Risks, Costs and the Sharing Kind


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Of all the health care buffoonery we’ve witnessed since the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) was first introduced in Congress in 2009, one of the most egregious is the strengthening of the notion that health insurance should cover a variety of wholly predictable, and strictly speaking, non-insurable events. Charlie Martin recently posted some interesting comments on insurance and why it works, and why public perceptions and public policy are often at odds with good insurance practice. He says that “Insurance Is Always Just Gambling“. True, real insurance is like any other rational hedge against risk, and that can be called a gamble. Unfortunately, public policy often interferes with our ability to hedge these risks efficiently.

Hedged Risk Or Prepaid Expenses?

To begin with, insurance is a mechanism for individuals to manage the financial impact of events that are unpredictable and potentially costly. These are insurable risks. But if an event recurs regularly, like an annual physical exam, a breast exam, or a pap smear, or if an event is largely within the individual’s control, like whether an ugly mole should be removed, then it is not an insurable risk. Paying for such “coverage” through a third-party insurer amounts to prepaying for services for which you’d otherwise pay directly when the time comes. We’ve essentially adopted this prepayment scheme on a national scale through Obamacare’s mandated benefits: we get broad coverage of non-insurable events in exchange for deductibles high enough to cover the prepayments! Big win, huh?

The rationale for a broad coverage mandate is that it will induce healthy behaviors like, well… getting an annual checkup. Therefore, it is said to be in the interests of insurers to include such benefits in basic coverage. That might well be, but the insurers don’t do it for free! Indeed, a combination of premiums and deductibles are correspondingly higher as a result, and the mandate introduces a “middle man”, the insurer, who adds cost to the process of executing a relatively simple transaction.

Unlike these prepaid health care expenses, real insurance is really a sort of gamble. An insurer makes a bet that you won’t have a major, unanticipated health care need, and you put up the “premium” as your bet that you will have such a need. The odds are low, so it’s a fairly cheap bet for you, but you have to put up a little extra to pay for your insurer’s administrative costs. Down the road, if you need acute care, your bet pays off. Yippee! You’ll be covered.

But who knows the odds that you’ll need expensive care? And why would an insurer take the risk of losing big if you get sick?

The insurer can estimate those odds via actuarial data and experience, and they can assume your risk by playing the law of large numbers: if they make similar bets with many individuals, their actual losses will be more than covered by premium revenue (most of the time… as Martin explains, it’s possible for an insurer to make a bet with a so-called reinsurer as a hedge against the small risk of a huge loss on its book of business, beyond some threshold).

Shared Risk Or Shared Cost?

Martin objects to the use of the term “shared risk” in this context. Many individuals make similar bets, which makes the insurer’s aggregate payout more predictable. That allows them to offer such bets on reasonable monetary terms, and they are all voluntary contracts sought out by people facing risks of the same character. If an individual seeks to insure against a demonstrably heightened risk, an insurer might or might not agree to the “bet” voluntarily, but if it does, the risk is not truly “shared” by individuals who face lower risks. The high-risk bet is reasonable for the insurer only to the extent that: (1) the premium is actuarially fair in conjunction with a larger pool of high-risk bets, or (2) it can be cross-subsidized by more profitable lines of coverage. If the answer is (2), then premiums for healthy individuals must rise to cover risks they do not share. That is one basis under which Obamacare operates and it is a subtle aspect of Martin’s argument against the notion of “shared risks”. Perhaps we can avoid the semantic difficulty by speaking of “sharing the costs of risks that are not shared”.

A more obvious aspect of Martin’s objection to “shared risk” relates to the expectation  that predictable medical costs must be “covered” by health insurance, as discussed above. If so, no risk is shared because there is no risk! Yet we often speak of health insurance “needs” as if they combine a variety of such things, and as if all those “needs” embody risks that are shared. They are not.

Sharing the Cost of Prenatal Care

In another post, Martin tackles the question of whether certain people should be expected to pay a premium that includes the cost of prenatal care. Martin was prompted by a tweet from the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), which read:

WOW. The #GOP’s reason to object to insurance covering prenatal care? ‘Why should men pay for it?’ #Trumpcare #ProtectOurCare”

There was a link in the tweet to a video, which was captioned by NARAL as follows:

The GOP reasoning to object to prenatal insurance
Two male Republicans object to prenatal care coverage under the ACA because—while it ensures women have healthy pregnancies—it means men pay *a tiny bit more* for insurance. WOW.”

To the extent that pregnancy can be considered a risk, it is certainly not shared by seniors, gays and lesbians, and infertile individuals. And from an insurance perspective, an obvious difficulty with NARAL’s point is that many pregnancies are planned. As such, they are not insurable events (though complications of pregnancy clearly are insurable). Yet people speak as though others must “share” the costs. That is fundamentally unfair and economically inefficient. Subsidies for couples who might wish to have children lead to greater rates of fertility than those couples can otherwise afford, saddling society with the medical bill. Incentives are no joke.

There are also unplanned pregnancies among singles and married couples, however. That sounds more like an insurable event, but it’s impossible to determine whether a pregnancy is planned or unplanned, so moral hazard is an issue (except in extreme circumstances like rape or incest). The risk of pregnancy is confined to a subset of the population, so sharing these costs more broadly is inefficient to the extent that it subsidizes some pregnancies (oops!) that individuals cannot otherwise afford. Individuals and couples who face pregnancy risk might wish to purchase a form of coverage that will help them smooth the cost of pregnancies over their fertile years. It’s not clear that coverage of that nature is better for the prospective parent(s) than a line of credit, but it is a form of insurance only because of the “unplanned” component.

Sharing Costs of Common Risks 

The basic point here is that sharing a risk across all individuals, whether they do or do not actually face the risk, is not a natural characteristic of private insurance. In fact, the idea that this cost should be shared broadly is a collectivist notion. The major flaws are that 1) individuals and couples at risk are not financially responsible for certain cost-causing decisions they might make; and 2) it forces individuals and couples not at risk to pay for others’ risks, which is an act of coercion. NARAL feels that individuals who subscribe to these sound principles are worthy of rebuke. And NARAL asserts that “men pay a tiny bit more“, without providing quantification. Of course, it’s not just men, but this is a variation on the old statist argument that diffuse costs are not meaningful and should be disregarded, ad infinitum.

Public Aid Dressed As Insurance

There are segments of society that are often depicted as incapable of managing risks like pregnancy and unable to afford the consequences of mistakes. Subsidizing those individuals is a second collectivist front for “risk sharing”. Those subsidies can and do take the form of “family planning”, as well as prenatal care and childbirth. That’s part of the social safety net, and while it is perhaps more tolerable as aid, it entails the same kinds of bad incentives as discussed earlier.

The welfare state has seldom been praised for its impact on incentives. Most studies have found a link between the public aid and higher fertility, and mixed effects on the dissolution of marriage (see here and here, and for international evidence, see here). But aid for health care expenses should not interfere with the healthy operation of the insurance market. Vouchers for catastrophic coverage would be far preferable, and that aid could even cover some regularly recurring health care costs.

