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Posts Tagged ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis’

Since I’ve never smoked or vaped, I have no personal interest in the the regulatory battle over vaping and e-cigarettes.

That being said, I started writing about this issue back in 2016 because it involves several important principles.

  1. The libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they want with their own bodies
  2. Whether the “administrative state” should be able to unilaterally grab more regulatory power.
  3. The degree to which “harm reduction” or “zero tolerance” should guide government policies.

From a public health perspective, the third point is most important.

It’s a fight between those who want the Food and Drug Administration to use its self-anointed regulatory authority to ban e-cigarettes (because vaping is worse than not vaping) and those who explain that e-cigarettes are helpful (because vaping is far less risky than smoking).

This fight has a September 9 deadline. The Food and Drug Administration decided several years ago that its power to regulate tobacco somehow meant it also has the power to regulate vaping. The bureaucrats then created a system requiring future approval for marketing and sale of e-cigarettes and related products (originally to be unveiled in 2022 but a federal judge has ordered an earlier deadline).

The FDA has basically given itself the power to prohibit these products, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the battle, here are two short articles (pro and con) about that effort.

I want to focus today on whether it makes sense to impose prohibition, and it’s a simple matter of cost-benefit analysis. Some people want to enjoy nicotine, so is it better for them to vape or to smoke?

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Roger Bate points out that smoking is far worse.

…there is an increasing amount of evidence to support it over smoking. As Michael Siegel — a public health Professor at Boston University — says “there is overwhelming evidence that smoking is more hazardous than vaping. One of the most compelling lines of evidence is a series of studies showing that when smokers switch to e-cigarettes, they experience immediate and dramatic improvement in both their respiratory and cardiovascular health, measured both subjectively and objectively.” Cancer rates are at an all-time low partially due to the introduction of vaping and subsequent reduction in smoking.

And if people can’t vape, that leads to more smoking.

Six scholars, in a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that higher taxes on vaping led to more cigarette consumption.

We explore the effect of e-cigarette taxes enacted in eight states and two large counties on e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales, and sales of other tobacco products. …We then calculate an e-cigarette own-price elasticity of -1.5 and a positive cross-price elasticity of demand between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes of 0.9, suggesting that e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes are economic substitutes. We simulate that for every one standard e-cigarette pod (a device that contains liquid nicotine) of 0.7 ml no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, the same tax increases traditional cigarettes purchased by 6.4 extra packs.

If you don’t want to read an academic study, a press release from Georgia State University (home to one of the scholars) summarizes the key findings.

Increasing taxes on e-cigarettes in an attempt to cut vaping may cause people to purchase more traditional cigarettes according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health. For every 10 percent increase in e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales drop 26 percent while traditional cigarette sales jump by 11 percent. …“Vaping-related illnesses are a public health concern. However, cigarettes continue to kill nearly 480,000 Americans each year, and several research reviews support the conclusion that e-cigarettes contain fewer toxicants and are safer for non-pregnant adults,” said co-author Erik Nesson of Ball State University. …Michael F. Pesko from Georgia State University. “We estimate that for every 1 e-cigarette pod no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, 6.2 extra packs of cigarettes are purchased instead,” he said. “The public health impact of e-cigarette taxes in this case is likely negative.”

Needless to say, if higher taxes on vaping lead to more smoking, one can only imagine how much additional cigarettes will be consumed if vaping is outlawed.

And that means more cancer, more heart disease, and other illnesses.

The folks who support anti-vaping policies respond by arguing that vaping enables nicotine consumption by some young people and may even be a gateway to smoking.

That’s probably true, but it’s also true that some of those young people would opt for smoking if they didn’t have the option to vape.

From a utilitarian perspective, the bottom line is that vaping saves lives.

The anti-vaping crowd might even admit that’s true, but they presumably would then argue in favor of banning cigarettes.

But why stop there? Obesity also is a major threat to health, so why not ban cakes, pies, pasta, and french fries? And big gulps (oh, wait, that’s already happening)?

And mandate broccoli consumption as well, along with a government-required five-mile jog on days that end in “y”.

At the risk of understatement, the right solution is to let adults make their own decisions. The FDA should quit its harassment campaign against vaping.

P.S. If FDA bureaucrats actually want to save lives, they should focus on their onerous rules and silly regulations that have hampered the private economy’s ability to respond to the coronavirus.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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Back in 2012, I asked readers to pretend they were criminals and to contemplate whether they would want to rob a house with armed residents.

This “IQ test” was designed to help people understand that cost-benefit analysis applies to all types of human behavior, including criminality. Some criminals are smart and some criminals are stupid, but all of them want to get the most benefit at the lowest cost.

And, at the risk of understatement, the possibility of getting shot is definitely a potential cost.

But don’t take my word for it. A Colorado TV station has a very revealing story about burglars engaging in cost-benefit analysis.

In the dead of night, when no one is awake — that’s when it’s most likely that a burglar will break into your home. It usually happens in minutes, but of all the house on the block, the thieves picked yours. What about your house made it a target? Two El Paso County jail inmates are spilling their secrets. They are two men behinds dozens of break-ins back in 2011. …Their opportunities came in the form of doors left unlocked, garage doors never closed and patio screens unlatched… When asked, what in a home will make you turn away? …They say any indication on your home or vehicles that you could fight back could keep them away. Inmate #2 explains, “If it’s something that says you’re Republican, you’re not going to get hit because Republicans like their 2nd Amendment rights. They love carrying guns. I’m not going to mess with that guy.” …”I don’t know if you’re in there with a shotgun waiting for me. We’re literally terrified,” Inmate #1 says.

Here’s a screenshot from the interview.

The obvious takeaway is that criminals prefer unarmed victims (as do dictators, terrorists, mass shooters, etc).

This is common sense, which is why some folks on the left have had epiphanies on the issue of guns.

It also may explain why a strong majority of Americans agreed that gun ownership promotes safety.

Nearly six in 10 Americans say that gun ownership increases safety…58 percent agree with the statement that gun ownership does more to increase safety by allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. …These findings represent a reversal from 1999, when a majority — 52 percent — said gun ownership reduces safety. And they come at a time when 47 percent of American adults say they have a firearm in the household, up from 44 percent in 1999.

There was a very recent episode in Texas that underscores why it’s important for good people to possess weapons.

New Texas gun laws made it possible for a security team at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement to act quickly and save countless lives of worshipers on Sunday, some lawmakers said. A gunman killed two people before a member of the congregation’s security team fatally shot him. “…we have taken a number of steps to help make sure that our places of worship — which should be a refuge from evils of the world — are safe for all who attend,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said… State Sen. Donna Campbell…said the new law worked. “This is clearly why it was passed,” she said. “Evil is out there. But it’s not the gun. It’s the person who has control of the gun.” …State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, echoed the sentiment. …“The Texas Legislature understood there were some weaknesses in the laws preventing law abiding Texans from protecting themselves,” Krause said. “I think we saw the benefits of those recent laws taking effect.”

The gunman presumably thought the church was filled with unarmed victims.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. And this will send a signal to other lunatics. At least in Texas.

An entire town in Georgia is sending a message to bad guys about potentially very high costs.

An unconventional welcome sign greets visitors….addressing would-be criminals and warning them not to cross the locals.“Welcome to Harris County, Georgia,” it reads, sarcastically adding: “Our citizens have concealed weapons. If you kill someone, we might kill you back. We have ONE jail and 356 cemeteries. Enjoy your stay! -Sheriff Mike Jolley.” The sheriff said it’s his saucy way of welcoming people to his county while…warning them that a number of the citizens exercise their right to bear arms. …Jolley said over that the past several years, concealed weapon permits in Harris County have tripled. …Jolley said he is giving out-of-towners fair notice about what they can expect.

Crooks presumably realize that there are some unarmed homes in Harris County, notwithstanding the sign, but this message may influence their cost-benefit analyses.

The bottom line is that there are bad people in the world and gun-free zones (whether in public areas or private homes) tilt the playing field in favor of those bad people.

Which is why the idea is so ripe for satire (also see here and here).

P.S. Speaking of satire, this comparison of Chicago and Houston is entertaining.

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When I want to explain that excessive government shortens lifespans, I’m going to have a new and powerful argument thanks to the Trump  Administration’s misguided efforts to restrict vaping.

The issue is very simple.

Some people want nicotine. If vaping products are not available, they will opt for cigarettes, which are vastly more dangerous.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the issue, echoing the point I made about how the Trump policy will open the door for higher-risk black-market products.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced a ban on flavored e-cigarettes…don’t think this will…make teens stop vaping. …it’s not clear how much good the FDA ban will do. It is already illegal for teens under age 18 to buy e-cigarettes, but that hasn’t stopped them. …One risk of the FDA’s flavor ban is more teens might buy e-cigarettes on the black market that are less safe. Illegal products are the main culprits in the recent cases of vaping-related lung illness.

Here’s some of what Jacob Sullum wrote on this topic.

In a wake-up call for people who claim to be concerned about smoking-related disease and death, five prominent public health scholars warn that the “tremendous” harm-reducing potential of e-cigarettes could be nullified by panicky political responses to underage consumption and vaping-related lung injuries. …”There is solid scientific evidence that vaping nicotine is much safer than smoking,” the authors note, while “evidence from multiple strong observational studies and randomized trials suggests that vaping nicotine is more appealing and more effective than [nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches and gum,] at displacing smoking.” …that displacement is not limited to adults. Fairchild and her co-authors point out that “population youth smoking rates dropped much faster in the years vaping surged the most (2013–2019) than in prior years, reaching record lows during that same period, which suggests that nicotine vape use may be replacing smoking more than promoting it.” E-cigarette prohibitionists may think they are acting “out of an abundance of caution,” but the policies they advocate look downright reckless when you consider the ongoing death toll from cigarette smoking.

In the interview, I mentioned that the United Kingdom has a far more sensible approach.

Matt Ridley wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about his country’s policy.

Nicotine itself is far less harmful to smokers than the other chemicals created during combustion. Heavyweight studies confirm that there are much lower levels of dangerous chemicals in e-cigarette vapor than in smoke and fewer biomarkers of harm in the bodies of vapers than smokers. …In both the U.K. and the U.S. the rapid growth in vaping has coincided with rapid reductions in smoking rates, especially among young people. Yet there is a stark contrast between the two countries in how vaping has been treated by public health authorities… Many British smokers have switched entirely to vaping, encouraged by the government, whose official position is that vaping is 95% safer than smoking, an assertion now backed by early studies of disease incidence. The organizations that have signed a statement saying that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking include Public Health England, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society for Public Health. …The argument for harm reduction is not one that comes easily to some public-health advocates, because it means promoting behaviors that may still be harmful, just less so than the alternative. Vaping doesn’t have to prove entirely safe for it to save lives, given that it mostly replaces smoking.

Brad Polumbo adds some details in a column for the Washington Examiner.

America’s war on vaping is in full swing. But when you consider the positive approach taken in the United Kingdom, the foolishness of this new conflict is laid bare. …Vaping is much healthier than smoking traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes do contain nicotine, but nicotine was never really the problem with traditional cigarettes in the first place — it’s essentially similar to caffeine. Rather, the enormous public health problem posed by cigarettes is due to the cancer-causing chemicals they contain, such as tar, for example. Vaping products do not contain similar chemicals, making them much, much less likely to cause cancer. …If the government is to do anything to address vaping, it should be to promote it as an alternative to smoking. This is what the U.K.’s government has done, to massive success. …A sober analysis reveals that we are doing exactly the opposite of everything we should be doing. We are putting up more barriers and restrictions on vaping, and instead, we should embrace the U.K.’s approach.

Let’s shift from international policy to state policy.

In another column for Reason, Jacob Sullum explains that awful politicians in Massachusetts want to combine two bad policies – vape bans and asset forfeiture.

Massachusetts has “the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country.” It looks like state legislators are about to outdo themselves. The Massachusetts House of Representatives…approved a bill that would ban flavored e-cigarettes, impose a 75 percent excise tax on “electronic nicotine delivery systems” (including e-liquids as well as devices), and authorize forfeiture of cars driven by vapers caught with “untaxed” products. …The bill also says a police officer who “discovers an untaxed electronic nicotine delivery system in the possession of a person who is not a licensed or commissioner-authorized electronic nicotine delivery system distributor” may seize both the product and the “receptacle” in which it is found, “including, but not limited to, a motor vehicle, boat or airplane in which the electronic nicotine delivery systems are contained or transported.” …Massachusetts is poised to deprive vapers of the harm-reducing products they used to quit smoking, then steal their cars if they dare to defy that unjust and irrational edict.

Needless to say, two negatives don’t make a positive.

Let’s close with this chart, which (in a logical world) should put an end to the debate.

Yes, it would be nice if nobody used any sort of dangerous product. But in the real world, where we face tradeoffs, I’d much prefer that people get nicotine from vaping.

P.S. And people should have the freedom to make choices that involve risk. Libertarianism is about treating people like adults.

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For a multitude of reasons, I wasn’t a fan of Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012. But when supporters of Barack Obama accused him of somehow being responsible for a woman who died from cancer, I jumped to his defense by pointing out the link between unnecessary deaths and bad economic policy.

Simply stated, market-friendly policies produce more prosperity and wealthier societies enjoy longer lifespans. Indeed, even one of Obama’s top appointees openly acknowledged that wealthier is healthier.

Which is why folks on the left are failing to do proper cost-benefit analysis when they assert that we need redistribution and intervention to help people live longer.

This issue was hot in 2017 when Republicans briefly toyed with the idea of fulfilling a campaign promise and repealing Obamacare.

Defenders of the law said repeal would cause needless deaths.

In a column for National Review, Oren Cass debunked those assertions.

