Cartoon: It’s Excessive Occupational Licensing, Charlie Brown!


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This cartoon is a collaboration with Becky Hawkins.  Becky and I have done other political cartoons together, and we also collaborate on our webcomic SuperButch.


As you can see, our approach on this strip was very influenced by Charles Schulz’s seminal Peanuts comic strip.  Becky says, “It was fun. I read a lot of Peanuts (and Garfield, Family Circus, Calvin & Hobbes, and [don’t tell] Dilbert) when I was learning how to draw, so I felt very at-home.”

I’m not against all occupational licensing requirements. But it’s hard to ignore that many requirements seem to be more about limiting competition than about consumer safety. And, as you’d expect, these occupational licensing abuses always benefit the haves over the have nots – which means, on average, advantaging white people and disadvantaging minorities.

Vox has an explainer summarizing the issue, written by James Bessen.  From Bessen’s article:

Jestina Clayton learned traditional African hair braiding as a young girl in Sierra Leone. In 2006, after immigrating to the US, Jestina started a hair braiding business in Utah to help support her family while she and her husband attended college. But after a few years, the state of Utah told her she needed a cosmetology license in order to continue her business. That would require 2,000 hours of training, little of it related to hair braiding.

These kinds of barriers to the workplace are known as occupational licensure, and they have gotten increasingly common in recent years. In the 1950s, only 70 occupations had licensing requirements, and these accounted for 5 percent of all workers. By 2008, more than 800 occupations were licensed in the various states and they accounted for 29 percent of all workers. Licensed occupations include everything from barbers and interior designers to nurse practitioners and physicians.

At a time when too many Americans are out of work, excessive licensing regulations create a serious barrier to economic opportunity for workers. While licensing is important for some occupations, excessive regulations also tend to raise consumer prices and reduce access to services, including access to healthcare.

Because each state has its own licensing requirements, the rules can also make it unaffordable for people to move – even when moving would otherwise make sense.

This is one of those issues where I have to go off brand by saying the libertarians are right. There is too much government in this area, and we’d be both freer and wealthier as a country if we could pare the regulations back. (Of course, if your knee jerk reaction to every problem is to say “cut back government and regulation!” by sheer chance you’ll be right once in a while.)


 

TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, plus a small extra “kicker” panel below the bottom of the strip. Each panel has the same setting – a green field with blue sky, and a childish booth, drawn to resemble Lucy’s “psychiatric help, the doctor is in” booth from the comic strip Peanuts. But this booth says “State Legislature, the Senator is in.”

Behind the desk is a white man with gray hair and a conservative suit and tie.

Panel 1

The Senator sits behind his booth, listening with his head resting on one hand. A Black person with braided hair has walked up to the booth and is talking to him.

BRAIDER: I’m starting a business braiding Black people’s hair. But the law says I can’t until I’ve taken two thousand hours of training in styling white people’s hair.

Panel 2

The Braider keeps on talking, getting a bit more passionate. Behind them, a grinning man wearing a v-neck shirt and a blazer, with a full beard and carefully styled hair, walks on, waving “hi.”

BRAIDER: Even becoming an Emergency Medical Technician only takes thirty three hours of training! This makes no sense!

SENATOR: This is Bob Johnson of the State Hairdresser’s Association. What do you say, Bob?

Panel 3

Bob leans his elbow on the Senator’s desk, oozing confidence. The Senator listens like an attentive schoolboy. Behind Bob, unnoticed, the Braider looks angry and appalled.

BOB: It’s far too dangerous to permit competit- I mean, to permit unlicensed hair braiding.

BOB: On a completely unrelated note, we’re increasing our donation to your re-election campaign.

Panel 4

The Senator, with a satisfied air, leans back on his chair, hands behind his head and feet on his desk. Bob grins and makes a “hand gun” gesture towards the Senator. The braider raises her hands into the air, and has a huge open mouth of despair and objection as she yells.

