drop out of the insurance pool in 2014 and 2015, driving up insurance premiums for those remaining in the pool.

In addition to being too small, the ACA’s premium subsidies may not be available in many states. As Jonathan Adler and Michael Cannon have demonstrated, the text of the ACA provides for premium support subsidies only on purchases made through exchanges that the states establish.  While proponents of the ACA presumably assumed that all states would voluntarily establish such exchanges so as to make subsidies available to their citizens, a great many states (36 at this point) either have declared an intention not to set up a state exchange or have made little movement in the direction of doing so. The IRS has taken the position that the subsidies should also be available through federal exchanges set up as a “fallback” in states that do not establish their own. It insists that expanding the subsidies is consistent with the purpose of the statute. But that’s far from clear. As Adler and Cannon show, the ACA’s legislative history suggests that Congress deliberately provided subsidies only through state-established exchanges in order to encourage states to set up and manage such exchanges.  In any event, the statutory language limits subsidies to state exchanges, and courts are generally loathe to exalt a statute’s purported purpose over its clear text, particularly when congressional intent is ambiguous.

Because the premium support subsidies (1) are too small and (2) may not be available in many states, they’re unlikely to correct the adverse selection problem resulting from the toxic combination of guaranteed issue, community rating, and constitutionally constrained low penalties for failure to purchase health insurance.

The Employer Mandate

But what about the fact that the ACA penalizes employers who fail to provide insurance coverage for their workers? Won’t that be enough to prevent large numbers of young, healthy people from failing to purchase or dropping health insurance? No, because the ACA’s subsidy provisions actually encourage employers to drop health plans for lower-income employees, many of whom will not be motivated to purchase insurance on their own.

As we’ve frequently discussed, the federal tax code currently exempts employer-provided health insurance benefits from taxation.  That exemption, which does not apply to individually purchased health insurance, amounts to an implicit subsidy percentage equal to the payroll tax rate plus the recipient employee’s marginal income tax rate. Because high-income workers are subject to higher marginal tax rates than are lower-income workers, the subsidy is greatest for them. Moreover, workers earning more than 400% of FPL will get no subsidy to buy insurance if their employer stops providing it.  Lower-income workers, by contrast, get less of an implicit subsidy for employer-provided health insurance, are eligible for more generous subsidies on state exchanges if their employer does not provide health insurance benefits, and would therefore prefer to work for employers that do not offer such benefits. Employers competing for workers will respond to these preferences.

Consider, for example, a previously uninsured 45 year-old who earns $35,000 and is required by the ACA to purchase a family insurance policy expected to cost around $15,000 in 2016.  If the employer provides the policy, the cash component of the employee’s compensation will fall to $20,000 (benefits generally being a dollar-for-dollar substitute for wages). The employee, however, will not have to pay the approximately $3,400 in federal income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes that would otherwise be due on the $15,000 received as insurance rather than cash.  On the other hand, if the employer does not provide health insurance and the employee purchases it on a state exchange, the employee will be eligible for a federal subsidy worth around $13,600.  Given the choice between a $3,400 implicit tax subsidy and a $13,600 subsidy on the exchange, the employee would prefer the latter. Now, if the employer employed more than 50 workers and failed to provide coverage, it would be charged a penalty of $2,000 for each worker that purchased subsidized insurance (after the first 30 workers).  It would likely choose to pay that penalty, however. It could finance the payment by reducing the employee’s salary by $2,000, and the employee would gladly agree to that arrangement. Even after having his salary diminished by $2,000, the employee would be better off gaining access to the larger government subsidy available only to individuals without employer-provided coverage.

But this analysis shows merely that the ACA encourages employers to drop coverage for lower-income workers. Won’t those workers turn around and purchase subsidized policies on the state exchanges? Perhaps not. For many of those workers, it will make more sense to pay the penalty and wait until health care is needed before purchasing insurance.  A one-income family of four headed by a 40 year-old earning $50,000, for example, would have to pay $3,385 for qualifying insurance or incur a no-insurance penalty of $2,085,  and it could always purchase insurance on a state exchange—with a $9,900 subsidy—the moment coverage became necessary. Such a family’s income level is low enough that the family is better off without employer coverage yet high enough that the family’s out-of-pocket insurance expenses will exceed the no-insurance penalty. Families in this situation can be expected both to lose employer coverage and to refrain from purchasing insurance on a state exchange.

Of course, all this assumes that premium subsidies are indeed available. For the reasons Adler and Cannon set forth, the ACA seems not to authorize such subsidies in states that fail to establish exchanges and instead rely on the federal government to do so.  Employers in such states would have less incentive to drop coverage for low-income employees, but lower income citizens who do not have employer-provided health insurance would not be likely to purchase insurance in such states, where the difference between the non-coverage penalty and the out-of-pocket cost of insurance (without subsidies) would be quite large.

In the end, then, neither the ACA’s premium support subsidies nor its employer mandate is sufficient to prevent the pernicious adverse selection cycle that results from combining guaranteed issue, community rating, and constitutionally limited deficient penalties for failure to carry insurance.

There’s great irony in Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning in the recent Affordable Care Act ruling.  In reading the ACA to impose a tax for failure to carry health insurance, thereby assuring the Act’s constitutionality, Justice Roberts also doomed the Act to failure.  Let me explain.

