Topic: Regulatory Studies

Federal Stem Cell Funding in the Future?

On Thursday, April 12, two bills dealing with embryonic stem cell funding will come up for votes by the U.S. Senate. The president has promised to veto one of the bills should it come to his desk, but he supports the other. Ironically, the vague language of one of the bills and subsequent confusion in the press regarding the provisions of both bills have made passage of a funding bill more likely.

Here is my summary of what the bills would do: S. 5, which is essentially the same bill as the one passed by the House in January, allows federal funding of a wide range of embryonic stem cell research. S. 30, a “compromise” bill negotiated with the White House, allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research but of a kind that is essentially worthless.

But that is not how the bills have been described in the press. Two examples follow:

The Washington Times reported this morning:

The White House yesterday signaled support for legislation that provides federal funding for stem-cell research using embryonic cells that have no chance of surviving.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, seeks a middle ground in the highly charged debate over stem-cell research. His bill skirts moral concerns over using embryonic stem cells while ensuring federal funding for the breakthrough science.

Mr. Isakson’s bill would allow scientists to conduct research on embryos they determine are incapable of surviving in the womb but whose stem cells are still viable for research. The bill would also allow funding for research on stem cells from embryos that have died during fertility treatments.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Kaisernetwork.org reported something similar:

The White House on Thursday announced its support for a bill (S 30), co-sponsored by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), that would allow federal funding for stem cell research using embryos with no chance of survival, the Washington Times reports (Lopes, Washington Times, 4/6).

Currently, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research is allowed only for research using embryonic stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, under a policy announced by President Bush on that date.

Coleman and Isakson’s measure would fund research on stem cells taken from “dead” human embryos or extracted from living embryos without destroying them. In addition, it would allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that are not likely to survive during the freezing process or in the womb.

I’m sure the reporters who wrote those articles had access to some interpretations by members of Congress or the White House to which I’m not privy. But I don’t see much similarity between what they describe and the actual language of the two pieces of legislation. Here is what the two bills, in relevant part, actually say:

S 30: It is the purpose of this Act to—

(1) intensify research that may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions; and

(2) promote the derivation of pluripotent stem cell lines without the creation of human embryos for research purposes and without the destruction or discarding of, or risk of injury to, a human embryo or embryos other than those that are naturally dead.

By contrast, 

S 5: (b) Ethical Requirements— Human embryonic stem cells shall be eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary if the cells meet each of the following:

(1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.

(2) Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.

(3) The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.

The appeal of S. 30 to both sides of the debate may be that “without risk of injury” is open to interpretation. Those in favor of embryonic stem cell research can claim that funding for research done without the intent of injuring embryos, even if it in fact might injure some embryos, is acceptable. Those who worry about the well-being of embryos are likely to interpret the phrase very narrowly, as not allowing the funding of any research with even a potential for harming embryos.

The result will be the same whether both, neither, or one of the bills is passed. The nonsensical waste of time debating federal funding will continue, while researchers who truly care about making progress will do so with private funding.

The Sound of No ‘Peak’ Story Popping

Last week, in a Capitol Hill press conference featuring congressmen Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.),  the Government Accountability Office unveiled a new report on the looming catastrophe the United States faces from “peak oil.” With gas prices up and environmental stories popping in the press, Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO had to be thinking they’d have a hit on their hands.

So, if a GAO report falls on Capitol Hill and the media ignores it, does it count as news?

I can find no coverage of the press conference or the report in either the New York Times or the Washington Post. The only mention of it on either of those papers’ websites is in a transcript of an online chat session with Post politics reporter Lois Romano, wherein a reader asks if the Bartlett-Udall press conference will generate buzz.  Romano’s response (in essence): What press conference?

In fairness, the report did get a bit of play: the AP moved a short story on it and the WSJ briefed it. But no one is interviewed in either story, and the two pieces have the whiff of being quickly typed up from a press release. In other words, the media decided the report didn’t merit any real attention.

Peak oil, if you’ve never heard the term, is the theory that oil, as a finite resource, will grow increasingly difficult and expensive to extract over time. At some point, the global extraction rate will peak and then decline because of the increasing cost and difficulty.

The GAO report investigates the theory and comes up with three scintillating conclusions (I’m paraphrasing):

(1)  The world will indeed reach an oil peak — in the next few years, or the next 15 years, or the next 35 years, or the next 70 years, or sometime in the 22nd century.

(2)  It’s currently unclear how the United States will adjust to declining production rates when they do occur.

(3)  We’re all doomed, doomed I tellz ya’!

OK, (3) is hyperbolic — but just a tiny bit.

The notion of peak oil gained currency back in the early 1970s, a little more than a decade after geophysicist Marion King Hubbert correctly predicted that (Lower-48) U.S.-produced oil would peak around 1970. (Peak oil theory is often referred to as “Hubbert’s peak.”)