SENATOR: After careful deliberation, I’ve concluded unlicensed braiding would be a grave threat to public safety.

BOB: Thanks, Jeff. Lunch?

BRAIDER: THIS IS A TERRIBLE SYSTEM!

Small kicker panel below the bottom of the strip.

The Senator is talking to the braider.

SENATOR: If you don’t want to buy thousands of hours of training about white people’s hair, aren’t you the real racist?

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13 Responses to Cartoon: It’s Excessive Occupational Licensing, Charlie Brown!

  1. 1
    Petar says:

    I would not want anyone to be able to jump behind the wheel of a semi, and get on the highway. Once I’ve been swept off the road by someone unused to a 20 ton, 20 meter trailer loosely following his tractor unit, I would not want to have to check every doctor, nurse, and technician’s professional credentials as I am being wheeled into the hospital.

    So, I personally have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the States being allowed to require certification for some occupations. The specific professionals can suggest the requirements, but not being a Libertarian, I still want to see elected officials approve them.

    So it’s just a matter of which occupations…

    Artists? No.
    Software Engineers? Tempting, but no.
    Urban planners? Please.
    Surgeons? Yes.
    Politicians? I wish.

    It’s pretty simple, really. The more dangerous to its practitioners and their customers an occupation is, the more rigorous the certification should be.

    Now, on to hair!

    If I had enough hair left to want it braided, I’d be in luck, because California does not require a license to braid hair.

    Turns out, neither does Utah. African style hair braiding used to be lumped with cosmetology services, someone sued, and the federal judges, not being idiots, realized that indeed, and I quote, “Utah’s cosmetology licensing scheme is […] disconnected from the practice of African hairbraiding, much less from whatever minimal threats to public health and safety are connected to braiding”.

    As far as I am concerned, this is a perfect example of the system working as designed.

    Where does it not work as designed?

    Where lobbyists are allowed to influence politics by wining and dining politicians, and bribing them with contributions to legislate anti-competitive advantages to professional associations, which inevitably result in higher cost-to-entry, lower supply and higher prices, which are detrimental to consumers.

    So, I am a bit puzzled by your decision to base your cartoon on a historical example of the system working… I am also puzzled by how hard you worked to make it look like something motivated by racism, as opposed to primarily by greed.

    By the way, why did you think it necessary to portray the representative of the Utah Board of Cosmetology as a white man? I would think that most your readers can tell that a character works towards unethical goals without having to be led by the hand.

    Just for your information, the board has exactly one male (Latino) member, who looks like a diversity hire among his colleagues, who include at least one each of Black, Asian, and Latino women.

    Also, the Utah Hairdresser’s Association hasn’t been a thing for half a century. When it did exist, it may have had males in it, but in the brief trawling of its meeting minutes, I found no evidence of any.

    Greed is not confined to a race or a gender, folks.

    Many people are driven by greed, but only those with power can oppress others. Yes, in our society power is mostly concentrated in the hands of old, while males. But the solution is not to hand it to young minority females. The solution is to reduce the concentration of power.

    Unfortunately, while the US is at least giving lip service to taking power away from white men, the concentration of wealth/power in the hands of fewer individuals goes on.

  2. 2
    Decanvda says:

    I was a libertarian in college, and I graduated in 1991. I remember this EXACT ISSUE – a black woman being fined for running a hair braiding business without a hair dressers licence requiring hundreds of hours of styling training that included a one-page mention of the existence of hair braiding in the textbook – being a libertarian talking point back then.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Petar – this issue is not confined to Utah, and I didn’t have Utah in particular in mind. But I’m glad that the system worked there.

  4. 4
    J. Squid says:

    I have a problem reading the lettering in the kicker panel. Before I read the transcript, I though it read, “… to bun thousands of hours…” Now that I know what is actually written, I can see it. But I can also see “bun”.

    Otoh, I love the colors!