The misgivings voiced by Martin are partly driven by two fundamental issues: guaranteed issue and community rating. The former means that an insurer must take your bet regardless of the risks you present; the latter means that the insurer cannot charge premiums commensurate with the risk inherent in the various bets it takes. As David Henderson writes, both underpin the ACA. In other words, the ACA imposes cost sharing. Here is Henderson:

As I wrote over 20 years ago, the combination of guaranteed issue and community rating, a key feature of Obamacare, leads to the destruction of insurance markets. No one would advocate forcing insurance companies to issue house insurance policies to people whose houses are burning, at premiums equal to those paid by others whose houses aren’t burning. And the twin requirements would cause more and more people to refrain from buying insurance until their houses are on fire. Insurance companies, knowing this, would charge astronomically high premiums.

Cleaving the Health Care Knot… Or Not


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Republican leadership has succeeded in making their health care reform plans in 2017 even more confusing than the ill-fated reforms enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. A three-phase process has been outlined by Republican leaders in both houses after the initial rollout of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), now billed as “Phase 1”. The AHCA was greeted with little enthusiasm by the GOP faithful, however.

As a strictly political matter, there is a certain logic to the intent of “three-phase plan”: limiting the provisions of the AHCA to issues having an impact on the federal budget. That would allow the bill to be addressed under “budget reconciliation” rules requiring only 51 votes for passage in the Senate. Phase 2 would involve regulatory rule-making, or rule-rescinding, as the case may be. The putative Phase 3 would require additional legislation to address such unfinished business as allowing health insurance competition across state lines, eliminating anti-trust protection for insurers, and medical tort reform. How the sponsors will get 60 Senate votes for Phase 3 reforms is an unanswered question.

Legislative Priorities

Yuval Levin wrote a great analysis of the AHCA last week In which he described the structure of the House bill as a paranoid reaction to the demands of an “imaginary parliamentarian”. By that he means that the reforms in the bill conform to a rigid and potentially flawed interpretation of Senate budget reconciliation rules. Levin’s view is that the House should not twist itself up over what might be negotiated prior to a Senate vote. In other words, the House should concern itself at this stage with passing a bill that at least makes sense as reform, without bowing to any of the awful legacy provisions in Obamacare.

Medicaid reform is one piece of the proposed legislation and is reasonably straightforward. It imposes caps on federal funding to states after 2020, but it grants more flexibility to the states in managing the program. It also involves a tradeoff by allowing Medicaid funding to increase over the first few years, in line with the expansion under Obamacare, in exchange for capped growth later. The expectation is that long-term costs of the program will be reduced through a combination of the caps and better management at the state level.

The more complex aspects of the AHCA attempt to effect changes in the individual market. Levin offers a good perspective on these measures. First, he describes the general character of earlier Republican reform proposals from which the AHCA descends:

Those various proposals all involved bringing premium costs down by enabling insurers to sell catastrophic coverage plans (along with more comprehensive plans) and enabling everyone in the individual market to afford at least those catastrophic coverage plans. This would enable far greater competition and let anyone not otherwise covered by insurance enter the individual market as a consumer.  …

The House proposal bears a clear resemblance to this approach. It involves some deregulation from Obamacare, it includes a refundable tax credit for coverage, it gestures toward incentives for continuous coverage. But it is also fundamentally different from this approach, because it functions within the core insurance rules established by Obamacare, which means it can’t really achieve most of the key aims of the conservative reforms it is modeled on.”

The rules established by Obamacare to which Levin refers include the form of community rating, which is merely loosened somewhat by the AHCA. However, the AHCA would impose a 30% penalty for those who fail to enroll while still healthy. This is a poorly designed incentive meant to substitute for Obamacare’s individual mandate, and it is likely to backfire. Levin is clear that this feature could have been avoided by scrapping the old rules and introducing a new form of community rating available only to the continuously insured.

The AHCA also fails to cap the tax benefits of employer-provided coverage, which retains a potential imbalance between the incentives for employer versus individual coverage. Levin believes, however, that some of these shortcomings can be fixed through a negotiation process in either the House or the Senate, if and when the bill goes there.

The CBO’s Report

As it is, the bill was “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with results that are widely viewed as unsatisfactory. The CBO’s report states that the AHCA would reduce the federal budget deficit, but the ugly headline is that relative to Obamacare, it woud cause 24 million people to lose their coverage by 2024. That number is drastically inflated, as Avik Roy demonstrated in his Forbes column this week. Here are the issues laid out by Roy:

  1. The CBO has repeatedly erred by a large margin in its forecasts of Obamacare exchange enrollment, overestimating 2016 enrollment by over 100% as recently as 2014.
  2. The AHCA changes relative to Obamacare are taken from CBO’s 2016 forecast, which still appears to over-predict Obamacare enrollment substantially. Roy estimates that this difference alone would shave at least 7 million off the 24 million loss of coverage quoted by the CBO.
  3. The CBO also assumes that all states will opt to participate in expanded Medicaid going forward. That is highly unlikely, and it inflates CBO’s estimate of the AHCA’s negative impact on coverage by another 3 million individuals, according to Roy.
  4. Going forward, the CBO expects the Obamacare individual mandate to encourage millions more to opt for insurance than would under the AHCA. Roy estimates that this assumptions adds as much as 9 million to the CBO’s estimate of lost coverage across the individual and employer markets, as well as Medicaid.

Thus, Roy believes the CBO’s estimate of lost coverage for 24 million individuals is too high by about 19 million! And remember, these hypothetical losses are voluntary to the extent that individuals refuse to avail themselves of AHCA tax credits to purchase catastrophic coverage, or to enroll in Medicaid. The latter will be no less generous under the AHCA than it is today. The tax credits are refundable, which means that you qualify regardless of your pre-credit tax liability.


Despite Roy’s initial skepticism about the AHCA, he thinks it can be fixed, in part by means-testing the tax credits, rather than the flat credit in the bill. He also believes the transition away from the individual mandate should be more gradual, allowing more time for markets to being premiums down, but I find this position rather puzzling given Roy’s skepticism that the mandate has a strong impact on enrollment. Perhaps gradualism would convince the CBO to score the bill more favorably, but that’s a bad reason to make such a change.

It’s impossible to say how the bill will evolve, but certainly improvements can be made. It is also impossible to know whether Phases 2 and 3 will ultimately bring a more complete set of cost-reducing regulatory and competitive reforms. Phase 3, of course, is a political wild card.

Michael Tanner notes a few other advantages to the AHCA. Even the CBO says the cost of health insurance would fall, and the AHCA will bring greater choice to the individual market. It also promises over $1 trillion in tax cuts and lower federal deficits.


