Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Health Care’ Category

In mid-2021, I wrote about long-run policy lessons from the coronavirus pandemic.

That column focused on insights from my five-part series (see here, here, here, here, and here) about the failure of big government.

More specifically, the CDC and FDA did a terrible job domestically and the WHO did a terrible job internationally.

By contrast, millions of lives were saved by the private sector.

But we also learned fiscal policy lessons in addition to public health lessons.

The most depressing fiscal lesson is that politicians love having any excuse to spend more money.

Though that’s hardly a surprise.

Now that we are in early-2023, are there more lessons to be learned? The answer is yes.

A new study by Professors Alex Tabarrok and Robert Tucker Omberg, published by the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, finds no relationship between supposed pandemic preparedness and health outcomes.

How effective were investments in pandemic preparation? We use a comprehensive and detailed measure of pandemic preparedness, the Global Health Security (GHS) Index produced by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHU), to measure which investments in pandemic preparedness reduced infections, deaths, excess deaths, or otherwise ameliorated or shortened the pandemic. We also look at whether values or attitudinal factors such as individualism, willingness to sacrifice, or trust in government—which might be considered a form of cultural pandemic preparedness—influenced the course of the pandemic. Our primary finding is that almost no form of pandemic preparedness helped to ameliorate or shorten the pandemic. Compared to other countries, the United States did not perform poorly because of cultural values such as individualism, collectivism, selfishness, or lack of trust. General state capacity, as opposed to specific pandemic investments, is one of the few factors which appears to improve pandemic performance.

The study is not free to access, but Professor Tabarrok cited it at Marginal Revolution and shared this chart comparing death rates in the (allegedly) best prepared nation and the least prepared nation.

The Omberg-Tabarrok study shows us that pre-pandemic government policies were ineffective.

What about government policies once the pandemic hit?

In a column for the Washington Times, Richard Rahn points out that heavy-handed government intervention also was ineffective.

Sweden had the lowest aggregate excess mortality percentages (2.79)… Sweden was unique in that it had the fewest “lockdown” requirements, while countries like the U.S., with substantial lockdowns, had much higher excess deaths. We also know that within the U.S., states with very onerous lockdown requirements, like New York, have total age-adjusted higher death rates than states like Florida with few lockdown requirements. The big mistake the CDC people (Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins, etc.) made was to single-mindedly focus on potential deaths directly from COVID-19 while largely ignoring the potential deaths indirectly induced by the lockdowns. …Other studies support the evidence of health harm to people who have not yet died but are likely to have their lives shortened by the indirect effects of the lockdowns. …If the above-described mistakes had not been made, it is no overstatement to say that hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars could have been saved.

The information about Sweden is worth noting.

But the biggest lesson from Richard’s column is that politicians and bureaucrats failed to consider direct and indirect effects (a problem that is sadly common with government), so their cost-benefit analysis (to the extent they did any) was very flawed.

And we also need to learn that it is depressingly easy for governments to curtail liberty.

Read Full Post »

I’m routinely critical of the many ways that government intervention has created an expensive and inefficient health system in the United States.

But there are countries where government causes even greater problems. So when I want to feel good about America’s clunky healthcare system, I look at the mess across the ocean.

The United Kingdom has a socialist health system. And it’s real socialism, with government running the hospitals and employing the doctors and nurses.

And this produces predictably bad results.

I’ve shared numerous horror stories about that approach (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but this report from David Parsley is so astounding that even some of my knee-jerk leftist friends may reconsider their support for big government.

Ukrainian refugees who travelled to the UK to escape the war are risking their lives by returning to their homeland to seek urgent medical treatments after giving up on the NHS. Due the NHS pressures and long waiting lists for procedures, Ukrainians living with families across the UK are taking the perilous trip back into a war zone where they are treated by doctors immediately despite Russian bombardments of their towns and cities. …Maiia Habruk escaped Kyiv last spring along with around five million fellow citizens and found a safe haven with a couple in south east London. But she returned to Ukraine in mid-December after failing to get the treatment she needed from her local hospital in Lewisham. …She decided the only way to get the treatment she believed she required was to make the 24-hour trip back to Ukraine, which includes a flight to Poland and a long and dangerous train journey to Kyiv. …Maiia, who witnessed almost daily bombing raids by the Russians while in Kyiv, knows three other Ukrainians in London who sought emergency health procedures back in their war-torn country due to the lack of availability of quick treatment from the NHS.

These people were engaging in cost-benefit analysis. They compared the risk of death, injury, or suffering from Russian bombs to the risk of death, injury, or suffering from languishing on a waiting list in the United Kingdom.

And they decided Russian bombs were the better option.

This disaster is attracting attention in other nations. The Wall Street Journal opined two days ago about the NHS.

The American left can’t seem to quit its desire for single-payer Medicare for All. So it’s worth noting that the United Kingdom, which already has a system resembling that socialist dream, is rethinking it amid another winter of healthcare misery. …Waiting times for ambulances for the most serious calls are getting longer, with the average response time reaching 10 minutes 57 seconds in December, compared to a target of seven. Once patients reach the emergency room, 35% now face waits above four hours… As of November, some 7.2 million patients have been referred for treatment but are waiting for it to start. Of those, 2.9 million have been waiting more than 18 weeks. The NHS considers itself a success if it starts treatment within that four-month window, which is the epitome of defining failure down. …Excess deaths in 2022 were the most since 1951, excluding the pandemic. …The U.S. suffers a chronic problem of healthcare financing but not of health-care delivery. Britain shows that with single-payer you end up with both. The U.K. also shows that single-payer’s biggest victims are low-income people who can’t afford to opt out.

Yet there are nonetheless American politicians who want to copy this failed system.

Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph has a grim assessment of his nation’s government-run system.

…the NHS is finished. It is broken beyond repair, ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands, and threatening the social fabric and economic performance of our nation. …this 75-year experiment in health socialism has failed appallingly, culminating in a surge in excess deaths, waiting lists that aren’t worthy of a civilised nation, inhumane strikes, intolerable delays for ambulances, explicit rationing… NHS spending is up 12 per cent in real terms since 2019-20; there are 13 per cent more doctors and 11 per cent more nurses, and yet the service delivered 5 per cent fewer treatments in the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period in 2019. …Its six pillars – that it is “free” at the point of use, the full state ownership of hospitals, its complete dependence on taxpayer funding, its supposed culture of altruism, its nature as a shared moral project uniting rich and poor, and its centrally planned workforce – are the very causes of its disintegration.

P.S. I can’t resist some closing comments about the politics of government-run health care.

The first story cited above includes these comments from left-of-center U.K. politicians.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told i “Vladimir Putin is dropping bombs on Ukrainian hospitals, yet patients are travelling back to Kyiv rather than face NHS waiting lists. …Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “It’s a damning indictment of the government’s record on the NHS that Ukrainian refugees are returning to a war-torn country to access health care.”

Accurate criticisms, to be sure. But both Labour and the Lib Dems simply want to dump more money in the system.

But the so-called Conservative Party does exactly the same thing, as the Wall Street Journal noted in its editorial.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021 pledged an additional £36 billion over three years for the NHS and related home and nursing-home care, funded by a payroll-tax increase. Mr. Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt followed in November with another £3.3 billion a year for the next two years.

And Allister Heath made a similar observation in his column.

The Cameron-May-Johnson survival strategy was to “neutralise” the NHS by refusing to contemplate difficult reforms, genuflecting endlessly at its altar, prioritising it in every Budget, greatly boosting its funding after Brexit and worshipping it hysterically during the lockdowns; yet, in the end, it was the NHS that neutralised the Tories. Small-state, high-growth Toryism is incompatible with an unreconstructed NHS, with its need for ever-higher taxes. How long will the Conservatives continue to lie to themselves about this?

This is a good opportunity to revisit my “what’s the alternative?” argument.

Self-styled right-of-center parties have to choose whether to become tax collectors for the welfare state or whether to push for entitlement reform. There’s no other alternative.

P.P.S. There is one group of people who are net winners from the U.K.’s government-run system.

Read Full Post »

Does the United States have a market-based health care system or a socialist health care system?

That’s not an easy question to answer.

Because of Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs, taxpayers directly finance about 50 percent of overall health expenditures. Does that mean we have a 50-percent socialist system?

Once again, there’s no easy answer.

On one hand, Uncle Sam does not operate the hospitals and employ the doctors and nurses (like we see – often with horrifying consequences – in the United Kingdom).

But on the other hand, policies in Washington (not just Medicare and Medicaid, but also the tax code’s exclusion for fringe benefits such as employer-provided health care) have replaced market forces with a massive third-party payer problem.

While there’s no easy answer, my back-of-the-envelope guess from back in 2013 is that the US health system is 79 percent government and 21 percent free enterprise.

If you want words rather than numbers, we have an incoherent and inefficient system that is part socialist, part interventionist, and part market.

That being said, is the US system more market oriented than other nations?

That’s also a hard question to answer. But let’s look at a couple of charts that suggest the answer is more negative than positive.

First we have a chart from Michael Cannon’s recent analysis of the tax treatment of healthcare. As you can see, the United States has a much-higher-than-average amount of health spending dictated by government.

By the way, if you look at dollars spent per capita, you find something similar.

In the United States, government has a huge footprint in the health sector.

For our next chart, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute shared a chart last year showing which nations have the most third-party payment (i.e., someone other than the consumer paying the cost of healthcare).

It showed that the United States had a much-lower-than-average share of expenses financed by consumers.

But his chart relied on 2016 data and we now have data from 2019. So here’s the latest look at how the United States is not market-oriented, at least when compared to other developed nations.

Basically the same look as the chart from Andrew Biggs, but I didn’t want anyone to think the data may have changed.

I’ll conclude by noting that America’s healthcare system is a mess. But as I explain in this video, it’s a mess because government plays a big role. Even bigger than some of the nations that have “socialist” health systems.

P.S. You can see the impact (or lack thereof) of third-party payer by looking at prices for birth control, plastic surgery, and abortion.

P.P.S. Everyone should watch this Reason video to see how third-party payer makes healthcare more expensive.

P.P.P.S. And look at these two visuals to grasp the difference between a free market and Obamacare.

Read Full Post »

One thing that became very apparent during the pandemic is that government schools are mostly run for the benefit of bureaucrats rather than students.

Not that any of us should have been surprised.

The same is true for other government bureaucracies, as well as parts of the private sector where there is a lot of government intervention that subsidizes featherbedding.

What’s especially galling is when budget increases are used to hire more bureaucrats, yet taxpayers get nothing of value in exchanges.

That’s certainly the case in the United States, where education bureaucracies (and education spending) have dramatically increased, yet there has been no concomitant increase in educational outcomes.

Another examples come from the United Kingdom where the government-run National Health Service gets more money and more bureaucrats every year, as explained in CapX by Fiona Bulmer, yet there’s never an improvement in health outcomes.

Indeed, these five sentences are a perfect example of government bureaucracies in action.

…the NHS in England employs the full time equivalent of 1.2 million people, nearly 200,000 more than they did in 2012.

…in 2021, the NHS was around 16% less productive than before the pandemic.

…one of the managers lamented to me that he could schedule a maximum of four knee operations a day but in the private sector they manage eight a day. 

…7m people on NHS waiting lists.

The NHS, like all organisations where users have no choice defaults to accommodating the providers not the consumers.

I’m left with two conclusions after reading those depressing numbers.

The obvious takeaway, as I’ve previously noted, is that if you don’t want massive future tax increases, there’s no alternative to what critics call “free-market fundamentalism.”

Read Full Post »

A core libertarian principle is that people have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies. And that includes things that may be harmful, such as taking drugs, smoking, and over-eating.

It also includes personal choices that are not harmful, but may upset the sensibilities of others, such as selling your organs.

As you might expect, I also think people should be allowed to sell their plasma.

But this rubs some people the wrong way.

Vanessa Veselka has a column in the New York Times grousing about the fact that poor people in the United States have the freedom to benefit from voluntary exchange.

Very few countries allow payment for plasma, in part out of concern that financially vulnerable people would risk their health for money. Other developed nations place stricter limits on the number of times one can donate. In Britain, plasma can be given every two weeks; in Germany, it’s up to 60 times a year. The United States allows a person to sell plasma 104 times a year. The word “sell” is, of course, rarely used in the United States. Instead, the term is “donate,” which allows companies to pretend they are not in the business of scavenging the bodies of poor people for biological treasure. Our system of “donation” is so successful that the United States provides about two-thirds of the plasma available worldwide and accounts for 35 percent to 40 percent of the plasma used in medicine in Europe — so much of which comes out of the veins of America’s poor.

The author is right, of course, that people sell rather than donate their plasma.

Other than that, however, her hostility does not make sense. The only good news is that Ms. Veselka does not want to prohibit plasma sales.

I have no problem with people being paid for plasma. I just think that companies should take less of the plasma and that donors should be paid more.

Since I sold plasma during my college years, I would have been happy if there was more compensation. But I also would have been happy if I was paid more when I worked at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute.

We all want to receive more income and we all want to pay less for the things we buy.

What makes capitalism a moral system is that there’s no ability to use coercion to turn our preferences into reality.

P.S. Returning to the topic of organ sales, there’s also a very persuasive utilitarian case because many lives would be saved. Plasma sales presumably have the same indirect effect.

Read Full Post »

The central message of “Mitchell’s law” is certainly not something I concocted.

