That’s a relatively small matter, among many. Here’s another: Spencer is building 160 apartments in Fresno. He has to pay the EPA a fee of $220,000. Why? Because people will live in the apartments, and people take trips — to and from work, or to the movies, or even out of town. They live; therefore, they pollute. And Spencer must pay. Naturally, he will build the fee into the tenants’ rent. And what will the EPA do with his $220,000? He has a good guess.
Over the years, he has noticed something about government: Often, its offices will charge fees, impose penalties, and so on simply to keep themselves in business. They justify their existence this way. They can say, “See? We pay for ourselves” — by generating money from the regulated, or overregulated.
Incidentally, this is a big part of what turned Thomas Sowell, the famed economist and writer. He became a libertarian-conservative when he was a young man working in the Labor Department. He saw that the bureaucrats around him were more concerned with perpetuating their jobs and keeping or expanding their powers than with the public interest.
Spencer, in his various enterprises, has a lot of EB-5 investors. “EB-5” refers to a provision of immigration law, a provision that allows foreigners to make a substantial investment in certain U.S. businesses in exchange for a green card. But there is a problem, says Spencer: The rules shift under your feet. And you can’t talk to anyone in government about it. You deal with “nameless, faceless websites.” You are at the mercy of anonymous regulators who can hold up an application or otherwise gum up the works — and you have little recourse.
To add insult to injury, says Spencer, the immigration service now employs “entrepreneurs in residence.” “By definition, a government employee is not an entrepreneur,” he says. But do they know what they’re doing? Are they of use? “I don’t know,” he says, “because we haven’t been able to meet with one or talk to one, despite our best efforts.”
Like other businessmen, Spencer now faces Obamacare — and so do his employees. At first, they were relieved to hear, from President Obama and others, that they would not have to give up their existing health care, if they were satisfied. But that has proven untrue. Spencer’s CFO at CMEC has devoted many hours to figuring out the new world of Obamacare — hours he could be spending on more productive work. This much is certain: Spencer will pay more for his employees’ health care, and so will they. Whether the health care will be better is doubtful.
In the almond business, Spencer is small-time, he says, but he takes me to see someone big-time: Tony Campos, a veritable almond king. He wasn’t born a king, or prince, however. He came to America in 1952 from the Basque country, with nothing. He took a bus from New York to Wyoming, where he would work as a shepherd. Eventually, he and his brothers tended sheep in California. Then they moved into farming, finally hitting on almonds. The Campos brothers did hard, tedious manual labor. Now Tony — the sole remaining brother — has a sprawling, gleaming operation, with equipment that seems out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Business has never been better, he says. That’s because of a global market: He sells to 62 countries. Still, he could be doing a lot more. His company spends endless money and endless hours on regulations — particularly those relating to food safety and labor. Campos acknowledges the need for regulation, but says that much of it is absurd. Just a giant waste. Money that could be going to expand business goes instead down a rathole. When he speaks of this, his face registers both disgust and amazement. Why would a country want to do this?