Category Archives: Regulation of the Day

Regulation of the Day 225: Boobie Pillows

Kern County, California’s government takes morality very seriously. Chapter 9.12.010 of the County Code states that “No vendor shall vend stuffed articles depicting the female breasts (sold as “boobie pillows”) within one thousand (1,000) feet of any county highway.” The punishment for each offense is a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail. Worse, “Each day of violation shall constitute a separate offense.”

The purpose of the boobie pillow ban, according to the Finding of Fact Leading to Enactment that accompanies the text, is to prevent children on their way to church from seeing such adult-themed merchandise.

Strangely, boobie pillows are the only adult-themed merchandise subject to the ban. So, according to the law, purveyors of smut can still set up shop almost anywhere they please. They just can’t sell “stuffed articles depicting the female breasts.”

In other news, Kern County is currently running a budget deficit in the $25-30 million range. If the county liberalized its strict boobie pillow policy, it could increase its sales tax revenue and tame its deficit.

Regulation of the Day 224: Competing with Taxis

A cool startup company called Uber operates in about half a dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada, and is growing fast. Think of them as an on-demand cab service. Using their smartphone application, you request a car, and a few minutes later a professional driver in a black Lincoln Town Car will pick you up where you stand and take you where you need to go. Their system even sends you a text message to let you know when your driver is about to arrive.

Customers who don’t like Town Cars can request an SUV instead. Since Uber keeps your credit card information on file, payment is both cashless and automatic, and you do not tip your driver.

It’s an innovative business model, and customers rave about the service. No wonder the local taxi industry in Washington, D.C. sees Uber as a threat. There are two ways they can deal with it. One is to compete. The other is to use regulation to drive it out of business. Guess which option they chose?

Back in January, a shady sting operation led by Taxi Commissioner Ron Linton nearly put Uber out of business in DC, even though it failed to find any rules violations.

Today, the D.C. City Council was set to vote on an amendment from Councilmember Mary Cheh that would make it illegal for Uber to charge less than five times the minimum cab fare in D.C., currently $15. This would put a stop to UberX, a cheaper service using less flashy cars. UberX is already available in New York, and the company is planning on bringing it to Washington.

The price for Uber X is a $5 base fee, plus $3.25 per mile, so any trip under 3 miles or so would be cheaper than what the rent-seeking amendment would require.

In other words, Cheh would rather her constituents to pay more for transportation instead of less. Even in a city as cynical as Washington, this is difficult to spin as pro-consumer.

After a heartening consumer uproar, Councilmember Mary Cheh withdrew her amendment. Another Councilmember, Jack Evans, said he received more than 5,000 emails encouraging him to oppose the rent-seeking amendment.

It may return as a separate bill in the fall, but for now, Uber has won and the rent-seekers have lost.

There is reason to be optimistic that future rent-seeking attempts will also fail. Most companies become invertebrates when government comes calling, but Uber seems to have a spine. Leading up to the day of the amendment’s scheduled vote, CEO Travis Kalanick said,”We won’t stand for a DC Council price floor that limits innovation and hurts consumers. Uber DC’s minimum fare is now dropped to $12 for the remainder of July in protest.”

That’s the kind of attitude we like to see. D.C.’s taxi industry could learn a lot from Uber. Instead of purchasing corrupt politicians, they should offer a better service at a lower price. That way, everyone wins.

Regulation of the Day 223: Fred Flintstone Cars

Sebastian Trager is an engineer in Germany who loves The Flintstones. He recently built a replica of Fred Flintstone’s car that looks almost exactly like the original. The only significant nod to modernity is that instead of being foot-powered, it has a 1.3 liter engine. Regulators, ever afraid that someone, somewhere might be having fun, quickly told Trager that he may not drive his car on German roads.

One reason is that German regulations require all cars to have windshield wipers. Trager didn’t think to install them, mainly because his Flintstone-mobile doesn’t have a windshield.

Other items are more substantive. Looking at pictures of the car, it also lacks side and rearview mirrors, and seatbelts. One imagines that it also lacks airbags. It also lacks turn signals, though Trager could use hand signals to alert fellow motorists when he’s about to turn.

After all the work Trager put into his creation, hopefully he’ll find a way to get at least some use out of it. It would be a shame to see this sparkling example of German engineering go to waste.

Or maybe he should have followed movie buff Paul Harborne’s example and created a replica Ghostbusters car instead.

Regulation of the Day 222: Macaroni

According to federal regulations, you may not, in fact, stick a feather in your hat and call it macaroni.

I’m serious. 21 CFR 139, Subpart B, §139.110 defines macaroni as “the class of food each of which is prepared by drying formed units of dough made from semolina, durum flour, farina, flour, or any combination of two or more of these, with water and with or without one or more of the optional ingredients specified in paragraphs (a) (1) to (6), inclusive, of this section.”