  5. 5
    Petar says:

    Petar – this issue is not confined to Utah, and I didn’t have Utah in particular in mind. But I’m glad that the system worked there.

    This issue is not confined to Utah indeed, as it is not present in Utah.

    It is hardly an issue anywhere else in the US, either. Every state I checked allows hair braiding without a license, and there is a very simple reason for this – due to Utah getting laughed out of federal court, all it takes it is one unlicensed individual who wants to braid hair per state, and a lawyer who wants to put “I beat the State” on a resume. With an existing precedent, every Cosmetology Board will fold as soon as the issue is raised.

    So, it’s a decade dead issue, and was resolved as soon as it was raised, and there was preciously little racism in the whole handling of it, and you choose to portray the evil guys as white males despite one of them representing a group lacking a single white male member. Also, you diverted the issue from capitalistic greed, legislative capture, lobbyism, jurisdiction grab, etc. choosing to emphasize the racist angle at multiple points.

    The problem of anti-competitive lobbying is present in many states, in many occupations, and is only as much influenced by racism as anything else in United State. But your cartoon makes damn sure that attention is diverted in such a way that ‘progressives’ focus their righteous wrath at white males, ‘conservatives’ circle their wagons around their bigotry, and the politicians and lobbyists stay comfortable in their shared bed.

    Russian trolls have it easy. Most of the the hard work is done by others, they just have to lead the eyeballs where they can get offended.

  6. 6
    nobody.really says:

    Petar – this issue is not confined to Utah, and I didn’t have Utah in particular in mind.

    Well, then, don’t you owe it to your readers to include the disclaimer “Not valid in Utah“?

  7. 7
    Celeste says:

    Petar, 13 states still require hair braiders to have professional cosmetologist licenses, including Louisiana, where there’s a lawsuit currently underway.

    As for the race and gender of the lobbyist in the cartoon, The Professional Beauty Association (the professional org for cosmetologists), has hired the firm Capitol Tax Partners to lobby for them.

    Of the 12 partners in Capitol Tax Partners, 10 are white men. The other two are white women.

    Maybe do a little research before unloading your “righteous wrath” next time. Ampersand got this right.

  8. 8
    Petar says:

    Would you like to make a bet as to how the Louisiana lawsuit will go? As I said above, all it takes is someone who wants to braid hair, and a lawyer. The lawsuit makes every single claim I listed in my post above – anti-competitive greed, legislative capture, conflicts of interests, jurisdiction grab.

    The lawsuit will be resolved over the health hazards, and the relevance of training, like every other lawsuit of this kind.

    Of course there are states which require the license. This is regular pattern – jurisdiction grab which lasts until someone is motivated enough to fight. Note that fighting such legislation in the political arena has repeatedly failed, both in Louisiana, and historically – the citizens are unarmed against lobbying firms.

    Which brings us to the lobbying firms. As I have repeatedly said, they are all scum, and the would be criminal scum almost everywhere outside the US.

    But when it comes to the cartoon, do you not see the difference between targeting a lobbying firm vs targeting a professional association? The professional association will always be protecting their members interests. It’s the politicians’ job to make sure that the suggestions are in the public’s interests.

    The problem only arises when the lobbyists are allowed, by law, to bribe politicians.

    And once again. This is not a racism issue. This is an issue with legalized bribery.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    I agree with what Celeste said. (Thanks, Celeste!)

    Petar wrote:

    And once again. This is not a racism issue. This is an issue with legalized bribery.

    That’s a false dichotomy.

  10. 10
    Mike says:

    I’m a Libertarian and this is definitely still a talking point for us (at least among the actual libertarian crowd and not the Republican-in-denial-Rand-Paul types).

    But I have to confess, I was surprised to see this comic by Ampersand: isn’t occupational licensing typically promoted by left-leaning types?