But Hubbert wasn’t the first person to come up with the concept. The notion dates at least to 1875 (yes, 1875) when John Strong Newberry claimed the oil peak was imminent. From then on, there’ve been many versions of the same refrain: The End (of oil) is nigh.

In respect to Newberry, Hubbert, Bartlett, Udall, and all the other “end is nigh” guys, there is validity to their theory. At some point in the future, the rate of global oil production will max out and then begin to decline. And it’s quite possible that we may not have cheap and easy substitutes for oil when that occurs, so there’ll be some significant changes for the world. But it’s also quite possible that we’ll develop substitutes for oil long before the cost of extraction, by itself, produces an oil peak; instead, the peak would result from our preferring — and thus shifting to — the substitutes. After all, that’s what has produced many previous natural resource shifts.

But let’s assume the former scenario plays out. Does that mean we are, indeed, doomed? And should we thus adopt the GAO report’s two policy recommendations that the U.S. government (1) carry out a massive global information-gathering effort to determine when the oil peak will occur, and (2) orchestrate a bold, unified national program to prepare for the peak oil transition to substitutes?

Let’s consider the policy recommendations first. Given the U.S. government’s track record on determining Iraq’s supply of weapons of mass destruction, how wise would it be to rely on the government to estimate the future supply of known and unknown sources of oil in Iraq, Iran, Saudi, Nigeria, Russia, Kuwait, Syria, Venezuela, China, Cuba, under the world’s oceans, etc.? How reliable would be government projections of the future technological developments that will increase human abilities to access that oil? Moreover, given that the U.S. government’s only great success in developing and broadly implementing an alternative energy program is nuclear power, do we really want it to be orchestrating a national program for a major transition to new energy sources? (I won’t mention the risk that the government, in carrying out these policies, would “fix” its findings and efforts around various politicians’ agendas.) If we are solely dependent on government to save us from the ruination of peak oil, then we probably are doomed.

So, does this mean that we should do nothing? Quite the opposite, quite the opposite — we should, and already are, acting boldly on energy. There are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, economists, and others, both in the United States and abroad, exploring and developing all sorts of transition strategies and technologies to substitute for oil. And there are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, and others, both in the United States and elsewhere, who are exploring and developing strategies and technologies to extend the life of the oil we have yet to extract. And we consumers have the best (and only necessary) incentive to utilize those developments when it makes sense to do so — we have to pay for the oil and alternative energies that we use. Those dynamics are far broader, more powerful, and more effective than any government Great (Energy) Leap Forward would be.

Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO are correct to be thinking about peak oil. But realizing that oil will peak one day is only the beginning of a thoughtful policy discussion, not the clinching demonstration that immediate government action is necessary. The only necessary (and sufficient) government energy policy is to allow consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs the degrees of freedom to make their own energy choices and to experience the costs and benefits of those choices.

Government is not the sole enlightened, rational actor on the planet. (Some might say the word “sole” should be removed from the previous sentence.) Somehow, we need to get the politicians to discover that.

High-Tech Welfare for High-Tech Billionaires

Voters in a New Mexico county appear to have approved a tax increase to build the nation’s first commercial spaceport. Two other counties will also hold tax referendums before the project can proceed. British billionaire Richard Branson and his company Virgin Galactic have signed a long-term lease to use the spaceport.

But why should the taxpayers of rural New Mexico be paying for facilities for billionaire space entrepreneurs? If the spaceport is going to be profitable, then businesses could pay for it. And even if it weren’t profitable, the space business has attracted the attention of a lot of people with a sense of adventure and billions of dollars, from Branson to Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, the seventh richest man in America.

The argument to spend tax dollars on the spaceport is very similar to the argument for tax-funded stadiums and convention centers. Proponents say it will bring jobs and tax revenues to the three rural counties. But apparently it isn’t a sure enough thing for businesses to invest their own money.

Cato scholars have argued for years against corporate welfare. The spaceport is a classic example of corporate welfare, though in this case it might better be called billionaire welfare. It will transfer money from middle-class and working people to subsidize businesses and billionaires who won’t have to invest their own money — just like the typical stadium deal, paid for by average taxpayers to benefit millionaire players and billionaire owners.

At least in this case the voters get to decide, which rarely happens with stadium subsidies. The vote pitted “political, business and education leaders” against retirees and groups representing the poor.

“I’m not opposed to the spaceport, but I think it’s a terrible idea to tax poor people to pay for something that will be used by the rich,” said Oscar Vasquez Butler, a county commissioner who represents many of the unincorporated rural colonias where the poorest New Mexicans live, often without proper roads and water and sewage systems. “They tell us the spaceport will bring jobs to our people, but it all sounds very risky. The only thing we know for sure is that people will pay more taxes.”