If you are going to claim that someone’s policy will cause upward of 200,000 deaths, I feel that you should have relevant supporting evidence. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way. Certainly, no such standards seem to hamper the editors at Vox. Instead, they’ve just published “208,500 additional deaths could occur by 2026 under the Senate health plan,” in which Ann Crawford-Roberts et al. assure readers that they are using “solid estimates firmly rooted in scientific evidence — unlike the dubious claim that the ACA has saved ‘zero’ lives.” Except here’s the thing: That claim about zero lives saved is supported by multiple independent lines of analysis. …There are the numerous studies showing that patients on Medicaid achieve worse health outcomes than those without any insurance. There is the “gold-standard” randomized controlled trial in Oregon that found no significant improvement in physical health from Medicaid coverage. …There is a paper from Yale researchers that found states achieve better health outcomes when they allocate less of their social spending toward health care. And now we even have data from the ACA itself. …the nation’s mortality rate stopped decreasing and actually increased when the ACA was implemented, and matters were worst in the states that accepted the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. …None of that makes Medicaid worthless. It does not mean that Medicaid, or the ACA generally, is killing people (though the evidence for that proposition looks as good as the evidence for the idea that it is saving many lives).

Max Bloom also wrote that year about the controversy for National Review.

Repealing Obamacare will kill 24,000 people a year! No, 36,000! No, 43,000! The tax cuts are blood money! There is more than a little hyperbole about the overhaul of Obamacare proposed by the House and the Senate, and the rhetoric about tens of thousands of deaths is not a bad example. …The only thing better than a natural experiment is a random experiment, in which people are randomly distributed into groups that, in this case, either receive health insurance or don’t. Exactly this happened in Oregon in 2008, when the state randomly selected 30,000 from a waiting list of 90,000 low-income adults to participate in a limited expansion of Medicaid. In theory, this should have produced a perfect test of the effects of insurance on health-care outcomes — indeed, as Peter Suderman notes, a bevy of liberal writers touted an early analysis of the experiment as a conclusive vindication of the effects of health insurance. Until they saw the final data, that is. The Oregon study found that “Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first two years.” …In short, the only problem with the estimate that Obamacare repeal will kill tens of thousands is that it cherry-picks one study out of several, ignores the limitations of that study, assumes that private insurance and Medicaid are equivalent, assumes that losing health insurance and gaining health insurance are precisely symmetric, uses implausible estimates of coverage loss, and relies on an idiosyncratic definition of the word “kill.” Otherwise, it’s fine.

By the way, these two articles didn’t even consider the “cost” side of cost-benefit analysis.

The columns simply noted that there’s no evidence for the notion that Obamacare-type subsidies help people live longer. In other words, the “benefit” side of cost-benefit equation is empty.

So imagine what we would discover about health outcomes if various Obamacare costs (job losses, tax increases, lower income, etc) were added to the analysis.

A similar debate is happening on the other side of the ocean.

In a column for CapX, Guy Dampier addresses the silly claim that spending restraint kills people.

…a November 2017 paper in the British Medical Journal…found a link between restrictions on health and social care spending – austerity – and 120,000 additional deaths between 2010 and 2017. The paper’s authors..reached this by extrapolating from an estimated 45,000 “higher than expected” number of deaths between 2011 and 2014 and then projecting that to cover 2010 to 2017. …although even they had to admit they had only captured association and not discovered causation. …The medical community responded to the BMJ paper with scepticism. …Others pointed out the many issues in the methodology. …the IPPR, a think tank with close links to Labour, published a report in June this year with a similar claim: that if trends in mortality between 1990 and 2012 had continued there “could have been 130,000 deaths averted between 2012 and 2017”. …When pressed the IPPR admitted that the apparent spike in mortality had started two years before austerity began… The years of austerity have been tough for many people, without doubt. But these issues show that neither claim – of 120,000 or 130,000 deaths – stands up to scrutiny.

Once again, the left’s numbers only look at one side of the equation.

There’s no attempt to measure the health benefits of a faster-growing, less-encumbered economy.

Yet even using incomplete analysis, they don’t have any persuasive evidence for bigger government.

Let’s now close by looking at a global example.

Last year, the Washington Post published a fascinating article on pollution and life expectancy, and it included analysis on which parts of the world are getting cleaner and dirtier.

University of Chicago researchers wanted to make air quality measurements less abstract and more relatable — and what is more relatable than years of life? The pollution most responsible for shortening lives consists of the tiniest airborne particles, called PM2.5. They are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing breathing and cardiovascular problems, cancer and possibly even dementia. They’re bad for healthy people and terrible for young children, the elderly and anyone who already has heart or respiratory problems. …The Chicago team started with satellite data that mapped the annual PM2.5 concentration in air all over the world, from 1998 to 2016. …Then they calculated how much longer people would live if the air they breathe had fewer — or none — of these particles. The result of the project is the Air Quality Life Index.

Here’s the accompanying map, which shows good news for most parts of the world other than China, India, and Indonesia.

The obvious takeaway from this article is that nations should strive mightily to reduce this type of air pollution. Especially in Asia.

And maybe that’s actually true.

But let’s consider both sides of the equation. These Asian nations are in the process of industrialization, which means they are getting much richer and therefore have the ability to enjoy much better levels of food, housing, and health care.

We also know that life expectancy has significantly improved in China. So the bad impact of pollution obviously is being offset by something.

And the article notes that China is now working to curtail pollution, which makes sense since nations become more environmentally conscious as incomes increase.

By the way, I’m not trying to identify the right tradeoff between pollution and growth. Or the ideal tradeoff between redistribution and growth.

Instead, I’m simply pointing out that tradeoffs exist, even if some of my friends on the left like to pretend otherwise.

If you’ve been diligent enough to get to this point, you deserve to enjoy this very topical Remy video.

Rather appropriate that Elizabeth Warren plays a starring role.

P.S. You can enjoy more Remy videos by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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Moral panics in Washington are not a recipe for good policy.

That’s why the current attack on vaping (the use of e-cigarettes) is so misguided.

Policy makers want to ban and/or restrict e-cigarettes (especially flavored varieties) for two reasons.

  • Consuming e-cigarettes may cause harm to users.
  • Vaping may lure some young people into using nicotine.

Both of these concerns are reasonable, at least from a utilitarian perspective.

But if we’re taking that approach, policy makers also should be looking at the other side of the cost-benefit equation (the Food and Drug Administration sadly does a lousy job of comparing costs and benefits).

And the under-appreciated benefit of e-cigarettes is that they reduce tobacco consumption, which is far more risky.

The Wall Street Journal opined recently on this issue.

A campaign against vaping products is moving at land speed records, with the Trump Administration announcing this week it will pull flavored e-cigarettes from the market. This is becoming a political pile on, and regulators risk foreclosing one of the best opportunities in public health, which is to reduce cigarette smoking. …Vaping devices include an array of products from pens to tanks. …The point is to offer the buzz of a cigarette without the combustion of tobacco that releases carcinogens and makes smoking so dangerous. …agencies like Public Health England have said such e-cigs are 95% safer than smokes. …No one wants kids addicted to nicotine, and the question is how to balance these competing equities. It is hardly obvious that banning flavors will keep teens from vaping. …A Juul executive told Congress this summer that a result of exiting convenience stores has been other actors exploiting the vacuum by selling illegal flavor pods. Expect more such unintended consequences. And if the flavor ban doesn’t reduce the number of teen vapers, then what? The next step looks like an even broader ban, which won’t be a net positive to public health. …The question is not whether vaping is healthy—it isn’t—but whether the frenzy against e-cigarettes is moving faster than the evidence. …forgotten in the rush are the 480,000 Americans who die each year from smoking.

In addition to his attacks on the twin scourges of salt and large-sized drinks, Michael Bloomberg is a leading advocate of vaping restrictions.

Jacob Sullum of Reason explains why, if successful, his efforts will cause more death.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire busybody who can be counted on to oppose individual freedom in almost every area of life, is launching a prohibition crusade against flavored e-cigarettes. …The premise of Bloomberg’s $160 million campaign, which aims to persuade “at least 20 cities and states” to “pass laws banning all flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes,” is that flavored e-liquids are obviously designed to entice “children,” because only children like them. That is demonstrably false. ..Last year, Vaping360, a site aimed at former smokers who have switched to vaping and current smokers who are thinking about it, surveyed readers about their favorite Juul pod flavors. It got more than 38,000 responses, and the top pick by far was Mango (46 percent), followed by Cool Mint (29 percent), Crème Brulée (11 percent), and Fruit Medley (8 percent). …Surveys of former smokers find that flavor variety plays an important role in the process of switching to vaping. The Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged “the role that flavors…may play in helping some smokers switch to potentially less harmful forms of nicotine delivery.” …Bloomberg has “committed nearly $1 billion to aid anti-tobacco efforts.” Now he is committing $160 million to pro-tobacco efforts, lobbying for laws that will drastically reduce the alternatives to conventional cigarettes, resulting in more smoking-related disease and death.

Robert Verbruggen also explains cost-benefit analysis in his column for National Review.

The Trump administration’s Food and Drug Administration is gearing up to ban e-cigarette flavorings besides the ones that taste like tobacco. It’s unclear if this would have any benefits for public health. …Upstart products such as e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine without all the tar and other nasty chemicals that cigarettes contain, and are estimated to be 95 percent safer as a result. …even for minors it’s far better to vape than to puff Camels, and it’s not as if no adult enjoys, say, strawberry flavoring. Better taste is one reason to vape instead of smoke for pretty much anyone who has to decide between the two, and if e-cigs are limited to tobacco flavoring, this rule could push some people back toward traditional cigarettes. And if real cigarettes are 20 times as dangerous as e-cigs, it doesn’t take much switching to cancel out the benefit of a reduction in vaping.

But I also like his article because he points out that this is another example of the “administrative state” in action.

…this is not a decision that Congress ever should have left in the executive branch’s hands. …in 2009 Congress, in its infinite wisdom, gave the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products — except for all the products that were already on the market. This meant that the agency would have authority over upstart products competing with cigarettes, but the rules would not apply to cigarettes themselves. ……Congress should write laws, especially laws that ban entire product categories, not turn that power over to unelected busybodies who will opt for regulation over personal freedom every single time they encounter a choice between the two.

Best of all, he makes the libertarian argument that people should enjoy liberty.

What is clear is that it will be a disaster for personal freedom… Smoking cigarettes is one of those things that we allow adults to do even though it’s obviously bad for them, causing numerous cancers and other health problems. …It’s a free country. …One does not need to be a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian to be disgusted at this affront to personal freedom and responsibility. …Adults should be free to do what they want, so long as they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. That includes smoking. And it definitely includes the far safer alternative of vaping fruit-flavored e-juice.

Amen.

I think the utilitarian argument for vaping is strong. As this visual from an anti-cancer group in the U.K. notes, it passes a cost-benefit test for savings lives.

But utilitarianism isn’t everything.

I can’t resist also unleashing my inner libertarian as we conclude today’s column.

The bottom line is that people should be allowed to take risks. They should even be allowed to make dumb choices.

That includes drug use, sugary drinks, gambling, over-eating, smoking, voting for socialists, hang gliding, alcohol usage, and standing between a politician and a TV camera.

It’s called freedom.

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While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant – inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, dribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit.

We can add recycling to that list.

To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved.

Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacoby has explained, that’s not the case. Not even close.

Let’s explore the issue.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Professor Michael Munger explains that most recycling actually is a net negative for the environment.

…I was invited to a conference called Australia Recycles! …Everyone there, everyone, represented either a municipal or provincial government, or a nonprofit recycling advocacy group, or a company that manufactured and sold complicated and expensive recycling equipment. …Recycling requires substantial infrastructure for pickup, transportation, sorting, cleaning, and processing. …For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold. …The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money… If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources… For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill. …landfilling glass does no environmental harm… So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. …But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. …If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.

Jon Miltimore explains, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, that hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense.

…after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning. The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. …recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was “recyclable.” “This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,” researchers concluded. …hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts. …Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time. …How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. …there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions? …It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.

On a related topic, another FEE column even shows that anti-waste campaigns may actually increase waste.

To reduce waste, most governments run communication campaigns. Many try to make consumers feel guilty by telling them how much people like them waste (food, paper, water…). …The idea is that once people realise how much they waste, they will stop. Unfortunately, research has shown that when people are told that people like them misbehave, this makes them act worse, not better. In a June 2018 study, we confirm this backfiring effect in a series of studies on waste… Indeed, we found that backfiring effects of anti-waste messages happened because of difficulty. When consumer read that everyone wastes a lot, they think that it must be difficult to cut waste – so they don’t even try.

Let’s get back to the specific issue of recycling.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is hardly a new revelation.

Way back in 1996, John Tierny had a very thorough article in the New York Time Magazine that summarized the shortcomings of recycling.

If you don’t want to read this long excerpt, all you need to know is that landfills are cheap, safe, and plentiful.

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. …Americans became racked with garbage guilt…  Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom. …Politicians across the country…enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals…, typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. …The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. …America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. …there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks. …Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. …This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. …The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. …many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself… The leaders of the recycling movement…raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.

The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits.

Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.

So why is there still support in some quarters?

In part, it’s driven by contributions from the companies that get paid to process recycled material.

But that’s only part of the story. Recycling is a way for some people to feel better about themselves. Sort of an internalized version of virtue-signalling.

That’s not a bad thing. I like a society where people care about the environment and feel guilty about doing bad things, like throwing trash out car windows.

But I’m a bit old fashioned in that I want them to feel good about doing things that actually make sense.

P.S. There’s a Washington version of recycling that is based on taxpayer money getting shifted back and forth between politicians and special interests.

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When I assess President Trump’s economic policy, I generally give the highest grade to his tax policy.

But as I pointed out in this interview from last year, there’s also been some progress on regulatory policy, even if only in that the avalanche of red tape we were getting under Bush and Obama has abated.

But perhaps I need to be even more positive about the Trump Administration.

For instance, I shared a graph last year that showed a dramatic improvement (i.e., a reduction) in the pace of regulations under Trump.

