Thursday, October 22, 2015

Another Shakedown

I have always been disgusted by the "multistate tobacco settlement."* In my mind, it was nothing less than simple government extortion, akin to British kings using demands for "ship money" to fill their coffers, or medieval rulers threatening Jews with expulsion unless they paid them off. Actually, even worse, as our government makes such a show of equal protection, championing freedom and so on, yet given the chance to fill the treasury at the expense of an unpopular industry, they jumped at the chance, and, even worse, then turned around and tried to short change the lawyers who assisted them to make it even more lucrative. Nor was it in any way an effort to help stop smoking, or to pay for the "health costs" of smoking. Only a tiny amount of money went to any such causes, and then only because it was inevitable money dumped in the general fund would end up partly going to such purposes. No, the point of the whole exercise was to help fund government without raising taxes, and without upsetting public opinion, which shaking down an unpopular industry did quite effectively.

I mention this, not because I intend to write about this obscenity once again, but rather because I have been seeing trial balloons for a new version of this tactic, with a different target. Apparently Bernie Saunders, our sometimes Socialist, sometimes Independent, Democratic presidential candidate, has repeated the idea floated by two members of Congress, that there should be an investigation of the oil companies, even a RICO case, because -- "like the tobacco companies" -- they tried to hide the supposed harm of using fossil fuels, and gave political contributions to this end.

First, this is repulsive in ways even the tobacco case was not. In the tobacco case, I still think it disgusting that they were basically sued for arguing their side of the case (as was Martha Stewart in an equally disgusting decision**), but this is even worse. In this case, it seems they want to fine the oil companies basically because they do not agree with one side in the argument over AGW, an unsettled bit of science despite government claims to the contrary. As well as for supporting political candidates with whom they agree. In other words, if this succeeds, it will now be illegal for businesses to hold certain opinions and to participate int he political process based upon them. That strikes me as a pretty dangerous precedent to establish.

I know, some of you will disagree, thinking it is about "fraud" because they "knew" it was dangerous, or that businesses are not people and should not have the same rights, but I disagree. First of all, even if oil companies were told by some scientists that oil causes AGW, the fact remains the supposed proof for that claim is not settled, and even if the oil companies were given something congress finds convincing, the oil companies are still allowed to disagree with it, to believe otherwise. There is no law that says one must always hold the opinions approved by congress, or the NYT editorial board.

Second, just because one works for private industry, that does not mean you lose your right to have opinions. Nor is it illegal for a person with control over a company to use that company's resource to endorse those opinion. After all, congressmen and senators use their offices all the time to push their own personal biases, why should a CEO or business owner have less freedom? In fact, since the business owner is wagering his job and fortune on it, while a politician is just doing it at the public expense, I see less reason to hold a business to a different standard than a private citizen. And thus, I cannot see why a business would not have the right to promote any belief, or to engage in political action to endorse a specific viewpoint***.

But, then again, I have always believed we have an excessively wide understanding of "fraud"****, including many things that are not actual fraud. But, in this case, even if you have the most wide open definition of fraud imaginable, I still cannot see how one can endorse fining oil companies. They held a specific belief on a controversial issue, and acted to promote that view through the political process. To fine them for doing so seems to me obviously little more than a shakedown.

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* See "The Truth", "Results Do Not Matter", "The Campaign to Save Me from Myself", "What is the Role of the Attorney General?" and "A Quick Thought".

** See "Why a Recession?" and "What is the Role of the Attorney General?".

*** Then again, modern understanding of freedom to engage in politics strikes me as pretty bizarre, from campaign finance rules, to the recent restrictions on who can provide political views and when, it seems to me the first amendment protection of free political participation is a thing of the past. In my mind, one should be allowed to make any endorsement, offer any speech, publish any advertisement, whenever one want, as well as donate whatever one wants to whomever one wants, without providing a record of any kind. But I know I am in a minority. Still, for the arguments I have made see "Regulated Speech", "Confusing Money and Votes", "Do As I Say Not As I Do" and "IRS Abuses Are Just the Beginning".

**** See "Consumer Protection", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "For Your Own Good", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans" "On the Side of the Angels... Yet Completely Wrong", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "In a Nutshell" and "Inconsistent Understanding".

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POSTSCRIPT

It seems the oil companies cannot get a break, when they aren't being accused of covering up AGW by environmentalists on the left, they are accused of fixing prices and creating shortages by absurd populists right and left. See my earlier essays "Absurdities on Oil", "Authoritarian Oil Talk", "Fighting the Wrong Fight", "Fighting the Wrong Fight, Part II", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Obscene Oil Profits?", "Oil Company "Profits"", ""True" Prices", "Those Darn Speculators" and "In Defense of Speculators". It always amazes me anyone would want to run an oil company given the many ways in which they are insulted, the constant threat of government intervention, the threat of environmental laws shutting down drilling, and all to earn less on a gallon of gasoline than the government takes in taxes. (Yet no one blames the government for high prices, despite earning several times what either the oil company or the station owner does, as well as having a much greater role in both high prices and short supplies.) And all this because they dare to bring us a consistent and cheap supply of a substance we all need and use very day. Then again, doctors are given the same treatment, denounced for daring to profit, while providing a service we find essential. (See "Nonsensical Beliefs", "High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Envy Kills II", "Envy And Analogy", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government" .) Not to mention bankers, stock brokers, and a host of others who provide essential services, yet are treated as almost criminal by the public at large. The ingratitude of consumers, and especially politicians, always stuns me.


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