Economists and other policy experts have known for a couple of hundred years that politicians have a tendency to makes mistakes and then use the resulting damage as a justification for even more intervention.

I simply gave this phenomenon a name so I didn’t have to offer repeat explanations.

Over and over and over and over again.

Today we’re going to look at another example of politicians demanding more intervention to address a problem caused by previous interventions.

In an article for National Review, Michael Cannon has a very depressing explanation of how government has messed up the market for insulin.

…a proposal by congressional Democrats to mandate that private insurance companies cap out-of-pocket spending on insulin…neglects to address the way the government drives up the cost of insulin. Further intervention would make matters worse. …government makes it both unnecessarily difficult and expensive for diabetics to access this lifesaving drug. …Thanks to government, new insulin is expensive to bring to market. …The high cost of government regulation discourages the development of new insulin products, reduces the number of insulin manufacturers, and increases the prices of any products that do make it through that process… Government increases the cost of insulin by requiring diabetics to get prescriptions before purchasing many insulin products. …Canada generally allows diabetics to purchase any insulin product without a prescription. If the FDA or Congress were to remove those requirements, both the price of insulin and the ancillary costs of obtaining it would fall. …Thanks to government, most people end up with excessive insurance coverage and little awareness of how much things cost. …excessive health insurance encourages providers to increase prices because heavily insured patients care less about price increases.

I’ll augment these observations by explaining that “excessive insurance coverage” refers to how the tax code’s exclusion for fringe benefits leads both employees and employers to use health insurance as a way of not only covering large, unexpected costs, but also as a way of pre-paying for health care.

Unfortunately this pre-payment system has turned much of the health care system into an all-you-can-eat buffet, but with (the perception of) someone else paying the bill.

At the risk of understatement, this system of government-created third-party payer has produced an extraordinarily expensive and inefficient health system.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the column.

So what’s the bottom line? As Cannon explains, the right answer is less government rather than more government.

Had government never intervened in the health sector, private insurance companies might already be offering more comprehensive cost-sharing for insulin than congressional Democrats propose, without driving insulin prices higher. Or perhaps insulin prices would be so low that no one would feel the need to purchase insurance that covers it. All we know for sure is that, like past government interventions, attempts by government to cap cost-sharing for insulin will have unintended consequences that make matters worse for diabetics and all consumers.

P.S. In his column, Cannon observed that, “When Congress capped cost-sharing for contraceptives at $0, prices for hormones and oral contraceptives skyrocketed.”

This is illustrated very clearly by this chart.

As you might expect, deregulation would be the way to lower the cost of birth control (just like deregulation would be the way to lower the cost of insulin).

Read Full Post »

Most people would say high prices are the biggest problem with health care in the United States. But high prices should be viewed as the symptom of the real problem, which is “third-party payer.”

And what is third-party payer?

It’s the fact that consumers purchase health care with other people’s money. And we should blame government intervention.

To be more specific, the vast majority of purchases are financed by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, or by insurance policies that are subsidized by the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

And that means people have very little reason to care about the cost of care – creating a recipe for higher costs and inefficiency.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains the problem.

One of the reasons that the costs of medical care services in the US have increased more than twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage of health care costs are paid out-of-pocket by consumers. …Consumers of health care have significantly reduced incentives to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical and hospital services when they pay less than $1 themselves out of every $10 spent, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t paying out-of-pocket and aren’t price sensitive.

Some people wonder whether there’s something about the health sector that automatically and inevitably causes higher prices.

But that’s not true. Mark has a table showing that cosmetic surgery costs have not increased faster than inflation.

And what makes cosmetic surgery different than other types of medical procedures?

As Mark explains, people directly pay for things like tummy tucks and breast augmentation.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients typically paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective aesthetic procedures are cost-conscious and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. …the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms since 1998, and some non-surgical procedures have even fallen in nominal dollars… In all cases, cosmetic procedures have increased in price by far less than the 132% increase in the price of medical care services between 1998 and 2021 and the 230% increase in prices for hospital services.

If you want videos on the topic, here’s a Dutch expert explaining the issue. I also recommend this clever cartoon video that explains third-party payer and this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. And this Reason video on how costs are lower when actual markets operate.

Read Full Post »

I’m not a fan of the government-distorted health system in the United States.

Various laws and programs from Washington have created a massive problem with third-party payer, which makes America’s system very expensive and inefficient.

But it’s possible to have a system that is even worse. Americans can look across the ocean at the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

Our British friends are burdened with something akin to “Medicare for All.”

But it’s even worse because doctors and nurses are directly employed by government, which means they have been turned into government bureaucrats.

And government bureaucrats generally don’t have a track record of good performance. That seems to apply to health bureaucrats, as captured by this Alys Denby column for CapX.

Numbers are no way to express a human tragedy, but those in the Ockenden Report into maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust are nonetheless devastating. The inquiry examined 1,592 incidents since 2000. It found that poor care led to the deaths of 201 babies and nine mothers; 94 babies suffered avoidable brain damage; and one in four cases of stillbirth could have had a different outcome. That’s hundreds of lives lost, and hundreds of families suffering unimaginable pain, all on the watch of ‘Our NHS’. …the report is strewn with examples of individual cruelty and incompetence. Bereaved parents…were given excuses, false information and even blamed for their own child’s death. The Health Secretary has said that vital clinical information was written on post-it notes that were swept into the bin by cleaners. …The NHS has a culture of arrogance, sanctimony and impunity.

And here are some excerpts from a 2021 article in National Review by Cameron Hilditch.

The NHS has proven itself comprehensively and consistently incapable of dealing with a regular flu season, something that crops up at the same predictable time of year in every country north of the equator. It has long been obvious that Britain’s single-payer health-care system isn’t fit for purpose even in normal times, much less during a global pandemic. Yet the NHS’s failures are systematically ignored. …age-standardized survival rates in the U.K. for the most common kinds of cancer are well below those of other developed countries, which translates into thousands of needless deaths… The excess deaths that the U.K. is suffering…along with the crushing physical and mental burdens borne by British doctors and nurses ultimately redound to this long-term failure of British culture. By transforming a medical institution into a cultural institution for the sake of forging a new, progressive national identity, Britons have underwritten decades of deadly failure.

This is damning information.

To be sure, mistakes will happen in any type of health system. But when government runs the show, the odds of appropriate feedback are much lower.

If you don’t believe me, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, hereand here.

Read Full Post »

The health care system in the United States is expensive and inefficient, and both of those problems are caused by government.

More specifically, politicians have enacted laws (everything from the tax code’s exclusion of fringe benefits to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid) that have produced a system overwhelmingly based on third-party payer.

And with so many people using (what they perceive to be) other people’s money to buy healthcare, we shouldn’t be surprised to see perverse results.

In a genuine free market, buyers and sellers directly interact. Both sides of the transaction have an incentive to get the best-possible outcome, and this process promotes efficiency and low prices.

In America’s healthcare system, however, government policies have saddled us with intermediaries that weaken, distort, or even eliminate normal market forces.

Which explains high costs and inefficiency, which is how we began this column.

To understand why third-party payer plays such a pernicious role, let’s look at a column that Dr. Ryan Neuhofel wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

He imagines a world where we buy food at the grocery store the same way we currently buy healthcare.

You enter the grocery store parking lot at 4:15 pm, having taken off work early because this particular store closes at 5:00 pm. This FoodMart wasn’t your personal preference based on quality, service, amenities, or price. You choose it, like all of your previous food choices, because it was included in your new food management plan’s network. …You are first greeted by a few women sitting behind a glass-enclosed desk. By greeted, I mean they ask you for your photo ID and food plan card and hand you a clipboard with a stack of forms to complete. The lobby is crowded, but you manage to find a seat… You have completed these types of forms dozens of times previously but dutifully do so again. (You still prefer 2 percent milk, don’t like more than four vegetables, and your peanut allergy is unchanged.) Forms completed, you check back in with the receptionist. After 20 minutes of waiting, she assigns you a cart, and you start to shop with your list in hand. …As you scurry up and down the aisles, you see there are no prices listed on anything, nor labels telling you what is a Bronze-Select item. …During check-out, the cashier rings up the items and asks you for a $30 copay. You are given a six-page receipt with indecipherable codes and then asked to sign a few other forms because some of your items will be billed to you later. …Several months in the future you get a bill for $276 from FoodMart. Although vaguely suspicious that you’ve been taken advantage of somehow, you are happy that you got a big discount on your $18 box of Tasty Flakes cereal.

He also imagines a world where our restaurant visits are akin to the current healthcare system.

…you are saddened to learn that Lola’s Cocina is not part of your GCGS plan. You decide to go down the street to Burrito King, which prominently displays “Proud to accept GCGS Bronze-Select members” in its window. …Upon checkout, you present the waiter your GCGS card, and you are asked to pay a $10 copay. (The billing statement weeks later reveals that the “plan discount” did reduce the initial charge from $64 to $37 and that GCGS paid Burrito King another $27 a few months later, which was applied to your deductible.) You question how a simple burrito can cost $37… Burrito King, a small restaurant, employs four cashiers out front and seven people in their business office in addition to the usual staff to cook and serve food. Their head chef, Bob, spends much of his time completing forms to justify why the Deluxe burrito you ordered included black beans instead of the standard pinto.

Dr. Neuhofel paints a dystopian vision, but can anyone doubt this is what would happen if government intervened in the food market the same way it does in the health market?

I’ve previously engaged in the same exercise, asking people to imagine what would happen if the market for homeowners insurance and auto insurance worked the same way as it does in the health sector.

Needless to say, the result would be higher costs and inefficiency.

I’ll close by pointing out that free markets work in health care when they’re allowed. Consider how we see rising quality and falling prices in the market for cosmetic surgery. Why? Because people are paying with their own money.

P.S. I strongly recommend this video from Reason.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last month about a tax-and-spend proposal for single-payer healthcare in California (sort of a state version of “Medicare for All“).

I also analyzed the scheme in this discussion with Gene Tunny of Australia.

What’s remarkable, as Gene mentioned in his preface, is that the left’s push for single payer failed – even though Democrats have complete control of the Golden State, including more than three-fourths of the seats in both chambers of the state legislature.

So why didn’t those politicians hasten the state’s slow-motion economic suicide?

Almost certainly, the biggest reason is that even folks on the left have second thoughts about the enormous tax increase that would have been required.

As I noted back in 2016, big government is only fun when somebody else is picking up the tab.

Which motivates me to unveil a Thirteenth Theorem of Government.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened with single payer in California.

Here are some excerpts from a report by Sophia Bollag for the Sacramento Bee.

Efforts to create a government-run health care system for all Californians stalled Monday when the lawmaker pushing the legislation announced he didn’t have the votes in time for a key deadline. Assembly Bill 1400 aimed to create a so-called single-payer health care system in California that would essentially replace private insurance with a state-run health system. …To fund it, lawmakers would have also needed to pass a separate bill to increase taxes… The taxes Kalra proposed would also require voter approval. …Kalra said the fight for single-payer health care won’t die with AB 1400. Lawmakers could craft a different bill to implement such a system in the future. The bill’s failure represents a blow to the California Nurses Association, which had backed the bill. …This isn’t the first time a bill to create a single-payer system has died in the Assembly. The Senate advanced a similar bill in 2017, but it died in the Legislature’s lower chamber. Gov. Gavin Newsom…has said he supports single-payer health care.

Giant tax increases were the big obstacle (as was the case a few years ago).

…higher taxes are a tough sell, even in the California Legislature where Democrats hold a super-majority. …Fiscal analyses estimate the bill could cost between $314 billion and $391 billion per year if it were implemented. That would dramatically increase total state spending; California’s current budget is $262 billion. To pay for it, Kalra proposed taxing businesses 2.3% of their income after the first $2 million through a proposed amendment to the California Constitution. His proposal would also have imposed a 1.25% payroll tax on employers of 50 or more people and an additional payroll tax on wages for California residents over $49,900 per employee. The measure would have added progressive income taxes starting at .5% for people making more than $149,500, up to 2.5% for people making more than about $2.5 million per year.

By the way, the higher income tax rates mentioned in the last sentence would be in addition to California’s already-highest-in-the-nation income tax rates.

In a column for Forbes, Patrick Gleason points out that the failure of single payer in California is part of a pattern.

For progressive lawmakers and activists who want to enact a national single-payer health care system, rejection of a state-level “Medicare For All” proposal in one of the bluest states in the nation, where Democrats have sweeping control of state government, is seen as a major set back. …California isn’t the only state, let alone the only blue state, where single-payer health system legislation has crashed and burned. New York Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D), the longest serving member of the history of the New York Assembly, has long pushed for the New York Health Act, a single-payer proposal for the Empire State. Assemblyman Gottfried’s bill was approved by the New York Assembly five times between 1992 and 2018, only to see the state senate decline to take it up. As in California, exorbitant cost projections have been the main obstacle to single-payer’s enactment. …it is single-payer champion Bernie Sanders’ state of Vermont where state-level Medicare-For-All first proved to be unworkable. More than a decade ago, Vermont state lawmakers enacted legislation to implement a single-payer system called Green Mountain Care. …Shortly after the single-payer bill was enacted in 2011, Vermont officials were confronted with the reality that “free” health care is actually pretty costly for taxpayers. Governor Shumlin and Vermont lawmakers discovered they would need to impose a new 11.5% state payroll tax and a 9.5 percentage point income tax increase to pay for the new entitlement. Together these tax increases would’ve represented a more than 150% hike in the state’s income tax.