The GOP faced alternatives that should have received more consideration, but those alternatives might not be politically viable at this point. Some of them contain features that might be negotiated into the final legislation. Rand Paul’s plan has not attracted many advocates. Paul took the courageous position that there should be no entitlements in a reform plan (i.e., subsidies); instead, he insisted, with liberalized market forces, premium costs would decline sufficiently to allow affordable coverage to be purchased by a broad cross-section of Americans. Paul is obviously unhappy about the widespread support in the GOP for refundable tax credits as a replacement for existing Obamacare subsidies.

John C. Goodman has advocated a much simpler solution: take every federal penny now dedicated to health care and insurance subsidies, including every penny of taxes now avoided via tax deductions on employer-provided coverage, and pay it out to households as a tax credit contingent on the purchase of health insurance or health care expenses. This is essentially the plan put forward by Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. Bill Cassidy in the Patient Freedom Act, described here. While I admire the simplicity of one program to replace the existing complexities in the federal funding of health care coverage, my objection is that a health care “dividend” of this nature resembles the flat tax credit in the AHCA. Neither is means-tested, amounting to a “Universal Basic Health Insurance Benefit”. Regular readers will recall my recent criticism of the Universal Basic Income, which is the sort of program that smacks of “universal state dependency”. But let’s face it: we’re already in a state of federal health care dependency. In this case, there is no incremental cost to taxpayers because the credit would replace existing outlays and tax expenditures. In that sense, it would eliminate many of the distortions currently embedded in federal health care policy.

A more drastic approach, at this point, is to simply repeal Obamacare, perhaps with a lengthy phase-out, and attempt to replace it later in the hope that support will coalesce around a reasonable set of measures leveraging market forces, and with accommodations for high-risk individuals and the economically disadvantaged. Michael Cannon writes that CBO estimated a simple repeal would increase the number of uninsured by 23 million over ten years, slightly less than the 24 million estimate for the AHCA! Of course, neither of these estimates is likely to be remotely accurate, as both are distorted by the CBO’s rosy assumptions about the future of Obamacare.

Where To Go?

Tanner reminds us that the real alternative to Republican legislation, whatever form it might take, is not a health care utopia. It is Obamacare, and it is collapsing. That plan cannot be effectively reformed with additional subsidies for insurers and consumers, or we’d find ourselves in a continuing premium spiral. The needed reforms to Obamacare would resemble changes contemplated in some of the GOP proposals. While I cannot endorse that AHCA legislation in its current form, or as a standalone reform, I believe it can be improved, and the later phases of reform we are told to anticipate might ultimately vindicate the approach taken by GOP leadership. I am most skeptical about the promise of subsequent legislation in Phase 3. I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed that by then, the path to additional reforms will be more attractive to democrats.

Trump Versus the Holocaust Trivializers


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George Mason University Law Professor David Bernstein observed this week that many in the American Jewish community are panicked by Donald Trump’s election because they perceive Trump and his followers as anti-Semitic. That perception was seemingly reinforced by recent anti-Semitic acts, such as bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of graves at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, MO and Philadelphia, PA. Bernstein, who is Jewish and not a Trump supporter, wrote a piece entitled “The Great Anti-Semitism Panic of 2017“, which appeared in the Volokh Conspiracy blog sponsored by the Washington Post.

Like Bernstein, I’ve seen a number of indignant posts by Jewish friends connecting Trump and anti-Semitism, complete with comparisons to Adolf Hitler. My quick reaction is that such comparisons are not only irresponsible, they are idiotic. The ghastly implication is that Trump might entertain the idea of exterminating Jews, or any other opposition group, and it is complete nonsense.

Taking a step back, perhaps all this is related to Trump’s nationalism and his views on border security. That includes “extreme vetting” of refugees, deportation of illegal immigrants, and even the dubious argument for a border wall. While that’s not about Jews, those policies appeal to certain fringe, racist elements on the extreme right where anti-Semitism is commonplace. However, those policies also appeal to a much broader and diverse audience of voters who harbor anxieties about economic and national security, and who are neither racists nor anti-Semites.

Bernstein takes progressive Jews to task for tying any of this to anti-Semitism on the part of Trump, his Administration, or his broader base of support:

…  the origins of the fear bear only a tangential relationship to the actual Trump campaign. For example, I’ve lost track of how many times Jewish friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed have asserted, as a matter of settled fact, that Bannon’s website Breitbart News is a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic site. I took the liberty of searching for every article published at Breitbart that has the words Jew, Jewish, Israel or anti-Semitism in it, and can vouch for the fact that the website is not only not anti-Semitic, but often criticizes anti-Semitism (though it is quite ideologically selective in which types of anti-Semitism it chooses to focus on). I’ve invited Bannon’s Facebook critics to actually look at Breitbart and do a similar search on the site, and each has declined, generally suggesting that it would be beneath them to look at such a site, when they already know it’s anti-Semitic.

There is .. a general sense among Jews, at least liberal Jews, that Trump’s supporters are significantly more anti-Semitic than the public at large. I have many times asked for empirical evidence that supports this proposition, and have so far come up empty. I don’t rule out the possibility that it’s true, but there doesn’t seem to be any survey or other evidence supporting it. Given that American subgroups with the highest proportions of anti-Semites — African Americans, first-generation Hispanic immigrants, Muslims and high school dropouts — are strong Democratic constituencies (though the latter group appears to have gone narrowly for Trump this time), one certainly can’t simply presume that Trump has a disproportionate number of anti-Semitic supporters.

Bernstein goes on to discuss the hostility to Trump from groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), hostility which he characterizes as essentially opportunistic:

The ADL’s reticent donors are no longer reticent in the age of Trump, with the media reporting that donations have been pouring in since Trump’s victory. It’s therefore hardly in the ADL’s interest to objectively assess the threat from Trump and his supporters. Indeed, I’m almost impressed that an ADL official managed just the other day to link the JCC bomb threats to emboldened white supremacists, even though the only suspect caught so far is an African American leftist.

He also notes the irony that progressive Jews have been shunned by many leftists, who almost uniformly condemn Zionism. Now, progressive Jews hope to renew common cause with those whose political purposes are defined by membership in groups with a history of marginalized treatment, and who now believe they are threatened by Trump. Will they be happy together? Bernstein attests that many Jews privately acknowledge the danger of “changing demographics”:

… which is a euphemism for a growing population of Arab migrants to the United States. Anti-Semitism is rife in the Arab world, with over 80 percent of the public holding strongly anti-Semitic views in many countries.

As a non-Jew, some would say I lack the bona fides to comment on how Jews “should” feel about Donald Trump. I was raised Catholic, but I attended a high school at which over 60% of the student population was Jewish. I was a member of a traditionally Jewish fraternity in college, where I witnessed occasional anti-Semitism from certain members of non-Jewish fraternities, and I felt victimized by it to some degree. My late brother married a Jewish woman, and he was buried according to Jewish custom. I was once stunned by a brief anti-Semitic wisecrack I overheard in the restroom at a community theatre production of the great musical Fiddler On the Roof!

