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By Global Public Square staff
All eyes will be on the U.S. Supreme Court this month as it issues its final decisions before recessing for the summer. When it comes back in session (on the first Monday of October), it will likely hear a critical case. But the case is not about money in politics or affirmative action or the powers of the presidency – it's about whether you can get your teeth whitened at a kiosk in the mall.
What in the world?
You see, teeth whitening services have been in high demand since 1989. And, as with any billion-dollar business, people are keen to capitalize on the trend. In 2003, non-dentists in North Carolina started to provide peroxide whitening at significantly lower prices than dentists.
Not surprisingly, the dentists started complaining.
In this case, North Carolina's doctors of dentistry complained to the state's Board of Dental Examiners, the agency that regulates dentistry in the state. The Board, in response, issued dozens of cease and desist letters to non-licensed whiteners in salons and malls. But, in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission found that the Board, which consisted mostly of dentists, was trying to quash competition and had violated anti-trust laws.
This legal battle is not just about teeth whitening, as you might have guessed – the ruling will have far-reaching implications for all of us.
But first, let us explain why the case says a lot about the US economy.
In the last 60 years, America has seen an explosion in licensing. In the 1950's only 5 percent of the workers of America were licensed. Today almost one-third of the work force has to be licensed. From fortune tellers to shampooers to florists, many states require a certification before you can practice your "profession."
And that large rise in credentials has caused a rise in costs for us consumers. According to a paper in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, occupational licensing can raise wages by as much as 18 percent. And, those higher wages get passed on, of course, to the consumer
More than 800 professions now have to be licensed at the state level, joining what was select a group such as lawyers and doctors. Morris Kleiner, a University of Minnesota Professor, makes a compelling argument for the increasing absurdity of mass occupational licensing. He points out that in Minnesota, to become a cosmetologist you have to put in more school time than to become a lawyer. Manicurists in Kleiner's state put in double the class hours as paramedics do.
And it's not just the North Star State.
In Texas you need to rack up 300 hours of coursework just to work in the wig trade. We are sure wig making is a fine art, but regulations like this are ludicrous and hurt the working poor the most. Let anyone who thinks they can arrange a bouquet set up shop as a florist, please. And let the market decide if they're any good, not some absurd board of accreditation, mostly made up of florists.
In late May, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor decided to take on beauty salon licenses. Cantor urged governors across the country to reform licensing practices, which he argued create barriers for low-income workers. That's a start.
Of course there should be safeguards and regulations, but for the most part these certificates are simply a way for groups to restrict the number of people entering their fields – in other words to keep out competition. And state governments coddle these special interest groups because it's a way to raise money and get votes.
But it is a serious barrier to workers who are new, young, poor or simply unconventional. And it is a serious problem for the American economy, hampering growth and burdening the system with nonsensical rules and regulations.
Republicans and Democrats seem to have found some common ground on this issue. So maybe we can't get bipartisan reform of immigration or taxes or energy policy, but we might get it on wig licensing.