Regulation News Pegs!!

In the public relations racket, they’re called “news pegs” — current events that can be used to promote your research. As editor of Regulation, I sometimes get the complaint that my publication is “interesting, but it doesn’t have a lot of news pegs.”

So how about this — two Regulation news pegs in one day!

Peg 1: Should we tax nonprofit hospitals?

Decades ago, Congress awarded tax-exempt status to private nonprofit hospitals in return for the hospitals agreeing to treat indigent patients who would otherwise rely on taxpayer-provided healthcare services. But this “grand bargain” is now under Capitol Hill scrutiny following the discovery that for-profit, non–tax exempt hospitals provide roughly the same amount of free medical care to the poor. Today’s NPR program Marketplace discusses the congressional hearings.

All of this should come as no surprise to readers of Regulation. In the summer issue, Guy David of Penn and Lorens Helmchen of Illinois-Chicago lay out this very problem and ask (pdf), why is the government giving one type of tax treatment to some hospitals and another type to others?

Peg 2: Soft Paternalism

For several years I’ve believed that one of the most important intellectual challenges to libertarian ideas is behavioral economics — the empirical field of study that suggests people often do not act rationally and thus markets do not maximize public welfare.

The current issue of the New Yorker contains an article by John Cassidy on behavioral and neuroeconomics that confirms my view. In the article, Cassidy writes that “most economists agree that, left alone, people will act in their own best interest, and that the market will coordinate their actions to produce outcomes beneficial to all.  Neuroeconomics potentially challenges both parts of this argument.”

The regulatory prescriptions that follow from this research are often described as “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism.  The basic notion is that government should require certain behaviors as a default rule (for example the purchase of health insurance or particpation in 401k saving plans) but allow people to opt out if they prefer.

But government actors appear to be no more rational than economic actors — and it is quite possible that soft paternalism could be more detrimental to public welfare than the private choices studied by behavioral economics. Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser states this case (pdf) in the summer issue of Regulation.