Tag: Harvard University

Is the Faculty of Harvard University Irrational?

As an irony junkie, this New York Times article on the outrage among Harvard’s faculty that they should face greater cost-sharing in their health benefits – and the incredulity of Harvard’s health economists at their colleagues’ reactions – is one of the most wonderful things I have read in the course of my career. And it reminded me of another Ivy League health economist: Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt.

It has long been one of Reinhardt’s hobby horses that “the American public’s idea of ‘common sense’ in health care” is fundamentally irrational:

To be responsive, then, to the “simple common sense” of the American people, any proposed health reform must not reduce the revenue of hospitals, lest some neighborhood hospital may have to close; or of doctors, lest some doctors might refuse to see patients; or of the manufacturers of health products, lest they are unable to innovate; or of anyone on the supply side of the health sector, lest they go out of business and have to lay off employees.

At the same time, the “simple common sense” of the American people dictates that any health reform that fails to bend down the growth curve of future health spending — the current jargon for controlling health spending better — is unacceptable, too.

At the time Reinhardt penned this particular expression of his exasperation (July 2009), I noted that the irrationality he decries is a direct result of policies he and other left-leaning health reformers have enacted into law:

The [explanation] is actually pretty simple: government has given us a health sector where everyone is spending someone else’s money.  In such an economy, individuals can make irrational demands (cut spending — but don’t reduce my access to care!) because they don’t bear the cost of their irrationality.

Emphasis added. People who pay for their own consumption don’t have the luxury of being able to pretend that tradeoffs don’t exist. Walk into a BMW dealership and announce, “I want a 7-series at Hyundai prices!”, and the dealer will laugh at you. When Medicare enrollees do the same thing – Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare! – the people who run Medicare praise and court them.

The seeds of such irrationality can also be seen in the case of Harvard University or any other employer-sponsored health plan, where the federal government imposes stiff tax penalties on anyone who does not (1) surrender $5,000 or $11,000 of their income to their employer and (2) let their employer use that money to select their health plan. Since this goverment policy means that workers don’t control that portion of their compensation, and don’t perceive the direct and negative relationship that employer-provided health insurance has on their wages (partly because they can’t get that money back by declining health benefits), workers end up demanding mutually incompatible things: comprehensive health-insurance coverage that doesn’t cost them anything. If that seems irrational, it is because, as I put it in that 2009 blog post, “Socialized Medicine Socializes the Cost of Irrationality, Too.”

Now that the Smartest People In The Universe – the faculty at Harvard University, naturally – are displaying the same behavior as the supposedly irrational American public, would Reinhardt still describe that behavior as irrational? Or is it Reinhardt and like-minded health economists who are irrational for expecting the lab mice to behave some other way? 

Not Everyone Needs to Go to College

William F. Buckley famously said that he’d ”rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” That was, of course, a swipe at the practical wisdom of those people who spend their lives teaching in ivory towers, and a deserved one. But score one for the egg heads when it comes to identifying the practical reality of modern higher education.

According to a new report from Public Agenda, while college presidents blather on about their impoverished schools and what a tremendous public good higher education is, the professors (at least those that Public Agenda interviewed) are pretty darn realistic about the real problems in academia. This quote, echoed in professorial statements throughout the report, captures exactly what a lot of us libertarian types have been saying for years:

I think a big problem facing higher education is the idea that everybody should get into college. I don’t think everybody is designed to go to college. Not everybody needs to go to college. I know that’s shooting ourselves in the foot, because that’s where our jobs are. The more people show up at our schools, the more jobs we get. Not everybody needs to go to college. Not everybody should. Not everybody’s prepared.

Public Agenda doesn’t identify who the speakers are in its report, but whoever said the bit above – or any of the similar statements about too many people going to college or being pushed to go to college – actually deserves to get tenure.

Is Libertarianism a Sign of Mental Illness?

I don’t know whether this belongs in the comic-relief category or the future-threats category, but the Harvard Law School is having a conference to analyze the “free market mindset.” The basic premise of the conference seems to be that people who believe in limited government are psychologically troubled.

The conference schedule features presentations such as “How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community” and “Addicted to Incentives: How the Ideology of Self Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling.” The most absurd presentation, though, may be the one entitled, “Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies.” According to the description, the author argues that the market “delivers excessive levels of consumption.” Damn those entrepreneurs for creating so much wealth!

In the good old days of Soviet dictatorship, the regime classified dissidents as being mentally ill (after all, only a nutcase would fail to see the glories of communism).

Now that leftists at Harvard want to portray laissez-faire philosophy as being somewhat akin to a mental disorder, maybe the next step will be re-education camps for Cato staff? Maybe the next “stimulus” bill could include a few earmarks for such facilities? I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I get sent some place warm.