For all intents and purposes, this means the private sector has had more “breathing room” to prosper. Which means more opportunity for jobs, growth, investment, and entrepreneurship.

To what extent can we quantify the benefits?

Writing for the Washington Post, Trump’s former regulatory czar said the administration has lowered the cost of red tape, which is a big change from what happened during the Obama years.

Over the past two years, federal agencies have reduced regulatory costs by $23 billion and eliminated hundreds of burdensome regulations, creating opportunities for economic growth and development. This represents a fundamental change in the direction of the administrative state, which, with few exceptions, has remained unchecked for decades. The Obama administration imposed more than $245 billion in regulatory costs on American businesses and families during its first two years. The benefits of deregulation are felt far and wide, from lower consumer prices to more jobs and, in the long run, improvements to quality of life from access to innovative products and services. …When reviewing regulations, we start with a simple question: What is the problem this regulation is trying to fix? Unless otherwise required by law, we move forward only when we can identify a serious problem or market failure that would be best addressed by federal regulation. These bipartisan principles were articulated by President Ronald Reagan and reaffirmed by President Bill Clinton, who recognized that “the private sector and private markets are the best engine for economic growth.”

But how does this translate into benefits for the American people?

Let’s look at some new research from the Council of Economic Advisers, which estimates the added growth and the impact of that growth on household income.

Before 2017, the regulatory norm was the perennial addition of new regulations.Between 2001 and 2016, the Federal government added an average of 53 economically significant regulations each year. During the Trump Administration, the average has been only 4… Even if no old regulations were removed, freezing costly regulation would allow real incomes to grow more than they did in the past, when regulations were perennially added… The amount of extra income from a regulatory freeze depends on (1) the length of time that the freeze lasts and (2) the average annual cost of the new regulations that would have been added along the previous growth path. …In other words, by the fifth year of a regulatory freeze, real incomes would be 0.8 percent (about $1,200 per household in the fifth year) above the previous growth path. …As shown by the red line in figure 3, removing costly regulations allows for even more growth than freezing them. As explained above, the effect, relative to a regulatory freeze, of removing 20 costly Federal regulations has been to increase real incomes by 1.3 percent. In total, this is 2.1 percent more income—about $3,100 per household per year—relative to the previous growth path.

Here’s the chart showing the benefits of both less regulation and deregulation.

The chart makes the change in growth seem dramatic, but the underlying assumptions aren’t overly aggressive.

What you’re seeing echoes my oft-made point that even modest improvements in growth lead to meaningful income gains over time.

P.S. My role isn’t to be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. Instead, I praise what’s good and criticize what’s bad. While Trump gets a good grade on taxes and an upgraded positive grade on regulation, don’t forget that he gets a bad grade on trade, a poor grade on spending, and a falling grade on monetary policy.

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Back in 2012, I shared a chart showing that workplace deaths declined substantially after the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But I then shared a second chart showing that workplace deaths declined just as much before OSHA was created.

The moral of my story was quite simple. Deaths primarily fell because America become much more prosperous. And there’s a lot of evidence that wealthier is healthier.

Today, let’s look at a similar example.

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at the impact of public health measures in the early 1900s. They start by sharing some good news.

Since the mid-19th century, mortality rates in the Western world have plummeted and life expectancy has risen dramatically. Sometimes referred to as the mortality transition, this development is widely recognized as one of the most significant in the history of human welfare (Fogel 2004). Two features characterize the mortality transition. First, it was driven by reductions in infectious diseases and diseases of infancy and childhood (Omran 2005; Costa 2015). Second, it was concentrated in urban areas.

Do government policies deserve the credit?

There’s some evidence for that hypothesis.

…recent reviews of the literature emphasize the role of public health efforts, especially those aimed at purifying the water supply. For instance, Cutler et al. (2006) argue that public health efforts drove the dramatic reductions in food- and water-borne diseases at the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, Costa (2015) argues that clean-water technologies such as filtration and chlorination were “the biggest contributor[s] to the decline in infant mortality”

To be sure, there were huge public projects in the first several decades of last century. Here’s the data on sewage treatment facilities.

And here’s some data on milk purification efforts.

And the study has data on other aspects of public health as well.

The key question is whether all these efforts were successful. The three authors decided to investigate.

Using data on 25 major American cities for the years 1900-1940, the current study revisits the causes of the urban mortality decline at the turn of the 20th century. Specifically, we conduct a statistical horse race that attempts to distinguish the effects of ambitious, often extraordinarily expensive (Costa 2015, p. 554), public health interventions aimed at controlling mortality from food-and-water-borne diseases. Following previous researchers (Troesken 2004; Cutler and Miller 2005; Beach et al. 2016; Knutsson 2018), we explore the extent to which filtering and chlorinating drinking water contributed to the decline in typhoid mortality observed during the period under study and, more generally, to the observed declines in total and infant mortality. In addition, we explore the effects several other municipal-level efforts that were, at the time, viewed as critical in the fight against typhoid and other food- and water-borne diseases (Meckel 1990; Levitt et al. 2007; Melosi 2008) but have not received nearly as much attention from modern-day researchers. These interventions include: the treatment of sewage before its discharge into lakes, rivers and streams; projects designed to deliver clean water from further afield such as aqueducts and water cribs; requirements that milk sold within city limits meet strict bacteriological standards; and requirements that milk come from tuberculin-tested cows. Because the urban mortality transition was characterized by substantial reductions in infant and childhood mortality (Omran 2005) and because exclusive breastfeeding was not the norm during the period under study (Wolf 2001, 2003), improvements in milk quality seem a particularly promising avenue to explore.

But here’s the surprising result.

They did not find much evidence that public health efforts made a difference.

…our results suggest that the building of a water filtration plant cut the typhoid mortality rate by nearly 40 percent. More generally, however, our results are not consistent with the argument that public health interventions drove the extraordinary reductions in infant and total mortality observed between 1900 and 1940. Specifically, we find that efforts to purify milk had no appreciable effect on infant mortality and no effect on mortality from non-pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), which was often transmitted through infected milk. Likewise, neither chlorinating the water supply nor constructing sewage treatment plants appears to have been effective. …Our results point to other factors such as better living conditions and improved nutrition as being responsible for the sharp decline in urban mortality at the turn of the 20th century.

Here’s the chart showing that infant mortality consistently declined, largely independent of public health efforts.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that public health spending is bad. Nor am I asserting that it’s a waste of money.

Notwithstanding some of the jokes that target libertarians, the goal isn’t to abolish every regulation or program governing safety and health. Maybe I’m a bad libertarian, but I’d pick a city with sewage treatment over one without.

But my main point is that I don’t need to make that choice. Nobody does.

The data strongly suggests that economic growth and rising levels of prosperity are the real drivers of improved health outcomes. Market-driven prosperity is what generates the wealth needed to improve public health, whether the actual delivery takes place via public or private action.

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Too much government can be hazardous to your health.

Instead, this is a column about the wonky issue of cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, we’re going to look at whether some regulations can be sufficiently onerous that the resulting economic damage actually produces needless death. This insight can even apply to regulations that are designed to save lives!

It’s quite common, when I first suggest this hypothesis, for people to think I’m nuts. But they begin to see the light when I share this example from an article I wrote 25 years ago for the Journal of Regulation and Social Cost.

People in wealthier nations, on average, live longer and better lives than residents of poorer nations. …government policy makers should consider the adverse effects on health and mortality of economic policies that impose costs on the productive sector of the economy. …it is quite possible that regulations designed to reduced mortality and morbidity, if they impose sufficiently high costs on the economy, actually can result in premature deaths and a less healthy population. Banning the use of motor vehicles, for instance, would save…lives lost annually in traffic accidents as well as preventing whatever number of premature deaths can be attributed to auto emissions. …It would be absurd, however, to…support the elimination of motor vehicles… The higher living standards made possible by fast and efficient transportation clearly must result in reduced mortality…rates over time for the general population.

I don’t know if they accept that society would be so much poorer that – on net – more people would die. But they definitely grasp that there’s a tradeoff.

And that’s a big victory. After all, people are much more likely to accept cost-benefit analysis when they understand that a decision can have both good and bad consequences.

I wrote about this topic back in 2012 because supporters of President Obama basically accused Mitt Romney of contributing to the death of a woman who lost her health insurance. So I looked at the academic data on the relationship between economic prosperity and lifespans to measure Obama’s body count.

Looking over much of this research, it appears that $14 million is a reasonable middle-ground estimate of how much foregone income is associated with a needless death. Now let’s do some simple math to get an estimate of the total number of preventable deaths caused by the economy’s sub-par performance during Obama’s reign. …divide $836.6 billion (our earlier estimate of foregone growth) by $14 million and we get an estimate that Obama’s policies have caused 59,757 deaths.

In that column, I warned that my back-of-the-envelope calculations were not very unreliable, and I also pointed out that it would be wrong to hold Obama personally accountable for any premature deaths.

I simply wanted people to understand that a weak economy has serious consequences (I also thought that Obama’s supporters were making a very dodgy attack on Romney, particularly since there were so many other reasons to criticize the GOP candidate).

But I’m beginning to digress. The purpose of today’s column is to further explain why we should be concerned about the economic damage of excessive government. But not just because of lost income and reduced prosperity. We also need to recognize that a weaker economy translates into needless deaths.

So let’s look at some additional research.

A study prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency provides a dispassionate analysis of this form of cost-benefit analysis. The report starts with a couple of specific examples.

The essence of risk-risk analysis, as it will be referred to here, is the assertion that regulations seeking risk-reduction benefits may also unintentionally increase risks, and by enough in some cases to outweigh the intended benefits. …One such situation currently of concern is the possibility that parents with young children might elect the more risky option of driving a long distance instead of the less risky alternative of flying if the latter alternative is rendered much more expensive by a requirement to purchase a seat on the aircraft for the child instead of sharing a seat with the parent. Similarly, if regulations governing small drinking system quality are sufficiently costly, individuals might elect to use private wells, which could pose even more risks to their health than the public water supply in the absence of the costly rules.

It then puts forth the sensible hypothesis about the economy-wide implications of onerous red tape.

A slightly different version of risk-risk analysis is predicated on the observation that people’s wealth and health status, as measured by mortality, morbidity, and other metrics, are positively correlated. Hence, those who bear a regulation’s compliance costs may also suffer a decline in their health status, and if the costs are large enough, these increased risks might be greater than the direct risk-reduction benefits of the regulation. Advocates of risk-risk analysis emphasize its use as an important commonsense screen… It does seem eminently reasonable not to promulgate costly rules that actually increase risks rather than decrease them.

The study looks at some of the past academic literature.

Lutter and Morrall (1994) attribute to Aaron Wildavsky, see for example Wildavsky (1980), the general proposition that government programs tend to reduce economic growth, thereby interfering with the primary mechanism by which human health has improved over time. According to Lutter and Morrall, the first to apply this principle quantitatively was Keeney (1990), who calculated that an additional death occurs for roughly each $3.14 million to $7.25 million of income lost (1980 dollars). OMB on several occasions has brought health-health analysis to bear both in its review of OSHA regulations related to worker safety, and in examining regulations of other agencies, such as EPA and FDA. For example, using a finding that $7.5 million of costs induces one additional statistical death, OMB argued that although OSHA’s proposed permissible exposure limits for a large number of workplace air contaminants would offer the benefit of preventing 8 to 13 deaths per year, the regulatory costs of $163 million per year would indirectly cause some 22 deaths annually. On that basis, OMB suspended its review of the proposed regulation and OSHA agreed to study the issue further….researchers continue to further refine this estimated relationship between income and mortality risk. For example, Viscusi (1994) reports various estimates of the lost income that induces an additional statistical death ranging from $1.9 million to $33.2 million, and indicates that his own research (in press at the time) places this number at about $30 million to $70 million.

Keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency is not a hotbed of free market radicals. So it’s noteworthy that at least some people at that bureaucracy realize that there should be some cost-benefit constraints on regulation.

The Institute of Energy Research also explored the issue.

…in practice we all make decisions that increase the risk of death, and in that sense, we trade off our own longevity for other goals. In this context, economists can estimate the implied value of a human life, judged by the choices of the individuals themselves. One surprising implication of this approach is that costly government regulations not only reduce Americans’ standard of living, but they also indirectly lead to more deaths. In a modern economy, wealth is health, and so an inefficient regulation doesn’t merely reduce GDP—it also reduces average lifespans. …By analyzing consumer behavior, economists can come up with rough estimates of the implied “value of a statistical life” (VSL) that this behavior exhibits.

Here’s an example.

…suppose a very stringent rule on the emission of soot from smokestacks theoretically would reduce deaths by 2,000 lives, but at an aggregate cost to the economy of $80 billion in forfeited GDP. With these numbers, even on its own terms, such a regulation would save lives at a price of $40 million per life. This is much more than typical Americans spend with their own money to reduce risks and prolong their lifespans, and thus it indicates that the proposed regulation is inefficient because it implicitly forces Americans to “spend” much more on reducing a particular risk, rather than on other goods and services that they value more.

And here’s the key takeaway.

…there is a well-established causal connection between wealth and health. Costly federal regulations make Americans poorer and thus indirectly lead to more deaths, because poorer people are less able to take advantage of private methods of prolonging their lives. If regulations are particularly inefficient, this indirect effect might overwhelm the direct benefit of the regulation, meaning that it not only makes Americans poorer, but actually kills them on net.

Here are some excerpts from a study published by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Many forms of regulation have grown dramatically in recent decades—especially in the areas of environment, health, and safety. Moreover, expenditures in those areas are likely to continue to grow faster than the rate of government spending. Yet, the economic impact of regulation receives much less scrutiny than direct, budgeted government spending. We believe that policymakers need to rectify that imbalance. …We should judge regulations by their individual benefits and costs… One study found that a reallocation of mandated expenditures toward those regulations with the highest payoff to society could save as many as 60,000 more lives per year at no additional cost. …the costs of compliance with regulations pose risks. Compliance typically reduces the amount of private resources that people have to spend on a wide range of activities, including health care, children’s education, and automobile safety. When people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks. The resulting increase in risk offsets the direct reduction in risk attributable to a government action. Moreover, if that direct risk reduction is small and the regulation is very ineffective relative to its cost, then total risk could rise instead of fall.