So, I am connected and strongly sympathetic to the Jewish community. I am also well acquainted with white Gentiles who have had much less interaction with Jews. Those individuals span the political spectrum, and there is no doubt that racists and anti-Semites reside at both ends. I will state unequivocally that among this population, I have observed as much racism and denigration of Jews from the left as from the right. It partly reflects anti-Zionism, but there have been leftists in my acquaintance who seem to regard Jews as Shylockian, as greedy moneychangers and crooked lawyers, or as “hopelessly bourgeois”. Jews should not be blind to the hatred that still exists for them in certain quarters on the left, even if it’s easier to pretend that right-wing religious nuts are their only enemies.

Bernstein’s column was met with outrage by some Jewish progressives. In the Jewish Journal, Rob Eshman accused Bernstein of making apologies for Trumpian anti-Semitic behavior. Here is Bernstein’s response, in which he castigates Eshman for distorting both his thesis and the reaction of the Jewish community to Trump. He also notes that Eshman assigns guilt for the recent spate of anti-Semitic acts to Trump supporters where no evidence exists. That implication is a constant refrain from certain Jewish friends on my Facebook news feed. But there is ample evidence of “fake” hate crimes by progressives, as documented last week by Kevin Williamson.

Finally, it is hard to square the idea that Trump and his leadership team (which includes his Jewish son-in-law) are anti-Semitic with other evidence, such as the unequivocal support they have pledged to Israel, and their hard stand on vetting refugees from nations that are avowed enemies of the Jewish people. Yes, Bernstein is well aware of the anti-Semitic, fringe-right elements that have supported Trump, but those are not the sentiments of anyone serving in the administration, including Steve Bannon. The left has become quite blithe about observing Godwin’s Law, which states that all political opponents will eventually be called out as Nazis. Progressive Jews have taken the cue without much thought: the frequent comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler are awful and are not compatible with healthy discourse. As Stefan Kanfer writes in City Journal in his review of the book “A Tale of Three Cities” (my emphasis added):

… those who persist in comparing Adolf Hitler with any U.S. politician reveal themselves as members of a group just to the side of the Holocaust denier—the Holocaust trivializer. There are no lower categories.

The Taxing Logic of Carbon Cost Guesswork


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An article by three prominent economists* in the New York Times this week summarized the Climate Leadership Council’s Conservative Case for Climate Action“. The “four pillars” of this climate plan include (1) a revenue-neutral tax on carbon emissions, which are used to fund… (2) quarterly “carbon dividend” payments to all Americans; (3) border tax adjustments to account for carbon emissions and carbon taxes abroad; (4) eliminating all other regulations on emissions of carbon. The “Case” is thus a shift from traditional environmental regulation to a policy based on tax incentives, then wrapped around a redistributive universal income mechanism.

I’ll dispense with the latter “feature” by referencing my recent post on the universal basic income: bad idea! The economists advocate for the carbon dividend sincerely, but also perhaps as a political inducement to the left and confused centrists.

The Limits of Our Knowledge

The most interesting aspect of the “Case” is how it demonstrates uncertainty around the wisdom of carbon restrictions of any kind: traditional regulations, market-oriented trading, or tax incentives. Those all involve assumptions about the extent to which carbon emissions should be restricted, and it’s not clear that any one form of restriction is more ham-handed than another. Traditional regulation may restrict output in various ways. For example, standards on fuel efficiency are an indirect way of restricting output. A carbon market, with private trading in assigned “rights” to emit carbon, is more economically efficient in the sense that a tradeoff is involved for any decision having carbon implications at the margin. However, the establishment of a carbon market ultimately means that a limit must be imposed on the total quantity of rights available for trading.

A carbon tax imputes a cost of carbon emissions to society. It also imposes tradeoffs, so it is similar to carbon trading in being more economically efficient than traditional regulation. A producer can attempt to adjust a production process such that it emits less carbon, and the incidence of the tax falls partly on final consumers, who adjust the carbon intensity of their behavior accordingly. For our purposes here, a tax is more illuminating in the sense that we can assess inputs to the cost imputation. Even a cursory examination shows that the cost estimate can vary widely given reasonable differences in the inputs. So, in a sense, a tax helps to reveal the weakness of the case against carbon and the carbon-based rationale for allowing a coercive environmental authority to sclerose the arteries of the market system.

The three economists propose an initial tax of $40 per metric ton of emitted carbon. The basis for that figure is the so-called “social cost of carbon” (SCC), a theoretical construct that is not readily measured. Economists have long subscribed to the theory of social costs, or negative externalities, and to the legitimacy of government action to force cost causers to internalize social costs via corrective taxation. However, the wisdom of allowing the state to intrude upon markets in this way depends on our ability to actually measure specific external costs.

Fatuous Forecasts

The SCC is based on the presumed long-run costs of an incremental ton of carbon in the environment. I do not use the word “presumed” lightly. The $40 estimate subsumes a variety of speculative assumptions about the climate’s response to carbon emissions, the future economic impact of that response, and the rate at which society should be willing to trade those future costs against present costs. The figure only counts costs, without considering the huge potential benefits of warming, should it actually occur.

Ronald Bailey at Reason illustrates the many controversies surrounding the calculation of the SCC. He notes the tremendous uncertainty surrounding an Obama Administration estimate of $36 a ton in 2007 dollars. It used an outdated climate sensitivity figure much higher than more recent estimates, which would bring the calculated SCC down to just $16.

A discount rate of 3% was applied to projected future carbon costs to produce an SCC in present value terms. The idea is that today’s “collective” would be indifferent between paying this cost today and suffering the burden of future costs inflicted by carbon emissions. This presumes that 3% is the expected return society can earn for the future by investing resources today. Unfortunately, the SCC is tremendously sensitive to the discount rate. Together with the more realistic estimate of climate sensitivity, a discount rate of 7% (the Office of Management and Budget’s regulatory guidance) would actually make the SCC negative!

Another U.S. regulatory standard, according to Bailey, is that calculations of social cost are confined to costs borne domestically. However, the SCC attempts to encompass global costs, inflating the estimate by a factor of 4 to 14 times. The justification for the global calculation is apparent righteousness in owning up to the costs we cause as a nation, and also for the example it sets for other countries in crafting their own carbon policies. Unfortunately, it also magnifies the great uncertainties inherent in this messy calculation.

Lack of Evidence

This guest essay on the Watts Up With That? web site by Paul Driessen and Roger Bezdek takes a less gracious view of the SCC than Bailey, if that is possible. As they note, in addition to climate sensitivity, the SCC must come to grips with the challenge of measuring the economic damage caused by each degree of warming. This includes factors far into the future that simply cannot be projected with any confidence. We are expected to place faith in distant cost estimates of heat-related deaths, widespread crop failures, severe storm damage, coastal flooding, and many other calamities that are little more than scare stories. For example, the widely reported connection between atmospheric carbon concentration and severe weather is demonstrably false, as are reports that Pacific islands have been swallowed by the sea due to global warming.