    From my standpoint, I don’t see a functional difference between occupational associations that promote excessive licensing to restrict competition and labor unions. Labor unions primarily exist to restrict competition for unskilled laborers, hoard opportunities for senior laborers, and lobby government–often to further line their own pockets (for example, “closed shop” laws have literally nothing to do with worker safety and everything to do with ensuring that the union can continue to remain well-funded and politically powerful).

    But it seems like people on the left side of the political spectrum are okay when labor unions do it, but have a problem when a professional association engages in substantially the same behavior. Why is that?

  11. 11
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Well, one reason is that your opinion of labour unions is a ridiculous strawman. I’m not disputing that some labour unions have done, and still do, all those things, but that’s not their main reason for existance, any more than the fact that some politicians are corrupt means that the primary reason for politics is corruption. And I suspect you know that quite well.

  12. 12
    J. Squid says:

    From my standpoint, I don’t see a functional difference between occupational associations that promote excessive licensing to restrict competition and labor unions.

    That’s because you’re a Libertarian and seeing the (really, really obvious) functional difference – i.e. having a reality based idea of the purpose of unions – would mean that you are no longer a Libertarian. This is just one of many examples of the failure of modern libertarianism as a coherent and meaningful political philosophy.

  13. 13
    nobody.really says:

    I don’t see a functional difference between occupational associations that promote excessive licensing to restrict competition and labor unions. Labor unions primarily exist to restrict competition for unskilled laborers, hoard opportunities for senior laborers, and lobby government–often to further line their own pockets (for example, “closed shop” laws have literally nothing to do with worker safety and everything to do with ensuring that the union can continue to remain well-funded and politically powerful).

    But it seems like people on the left side of the political spectrum are okay when labor unions do it, but have a problem when a professional association engages in substantially the same behavior. Why is that?

    I largely concur. Both professional accreditation and unions constrict the supply of competition, thereby driving up the compensation for their labor. In this sense, unions do what antitrust laws try to prohibit employers from doing.

    I also understand “closed shop” laws as having little to do with safety, and everything to do with ensuring that the union remains funded and retains what power it has. I don’t see anything nefarious about that. Rather, unions have many of the qualities of government: They exert effort to promote the welfare of all workers, so all workers should help defray the costs.

    I sense the difference in affinity for the two organizations has to do with social class: Unions are perceived as promoting the welfare of front-line workers, which are associated with lower classes. Professional licensing is perceived as promoting the interests of professionals and employers—groups associated with upper classes.

    That said, in an ideal world I would like to see most union functions taken over by government. And when you consider child labor laws, health and safety laws, wage and hour laws, Obamacare, etc. we have moved ever further down that road. Unions function by extracting a larger share of a firm’s profits from management than would otherwise occur via the labor market. I’d rather see the labor market function efficiently–and for GOVERNMENT to extract and distribute the profits.

    But we have a ways to go until we reach that perfect world. So in the meantime….

    [I]sn’t occupational licensing typically promoted by left-leaning types?

    Ironically, occupational licensing was also promoting by … Adam Smith, the prince of “invisible hand” economics! But he reached this conclusion at the end of a convoluted line of reasoning.

    First, Smith concludes that the masses, left to their own devises, seem vulnerable to the appeals of fundamentalist religions. To fight this, society needs to encourage education. But how? Simply putting teachers on the dole will not align the teacher’s incentives with society’s interests. (Recall, Adam Smith worked as a teacher.) We regularly observe lazy professors, who simply read aloud to their students. And even with energetic professors, we observe them teaching and researching based solely on whatever topic tickles the professor’s fancy, not what the students most need to learn.

    So instead, Smith proposes that government bar citizens from entering various professions until the citizen had passed a test demonstrating the relevant proficiency. People seeking to pass the test would be left to pursue whatever course of action they thought would best prepare them—including hiring teachers who had a reputation for educating people, rather than for scholarship, showmanship, or anything else. Credentialization would not arise from the educational institution (e.g., getting a J.D.), but from passing the test (e.g., passing the bar exam).

    Thus endeth the libertarian lesson for the day.

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