If it doesn’t meet that definition, you can’t call it macaroni. Some other anti-feather provisions in federal macaroni policy include:

  • The shape. “Macaroni is the macaroni product the units of which are tube-shaped and more than 0.11 inch but not more than 0.27 inch in diameter.”
  • Spaghetti and Vermicelli are also considered macaroni products. Spaghetti is “tube-shaped or cord-shaped (not tubular) and more than 0.06 inch but not more than 0.11 inch in diameter,” and vermicelli is “cord-shaped (not tubular) and not more than 0.06 inch in diameter.”
  • Egg whites must make up at least 0.5 percent by weight of each noodle, but no more than 2 percent.
  • The protein content of macaroni products is capped at 13 percent.

And Yankee Doodle began to cry.

Regulation of the Day 221: Miniature Golf Courses

Miniature golf is a much more accessible sport than the real thing. Almost anyone can play. You don’t need to drive the ball 200 yards to get a decent score; 200 inches is more than enough. In fact, many players don’t much care what their score is at all. They’re just playing for fun, and trying to dodge the obstacles.

Less fun are the surprisingly detailed federal regulations intended to ensure the game’s accessibility to all. Course owners aren’t too happy about the new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that came into effect on March 15, though construction firms must be delighted at the windfall Washington just sent them.

The federal government regulates the slopes of miniature golf courses. The new standard “permits a slope of 1:4 maximum for a 4 inch rise where the accessible route is located on the playing surface of a hole.”

If a course uses artificial turf instead of grass, it also regulates length for the fibers. The height of the “grass” shall not exceed half an inch.

The so-called “start of play” areas must be at least 48” x 60”, and shall not have a slope steeper than 1:48.

There’s more, too. You can read the Federal Register entry explaining the federal government’s new miniature golf policies here. In the meantime, one can expect the ADA’s unparalleled track record as lawsuit fodder to continue.

Regulation of the Day 220: Driver’s Side Mirrors

R. Andrew Hicks, a Drexel University math professor, has invented a driver’s side mirror that eliminates the dangerous blind spot that traditional mirrors have. But federal regulations are preventing car manufacturers from using his potentially life-saving invention.

The improved mirrors give a 45-degree field of view, compared to 15 to 17 degrees for traditional flat mirrors. And they do it without giving the distorted fish-eye view that plagues curved mirrors. Prof. Hicks told the website how it works:

“Imagine that the mirror’s surface is made of many smaller mirrors turned to different angles, like a disco ball,” Hicks said. “The algorithm is a set of calculations to manipulate the direction of each face of the metaphorical disco ball so that each ray of light bouncing off the mirror shows the driver a wide, but not-too-distorted, picture of the scene behind him.”

Pretty ingenious, frankly. And unlike many ivory tower projects, this could save lives. The trouble is that federal regulations require side mirrors to be flat. The rule made sense because, until now, curved wide-view mirrors give such a distorted view that their safety benefits are dubious at best.

Prof. Hicks’ mirrors are curved, which is why they violate federal rules for standard equipment. Of course, the curves are non-uniform with tens of thousands of inflection points, which is why they give triple the field of view with distortion comparable to flat mirrors. Regulations would do better to focus on distortion or field of view than on whether or not a mirror is curved.

Regulators should modernize mirror regulations post-haste so that car manufacturers can make Prof. Hicks’ mirrors standard equipment. As it is now, drivers could buy and install the mirrors themselves. But millions more people would benefit if car manufacturers were able to make them standard equipment.

Or, better yet, regulators could get out of the way altogether so that people like Prof. Hicks can save lives without having to say “Sir, may I?”

You can read Prof. Hicks’ paper in which he explains his invention here.

Regulation of the Day 219: Cat Cafes

In a city as big as Tokyo, there is plenty of room for niche businesses. One niche is the neko cafe; neko is the Japanese word for cat. Besides coffee, the main attraction at cat cafes is, well, cats. Furry friends live in the cafes, and patrons can play with them and pet them while they sip their coffee. They are especially popular with professionals who work long hours and live in apartments too small to have pets.

Animal rights activists want cat cafes to be strictly regulated. They have succeeded in passing an ordinance, set to take effect later this year, that bans animals from being publicly displayed after 8:00 PM. The main targets are pet shops, some of which can be dodgy. But cat cafes are not, and their very existence is threatened; their peak hours are in the evening.

Shinji Yoshida has strict rules for patrons in his cat cafe. If a cat is sleeping, customers shall not disturb it. They are not otherwise to be harassed. And, as animal activists concerned about caged animals have overlooked, Shinji’s feline colleagues also have the run of the place, as well as a giant cat furniture tree.

This is a wise business practice, as well as a humane one. As a cat owner, trust me. If your cats aren’t happy, you won’t be, either.

Still, that’s not enough:

Animal welfare campaigner Chizuko Yamaguchi says the sheer number of customers in cat cafes can make life difficult for the animals.

“From morning to night these cats are being stroked by people they do not know. For the animals, that is a real source of stress,” she said.

