How Dare You Support Those Who Agree with You!

The New York Times is generally recognized at the nation’s newspaper of record, and rightly so. Times reporting typically is broad, in-depth, nuanced, and thoughtful. It should be on everyone’s daily reading list.

But the Times sometimes allows its general excellence to be interrupted by yellow journalism, as exemplified by today’s prominent article describing (and implicitly decrying) contributions made by the Walton Family Foundation to several public policy groups whose scholars have written or spoken in support of various Wal-Mart practices.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Cato was not mentioned in the article. I have no idea whether Cato receives any contributions from the Walton Family Foundation.)

The upshot:

[T]he financing, which totaled more than $2.5 million over the last six years, according to data compiled by GuideStar, a research organization, raises questions about what the research groups should disclose to newspaper editors, reporters or government officials.

Curiously, buried deep in the article, is this little nugget:

Conservative groups are not the only ones weighing in on the Wal-Mart debate. Ms. Williams of Wal-Mart noted labor unions have financed organizations that have been critical of Wal-Mart, like the Economic Policy Institute, which received $2.5 million from unions in 2005.

In response, Chris Kofinis, communications director for WakeUpWalmart.com, an arm of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that gives money to liberal research groups, said: “While we openly support the mission of economic justice, Wal-Mart and the Waltons put on a smiley face, hide the truth, all while supporting right-wing causes who are paid to defend Wal-Mart’s exploitative practices.”

So, the New York Times gives the scandal treatment to the Walton Family Foundation’s handing out a little over over $400,000 a year to a bunch of public policy groups that write favorably about Wal-Mart, but barely acknowledges that anti–Wal-Mart forces gave out $2.5 million in just one year to just one group that criticizes Wal-Mart. And the Times lets the leader of one of those anti–Wal-Mart groups give a hammer quote decrying think tanks as Wal-Mart hacks.

What’s most disappointing is that the Times didn’t give any consideration at all to what should have been the fundamental question of the article: Is there merit to the pro–Wal-Mart arguments made by think tanks that receive Walton money? Or, are those arguments flawed, suggesting their authors may have been influenced by the Walton money?

The Times article is, in essence, a pathetic ad hominem attack.

And that is a ridiculous failure for a newspaper as fine as the Gray Lady.

Topics:

Coming Monday: “9/11 Five Years After: Reassessing the Terrorist Threat and Homeland Security”

Monday is the fifth anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that precipitated the Global War on Terror internationally and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security domestically. While the Global War on Terror has received a vast amount of commentary, less has been said about the effectiveness of the government’s policies to guard against terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Is there, in fact, enough of a terrorist threat to justify the astronomical sums spent securing landmarks in third-tier cities? Has domestic anti-terrorism policy actually made us any safer? Was the DHS even a good idea? How is it spending our tax money?

All these questions and more will be debated in the imminent September edition of Cato Unbound, “9/11 Five Years After: Reassessing the Terrorist Threat and Homeland Security.” Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller will kick off the conversation with “Some Reflections on What, If Anything, ‘Are We Safer?’ Might Mean.” Mueller will get feedback and pushback from: Clark Ervin, head of the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute and the first inspector general of the United States Department of Homeland Security; Veronique de Rugy, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and expert on DHS budgeting priorities; and Timothy Naftali, soon-to-be director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.

Glad to be Proven Wrong

In a recent op-ed for the Indianapolis Star, I wrote that Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) had a vested interest in finding school choice to be unpopular with voters — because it was a part of the University’s Department of Education, and that department could well be rendered obsolete under a large scale school choice program. As it turns out, the Center is largely financially independent of the Department, and so would not likely go down with the ship under a voucher or education tax credit program.

I also expressed concern about the Center’s pattern of polling on school choice, which seemed to be moving away from the sort of neutral, general question that elicits more favorable responses, and toward narrower questions that elicit lower support. After speaking with CEEP’s director, Jonathan Plucker, I’m informed that they already have plans to ask their initial general voucher question once again, on their next survey, and so the appearance of a move away from such questions was illusory.