If you want more information, I wrote about deep-blue Vermont’s disastrous (but fortunately temporary) experiment with single payer back in 2014.

The article also should have mentioned that blue-leaning Colorado voters had a chance to adopt a single-payer scheme in 2016. By a stunning margin of 80-20, they voted it down.

The bottom line is that people (sadly) are willing to use government as a tool to steal from their neighbors. But the message of the Twelfth Theorem is that they generally don’t like to steal from themselves.

P.S. Here are the other 12 Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.
  • The “Ninth Theorem” explains how politics often trump principles.
  • The “Tenth Theorem” explains how politicians manufacture/exploit crises.
  • The “Eleventh Theorem” explains why big business is often anti-free market.
  • The “Twelfth Theorem” explains you can’t have European-sized government without pillaging the middle class.

Read Full Post »

I wrote back in 2012 that California voters opted for “slow-motion economic suicide” by voting to raise the state’s top income tax rate to 13.3 percent.

Sure enough, having the nation’s highest state income tax rate has been bad news.

More and more companies and households are leaving the (no-longer) Golden State for zero-income-tax states such as Texas, Nevada, and Florida.

Unfortunately, it appears that California politicians aren’t learning any lessons from this exodus.

They’re now pushing for a massive tax increase to fund a government takeover of health care.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the new plan.

California Democrats are busy reviving government-run, single-payer health care, despite its failure in the state five years ago. …Their revived legislation would replace Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance with a state-run system… Californians would also be entitled to an expansive list of benefits including vision, dental, hearing and long-term care. A board of bureaucrats would control costs—i.e., ration care. …While Californians would technically be entitled to a “free” knee replacement, they might not get one if bureaucrats consider them too old—but the state won’t let people know that’s the reason. …Arizona could soon become a hot destination for medical tourism. …As for the tax increases… Start with a 2.3% excise tax on business with more than $2 million in annual gross receipts… Employers with 50 or more workers would also pay a 1.25% payroll tax, which would be passed onto workers. Workers earning more than $49,900 would pay an additional 1% payroll tax. …would raise the effective income tax on wage earners making more than $61,213 to 11.55%—more than millionaires pay in every state but New York. …An additional progressive surtax would start at 0.5% on income over $149,509 and rise to 2.5% at $2,484,121. …The top marginal rate would rise to 15.8% on unearned income, including capital gains, and 18.05% on wage income.

In a column for Reason, Joe Bishop-Henchman and Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union explain the likely impact of the proposed tax increases.

As the mad scientist laboratory for bad tax policy in America, California is constantly striving to come up with poorly designed and harmful taxes to pay for ever-increasing spending. But even by its own lofty standards, California has truly outdone itself with its latest proposal to fund a state single-payer health care system. …Not only would the proposed $163 billion in new tax revenue nearly double last year’s total revenue for the tax-happy state, but California would structure these new taxes in such a way as to be even more harmful than doubled tax liabilities already imply. …the 2.3 percent gross receipts tax sticks out. …whether a business has a profit margin of 0.1 percent or 10 percent, it would still have to pay the same percentage of its total revenues. …a rate that is three times the level of the nation’s current highest. …the proposal to institute a payroll tax on businesses with 50 or more employees…would create an obvious disincentive for businesses to hire their 50th employee. …the payroll tax would discourage both hiring employees and paying them higher wages, a disastrous outcome for workers. …individual income tax rates…would effectively be…an 18-bracket tax structure with a top marginal tax rate of 18.05 percent. …a trend that California appears to have its head in the sand about: overtaxed businesses and individuals fleeing for greener pastures.

Let’s elaborate on that final sentence and ask ourselves what the tipping point will be for various taxpayers.

  • Imagine you run a business and you have to pay a 2.3 percent tax on all your receipts, even if you happen to be losing money? Do you leave the state?
  • Imagine if you are a typical employee and government takes more than 10 percent of your income in exchange for bad roads and bad schools? Do you leave the state?
  • Imagine that you are a high-value entrepreneur facing the possibility of having to pay more than 18 percent of your income to state politicians? Do you leave?
  • Imagine being an investor who is thinking about forgoing consumption in order to make an investment that might result in a punitive capital gains tax? Do you leave?

And while you contemplate those questions, remember that California is already very unfriendly to taxpayers, ranking #48 according to the Tax Foundation and ranking #49 according to the Fraser Institute.

Moreover, while California politicians consider a massive tax increase, other states are lowering tax rates.

In other words, California already is in trouble and many state politicians now want to double down on a losing bet.

P.S. California considered a government-run health plan a few years ago and backed off, so maybe there’s hope.

P.P.S. Illinois has been the long-time leader in the poll that asks which state will be the first to suffer political collapse. That may change if this California plan is enacted.

P.P.P.S. When I’m feeling petty and malicious, I sometime hope jurisdictions adopt bad policy because that will give me more evidence showing the adverse consequences of bad policy.

Read Full Post »

The healthcare sector is a tragic example of Mitchell’s Law in action, with politicians expanding the role of government in response to problems (rising prices and inefficiency) caused by previous expansions of government.

The solution is free markets, and Hannah Cox points the way in this short video.

Ms. Cox is definitely correct to use cosmetic surgery as an example of how free markets work.

I’ve previously cited great research from Mark Perry showing how prices for various procedures have risen by less than the overall consumer price index.

And far less than prices for the parts of the health care system where government plays a big role (in the table, see the section outlined in red).

The bottom line is that we get lower costs and greater efficiency when buyers and sellers directly interact without lots of interference from government.

Ms. Cox also wrote about this topic, to augment what she said in the video.

If you’re somehow under the impression that the problems with our healthcare system were created by “capitalism,” you have been lied to. …If we were to cut the insurance companies and the government out of the picture, prices would naturally have to fall to meet what the market could actually afford to pay. No more $100,000 knee surgeries. A model of this can easily be found in the plastic surgery industry, which is a rare niche in the healthcare market that both the government and insurance companies have largely not touched. Because it is seen as an elective service, insurance does not cover these services, and therefore the government hasn’t been able to get its grubby hands on the industry. And because of that, the quality of service has consistently risen while the prices have fallen simultaneously. …True capitalists want the entire healthcare system to look like the cosmetic industry. But that can only happen if we get the government out of the way.

Economists refer to the problem Ms. Cox is discussing as “third-party payer,” and it exists because government policies (everything from the tax code’s healthcare exclusion to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid) have crippled market forces by creating a big wedge between buyers and sellers.

How much of a wedge?

Well, consumers directly pay for only 10.5 percent of healthcare expenditures.

P.S. Here’s my first-hand story of dealing with the problems caused by third-party payer.

P.P.S. Regardless of one’s views on abortion, it’s another example of how markets can work in healthcare.

P.P.P.S. This video from Reason is a compelling real-world illustration of how markets can succeed in the health sector. And here are two other excellent videos.

Read Full Post »

Just like I’ve never had (until recently) any reason to define capitalism, I also have never felt any need to define libertarianism.

Some people use the non-aggression principle, but that strikes me as more of a statement about how we should behave.

What if we’re trying to define the rules for libertarian governance?

In that case, my definition is very much based on property rights. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, and we both have the right to engage (or to not engage) in voluntary exchange.

I realize that’s not the most elegant or comprehensive statement of principles, but I think it provides a useful framework for the debate over vaccine mandates.

Regarding that issue, I’m glad that private companies had the expertise and opportunity to develop vaccines against the coronavirus, and I got vaccinated as soon as possible.

That being said, I definitely don’t think government should force anyone to make that choice.

But I also think that people who opt against vaccination should accept the non-governmental consequences.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this topic back in April.

What if private businesses decide that customers are only allowed if they prove they’ve been vaccinated? From a libertarian perspective, guided by core principles such as property rights and freedom of association, that should be totally acceptable. And that’s true even if we think the owners of the businesses are making silly choices. After all, it’s their property.

The Dispatch has an article on this controversy.

Written by Andrew Egger, it starts by pointing out that there’s a political fight in South Dakota because a private company has announced that all employees must be vaccinated.

South Dakota’s largest employer is Sanford Health, a hospital and health care system that employs nearly 10,000 people in the eastern half of the state. On July 22, Sanford, which operates in both Dakotas and Minnesota, announced it would begin requiring all its employees to get vaccinated for COVID by November 1. Within weeks, two Republican members of the state House, Reps. Jon Hansen and Scott Odenbach, had introduced legislation punching back. The COVID-19 Vaccine Freedom of Conscience Act would give South Dakotans “the right to be exempt from any COVID-19 vaccination mandate, requirement, obligation, or demand on the basis that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination violates his or her conscience.” …By the end of August, state House Speaker Spencer Gosch had come aboard the mandate ban effort as well. …The only problem: Noem doesn’t support the legislation.

Why is Governor Kristi Noem against the legislation?

For a very libertarian reason. She doesn’t think the government has the right to tell a private company how to operate.

…the laissez-faire approach that made Noem a conservative folk hero in last year’s fights has gotten her crosswise with her fellow Republicans on the issue of vaccine mandate bans. “Frankly, I don’t think businesses should be mandating that their employees should be vaccinated,” she said in a video posted to Twitter last week. “And if they do mandate vaccines to their employees, they should be making religious and other exemptions available to them. But I don’t have the authority as governor to tell them what to do.”

Amen.

If you believe in private property, the owners of a business should have the right to decide whom they employ and whom they do business with.

Just as consumers can choose where to shop and workers can choose to leave jobs they don’t like.

Here’s a final excerpt from the article.

“Nobody is stopping you from making that decision [not to get vaccinated], but you don’t have a right to a particular job,” Noem spokesman Ian Fury told The Dispatch. “The business owner has the right to his business. You do not have a right to an individual job, because you don’t own that business.” …Philosophically, that puts Noem firmly in the camp of free-market Republicans past: largely content to preside passively over a state economy in which companies are free to set their own standards of conduct and employees are free to work for companies that share their values—and quit jobs if they don’t.

The bottom line is that libertarians (and small-government conservatives) should not be upset about private companies making private decisions.

Instead, we should get irked when politicians try to mandate those decisions.

In a column for the Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer condemns Joe Biden’s recent declaration that companies either must require vaccination or conduct constant testing.

President Joe Biden’s decision to require large private employers to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus is problematic not just in terms of the Constitution, statutes, and liberty interests, but it is also highly impractical. …This is crazy. If the onus is on the businesses, what are businesses to do if employees refuse to comply? Fire them all? …This rule is a recipe for lawsuits. Will businesses be caught in a bind — penalized for unvaccinated workers but also charged with unfair labor practices if they evade the mandate by reducing payrolls below 100? …If massive new testing is required as a mere screening method, even for those feeling perfectly healthy, how will medical personnel keep up? Who will keep administrative tabs on all this? And if businesses are required to provide time off for workers to get tested, how will their own efficiency and productivity suffer?

Given the fact that Biden is a career politician with no experience in the private sector, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by this White House proposal.

After all this is an Administration that thinks copying the failed fiscal policies of Greece, France, and Italy is how you “build back better.”

Read Full Post »

Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, along with the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, have created a system where consumers directly pay for only about 10 percent of the care they receive.

We think it’s normal and appropriate for either the government or an insurance company to foot the bill.

Yet this system of “third-party payer” explains why the health care system in the United States is inefficient and expensive.

Is it possible, though, to put the toothpaste back in the tube? Can we unwind the bad government policies that have undermined market forces?

There are certainly big-picture reforms that would be helpful. Genuine entitlement reform could address the problems with Medicare and Medicaid, and fundamental tax reform could get rid of the healthcare exclusion.

But progress is possible even without major policy change.

Reason interviewed a doctor, Lee Gross, who decided to set up a practice based on “direct primary care,” which means no involvement from government or insurance companies. Just health consumers and health providers directly buying and selling.

Here’s some of what he said about this market-based approach.

When I was in the fee-for-service system, I felt like I was playing a game of Whac-A-Mole with Medicare. …Eventually we just said, “No more.” …the epiphany was “Why are we inserting so many people at the primary care level between the doctor and the patient? Why are we insuring primary care?” The more people that you insert between the doctor and patient, the more expensive it gets, the more cumbersome it gets…we created one of the first direct primary care practices in the country. …essentially it’s a membership-based primary care program. …Once a patient is a member of our practice, anything that we can do within the four walls of our office is included at no additional charge. …Insurance is good for the big stuff. It’s not good for the little stuff. It’s too complicated. What we do in direct primary care is we make the predictable things affordable for everybody. We take the stuff that you’re going to need on an everyday basis and we put affordable price tags on it, and we say you don’t need your insurance for this. In fact, the insurance makes it more expensive. …You need your homeowners insurance if your house burns down. You don’t need it to mow the lawn.

The good news is that Dr. Gross’ practice is part of a growing movement.

Direct primary care is absolutely a growing movement. …There’s well over 1,500 practices around the country… There are some regulatory barriers that get in the way of expanding this model. …if we’re looking for the ideal health care system, we want to see three pillars. We want to see lower cost, better quality, and more choices. You cannot have all three of those in a government-run system. You can only have those in a free market capitalist system.

Indeed, I’ve shared previous examples of this phenomenon from Maine and North Carolina.

And it even works for surgery, as you can see from this must-watch video from Reason.

Let’s now circle back to some analysis of what’s wrong with the current system.

John Stossel explained a few years ago how government-encouraged over-insurance causes problems.

