August 2007

August 31, 2007 1:45PM

America’s Longest War

In the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, has a brisk, powerfully written piece calling for the legalization of drugs. Unfortunately, it’s subscriber‐​only, but here’s one of the more provocative passages:

Looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid‐​era South Africa for how to deal with race. The United States ranks first in the world in per‐​capita incarceration–with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The number of people locked up for U.S. drug‐​law violations has increased from roughly 50,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 today.… In 2005, the ayatollah in charge of Iran’s Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa declaring methadone maintainance and syringe‐​exchange programs compatible with sharia law. One only wishes his American counterpart were comparably enlightened.

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post’s Outlook section featured an indictment of drug prohibition written by Misha Glenny: “The Lost War.” Glenny concludes with the following:

In Washington, the war on drugs has been a third‐​rail issue since its inauguration. It’s obvious why — telling people that their kids can do drugs is the kiss of death at the ballot box. But that was before 9/11. Now the drug war is undermining Western security throughout the world. In one particularly revealing conversation, a senior official at the British Foreign Office told me, “I often think we will look back at the War on Drugs in a hundred years’ time and tell the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ This is so stupid.”

How right he is.

For some of Cato’s 30 years of work on this issue, start here.

Bonus Friday Fun Link: go to page 4 of this document [.pdf] to read about how Richard Nixon’s Archie‐​Bunker‐​style social theories led him to ramp up the war on marijuana.

August 30, 2007 4:13PM

Some Bad Ideas That Won’t Help Solve the Organ Shortage

In “The Solvable Problem of Organ Shortages” [New York Times, 8/28/07], Jane Brody makes suggestions which, if implemented, will rob Americans of fundamental rights and do nothing to solve the organ shortage. Her suggestions may even make the problem worse.

The organ shortage can only be solved by increasing, not decreasing, the control people have over the disposition of their organs. Only an increase in liberty, not a restriction of liberty, has any chance of solving the organ shortage. New and innovative ways to motivate individuals to donate, including the option of compensation for donation both in the case of deceased and live organ donation, are what we need, not new ways to take organs without people’s consent.

One option Brody discusses is donation after cardiac arrest. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with retrieving organs after cardiac arrest, but what defines death and when to give up on a patient are not decisions that should be motivated by a need for organs. It is never appropriate for a doctor to alter how he treats one patient in order to provide an organ to save another patient. Just last month, a San Francisco transplant surgeon was charged with three felonies for allegedly hastening the death of a patient in an attempt to harvest his organs.

A policy of donation after cardiac arrest will drastically erode an already waning trust in the medical profession. Such a policy is likely to result in a backlash both against the medical profession in general and organ donation in particular. People will see such a policy as encouraging doctors to give up on patients when in fact there might still be some hope of improving their condition, just in order to harvest their organs. The net result will be a decrease, not an increase, in organs available for transplant.

The other major option discussed by Brody is presumed consent. Presumed consent is no consent at all, it is taking organs without asking unless an individual knows enough to follow the government’s predetermined method for objecting.

 Brody writes: “In Europe, where you are considered a potential donor unless you expressly declare[s] that you do not want to be one, more than 90 percent of people are organ donors.” Americans, unlike Europeans, will not give up their right to self-determination so easily. There will be an outcry both on religious grounds and from those who believe in patient autonomy. Americans will demand to be asked, let alone the question of whether such a law would even be constitutional.

Now these proposals, as great an affront to human dignity as they are, could perhaps have some utilitarian appeal if they had the slightest chance of solving the organ shortage, as Brody’s title suggests. Donation after cardiac arrest and presumed consent, even if implemented simultaneously and without the predicted backlash, would do very little to solve the organ shortage.

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August 30, 2007 4:05PM

Stossel Critiques Commonwealth Fund Study

John Stossel has a good column on a recent Commonwealth Fund study comparing the U.S. health care system to those in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Great Britain. That study reports, “Despite having the most costly health system in the world, the United States consistently underperforms on most dimensions of performance, relative to other countries.”

But Stossel observes that the United States does well in some measures while other measures are practically stacked against us:

The proportion of patients who say they got infected at a hospital counts about the same in the “quality” measure as the proportion of doctors who use automated computer systems to remind them to tell patients their test results. Those things aren’t equal in my book.

The study’s authors also consider having high administrative costs and spending the largest share of GDP on health care worse than having the highest share of patients who wait four months or more for surgery. This seems designed to make the U.S. look bad.

Finally, the study penalizes nations for having large numbers of patients who spent more than $1,000 on medical care out of pocket, as if third‐​party payment is somehow superior.