Ignoring the Benefits

The SCC makes no allowance for the real benefits of burning fossil fuels, which have been a powerful engine of economic growth and still hold the potential to lift the underdeveloped world out of poverty and environmental  distress. The benefits of carbon also include fewer cold-related deaths, higher agricultural output, and a greener environment. It isn’t surprising that these benefits are ignored in the SCC calculation, as any recognition of that promise would undermine the narrative that fossil fuels are unambiguously evil. Indeed, an effort to calculate only the net costs of carbon emissions would likely expose the entire exercise as a sham.

The “four pillars” of the Climate Leadership Council‘s case for climate action rest upon an incredibly flimsy foundation. Like anthropomorphic climate change itself, appropriate measurement of a social cost of carbon is an unsettled issue. Its magnitude is far too uncertain to use as a tool of public policy: as either a tax or a rationale for carbon regulation of any kind. And let’s face it, taxation and regulation are coercive acts that better be undertaken with respect for the distortions they create. In this case, it’s not even clear that carbon emissions should be treated as an external cost in many applications, as opposed to an external benefit. So much for the corrective wisdom of authorities. The government is not well-equipped to centrally plan the economy, let alone the environment.

  • The three economists are Martin Feldstein, Ted Halstead and Greg Mankiw.

National Endowment for Rich Farts


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Wailing has begun over the possible defunding and demise of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). How could those cretins propose to eliminate an institution so very critical to promoting artistic expression? If that’s your reaction, you haven’t thought much about the main beneficiaries of federal sinkholes like the NEA. Granted, at $146 million annually, it is not a major federal budget item, but I’d rather not stoop to defend a lousy program because it’s small. So what’s my beef with the NEA, you ask? Read on.

First, any implication that the NEA is the lifeblood of the arts is laughable. No, the arts won’t die if federal funding is denied. Jeff Jacoby quotes figures suggesting that grants from the NEA represented less than 1% of all support for the arts and culture in the U.S. in 2015. Great art was created prior to the establishment of the NEA in 1965. Without the NEA, such bungles as “Piss Christ” would have met with less acclaim. As such a minor funding vehicle, eliminating the NEA won’t make much difference to artists, but it will end a subsidy for wealthy patrons, who can and do provide support for worthy projects, but also derive essentially private benefits from the federal arts spigot.

A large share of NEA grant money goes to non-profit organizations that are already subsidized to the extent that they are not taxed. (Let’s face it: the term “non-profit” itself is often a term of art.) Large arts organizations, which receive a significant share of NEA grants, often have highly-paid administrators and sumptuous facilities. Contributions to those organizations are tax-deductible for the donors. And few of those organizations provide art to the public for free or at a discount. Indeed, as noted at the last link, they often charge significant prices for attendance, and their audiences include a disproportionate percentage of high-income patrons.

Lawrence Reed argues persuasively that government need not subsidize the arts in an article in his series on the Cliches of Progressivism. Here are the highlights:

  • “Government funding of the arts… carries with it all the downsides of dependence on politics.
  • Claims that arts spending is magically “multiplied” are specious and usually self-serving, and never look at alternative uses of the same money.
  • Culture arises naturally and spontaneously among people who chose to interact with each other. Art is part of that, but it also competes with all sorts of other things people choose to do with their time and money.
  • If art is truly important, then the last thing we should want to do is politicize it or divert it toward those things that people with power think we should see or hear.”

Reed’s comment regarding “multipliers” might need some explanation in this context. The NEA’s defenders often claim that each dollar of NEA grant money results in multiple additional grants from other sources, but there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim except for a requirement that NEA grants be matched at the state level (not to mention a requirement for a state-level arts agency). Obviously, that represents another cost to taxpayers. It is quite possible, in fact, that the NEA and matching state grants act as substitutes for, and depress, private arts giving. See this piece in Forbes for more background. This NBER research utilized a large panel data set on individual charities and found only mixed support for the proposition that government grants encourage private contributions. In fact, the estimated effect was ambiguous for individual categories of charitable giving (which did not explicitly address the arts as a category). In any case, a positive cross-sectional effect of government grants on private giving for individual charities is consistent with a negative effect on other charities that do not receive public grants.

In a 20-year-old report from the Heritage Foundation, Stuart Butler offered a list of reasons to defund the NEA, which have held up well. Here, I provide eight that seem relevant:

  1. The arts will have more than enough support without the NEA: See above.
  2. Welfare for cultural elitists: See above. NEA grants fund a number of big and very elite organizations, but they would have you believe that it’s a veritable welfare program for the arts. That is a huge distortion. There is no question that the distribution of patrons of these organizations skews to the wealthy.
  3. Discourages charitable gifts to the arts: See above. Is the award of an NEA grant the equivalent of establishing a credit record to an arts organization? This might hold up for a few small organizations with projects the NEA has funded, but again, the support for this proposition is anecdotal and self-serving, and the numbers are small. And is there an implied stain on the legitimacy of any organization unable to win such a grant?
  4. Lowers the quality of American art: Committee decisions and central planning are not conducive to the spirit of creativity. Public institutions are often guided by political agendas, and government-sanctioned art stands in sharp contradiction to the ideal of free expression. Butler quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature…. It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.”
  5. Funds pornography: this is not my hot button… it’s an issue only to the extent that public funds should not be used for purposes that many taxpayers find morally repugnant.
  6. Promotes politically correct art: See #4 above. The merits are then judged on the basis of criteria like race, ethnicity, and gender identity, not the quality of the art itself.
  7. Wastes resources: Butler offers a few examples of the waste at the NEA, a shortcoming common to all bureaucracies. The NEA funds organizations that behave as non-profit cronyists, engaging in lobbying efforts for more support. Butler also cites evidence that recipients of government grants in the UK hire more administrative staff than non-recipients, and tend not to reduce ticket prices.
  8. Funding the NEA disturbs the U.S. tradition of limited government: I suppose this goes without saying….

The federal government in the U.S. was granted a set of enumerated powers in the Constitution, and promoting the arts was not one of them. It wasn’t as if the subject didn’t come up at the Constitutional Convention. It did, and it was voted down. Today, entrenched interests at organizations like the NEA and National Public Radio distort the character of the constituencies they serve. In reality, those constituencies  are heavily concentrated among the cultural and economic elite. The NEA and NPR also promote the fiction that they are all that stand between access to the arts and culture and a bleak, artless dystopia. Give them credit for creating a fantasy about which the political left readily suspends disbelief.


Embracing the Robots


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Machines have always been regarded with suspicion as a potential threat to the livelihood of workers. That is still the case, despite the demonstrated power of machines make life easier and goods cheaper. Today, the automation of jobs in manufacturing and even service jobs has raised new alarm about the future of human labor, and the prospect of a broad deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) has made the situation seem much scarier. Even the technologists of Silicon Valley have taken a keen interest in promoting policies like the Universal Basic Income (UBI) to cushion the loss of jobs they expect their inventions to precipitate. The UBI is an idea discussed in last Sunday’s post on Sacred Cow Chips. In addition to the reasons for rejecting that policy cited in that post, however, we should question the premise that automation and AI are unambiguously job killing.