Someone else paying changes our behavior. We don’t shop around. We don’t ask, “Do I really need that test?” “Is there a place where it’s cheaper?” Hospitals and doctors don’t try very hard to do things cheaply. Imagine if you had “grocery insurance.” You’d buy expensive foods; supermarkets would never have sales. Everyone would spend more. Insurance coverage—third-party payment—is revered by the media and socialists (redundant?) but is a terrible way to pay for things. Today, 7 in 8 health care dollars are paid by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance companies. Because there’s no real health care market, costs rose 467 percent over the last three decades. By contrast, prices fell in the few medical areas not covered by insurance, like plastic surgery and LASIK eye care. Patients shop around, forcing health providers to compete.

The final couple of sentences are extremely important.

As illustrated by this data from Mark Perry, there are a few parts of the health care system where there’s little or no third-party payer.

And what do we find? Prices go down rather than up.

For all intents and purposes, the goal should be to make health insurance more like homeowners insurance or auto insurance.

Speaking of the latter, David Graham compared market-driven auto insurance and government-subsidized health insurance.

There are…similarities between health care and car ownership… We can go for many years with predictable spending on both cars and medical care until — out of the blue — something terrible happens. For that reason, we value insurance for both. But there’s a key difference… Car insurance, while not a trivial expense, is a relatively small share of the total cost of owning a car. According to the AAA, the average premium was $1,023, just under 12 percent of the total cost of ownership. Even excluding depreciation, insurance is just one-fifth of the total cost. In other words, we do not expect auto insurers to pay claims for most of the cost of operating and maintaining a car. Health care is completely the opposite. …Insurance adds administrative costs and bureaucratic interference. …Left to our own devices, we would never buy coverage for every single medical expense.

The moral of the story is that government intervention has made America’s health system a mess.

Unsurprisingly, many politicians say the answer it to have even more government (which is how we got Obamacare).

P.S. In less than eight minutes, I explain the economics of third-party payer in this speech.

P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also has led to higher costs and widespread inefficiency in higher education.

Read Full Post »

Looking at the dismal performance of the FDA, CDC, and WHO, the obvious takeaway from the pandemic is that big government doesn’t work very well.

Indeed, that was the point of a five-part series (see here, here, here, here, and here) on the topic.

One implication of all this analysis is that it’s almost always a good idea to let the private sector take the lead.

Which is why businesses rather than governments should decide whether to impose vaccine requirements.

Today’s column is motivated by two stories, the first of which is from ABC News. It involves a Texas hospital that is getting sued because it requires employees to be vaccinated.

Over 100 employees have joined a lawsuit against Houston Methodist hospital in Texas for requiring all employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The network, which oversees eight hospitals and has more than 26,000 employees, gave workers a deadline of June 7 to get the vaccine. If not, staffers risk suspension and termination, according to the lawsuit. …The complaint cited that forcing employees to get the vaccine violates Nuremberg Code, a medical ethics code which bans forced medical experiments and mandates voluntary consent. …Houston Methodist…released a statement in response to the lawsuit Friday, saying 99% of the network’s employees have been vaccinated. “It is unfortunate that the few remaining employees who refuse to get vaccinated and put our patients first are responding in this way.”

Our second story is from Florida.

Here are some excerpts from a Washington Post column about whether cruise ships operating out of Florida can exclude non-vaccinated passengers.

Cruise lines see vaccine requirements as their quickest path back to sailing from the United States. But Florida, home to the largest operators and busiest cruise ports in the world, has passed a law saying those companies are not allowed to ask passengers for proof of vaccination status. …Jim Walker, a maritime attorney..called the vaccine law “singularly the greatest impediment to the resumption of cruising in the state of Florida.” …DeSantis told reporters that he wanted cruise lines to operate and be able to make decisions about how they want to handle health and safety rules — within certain parameters. …he said even if some people were okay with the idea of having to prove that they were vaccinated to take a cruise, “it will not stop at that.”

Simply stated, I believe in property rights. The hospital should have the liberty to require vaccinations as a condition of employment and cruise ship companies should have the liberty to require vaccinations as a condition of taking a cruise.

It doesn’t matter, buy the way, whether I think the hospital or the cruise ship companies are making wise choices. I’m not a shareholder, so my opinion is irrelevant.

I do have the right, of course, to decide whether to seek a job at the hospital, or to choose to be a patient there. Likewise, I also have the right to choose whether go on a cruise, or whether to seek a job on a cruise ship.

In both cases, I can make my choices based on whether I like their vaccine policy. Or for any other reason.

I’m a free person and the people running companies also have freedom. If we don’t mutually agree to a transaction, it doesn’t happen.

It’s called “freedom of association,” and it’s a principle of a free society.

The bottom line is that there should be no philosophical objection to “vaccine passports” in the private sector.

Read Full Post »

I first wrote about allowing markets for body parts back in 2009 and 2010.

Let’s revisit that issue today, starting with John Stossel’s case for legal organ sales in a video for Reason.

This should be a slam-dunk issue.

  • I want drugs to be legal, even though I personally disapprove of drug use.
  • I want prostitution to be legal, even though I’ve never swapped sex for money (no matter what women offer me).
  • I want gambling to be legal, even though I find that activity to be very boring.
  • I want alcohol to be legal, even though I generally find booze to be distasteful.

So it should go without saying that I want organ sales to be legal. Indeed, the case for legalizing organ sales is far stronger because I can’t think of a legitimate argument against a policy that creates no downsides for third parties and unambiguously benefits both sides (sick people and organ donors) of the transaction.

Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University’s law school has been a long-time advocate of saving lives with organ sales.

Here’s some of what he wrote in 2019 for Reason.

Many Americans die every year because they need kidney transplants, but cannot find one in time, in large part due to federal laws banning organ sales. A recently published article finds that the number of such deaths is likely to be much greater than previous estimates indicate. It finds that over the 30 years between 1988 and 2017, an average of over 30,000 Americans have died each year, because the ban on organ sales prevented them from getting transplants in time. …even if the true figure is only, say, half as high, it still represents a vast amount of unnecessary suffering that could largely be prevented simply by allowing financial compensation for organ donors, thereby increasing the supply of available kidneys to the point where it can meet the demand.

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Sally Satel has a very personal interest in encouraging organ sales.

…there have never been enough kidneys, livers, hearts, and other organs. Kidneys, the organ most in need and most easily donated by the living, can be given by living friends and relatives and even the occasional “good Samaritan donor.” But, by law, they must be given for free, in the spirit of “altruism.”  Altruism is a beautiful sentiment, and I have personally benefited: two magnificent friends have donated kidneys to me; one in 2006 and then again in 2016.  Thousands others in the U.S., where I live, and elsewhere around the world, are not so lucky – they die waiting. …Compensating donors as a way to recruit people who would like to be rewarded for saving the life of another is long overdue. …Objections…ring hollow. The most common is that compensation “commodifies the body.” We already commodify the body, speaking strictly, every time there is a transplant: The doctors get paid to manipulate the body. So does the hospital. Why, then, object to enriching the donor — the sole individual in this entire scenario who gives the precious item in question and assumes all the risk?

In an article for CapX, Sam Dumitriu and Samuel Hammond make the case for pro-market reforms in the United Kingdom.

…increasing the number of living donors is becoming a major imperative for healthcare systems worldwide. For better or worse, altruism alone won’t fill the gap. Britain needs to change the law to give organ donors, particularly kidney donors, a financial incentive to donate. Rewards for donors are currently illegal… While the average time patients spend on the kidney waiting list has declined, it still routinely takes over three years before a match is found. In contrast, it’s clear from markets where financial rewards for donors are permitted that they are effective at increasing supply. …Kidney donors not only save lives and allow patients to come off dialysis, they also save the NHS money. According to the National Kidney Federation, each kidney transplant saves the NHS over £200,000 by reducing the need for expensive dialysis treatment. That’s significantly more than $40,000 price the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker and his co-author Julio Elias estimated would be necessary to eliminate the kidney shortage altogether.

In a column for the Federalist, Liz Wolfe makes the case that she should be allowed to help others by selling a kidney.

Four thousand dollars is my price, I think. … But I can’t do any of this because the government says it’s wrong. You know what else is wrong? Having 43,000 people die annually due to the current kidney shortage in our country. I’d love to help, but I don’t currently have a huge incentive to do so. …kidney-selling should be a person’s choice to make. …the naysayer might argue, isn’t autonomy undermined by desperation? Can consent truly take place if someone is debating between a set of imperfect options—selling an organ and profiting handsomely versus starving to death? …That would be more compelling if we didn’t already allow poor people to work in horribly dangerous industries for money. …Commercial fishing has a very high mortality rate and relatively low median wages. Roofers, garbage collectors (and recyclables collectors), construction workers, iron and steel workers, electricians, and truck drivers all have high mortality rates as well. Government does not intervene to protect these people from working in these industries… Either desperation undermines autonomy and invalidates consent or it doesn’t, but we should be more consistent. …Since we’re failing at pure altruism, maybe it’s time we turn to cold, hard cash as a better way to save lives.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Hans Bader looks specifically at kidney transplants.

Kidney failure shouldn’t be a death sentence. But for thousands of people, it is, thanks to federal laws banning organ sales. Those laws radically shrink the supply of kidneys and other organs that people desperately need to stay alive. …a recent study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, titled “The Terrible Toll of the Kidney Shortage”…notes that the “106,000” people “who do not receive a transplant” due to the current kidney shortage “are fated to live an average of 5 years on dialysis therapy before dying prematurely.” …kidney donor Alexander Berger…predicted that allowing kidney donors to be compensated would save countless lives by giving people an incentive to donate their kidneys, resulting in a vast increase in kidney donations. …the taxpayers would save money, too. The government would be able to simply pay for kidney transplants for poor and elderly people…rather than paying for years and years of costly dialysis treatment through Medicare and Medicaid.

The bottom line is that paying donors would be good for sick people and good for taxpayers (Medicaid and Medicare are two of the most burdensome programs in the budget).

Sadly, politicians are standing in the way. But one potential seller has launched a court case.

John Bellocchio is suing the federal government to gain the freedom to sell his organs, as reported in the New York Post by Priscilla DeGregory.

A New Jersey man is suing the federal government for the right to sell his own organs — challenging a US law that bans the practice, new court papers show. John Bellocchio, 37, of Oakland filed the suit against United States Attorney General Merrick Garland in Manhattan federal court Thursday. He says in the suit that he struggled financially and looked into offloading some of his organs — perhaps a kidney — only to find out it’s illegal to make a buck on your body parts. Bellocchio, a career academic who now owns a business that helps connect people with service dogs, argues that the law contravenes his constitutional right to freedom of contract in determining what can be done with his own personal property — or, more specifically, his own body.

Christian Britschgi wrote about this legal challenge for Reason, but also made lots of strong arguments for why organ sales should be legal.

…the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA)…makes it a crime for anyone to “acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human organ for valuable consideration for use in human transplantation if the transfer affects interstate commerce.” Violators of this ban face a maximum fine of $50,000 and up to five years in prison. That prohibition has left the 90,000 patients in need of a kidney on the national transplant list…it’s estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people die for want of a kidney transplant each year. Many more are left to undergo expensive, draining dialysis treatment. Medicare, which covers kidney patients of all ages, spent $81 billion on patients with chronic kidney disease in 2018. Medicare-related spending on patients with end-stage renal disease totaled $49.2 billion that same year.

As you probably figured out, most of the opposition to organ sales is from people who inexplicably feel squeamish or uncomfortable with the notion of using money to save lives.

But you know what’s even more important for life than a kidney? Food.

Yet that doesn’t stop us from utilizing private farms, private food processors, and private grocery stores in order to get lots of food at very cheap prices.

And even the limited intervention in this sector (farm subsidies and food stamps, for instance) have nothing to do with qualms about private provision of food.

So let’s be rational and humane by allowing markets for organ sales.

Read Full Post »

Last night’s train-wreck debate reinforced my disdain for politicians.

But let’s ignore the immature theatrics from Trump and Biden and focus on one of their policy disagreements.

The two candidates squabbled over whether creating a government-administered health plan (see page 31 for a description of Biden’s so-called  “public option“) would lead to the demise of the current system of employer-provided health insurance.

For what it’s worth, there are two big reasons why I’m not a fan of the current employer-based system.

That being said, I’m very aware of the fact that politicians are always capable of making things worse (the “lather-rinse-repeat cycle” of government failure).

So let’s consider this key question: Government intervention has made our health system expensive and inefficient, but would a “public option” make things better or worse?

About two months ago, I shared this video which explains why the so-called public option will wind up being an expensive boondoggle.

Given the track record of health entitlements, I think the video you just watched is correct. A public option would be a fiscal nightmare.

But does that mean it also would be a threat to the employer-based system of private health insurance?

I think the answer is yes, largely because the subsidies that will make the system more expensive are also the subsidies that will make the public option seem like a good deal.

Let’s use two analogies to get this point across.

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dominate housing finance, not because government-created entities are efficient, but because they use subsidies from the federal government to under-price private competitors.
  • Parents know private schools produce much better educational outcomes than government schools, but most families opt for the inferior option because it’s already being financed by their tax dollars.

I fear the same thing will happen with the so-called public option. Politicians (in their never-ending efforts to but votes) will keep increasing the subsidies. That will make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

And there will also be political pressure to provide an ever-more-extensive set of benefits (as illustrated by the cartoon). That will also make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

The net result of all this is that even though the vast majority of workers are happy with their current employer-provided health plans, Biden’s public option will slowly but surely squeeze them out of the market.