The AEI-Brookings report also looks at some of the existing research.

Dozens of articles in economics and public health journals substantiate the claim that richer people live longer.10 Simple correlations of annual death rates and income suggest that a community whose income rises by about $10 million can expect about one fewer death. …Sunstein argued that courts should find that regulations that raise risks rather than lower them are arbitrary and capricious. … Lutter, Morrall, and Viscusi…estimated that an increase in income of about $15 million in a large U.S. population reduces mortality risk by one statistical death.

The authors look at regulations from the 1980s and 1990s and calculate which ones saved lives and which ones cost lives.

By the way, allow me to interject by pointing out some specific examples of regulations that are on the books and are causing needless deaths.

Now let’s close with a look at a very recent analysis from the Mercatus enter.

…many regulations result in unintended consequences that increase mortality risk in various ways. These adverse repercussions are often the result of regulatory impacts that compete with the intended goal of the regulation, or they are direct behavioral responses to regulation. As examples, fuel efficiency regulations can encourage automobile manufacturers to produce smaller cars that are more dangerous in an accident (Crandall and Graham 1989). Increased airport security measures after 9/11 made air travel more inconvenient, which has led to increases in estimated car accident deaths as individuals substituted driving for flying (Blalock, Kadiyali, and Simon 2007). …Finally, regulatory efforts reduce individual expenditures on health, both because risk reduction achieved through regulation is a substitute for private risk reduction and because the costs incurred by regulations reduce private health-related expenditures. It is this last item that has been the focus of health-health analysis (HHA).

The authors look at potential ways of conducting this type of cost-benefit analysis.

Despite a robust academic literature that spans decades, HHA has not become widely used by policymakers… HHA relies on an estimate of what is known as the cost-per-life-saved cutoff (the “cutoff”), which is a threshold cost-effectiveness level beyond which life-saving regulations will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to induce more fatalities than they prevent. …There are two competing ways of identifying the cutoff, a direct approach based on empirical observation and an indirect approach grounded in economic theory. …The indirect approach, which is our preferred method, relies on a theoretical model of the income-mortality relationship that is calibrated using data on the value of a statistical life (VSL) and the marginal propensity to spend on health (MPSH). …Employing the indirect approach has led to a cost-per-life-saved cutoff value closer to $85 million for the United States. We employ the indirect approach here as well, estimating a cutoff range from $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). A reasonable rule of thumb might be to assume that regulations costing more than $100 million per life saved will be counterproductive in that they can be expected to increase mortality risk on net.

Like the other studies, there’s a look at previous research.

Ralph Keeney developed the first formal model for estimating fatalities induced by income losses, finding that for every $7.25 million (1980 dollars) in costs, one statistical fatality will be induced (Keeney 1990). Chapman and Hariharan’s (1994) study, published in a special issue of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty devoted to HHA, develops a similar empirical model but controls for initial health status as a means to account for reverse causality (i.e., poor health causing lower income). The study’s authors estimate the cutoff at $12.2 million (1990 dollars). Keeney provided an update of his model in 1997, estimating the cutoff at between $5 million and $14 million (1991 dollars), depending on the distribution of costs.

Including some foreign studies.

Elvik (1999) is a Norwegian study that estimated the cutoff in Norway at between 25 million and 317 million NOK (1995 prices), which translates to US$3.8 million to US$47.5 million (1995 US dollars). Gerdtham and Johannesson (2002) used longitudinal data (tracking individuals for between 10 and 17 years) for a sample of randomly selected Swedes. After controlling for initial health status, they estimated the cutoff at between US$6.8 million and US$9.8 million (1996 US dollars), depending on how costs are distributed. More recently, Ashe et al. (2012) examined fire prevention regulations in Australia. These authors estimate the cutoff at between AU$20 million and AU$50 million (2010 Australian dollars), again depending on how costs are distributed across the population.

The Mercatus study then contemplates the indirect approach, which utilizes the “value of a statistical life” approach, or VSL.

…the empirical evidence from the United States and other countries, as well as the evidence from labor market estimates of the VSL and revealed preference studies, indicate a positive income elasticity of the VSL and a greater income elasticity at lower income levels. This economic mechanism is also consistent with the common conjecture that the mortality effects of regulatory expenditures will be greatest for the poorest members of society. …When a binding government regulation affects risk levels, there will be two effects. First, because health expenditures and job safety levels are substitutes, regulation will decrease the private incentive to invest in health. Second, because the individual bears regulatory costs, there will be decreased investment in health. Whether a regulation reduces risks on balance depends on the sum of three components: the direct effect of the regulation on safety, the indirect effect on risk through a substitution toward safety achieved through regulation and away from personal health expenditures, and the indirect effect on risk as personal health expenditures fall from reduced income as a result of compliance with regulations.

And the authors come up with a range.

According to our estimates, the cost-per-life-saved cutoff is in the range of $75.4 million to $123.2 million (2015 dollars). Any regulation with a cost-per-life-saved that exceeds this range can be expected to increase mortality risk on net. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding a number of factors that produce this estimate, however, including the fraction of income spent on risk reduction, the income elasticity of risk-reducing expenditures, and the VSL.

I don’t have the competence to judge which approach is best. The part of me that is worried about excessive red tape hopes the direct approach is more accurate since a lower “cutoff” means we can argue that a greater share of regulations fail to meet the threshold.

On the other hand, the part of me that is resigned to ever-expanding amounts of red tape hopes the indirect approach generates more accurate numbers since a higher “cutoff” means that the net cost of regulation is not as onerous.

Regardless, my only point is that there should be some form of cost-benefit analysis before bureaucrats churn out new rules, and the impact of red tape on overall economic performance should be part of the equation.

P.S. Speaking of economic impact, a study from the European Central Bank had some very sobering data.

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I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

So I was very excited to see this new video about infrastructure from Johan Norberg.

Very well put. As Johan says (channeling Bastiat), we should remember that jobs are destroyed when money is taken out of the private sector to build infrastructure.

So it behooves us to make sure that any new project isn’t a boondoggle and instead will increase the economy’s productive capacity.

Which is why we should strive for decentralization and shrink Washington’s footprint. If a state or local government is paying for its own projects, presumably it’ll have a greater incentive to avoid wasteful pork. When the federal government pays, by contrast, that’s a recipe for waste.

Veronique de Rugy explains the issue in a column for Reason. She starts with some economic analysis.

Economists have long recognized that roads, bridges, airports, and canals are the conduits through which goods are exchanged, and as such, infrastructure can play a productive role in economic growth. But not all infrastructure spending is equal. Ample literature shows, in fact, that it’s a particularly bad vehicle for stimulus and does not, in practice, boost short-term jobs or economic growth. …Publicly funded infrastructure projects often aren’t good investments in the long term, either. Most spending orchestrated by the federal government suffers from terrible incentives that lead to malinvestment—resources wasted in inefficient ways and on low-priority efforts. Projects get approved for political reasons and are either totally unnecessary or harmed by cost overruns and corruption.

And she concludes by arguing for market forces rather than federal involvement.

[Trump] should put an end to the whole idea that infrastructure should be centrally planned, taxpayer-funded, and the responsibility of the federal (as opposed to state or local) government. The current system obliterates the discipline that comes from knowing a project needs to pay for itself to survive. User fees should become our preferred option for funding infrastructure. That change kills two birds with one stone: It lessens the need for massive federal expenditures, and it gives the private sector an incentive to spend money on crucial but not exactly sexy maintenance tasks. …If Trump wants the United States to have “world-class” infrastructure, the surest way is through market-based reforms that increase competition while reducing subsidies and regulations. Embrace real privatization, not federally directed private investments.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Tracy Miller similarly argues that decentralization is the best approach.

Highways as well as public transportation are currently funded with money from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and by state and local governments. …Money from the fund has strings attached that raise costs and limit state and local governments’ ability to choose which projects have priority. These strings include prevailing wage laws, which require contractors receiving federal money to pay unionized wages even if they could attract qualified workers willing to work for less. High-profile projects chosen by politically powerful congressmen can easily take priority over projects that would generate greater benefits for their constituents. From an administrative standpoint, it would not be very difficult to reduce or eliminate the federal government’s role in highway and transit funding. Instead of gas taxes going to the federal government before being returned to the states, as is presently the case, each state could collect all taxes on fuel sold within its borders and decide how best to spend it. This would make it possible to downsize the U.S. Department of Transportation, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

He explains why reform will lead to better – and cheaper – transportation.

Local governments – with greater awareness of the local needs of metropolitan areas, small towns or rural areas – can do a better job of funding and managing roads, highways and public transportation that serve primarily local residents. State governments or private firms, meanwhile, can best manage interstate and other major highways that cater mostly to long-distance travelers, especially if they could cover expenses with user fees. …Many drivers object to the idea of paying tolls for the use of currently “free” interstate highways, whether they are managed by private firms or state governments. But highways aren’t free – the costs are hidden within our fuel taxes. If mileage-based user fees are applied to all highways and set at the correct levels, they can become a much more efficient (and ultimately cheaper) replacement for fuel taxes.

Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard summarizes the issue nicely in an article for CNBC.

Our current system of federal funding for transportation means that taxpayers in New York fund highways in Montana and drivers in Utah pay for New York’s airports. If President Trump wants to seriously improve American infrastructure spending, he should champion a new federalism for transportation, in which infrastructure is funded by states, localities and especially the users themselves. …The best decisions are made when decision-makers bear the costs and reap the benefits. When companies invest, they agonize about whether future customers will pay enough to cover the production costs. …Having lived through Boston’s Big Dig, I am well aware of how the promise of federal funding skews local decision-making. Local leaders stop asking themselves whether the benefits cover the costs because it’s somebody else’s nickel. …Detroit would have never built its absurd People Mover Monorail without federal encouragement and funding.

He elaborates on some of the implications for different types of infrastructure.

If new automotive infrastructure is meant to be self-financing, then the decision to build is a straightforward business investment and there is little need for large-scale federal funding. …The beneficiaries of metro systems are the businesses and commuters within a state. They could be funded with local property or sales taxes. My favorite metro funding model is in Hong Kong, where the city’s private mass transit system funds itself by building high-rises atop new train stops. …More federal funding for dysfunctional airports just perpetuates the status quo. They would be far healthier if they were split apart from the larger agency and allowed to operate, compete and charge higher landing fees, either as independent self-funding public airports, as in the U.K., or as private entities.

Amen. I’m not surprised to see Hong Kong as a role model. And I’ve already written about the U.K.’s success with privatization.

Speaking of privatization, a column in the Wall Street Journal points out that this is the way to improve airports in America.

Why do American passengers pay so much to get so little? Because their airports, by global standards, are terribly managed. Cities from London to Buenos Aires have sold or leased their airports to private companies. To make a profit, these firms must hold down costs while enticing customers with lots of flights, competitive fares and appealing terminals. The firm that manages London’s Heathrow, currently eighth in the international ranking, was so intent on attracting passengers that it built a nonstop express train to the city’s center. It’s also seeking to add another runway, as is the rival firm running Gatwick Airport. American airports are typically run by politicians in conjunction with the dominant airlines, which help finance the terminals in return for long-term leases on gates and facilities. The airlines use their control to keep out competitors; the politicians use their share of the revenue to reward unionized airport workers. No one puts the passenger first.

The author cites the San Juan airport as an example of what can happen under privatization.

If you want to see how much better American airports could be, take a plane to Puerto Rico. Until four years ago, the main airport in San Juan was run, and neglected, by an unwieldy bureaucracy, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. The terminal was a confusing jumble of dim corridors. On rainy days, the ceilings leaked; on hot days, the air conditioning faltered. The stores were tacky and the restaurants greasy spoons, often rented at bargain rates to politicians’ friends or relatives. …Airlines switched operations to other Caribbean hubs. In 2013 the Ports Authority leased the airport for 40 years to Aerostar, a partnership operating airports in Cancún and other Mexican cities. The new managers agreed to make capital improvements, reduce landing fees and pay the Ports Authority $1.2 billion—half up-front. The result, three years later, is an airport nobody would call Third World. The redesigned concourses are sleek and airy, and revenue from new retail and restaurants has doubled. …Airlines no longer control the gates, but they’re reaping other benefits. “We’re paying lower fees for a much better airport,” says Michael Luciano, who runs Delta’s operations in San Juan. “Almost every area has been renovated. You go into any restroom, and it’s bright and clean—things like that are really important to our customers.” Passenger volume has been growing 4% annually, well above the industry average.

I can personally vouch for this. Because of all my travel in the Caribbean, I’ve used the San Juan airport extensively over the years, including just last week for the Liberty International conference.

The difference between today’s airport and the dump that used to exist is like the difference between night and day.

By the way, let’s also dismiss the notion that there’s some sort of infrastructure crisis.

I’ve already shared data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which shows that the United States actually ranks relatively high compared to other nations.

And I’ve also shared solid numbers making the same point from Chris Edwards, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. Michael Sargent of the Heritage Foundation has a tweet that nicely shows that there isn’t a crisis.

Oh, and let’s also consider the example of Japan, which thought infrastructure spending was some sort of economic elixir. That didn’t work so well, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. economy isn’t growing at merely 2% because of potholes or airports… The prime illustration is Japan, which since the 1980s has tried to build its way out of stagnation. The country now boasts perhaps the world’s most spectacular suspension bridges, maglev trains, elevated highways and man-made islands, but the cost was trillions of yen of debt (now 230% of GDP) and no better growth. Nor could a monorail save Detroit. Projects make economic sense only to the extent they clear rigorous cost-benefit tests.

And if you want to know the infrastructure that is least likely to pass a cost-benefit test, just look at mass transit.

