Brookings Panel on SCOTUS and Global Warming

On Monday, I participated in a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution on the Massachusetts v. EPA case. Other participants were Stuart Taylor; David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council; David Sandalow of Brookings; science journalist Gregg Easterbrook; and environmental transaction lawyer Robert Reynolds (of Alston Bird). A transcript (uncorrected) of the discussion is available here. The discussion turned out to focus less on law, my particular expertise, than on environmental policy, but I found it worthwhile nonetheless. Note there is a discussion of Pat Michaels’ climatologist amicus brief for the EPA at the very end of the transcript, during the Q&A period: the “speakers” in the brief exchange over that brief are David Doniger and me.

Cavalcade of Risk #14

Greetings, risk-seekers. We’ve got a smorgasbord of entries for the 14th occasional Cavalcade of Risk blog carnival. I received 24 entries, many of them actually related to the topic of risk.

Lacking Confidence in Confidentiality

Leon Gettler at Sox First reports on a study concerning the risk that companies will compromise confidential data about their customers. That study found that “one-third of senior executives don’t trust their own companies to handle this kind of information.” Tune in to see which industries are trusted least.

In a later post, Gettler looks at the “private equity frenzy,” whose risks he likens to that of the dot-com bubble.

Sympathy for the Investor

Long or Short Capital blogger Mr. Juggles — fresh from a signing ceremony with the Prince of Darkness — explains the profitability of the infotainment industry in four easy-to-understand squares.

Born to Insure

In an interview at RDoctor Medical Portal, Dr. Aleksandr Kavokin gets InsureBlog host Hank Stern to bare his soul (sort of) about “testing positive for insurance sales,” employer-sponsored health benefits, and government regulation of insurance premiums, among other things. Watch Stern give a shout-out to his “brilliant, trophy wife and equally brilliant and lovely chillun.”

Then watch the warm fuzzies continue as Stern, this time from his home base of InsureBlog, shrugs at technology that would allow him to monitor the driving habits of his two trustworthy teenage daughters. Insurers apparently haven’t started offering discounts to families that use these chips — but my guess is that as the market evolves, the discount will be greater for families with teenage sons.

Who’s Your Agent?

Jay of Colorado Health Insurance Insider fame picks up on two themes raised by Stern: that health insurance is about managing risk, not prepayment of care, and that employer-sponsored coverage is nutty. He argues that health savings accounts (HSAs) can help end the madness. I mostly agree. But if Jay can find a health insurance policy that “cost[s] the employer more than 2x what a similar individual/family health insurance plan will cost,” he either must be suuuuper healthy or have really sick co-workers.

Thanks, Pal

As a guy who’s about to undergo surgery (albeit minor), I just don’t need reminding about the rates of medical error in the United States. Nevertheless, Healthcare Economist Jason Shafrin is all too happy to remind me anyway, noting that medical errors kill an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 patients per year. He discusses one organization’s efforts to promote medical practices that will reduce some of the most common forms of medical error.

I’ll See Your HSA Deductible, and Raise You …

My Cato Institute colleague Arnold Kling takes on fellow blogger Ezra Klein’s argument that HSAs won’t do much to reduce health care spending. Arnold draws from his book Crisis of Abundance, where he argues for some real catastrophic coverage.

Insurance Is Dead. Long Live Insurance.

In what I found the most intriguing submission to this Cavalcade, Jon Coppelman of Workers’ Comp Insider writes that we may be seeing a fundamental change in the nature of insurance since insurers now have the data mining tools to limit their risks dramatically. He foresees that as the concept of pooling evaporates, the number of losers is likely to exceed the winners.

This echoes a phenomenon I see frequently in the area of health insurance. (You might want to read Coppelman’s post before continuing here.) Insurance is a tool for dealing with uncertainty (i.e., by subsidizing uncertain losses). How do we know that? Because people generally don’t buy actuarially fair insurance to pay for certainties. When additional information moves a potential loss from the “uncertainty” to the “certainty” end of the spectrum, people understandably decry the loss of that subsidy. But I find it bewildering when some call that “the end of insurance” or a market failure. First, unless we’re close to eliminating uncertainty, we will always have insurance. Second, in cases where uncertainty is reduced, insurance markets are doing exactly what they should: replacing the subsidy with some very valuable information. Finally, just because the insurance subsidy is gone, that does not prevent society from subsidizing those losses in other ways. I’d be interested to hear from Coppelman and others on this.

Okay, off my soapbox.

Hard to Joke about This One

Meanwhile, Joe Paduda of Managed Care Matters provides evidence that the insurance industry is not heartless.

GRxvy Train

In (at?) the wake of torcetrapib, Wenchypoo prescribes a serious dose of cynicism for those seeking to understand clinical trials for pharmaceuticals. Wenchypoo provides my favorite quote from this week’s submissions: “I suppose when you’re dying, the last thing you worry about is who’s profiting from keeping you alive a few more weeks.”

Libertarian Roundup

And finally, here at my home of Cato@Liberty, you may peruse my colleague Sigrid Fry-Revere’s libertarian perspective on genetic engineering, as well as Arnold Kling on why libertarians have a lot of work to do on health policy.

The Risible Hand to Meddle further in NY Higher Ed?

Newsday reports that the visible – and clumsy – hand of government is poised to interfere in NY’s burgeoning for-profit higher ed. market. But the Board of Regents’ impending move to impose strict new regulations on for-profit colleges is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

If students at these colleges were paying their own way, the state would have no compelling interest in regulating them. The only reason the state presumes to interfere is that funding from New York’s Tuition Assistance Program goes to these schools, and it wants more oversight over how that money is spent. Rather than impeding market forces and freedoms by trying to inject central planning into a promising and dynamic part of the higher education sector, New York should replace its current Tuition Assistance program with a system known as “human capital contracts” or “equity loans,” in which the amount paid back by students subsequent to graduation is contingent on their earnings. These loans allow students to finance their own higher education, eliminating the need for the state to intrude in the market process. It’s a better, cleaner solution.

A Timely Chiding from the Washington Post

Today’s editorial in the Washington Post is a timely reminder of the negative consequences if Congress does not renew certain non-reciprocal trade preference deals (mainly allowing developing countries to import certain goods to the United States tariff free).

Although it strikes a somewhat mercantalist tone (e.g., it seems to imply that there may be reason to block trade deals if they do not “save American jobs”), the editorial board is right to say that the benefits to the United States from renewing these deals, both economic and political, certainly outweigh any “costs” from opening up trade that some members of Congress usually get upset about. Extending permanent normal trade relations to Vietnam (a topic I have blogged about here and talked about in this podcast) should be an especially simple matter.

I am a little skeptical about the long-term benefits of non-reciprocal trade preferences; they can lead to a culture of dependency and concentration in certain industries, and create political constituencies against multilateral trade liberalization, for example. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the problems related to these types of deals generally are sufficient to outweigh the benefits of approving the particular deals under consideration. In any case, somehow I doubt that the nuanced arguments against development-related unilateral preferences are the reason behind failure to pass the deals. The Washington Post suggests the inertia may be due to simple laziness. Surely not?

Open Business Models and Privacy

I’ve written here before about how Web 2.0 business models, particularly Google’s, are in conflict with current Supreme Court privacy cases denying people a Fourth Amendment interest in information they have entrusted to third parties.

Now comes a very interesting Information Week report on last month’s Web 2.0 Summit:

None other than Google – which has profited enormously from the data users submit to its services and from the data its users generate through use of its services – is thinking seriously about how to give users more control over their data. Though stopping short of a complete data emancipation proclamation at the Web 2.0 Summit, CEO Eric Schmidt said, “The more we can let people move their data around … the better off we’ll be.”

And the better off users’ privacy will be.

Is Rawlsekianism the Future?

I see the man every day, but today I can’t go two mouse clicks through the political opinion thinkosphere without tripping over Brink Lindsey, Cato’s own VP for research, and his article on liberal-libertarian fusionism in this week’s New Republic. [Free version at Cato.] Sebastian Mallaby features Brink’s piece in his Washington Post column yesterday, though I think misses the intended audience.

Lindsey is not merely joining the large crowd of disenchanted conservatives who believe that the Republican Party has betrayed its principles – spraying money at farmers, building bridges to nowhere and presiding over the fastest ramp-up in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Rather, Lindsey is taking a step further, arguing that libertarians should ditch the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.

Since the New Republic doesn’t have much of a libertarian readership, I’m pretty sure Brink wasn’t so much saying that libertarians ought to jilt the GOP as he was trying to open up a serious dialogue between libertarians and TNR’s centrist Democrats on our common ground as liberals. The project Brink mentions, melding the best of Rawls and Hayek and identifying feasible policies of a Rawlsekian stripe, is very dear to my heart. The point of my 2005 Cato social security paper was precisely to show that Rawlsian liberal moral concerns are best served by relying on the kinds of market dynamics Hayek’s work illuminated.

Rawls and Hayek were, in my estimation, the greatest social/political thinkers of the 20th Century. Rawls understood markets better than he is given credit for, but no one understood markets better than Hayek. And Hayek was a first-rate political philosopher, but Rawls was king of that hill. If you fortify Rawls’ theory of justice with a Hayekian grasp of the coordinating function of prices, and the dynamics of spontaneous order (or fortify Hayek with Rawls’ rather more intelligible normative framework), you will arrive, as Brink argues in less esoteric terms, at something like a system that gives free rein to the informational and dynamically equilibrating function of market prices, while creating a framework for well-targeted and effective social insurance that mitigates counterproductive incentives. Like Brink, I think this synthesis, when followed fairly to the end, approaches canonical libertarianism more closely than moderate Democrats are comfortable with. But there is a coherent and attractive intellectual position in this neighborhood, and there is more than enough overlap between liberals and libertarians for genuine productive conversation that could generate real political results.

Many bloggers seem to be fixated on the immediate political feasibility of libertarian/liberal fusionism. But I think this misses the point. Feasibility is in part a function of the availability of a well-developed and broadly understood position, and a grasp of the kind of policy that follows from it. Fixating on the status quo balance of interest groups is a great way to go nowhere, or just to drift with the waxing and waning of constituencies wedded to superannuated ideas. I think Brink has opened an important conversation for liberals of all stripes genuinely concerned with helping people successfully exercise their autonomy and lead satisfying, dignified lives. I hope both libertarians and liberals will take seriously the opportunity of learning something from one another, and perhaps discover ideas that can get us closer to our shared goals.

Don’t Know Much about Friedman

It took a little more than a fortnight for someone to appropriate the legacy of Milton Friedman in support of something that the Nobel Laureate probably would have opposed. 

In an article for National Review Online, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his associate David Merritt call on the nation to “Renew Milton Friedman’s Conservatism.”  Whether chosen by the authors or the editors, that title betrays that someone missed Friedman’s point entirely.  In 1975, an interviewer asked Friedman whether it was fair to describe him as a “conservative economist.”  Here was Friedman’s response:

I never characterize myself as a conservative economist. As I understand the English language, conservative means conserving, keeping things as they are. I don’t want to keep things as they are. The true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today – the New Dealers – they are the true conservatives, because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on. I would like to dismantle that. I call myself a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means (inaudible) and pertaining to freedom.

Even more jarring is a policy proposal that the authors seem to associate with Friedman.  Gingrich and Merritt write:

We can transform health and health care to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower costs to every American. And government has a role to play. It can and should build an electronic infrastructure, much like government builds public school buildings.

I see two problems here.  First, Friedman often argued that it would be far preferable were government to stop providing education and instead just finance it.  That suggests he saw no need for government to build the schools.  Second, if Friedman ever took a stand on government provision of health information technologies such as electronic medical records, the lack of which is often regarded as a market failure, I’m not aware of it.  However, I have to suspect that left-leaning economist Brad DeLong more closely captured Friedman’s views on the subject when he wrote:

[Friedman] believed…that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures.

That view is hardly supportive of having the feds provide health information technologies.

Gingrich and Merritt do not completely misappropriate Friedman’s legacy.  They do argue for a few free-market health care and education proposals.