The same stories of future joblessness have been told for over two centuries, and they have been wrong every time. The vulnerability in our popular psyche with respect to automation is four-fold: 1) the belief that we compete with machines, rather than collaborate with them; 2) our perpetual inability to anticipate the new and unforeseeable opportunities that arise as technology is deployed; 3) our tendency to undervalue new technologies for the freedoms they create for higher-order pursuits; and 4) the heavy discount we apply to the ability of workers and markets to anticipate and adjust to changes in market conditions.

Despite the technological upheavals of the past, employment has not only risen over time, but real wages have as well. Matt Ridley writes of just how wrong the dire predictions of machine-for-human substitution have been. He also disputes the notion that “this time it’s different”:

The argument that artificial intelligence will cause mass unemployment is as unpersuasive as the argument that threshing machines, machine tools, dishwashers or computers would cause mass unemployment. These technologies simply free people to do other things and fulfill other needs. And they make people more productive, which increases their ability to buy other forms of labour. ‘The bogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems,’ scoffed the economist Herbert Simon in the 1960s.

As Ridley notes, the process of substituting capital for labor has been more or less continuous over the past 250 years, and there are now more jobs, and at far higher wages, than ever. Automation has generally involved replacement of strictly manual labor, but it has always required collaboration with human labor to one degree or another.

The tools and machines we use in performing all kinds of manual tasks become ever-more sophisticated, and while they change the human role in performing those tasks, the tasks themselves largely remain or are replaced by new, higher-order tasks. Will the combination of automation and AI change that? Will it make human labor obsolete? Call me an AI skeptic, but I do not believe it will have broad enough applicability to obviate a human role in the production of goods and services. We will perform tasks much better and faster, and AI will create new and more rewarding forms of human-machine collaboration.

Tyler Cowen believes that AI and  automation will bring powerful benefits in the long run, but he raises the specter of a transition to widespread automation involving a lengthy period of high unemployment and depressed wages. Cowen points to a 70-year period for England, beginning in 1760, covering the start of the industrial revolution. He reports one estimate that real wages rose just 22% during this transition, and that gains in real wages were not sustained until the 1830s. Evidently, Cowen views more recent automation of factories as another stage of the “great stagnation” phenomenon he has emphasized. Some commenters on Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, insist that estimates of real wages from the early stages of the industrial revolution are basically junk. Others note that the population of England doubled during that period, which likely depressed wages.

David Henderson does not buy into Cowans’ pessimism about transition costs. For one thing, a longer perspective on the industrial revolution would undoubtedly show that average growth in the income of workers was dismal or nonexistent prior to 1760. Henderson also notes that Cowen hedges his description of the evidence of wage stagnation during that era. It should also be mentioned the share of the U.S. work force engaged in agricultural production was 40% in 1900, but is only 2% today, and the rapid transition away from farm jobs in the first half of the 20th century did not itself lead to mass unemployment nor declining wages (HT: Russ Roberts). Cowen cites more recent data on stagnant median income, but Henderson warns that even recent inflation adjustments are fraught with difficulties, that average household size has changed, and that immigration, by adding households and bringing labor market competition, has had at least some depressing effect on the U.S. median wage.

Even positive long-run effects and a smooth transition in the aggregate won’t matter much to any individual whose job is easily automated. There is no doubt that some individuals will fall on hard times, and finding new work might require a lengthy search, accepting lower pay, or retraining. Can something be done to ease the transition? This point is addressed by Don Boudreaux in another context in “Transition Problems and Costs“. Specifically, Boudreaux’s post is about transitions made necessary by changing patterns of international trade, but his points are relevant to this discussion. Most fundamentally, we should not assume that the state must have a role in easing those transitions. We don’t reflexively call for aid when workers of a particular firm lose their jobs because a competitor captures a greater share of the market, nor when consumers decide they don’t like their product. In the end, these are private problems that can and should be solved privately. However, the state certainly should take a role in improving the function of markets such that unemployed resources are absorbed more readily:

Getting rid of, or at least reducing, occupational licensing will certainly help laid-off workers transition to new jobs. Ditto for reducing taxes, regulations, and zoning restrictions – many of which discourage entrepreneurs from starting new firms and from expanding existing ones. While much ‘worker transitioning’ involves workers moving to where jobs are, much of it also involves – and could involve even more – businesses and jobs moving to where available workers are.

Boudreaux also notes that workers should never be treated as passive victims. They are quite capable of acting on their own behalf. They often act out of risk avoidance to save their funds against the advent of a job loss, invest in retraining, and seek out new opportunities. There is no question, however, that many workers will need new skills in an economy shaped by increasing automation and AI. This article discusses some private initiatives that can help close the so-called “skills gap”.

Crucially, government should not accelerate the process of automation beyond its natural pace. That means markets and prices must be allowed to play their natural role in directing resources to their highest-valued uses. Unfortunately, government often interferes with that process by imposing employment regulations and wage controls — i.e., the minimum wage. Increasingly, we are seeing that many jobs performed by low-skilled workers can be automated, and the expense of automation becomes more worthwhile as the cost of labor is inflated to artificial levels by government mandate. That point was emphasized in a 2015 post on Sacred Cow Chips entitled “Automate No Job Before Its Time.

Another past post on Sacred Cow Chips called “Robots and Tradeoffs” covered several ways in which we will adjust to a more automated economy, none of which will require the intrusive hand of government. One certainty is that humans will always value human service, even when a robot is more efficient, so there will be always be opportunities for work. There will also be ways in which humans can compete with machines (or collaborate more effectively) via human augmentation. Moreover, we should not discount the potential for the ownership of machines to become more widely dispersed over time, mitigating the feared impact of automation on the distribution of income. The diffusion of specific technologies become more widespread as their costs decline. That phenomenon has unfolded rapidly with wireless technology, particularly the hardware and software necessary to make productive use of the wireless internet. The same is likely to occur with 3-D printing and other advances. For example, robots are increasingly entering consumer markets, and there is no reason to believe that the same downward cost pressures won’t allow them to be used in home production or small-scale business applications. The ability to leverage technology will require learning, but web-enabled instruction is becoming increasingly accessible as well.

Can the ownership of productive technologies become sufficiently widespread to assure a broad distribution of rewards? It’s possible that cost reductions will allow that to happen, but broadening the ownership of capital might require new saving constructs as well. That might involve cooperative ownership of capital by associations of private parties engaged in diverse lines of business. Stable family structures can also play a role in promoting saving.

It is often said that automation and AI will mean an end to scarcity. If that were the case, the implications for labor would be beside the point. Why would anyone care about jobs in a world without want? Of course, work might be done purely for pleasure, but that would make “labor” economically indistinguishable from leisure. Reaching that point would mean a prolonged process of falling prices, lifting real wages on a pace matching increases in productivity. But in a world without scarcity, prices must be zero, and that will never happen. Human wants are unlimited and resources are finite. We’ll use resources more productively, but we will always find new wants. And if prices are positive, including the cost of capital, it is certain that demands for labor will remain.