I’m delighted to hear both of these facts, should have taken the time to obtain them in advance, and owe Dr. Plucker and his staff an apology.

Now if Phi Delta Kappan, the publisher of an annual nationwide education survey, is willing to return to THEIR original voucher question, I will be delighted to apologize to them as well. Still not holding my breath on that one.

Private Voucher Schools Less Racially Segregated

Reaffirming earlier research, new studies of the voucher programs in Cleveland (.pdf) and Milwaukee (.pdf) find that private voucher schools are less racially segregated than the public schools in their districts.

This should come as no surprise. Economist Thomas Nechyba (.pdf) has shown that public schools’ geographically-based student assignment system lowers not only school-level integration, but neighborhood integration as well. By de-coupling school choice from place of residence, considerably higher levels of integration become possible and, as the research shows, actually take place.

As in so many other cases, the argument that government-run schooling is necessary to promote integration is precisely backward. Government schools are an impediment to integration and to the achievement of minority students.

Anyone who truly believes in the ideals of public education should support the free market reforms that can actually fulfill those ideals, and abandon the government-run monopoly system that so consistently fails to advance them.

Silly Patient, Power Is for Experts!

Yesterday, I lamented that market critics simultaneously (1) argue that information asymmetries mean that patients are too ignorant to control their health care dollars and decisions, and (2) argue for policies that keep patients ignorant.

As if on cue, Ezra Klein pounced on the same hook I used: a column by David Wessel that cited a study showing that elderly patients are often highly satisfied with their care even when the technical quality is sub-par. Klein argues the study is proof that “consumer-directed health care is a silly idea.” 

Or, perhaps, those findings show that the policies Klein supports (e.g., government-provided coverage) are keeping patients ignorant.

Klein writes, “patients have no capability to separate good medicine from bad…for all their good intentions, [they] are easily fooled by a firm handshake, a pleasant nurse, and a well-decorated waiting room.” Klein continues, “If doctors need watchdogs, then we need to empower institutions or individuals with the education and ability to actually watch over them.” 

Presumably, Klein thinks a free market would not do so. But if that means the government should monitor quality, how would Klein insulate that effort from the political influence of providers, whose incomes would depend on what the watchdogs decide? Are politicians never fooled by a ($2,000) handshake? Which is easier: to fool all of the people all of the time, or to fool 535 people at any given time?

Baby Steps

Yesterday, the DEA announced that it would allow doctors to write multiple, post-dated painkiller prescriptions for chronic pain patients. This is good news. The prior restrictions were odious, and heartlessly required people suffering from chronic pain to make multiple trips to doctors and pharmacists to get their medication.

This problem is worse than it sounds. Because the DEA’s witchhunt has scared physicians away from palliative therapy, many of these patients have to drive several hours to find a doctor who is willing to treat them. Doctors willing to administer the most promising chronic pain treatment — high-dose opioid therapy — are even harder to find.

But yesterday’s decision doesn’t go nearly far enough. And the DEA seems to be trying to use this one concession to show its “reasonableness,” thus heading off criticism over the larger, more important issue — it’s overly aggressive pursuit of doctors.

Here’s what won’t change: The agency will continue to substitute its own judgment for the medical opinions of doctors. It will continue to define some high-dose treatments as off-limits, and it will continue to use malpractice standards, meant for civil litigation, in criminal court. The DEA also still refuses to give doctors a set of guidelines they can follow to guarantee they won’t be prosecuted, thus giving the agency a great deal of leeway and leaving doctors who engage in the experimental high-dosage treatments in legal ambiguity. The agency will also continue to deny doctors a “good faith” defense to prosecution.

DEA administrator Karen Tandy, who has a history duplicity on this issue, made some misleading and downright false comments in a USA Today story yesterday on her agency’s change in policy:

The new policy statement does not include a specific list of do’s and don’ts, but the DEA Administrator Karen Tandy says doctors should be able to glean from the listing of prosecutions on the agency’s website what it takes to violate the law. 