The bottom line is that we’ll wind up with single-payer, government-run healthcare, but politicians would be sneaking it in the back door.

Read Full Post »

Last November, I criticized Nancy Pelosi’s scheme to impose European-style price controls on pharmaceutical drugs in the United States.

I wasn’t the only one who objected to Pelosi’s reckless idea.

We have forty centuries of experience demonstrating that price controls don’t work. The inevitable result is shortages and diminished production (sellers won’t produce sufficient quantities of a product if they are forced to lose money on additional sales).

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal also was not a fan of Pelosi’s proposal

Here’s some of the paper’s editorial on the adverse impact of her proposed intervention.

Mrs. Pelosi’s legislation would direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to “negotiate” a “fair price” with drug manufacturers… Any company that refuses to negotiate would get slapped with a 65% excise tax on its annual gross sales that would escalate by 10% each quarter. Yes, 65% on sales. …The bill also sets a starting point for Medicare negotiations at 1.2 times the average price of drugs in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.—all of which have some form of socialized health system. …foreign price controls have reduced access to breakthrough treatments. …Price controls are also a prescription for less innovation since they reduce the payoff on risky research and development. …Only about 12% of molecules that enter clinical testing ultimately obtain FDA approval, and those successes have to pay for the 88% that fail. …Price controls would hamper competition by slowing new drug development. The U.S. accounts for most of the world’s pharmaceutical research and development, so there would be fewer breakthrough therapies for rare pediatric genetic disorders, cancers or hearing loss.

A damning indictment of knee-jerk interventionism, to put it mildly.

Well, a bad idea from Democrats such as price controls doesn’t magically become a good idea simply because it subsequently gets pushed by a Republican (unless, of course, you qualify as a partisan as defined by my Ninth Theorem of Government).

Unfortunately, we now have a new example of bipartisan foolishness.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity opined on President Trump’s misguided plan to adopt European-style price controls.

…other nations have been free riders on America’s innovative pharmaceutical industry. …they have enacted socialist price controls to limit what they pay knowing that the largest market would pick up the slack to ensure a steady supply of new lifesaving drugs. It needs to stop, but President Trump’s recent executive order is not the right way to do it. …his “Most Favored Nations” Executive Order to…limit…prescription medication payments made through Medicare… But this is a flawed way of thinking about the problem. Other nations are…engaging in theft via price controls. …drugs can take months or even a year longer to arrive in countries with socialist healthcare systems. Patients suffer as a result… Another likely consequence is less innovation. Some drugs in this new price environment will no longer be cost effective to be developed. Patients again will suffer. …Getting foreign jurisdictions to pay for their share of pharmaceutical innovation by putting a stop to price manipulation is a noble goal. But it should not come at the expense U.S. industry and patients.

A study by Doug Badger for the Galen Institute points out that the Trump Administration’s approach – for all intents and purposes – would use Obamacare’s so-called Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to impose foreign price controls on prescription drugs in the United States.

The Affordable Care Act created CMMI and vested it with extraordinary powers. …The statute also shields CMMI projects against administrative and judicial review. …two HHS secretaries have claimed authority under CMMI to mandate a Medicare Part B payment mechanism without having to seek new legislation. …the Trump administration issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) announcing its intention to propose a far more sweeping Medicare Part B drug demonstration project….to…scrap the ASP Medicare reimbursement methodology in favor of one based on drug prices paid in other countries. …CMS is considering the establishment of an “international price index” (IPI). It would calculate the IPI based on the average price per standard unit of a drug in select foreign countries.

This is troubling for several reasons.

…the other countries on the proposed list have lower living standards than do Americans, as measured by per capita household disposable income… The median disposable per-capita income in the IPI countries is thus about one-third less than in the U.S. …Medicare reimbursement for physician-administered drugs would largely be based on international reference prices in which the regulatory agency of one government sets drug prices based at least in part on those set by regulatory agencies in other countries. …for all the different payment methodologies Congress has devised for medical goods and services, it has never based reimbursement on prices that prevail in foreign countries. The agency’s role is to implement congressionally-established reimbursement systems, not to create them out of whole cloth.

As you might expect, the Wall Street Journal has also weighed in on Trump’s plan.

The editorial points out there will be very adverse consequences if the President imposes European-style price controls.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order that could make…life-saving therapies less likely. Mr. Trump has been threatening drug makers for months with government price controls. …The President’s order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to require drug makers to give Medicare the “most favored nation” (i.e., lowest) price that other economically developed countries pay. …This ignores some crucial details. …Other countries also have to wait longer for breakthrough therapies, which is one reason the U.S. has much higher cancer survival rates. …The larger reality is that developing novel therapies isn’t cheap and can take years—sometimes decades—of research. Most products in clinical pipelines fail, and even those that succeed aren’t guaranteed to produce a profit. …The risk for all Americans is that drug makers will shelve therapies for hard-to-treat diseases that are in the early stages of development because of the high failure rate and low expected profit. This risk is most acute for therapies that treat rarer forms of diseases… The victims will be the cancer patients of the future, including perhaps some reading this editorial.

The bottom line, as I noted in the above interview and as many others have observed, is that other nations are free-riding on American consumers.

They get access to most of the drugs at low prices (since pharmaceuticals are cheap to produce once they are finally approved).

But the net result, as I tried to illustrate in this modified image, is that American consumers finance the lion’s share of new research and development.

This isn’t fair.

But we’d be jumping from the frying pan into the fire if we had European-type price controls that stifled innovation by pharmaceutical companies.

Sure, we’d enjoy lower prices in the short run, but we would have fewer life-saving drugs in the future.

P.S. There’s an analogy between prescription drugs and NATO since Americans bear a disproportionate share of costs for both. However, there’s a strong argument that there’s no longer a need for NATO. By contrast, I don’t think anyone thinks it would be a good idea to stifle the development of new drugs.

P.P.S. As an alternative, a friend has been urging me to support the idea of using the coercive power of government to mandate that American-based pharmaceutical companies charge market prices when selling overseas – an approach that would give foreign governments a choice of paying more or not getting the drugs. That seems like a better approach, at least in theory, but my friend has no answer when I point out that those companies would then have an incentive to leave the United States (as many firms did before Trump lowered the corporate tax rate to improve U.S. competitiveness).

Read Full Post »

I’ve shared many videos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) explaining how government has made America’s health system expensive and inefficient. I especially recommend my 2019 speech to the European Resource Bank.

Now let’s add this video to our collection.

One lesson to take from all these videos is that the main problem with America’s health care system is multiple forms of government intervention (MedicareMedicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

And the main symptom of all that intervention is pervasive “third-party payer,” which is the term for a system where people buy goods and services with other people’s money.

And guess what happens when people go shopping with other people’s money?

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that third-party payer leads to higher costs.

One of the reasons that the costs of medical care services in the US have increased more than twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage of health care costs are paid out-of-pocket by consumers. …It’s no big surprise that overall health care costs have continued to rise over time as the share of third-party payments has risen to almost 90% and the out-of-pocket share approaches 10%. Consumers of health care have significantly reduced incentives to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical and hospital services when they pay only about $1 out of every $10 spent themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t paying out-of-pocket and aren’t price sensitive.

The best part of his article is when he compares cosmetic medical care to regular medical care to show how market forces – when allowed – lead to lower costs in the health sector.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients typically paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms.

Here’s Mark’s chart showing how costs have changed over the past 20 years.

Pay special attention to the bottom right, where I’ve highlighted in red  how competition and markets have lowered relative prices for cosmetic care – which starkly contrasts with the health sectors where government plays a dominant role.

Singapore seems to have the most-market-oriented system in the world.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, George Shultz and Vidar Jorgensen explain that the system is successful because people spend their own money.

If the U.S. wants lower costs, better outcomes, faster innovation and universal access, it should look to the country that has the closest thing to a functioning health-care market: Singapore. The city-state spends only 5% of GDP on medical care but has considerably better health outcomes than the U.S. …What does Singapore do that’s so effective? …All health-care providers in Singapore must post their prices and outcomes so buyers can judge the cost and quality. …Singaporeans are required to fund HSAs through a system called MediSave and to purchase catastrophic health insurance. As a result, patients spend their own money on health care and get to pocket any savings. …The combination of transparency and financial incentives has led to price and quality competition so intense that health-care costs are 75% lower in Singapore than in the U.S. …Singapore’s system of health-care finance shouldn’t seem foreign to Americans, nor should we doubt that it could work here. The U.S. has already seen that the combination of competition and price transparency can be successful: Witness the falling prices for Lasik and cosmetic surgery, which aren’t covered by insurance.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share this OECD data showing that almost all other member nations are better than the United States on this issue.

No wonder heathcare is more expensive in the United States.

P.S. There’s also more government spending on healthcare in the United States, per capita, than there is in almost every other nation.

P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also has led to higher costs and widespread inefficiency in higher education.

Read Full Post »

Even though Joe Biden has embraced a very left-wing agenda, I suspect many of the items on his wish list are designed to placate Bernie-type activists who have considerable influence in the Democratic Party.

As such, I don’t think Biden will push “Medicare for All” if he’s elected. But I fear he may support a “public option” that is less radical but still misguided.

The strongest argument in the video is that a government-created competitor to private insurance companies will be much more expensive than politicians are promising.

This is what always happens with government programs (see Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare) because politicians have a never-ending incentive to buy votes with other people’s money. And it will happen with any new program.

But I think the video overlooks an argument that would be even more politically effective, which is the fact that a public option would slowly but surely begin to strangle employer-based health insurance.

Simply stated, vote-buying politicians will deliberately under-price the cost of the public option. And the presence of a subsidized and under-priced government health plan will make employer-based policies less attractive over time – especially since the subsidies almost certainly will expand.

However, people generally like their employer-based health plans and presumably will be skeptical of any plan that threatens that system (and it’s probably safe to assume that health insurance companies will have an incentive to educate people about that likely outcome).

By the way, it’s not my intention to defend the employer-based system, which largely exists because of a foolish loophole in the tax code. As far as I’m concerned, that system is a convoluted and inefficient mess that has contributed to the health care system’s third-party payer crisis.

What we need is a restoration of free markets in health care.

But with the public option, the best-case scenario is that many people over time will get pushed from the top line of this image to the bottom line.

And that’s also the worst-case scenario since no problems will be fixed, but overall costs will be even higher thanks to greater government involvement.

For what it’s worth, some advocates of the public option claim it can actually save money by lowering reimbursement rates to doctors and hospitals. That could happen in theory, but exploding costs for Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare show that it doesn’t happen in reality.

The bottom line is that more government intervention in health care won’t solve the problems caused by existing levels of government intervention in health care (a tragic example of Mitchell’s Law). Which is why I fear that the public option ultimately would be a slow-motion version of Medicare for All.

Read Full Post »

Last October, before coronavirus became the world’s dominant issue, I shared this clever Remy video to help make the point that policies designed to save lives can go too far. Indeed, if they do enough harm to the economy, they can actually cause additional death.

I’ve written about this tradeoff in the context of the coronavirus, pointing out that policymakers should look at total deaths, not just deaths from the virus.

In a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Professors Antony Davies and James Harrigan elaborate on these tradeoffs.

In times of crisis, people want someone to do something, and don’t want to hear about tradeoffs. This is the breeding ground for grand policies driven by the mantra, “if it saves just one life.” …Rational people understand this isn’t how the world works. …Unfortunately, even mentioning tradeoffs in a time of crisis brings the accusation that only heartless beasts would balance human lives against dollars. …Five-thousand Americans die each year from choking on solid food. We could save every one of those lives by mandating that all meals be pureed. Pureed food isn’t appetizing, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. …Legislating…these things would be ridiculous, and most sane people know as much. How do we know? Because each of us makes choices like these every day that increase the chances of our dying. …The uncomfortable truth is that no policy can save lives; it can only trade lives. Good policies result in a net positive tradeoff. But we have no idea whether the tradeoff is a net positive until we take a sober look at the cost of saving lives. …It’s time we took a sober look at what this shutdown is costing us.

Opining for the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Sternberg warns that all options are bad, but herd immunity may be the least-worst approach.

The experts might have been right the first time. …The stated goal was not to vanquish the virus but merely to try to control its spread so as not to overwhelm health-care systems. …Those opinions now are widely derided, often in insulting terms. Yet subsequent events suggest they’re mainly correct. …The trouble started in mid-March when “herd immunity,” previously the tacit or acknowledged endgame for most of the world, became a toxic phrase. Critics pointed out that allowing the virus to spread in a controlled manner would cost lives. …But if those experts have a more plausible plan than taking a controlled path to herd immunity, the world is waiting to hear it. …A vaccine is a year or more in the future, if one ever emerges. An effective mass test-and-trace regime would require a level of competence and focus that typically eludes modern governments.

The tradeoffs are especially important in poor countries.

A new report in South Africa, largely prepared by actuaries, finds that the health costs of the lockdown could be 29 times greater than the health costs of the virus. Here are some details in a story published by the Financial Mail.

