Topic: General

Enough with the H. W. Already

Through 25 years in public life, George Bush was always just that: George Bush. Rep. George Bush, Amb. George Bush, CIA Director George Bush, President George Bush. His son has always been George W. Bush in public life. But now journalists and others think we’re so dumb that we can’t tell them apart unless they add previously unknown initials to George Bush’s name. Today the U.S. Navy launched the USS George H. W. Bush. What an unnecessarily complicated name.

Let’s put a moratorium on renaming presidents after they retire. We can tell the difference between George Bush and George W. Bush. (Boy, can we tell the difference.) And if “Bill Clinton” was good enough for campaigns and bill-signings and orders to bomb countries that hadn’t attacked us, it’s good enough for history. Enough with the attempt to give Clinton retrospective gravitas as William Jefferson Clinton.

Crisis of Abundance in the New York Times

A number of reports purport to show that the U.S. health care sector lags behind those of other nations. I’d be the last to argue that our health care sector should be a model for the rest of the world. But those supposedly objective reports are often based on subjective value judgments about which people will differ. They also tend to overlook objective strengths of the U.S. health care sector.

For example, New York Times columnist Tyler Cowen writes today about how the United States leads the world in medical innovation. We spend far more on medical research than other nations, which increases our level of health expenditures. But the benefits of all that spending are not confined to our borders; they help keep the “ferriners” alive longer, too.

Cowen also draws a lesson from Arnold Kling’s book Crisis of Abundance:

The American system also produces benefits that are hard to find in the numbers. The economist Arnold Kling in his “Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care” (Cato Institute, 2006) argues that the expected life span need increase by only about half a year for the extra American health care spending to be cost-effective over a 20-year period. Given that many Americans walk less and eat less healthy food than most Europeans, the longevity boost from health care in the United States may be real but swamped by the results of poor lifestyle choices. In the meantime, the extra money Americans spend to treat allergy symptoms, pain, depression and discomfort contributes to personal happiness.

Those interested can purchase Crisis of Abundance here, or click here to watch the Cato book forum featuring the author, Sebastian Mallaby of The Washington Post, and Jason Furman of NYU.

Extremism in Defense of Liberty

Michael Cannon, Mike Tanner, and other libertarian health care gurus may appreciate this.  I recently came across an intriguing quote by Founding Father Benjamin Rush, surgeon general of the Continental Army and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  So I did what everyone does these days and went to Wikipedia.  There I learned that:

Rush believed that Americans should enshrine the right to medical freedom in their Constitution, much as the right to freedom of religion is expressly guaranteed in that document.

Rush is reported to have argued that “Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship … to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic … The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom.”

(Of course, if you read a little further, you learn that some of his medical theories were not so hot). 

Rush was also a rabid antimilitarist who proposed in 1792 that two captions be painted “over the portals of the Department of War”: “An office for butchering the human species” and “A Widow and Orphan making office”–though that’s an idea that would probably be even less popular today.    

Another Warning That Will Go Unheeded

In a speech to the Economic Club of Washington yesterday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke became the latest top policymaker to warn that we will face an economic crisis if Social Security and Medicare are not reformed. Unfortunately, Bernanke’s warning is unlikely to become part of the political debate. So far this election season, Democrats have been demagoguing the issue, while Republicans run away from it. Meanwhile, because Congress failed to act last year, Social Security’s unfunded liabilities increased by another $550 billion.

The Real Scandal of ‘Tariff Suspensions’

Two weeks ago (yes, I know, an eternity in blog time, but I’ll explain in a moment), the Washington Post published a gotcha front-page expose on a long-established if little noted congressional practice of suspending miscellaneous tariff duties. The article, headlined “A Quiet Break for Corporations” (September 20, 2006), supposedly uncovered yet another pork-barrel scandal. The real scandal of the story, however, is not that U.S.-based producers seek relief from damaging tariffs, but that those tariffs exist in the first place.

