Archives: 04/2007

Who’s Afraid of a Little Flab?

Lest anyone get too carried away with the current wave of anti-obesity hysterics, Harvard economists David Cutler and Edward Glaeser, along with University of Michigan professor of medicine Allison Rosen, have released a working paper titled “Is the US Population Behaving Healthier?” where they find that Americans are getting healthier in spite of a little extra flab.  From the abstract:

Despite substantial increases in obesity in the past three decades, the overall population risk profile is healthier now than it was formerly.  For the population aged 25-74, the 10 year probability of death fell from 9.8 percent in 1971-75 to 8.4 percent in 1999-2002.  Among the population aged 55-74, the 10 year risk of death fell from 25.7 percent to 21.7 percent.  The largest contributors to these changes were the reduction in smoking and better control of blood pressure. Increased obesity increased risk, but not by as large a quantitative amount.  In the future, however, increased obesity may play a larger role than continued reductions in smoking.  We estimate that a continuation of trends over the past three decades to the next three decades might offset about a third of the behavioral improvements witnessed in recent years.

So when you order that second cheeseburger, be sure to ask for a side of ACE inhibitors.

The Right’s Love Affair with the Military

My post the other day about whether American society really ought to look more like the U.S. Army has induced a vein-popping, spittle-flying tirade over at Right-Thinking from the Left Coast. Apparently, the point I was trying to make was lost on some.

To recap, Robert Wright argued in the op-ed pages of The New York Times (subscription required) for an America that looked more like the U.S. Army. In that piece, Wright went on at some length pointing out all the wonderful things he found in that institution. Fine, although I certainly know people who spent time in the U.S. Army who saw things a lot differently.

But never mind. The author left out one not-so-inconsequential aspect of the U.S. Army - in fact, the one thing that actually defines the institution. To wit, it’s an organization in which people are expected to shut up and do as they are told. And if they don’t, they are jailed or even, in some circumstances, shot. And their job is to kill.

Do I think American society ought to look more like that? Uh, no.

Now, how do we get from that – which should have been obvious to most readers – to this shrill “you hate the troops” stuff out of Right-Thinking from the Left Coast? My guess is that there are a lot of people on the Right who worship the Pentagon and everything it stands for because they see it as representing the country as a whole. And, well, they love the heck out of their country.

I understand this, but to me, the military has always been less of a mirror image of the country I love than a mirror image of the Post Office I don’t so love – but a Post Office with heavy ordnance. Sure, we need the military to protect ourselves from bad actors abroad, but let’s not lose our perspective. We need construction workers to protect us from big potholes on the road too, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go into a conniption every time I run across someone with a none-too-rosy view of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The observation I made in my original post – that it’s unimaginable that any of our founding fathers would ever even dream of making Wright’s argument – was not off-handed rhetorical flourish. It’s a cold hard fact. James Madison, for instance, considered a standing army “necessary” but “dangerous” and, at the very least, an “inconvenience.” Consider the full quote from Federalist 41:

The liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale, its consequences may be fatal. On any scale, it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution.

And that’s on the mild side of the sentiments we find from other founders regarding the institution the modern Right so tightly embraces. In a letter to Samuel Cooper in 1770, for instance, Benjamin Franklin contended that the lot of a common soldier was worse than that of a slave and that the military was “a devouring monster.” George Washington in his farewell address contended that the military establishment is “inauspicious to liberty” and “particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Benjamin Rush proposed in 1792 that the entry to the Department of War should be inscribed with two captions; “An Office for Butchering the Human Species,” and “A Widow and Orphan Making Office.” John Randolph famously argued from the floor of the 6th Congress that:

The military parade which meets the eye in almost every direction excites the fall of our citizens; they feel a just indignation at the sight of loungers, who live upon the public, who consume the fruits of their honest industry, under the pretext of protecting them from a foreign yoke. They put no confidence, sir, in the protection of a handful of ragamuffins.

There may be statements from some founding fathers echoing John Ashcroft about “letting the eagle soar … with heavy weaponry,” but if so, I’ve never come across them. References to the military as a necessary evil are about as positive a statement as your going to find … from them or me.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, you can have liberty, or you can have missile worship. But you’re unlikely to have both in the long run.