The lockdown will lead to 29 times more lives lost than the harm it seeks to prevent from Covid-19 in SA, according to…a new model developed by local actuaries. …They have sent a letter…to President Cyril Ramaphosa…they call for an end to the lockdown, a focus on isolating the elderly and allowing children to go back to school, while ensuring the economy restarts so that lives can be saved. …The actuaries used a model comparing “years of lives lost” from Covid-19, to “years of lives lost” from the lockdown. …their model translated into a minimum of 26,800 “years of lives lost” due to Covid-19, and a maximum of 473,500 years. …The actuaries then used the figures predicted by the National Treasury to model the impact on poverty. … their model showed that the number of years lost owing to the economic contraction caused by lockdown lies between 14-million and 24-million.

I have no idea, of course, whether these numbers are correct. Especially since even the world’s biggest experts are still learning about the disease.

But the underlying methodology is sensible. Policies that cause a weaker economy (and South Africa already has plenty of those) will make a country poorer and its people poorer.

And poorer people in poorer nations will die at younger ages.

Somebody sent me this image, which helps to capture the health costs of lockdowns.

P.S. Back in 2012, I pointed out that the economy’s sub-par performance under Obama would lead to almost 60,000 premature deaths. I openly acknowledged that this back-of-the-envelope calculation was very speculative, but what’s not speculation is that richer societies are healthier societies.

Read Full Post »

Having already written several dozen columns on public policy and the coronavirus, it’s time to add my two cents to the debate over Sweden’s (comparatively) laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

If nothing else, it’s remarkable that the nation Bernie Sanders praised for socialism (albeit incorrectly) is now the poster child for (some) libertarians.

What makes Sweden special, as depicted in this graphic from CNN, is a more lenient attitude about letting ordinary life continue.

Did Sweden make the right choice?

Let’s review several analyses, starting with Hilary Brueck’s article for Business Insider.

In Sweden, bars and restaurants are open to the public, you can go get a haircut, and primary school is in session. …life goes on. …If anyone can have success with such a low-enforcement disease-fighting strategy, it may be Sweden. …The Swedish prerogative asks citizens to act like adults, and then trusts that, left to their own devices, people will. …The Swedes are also seriously weighing concerns that have been taken as inevitable, if unfortunate, collateral damage in other countries, such as the mental health risks of being stuck inside, rising rates of abuse, and substance use disorders. …Other countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, originally toyed with the idea… Both were accused of heartlessness: sacrificing the old and vulnerable… But Sweden has persevered. …The economy has…taken a hit. …8% of the country is now unemployed, a figure that’s projected to continue to rise, possibly hitting 10% by this summer.

Writing for Reason, Johan Norberg explains his nation’s strategy.

The Swedish government has declared no state of emergency and no orders to shelter in place. …Those who want to show how great Sweden is doing have produced charts comparing us to countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. Those who want to prove the opposite replace those countries with Norway, Denmark, and Finland, all of which have fewer deaths. …Sweden has had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than our Nordic neighbors. But that is an obvious result of those countries’ decisions to postpone cases and deaths by locking down whole societies for a period of time. The thing to watch is what happens when they begin to open up again and will face a new wave of COVID-19. …A Harvard model projects that a 60 percent suppression of the disease will result in a higher peak later on and a higher number of total deaths than a mitigation strategy like the one Sweden used, where the spread is reduced by no more than 20 or 40 percent, so that the disease can pass through the population to create herd immunity during a period when the vulnerable are protected. Other models come to other conclusions, of course… We just don’t know yet, and only time will tell. Herd immunity might yet beat herd mentality. …our economy still hurts… But losing two-thirds of your revenue rather than 100 percent might mean the difference between life and death for many entrepreneurs. …Perhaps Sweden will do worse long term… Or perhaps Sweden is the one place that is succeeding in limiting long-term damage, caring for the sick, and protecting the vulnerable, all while working toward herd immunity. …What we do know is that Sweden has not cracked down on basic liberties like others have, and has not wrecked society and the economy to the same extent.

In a column for the New York Times, Ian Bremmer, Cliff Kupchan, and Scott Rosenstein cast doubt on Sweden’s approach.

In Sweden, business is not actually proceeding as usual. …But restrictions from government are considerably less severe than many other countries. …The results have been mixed. Sweden has the highest fatalities and case count per capita in Scandinavia, but is lower than some of its neighbors to the south. Economic disruption has been significant but not as debilitating as other countries. …the nation’s top infectious disease official recently estimated that approximately 25 percent of the population has developed antibodies. …But if immunity is short-lived and only present in some individuals, that already uncertain 25 percent becomes even less compelling. We also still don’t know what total population percentage would be necessary to reach the herd immunity goal. …there are huge risks with copying the strategy in a country like the United States. The American people are far less healthy than Swedes.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about Sweden’s strategy.

While its neighbors and the rest of Europe imposed strict lockdowns, Stockholm has taken a relatively permissive approach. It has focused on testing and building up health-care capacity while relying on voluntary social distancing, which Swedes have embraced. The country isn’t a free-for-all. Restaurants and bars remain open, though only for table service. Younger students are still attending school, but universities have moved to remote learning. …the country’s strategy…is to contain the virus enough to not overwhelm its health system. …Sweden has been clear it is aiming for a “sustainable” strategy that it can practice until there is a vaccine or cure while also being economically tolerable. The lockdown countries have held the virus in relative check for now, though probably with less broad immunity in the population. They appear to be delaying some deaths but at the risk of a larger outbreak once they open up if there is no cure. …No one knows which mitigation strategy will save the most lives while doing the least economic harm. But the rush to condemn Sweden isn’t helpful.

In a column for National Review, John Fund and Joel Hay argue for the Swedish approach.

With a death rate significantly lower than that of France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Italy, and other European Union countries, Swedes can enjoy the spring without panic or fears of reigniting a new epidemic as they go about their day in a largely normal fashion. …Dr. Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist of Sweden, …heroically bucked the conventional wisdom of every other nation and carefully examined the insubstantial evidence that social-isolation controls would help reduce COVID-19 deaths over the full course of the virus. …Tegnell has looked at other nations that are loosening their lockdowns. “To me it looks like a lot of the exit strategies that are being discussed look very much like what Sweden is already doing,” he told Canada’s Globe & Mail. …Jan Albert, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Tumor, and Cell Biology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, told CNN that strict lockdowns “only serve to flatten the curve, and flattening the curve doesn’t mean that cases disappear — they are just moved in time.” …Initially, the main justification for the global lockdowns was that they were necessary to prevent a crush of patients from overwhelming hospital intensive-care units. …Despite no lockdowns and few social-isolation controls other than proper spacing in restaurants and a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, the Swedish hospital system never experienced anything remotely like the crush of ICU patients in Italy, Spain, and New York City. …Of course, Sweden paid a price during the pandemic. …they will tell you it was worth it. And it is easy to figure out that price. They never cratered their economy… Now many countries and U.S. states are beginning to follow Sweden’s lead.

So who is right, the optimists or the pessimists?

The honest answer is that we don’t know, though it probably depends on how quickly (if ever) someone develops either a vaccine or a cure.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope comparison of Sweden’s laissez-faire approach and the lock-down approach in the United States.

In the short run, Sweden has more cases and less economic damage.

But what really matters is how things evolve in the long run. If no vaccine or treatment materializes, then other nations will eventually be forced to copy Sweden’s approach. That presumably will mean a similar number of cases over time, so all the additional short-run economic damage will have been pointless.

But if a vaccine or treatment appears relatively soon, then people presumably will conclude that Sweden made the wrong choice (though even that will be a matter for debate depending on the degree to which people understand the long-run relationship between health outcomes and national prosperity).

Read Full Post »

I’ve shared plenty of jokes about how America is getting a trial run of life under socialism thanks to the coronavirus.

But, as discussed in this interview, there are some very serious issues relating to economic policy during a pandemic.

I started the interview by stating that we’re in uncharted territory. And I openly acknowledge I’m not an expert on epidemiology in general or the coronavirus in particular. (And neither are the politicians and pundits who dominate Washington, even if they pretend otherwise.)

Which is why, in this list of four takeaways from the interview, I start with the need for more information.

1. Testing is key – We desperately need to get the economy going again, but that’s not going to happen until we know the extent of the disease. Without that information, I suspect it won’t matter whether politicians officially lift the lockdowns. Many individuals won’t go back to work because of concerns about personal safety and many businesses won’t reopen because of concerns about things such as liability and profitability.

2. The FDA and CDC have failed – As I stated in the interview (and as I’ve repeatedly stated in my columns), the Washington bureaucracies have hindered an effective and rapid response to the coronavirus. We need to get rid of the rules and red tape that prevent the private sector from responding to the demand for tests.

3. Be concerned about a long-run expansion in the burden government – I’m extremely worried about the coronavirus being the pretext for a permanent expansion in Washington’s power over the private sector.

A column in today’s Wall Street Journal by former Senator Phil Gramm, along with Mike Solon, echoes my fears.

…even in a time of bitter partisanship, consensus can almost always be found in a crisis to spend a large sum of taxpayer money. …politicians and interest groups have…sought to use the crisis to expand permanently government spending and the role government plays in the aftermath. …Based on the massive programs already adopted and the decision to use the Fed as a crisis lender, the role of government in post-coronavirus America will be significantly expanded. …the capacity of private businesses and banks to lead the recovery could be smothered. …The government would direct the recovery and the Fed would allocate credit. Is that a future most Americans want to fight for?

4. An extended economic shutdown is bad for health outcomes – I wrote about this issue last month, explaining that a weak economy leads to adverse consequences for health and longevity.

Andrew Sullivan succinctly captured this painful tradeoff in his column for New York.

There are costs to this collective exercise in empathy and compassion. You contemplate the rising chances of a long and devastating global depression. You look ahead to months and months more of quarantine, empty streets, crippled businesses, shrinking retirement savings, and rising poverty. And you realize that our choice for life over wealth is a little more complicated. There will come a point at which we will have to risk some lives to reopen and save the economy. …in principle, at some point, there will be a crossover moment when quarantine and lockdown cease to have the net-positive impact they are now having.

If you want more information, click on any of these stories and tweets and you’ll learn more about why there is a very legitimate concern.

Let’s close with excerpts from a column by Tim Worstall for the U.K.-based CapX.

…there are no solutions, only trade-offs. There are costs to everything just as there are benefits and the task is to balance them… This is not to make the mistake of claiming that money, share prices and asset values outweigh lives. Rather, it’s to point that GDP is the sum of economic activity, production, incomes and consumption. If that falls 15% that means we are are all significantly poorer – and that poverty will kill people as surely as the virus is doing. …It’s also why the NHS limits access to treatments to those which cost less than £30,000 (or £50,000 for some diseases) per quality adjusted life year gained. …healthcare is something society spends more of its income upon as incomes rise. Naturally, a richer country will spend a higher portion of GDP on health care than a poorer one. …The optimal point is to balance spending on maintaining human life, while avoiding the damage to those same lives caused by a slump in economic activity. …The aim now is to…minimise overall deaths from all causes. To my mind, a six month shutdown risks missing that target by tipping the world into a depression that is more damaging than the disease itself.

Tim is right.

If politicians impose too many restrictions on the economy, we can lose more lives in the long run.

Which is why this Venn Diagram accurately shows where I am. And hopefully where everyone is.

P.S. This lesson about tradeoffs applies to all types of government policy, not just the coronavirus (cleverly captured in the Remy video at the end of this column).

Read Full Post »

Near the beginning of the croronavirus crisis, I observed that “government-run health systems have not done a good job” of dealing with the pandemic.

And I’ve repeatedly noted the failure of government bureaucracies to respond effectively in the United States.

Is there, perhaps, a lesson to be learned about what happens when politicians get more control of the health sector?

Let’s consider the different experiences of two European nations.

Kai Wess of the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna has a column for CapX on the performance of the German system.

…the responses of national governments to the crisis have been starkly different. …Germany’s approach is particularly interesting. …the death rate of Germany has been hovering around 0.2% to 0.5% for the entirety of March, only rising to the current 1.1% in the last days after deaths spiked in the first days of April. And yet, 1.1% is still light years away from Spain’s 8.7% Italy’s 11.7%, Britain’s 7.11%, and France’s 6.8%. …Germany’s lockdown has also been somewhat more lenient than in other European countries. …So why is Germany doing comparatively well? For one thing, mass testing has taken place for weeks… The second key factor is the good condition of Germany’s health sector. The number of critical care beds in Germany previously stood at 29.2 per 100,000 inhabitants – the highest of the countries most affected by Covid-19 other than the US (34.7). …why does Germany have these testing capacities? And why is the health sector so well-equipped? One of the main answers is that, at least relatively speaking, Germany’s health sector is more decentralised and leaves more room for competition… Germany does not have an NHS-style one-size-fits-all approach, but an insurance-based system. Everyone has to have health care and the government bears the cost for poorer patients. …there is competition between different insurance plans and individuals can pick their preferred plan. The health sector’s revenue comes from the premiums paid by patients as well as their employer – not through state funding. …The testing system has also been very decentralised, with a mixture of government agencies, private enterprise, and research organisations working on expanding testing capabilities – indeed, the January test was made possible by a private biotech entrepreneur. …when it comes to testing, Germany does not have a centralised diagnostic system, but a network of local authorities. As Christian Drosten explain, “Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests.”

Now let’s look at the performance of National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

Writing for the Telegraph, Charles Moore opines on its less-than-impressive track record.