The Insidious Guaranteed Income


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Praise for the concept of a “universal basic income” (UBI) is increasingly common among people who should know better. The UBI’s appeal is based on: 1) improvement in work incentives for those currently on public aid; 2) the permanent and universal cushion it promises against loss of livelihood; 3) the presumed benefits to those whose work requires a lengthy period of development to attain economic viability; and 4) the fact that everyone gets a prize, so it is “fair”. There are advocates who believe #2 is the primary reason a UBI is needed because they fear a mass loss of employment in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. I’ll offer some skepticism regarding that prospect in a forthcoming post.

And what are the drawbacks of a UBI? As an economic matter, it is outrageously expensive in both budgetary terms and, more subtly but no less importantly, in terms of its perverse effects on the allocation of resources. However, there are more fundamental reasons to oppose the UBI on libertarian grounds.

Advocates of a UBI often use $10,000 per adult per year as a working baseline. That yields a cost of a guaranteed income for every adult in the U.S. on the order of $2.1 trillion. We now spend about $0.7 trillion a year on public aid programs, excluding administrative costs (the cost is $1.1 trillion all-in). The incremental cost of a UBI as a wholesale replacement for all other aid programs would therefore be about $1.4 trillion. That’s roughly a 40% increase in federal outlays…. Good luck funding that! And there’s a strong chance that some of the existing aid programs would be retained. The impact could be blunted by excluding individuals above certain income thresholds, or via taxes applied to the UBI in higher tax brackets. However, a significant dent in the cost would require denying the full benefit to a large segment of the middle class, making the program into something other than a UBI.

Nathan Keeble at Mises Wire discusses some of the implications of a UBI for incentives and resource allocation. A traditional criticism of means-tested welfare programs is that benefits decline as market income increases, so market income is effectively taxed at a high marginal rate. (This is not a feature of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).) Thus, low-income individuals face negative incentives to earn market income. This is the so-called “welfare cliff”. A UBI doesn’t have this shortcoming, but it would create serious incentive problems in other ways. A $1.4 trillion hit on taxpayers will distort work, saving and investment incentives in ways that would make the welfare cliff look minor by comparison. The incidence of these taxes would fall heavily on the most productive segments of society. It would also have very negative implications for the employment prospects of individuals in the lowest economic strata.

Keeble describes another way in which a UBI is destructive. It is a subsidy granted irrespective of the value created by work effort. Should an individual have a strong preference for leisure as opposed to work, a UBI subsidy exerts a strong income effect in accommodating that choice. Or, should an individual have a strong preference for performing varieties of work for which they are not well-suited, and despite having a relatively low market value for them, the income effect of a UBI subsidy will tend to accommodate that choice as well. In other words, a UBI will subsidize non-economic activity:

The struggling entrepreneurs and artists mentioned earlier are struggling for a reason. For whatever reason, the market has deemed the goods they are providing to be insufficiently valuable. Their work simply isn’t productive according to those who would potentially consume the goods or services in question. In a functioning marketplace, producers of goods the consumers don’t want would quickly have to abandon such endeavors and focus their efforts into productive areas of the economy. The universal basic income, however, allows them to continue their less-valued endeavors with the money of those who have actually produced value, which gets to the ultimate problem of all government welfare programs.

I concede, however, that unconditional cash transfers can be beneficial as a way of delivering aid to impoverished communities. This application, however, involves a subsidy that is less than universal, as it targets cash at the poor, or poor segments of society. The UBI experiments described in this article involve private charity in delivering aid to poor communities in underdeveloped countries, not government sponsored foreign aid or redistribution. Yes, cash is more effective than in-kind aid such as food or subsidized housing, a proposition that economists have always tended to support as a rule. The cash certainly provides relief, and it may well be used as seed money for productive enterprises, especially if the aid is viewed as temporary rather than permanent. But that is not in the spirit of a true UBI.

More fundamentally, a UBI is objectionable from a libertarian perspective because it involves a confiscation of resources. In “Why Libertarians Should Oppose the Universal Basic Income“, Bryan Caplan makes the point succinctly:

Forced charity is unjust. Individuals have a moral right to decide if and when they want to help others….

Forcing people to help others who can’t help themselves… is at least defensible. Forcing people to help everyone is not. And for all its faults, at least the status quo makes some effort to target people who can’t help themselves. The whole idea of the Universal Basic Income, in contrast, is to give money to everyone whether they need it or not.”

Later, Caplan says:

…libertarianism isn’t about the freedom to be coercively supported by strangers. It’s about the freedom to be left alone by strangers.

Both Keeble and Caplan would argue that the status quo, with its hodge-podge of welfare programs offering tempting but rotten incentives to recipients, is preferable to the massive distortions that would be created by a UBI. The mechanics of such an intrusion are costly enough, but as Don Boudreaux has warned, the UBI would put government in a fairly dominant position as a provider:

… such an income-guarantee by government will further fuel the argument that government is a uniquely important and foundational source of our rights and our prosperity – and, therefore, government is uniquely entitled to regulate our behavior.

Sins of American Health Insurance


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The advances in Health-Care seems to be putting some distance between the doctor and patient.

Health insurance in the U.S. suffers from many dysfunctions, but a couple of basic steps in its institutional evolution lie at the root of its worst shortcomings. I say this after coming across another great post by John Cochrane the other day, this time with some of his thoughts on fashioning an Obamacare replacement. He lays out a few basic principles, one of which is that “health insurance is not a payment plan for small expenses“, or shouldn’t be.

The best parts of Cochrane’s post, I think, relate to two longstanding features of the health insurance market in the U.S.:

The original sin of American health insurance is the tax deduction for employer-provided group plans — but not, to this day, for employer contributions to portable individual insurance. ‘Insurance’ then became a payment plan, to maximize the tax deduction, and then horrendously inefficient as people were no longer spending their own money.

Worse, nobody who hopes to get a job with benefits then buys long-term individual insurance. This provision alone pretty much created the preexisting conditions problem.”

The last two sentences are insightful commentary on the inadequacy of coverage for pre-existing conditions, though “creating the pre-existing conditions problem” should probably read “foreclosed any easy solution to the pre-existing conditions problem“. During World War II, the government authorized the tax deduction for employer-provided health plans as a concession to labor interests frustrated by war-time wage controls. Cochrane should be forgiven for making this sound like a deal with the devil. Today, employer-provided coverage is almost always limited to one’s job tenure (plus 18 months under COBRA, since 1985). In the 1940s, the benefits might have been generous, but portability was probably the last thing on their minds, especially in light of the long job tenures of the day and the fact that many employers, at that time,  offered coverage to vested retirees. The dominance of employer-provided coverage after WW-II pretty much ruled out lifetime insurability in a world with relatively high job mobility.

