Of food trucks and lawbreaking

It’s no secret that the U.S. economy continues to struggle, particularly on the jobs front.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that lots of people are getting in touch with their inner entrepreneur and are seeking employment via their own small businesses.  Food trucks, although looked down on by some, clearly are a part of this self-starter trend, particularly in certain urban areas like Portland and New York.

Which is why I found a recent NPR Planet Money podcast on food trucks in NYC so interesting. From the transcript:

[T]he city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.

You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber [author of the Food Truck Handbook].

In other words, NYC on one hand licenses an activity (vending from food trucks) and on the other hand makes this activity illegal (through parking regulations that provide literally no legal spots from which to vend).  Of course, what this really means is (1) that food trucks continue to operate but (2) that they do so in technical violation of the law and subject to the whims of law enforcement’s discretion.

As a lawyer, this infuriates me.  It undermines the rule of law in a number of ways:

  • It tells citizens that one has to break the law simply in order to run a business.
  • It implies that there are two classes of law (laws one must obey and laws one need not) without providing a clear principle on which is which.
  • It institutionalizes an incentive for corruption and discrimination since every food truck operator is now a technical lawbreaker subject to law enforcement’s “discretion” (and thus harassment, solicitation for bribes, etc.).

To be clear:  I do not know whether any corruption or discrimination is taking place, and I am not accusing anyone of anything.  (Indeed, I have no direct knowledge of the situation on the ground and do not live in NYC.)  Taking David’s assertion at face value, however, it is clear that such facts would incentivize corruption and discrimination at the institutional level.

WSJ: more regulations for law schools?

When the Wall Street Journal starts countenancing additional regulations for law schools, you know that the world really has changed:

Regulation? all you free-marketeers are asking. Really? Won’t regulation further drive up the cost of education, which is already stunningly high?

However, rather than dismissing the suggestion of greater regulation out of hand, WSJ blogger Ashby Jones finds Tung Yin’s argument for Sarbanes-Oxley-like regulation over at PrawfsBlawg “compelling”.  As Yin puts it:

If anything, it seems to me there’s arguably a stronger call for enforcing these sorts of disclosure and accuracy provisions on law schools (and universities in general) than on corporations. After all, the cost of corporate malfeasance with regard to balance sheets and the like is diffused across a huge number of investors, who are presumably not taking out huge loans with which to invest in said corporate stock.  (I guess there are margin traders, but really, they seem a less sympathetic group for concern than poor students with huge education debt.)  The cost of law school malfeasance in terms of misleading or false employment data is visited upon a (relatively) small number of students who are saddled with $50,000 or more in student debt.  Shouldn’t they be entitled to at least the same level of informational protection that stock investors now get?

I disagree with Yin’s analysis somewhat.  While it is true that there are “a (relatively) small number of students” with extreme educational debt, malfeasance by academic institutions has the same sorts of diffuse, wide-ranging implications that malfeasance by corporations has.  The federal government subsidizes or provides outright the bulk of law student loans.  Were it not for this subsidy, it is highly doubtful that law schools would attain their currently high enrollment numbers since no rational (i.e., unsubsidized) lender would loan six figures each to tens-of-thousands of 22-year-olds (at least, not on terms that would result in tens-of-thousands of new law students each year).

Like it or not, the U.S. government is heavily subsidizing legal education by providing students with access to virtually unlimited capital.  One can argue whether or not this represents a prudent investment in the nation’s future or an impending boondoggle on the scale of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but it seems clear to me that somebody should be requiring law schools to reveal the cold, hard facts on the value they are providing to their graduates.

The tired free-market-vs.-regulation arguments don’t really work here.  Law schools are not a free market; they’re a heavily subsidized one.  Unless and until that changes, I for one think the government is perfectly (and prudently) within its rights as the subsidizer to require fair, full, and accurate employment disclosure from law schools.