The Government’s policy of lockdown is in significant part dictated by the demands not of patients, but of the NHS, and by its lack of adaptability and readiness. …A significant reason for the slow development, arrival and use of the antigen tests (“Have I got it?”) and the antibody tests (“Have I had it?”) seems to be the reluctance of the health service, and of Public Health England, to look outside their own spheres for help. In a culture almost proudly hostile to the private sector and mistrustful of independent academic work, the NHS’s first instinct is to defend bureaucratic territory. …the NHS belatedly admitted within government that it had failed to get enough ventilators. …University College Hospital, Formula I and Mercedes Benz got together to produce the CPAP… Next week, the repurposed Mercedes Benz F1 factory in Brixworth expects to produce 1,000 CPAPs a day. …the amazing 4,000-bed capacity Nightingale field hospital at the ExCeL centre in east London, opened yesterday… For two weeks after it was proposed, NHS top brass opposed it. When they finally admitted they needed it, the Army and the private contractors were the ones who made it happen in nine days. …Ten days ago, government contacts found the only company in Britain with expertise in making reagent for antigen swab tests. The firm was put on to the NHS, but at the time of writing, the health service had still not had a conversation with it. …That system is the problem. …The defects are baked into our system of national bureaucratic command. People have noticed that Germany has been more successful in managing the virus spread through testing. This is not a coincidence. Germany does not have our lumbering central diagnostic system, because it does not have, in our sense, a national health service.

These two columns are very instructive, not only because they show the adverse consequences of too much government, but also because they show that there are big differences in European health systems.

Many people have the (very!) inaccurate belief that the United States has a market-based system. And many of them also share the mistaken belief that all European nations have systems where everything is financed and provided by government.

In reality, there’s a wide divergence of policies across the globe.

Back in 2013, I created a back-of-the-envelope “Freedom Meter” to illustrate how Obamacare was best viewed as in incremental step on a long (and well-traveled) road to a government-dominated health care system.

Simply stated, we already greatly reduced the role of markets thanks to a range of programs and policies (Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

Obamacare simply added another layer of taxes, spending, and regulation.

I actually suspect many nations that supposedly have “government-run healthcare” actually would be closer to the free-market side of the Freedom Meter than the United States.

Sort of like what I’m depicting in this revised, worldwide version.

Though I admit I’m just guessing that Germany and Switzerland might be better than the United States.

What we really need is the healthcare equivalent of what the Tax Foundation does with its State Business Tax Climate Index and its International Tax Competitiveness Index.

Only instead of a fiscal ranking based on factors such as income taxes, business taxes, property taxes, and consumption taxes, we’d have a health ranking based on factors such as third-party payer, degree of centralization, consumer choice, regulatory burden, financing mechanisms, and extent of direct government provision.

If anybody’s aware of anything like this, please share.

Read Full Post »

I wrote about “Coronavirus and Big Government” on March 22 and then followed up on March 27 with “Coronavirus and Big Government, Part II.”

Now it’s time for the third installment, and we’ll start with this hard-hitting video from Reason, which shows how red tape has hindered the development and deployment of testing in the United States.

Next, here are a bunch of stories and tweets about the deadly impact of bureaucracy and regulation.

As with the Part I and Part II, feel free to click on any of the stories for the details.

By the way, the problem of excessive government exists in other nations.

Here are two tweets about the situation in the United Kingdom.

The first one deals with having to get government approval for medical devices.

The second one deals with how politicians and bureaucrats have misallocated public health resources – similarly to some of the foolish misadventures of the FDA and CDC (and let’s not forget the World Health Organization).

I’ll close with another story from the United States.

This report from Reason is especially useful because it contains a 30-minute interview with Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. So if you liked the short video at the start of this column, you’ll definitely want to click through and watch this video.

The message here isn’t that government shouldn’t exist. As I wrote earlier this month, collective action is appropriate to protect life, liberty, and property. Needless to say, that libertarian principle applies during a pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean government should be micro-managing everything.

In normal times, excessive regulation is a costly nuisance because things cost more and take longer.

In a crisis, however, that means needless death and suffering. Which is exactly what’s happening today.

Let’s hope the folks in Washington learn from this awful experience.

P.S. Another lesson to be learned is the Seventh Theorem of Government.

Read Full Post »

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed a bunch of coronavirus-related issues, ranging from big-picture topics such as the proper role of government and the catastrophic downsides of excessive bureaucracy to more-focused topics such as how gun control puts families at risk, why laws against “price gouging” are misguided, and how government-encouraged debt makes the economy more vulnerable.

The crisis even led me to unveil a new theorem. And I also shared some amusing cartoons in hopes of lightening the mood.

The latest chapter in the coronavirus saga is that people are beginning to question how much economic damage we should be willing to accept in order to get the disease under control.

Public health experts argue that isolation and lockdown are critical if we we to “flatten the curve” so that new cases don’t overwhelm the ability of the system to treat patients (thus resulting in unpalatable forms of triage, with older and sicker patients set aside to die so that limited resources can be utilized to save others).

But if the economy is put on hold for several months, the economic damage will be catastrophic. At some point, policy makers won’t have any choice but to relax restrictions on people and businesses.

So how do we assess the costs and benefits of various options?

Eline van den Broek-Altenburg and Adam Atherly, both from the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, explain the necessary tradeoffs.

While a growing number of people are starting to understand the message of the intuitive picture of “Flattening The Curve”, some health economists are starting to wonder how flat the curve should actually be for the benefits to exceed the costs. …how does the economic cost of the flattening fit into the discussion? …we use publicly available data to calculate the cost effectiveness of the flattening the curve. …When considering the value of a healthcare intervention to inform decision-making, benefits are usually measured in terms of life years gained, with the life years adjusted for the “quality” of the life (using standard formulas) to create a “Quality Adjusted Life Year” or QALY. …interventions in younger populations will typically yield more QALYs than interventions in older populations: because younger people have longer life expectancy. …Heath systems then compare the QALYs gained to the cost and calculate a cost per QALY gained. In the United States, interventions that cost less than $100,000 per QALY gained are often considered “cost effective,” although the precise number is somewhat controversial.

What you just read is the theoretical framework.

The authors then apply the model to the current situation.

…is the current “stay at home” and social isolation-policy, with school closed and businesses shuttered, cost effective using the standard health economics framework? …The years of life-gains are relatively straightforward. …statistics on the people who died of COVID19 in China and Italy are the best source of currently available data. …The average 80-year old in the United States has a life expectancy of about 9 years, suggesting that on average, a death averted will “buy” 9 extra years of life. …If we use diabetes as a reasonable proxy for the many chronic diseases, we would adjust the 9 years down to 7.8 years or QALYs. In other words: the average loss per person of quality-adjusted life years is 7.8. …This implies the pandemic, if unchecked, will lead to a loss of between 1.56 million and 13.26 million QALYs. …What, then, is the cost of the intervention of social distancing? One easy estimate would be to use the cost of the current stimulus bill before congress — 1 trillion dollars. This is likely an underestimate of the true cost, but is a reasonable starting place. …the cost per QALY gained from the current approach to be somewhere between approximately $75,000 and $650,000.

So what’s the bottom line?

Here’s a graphic they prepared.

And here’s their explanation.

…the key variable is the expected number of deaths. A pandemic that is likely to lead to 1.7 million deaths can justify the enormous public costs. However, if the pandemic is in the lower end of the predicted range, then the public funds would have been more valuable if spent elsewhere. …Some claim it is impossible or even unethical in times of a crisis, to think about cost when lives are involved. But in a world of finite resources, it’s necessary to make choices. Why not use a framework that has been defended by governments and scientists for decades?

Richard Rahn, former Chief Economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is very explicit about the downsides of an economic shutdown for future generations.

Some government officials, politicians and commentators keep saying words to the effect, “we need to spend whatever it takes to stop the coronavirus deaths.” They, of course, do not literally mean the government should spend an infinite amount of money to save a life — because, if they did, we would not let people drive more than five miles an hour in order to save more than 35,000 Americans who die on the roadways each year. …What is missing in this discussion is what American taxpayers and workers in terms of job losses should spend to save each life… Such calculations are necessary for insurance companies to price their products correctly, and for all of those government agencies involved in health and safety to determine both the proper form and degree of regulation. …If we learn that a 35-year-old MD has unexpectedly passed away, we are likely to feel far worse about the tragedy than if we hear her 90-year-old grandfather has died.

That’s Richard’s conceptual framework.

Here are his calculations.

Let’s assume that the low-cost measures will result in 50,000 more deaths (which is almost certainly on the very high-side given the experience of other countries). If we value the average death at…$2,000,000 figure… (which is high, because of the advanced age of most of the coronavirus victims), then policies that cost taxpayers, and the hit to GDP, more than $100 billion are counterproductive. Even if you assume that my figures are off by a magnitude of three, the mitigation policies should not cost more than $300 billion — not trillions.

Jeffrey Polet, a political scientist at Hope College, also explores the adverse consequences of an economic lockdown.

A panicking public will produce bad consequences, and we are already seeing its destructive effects on our economy. …While the elderly and infirm are the most vulnerable populations, small businesses, low wage laborers, and less healthy social institutions are the most likely to succumb to the economic consequences of the reaction to the virus. …The result will be, as we already see, a call for more government programs to aid those made destitute by the government’s reactions. …collective overreacting has profound social, economic, and political effects. …Good leadership neither overreacts nor under-reacts but reacts sensibly. …Calling something a “pandemic” excites public fear, even if the majority of the population is unlikely to be either directly or indirectly harmed. …For many people in this country, the prospect of losing their business or their job is far more frightening and harmful than the prospect of getting infected with the virus. An already insolvent government is hardly in a position to get this economy up and running, particularly if its policies create massive economic dislocations. …One of the appeals of utilitarianism is that it actually provides a functioning calculus, however imperfect in implementation.

I’ll close with the observation that I want to err on the side of public health in the short run, though I confess I’m not even sure what that means in terms of public policy since we not only need to agree on how much a life is worth (an unpleasant number to consider), but also get a handle on how many lives might be at risk (a very speculative number).

The goal of today’s column is simply to point out that the tradeoffs are real and to applaud the people who have the honesty to write about the issue.

In the long run, we should all appreciate the overlooked point that there is no tradeoff between health outcomes and economic outcomes.

That’s because wealthier societies are healthier societies. Here are a couple of chart from an article I wrote for the Journal of Regulation and Social Costs way back in 1992.

I’ve written about this correlation many times, both as a general concept, and also when addressing specific topics such as the adverse impact of President Obama’s anti-growth policies (and I cited one of Obama’s top economic appointees, Cass Sunstein, who explicitly agrees about the link between health and wealth).

P.S. There’s a very amusing Remy video about health-and-wealth tradeoffs at the end of this column.

Read Full Post »

When the current health crisis heated up, I wrote a column on “Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism” and made four simple points.

  1. Libertarians believe government should protect life, liberty, and property
  2. Libertarians correctly warn that a big sprawling federal government means it is less capable of handling the few things it should be doing
  3. Other government-run health systems have not done a good job
  4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Today, I want to elaborate on point #4 by highlighting an avalanche of reports on how bureaucracy and red tape have been endangering our health.

Readers are welcome to click on some or all of the stories and tweets to learn more about how we’re at risk because of clumsy and inefficient government. Though if you’re pressed for time, this first story is the one to read.

And here are many more reports that confirm how government has largely been the source of problems rather than a solution.

For what it’s worth, the stories I shared above are just a small sampling. I could have shared dozens of additional reports.

But rather than beat a dead horse, let’s focus on the key takeaway from this tragedy. David Harsanyi of National Review nicely summarizes the lessons we should be learning.

…the coronavirus crisis has only strengthened my belief in limited-government conservatism — classical liberalism, libertarianism, whatever you want to call it. Years of government spending and expanding regulation have done nothing to make us safer during this emergency; in fact, our profligate spending during years of prosperity has probably constrained our ability to borrow now. …government does far too much of what it shouldn’t, and is far too incompetent at doing what it should. The CDC, an agency specifically created to prevent the spread of dangerous communicable diseases, has failed. Almost everyone would agree that its core mission should be under the bailiwick of government. Yet, for the past 40 years, its mission kept expanding as it spent billions of dollars and tons of manpower worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks and imploring you to do more jumping jacks. …The CDC — and other federal agencies such as the FDA — haven’t just moved too slowly in tapping the expertise of our academic and private sectors to fight COVID-19; they’ve actively impeded such private efforts. …The CDC didn’t merely botch the creation of a COVID-19 test, it failed to turn to private companies that could have created a test faster and better. …I’d simply like government to do much less much better.

David’s final sentence about a government that does less and does it better deserves to be emphasized. Observers ranging from Mark Steyn to Robert Samuelson have pointed out that the federal government is more likely to do a good job if it focuses on core responsibilities. And there’s plenty of academic evidence in support of this position, though this anecdote from Belgium may be even more persuasive.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last week about the libertarian response to the coronavirus crisis and made four simple points.

  1. Governments should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property. That includes fighting pandemics.
  2. A big sprawling federal government will be less capable and competent when responding to a real crisis.
  3. International evidence suggests greater government control is not a good recipe for success.
  4. Domestic evidence indicates that bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC are exacerbating the problem.

That column led to an invitation, from the folks at Pairagraph, to participate in a debate with Jason Furman, a Harvard professor who served as Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Here are some excerpts from Jason’s opening statement.

Dan, you wrote a thoughtful piece the other day on a “Libertarian Perspective on the Coronavirus Response.” …But, I would also hope you would support me…in supporting a temporary increase in the share of Medicaid costs paid by the federal government. …health treatment is essential, and extra money…will help hospitals expand capacity as needed. After the pandemic is over we can take more time to debate the cost-benefit of this public funding for a low-income entitlement.