Using Markets to Solve Water Shortages

South Florida is suffering a water shortage, but the shortage only exists because politicians are unwilling to allow market-based pricing. There is no shortage in the markets for air conditioners, automobiles, and haircuts, but that is because prices are allowed to rise and fall to reflect market conditions.

An article posted at TCSDaily.com offers a first-hand account of living with government-imposed price restrictions and draws an appropriate analogy to the price controls that caused gasoline shortages in the 1970s:

So here we are, in the spring of 2007, with rain below average, with a low lake level, little else in the way of reservoirs, and a water shortage. What is the response? Well, a rational response might be to price a scarce commodity such that people will use it only as they need it, and not frivolously. …Instead, we get the response of the local commissars. So, not allowing the market to work, and not allowing prices to provide signals to the participants, they have decided to run our lives for us.

…I live at an odd numbered address. That means that if I want to water my lawn, I can only do it on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, from four to eight AM. I can water my plants with a hose on the same days, but only between five and seven PM. My neighbors across the street, and behind my house on the next block, get Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.

…Over thirty years ago, in the first OPEC oil embargo, the government, rather than allowing prices to rise to account for the reduced supply, told people when they could purchase gas based on the parity of their license plate — even one day, odd the next. My recollection was that this did nothing to alleviate the shortage — the lines remained. The problem was only solved when Nixon-era price controls on oil were lifted, the market was allowed to work, and oil prices eventually (and it didn’t take all that long) fell to historical lows.

…[H]ere’s a radical concept. How about pricing the commodity to the market? Maybe, if people had to pay more for water to water their lawn, they’d use less of it? Yes, I know that it’s hard to believe, but there really are some people out there who buy less of something if the price is higher.

Mauvaises Idées

The International Herald Tribune reports that Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency, wants to impose price controls on banking services. She also wants to distort the allocation of credit by having the government guarantee loans to young people.

These ideas do not make economic sense, but they are a sign of pogress. Thirty years ago, a Socialist in France would be arguing for nationalization of banks. At this rate, maybe the Socialists will be advocating free market ideas within 300 years:

In a French presidential campaign with recurrent anti-capitalist undertones, the Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal, took aim at banks Tuesday, accusing them of penalizing the poor with low interest rates on savings and high overdraft fees.

…Banks should pay customers more interest on current accounts than the 0.5 percent to 3 percent common today, Royal said. They should also credit bank accounts on the day a transfer is made, and give every young person with a “project” a free €10,000 loan that would be guaranteed by the state.

Government Should Not Interfere with Company Pricing Decisions

It is currently illegal for a company to insist that a retailer sell a product at a certain price. Politicians claim that this policy, known as resale price maintenance, results in higher prices. This surely is true, but the key question is why a firm would want to insist on higher prices, especially since the retailer reaps the benefit?

The answer, as Steve Chapman explains in his column, is that some products are more likely to do well if the retalier has an incentive to give potential consumers more time, advice, and service. But this won’t happen if consumers can benefit from this attentiveness at one store and then buy the product at another store:

For a manufacturer to make an agreement with retailers to sell only at a specified minimum price is illegal — even when it promotes competition and offers benefits to consumers. …[E]stablished federal law … treats resale price maintenance agreements as invariably malignant. …The assumption is that if you let manufacturers control retail prices, they’ll hose consumers for their own profit.

But if they wanted to hose consumers, they could just raise the wholesale price they charge to retailers. That way, they would get the full proceeds of the rip-off, instead of sharing them with stores. So it’s reasonable to assume there is some motive besides price-gouging at work.

…Why would a company making purses or televisions or running shoes want to keep prices at a certain minimum? Maybe to induce stores to offer exceptional service or technical assistance. A store can afford to do that only if it can charge a commensurate price. But a service-oriented store can’t charge a commensurate price if a consumer can come in, get lots of help and then go across the street to Discounts Galore and buy the item at 30 percent off. By setting a floor, the manufacturer can prevent “free-riding” by bargain outlets.

In our hypercompetitive retail environment, if the strategy doesn’t serve customers, manufacturers who use it won’t survive. Consumers who can’t get one brand at a discount price will defect to other brands.

Congress Is Concerned about Your Mental Health

Congress is debating a new “mental health parity” law, which would require those who purchase mental health care coverage to buy the same amount of mental health care coverage as medical and surgical coverage. 

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released this not-too-technical summary.  The CBO projects that the law would increase the cost of employer-sponsored health insurance by 0.4 percent.  That means it could add another $46 to the (already rising) cost of a job-based family plan.  Not a huge amount.  But every little bit hurts.  And Congress wonders why the number of Americans without health insurance keeps rising.

Of all the purposes government might serve, there can be none higher than telling people how much insurance they should purchase for mental health care, if they purchase insurance for mental health care.