Chizuko must not be a cat owner. Cats are less than subtle about avoiding people when they aren’t in a social mood. And cat cafes wouldn’t stay in business for long if the stars didn’t show up; clearly they do. Besides, anyone who has been around a cat knows that they really do enjoy being petted.

One way cats show affection is by literally sitting on you. If they want attention, they are not shy about letting you know. Mine aren’t above waking me up at the crack of dawn with a friendly head-butt, well before the alarm clock goes off. Chizuko’s concerns do not hold ground.

Cats being nocturnal animals, they tend to be more active at night. Not surprisingly, business is best precisely when cat cafes will soon be required to close. Shutting them down early is really the same thing as putting them out of business. Where would the cats go then? Shinji has 13 in his shop.

Times are tough. Jobs are scarce. Animal rights activists and regulators should think about animal and human welfare alike. They should leave cat cafes alone. A lot of cats and a lot of people would all be happier if they did.

(via Jacob Grier)

Regulation of the Day 218: Bagpipes


Street musicians were recently banned from playing bagpipes in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Mayor Gregor Robertson was not happy about it. He takes great pride in his Scottish heritage, to the point of wearing a kilt to the swearing-in ceremony for his second term. So when Vancouver’s engineering department went over his head, he vowed to fight back.

Most city council members are from Robertson’s Vision Vancouver party, and they agreed to review the bagpipe ban. Just in time for the city’s Scotland Week celebration, Robertson happily announced that the ban was lifted:

“Buskers play a very important role in making Vancouver’s streets lively and dynamic, particularly in our vibrant downtown. The council won’t support an outright ban on specific instruments. The restriction on bagpipes has now been lifted. Staff will continue to gather noise level readings, monitor complaints and work with musicians and performers to see how these instruments can be permitted in a way that is acceptable to the public.”

 Say what you will about bagpipe music. Banning it is bad policy. Kudos to Mayor Robertson and Vancouver’s city council for giving buskers the opportunity to make a little bit of money and add to the city’s cultural life.

Regulation of the Day 217: Etiquette

Civility is at the very heart of civilization. Those two words, along with other words such as “city” and “citizen,” come from the Latin “civitas,” which means a body of citizens bound by common laws and rules. In other words, civilized people agree to be nice to each other. Think of how both you and the cashier usually say “thank you” when you buy your morning coffee, even if you’re complete strangers. Getting along in modern life would be impossible without at least passable manners.

Which brings us to today’s Regulation of the Day. La Toba, Spain’s mayor, Julian Altienza Garcia recently issued a 65-plank Courtesy Charter making it illegal to commit tactless acts in public from burping to slurping soup. To this writer’s knowledge, La Torba does not have a reputation as a bastion of barbarity.

The charter even contains a mandate of sorts – children are required to spend some time with their grandparents on a regular basis. It is not known how Spain’s Supreme Court would rule if they were to decide on the grandparent mandate’s legality.

Some of the other offenses include:

  • Nosepicking
  • Touching your genitals
  • Flatulence
  • Yawning without covering your mouth
  • Coughing without covering your mouth
  • Talking with your mouth full

None of these breaches of decorum are punishable beyond a dirty look and a wag of the finger. People convicted of other minor offenses will, however, be able to have their fines waived if they take etiquette courses. Mayor Garcia defends his Courtesy Charter, saying “It is a compendium of basic rules of politeness that are being lost and should not be forgotten.”

He’s right that manners are important. They shouldn’t be forgotten. And it certainly is useful to have a written etiquette primer. In fact, many already exist. You can look here, here, here, and here, for starters. But even if Mayor Garcia’s job description is as broad as he believes it to be, his constituents would be better served if he turned his attention to more pressing matters than other peoples’ boogers.

Regulation of the Day 216: Selling Ice Cream to Kids

It can be hard for parents, but they need to tell their kids “no” from time to time. Letting children know that they can’t always get what they want is an important lesson in life. In Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, not all parents are up to the task.

Across the country, ice cream vendors will stroll through parks in the summer months; they go where ice cream trucks dare not tread. A lot of their sales are to kids. And parents know what happens when you get between a kid and ice cream: screaming, wailing, and gnashing of teeth are only the beginning. It isn’t fun.

That’s why some Park Slope parents want to ban ice cream vendors from parks. One parent wrote on a message board, “I should not have to fight with my children every warm day on the playground just so someone can make a living!”

One sees where her priorities are in these hard economic times.

This being Brooklyn, there is another wrinkle. The New York Post reports:

But Sarah Schenck says just say no to frozen confections.

Schenck, a mother of two and co-founder of the eco-friendly, said statistics back her up.

“Nobody wants to be a crank, but one in three kids are going to be obese or diabetic by high school,” she said. “When my kids see other kids get ice cream, they just start begging me. I just don’t think these are the fights we should be having.”

Most people have more nuanced views than Schenck; everything in moderation and all that. But there are people who think like her, and they are not afraid to use regulation to get their way. We should tell them no.