He then lists these four fiscal proposals.

Here’s some of what I wrote in my opening response.

Regarding potential steps to boost the economy, …conventional remedies may not be effective in the current environment. I don’t think my preferred policies (lower tax rates, for instance) will have much impact when people and businesses are focused on curtailing the spread of the virus. And I also don’t think Keynesian policies will be effective… That being said, we are facing a black-swan environment. …there is enormous pressure for Washington to do something.

What about Jason’s four proposals?

I agree on his first suggestion, but not on the mechanism.

…more health infrastructure would be very helpful. Which is why I want the private sector to take the lead. We’ll get faster results at lower cost.

As you might guess from what I wrote two days ago about paid sick leave, I’m very skeptical about program expansions.

I don’t want politicians to exploit a crisis to impose their long-standing policy preferences – especially when taxpayers, consumers, and workers will be burdened with long-run costs.

However, I’m open to his other two proposals.

I don’t think universal payments and/or business loans will prevent short-term economic harm. But if the federal government is going to do something, then payments and loans at least address a real problem (temporary loss of income) with a plausible action (temporary provision of cash).

Though I do warn that these ideas will have adverse unintended consequences.

In an ideal world, firms would guard against black-swan events by having business interruption insurance and households would similarly protect themselves by setting aside funds in savings accounts. Those prudent steps will be less likely in a world where people expect government intervention.

Our submissions are limited to 500 words, so neither of us had much opportunity to share details (there will be a second round, so the debate isn’t over yet).

Even with that limit, I made sure to mention Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs’ must-read book about the unfortunate history of politicians using crises as an excuse to seize more power and control over the private economy.

That’s because my biggest fear is that this temporary crisis will lead to permanent expansions in the size and scope of government.

Libertarians don’t fear the “slippery slope” because we’re paranoid. We fear it because we understand the perverse incentive structure of politicians.

I don’t know whether we’ll become Greece or Venezuela if we tumble down that slope. But I know it will lead to a bad outcome.

Read Full Post »

I wrote recently how government regulation and bureaucratic inefficiency are hindering an effective response to coronavirus in the United States.

And I also wrote yesterday about one foolish response from Washington to the crisis.

But what about developments in other nations? Are there lessons to be learned?

Henry Olsen, writing in the Washington Post, contemplates how Italy is very vulnerable because of stagnation, dependency, and debt.

Italy…has essentially shuttered its economy to fight its enormous health crisis. …Effectively, millions of Italians are out of work. These actions would shock any economy. But Italy’s economy is already weak, and has been for decades. Its gross domestic product has barely grown over the past 20 years. Its unemployment rate, at 9.8 percent, is one of the highest in Europe. Worse still, Italy is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. Government debt stood at 138 percent of GDP before this crisis hit… Italy’s economic crisis will ultimately put serious pressure on the euro. …If Italy’s economic hit weakens its banks sufficiently, the European Central Bank could be forced to step in with a large bailout. …Italians would likely face years of depression and stagnation… Italy’s economic lockdown is sending clear warning signs that a fiscal meltdown is coming.

Henry also speculates in the column that Italy’s current left-populist government will be replaced by a right-populist government. Furthermore, he thinks this could lead to the country abandoning the euro (the currency shared by many European nations) and going back to a national currency.

For what it’s worth, that would be a mistake.

A major problem in Italy is that populist politicians want people to believe the fairy tale that it’s possible to consume more than you produce.

That currently happens in Italy when politicians borrow money and spend it.

If the country gets rid of the euro and goes back to the lira, politicians will also be able to print money and spend it.

In other words, Italy’s populist politicians would have another way of undermining prosperity.

(I’m not a big fan of the European Central Bank’s easy-money policies, but it’s always possible to go from bad to worse.)

Meanwhile, Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal opines about lessons that can be learned from Europe about government-run healthcare.

Scientists around the world have worked overtime to get a handle on Covid-19, yet one great unknown remains. We still don’t know for sure whether this is only a medical crisis, or also a medical system crisis. …Doctors in Italy know what to do to treat severe cases, such as using ventilators in intensive-care units. But hospitals lack the beds and equipment for the influx of patients and Italy doesn’t have enough doctors even to make the attempt. Ill patients languish in hospital corridors for want of beds, recovering patients are rushed out the door as quickly as possible, and exhausted (and sometimes sick) doctors and nurses can’t even muster the energy to throw up their hands in despair. …U.K. policy makers understand what such analyses portend—because underinvestment in Britain’s creaking health-care system is even worse. …As a result, British authorities…are desperate to hold off on a mass outbreak until the socialized National Health Service has recovered from its chronic winter crisis. …the NHS…already falls to pieces every year with the normal ebb and flow of cold-weather ailments. Each winter crisis becomes a bit more acute, and this year was no exception. As of December, only 80% of emergency-room patients were treated within four hours of arrival, down from 84% in the depths of the previous two winters.

Interestingly, not all European nations are created equal.

…the U.K. and Italy are significantly more dependent on direct government financing of health-care than is France or Germany. Government accounted for 79% of total health-care spending in the U.K. in 2017, according to Eurostat, and 74% in Italy. Germany and France both rely on compulsory insurance schemes with varying degrees of subsidy and government meddling, but outright government expenditure amounts to only 6% of total health spending in Germany and 5% in France. …politicians already have made decisions that may seal a country’s coronavirus fate…the important choices may have already come in the guise of technocratic health spending and investment decisions made largely out of public view over many years. How lucky do Europeans feel?

The moral of the story is that coronavirus vulnerability may be worse in nations where government has the most control over healthcare.

Since the disease is a “black swan” (i.e., an unexpected big event), we should be cautious about drawing too many policy conclusions. After all, any nation with a severe coronavirus outbreak is going to face major problems.

That being said, it may be worth noting that Germany and France have an approach that’s more akin to Obamacare while the system in Italy and the United Kingdom is more akin to Medicare for All.

Either policy is greatly inferior to the free market, but it does raise the question of whether it’s a good idea to jump from a frying pan into a fire.

Read Full Post »

Some folks are using the coronavirus crisis to say that libertarianism is an inadequate approach to governance.

Noah Smith got the ball rolling with a snarky tweet.

Since total government spending is at an all-time high and since even left-leaning fact checkers have debunked the assertion that public health bureaucracies have been reduced, Smith’s core claim is grossly inaccurate.

But what about the underlying assumption that a large government is necessary?

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times hopes the crisis will usher in a new era of big government as everyone realizes the supposed benefits of collectivism.

Overnight, workplaces across the country were transformed into Scandinavian Edens of flexibility. Can’t make it to the office because your kid has to unexpectedly stay home from school? Last week, it sucked to be you. This week: What are you even doing asking? Go home, be with your kid! …Then politicians got into the act. The Trump administration…is now singing the praises of universal sick pay. …it’s almost funny: Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic. …There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos?

Is Mr. Manjoo right? Just like there are supposedly no atheists in foxholes, are there no libertarians in a pandemic?

Here are four basic points to show why this is wrong.

1. Libertarians believe government should protect life, liberty, and property

A core tenet of libertarianism is that government should exist to protect against threats to the aforementioned core liberties. That presumably includes a role in responding to pandemics.

Yes, libertarians will appropriately worry that government will botch its response (see below, for instance), and we’ll also worry that government will use a crisis to accumulate new powers (the “ratchet effect” mentioned in this column).

But it’s silly to argue that a pandemic is evidence that libertarianism is impractical. As silly as arguing in the 1980s that you couldn’t be a libertarian and still favor a defense capacity to resist the Soviet Union.

To be sure, there are anarcho-capitalists who don’t believe in any government. Whether that’s a good idea involves an entirely separate set of arguments about how private governance associations would respond to a pandemic, which could be an interesting topic for some future column.

2. Libertarians correctly warn that a big sprawling federal government means it is less capable of handling the few things it should be doing

I’ve repeatedly explained, most recently this past January, that the federal government is more likely to do a good job if it focuses on core responsibilities (such as the ones assigned in the Constitution).

And observers ranging from Mark Steyn to Robert Samuelson have made the same point.

There’s plenty of academic evidence in support of this position, though this anecdote from Belgium may be even more persuasive.

3. Other government-run health systems have not done a good job

The virus originated in China, where government controls the healthcare system. It’s also spread most significantly in nations such as Iran and Italy, where government also plays a dominant role in health care.

By the way, since I don’t believe in demagoguery, I don’t necessarily blame those governments. I’m sure bad luck plays a big role in the spread of the disease.

Though this set of tweets from a guy in England is a damning indictment of that nation’s government-run system.

4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus

We’ll start with excerpts from an article by Ronald Bailey, who writes about science for Reason.

…officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stymied private and academic development of diagnostic tests that might have provided an early warning and a head start on controlling the epidemic that is now spreading across the country. …the CDC required that public health officials could only use the diagnostic test designed by the agency. That test released on February 5 turned out to be badly flawed. The CDC’s insistence on a top-down centralized testing regime greatly slowed down the process of disease detection as the infection rate was accelerating. …On February 29, the FDA finally agreed to unleash America’s vibrant biotech companies and academic labs by allowing them to develop and deploy new tests for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The New York Times has a depressing report about government red tape has prevented quick action.

Here’s the main takeaway.

…existing regulations and red tape — sometimes designed to protect privacy and health — have impeded the rapid rollout of testing nationally, while other countries ramped up much earlier and faster. Faced with a public health emergency on a scale potentially not seen in a century, the United States has not responded nimbly.

And here are some of the relevant details.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories made what it called an “extraordinary and rare request” of Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the F.D.A., asking him to use his discretion to allow state and local public health laboratories to create their own tests for the virus. …Dr. Hahn responded two days later, saying in a letter that “false diagnostic test results can lead to significant adverse public health consequences” and that the laboratories were welcome to submit their own tests for emergency authorization. But the approval process for laboratory-developed tests was proving onerous. Private and university clinical laboratories, which typically have the latitude to develop their own tests, were frustrated about the speed of the F.D.A. as they prepared applications for emergency approvals from the agency for their coronavirus tests. Dr. Alex Greninger, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, said he became exasperated in mid-February as he communicated with the F.D.A. over getting his application ready to begin testing. “This virus is faster than the F.D.A.,” he said, adding that at one point the agency required him to submit materials through the mail in addition to over email. New tests typically require validation — running the test on known positive samples from a patient or a copy of the virus genome. The F.D.A.’s process called for five.

Fortunately, some folks in Seattle were willing to disobey federal bureaucracies at the start of the crisis.

In Seattle, Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease expert who was part of an ongoing flu-monitoring effort, the Seattle Flu Study, asked permission to test their trove of collected flu swabs for coronavirus. State health officials joined Chu in asking the CDC and Food and Drug Administration… The CDC and FDA said no. “We felt like we were sitting, waiting for the pandemic to emerge,” Chu told the Times. “We could help. We couldn’t do anything.” They held off for a couple of weeks, but on Feb. 25, Chu and her colleagues “began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval,” …Later that day, the CDC and FDA told Chu and her colleagues to stop testing, then partially relented, and the lab found several more cases. On Monday night, they were ordered to stop testing again. …the Times notes. “The scientists said they believe that they will find evidence that the virus was infecting people even earlier, and that they could have alerted authorities sooner if they had been allowed to test.”

And an article in the Atlantic reveals how bureaucracy and regulation have been hindering an effective response.

…the CDC sets the parameters for state and local public-health staff regarding who should be tested. The agency’s guidelines were very strict for weeks, focusing on returning international travelers. Even as they have been loosened in the past few days, there are persistent reports that people—including a sick nurse who had cared for a coronavirus patient—have not been able to get tested. …A week ago, the FDA eased some regulations on the types of coronavirus tests that can be used. This means that testing capacity will increase, but not overnight. …Soon private laboratories such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics will begin testing people…each lab must have the FDA’s permission to operate, under an Emergency Use Authorization, a new FDA policy allows labs to immediately begin testing people, and requires that they submit their paperwork to the agency within the next 15 days. …more than a week after the country’s first case of community transmission, the most significant finding about the coronavirus’s spread in the United States has come from an independent genetic study, not from field data collected by the government.

Last but not least, a column in the New York Post summarizes the impact of federal regulation.

Overregulation of diagnostic testing has played a major role in this delay. …Test protocols using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) were publicly available shortly after Chinese researchers published (or described) the sequence of the virus in mid-January. The World Health Organization (WHO) used a freely available German procedure to create a test kit, shipping 250,000 tests to 159 laboratories worldwide.CDC testing criteria have precluded recognizing community spread because of requirements stipulating recent travel to China or exposure to an infected person. Adherence to these guidelines delayed testing in the first probable case of community transmission… The FDA has not allowed the experienced and highly skilled professionals at public-health, academic and commercial laboratories to set up their own laboratory developed tests (LDTs), and no manufactured test kits have been authorized for sale in the US. In Europe, several companies, at least one US-based, have regulatory approval to sell test kits there.

The bottom line is that libertarians have no theoretical objection to a federal role in fighting pandemics, but we’re not very confident that we’ll get effective policies from the bloated bureaucracies in Washington.

After all, let’s not forget that the the CDC has a long track record of waste when it does get more money. And the FDA also is infamous for undermining health with excessive bureaucracy, as well as silly – and even dangerous – policies.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: