Drug War Update

Last week, the feds released their annual “Monitoring the Future” survey on teenage drug use, and – lo and behold – teenage drug use is down. John Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hailed the findings as proof that Bush’s drug war was going swell (unlike, ahem, that other war of his). Well, in an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, Mike Males of the Center on Juevenile and Criminal Justice demonstrates that the “Drug War” isn’t going any better than the “Iraq War.” Drug arrests are skyrocketing, as is the body count from drug overdoses. Even more striking is the fact that middle age drug use is soaring and that it’s soaring primarily among middle class whites. Ongoing tales about lights at the end of tunnels are no more reliable than similar tales about Iraq.

While it should be obvious to any fair-minded observer that our increasingly brutal war on drugs is a losing proposition on all counts, few of us seem to be fair minded observers. So allow me to pose a question to those of you still clinging to this benighted enterprise: Exactly what would it take to convince you that the drug war was causing more harm than good? Is there any bit of data, any hypothetical fact, or anything at all that would cause you to give up the policy ghost? Because if there is not, then we are in the realm of religious belief – and that’s about all that I can find to support this cruel, costly, and counterproductive jihad.

The Final Version of My Latest Paper is Now on SSRN

The 99.6% final version of my latest law review article, Class Action Lawmaking: An Administrative Law Model, is now posted on SSRN (here). The article is forthcoming in the next edition of the Texas Review of Law and Politics. An early draft was posted some months ago, but it has been significantly revised in response to helpful comments at two faculty workshops. Here is the abstract:

This Article considers how courts should interpret federal statutes when the interpretive question affects the scope or availability of class certification. When faced with such a question, many courts are tempted to interpret the statute in a way that enables class certification, enhancing the chance that the parties will settle.

I argue that the debate over this practice can be conceptualized as a debate about delegation. Those who argue that courts act illegitimately when they “adapt” statutes to “fit” the class device assume Congress has delegated courts a narrow range of discretion to promote certification and settlement under federal statutes. By contrast, those who argue courts have great leeway to certify statutory claims, even at the price of “distorting” the statute, assume courts have been delegated a great degree of such discretion.

The Chevron doctrine of administrative law provides an unexpected solution to this debate, if we treat Chevron as a “starting-point” measure of Congress’s intent to delegate authority to “adapt” federal statutes to new circumstances. This proposal is roughly similar to Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s suggestion that Chevron might be treated as a “constitutional starting-point rule” for defining permissible delegations of “dynamic interpretive power.”

My argument, however, is pragmatic rather than constitutional: in the absence of clear information about Congress’s desires in the class context, and in light of the complex trade-offs implicated by class actions, an off-the-rack approximation of Congress’s intent to delegate dynamic interpretive power to courts in the class context is needed. I suggest that Chevron is the best available “starting point” measure, in this pragmatic sense. In other words, pending further instruction from Congress, we might ask courts in the class context to start by “thinking about statutory interpretation and statutory discretion as they would want an agency to think.”

In the process, I show that the obvious objection to using Chevron in this fashion—that federal courts, unlike agencies, are not democratically accountable—doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. Put bluntly, courts interpreting statutes that affect the scope of their power to certify claims exempt themselves from the restraint they demand of agencies. Asking courts to consciously parallel the restraint they expect of agencies therefore reins in courts’ interpretive discretion—promoting, in the process, more democratic control over class action lawmaking.

Incidentally, I found Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s article, Federal Rules of Statutory Interpretation, very helpful. You can access his paper, which I rely on in this latest draft and reference in the abstract, here.

NYT: Americans Consume Too Much Health Care, and What’s This Obsession with Coverage?

It is customary for friends of liberty to denounce the New York Times for its left-wing bias. But it would be a mistake to write off the Grey Lady completely. In fact, with two recent articles on health care, the Times seems to be building the case that our obsession with expanding health coverage is, well, unhealthy.

1.

Yesterday, the Times ran an essay titled, “What’s Making Us Sick Is an Epidemic of Diagnoses,” by three researchers with the VA Outcomes Group in Vermont: Drs. H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin. What the authors call “an epidemic of diagnoses” is another way of saying we consume too much medical care. The authors write:

[T]he real problem with the epidemic of diagnoses is that it leads to an epidemic of treatments. Not all treatments have important benefits, but almost all can have harms.

What is behind this epidemic?

More diagnoses mean more money for drug manufacturers, hospitals, physicians and disease advocacy groups. Researchers, and even the disease-based organization[s] of the National Institutes of Health, secure their stature (and financing) by promoting the detection of “their” disease. Medico-legal concerns also drive the epidemic. While failing to make a diagnosis can result in lawsuits, there are no corresponding penalties for overdiagnosis. Thus, the path of least resistance for clinicians is to diagnose liberally — even when we wonder if doing so really helps our patients.

In other words, providers over-diagnose (and are over-paid) because there is insufficient restraint placed on excessive diagnosis and treatment.

Why is there insufficient restraint in health care but not in other areas? Because government has worked diligently to create tax breaks and subsidies that remove consumers’ natural incentives to curb their consumption. (And yet Republicans and Democrats alike continue to push for even less restraint.)

The authors do offer one mild proposal to address this epidemic:

People need to think hard about the benefits and risks of increased diagnosis…Perhaps someone should start monitoring a new health metric: the proportion of the population not requiring medical care. And the National Institutes of Health could propose a new goal for medical researchers: reduce the need for medical services, not increase it.

The way we usually get people to think about costs and benefits is to let them own the money involved. That’s a prescription for less government.

2.

Today, the invaluable Gina Kolata reports on researchers’ efforts to identify the factors that contribute to a long life. Though there are lots of questions to be answered, Kolata writes:

Year after year, in study after study, says Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, education “keeps coming up.” And, health economists say, those factors that are popularly believed to be crucial — money and health insurance, for example, pale in comparison.

Kolata goes on to quote James Smith, a health economist with the RAND Corporation, as saying that health insurance “is vastly overrated in the policy debate.”

So…

Health insurance doesn’t seem to extend longevity. Too much health care can be dangerous. And patients don’t examine the costs and benefits of health care as they should.

It looks like health policy wonks on both the right and the left need to renew their subscriptions to the Times.

A Head-Check on Earmark Reform

Today, President Bush called for reform of budget earmarks, the fiscal baddie de jour. Those are the budget items commonly called “pork projects.” Think of the funding for the World Toilet Summit, for instance, and the obvious jokes about fiscal incontinence.

In this morning’s Rose Garden speech, the president summed up why these projects are bad:

Washington insiders are able to get billions of dollars directed to projects, many of them pork barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by the Congress … Some of the earmarks are not even included in legislation. They are stuffed into committee reports that have never been passed, and are never signed into law. Earmarks often divert precious funds from vital priorities like national defense. And each year they cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

He closed with what was touted by his press spinners as a grand proposal to curtail earmarks:

Congress needs to adopt real reform that requires full disclosure of the sponsors, the costs, the recipients, and the justifications for every earmark. Congress needs to stop the practice of concealing earmarks in so-called report language. And Congress needs to cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half.

It’s certainly nice to hear this rhetoric coming from the president. And nobody can really object to what he’s proposing. It’s hard to disagree with an attempt to shine some light on what über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the “favor factory.” Even Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the goal of “transparency” in earmarking by requiring members of Congress to put their names alongside the projects they sponsor.

These reforms assume that members of Congress will be shamed into stopping these sorts of projects when forced to attach their names to them. But the truth really isn’t that members of Congress don’t want their names affiliated with most of these things. It’s that so many of them do! When earmark sponsors remain anonymous, numerous congressmen could take credit for a single project. There was no way to verify who was telling the truth. Now there is. Think of it as intellectual property protection for government waste. It just might lead to more pressure to multiply the number of earmarks, not less.

Even if “earmarks” as currently defined are monitored and reduced, there are no promises that these silly projects won’t appear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You can call these spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget. They will still remain the coin of the K Street realm.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency, no strings attached. But then it’s also likely a member of the Appropriations committee would write a letter to the department head that reads something like, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?” Can you really blame a department head who reads a letter like that – from a member of Congress who has power over their budget and oversight of their agency – and takes it seriously? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano walking into the corner grocery store you own and saying, “Damn shame if anything were to happen to this nice little place.”

Earmark transparency shouldn’t be seen as the endgame of budget reform. It is merely a beginning. Yet the goal should be to reduce the scope of government overall. As long as a culture of spending persists in Washington – fueled by a budget process that commands Uncle Sam to be all things to all people – earmarking in some form will always be with us no matter who is in power.

Market Education: Will India Lead the Way?

Much is made of the fact that some sectors of the U.S. economy face increasing competition from the developing world. India, in particular, is singled out for its proliferation of call centers and computer programmers.

But few people stop to ask how a developing country in which English is only learned as a second language has been able to become such an important international contender for skilled jobs requiring English fluency. The answer, at least in part, is that a large and increasing number of Indian children are being educated in private, fee-charging schools that must compete vigorously for the privilege of serving them. Even in some of the poorest slums and rural villages of India and Africa, majorities of students attend these schools, and are better served educationally than their peers in the government-run sector (and at a lower cost, to boot). Among other advantages – from the standpoint of meeting parental demand – the vast majority of Indian private schools teach all their lessons in English, as opposed to state schools which typically offer English instruction only as a separate course, when they offer it at all.

But despite the considerable size and rapid growth of the private education sector, there are still millions of families in developing countries who find it financially difficult or impossible to gain access to it. But what if those countries kick it up a notch?

A recent story in DNA Mumbai quotes Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani as saying that, “There is an urgent need for the government [to] provide vouchers to parents from the economically backward section. That way they can choose to enroll their children in private schools instead of the government-run schools, which are in a pathetic state.”

Adopting a truly free market approach to education, with financial assistance to ensure universal access, would be an incredible boon to the Indian standard of living, and an excellent lesson for rich countries still languishing under the pall of calcified government school monopolies.

Attention, Legal and Political Thinkers: A New Scholarly Resource

Rediscovering Bruno Leoni

There’s a new resource from Italy’s Instituto Bruno Leoni: a scholarly web resource on the ideas and work of the great legal scholar for whom the Institute is named, “Rediscovering Bruno Leoni.” It has both Italian and English versions and includes mp3 files of some of Leoni’s lectures.

Leoni showed a deep understanding of law and its relationship to voluntary social order. His work on the evolution of law greatly influenced F. A. Hayek and other writers who outlived him. In contrast to prevailing views, he argued that law is not simply an assertion of power, as the legal positivists insist, i.e., a set of “commands of a sovereign,” but traces back to the claims made by individuals and adjudicated through a complex process of interaction. As Leoni argued in “Law as Claim of the Individual,”

The legal process always traces back in the end to individual claim. Individuals make the law, insofar as they make successful claims. They not only make previsions and predictions, but try to have these predictions succeed by their own intervention in the process. Judges, juris-consults, and, above all, legislators are just individuals who find themselves in a particular position to influence the whole process through their own intervention.

The cases we bring to court and the cases we don’t all are part of the law-making process. The role played by elected legislators is important in the creation of a legal order, but it is almost always overrated. Most of the law that governs our everyday lives resulted from relatively decentralized common law (or Roman law) processes, and not from the “commands” of sovereigns.
Additional resources on Bruno Leoni (and on many hundreds of other deep thinkers) can be found at the extensive and brilliantly organized “Online Library of Liberty.”

Other writers with a similar appreciation of law as an evolved body of rules of just conduct include Lon Fuller of Harvard Law School (especially in his classic work The Morality of Law), F. A. Hayek (notably in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. I: Rules and Order; his classic 1945 American Economic Review essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society” is must reading for understanding complex social processes, including the evolution of law), and Randy Barnett of Georgetown University, a Cato Institute senior fellow and author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty and The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law.
So, budding law students and political scientists. Have at it!

Freedom of the Press and Venezuela

There’s a general relationship between freedom of the press and economic freedom. My research assistant prepared the graph below showing that correlation. Countries that are more economically free tend to have a freer press.

Economic Freedom and Freedom of the Press

[Click picture for larger version]

Venezuelans have been finding that out in recent years as their level of economic freedom, which has been in steady decline during the past few decades, has fallen rapidly under the government of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela now ranks 126 out of 130 countries in the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index (in 1985 it ranked 25th out of 111 countries). When you concentrate economic power in political hands, the institutions of civil society lose their independence.

The latest casualty in Chávez’s campaign to control the media is Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), whose license the government recently announced will not be renewed. RCTV, founded in 1930, was one of only a few remaining TV stations critical of the government in a country where media outlets are practicing various degrees of self censorship. But, according to the Venezuelan communication minister, RCTV’s “irresponsible attitude hasn’t changed.” Symbolizing the government’s intolerance of dissent is a law passed last year that can land individuals for months or years in jail for expressing disrespectful words about government officials.

The model looks suspiciously similar to that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where television stations refrain from criticizing the Kremlin, but a few leading newspapers still do not. In both Venezuela and Russia, relatively few people read newspapers; it is the electronic media that informs the general public.

Journalist and Venezuelan-born Cato adjunct scholar Carlos Ball tells a personal anecdote about the long-term decline of freedom in Venezuela (see his op-ed in Spanish here http://www.elcato.org/node/2143 ). In May 1987, Carlos was the editor of the Diario de Caracas, a leading newspaper. The paper belonged to the business group that owned RCTV. Then-president Jaime Lusinchi conditioned the renewal of RCTV’s license on Carlos Ball’s dismissal. Carlos was fired and the station got a 20-year license. It is that license that is expiring in May. According to Carlos, the road to political and economic centralization was set decades before Chávez declared his so-called socialism of the 21st century. The treatment of RCTV is only the most recent reminder that it is no longer accurate to refer to Venezuela as a democracy.