A good place to start is the Wall Street Journal‘s recent editorial on a subway line in New York City.

New York City opened a new subway line—about a century after the project was proposed and merely decades after ground-breaking in 1972…by far the most expensive train track in the history of the world. The story is an example of what not to do… This first phase of the new line—amounting to 1.6 miles in a single neighborhood, with three new stations and a renovated stop—cost some $4.451 billion. …The next leg of the Second Avenue subway, which would extend the train 29 blocks north into Harlem starting in 2020, is projected to cost an astonishing $6 billion, and that is surely an underestimate.

Gabriel Roth, writing for the Washington Examiner, has the right idea.

…abolish the subsidies. The federal government forces road users to spend some $10 billion a year on non-road assets of little or no benefit to them. Those payments are not only wasteful in themselves; they also encourage states and local governments to squander money on mass transit, whose costs users are not prepared to cover — not even the operating costs. If local communities consider such expenditures important, they should pay for them themselves.

By the way, just to show my libertarian bona fides, I think decentralization is just part of the answer. In my fantasy world, the private sector plays a bigger role.

And the good news, as I wrote back in 2014, is that my fantasy is reality in some instances.

Here’s another example from Hawaii.

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free. …The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix, money the agency doesn’t have, according to a news release from department Chairwoman Laura Thielen. …So Slack, other business owners and residents made the decision not to sit on their hands and wait for state money that many expected would never come. Instead, they pulled together machinery and manpower and hit the ground running March 23. And after only eight days, all of the repairs were done, Pleas said. It was a shockingly quick fix to a problem that may have taken much longer if they waited for state money to funnel in. “We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” Slack said. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.” …”We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin of Martin Steel, who donated machinery and steel for the repairs. “So we got together — the community — and we got it done.”

Reminds me of the guy who built some stairs at a park for $550 because the Toronto government was taking too long and planned to spend $65,000 to do the same thing.

And here’s another case study from Portland.

Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is a community collaboration of skilled workers who volunteer their services to fix the damaged roads around Portland, Oregon. Citing concerns about governmental bureaucracy, the current political climate, a lack of funds and a seeming lack of care, the members of PARC decided to take things into their own very capable hands.

I have no idea whether these people are libertarian-minded anarcho-capitalists or deeply confused left-wing nihilist anarchists, but kudos to them for steeping up and doing a job cheaply and efficiently. The very opposite of what we expect from government.

P.S. Since Nazis are in the news and since I’m writing about infrastructure, here are some blurbs from an academic study on how Germany’s National Socialists used autobahn outlays to generate political support.

The idea that political support can effectively be bought has a long lineage – from the days of the Roman emperors to modern democracies, `bread and circus’ have been used to boost the popularity of politicians. A large literature in economics argues more generally that political support can be ‘bought’. …In this paper, we analyze the political benefits of building the worldʹs first nationwide highway network in Germany after 1933 – one of the canonical cases of government infrastructure investment. We show that building the Autobahn was highly effective in reducing opposition to the Hitler regime. …What accounts for the Autobahn’s success in winning “hearts and minds”? We discuss the economic and transport benefits. In the aggregate, these have been shown to be minimal (Ritschl 1998; Vahrenkamp 2010). …we argue that the motorways…increased support because they could be exploited by propaganda as powerful symbols of competent, energetic government. …Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can indeed create electoral support for a nascent dictatorship – it can win the “hearts and minds” of the populace. In the case of Germany, direct economic benefits of pork‐barrel spending in affected districts may have played a role.

Seems that politicians, whether motivated by evil or run-of-the-mill ambition, love spending other people’s money to build political support. Is it any wonder that we hold them in such low esteem?

P.P.S. Fans of “public choice” doubtlessly will be amused by the IMF’s 2014 flip-flop on infrastructure.

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I routinely grouse about the heavy economic cost of red tape.

I’ve also highlighted agencies (such as the EEOC) that seem especially prone to senseless regulations.

And I’ve explained why private regulation actually is a very effective way of promoting health and safety.

Today, let’s get specific and look at the Food and Drug Administration. This bureaucracy ostensibly is supposed to protect us by making sure drugs and medical devices are safe and effective before getting approval, which seems like it might be a reasonable role for government.

But the FDA routinely does really foolish things that undermine public health. The likely reason is that the bureaucracy has a bad incentive structure. As Professor Alex Tabarrok has explained.

…the FDA has an incentive to delay the introduction of new drugs because approving a bad drug (Type I error) has more severe consequences for the FDA than does failing to approve a good drug (Type II error). In the former case at least some victims are identifiable and the New York Times writes stories about them and how they died because the FDA failed. In the latter case, when the FDA fails to approve a good drug, people die but the bodies are buried in an invisible graveyard.

This video from Learn Liberty looks at some data on how the FDA’s Type II errors have led to thousands of deaths, but mostly focuses on whether people and medical professionals should have the freedom to makes choices different from what the FDA has officially blessed.

It’s also worth mentioning that the process of drug approval is jaw-droppingly expensive, as Professor Tabarrok noted in another column.

It costs well over a billion dollars to get the average new drug approved and much of that cost comes from FDA required clinical trials. Longer and larger clinical trials mean that the drugs that are eventually approved are safer. But longer trials also mean that good drugs are delayed. And the more expensive it is to produce new drugs the fewer new drugs will be produced. In short, longer and larger trials mean drug delay and drug loss.

The FDA bureaucracy can’t even approve things it already has approved. There was a big controversy a few months ago about the EpiPen, which is a very expensive device that auto-injects medication to people suffering severe allergic reactions.

But the device is only costly because the FDA is hindering competition, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Epinephrine is a basic and super-cheap medicine, and the EpiPen auto-injector device has been around since the 1970s. Thus EpiPen should be open to generic competition, which cuts prices dramatically for most other old medicines. Competitors have been trying for years to challenge Mylan’s EpiPen franchise with low-cost alternatives—only to become entangled in the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory afflatus. …the FDA maintains no clear and consistent principles for generic drug-delivery devices like auto injectors or asthma inhalers. …injecting a kid in anaphylactic shock with epinephrine…is not complex medical engineering. But no company has been able to do so to the FDA’s satisfaction.

Research from the Mercatus Center reveals that the FDA imposes ever-higher costs and gets ever-higher budgets, but also how the bureaucracy fails to deliver on its obligation to facilitate innovation.

The expense of putting drugs and devices through this system is almost unimaginable. The cost of bringing low- to medium-risk 510(k) medical devices to market averages $31 million, $24 million (75 percent) of which is dedicated solely to attaining FDA approval within an average of about six months. Any significant improvement to the device requires reapplication. For higher-risk medical devices where there may be significant health gains, the costs are about $94 million, $75 million (80 percent) of which is dedicated to attaining FDA approval. For drugs, the situation is much worse. It costs an average of $2.6 billion simply to get a drug through the FDA process and onto the market. This does not include postmarket monitoring, the terms of which are laid out by FDA upon approval. These costs have increased from about $1 billion between 1983 and 1994. …we continue to increase the funding and authority for FDA and assume that we will somehow boost innovation in medical products (drugs and devices) despite the growing obstacles. This has not happened. …Congress continues to increase funding for FDA through both the general fund and industry user fees…with the hope that performance goals and additional funding would increase FDA’s performance and lead to an increase in innovations. …but FDA finds strategic ways to narrowly meet each goal while frustrating the original goal of improving health outcomes through innovation.

By the way, the FDA also does really bone-headed things. I’ve previously written about the bureaucracy’s war against unpasteurized milk (including military-style raids on dairies!). Now the bureaucrats think soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to get cigars.

The Wall Street Journal has the details of this silly nanny-state intervention.

You might think GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan have enough to worry about with Islamic State and the Taliban. But it turns out they’ve also got a problem called the Food and Drug Administration. In August a new FDA rule went into effect that forbids tobacco makers and distributors from handing out free samples. Some companies that have been donating cigars to service members for decades have now stopped for fear that this is now illegal. The FDA nuttiness has attracted the attention of Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th district, which includes “Cigar City,” or Tampa. She has introduced a bill to “reinstate the tradition of donating cigars to our military members to provide them with a taste of home while deployed.” Her press release notes that cigars are the “second-most requested item” from troops overseas. …cigars for service members is in question because it’s a proxy for the political war on tobacco, but the first casualty is common sense. The FDA’s bureaucrats are happy to have U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines dodge bullets overseas but they’re horrified they might relax by lighting up a stogie.

But the nanny-state war against soldiers enjoying cigars is downright trivial compared to the deadly impact of the FDA’s attack on vaping.

Jacob Sullum of Reason outlines some of the horrifying details.

The Food and Drug Administration’s e-cigarette regulations, which took effect last week, immediately struck two blows against public health. As of Monday, companies that sell vaping equipment and the fluids that fill them are forbidden to share potentially lifesaving information about those products with their customers. They are also forbidden to make their products safer, more convenient, or more pleasant to use. The FDA’s censorship and its ban on innovation will discourage smokers from switching to vaping, even though that switch would dramatically reduce the health risks they face. That effect will be compounded by the FDA’s requirement that manufacturers obtain its approval for any vaping products they want to keep on the market for longer than two years. The cost of meeting that requirement will force many companies out of business… All of this is unambiguously bad for consumers and bad for public health. Yet the FDA took none of it into account…the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act…gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, a category to which it has arbitrarily assigned tobacco-free e-cigarettes, even when they contain nicotine that is not derived from tobacco or no nicotine at all. …A brief that 16 advocates of tobacco harm reduction filed last week in support of Nicopure’s lawsuit notes that the cost of the FDA’s regulations will far outweigh their benefit if they cause even a small percentage of vapers to start smoking again or deter even a small percentage of current smokers from switching. That’s because of the huge difference in risk between e-cigarettes and the conventional kind (at least 95 percent, according to the Royal College of Physicians)… The FDA acknowledges that its regulations might also harm public health by retarding the substitution of vaping for smoking. But it does not include that cost in its analysis, deeming it too speculative. The FDA literally assigns zero value to the lives of smokers who would have quit were it not for the agency’s heavy-handed meddling.

Oh, I suppose I also should mention that FDA red tape is responsible for the fact that Americans have a much more limited selection of condoms than Europeans.

I’m sure there’s a good joke to be made about the bureaucrats screwing us in ways that interfere with us…um…well, you know.

Let’s wrap up with some tiny bits of good news. First, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has been remarkably successful in getting states to adopt “Right to Try” laws that give seriously ill people the right to try investigational medications.

Sadly, those laws will have limited use until there’s also reform in Washington. Fortunately, there’s some movement. Here’s a video from a congressional hearing organized by Senator Johnson of Wisconsin.

Here’s a second item that sort of counts as good news.

If there is one silver lining to the dark cloud of FDA incompetence, it’s that the bureaucrats haven’t figured out how to criminalize those who use drugs for “off-label” purposes (i.e., for reasons other than what was approved by the government). A good example, as reported by the New York Times, is a tooth desnsitizer that’s only been recently approved by the FDA (after being available for decades in nations such as Japan), and already dentists are using it to fight cavities.

Nobody looks forward to having a cavity drilled and filled by a dentist. Now there’s an alternative: an antimicrobial liquid that can be brushed on cavities to stop tooth decay — painlessly. The liquid is called silver diamine fluoride, or S.D.F. It’s been used for decades in Japan, but it’s been available in the United States, under the brand name Advantage Arrest, for just about a year. The Food and Drug Administration cleared silver diamine fluoride for use as a tooth desensitizer for adults 21 and older. But studies show it can halt the progression of cavities and prevent them, and dentists are increasingly using it off-label for those purposes. …Silver diamine fluoride is already used in hundreds of dental offices. Medicaid patients in Oregon are receiving the treatment…it’s relatively inexpensive. …The noninvasive treatment may be ideal for the indigent, nursing home residents and others who have trouble finding care. …But the liquid may be especially useful for children. Nearly a quarter of 2- to 5-year-olds have cavities

Since I’m not familiar with the history of the FDA, I wonder whether the bureaucrats have ever tried to block medical professionals from using drugs and devices for “off-label” purposes.

Let me close with one final point. Our leftist friends aren’t very interested in reforming the FDA.

Instead, they argue that the big problem is greedy pharmaceutical companies and suggest European-style price controls.

That could save consumers money in the short run, I’m sure, but it would gut the incentive to develop new medications.

One expert looked at the Rand Corporation estimates that such policies would lead to a decline in life expectancy of 0.7 years by 2016. He then crunched the numbers and concluded that the aggregate impact would be worse thing to ever happen. Even worse than the brutality of Mao’s China.

…let me put this in context. In 2060 there will probably be 420 million Americans and 523 million Europeans. And suppose that whatever changes we make in drug regulations today last for one human lifespan, so that everybody has a chance to be 55-60. So about a billion people each losing about 0.7 years of their life equals 700 million life-years. Since some people live in countries outside the US and Europe [citation needed] and they also benefit from First-World-invented medications, let’s round this up to about a billion life-years lost. What was the worst thing that ever happened? One strong contender is Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which ineffective agricultural reforms and very effective purges killed 45 million people. Most of these people were probably already adults, and lifespan in Mao’s China wasn’t too high, so let’s say that each death from the Great Leap Forward cost what would otherwise be twenty healthy life years. In that case, the worst thing that has ever happened until now cost 45 million * 20 = 900 million life-years. Once again, RAND’s calculations plus my own Fermi estimate suggest that prescription drug price regulation would cost one billion life-years, which would very slightly edge out Communist China for the title of Worst Thing Ever.

I guess the bottom line is that the FDA is a typical regulatory agency, both incompetent and expensive. But if the statists have their way, things could get a lot worse.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules such as the FDA’s war on vaping, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark. And here’s some clever anti-libertarian humor about deregulated breakfast cereal.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, hopefully today’s column drives home that red tape can have terrible consequences for human health. And don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.

The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expanding internationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.

