You Heard It Here First

The award for obvious headline of the day goes to this offering from AP:

Analysis: Iraq war ties U.S. hands on Iran

But in the article, there’s a startling admission from Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution:

“The Iraq example coupled with the North Korea example probably is part of the motivation for some in Iran to get a nuclear weapon,” and do so quickly, said Ken Pollack, research director at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Iran absorbed the lessons of those other two nations that President Bush linked as a three-way “axis of evil,” Pollack said.

“We didn’t invade North Korea because they had a nuclear weapon. We did invade Iraq because they didn’t have a nuclear weapon but we thought they were trying to get one. If you’re Iran, what is the logical lesson?”

Of course, you could have gotten this analysis way back in January 2003 from my colleague Ted Carpenter, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush explicitly linked both North Korea and Iran to Iraq in an “axis of evil.”

It would hardly be surprising if Pyongyang and Tehran concluded they would be next on Washington’s hit list unless they could effectively deter an attack. Yet neither country could hope to match the conventional military capabilities of a superpower.

The most reliable deterrent — maybe the only reliable deterrent — is to have nuclear weapons.

In other words, U.S. behavior may have inadvertently created a powerful incentive for nuclear weapons proliferation — the last thing Washington wanted to occur.

More Temperance Tomfoolery

This morning on the radio, I heard the Washington Post’s Richard Morin express alarm at the latest study from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse regarding underage drinking. This year’s study — like previous studies from CASA — declares underage drinking a monumental problem, and concludes that the alcohol industry is not only to blame, but that the industry’s bottom line is dependent on continued consumption by minors.

Morin is an ideas guy. He should know better than to buy into what a baldly neoprohibitionist group like CASA puts in its press release without a bit of skepticism. Unfortunately, he’s not alone — this short NY Times piece bites on the study, too.

CASA has an unfortunate history of fudging data in pursuit of an anti-alcohol agenda. The group had to apologize and retract a 2002 study just hours after its release when critics pointed out massive errors in methodology.

The invaluable Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University (STATS) takes a crack at this year’s study and, once again, finds it lacking:

Here are a few numbers that don’t make sense: according to their estimate, over 20 billion drinks are consumed by underage drinkers. STATS was unable to reconstruct this number. According to their own analysis, 47.1 percent of kids age 12-20 are “drinkers”, that is, they consume at least one drink per month. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 35.8 million people in the United States in this age range; of these, just under 17 million drank in the past month. The average number of drinks/month, according to the data given in this article, is 35.2 per person per month– or about 422 per year. This amounts to about 422 times 17 million, or just under 7.2 billion drinks per year, far from the 20 billion reported in their table, and used for their analysis. For these same kids to consume 20 billion drinks, each teen would have to consume over 1,000 drinks per year, or almost three drinks a day!

STATS runs through CASA’s other hysterical claims, debunks them, then concludes:

The upshot of all this: the number of drinks consumed by youth under 21 is overestimated, the cost per drink is overestimated, the amount of drink attributed to abuse and dependence is overestimated, and the benefit to the industry of youth drinking and alcohol abuse and dependence is overestimated.

Alcohol industry giant Diageo has started a blog to debunk neoprohibition nonsense. Regarding the CASA study, Diageo also points out that nearly all statistical data indicate a sharp decline in underage drinking over the last 15 years, as well as sharp declines in the social problems one might associate with alcohol abuse — drunk driving fatalities, for example. (While Diageo is an alcohol manufacturer, the data it cites come from the federal government.)

Two other points to consider in all of this:

  • This type of data manipulation is alarmingly common among anti-alcohol activists. Just a couple of months ago, the American Medical Association (which has adopted an odd, militant temperance philosophy of late) was caught passing off an Internet poll on spring break and alcohol consumption as scientific, complete with a made-up margin of error. That story was all over the media before any reporter or editor thought to look at its methodology. And it’s unlikely that the millions who saw the original story on the Today Show or read about it in USA Today saw the handful of follow-up stories showing the poll to be little more than anti-alcohol propaganda.
  • There’s no question that underage drinking is common, and much of it is unhealthy (though I don’t buy into the notion that each time a glass of alcohol touches a 19-year-old’s lips qualifies as an incident of “abuse”). But it’s not nearly as widespread as the neoprohibition crowd would have you believe.  Nor is putting bans or severe limitations on alcohol marketing the proper way to address it.   

Unfortunately, neither CASA and its comrades in temperance nor the alcohol industry will consider what I think is a far more sensible approach: Abolish the federal drinking age and, at the state level, adopt a more realistic minimum age — 18 or 19 for purchase, with no minimum for consumption under parental supervision.

Prohibitions on intoxicants have never worked, and never will. They encourage binging and “underground” consumption.

Canadians Are Healthier

I wish that I had the knack for making a media splash the way some people can. For instance, when Harvard’s Karen Lasser and some fellow health care researchers recently released a goofball telephone survey of health care, the media werere all over it.

Here’s a closer look at the gap between the United States and Canada on various health conditions:

  • Obesity: 20.7 percent of U.S. respondents; 15.3 percent of Canadian respondents.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: 13.6 percent of U.S. respondents; 6.5 percent of Canadian respondents.
  • Diabetes: 6.7 percent of U.S. respondents; 4.7 percent of Canadian respondents.
  • High blood pressure: 18.3 percent of U.S. respondents; 13.9 percent of Canadian respondents.
  • Arthritis: 17.9 percent of U.S. respondents; 16 percent of Canadian respondents.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): 1.9 percent of U.S. respondents; 1 percent of Canadian respondents

Wow, that Canadian health care system is amazing! Look at the big difference in “sedentary lifestyle.” That’s obviously due to the fact that they have socialized medicine and we don’t—or so the reasoning goes:

“Compared with Canadians, U.S. residents are one-third less likely to have a regular medical doctor, one-fourth more likely to have unmet health care needs, and are more than twice as likely to forgo needed medicines,” write Lasser and colleagues.

