Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Government's Role in "Noing Thyself"

I am reading Amity Shlaes excellent new biography of President Coolidge (and will write a full review when I have finished it) but three disparate decisions caught my eye yesterday that would have been of interest to the thirtieth president.    All are evolving stories and so their outcome is unclear, but each would seem to be a validation of Coolidge's propensity to just say no.
The first was Judge Milton Tingling's decision to overturn the New York City Nanny State regulations on sodas.  Mayor Bloomberg claimed that the limit on sodas sold in fast food joints under the silly notion that it would somehow help to control obesity.  The judge saw through that nonsense and declared a regulation that banned only certain kinds of drinks in a limited set of establishments, "arbitrary and capricious."   The NPR story on the decision concludes that lawmakers in Mississippi are hot to trot to pass a ban on bans (prohibiting local entities from enacting Bloomberg type regulatory schemes).  Like many other people who grew up before the extra large drinks were available, I have been surprised at the size of sodas available today.   But the simple answer to not consuming too much soda is to simply not buy it.

The second story is a developing one in Mexico.   Major parts of the Mexican economy have been collared by monopolies, especially in the communications fields.   Monday, Mexico's new President declared that competition in telephones and television might unleash some very positive competition.   I will confess that when I have been to Mexico over the last two decades that I am confused and annoyed at the way Mexican phone service works.   In the last few trips things have started to be simplified but the much of the current system is outdated.   The new Federal Communications Institute may be a step in the right direction.   One friend from Mexico wrote me this morning and quipped "No mas vacas sagradas?(No more sacred cows?)"  If Peña Nieto succeeds it will be a big step.

The third story is about the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges' new accrediting standards.   North Central adopted a new standard in their accrediting guidelines which states that “The institution’s educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors, contributing to a related or parent organization or supporting external interests.”   Inside Higher Education commented that the new rule(s) were aimed at the for profit institutions and indeed a first implementation resulted in proposed probation for the University of Phoenix.   Part of the growth of proprietary institutions over the last several decades comes from a vague notion in federal law called "ability to benefit" - which was aimed at assuring a wide range of students opportunity to education after high school.   

Each of these issues relates to thinking about the proper role of government in our lives, from Shlaes biography which Coolidge was thoughtful practitioner.   In the first, if we want to control obesity is there a better way to do it than creating "arbitrary and capricious" regulations?   In the second, mercantilist grants of power from government do not serve the consumer nor the society - and Peña Nieto's new Institute has the possibility of doing something right for Mexico's continued robust economic growth.   In the third, a non-governmental entity, despite a wide opportunity created by government policy, is re-establishing a notion that should be paramount that education has some public goods aspects that we should not ignore.  (But public goods are not created exclusively by government.)

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