If anything, I think they’re being too nice.

The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The laws and regulations don’t work.

Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.

…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.

Amen.

This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.

Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”

Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.

U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts from the financial system the innocent as well as those the U.S. government would most like to watch, a consequence not anticipated by Washington. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry this month acknowledged the potential danger. “Transactions that would have taken place legally and transparently may be driven underground,” he told an international conference of bankers and regulators in Washington. …Fearing steep financial penalties for failing to spot a wayward customer, many banks now shun anyone who looks risky. That leaves ostracized companies to seek alternatives—such as toting bags of cash overseas—a practice that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to leave the global banking system… “The whole flow of money goes underground, and that becomes counterproductive to the original purpose of being able to track” it, said Dilip Ratha, head economist of the World Bank’s unit that studies remittances. “It’s a bit paradoxical.” U.S. officials said they didn’t intend banks to close whole categories of customer accounts.

So potential bad guys are harder to track.

And financial institutions waste lots of money (which translates into higher costs for consumers).

Risky accounts should be managed, officials said, not avoided altogether. …Western Union said it now spends $200 million a year watching for suspicious activity… J.P. Morgan Chase & Co….now has about 9,000 employees dedicated to anti-money-laundering and has cut off thousands of customers viewed as higher-risk. …Jaikumar Ramaswamy, a Bank of AmericaCorp. compliance executive and former federal prosecutor, said, “I’m surprised at how much of my time is spent not focusing on the guilty but chasing the innocent.” Instead of looking for needles in haystacks, he said, the system demands banks “turn over every piece of hay.”

The good news is that some nations are looking to adopt a more rational approach, as evidenced by this Bloomberg report from 2015.

The U.K. government said it will look to relax anti-money laundering controls as part of a plan to save British companies 10 billion pounds ($15.4 billion) over the next five years. …The government said it wants to protect the country without putting “disproportionate burdens” on legitimate businesses. …“This new review is about making sure the rules we have to protect our strong financial services industry from abuse are not unintentionally holding back new and existing British business,” Business Secretary Sajid Javid said. “I want firms to come forward and tell us where regulation is unclear or its enforcement ineffective.”

Though, as reported by the Times, the U.K. government has a bizarrely inconsistent approach to these issues. Even to the point of threatening to steal people’s property unless they can somehow prove that it was purchased with innocent money.

People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption, under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New “unexplained wealth orders”, which would reverse the burden of proof to compel the recipient to justify the source of the questionable cash.

Sigh.

Here’s a novel idea. Why doesn’t law enforcement engage in actual, old-fashioned police work. In other words, instead of having costly burdens imposed on everybody, governments should use the approach which historically has successfully reduced crime – i.e., policies that increase the likelihood of apprehension and/or severity of punishment.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Instead, we actually get politicians and policy makers coming up with schemes to expand the burden of money laundering laws. Some of them want to ban the $100 bill, or perhaps even ban cash entirely. All so government can more closely monitor the private financial choices of innocent people.

If you want more information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Last but not least, let’s return to the Heritage study, which includes this very important warning about a very risky and dangerous treaty that may be considered by the U.S. Senate.

…the willingness to impose costs on the private sector and to violate the privacy interests of ordinary people should be less in the case of information sharing for tax purposes than for the purposes of preventing terrorism or crime. Moreover, tax-information-sharing programs are quite often a veiled attempt to stifle tax competition from low-tax jurisdictions. Tax competition is salutary and limits the degree to which governments can impose unwarranted taxation. …The U.S. Senate is currently considering the “Protocol Amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters,” which would impose a wide variety of new information-reporting requirements on financial institutions to help foreign governments collect their taxes. A second treaty—worse than this protocol—is the follow-on OECD treaty known as the “Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information.” This follow-on treaty implements both the protocol and the 311-page OECD “Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters.” Together, the protocol, the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, and the OECD Standard constitute the three main parts of a new automatic information-exchange regime being promoted by the OECD and international tax bureaucrats. If the U.S. ratifies the protocol and implements the new OECD standard, Washington would automatically, and in bulk, ship private financial and tax information—including Social Security and other tax identification numbers—to Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and nearly 70 other countries. In other words, foreign governments that are hostile to the U.S., corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards, would automatically have access to private financial (and other) information of some U.S. taxpayers and most foreigners with accounts in the U.S.

A truly awful pact. And keep in mind it also would be the genesis of a World Tax Organization.

P.S. Since we closed by discussing the intersection of tax and money laundering, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

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Since it’s basically a way of protecting property rights, environmental protection is a legitimate function of government.

That’s the easy part. It gets a lot harder when calculating costs and benefits.

Everyone surely agrees that a chemical company shouldn’t be able to dump toxic waste in a town’s reservoir because the costs would out-weigh the benefits. And presumably everyone also would concur that banning private automobiles would be crazy because this would be another example of costs being greater than benefits.

But there’s a lot of stuff in between those extreme examples where agreement is elusive.

And I’ll admit my bias. I don’t trust the modern environmental movement, particularly the climate alarmists. There are just too many cases where green advocates act like their real goal is statism.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of some environmental dilettantes is downright staggering.

And they also seem to be waging a regulatory war on modern life.

I’m giving all this background to create context for an article I want to discuss.

John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times. has a piece that debunks recycling. He starts by looking back 20 years.

As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time? In 1996, …I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that…the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So what’s happened over the years? Has recycling become more feasible and rational?

Not exactly. From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s a scam. It simply doesn’t make sense.

…when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all. Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. …the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. …The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. …“Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected…”

Tierney specifically addresses the issue of greenhouse gasses.

…well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits. …Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. …if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

A traditional argument for mandated recycling is that landfill space is vanishing.

But that’s always been bunk.

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland… Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).

Moreover, incinerators are another practical option.

Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.

The bottom line is that recycling is an expensive feel-good gesture by guilt-ridden rich people.

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions. …why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether rich people should feel guilty about their resource consumption.

But I definitely get agitated when they try to atone for their guilt by foisting costly and ineffective policies on other people.

P.S. That’s why I consider myself to be pro-environment while also being a skeptic of environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

P.P.S. Some environmental policies lead to disgusting examples of government thuggery (some of which, fortunately, are not successful).

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I proposed an “IQ Test for Criminals and Liberals” back in 2012 which asked readers to imagine that they were thieves.

And I then asked them, as they were planning their crimes, how they would react if they knew that a particular homeowner was armed. Would they:

a. break into the house because you once heard a politician or journalist assert that gun ownership doesn’t deter crime?

b. decide after a bit of reflection about potential costs and benefits that it might be more prudent to find another house to rob?

My goal was to help well-meaning leftists understand that criminals respond to incentives. And even the really stupid ones will seek to maximize how much they can steal while minimizing the risk of bad outcomes.

And if you’re a criminal, one potential bad outcome is getting shot by an armed homeowner.

The same cost-benefit analysis applies to mass shooters. Regardless of whether these shooters are motivated by feelings of inadequacy or Islamofascist ideology, their goal is to kill as many people as possible before being stopped.

So it makes sense, from their warped perspective, to seek out “gun-free zones.”

And when these nutjobs start shooting in places where there’s very little likelihood that they’ll encounter immediate armed resistance, that means a higher body count.

Which is what happened at Fort Hood. And in Santa Barbara. And in Newtown, Connecticut. And at the Aurora movie theater. And at Virginia Tech.

And now in Chattanooga.

Here’s a photo from the recent shooting spree by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. Notice the sign, right by all the bullet holes, stating that “Firearms Are Prohibited In This Facility.”

Needless to say, this sign didn’t stop the attack. It may have even encouraged the attack.

In any event, the rule did affect one group of people, as Sean Davis explained for The Federalist.

The gun-free zone sign didn’t prevent the shooter from firing a gun at completely innocent individuals within the zone. It did, however, prevent them from defending themselves.

And here’s the really depressing part of this tragedy. The military personnel targeted by the terrorist weren’t unarmed because Chattanooga had bad policy.

They were unarmed because of federal government policy. Writing for Fox News, John Lott explains this bizarre policy.

Army regulations are very clear stating that personnel cannot have firearms during their official duties.  Last year the Obama administration instituted interim rules that clearly prohibit privately owned weapons from all federally leased office and land, including recruiters’ offices. …With the exceptions of military police, military personnel are banned from having weapons on base, in federally leased buildings, or while they are carrying out official duties. For would-be terrorists among us there is an abundance of possible targets. …Allowing military personnel to at least defend themselves reduces the number of easy targets that terrorists/killers can attack.

Amen. Let members of the military have the ability to defend themselves.

And expand concealed-carry laws so that citizens also have greater ability to thwart crime and mass shootings.

P.S. I shared above a great cartoon from Chuck Asay. You can click here to see another. And these two posters make the same point quite effectively.

P.P.S. While folks on the left are one of the targets of my IQ test, not all liberals are misguided on the gun issue. As you can read here and here, there are a couple of them who put reason ahead of ideology.

P.P.P.S. It’s also encouraging to note that some lawmakers realize it’s a good idea to have more protection for schoolchildren.

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It’s time to correct a sin of omission.

In five-plus years of blogging, I haven’t given nearly enough attention to the wisdom of the late (and great) Milton Friedman.

Yes, I did say he was at the top of my list of great economists in a 2010 interview, and I’ve cited what he said about the correct goal of fiscal policy being smaller government rather than fiscal balance.

Moreover, I’ve quoted him many times (here, here, here, here, here, and here) to help explain why higher taxes simply lead to more government spending rather than deficit reduction.

But I’ve never once shared an interview of Friedman, which is a big oversight because of his incredible ability to advocate for economic liberty.

So let’s rectify this mistake. A reader emailed me this video, which purports to show Professor Friedman jousting with a young Michael Moore (yes, supposedly that Michael Moore, though I don’t know if it’s actually him).

But the identity of the questioner isn’t what’s important. Listen to Friedman explain the merits of cost-benefit analysis and consumer choice.

Amen. I love what he said about letting people make their own decisions about how much risk they wish to accept given relative prices.

If you want more Friedmanesque wisdom, I’ve also quoted him on issues ranging from immigration to “temporary” government programs, and from Swedish poverty to tax competition.

He also explained that there are four different ways of spending money, only one of which yields real efficiency (Jay Leno channeled some of Friedman’s wisdom when commenting on Obama shopping for Michelle)

And I’ve even noted that he helped guide the development of Economic Freedom of the World.

P.S. I do have one small disagreement with Milton Friedman. He supported the notion of a negative income tax/guaranteed annual income. His goal was noble, to replace the plethora of counterproductive welfare programs run from Washington, but I think a better approach is to get the federal government totally out of the business of income redistribution.

P.P.S. As I already stated, I don’t know if that was the (in)famous Michael Moore jousting with Friedman, but I can say that the Michael Moore of today is a big hypocrite when it comes to inequality.

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I believe that protecting the environment is both a good thing and a legitimate function of government.

But I’m rational. So while I want limits on pollution, such policies should be determined by cost-benefit analysis.

Banning automobiles doubtlessly would reduce pollution, for instance, but the economic cost would be catastrophic.

On the other hand, it’s good to limit carcinogens from being dumped in the air and water. So long as there’s some unbiased science showing net benefits.

But while I’m pro-environment, I’m anti-environmentalist. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But since I’m an economist, what really worries me is that these people are statists. There’s an old joke that environmentalists are “watermelons” since they’re green on the outside and red on the inside.

But maybe it’s not really a joke. At least not in all cases. Check out this video from Reason, filmed at the so-called climate march in New York City.

Just in case you think the folks at Reason deliberately sought out a few crazy people in an otherwise rational crowd, let’s now look at the views of Naomi Klein, who is ostensibly a big thinker for the left on environmental issues.

Slate published an interview with her and you can judge for yourself whether her views are sensible. Here’s some of what Slate said about her.

According to social activist and perennial agitator Naomi Klein, the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. …she’s turned her argument into a hefty book… This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is focused on exposing how the relentless pursuit of growth has locked us in to a system that’s incompatible with a stable climate. …

And here’s some of what Ms. Klein said.

The post-carbon economy we can build will have to be better designed. …not only does climate action mean a healthy community—it’s also the best chance at tacking inequality. …The divestment movement is a start at challenging the excesses of capitalism. It’s working to delegitimize fossil fuels, and showing that they’re just as unethical as profits from the tobacco industry. …profits are not legitimate in an era of climate change.

Profits are not legitimate?!? Geesh, sounds like a certain President who also disdains profit.

By the way, I’d bet Naomi Klein has a far bigger “carbon footprint” than the average person.

And I can say with great certainty that other leftists are huge hypocrites on the issue. Check out the vapid actor who did some moral preening at the climate-change march.

Kudos to Ms. Fields. She has a way of exposing phonies on camera.

Though I think it’s safe to say that Mr. DiCaprio doesn’t win the prize for being the biggest environmental hypocrite.

Shifting back to policy issues, even “mainstream” environmental initiatives are often very misguided. Here are a few examples.

The bottom line is that we presumably have some environmental challenges. For instance, it’s quite possible that there is some global warming caused by mankind.

I just don’t trust environmentalists to make policy. When they’re in charge, we get really dumb policies. Or grotesque examples of government thuggery. Or sleazy corruption and cronyism.

But at least we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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Well, another loser killed a bunch of people, this time in Santa Barbara, California.

Which gives gun control zealots an opportunity to seize upon the tragedy to recycle their calls to restrict private firearms ownership and otherwise erode the Second Amendment.

But I’m not too worried that they’ll succeed. The evidence is simply too strong that gun ownership reduces crime. The research shows that criminals are less aggressive when they fear potential victims may be armed.

Moreover, they don’t even have practical proposals. Here’s some of what Jacob Sullum wrote for Reason.