They add that “problems accessing medical care are particularly dire for the U.S. uninsured,” and that while both countries had racial gaps in health, those gaps were wider in the U.S.

But why did Lasser et al. conduct their own telephone survey of Americans? The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a larger and more reliable study of U.S. health care consumers, would have been a perfectly reasonable source to use. The “gaps” may be a little harder to find, though. The average health care spending of people below the poverty line was slightly above that of people above the poverty line—and far above that of people in Canada.

In deference to supporters of government-run health care, we ought to try a single-payer system at a state level in the United States. Then we could see whether having a single-payer system magically improves everyone’s lifestyle, access to doctors, and so forth. Until then, we have this “grass is greener” outlook on Canadian health care in the media, and any attempt at a reality check is fruitless.


A Return-Quibble

Two days ago, I blogged that Americans spend too much for health care as a result of the bizarre health care financing system that has been fostered by government regulation and tax provisions. Michael Tanner subsequently responded that my claim makes little sense in a free society–Americans, who are wealthy, consume more health care because they simply prefer more health care and they have the money to buy it.

Permit me a response to Michael’s response. I offer a lengthy counter on my own blog; here is an excerpt of my reply:

I think of the American health care system not as a free-market system, but as a government-designed contraption constructed to vacuum money out of the pockets of consumers and into the pockets of health-care providers. A lot of this contraption is built into state regulations of health insurance and provider licensing. The Federal government adds an important layer by encouraging “employer-provided health insurance” (i.e., vacuuming wages into prepaid health plans).


Our difference is tactical. Tanner wants to put libertarians on the side of saying, “The American health care system is the finest in the world. Don’t mess it up with a socialized system like everyone else’s.”

I think that tactic is vulnerable to charges that people in other countries are healthier, charges which very well may be true. I would rather be in the position of attacking our vacuum contraption than defending it.

The debate continues…


Smeared by Krugman

Well, Paul Krugman sure smeared me in his May 29 column (sub. req’d.) where he accused me of “fraud pure and simple” in congressional testimony eight (!) years ago.

Krugman’s screed was just another salvo in the current global warming charm offensive, coinciding with Al Gore’s screeching movie, demonstrations against Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, because he had the audacity to NOT blame last year’s Hurricane Katrina on global warming (which would have been “fraud pure and simple”), and multiple smearings of any climate scientist who dares to speak out against the current hysteria.

Krugman was incensed with my July 27, 1998 testimony before the House Committee on Small Business.  In it, my purpose was to demonstrate that commonly held assumptions about climate change can be violated in a very few short years.

One of those is that greenhouse gas concentrations, mainly carbon dioxide, would continue on a constant exponential growth curve.  NASA scientist James Hansen had a model that did just this, published in 1988, and referred to in his June 23, 1988 Senate testimony as a “Business as Usual” (BAU) scenario.

BAU generally assumes no significant legislation and no major technological changes.  It’s pretty safe to say that this was what happened in the succeeding ten years.

He had two other scenarios that were different, one that gradually reduced emissions, and one that stopped the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2000.  But those weren’t germane to my discussion. Somehow, Krugman labelled my not referring to them as “fraud.”

The BAU scenario produced a whopping surface temperature rise of 0.45 degrees Celsius in the short period from 1988 through 1997, the last year for which there was annual data published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the time of my testimony. The observed rise was 0.11 degrees.

I cited the reasons for this.  In fact, the rate of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere was quite constant–rather than itself increasing like compound interest–during the period.  Ten years later, Hansen published a paper in which he hypothesized that “apparently the rate of uptake by carbon dioxide sinks, either the ocean, or more likely the forests and soils, has increased.”  This was not assumed in any of his scenarios. In fact, the general hypothesis has been that, as the planet warms, the ocean takes up carbon dioxide at a slower rate.

Then, contrary to everyone’s expectation, the second most-important global warming emission, methane, simply stopped increasing.  Some years have shown an actual drop in its atmospheric concentration. To this day, no one knows why.

There’s also the nagging possibility that we haven’t yet figured out the true “sensitivity” of surface temperature to changes in carbon dioxide.  Scientifically, that’s a chilling possibility.

On May 30, Roger Pielke, Jr., a highly esteemed researcher at University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, examined Hansen’s scenarios.  Of the two “lower” ones, he concluded, “Neither is particularly accurate or realistic. Any conclusion that Hansen’s 1988 prediction got things right, necessarily must conclude that it got things right for the wrong reason.” (italics in original)

That’s precisely the keynote of my testimony eight years ago:  in climate science, what you think is obviously true can literally change overnight, like the assumption of continued exponential growth of carbon dioxide, or how the earth responds.

Cost-Shifting in Health Care?

Today’s New York Times reports on a new study that claims that low payments from Medicare and Medicaid lead providers to shift costs to private payers.

Sounds plausible, but economists are skeptical.  Michael Morrissey argues that cost-shifting can only occur under limited circumstances (usually, when government has restricted competition among providers), and that what’s actually happening is that providers are price discriminating. 

It may sound like an unimportant difference, but here’s the rub.  If Morrissey is right, then increasing Medicare and Medicaid payments should increase the prices that providers charge private payers. 

Is that what the Blues want?