As the government repeatedly stressed, the individual mandate (now interpreted as a disjunctive order either to carry health insurance or to pay a “tax”) is necessary because of two “popular” provisions of the ACA: guaranteed issue (i.e., insurance companies are not allowed to deny or drop coverage because of preexisting conditions) and community rating (i.e., insurance companies must set common rates and can’t charge higher premiums to sick people or those susceptible to sickness). Taken together, those two provisions create a terribly perverse incentive for young, healthy people:  Don’t buy health insurance until you get sick!  After all, you can always sign up immediately upon becoming ill or injured (thanks to guaranteed issue), and (thanks to community rating) the insurer can’t charge you a higher price reflective of the greater likelihood — certainty, really — that you’ll make big claims.  To prevent young, healthy people from dropping their insurance, thereby leaving only the older and infirm in the pool of premium-paying insureds, the law must create incentives for them to buy insurance.  The penalty-backed individual mandate was ostensibly designed to do so.

But there’s a problem: penalties don’t deter if they’re set too low.  If a parking meter costs a dollar, but the penalty for not feeding the meter is only a quarter, who’s going to feed the meter?  Unless the expected penalty for an expired meter (the fine times the likelihood of detection) exceeds a buck, feeding the meter’s irrational.

What does this have to do with the ACA?  Well, the statutory penalty for not carrying health insurance is really low — way lower than the cost of insurance.  As Justice Roberts observed:

[I]ndividuals making $35,000 a year are expected to owe the IRS about $60 for any month in which they do not have health insurance. Someone with an annual income of $100,000 a year would likely owe about $200. The price of a qualifying insurance policy is projected to be around $400 per month.

So what is the young man or woman, fresh out of college and beginning a career, going to do — pay the $400/month or pay $60/month until he or she gets sick, at which point he/she can call up the insurance company and be assured of coverage (guaranteed issue) at rates not reflecting his/her impaired health (community rating)?  Surely a great many young people will take the latter tack, especially since — as Justice Roberts repeatedly emphasized — they’re not acting “unlawfully” in doing so.

Then we’ve got real problems.  Health insurance premiums are based on the likely health care expenditures of the pool of insureds.  The greater the percentage of young and healthy (low expenditure) folks in the pool, the lower the premiums.  Conversely, when the young and healthy drop out so that the pool of insureds is older and more infirm, premiums will rise.  And, of course, the higher insurance premiums rise, the more sensible it becomes for the relatively healthy to drop their insurance, pay the small “tax” instead, and wait to get sick before signing up for increasingly costly coverage.  It’s a pernicious cycle.

None of this is rocket science, and proponents of the ACA certainly understood these dangers when the statute was enacted.  They likely assumed, though, that the deficient penalties for failure to carry insurance were a “bug” that Congress would eventually fix once the Act was put in place and became operative.  Proponents needed for the penalties to be low so that they could get the statute through the political process; they figured they could fix the deficiencies later.

Justice Roberts’ opinion, though, will make it very hard for Congress to raise the penalty for not carrying health insurance.  The small size of the penalty was one of three factors that, according to the Chief Justice, transformed the penalty into a tax for constitutional purposes.  He explained:

[T]he shared responsibility payment may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax, not a penalty: First, for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more.  It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance, unlike the “prohibitory” financial punishment in Drexel Furniture. Second, the individual mandate contains no scienter requirement. Third, the payment is collected solely by the IRS through the normal means of taxation — except that the Service is not allowed to use those means most suggestive of a punitive sanction, such as criminal prosecution.

This reasoning suggests that the penalty for failure to carry health insurance can count as a tax for constitutional purposes only if it is kept so small as to be ineffective.  Justice Roberts has thus transformed what was effectively a “bug” in the ACA into a “feature” of the statute — one that is required for the Act to constitute a valid exercise of congressional power.  He has damned the ACA in the process of saving it.

But market-oriented folks shouldn’t rejoice.  It’s true that Justice Roberts’ reasoning has assured that the ACA, if not repealed, will implode. That will occur because the combination of guaranteed issue, community rating, and constitutionally required low penalties will drive young and healthy folks from the pool of insureds, causing health insurance premiums to spiral upward and inducing even more people to opt for the “tax” over costly coverage.  Congress will eventually have no choice but to restructure or repeal the Act.  But its replacement won’t be pretty.  Look out for the argument, “We tried a solution involving private insurance.  It failed.  Now our only option is a single-payer system.”

Justice Roberts’ decision may turn out to have been an even bigger gift to the left than anyone initially thought.

Here’s a Letter to the Editor I sent to the Wall Street Journal today:

Dear Editor:

Today’s front page article, “GOP’s New Health-Law Front,” states that the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling  “circumvented the issue of whether the law was proper under Congress’s constitutional right to regulate commerce among the states.”  That is incorrect.  Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion emphasized that he construed the penalty for failure to carry insurance as a tax only because doing so was necessary to sustain the Act’s constitutionality.  Had the Commerce Clause authorized the individual mandate, the Chief Justice would not have endorsed what he conceded was not “the most straightforward reading of the mandate.”  The Chief Justice’s conclusion that the individual mandate exceeded Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause–a conclusion also reached by dissenting Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito–was therefore necessary to the majority coalition’s conclusion that the penalty for failure to carry insurance was authorized by Congress’s power of taxation.  That makes it part of the Court’s holding and thus binding constitutional precedent.  While your editorial, “A Vast New Taxing Power,” correctly chides the Chief Justice for improperly expanding Congress’s taxation powers, you must give him credit for preventing a Commerce Clause ruling that would have eviscerated the notion of enumerated powers by granting Congress a general police power.

Sincerely,

Thom Lambert
Professor of Law
University of Missouri Law School
Columbia, Missouri