None of the items on the anti-gun lobby’s wish list makes sense as a response to the crimes of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old college student who murdered Martinez’s son and five other people on Friday night. …the Isla Vista massacre, which took place in a state with firearm laws that are among the strictest in the nation, exposes the false promise of policies that aim to prevent violence by limiting access to weapons. …The only specific policy Gross mentioned was “expanded background checks.” But California already has those: All gun sales in that state, including private transfers, must be handled by licensed dealers, and every buyer has to be cleared by the California Department of Justice…

Sullum continues.

Rodger passed those background checks because he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record. …Yes, Rodger was depressed, socially isolated, and desperately lonely. But how many people who fit that description become mass murderers? The difficulty of predicting which of the world’s troubled oddballs will turn violent is the reason “expanded background checks” cannot stop this sort of crime.

Good point. Heck, if getting rejected by the opposite sex was a predicate for mass murder, I would have been a potential killer in high school.

So what might have worked? Perhaps, in a leftist fantasy world, outright confiscation of 300 million guns. Though that would lead to massive civil disobedience.

Not to mention they would have to impose controls on knives and cars.

One can imagine policies that might have stopped Rodger, but they are neither practical nor constitutional. If the government not only banned guns but somehow managed to confiscate the 300 million or so Americans already own, that would have put a damper on Rodger’s plans, although he used knives to kill half of the victims who died and used his car to injure others.

And here are some excerpts from analysis by the invaluable John Lott. He starts by observing that the already-existing gun control rules in California were utterly ineffective.

As usual, the media news stories got fundamental facts wrong here. Of particular interest, half the people killed here were stabbed to death. Also, you won’t hear this in the news, the magazines that the killer used were also apparently limited to holding no more than 10 rounds (note that the Sheriff said that all the magazines were legal under California law). Obviously neither point fits the gun control check list.

More important, the anti-gun policies in California may have made it easier for the killer.

Santa Barbara County, where the attack occurred, is essentially a gun-free zone. As of February 2014, there were only 53 individuals with a concealed handgun permit in Santa Barbara County. With an adult population of 337,000, that is a rate of just 0.016 percent. The few people allowed to carry are undoubtedly politically well connected individuals who were unlikely to have been in the part of town where this attack occurred. As we have seen over and over again, these multiple victim killers deliberately select locations where victims are unlikely to be able to defend themselves.

Indeed, in another article, Lott notes that the nutjob carefully planned his attack to minimize the chances of being stopped by a law-abiding person with a gun.

Rodger spent over a year and a half meticulously planning his attack. His 141-page “manifesto” makes it clear that he feared someone with a gun could stop him before he was able to kill a lot of people. …Deterrence matters. As my research with Bill Landes at the University of Chicago found, letting people defend themselves doesn’t just prevent these attacks from occurring, it also limits the harm should the attack occur.  At some point, the fact that virtually all these mass shootings take place where victims are defenseless is going to have to matter.

To be sure, there’s no way to fully prevent crazed and evil people from doing bad things. But public policy can tip the scales in one direction or the other.

That’s why we should focus on policies that discourage bad guys by changing their cost-benefit calculations, such as making it easier for victims to defend themselves.

Not that I expect our statist friends to grasp this economic insight. It seems gun control is a faith-based policy, as captured by this amusing image.

Gun Control Stupid

The same message can be found in this Chuck Asay cartoon and these satirical images.

P.S. I shouldn’t stereotype all leftists as being naive on firearms and gun control. As you can read here and here, there are some who put reason ahead of ideology.

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Time for another great moment in red tape.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that banks treat customers poorly in part because of bad laws and regulations from Washington.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates. …politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

You may think that only cranky libertarians are unhappy about this system.

But that’s not the case. Three professors with expertise in criminology, justice, sociology, and public policy wrote a detailed assessment of policies on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).

Given the establishment pedigree of the authors, the finding of the report are rather shocking. The report’s introduction hints that the whole apparatus should be called into question.

To date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the IMF, to assess either the costs or benefits of an AML/CFT regime.  The FATF system has proceeded as if  it produces only public and private goods, not public or private “bads” or adverse by-products  against which the “goods” have to be weighed.   The Fund staff itself has raised questions about whether its substantial investment in the 3rd round has yielded adequate returns. It is not known what value that investment produced for the FATF or the Fund’s core objectives.  There needs to be more open acknowledgement of actual and potential financial costs of AML/CFT controls, their potential misuse by authoritarian rulers, and possible adverse effects on populations that rely on remittances and the informal economy, as well as potential negative impacts on NGOs and parts of civil society.

And when you dig into the details of the report, you find some surprisingly blunt language.

Basically, there’s no evidence that these policies work, and lots of evidence that they impose real harm.

Benefits of the FATF AML/CFT system have not been demonstrated. Although there may be benefits known to international organizations, governments, regulators, and intelligence agencies, no systematic efforts have been made by the FATF network of IOs or countries or institutions to demonstrate benefits. …Standards and Methodology proceed as if the implementation of an effective AML/CFT regime delivers only public and private goods and imposes no public or private “bads.” This study has learned of no significant effort by any of the standard-setting or assessor bodies to undertake a cost-benefit analysis… Little consideration has been given, they say, to the costs of implementing an AML/CFT regime, and little evidence has been adduced to demonstrate that the costs produce commensurate benefits in their own or indeed in any other jurisdiction. …Costs are substantial whether construed broadly or narrowly. …Moreover, an AML/CFT regime generates substantial costs on the financial sector in terms of money-laundering compliance staff and software procurement. Entire industries have grown around consulting and advising businesses and governments on AML/CFT compliance… Particularly strong views were expressed by bankers about excessive costs of misplaced demands upon the financial industry for surveillance of customers.

The report notes that poor people are among the biggest victims.

AML laws and regulations may adversely affect access of marginal groups whom FATF documents describe as subject to “financial exclusion” from the formal financial system. The more onerous the burdens placed on individuals, companies, and NPOs in countries where there is a substantial informal and cash economy, the more likely they are to opt out of the formal economy for reasons of cost. …Money laundering and counter-terrorism measures can reduce the volume of overseas remittances to the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries. …Administrative and financial costs imposed on voluntary associations, most of which are very small and poorly funded, can threaten the survival of small associations

By the way, the World Bank also has acknowledged that these counterproductive laws are very bad for poor people, oftentimes disenfranchising them from the banking system

Last but not least, kudos to the authors for making the very relevant point that the destruction of financial privacy is a boon for authoritarian governments.

Numbers of experienced assessors have observed that a fully functioning AML/CFT regime in some countries has provided tools for authoritarian rulers to repress their political opponents by denying them banking or other facilities, increasing surveillance over their accounts, and prosecuting or penally taxing them for  non-disclosure, in addition to opening up more opportunities for illegal extortion for private gain. This weapon can be applied against persons/organizations already in the formal financial system.

It’s worth pointing out that this also explains why it’s so dangerous to have governments collecting and sharing tax information.

But let’s stick to the issue of money laundering. Now let’s look at two case studies to get a sense of how these laws impose real-world harm.

We’ll begin with an article in The Economist, which looks at how Western Union’s ability to provide financial services has been hampered by heavy-handed (yet ineffective) laws and regulation.

It seems like this is a company providing a very valuable service, particularly to the less fortunate.

Western Union’s services are essential for people who do not have bank accounts or are working far from home. …Western Union helps to bolster trade and disperse the world’s wealth.

But the statists don’t care.

Someone, somewhere, may want to transfer money for a nefarious purpose. And rather than the government do its job and investigate actual crimes, politicians and bureaucrats have decided that it’s easier to make Western Union spy on all customers.

…these laudable activities conflict with another pressing goal: impeding money laundering. Rules to that end require financial institutions to know who their customers are and how they obtained their money. These requirements transform the virtues of Western Union’s model—the openness and breadth of its network and its willingness to process vast numbers of small transactions—into liabilities.

And the heavy boot of government came down on the company, forcing Western Union to incur heavy expenses that make the system far more expensive for consumers.

Western Union struck a far-reaching compliance agreement with Arizona’s attorney-general in 2010. It agreed to adopt 73 changes to its systems and procedures, to install an external monitor to keep tabs on its conduct and to fund the creation of a new enforcement entity, the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. Many of the recommendations were highly detailed. Western Union has, for example, set up a system to monitor transactions that takes into account factors such as the seasonality of marijuana harvests and illegal immigration. It is conducting background checks on agents and their families. Such efforts have turned out to be difficult and expensive. …Western Union’s shares have been jolted several times. Earlier this month Western Union said it would be subject to independent monitoring for an extra four years. It faces big fines and criminal prosecutions if it fails to meet the stipulations in the compliance agreement.

Let’s look at another real-world consequence of the AML/CFT regime.

You’ve heard of “driving while black,” which describes the suspicion and hostility that blacks sometimes experience, particularly when driving in ritzy neighborhoods.

Well, DWB has a cousin. It’s BWR, otherwise know as “banking while Russian.” And the stereotype has unpleasant consequences for innocent people.

Here are some passages from a story in the New York Times.

We had sold our apartment in Moscow, jumped through an assortment of Russian tax hoops and transferred the proceeds to the United States, where we now lived. It made me nervous to have all that money sitting in one virtual clump in the bank — but not nearly as nervous as having the card connected to it not work. The experience was also humiliating. In one moment, I had gone from being a Citigold client to a deadbeat immigrant who couldn’t pay for her son’s diapers. I called Citibank as soon as I got home. …”Who closed it?” I was working hard not to sound belligerent. “And where is my money?” …It was Citibank. “I see that because your transactions indicated there may be an attempt to avoid complying with currency regulations, Citibank has closed your account,” the woman informed me. …“Why wasn’t I notified?” “The cashier’s check will serve as your notice.” Citibank had fired me as a client.

Why would a bank not want customers?

Because the government makes some clients too costly and too risky, even though there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing.

Other than ethnicity.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. This had happened to other Russian-Americans I know, including one of my closest friends and my father. My friend had opened her account at a local bank in the United States when she got her first job, at age 13. Her accounts were summarily closed in 2008, while she was working in Russia. The bank, which had been bought by Sovereign in the meantime, would not state a reason for firing a client of 27 years. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, had his accounts closed by BankBoston in 2000, when he was a partner in a Moscow-based business. His lawyers pressed the bank on the issue and were eventually told that because Russians had been known to launder money, the bank applied “heightened scrutiny” to accounts that had a Russia connection. It had closed “many” accounts because of what it considered suspicious activity. Like other kinds of ethnic profiling, these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient.

But the main thing to understand is that the entire system is inefficient.

Laws were adopted with the promise they would reduce crime. But just like you don’t stop crime by having cops hang out at Dunkin’s Donuts, you also don’t stop crime by creating haystacks of financial data and then expecting to make it easier to find needles.

For more information, here’s my video on the government’s failed money laundering policies.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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Last June, in response to a question about indiscriminate spying by the National Security Agency, I made two simple points about the importance of judicial oversight and cost-benefit analysis.

I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

Nothing since then has changed my mind.

Indeed, I’m perhaps even more skeptical of untrammeled government power and ability to spy on citizens for the simple reason that I don’t trust politicians.

Just look at how the White House turned the supposedly professional IRS into a partisan political operation. The government had power, ostensibly for a legitimate reason, but politicians and bureaucrats then used the power is a grossly improper fashion.

On the other hand, I know there are people out there who hate America. And they don’t just hate us because we’re intervening in the Middle East. I suspect many of them would want to kill us even if we had a perfect libertarian foreign policy of non-intervention and peaceful global commerce.

Now we learn from a report in the Washington Post that government has become bigger and more powerful and that our privacy has been violated as part of the NSA’s spying, yet there have been no benefits. As is zero. Nada. Zilch.

Here are some excerpts.

An analysis of 225 terrorism cases inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” In the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case, according to the study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

But perhaps, you may be thinking, this is merely the predictable conclusion of a group that is predisposed to be skeptical. That’s a fair concern, but the article also has some very compelling corroborating evidence.

The study, to be released Monday, corroborates the findings of a White House-appointed review group, which said last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

So not only do outsiders find little to no value in NSA spying, but even hand-picked insiders couldn’t come up with any evidence to show that the program was effective.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that defenders of the NSA have come up with a can’t-miss way of defining success.

Senior administration officials…say it has been valuable in knocking down rumors of a plot and in determining that potential threats against the United States are nonexistent. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. calls that the “peace of mind” metric.

Yes, your eyes did not deceive you.You actually read correctly. The government wants us to acquiesce to a loss of privacy because we will learn that there are no threats and we’ll have “peace of mind.”

That has to be the lamest justification for government power that I’ve ever read.

This is even more preposterous than asserting that we should squander $1 trillion per year on anti-poverty programs, not because that redistribution will help the poor, but rather because it makes leftists feel better about themselves.

That being said, supporters do have a somewhat powerful comeback.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”

Indeed, I suspect this is the main reason why ordinary people might support the NSA.

But I disagree with Mr. Morell because he asserts that a single example of success would be invaluable. The article, for instance, cites one “victory” for the NSA surveillance program.

…the program provided evidence to initiate only one case, involving a San Diego cabdriver, Basaaly ­Moalin, who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia. Three co-conspirators were also convicted. The cases involved no threat of attack against the United States.

I’m glad that a foreign terrorist attack was blocked, but is that really “invaluable”? Does that “victory” justify a very expensive and very intrusive NSA monitoring regime?

As I’ve acknowledged before, I don’t know enough about terrorism to offer an informed viewpoint. But I have studied a similar issue, money laundering laws, and that research leads me to be very suspicious about the NSA.

These laws were put in place with the excuse that government would collect and analyze large amounts of data to help deter crime.

All the evidence, however, shows that these laws are a costly failure. The invade our privacy, hurt the poor, impose high regulatory costs, and have little or no impact on underlying crimes.

Just something to keep in mind when people argue that government should have more power and authority.

P.S. At least the revelations about NSA spying have generated some first-rate political humor.