Stossel made one imprecise claim about the uninsured. He writes, “The same people are not uninsured year in and year out.” That’s mostly true. The estimate that there are 47 million uninsured Americans includes a lot of people who are temporarily uninsured and will regain coverage even if we do nothing.

But a lot of people are uninsured year in and year out. Government surveys estimate that 9 million to 26.4 million Americans are long‐​term uninsured (i.e., have spells without coverage that last more than two years). 

That doesn’t mean those chronically uninsured people aren’t eligible for government programs. Many are. Nor does it mean that they can’t afford health insurance. Many can. But they do exist, and we should be scrapping the government regulations and subsidies that make coverage and care unnecessarily expensive for them.

August 30, 2007 2:53PM

Richard Jewell, RIP

There were scores of federal agents working at the 1996 Summer Olympics, but it was a private security guard named Richard Jewell who spotted the suspicious backpack loaded with explosives and sounded the alarm–sparing countless lives and injuries. For his good deed, Jewell found himself in the crosshairs of a desperate FBI investigation. Federal agents leaked his name to media outlets and Jewell was smeared as a killer who only wanted to pose as a hero. The feds had to back up when the actual evidence pointed to someone else, but a lot of damage had already been done. The life that Jewell had been hoping for was gone. People treated him as if he had the plague. Sadly, Jewell died yesterday. He was only 44. 

The Jewell case serves as a reminder that the government has the power to inflict serious damage on the lives of people–even when there is no conviction in court, and even where there is no indictment.

Note that Cato will be hosting this forum about the Duke University students who got smeared in another investigation that went awry.

Note also the dismissal of charges against Frank Quattrone. The indictment was a page one story, but the dismissal is found in section D, page 2.

August 30, 2007 1:31PM

Krugman on Education, Health Care

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman drew an equivalence between government provision of education and medical care for children:

We offer free education, and don’t worry about middle‐​class families getting benefits they don’t need, because that’s the only way to ensure that every child gets an education — and giving every child a fair chance is the American way. And we should guarantee health care to every child, for the same reason.

His argument would have more force if government actually ensured that every child gets an education. 

I once attended a dinner discussion with a bunch of health care big‐​wigs. One highly educated woman — she is both an M.D. and a J.D. — began the dinner by declaring, “We need to make health care a right in this country, just as we make education a right.”

Later in the dinner, she complained that her organization’s materials must be written at an 8th‐​grade level to be understood by their target audience. 

I interrupted to ask how she reconciled those two statements: if we really have created a right to education, why the poor reading comprehension? And if we create a parallel right to health care, how many people’s medical care will be stuck at an 8th‐​grade level? Her answer was non‐​responsive.

It would be nice if Krugman and others would at least acknowledge that tradeoff.

August 30, 2007 1:12PM

No, a Disco Ball

In an interview in this morning’s USA Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is back to unbridled hyping of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As has been her custom, her answers are popping with utterly unsubstantiated rhetoric, perhaps the most outrageous of which is her insistence that NCLB has somehow brilliantly illuminated heretofore widespread but invisible failure in public schooling. She says, for instance, that before NCLB the nation took “the ostrich approach” to our schools, but with the law we’re at last “shining a bright spotlight on under‐​achievement.”

Oh, come on! Americans have known about their awful schools for decades. I mean, did everyone think everything was hunky‐​dory in Detroit, Newark, Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and on and on until, suddenly, NCLB came along and revealed that – gasp! – the schools in those and many other places were actually dangerous, dilapidated dungeons of ignorance? Of course not! And didn’t A Nation At Risk put Americans in a tizzy about their schools back in 1983? Oh, and wasn’t Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read a best‐​seller all the way back in the 1950s?

And what about that NCLB spotlight? At best, it’s a disco ball — it shines light, but light designed to dazzle much more than illuminate and confuse much more than clarify. So, while NCLB requires all states to bring kids to something called “proficiency” – enabling federal politicians to boast about their steely determination to educate all children – it leaves it to the state and local school officials who’s feet are supposedly being held to the fire to define proficiency and write the standards and tests. The result, as a recent study from Spellings’ own department has shown, has been that state officials and federal education fans have been able to point to rising state test scores to “prove” that NCLB is working, but the state test results themselves have essentially been lies, calling scores “proficient” that the feds themselves would call “basic” or “below basic.”

That sure is one wacky spotlight! What we need right now, especially with reauthorization of NCLB expected to begin when Congress returns from vacation next week, is not to shine a spotlight on our schools, but on both NCLB and all the damning evidence of Washington’s failures through decades of federal education policy. Then we’ll see that far from offering a solution to our education problems, Washington is a very big part of them. And don’t worry: All those troubles in the schools we’ve seemingly known about forever will almost certainly still be there when we move the spotlight off of Washington, and back onto them.