This is ridiculous. Instead of actual guidelines to see if they’re complying with the law, doctors are instead being instructed to read up on a “rogue’s gallery” of DEA trophies to determine if their own prescription habits are potentially criminal. That would be like the IRS refusing to give any real guidelines on how much money we owe the government, but instead refering us to a list of the “20 biggest tax cheats of all time” for guidance.

More Tandy:

Out of more than 1 million doctors who are registered with the DEA to prescribe such narcotics, the agency prosecuted 67 last year for prescription abuse. Tandy says the DEA has targeted doctors who have strayed far outside accepted medical practice, including some who have prescribed medically unnecessary drugs for cash or sex, some who have demanded kickbacks, and invented patients or fed their own addictions. 

Tandy is hyperbolizing. Included among those she says “have strayed far outside the accepted medical practice” are William Hurwitz and Bernard Rotschaeffer. The case against each of these men is far from conclusive. Pain activists like Siobhan Reynolds and Dr. Frank Fisher regularly send out new examples of doctors prosecuted by the DEA. In a few cases, it looks like the doctors were clearly unethical. In most, the evidence is far from conclusive and appears to be more attributable to the DEA’s ignorance of how high-dose therapy works, or that its own policies are chasing doctors away from this treatment, causing the few doctors left in the field to have no choice but to see more patients and write more prescriptions.

Tandy’s “67 of one million” statistic is also misleading. The one million number is the total number of physicians, in any line of practice, who are licensed to prescribe narcotics. The number who specialize in pain treatment is far, far lower. And the number willing to engage in high-dose therapy — the only therapy that seems to work on chronic pain — is much lower still. That 67 comes from an already small and dwindling pool of doctors willing to administer this promising line of treatment. Given that the DEA makes a big deal out of each arrest, including holding press conferences and putting out statements to the media, it isn’t difficult to see how each arrest would make it yet more difficult for pain patients to get adequate treatment.

More Tandy:

The DEA investigates doctors “who knowingly and egregiously put drugs into the hands of traffickers and abusers,” Tandy says. “This isn’t just questionable behavior. There is no gray area here.” 

There most certainly is. See the case of Dr. William Hurwitz, one of the DEA’s most sought-after and hard-won trophies. An appeals court recently set Dr. Hurwtiz’s conviction aside, finding that the government was wrong to deny Dr. Hurwitz to mount a “good faith” defense against charges that he prescribed painkillers to drug addicts.

More Tandy:

Tandy says she doesn’t want to tell doctors how to treat patients. “The DEA does not belong in the practice of medicine. We want doctors to be able to prescribe drugs when people are in pain. We’re trying to give them a comfort level.” 

But if the DEA has its own definition of what is and isn’t “accepted medical practice,” and — worse — won’t tell doctors what that definition is when it comes to prescribing painkillers, thus leading doctors to err on the side of undertreatment, we have most certainly entered the realm of drug cops dictating medical practice.

The DEA has taken a lot of heat from pain activists, academics, media critics, and civil libertarians on this issue. Yesterday’s minor shift in policy should by no means be the end of the debate.

For more on this issue, see here and here.

A Compelling State Interest in… Fabulous Decor?

I know, this one’s outside my bailiwick, but can you blame me? Apparently New Mexico has forbidden interior designers from calling themselves “interior designers” unless they are officially certified by the government.

What, exactly, is the compelling state interest for such a ban? Are New Mexico legislators fearful that citizens will suffer irreversible harm from bad Feng Shui? “You’ve lined up your dining room table with your couch?!? Are you mad!?!”

Or have they developed such a keenly felt artisitic sensibility that they must spare New Mexicans from a return to the “Interior Desecrations” of the 1970s?

As a forthcoming Cato Institute paper reveals, state licensure of professionals is a bad idea even in important areas like teaching (“Giving Kids the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need”). That it is even contemplated in interior design is, at the very least, decidedly tacky.

Hat tip, Jacob Sullum.