P.P.S. Keep in mind that the NSA is just one cog in the machinery of government. So if you’re worried about the NSA’s intrusion and power, then you should also worry about the power of the IRS. If you’re concerned about the IRS’s authority, then you also should fret about the Obamacare exchanges. And if you think the Obamacare exchanges give the government too much knowledge and power, then you should be agitated about “know-your-customer” laws that require banks to spy on their customers. And if you’re not happy about those money-laundering rules, then you surely should be dismayed about asset-forfeiture rules. And if you don’t approve of government stealing property, then maybe you don’t like government accumulation of power for the Drug War. And if the failed War on Drugs rubs you the wrong way, then perhaps you…I better stop now. I think you get the point.

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It’s no secret that I think we have too many government bureaucrats and I’ve shared very strong evidence that most of them are grossly overpaid.

I also have shown some data suggesting that they don’t work very hard, though I confess to mixed feelings about that factoid since I’d rather have some bureaucrats goofing off all day. After all, the economy would be even more burdened if they were being zealous and harassing additional people in the economy’s productive sector.

As an economist, one of my broad concerns is that taxpayers are picking up the tab for bloated bureaucracy. But I’m also worried for another big reason. We get less prosperity when too many people are being lured into government jobs. Simply stated, those people could be contributing to economic output if they instead were employed in the private sector.

In other words, our living standards depend on how productively we utilize labor and capital.

But we need to be careful about how we define “private sector.”

Why? Because not all private jobs are created equal. There are millions of government contractors, for instance, and many of those people should be considered part of a “shadow bureaucracy.” Too often, they’re doing things that are just as wasteful and inefficient as their bureaucrat counterparts, but they don’t show up in the Labor Department data as part of the government workforce.

Another example of the wrong kind of private employment is the so-called compliance sector.

Here are some excerpts from a report in The Hill about “compliance officers” hired by private companies.

A growing thicket of federal regulations under the Obama administration has contributed to an employment spike in at least one corner of the job market: the increasingly vital compliance industry.  ObamaCare, the Dodd-Frank Act and other large federal undertakings have led to an outpouring of new agency rules derided by business groups and defended by advocates.  But the regulations have also been a boon for professional compliance officers paid to help companies understand and adapt to the new requirements.  …Data kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows an 18-percent increase in the number of compliance officers in the United States between 2009 and 2012.

The article continues, including data showing that the compliance sector is getting bigger, costing lots of money, and that the problem began before Obama took office.

At last count, there were an estimated 227,500 compliance officers employed in the United States, according to the BLS. The bureau defines a compliance officer as an employee responsible for evaluating conformity with laws and regulations. …Compliance officers make an average of just under $65,000 annually, a gross national labor cost of roughly $14.7 billion, according to the BLS data. …for small firms without the resources to hire their own full-time compliance staff, adapting to new regulations can be an expensive proposition, said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy for AAF. …The expansion of the compliance industry did not begin under President Obama and is not solely linked to the healthcare and Wall Street reform bills. The AAF analysis found a 122-percent increase of compliance officers over the past 10 years.

Gee, maybe we can get to the point where our entire economy is nothing but government bureaucrats and compliance officers. With enough of both categories, we could have full employment!

Of course, there would be one tiny little problem since nothing would get produced. And with nobody generating any income, there wouldn’t be any money to pay for the paper pushers from both government and the private sector.

But as we’ve seen from nations such as Greece, politicians generally don’t grasp this simple point until it’s too late.

Though let’s give a shout out to the former left-wing President of Brazil, who irritated his socialist supporters by making a seemingly elementary observation that you have to have production before you can have redistribution. Heck, even rock stars are beginning to realize that capitalism is the right approach if you want better lives for the less fortunate.

So maybe there’s hope.

Let’s close by issuing a couple of important caveats. Notwithstanding my occasionally overheated rhetoric, not all government jobs are bad jobs. Similarly, I don’t want to imply that all compliance jobs in the private sector are wasteful and inefficient.

To be more specific, I mean those statements in the narrow sense that companies doubtlessly are trying to adapt to all the new regulatory burdens in the least costly manner possible. So the jobs they are creating make sense, given the reality that firms are being buried under a blizzard of red tape.

But I also mean it in the broad sense that there are some regulations that pass a cost-benefit test, and compliance officers resulting from those regulations presumably are part of such calculations. Even a cranky libertarian like me, for instance, won’t lose sleep about compliance officers in a nuclear power plant or at a medical lab doing research on the Ebola virus.*

*But allow me to point out that a genuinely free market would have something akin to compliance officers because of “private regulation.” As I explained last year, “the profit motive creates mutually reinforcing oversight,” and we can be quite confident that market forces would do a better job of protecting us at lower cost.

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I’m a very straight-laced guy. Some would even say boring. I’ve never done drugs, for instance.

But not because they’re illegal. I’ve never done drugs for the reason that I’ve never smoked cigarettes. Just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. And I encourage friends and family to have the same approach.

That being said, I’ve never thought we should criminalize things simply because I don’t like them.

Particularly when it would make a lot more sense to focus law enforcement resources on stopping crimes against people and property. This new video from Learn Liberty explains further.

But this isn’t about cost-benefit analysis. Watch this powerful video from Reason TV about how one family has been victimized by drug prohibition.

Now ask yourself what purpose it served to have local cops basically entrap that unfortunate kid? If you come up with an answer, you have a very creative imagination.

Also keep in mind that the War on Drugs is the reason why politicians imposed costly and ineffective anti-money laundering laws. As well as disgusting and reprehensible asset forfeiture laws.

One misguided government policy leading to two other bad policies. That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids!

P.S. Drugs do impose costs, but they’re mostly incurred by moronic users. Though there sometimes are collateral victims, such as kids whose parents allow their lives to get messed up. That’s why it would be nice if drugs somehow didn’t exist. Heck, the same things could be said about booze. Or tobacco. But they do exist. The libertarian position isn’t that these things are good. Instead, our position is that prohibition does more harm than good.

P.P.S. Just in case you think I’m an outlier, I invite you to read the thoughts of John McCain, John Stossel, Mona Charen, Gary Johnson, Pat Robertson, Cory Booker, and Richard Branson.

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I want government to successfully and rationally fight crime and stop terrorism. That’s a perfectly appropriate libertarian sentiment since protecting life, liberty, and property are among the few legitimate roles for government.

But I don’t want to give bureaucrats carte blanche to monitor our lives and I don’t want to waste money in those cases where it is proper for the government to snoop on bad guys.

And those are some of the sentiments I expressed in this panel for Forbes on Fox.

My wonkish concern for cost-benefit analysis and corporate welfare is not empty posturing. There’s real money involved.

Here’s some of what CBS News reported on the issue.

How much are your private conversations worth to the U.S. government? Turns out, it can be a lot, depending on the technology. …AT&T, for example, imposes a $325 “activation fee” for each wiretap and $10 a day to maintain it. Smaller carriers Cricket and U.S. Cellular charge only about $250 per wiretap. But snoop on a Verizon customer? That costs the government $775 for the first month and $500 each month after that… Industry says it doesn’t profit from the hundreds of thousands of government eavesdropping requests it receives each year… “What we don’t want is surveillance to become a profit center,” said Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist. But “it’s always better to charge $1. It creates friction, and it creates transparency” because it generates a paper trail that can be tracked. …The FBI said it could not say how much it spends on industry reimbursements because payments are made through a variety of programs, field offices and case funds.

I confess that I’m not an expert – or even a novice – on the details of law enforcement, but I’m glad that my speculation on the low cost of setting up a wiretap seems to have been accurate. At least based on this excerpt from the article.

In 2009, then-New York criminal prosecutor John Prather sued several major telecommunications carriers in federal court in Northern California in 2009, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, for overcharging federal and state police agencies. In his complaint, Prather said phone companies have the technical ability to turn on a switch, duplicate call information and pass it along to law enforcement with little effort. Instead, Prather says his staff, while he was working as a city prosecutor, would receive convoluted bills with extraneous fees. The case is pending.

This article, as well as the Forbes on Fox debate, deal with general law enforcement, not the controversy about NSA data collection and monitoring.

But I can’t resist sharing this excellent bit of NSA-related humor that arrived in my inbox.

NSA Obama Humor

Very similar in quality and theme to this great set of images.

And if you appreciate political cartoons on this topic, here are some of my favorites. I think the one featuring Nixon and Bush is the best of the bunch.

Last but not least, here are my thoughts on the NSA/Snowden controversy if you want some non-humorous analysis.

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To save readers some time, the honest answer to the question is that I don’t have many profound thoughts about the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and snooping by the National Security Agency.

But since I’ve been asked by several people to pontificate on the matter, I won’t let trivial obstacles such as lack of knowledge or absence of expertise preclude me from giving a response. Heck, I’ve written about drone attacks, and terrorism policy, and my knowledge in those areas may be even less than the President’s understanding of the economy!

Normally, when I’m in the dark about some matter of public policy, I simply see what some of my Cato colleagues have said about an issue. But as you can see here, here, and here, those experts are split on the topic (brings to mind the joke about the politician who, when asked his position on some legislation, said “some of my friends are for the plan and some of my friends are opposed, and I always stick with my friends).

So I reckon I’ll just wing it with a couple of observations and a concluding thought about patriotism.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

I confess I don’t know whether NSA snooping is a good use of time and energy, but I’m skeptical. Why? Because we don’t find much common sense in areas where I do know enough to run my mouth, such as money laundering laws and Transportation Security Administration rules. So why is NSA snooping any different?

It probably isn’t. As such, I side with other Americans in not wanting to give up my liberties simply because some politicians say our security is threatened.

That being said, I find myself irked by Mr. Snowden’s behavior. Some people believe he is a genuine patriot (in the proper sense of the word) motivated by libertarian principles, but the fact that he fled to Russia (perhaps en route to Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador) doesn’t reflect well on him.

For all its flaws, I rank the United States far above places such as Russia, China, and assorted Latin American thug regimes.

I understand that Snowden presumably wants to go someplace where he can’t be snatched by American officials, but he will cross the line and unambiguously become a traitor in my eyes if he gives sensitive material to unfriendly foreign governments.

And by sensitive, I don’t necessarily mean classified. I’m sure the federal government goes way overboard in labeling material as secret or classified. I’m talking about information that could compromise the security of the United States.

I’m guessing Edward Snowden has such information. If he shares it with hostile governments, he’s a bad person.

P.S. Here’s a humorous look at Obama-approved snooping.

P.P.S. If you think I’m being too hard on Snowden, you’ll probably beat my libertarian score on this comprehensive test.

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After the financial crisis, the consensus among government officials was that we needed more regulation.

This irked me in two ways.

1. I don’t want more costly red tape in America, particularly when the evidence is quite strong that the crisis was caused by government intervention. Needless to say, the politicians ignored my advice and imposed the costly Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

2. I’m even more worried about global regulations that force all nations to adopt the same policy. The one-size-fits-all approach of regulatory harmonization is akin to an investment strategy of putting all your retirement money into one stock.

I talked about this issue in Slovakia, as a conference that was part of the Free Market Road Show. The first part of my presentation was a brief description of cost-benefit analysis. I think that’s an important issue, and you can click here is you want more info about that topic.

But today I want to focus on the second part of my presentation, which begins at about the 3:40 mark. Simply stated, there are big downsides to putting all your eggs in one regulatory basket.

The strongest example for my position is what happened with the “Basel” banking rules. International regulators were the ones who pressured financial institutions to invest in both mortgage-backed securities and government bonds.

Those harmonized regulatory policies didn’t end well.

Sam Bowman makes a similar point in today’s UK-based City AM.

Financial regulations like the Basel capital accords, designed to make banks act more prudentially,  did the opposite – incentivising banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. Unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these were compounded across the entire global financial system.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key. Regulatory harmonization can result in mistakes that are “compounded across the entire global financial system.”

And let’s not forget that global regulation also would be a vehicle for more red tape since politicians wouldn’t have to worry about economic activity migrating to jurisdictions with more sensible policies – just as tax harmonization is a vehicle for higher taxes.

P.S. For a more learned and first-hand explanation of how regulatory harmonization can create systemic risk, check out this column by a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

P.P.S. Politicians seem incapable of learning from their mistakes. The Obama Administration is trying to reinflate the housing bubble, which was a major reason for the last financial crisis. This Chuck Asay cartoon neatly shows why this is misguided.

Asay Housing Cartoon

P.P.S. Don’t forget that financial regulation is just one small piece of the overall red tape burden.

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A reader wants to know if I think the American people are becoming more statist over time.

I’m conflicted. More and more people get lured into some form of government dependency every year, and this suggests Americans eventually will adopt a  European-style moocher mentality.

This worries me.

On the other hand, I periodically see polls suggesting that the American people have very libertarian views on key issues.

These are encouraging numbers. And here’s another bit of good news. A recent poll by Fox News found that a plurality of Americans would not give up personal freedoms to reduce the threat of terrorism. What’s especially remarkable is that this poll took place immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon by the welfare-sponging Tsarnaev brothers.

Terrorism Freedom Tradeoff

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a left-leaning friend who said this poll showed that Americans were a bunch of “paranoid nuts” because this poll showed that they viewed their government with suspicion.

But perhaps people are simply rational. I had an intern look up data on the probability of getting killed by a terrorist. He found an article from Reason that reported.

…a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, the odds of being killed by a terrorist are very low. And with the risk so low, why give up liberty? Particularly when it’s highly unlikely that sacrificing more of your freedom will actually reduce the already-low threat of terrorism.

This reminds me of the money laundering issue. Just a few decades ago, there was no such thing as anti-money laundering laws. Then politicians decided we need these laws to reduce crime.

These laws, we were told, would give law enforcement more tools to catch bad guys and also reduce the incentive to commit crimes since it would be harder for criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

That sounds good, but the evidence shows that these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

So how did politicians respond? In a stereotypical display of Mitchell’s Law, they decided to make anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact.

This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So when I see polls showing the American people are skeptical about surrendering freedom to the government, I don’t think they are being “paranoid.” I think they’re being very rational.

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