For years, Congress has voted regularly on miscellaneous tariff bills that suspend a hodgepodge of duties on obscure products that often are not even made by companies in the United States. In those cases, the tariffs don’t even perform the dubious duty of “protecting” domestic producers.  They only make it more expensive if not impossible for consumers and producers to import certain products.

The Post article emphasized the potential revenue lost to the government by suspension of the duties, while downplaying the costs to consumers and importing producers from the artificially higher prices imposed by the tariffs. Economics 101 teaches that with almost any tariff, the damage to the economy from higher prices and less efficient production will outweigh the duties collected by the government.

The story implied a scandal in the fact that some American companies would actually be hurt by suspension of tariffs on their foreign competition. But since when is it the duty of the government to protect certain producers against their competition? Should the same government that harasses U.S. companies with anti-trust laws be shielding other U.S. companies from the same competitive forces that anti-trust laws supposedly promote? If Americans can buy dog collars more cheaply from a foreign producer, the federal government should keep its nose out of the deal.

One example in the story involves the proposed suspension of duties on basketballs and volleyballs imported by the sporting-goods company Spalding. Again, the real scandal is why the government imposes any duties at all on such goods. The federal government should not be raising revenue with a special “basketball tax,” in the process making basketballs more expensive for American kids while hurting the sales of an American company.

Supposedly adding to the scandal is that fact that many of the “beneficiaries” of the suspended duties would be foreign-owned affiliates located in the United States, especially German and Swiss chemical companies. That fact does not make the special duties any less damaging to the U.S. economy. Foreign-owned affiliates in the United States employ nearly six million Americans (one out of eight manufacturing workers), pay domestic taxes, and serve American customers.

The story tried to clinch the scandal thesis by citing campaign donations and lobbying expenses by the companies seeking removal of the damaging tariffs. Again, the real scandal is not that these companies are trying to change laws that damage them, but that they need to seek specific relief in the first place.

Import duties invite corruption by giving the government power over a range of otherwise innocent and private transactions. A policy of free trade, without arbitrary duties aimed at punishing foreign producers and protecting domestic ones, would eliminate any need to lobby the government over the imposition or suspension of duties. The latest Economic Freedom of the World  report shows that nations with relatively free and open economies are generally less corrupt than those with closed and government-dominated economies. (Check out the chart on page 26.)

By repealing targeted tariffs that damage our economy and that should never have been imposed in the first place, the proposed miscellaneous tariff bill would make our system a bit less corrupt, not more so.

P.S. So why am I blogging about all this two weeks after the fact? I did not want to jeopardize the chances of the Washington Post actually publishing an edited version of this critique in its letters to the editor section. My patience was rewarded this morning with publication of an edited version of my letter.

Health Care Innovation

Tyler Cowen does two nice things in today’s economic scene column on health care spending.  First, he makes the case that the U.S. system is the leader in innovation:

[T]he American health care system may be performing better than it seems at first glance. When it comes to medical innovation, the United States is the world leader. In the last 10 years, for instance, 12 Nobel Prizes in medicine have gone to American-born scientists working in the United States, 3 have gone to foreign-born scientists working in the United States, and just 7 have gone to researchers outside the country.

The other nice thing is that he cites Crisis of Abundance:

The economist Arnold Kling in his “Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care” (Cato Institute, 2006) argues that the expected life span need increase by only about half a year for the extra American health care spending to be cost-effective over a 20-year period. Given that many Americans walk less and eat less healthy food than most Europeans, the longevity boost from health care in the United States may be real but swamped by the results of poor lifestyle choices. In the meantime, the extra money Americans spend to treat allergy symptoms, pain, depression and discomfort contributes to personal happiness.

Debating Darwin

Michael Shermer, a leading skeptic and bestselling author, will speak at Cato on October 12 on his new book, Why Darwin Matters: The Case against Intelligent Design. Providing highly critical commentary will be Jonathan Wells, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Shermer, once a creationist himself, argues that evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biology. He concludes, “Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. And I liked this line: “Of the three intellectual giants of that epoch–Darwin, Marx, and Freud–only Darwin is still relevant for the simple reason that his theory was right.” Join us next Thursday, or watch it on the web.