Reporting on Smoking Costs

How does one explain a one-sided story like “Cigarettes’ Cost in Dollars and Lives” in the Washington Post?”

The article assumes that everyone agrees that smokers impose big costs on society, with the upshot that the government needs to try and squelch the bad behavior.

The article discusses how “doctors, health advocates, and patients tally the costs” of smoking, but left out one crucial group: economists.

If the reporter had done his homework, he would have found out that many economists believe that smokers may actually subsidize nonsmokers through various fiscal effects.

For example, the Congressional Research Service found that smokers either impose fairly small costs on nonsmokers or they subsidize them “primarily because smokers’ early death leaves their Social Security and pension contributions unused and available to reduce future financing demands on nonsmokers.”

One can find many similar views by other economists in articles on the Internet. Thus, if the Post reporter had Googled “smoker cost on society” the second hit leads to this quote by economist Kip Viscusi:

The other study I’ve done is looking at the financial ramifications to smoking for the rest of us. These include higher medical costs on the one hand, but lower social security, pension, and nursing home costs on the other hand because smokers die sooner. On balance if you put those together, smokers don’t cost us money, but save society $0.32 per pack.

Don’t they know how to use Google at the Washington Post?

Hat tip: Patrick Fleenor.

Obama Truth Check

President Obama may have preempted the first hour of prime time Monday night, but he certainly did not fail to entertain with several pronouncements that require suspension of disbelief.

Here are four Obama statements that deserve closer scrutiny:

1.      “[I]f you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s, where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough…”

The fact is that numerous presidents, including Obama’s immediate predecessor, have used desperation and fear to sell some of the truly awful policies to come out of the U.S. government in the last 50 years – the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the Iraq War resolution, to name two.

2.      “What it does not contain, however, is a single pet project, not a single earmark, and it has been stripped of the projects members of both parties found most objectionable.”

This one severely strains credulity.  The president is right about one thing: many of the bill’s projects are online for all to see.  But could any reasonable person agree that these projects are stimulative and not aimed at special political interests?

3.      “Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that…when you have the kind of problem we have right now…that government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.”

We’ve been over this, Mr. President.  The truth is that a huge and still-growing number of respected economists think that a massive government spending effort in our present circumstances is wasteful and foolhardy.

4.      “What I won’t do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place…”

OK, so we actually agree with the president on that one.  But then why is he bound and determined to repeat the reckless spending habits of George W. Bush?  We thought the November campaign was all about “change.”

Obama and Economists

In his news conference last night, President Obama made exaggerated and untrue statements about economics, economists, and the stimulus.

On economics, the president made claims such as “I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis.” Yet how can he have “complete confidence” when the economics profession is divided on the stimulus issue, and when we have seen policymakers and top economists making continual mistakes with their policies and predictions over the last year?

On economists, the president opined “although there are some politicians who are arguing that we don’t need a stimulus, there are very few economists who are making that argument.” Mr. President, please look at the Cato list of more than 300 university economists who oppose a big stimulus spending bill. Please have your advisers call these experts to get an independent outside-the-beltway view.

Finally, the president bought into the “Government as Santa Claus” theory with his statement that “the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life.” In reality, the federal government is broke. It has no “resources” left, and will run a $1 trillion deficit this year even without a stimulus. Besides, any resources that the government spends must be vacuumed out of the private economy through borrowing and taxes, which is particularly damaging when the private economy is already suffering from recession.

What the Stimulus Is All About

With the president adopting his predecessor’s strategy of attempting to scare Congress into approving a bad bill by warning of financial doom, it’s worth remembering that the proposed “stimulus” package is about politics, not economics. If the proposed spending was worthwhile, it would be silly to fuss about whether the total comes to $800 billion, $900 billion, or $1 trillion. If we really can’t afford $1 trillion, then how can we afford $900 billion or $800 billion? In fact, the basic goal for most legislators is just to spend as much money as feasible as quickly as possible.

Thus, in Washington today the most important issues are: who gets all of the wealth extracted from the American people and who gets political credit for giving everyone else’s money away. Just consider the local boondoggles being advanced for federal funding by cities around the country–dog parks, tennis courts, neon signs, Harley motorcycles, golf courses, “eco parks,” frisbee golf courses, skateboard ramps, and much, much more not considered worth constructing with funds from local taxpayers.

Eugene Robinson admitted as much in today’s Washington Post. In urging the president to “roll over the Republicans,” he observed:

The House of Representatives loaded up the bill like a Christmas tree as powerful Democrats found room for their pet projects. This was a good thing, not an outrage. Hundreds of millions of dollars for contraceptives? To the extent that those condoms or birth-control pills are made in the United States and sold in U.S. drugstores, that spending would be stimulative in more ways than one.

Also indicative of how the proposed spending is foremost a matter of politics is the role of lobbyists in divvying up the proceeds. The role of House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank already has been exposed. But he is not alone. Reports the Washington Post:

“Earlier today, Sen. Bingaman met with Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner,” the staffer wrote. “The Senator raised concerns regarding New Mexico based Thornburgh Mortgage and their efforts to access TARP funding and convert to a savings and loan holding company.”

Thornburg had been fighting off bankruptcy, and its best chance at a piece of the $700 billion federal bailout known by its initials as TARP could hinge on transforming itself into a regulated thrift and persuading the OTS to recommend it as a candidate for rescue. Bingaman’s aide wanted to schedule a call between her boss and OTS Director John M. Reich.

That short Dec. 9 e-mail offers a glimpse of the flurry of activity involving lawmakers and federal regulators as firms have pursued hundreds of billions of dollars from the Troubled Assets Relief Program and waited for details of how the Obama administration will disperse even more. With so much money at stake and so much uncertainty about who will get it, beleaguered companies fearful of being left behind are scurrying from Capitol Hill to K Street, trying to find a way to the front of the line.

None of this is surprising, of course. But it does demonstrate that the president’s rhetoric bears no relationship with reality. Unfortunately, his proposed “stimulus” bill will stimulate big government, debt, and inflation, not economic growth, jobs, and prosperity.