Czech Government Officially Proposes Flat Tax

Although its prognosis is unclear because of the ruling government’s lack of a firm majority in parliament, the Czech government has unveiled its flat tax. Combined with reductions in social welfare spending, the tax reform could dramatically boost Czech competitiveness and put more pressure on Western Europe’s welfare states. Tax-news.com reports:

The Czech government has announced a raft of major tax reform plans, which include a flat tax on personal income, a significant reduction in tax on corporate income, and changes to the value-added tax regime. Under the proposals announced by Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, if approved Czech taxpayers will pay a 15% flat tax on their personal income, while companies will see their income tax rate drop to 19% from the current 24% by 2010. At present personal income tax rates vary according to wages, and range from 12% to 32%. The lower rate of value-added tax will increase under these reforms to 9% from 5%, but the headline rate will remain unchanged at 19%. …with the tax cuts accompanied by some major cuts in welfare spending, such as unemployment benefits and healthcare, the government is sure to encounter opposition from the left.

Dueling Book Titles on Health Care

Shannon Brownlee writes in the New York Times,

Sure, aggressive treatment is reducing mortality and improving the quality of life for some patients. Sometimes it even cures. But for many others, the cancer machine offers only marginal benefits at best, and providers push screening and aggressive treatment in part because they have nothing else to give, but also because it’s profitable. How much of the money we spend on unnecessary or futile cancer treatment might be put to better use searching for real advances?

Her forthcoming book is titled, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Americans Sicker and Poorer.  Meanwhile, Jonathan Cohn writes

Every day, millions of hard-working people struggle to find affordable medical treatment for themselves and their families - unable to pay for prescription drugs and regular check-ups, let alone for hospital visits. Some of these people end up losing money. Others end up losing something more valuable: Their health or even their lives.

His book title is Sick:  The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis–and the People Who Pay the Price.

Europeans probably will love Cohn’s book, which apparently will reinforce their impression that Americans fall down dead in the streets every day because we don’t have enough socialized medicine.  Brownlee’s book also apparently will take an anti-capitalist slant, blaming evil doctors and hospitals for overtreating patients.

The moral of the story is that whether you are being overtreated or undertreated, it’s the fault of the evil capitalist system.  Still, if Cohn and/or Brownlee want to campaign on a platform of “Your health care stinks.  It’s time to replace your health insurance and your doctor with a government programm,” I think they may run into opposition.

But We Can Trust the Government, Right?

A common criticism of Social Security choice (and defense of the Social Security status quo) is that there are dishonest actors in private markets who would put people’s private account assets at risk of (in the words of the AFL-CIO) “corruption, waste and Enron-ization.” These critics argue that society is much better off keeping Social Security in the honest, benevolent hands of Uncle Sam.

What must these critics be thinking about today’s NYT above-the-fold article on teacher pension fund shenanigans in New Jersey? The lede says it all:

In 2005, New Jersey put either $551 million, $56 million or nothing into its pension fund for teachers. All three figures appeared in various state documents — though the state now says that the actual amount was zero.

Like many state and local government pension systems, New Jersey’s is woefully underfunded compared to the benefits it will have to pay in the future. (This situation will make headlines in the coming years, as state and local governments begin to disclose their pension fund and retirement benefit system shortfalls in accordance with a recent GASB requirement.) In New Jersey’s case, the shortfall is more than has been publicly acknowledged, however: “an analysis of its records by The New York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Talk about the Enronization of retirement benefits…

What should be especially troubling to SS choice opponents is that New Jersey has a number of “good government” provisions on its books, including one requiring any new state spending be paid for using a specified revenue source. When the state sweetened its pension benefits a few years ago, lawmakers supposedly complied with the law. Moreover, New Jersey officials told the NYT that there is no impropriety in the pension fund’s accounting — everything (including the apparent misstatements) is on the level.

So, despite “the right” legal safeguards, despite accounting mandates, despite the existence of a special interest (aka the state’s teachers’ union) with strong incentive to make sure the teachers’ pension fund is healthy, and despite the fund’s handling by supposedly honest, benevolent government, New Jersey’s teachers’ pension fund is “in dire shape, with a serious deficit.”

Choice opponents do have a reasonable concern that bad actors in investment markets could harm private accounts. But they fail to acknowledge that bad actors (and even non-bad actors) can — and do — harm public pensions. Wouldn’t it be sensible to allow people to put their public pension nest eggs in many different private investment baskets (some of which may be susceptible to bad actors) instead of keeping those eggs all in one Social Security basket (also susceptible to bad actors)?

At the very least, wouldn’t it be sensible to give people a choice of which bad actor risk they’d rather run?