The tax deduction also helped to institutionalize the faulty notion that “good” health insurance should cover a panoply of services involving small, recurring expenses that are properly considered normal health upkeep. Instead, insurance should cover large, unexpected expenses for services necessary to treat injuries or severe illness. In addition, the coverage and the premium should, at the buyer’s option, include a guarantee of future insurability at standard rates. This option should not be mandated, but a refusal to opt-in must come at the risk of potentially large future health care obligations.

Cochrane also says:

Cross-subsidies are a second original sin. Our government doesn’t like taxing and spending on budget where we can see it. So it forces others to pay: It forces employers to provide health insurance. It forces hospitals to provide free care. It low-balls Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

The big problem: These patches and cross-subsidies cannot stand competition. Yet without supply competition, costs increase, the number of people needing subsidized care rises, and around we go.”

Competition and choice must exist in health care delivery and in the health insurance market to keep costs under control. But if person A is an identifiable health risk and person B is not, and if healthy B is forced to pay the same premium for health coverage as sickly A, then A is cross-subsidized by B. Competition will encourage B to bail out of the risk pool. If B is prohibited from doing so, costs will soar because the cross-subsidies create incentives for A to over-utilize services, even making allowance for A’s greater need. Thus, forcing A and B into the same risk pool ultimately exacerbates the plight of both A and B by raising costs. That’s where we find ourselves today.

Enabling competition and dismantling cross-subsidies can only occur if all consumers are able to purchase not just health insurance, but long-term health insurability. To avoid a painful transition, publicly-funded high-risk pools might be necessary for the existing type As of the world, who are already burdened by poor health and might not be able to afford the premium necessary for insurance. Going forward, those who refuse a future-insurability option must understand that if they fail to opt-in prior to developing a serious health condition, they will have to rely on Medicaid, private charity, or a risk-rated policy, if they can afford it.

Will Republicans abolish the ill-founded tax deduction? Almost certainly not. They are likely to extend it to the individual side of the market, despite the fact that this will have an additional inflating impact on health care costs. At least it will reduce the current advantage of employer-paid coverage, potentially broadening the market faced by individuals. Also, Republicans might take steps to restore choice, promote competition, and eliminate cross-subsidies. As Cochrane notes, there are also ideas in play to improve portability. Questions remain about many of the details, however, including Medicaid reforms. On the whole, I’m hopeful that we’ll see most of Obamacare’s short-sighted provisions and rules rolled back and replaced by legislation to encourage the development of the market for insurance coverage and for future insurability.

Administrative Cost Causers


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Certain enterprises seem plagued by declining productivity and increasing costs, or what is sometimes called the “cost disease”. This includes such areas as education, health care, and infrastructure development. Prompted by a fascinating post by Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, John Cochrane boils things down to administrative bloat, sometimes caused by regulation. He also identifies a lack of competition as a cause of the bloat. To that I would add institutional arrangements like third-party payments that create gaps between the scheduled prices established by payers and the user’s willingness to pay. Ryan Bourne at the CATO Institute also comments on Alexander’s post; he presents a framework for analysis but demurs from weighing-in on the causes because the U.S. lacks a proper index of public sector output. He mentions Cochrane’s post, but essentially ignores his contribution to the discussion, which I believe is essential to understanding the phenomenon described by Alexander.

The facts are: 1) costs in K – 12 education have tripled since 1970 (but not the student population), while student achievement has remained flat; as a consequence, productivity in education has declined by two-thirds! Alexander notes, “College is even worse.” 2) The cost of health care has increased by 400% since 1970. While longevity has increased and treatments for many ills have improved, we have not enjoyed a 400% improvement in health care delivery and outcomes, and other developed countries achieve the same outcomes at much lower cost; 3) the cost of new infrastructure has increased drastically in the U.S. Alexander cites the cost of the new subway extension in New York City ($2.2 billion per kilometer) at a cost of about 10 – 50 times that of equivalent projects in other parts of the world. These are just a few examples.

What explains these rampant cost increases? Economists are often tempted to attribute such phenomena to “Baumol’s disease“, which holds that sectors in which productivity is relatively static will experience increasing costs due to advances in productivity in other sectors. A classic example is an orchestra. In the act of playing a particular piece of music, an orchestra today has about the same productivity as an orchestra of 200 years ago (though technology can make musicians more productive in other ways). But as productivity grows for workers in the rest of the economy, their real wages will increase. Musicians, and potential future musicians, will then face a steeper tradeoff in their decision to proceed with musical careers. This tendency will increase their reservation wages as musicians. Moreover, consumers achieving more affluence from their work in other sectors — higher real wages — may demand more concerts, and some of those benefits will flow to members of the orchestra.

Have the orchestra’s costs increased without any corresponding increase in real productivity? Well, that argument isn’t quite cinched, since the real wages of the orchestra members and the real revenue derived from their productivity have both increased. Nevertheless, Alexander presents data showing that the real pay of public school teachers, hospital workers, and most physicians (excepting some specialists) has been stagnant, so at least those crucial labor inputs do not account for the increasing costs. While the pay of construction workers has undoubtedly increased, it cannot plausibly account for the cost increases in infrastructure development. But here is Alexander:

I don’t have a similar graph for subway workers, but come on. The overall pictures is that health care and education costs have managed to increase by ten times without a single cent of the gains going to teachers, doctors, or nurses.”

So what might explain the “cost disease” plaguing these sectors? Alexander discusses, and dismisses, several possible theories, and finally settles on a very partial cause: regulation. From personal experience, I can attest to the bizarre commitment of large pools of talent to regulatory compliance. And there is validity to the argument that this bloat is related to legal risks, which organizations attempt to mitigate by creating layers of controls. Cochrane agrees that the real answer is sometimes related to regulation, but the explanation is much broader:

The ratio of teachers to students hasn’t gone down a lot — but the ratio of administrators to students has shot up. Most large public school systems spend more than half their budget on administrators. Similarly, class sizes at most colleges and universities haven’t changed that much — but administrative staff have exploded. There are 2.5 people handling insurance claims for every doctor. Construction sites have always had a lot of people standing around for every one actually working the machine. But now for every person operating the machine there is an army of planners, regulators, lawyers, administrative staff, consultants and so on.”

Cochrane shines a light on perhaps the most important reason for administrative bloat: an absence of competition:

These are all areas either run by the government or with large government involvement. …with not much competition. In turn, however, they are not by a long shot ‘natural monopolies’ or failure of some free market. The main effect of our regulatory and legal system is not so much to directly raise costs, as it is to lessen competition (that is often its purpose). The lack of competition leads to the cost disease.

Though textbooks teach that monopoly leads to profits, it doesn’t. ‘The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life’ said Hicks. Everywhere we see businesses protected from competition, especially highly regulated businesses, we see the cost disease spreading. And it spreads largely by forcing companies to hire loads of useless people.

The quote of Sir John Hicks is particularly informative. Protection from competition means that profits are less risky. The protected monopolist’s profits might be limited by social contract, but they are subject to less business risk. Hicks’ observation suggests that monopolists are likely to take a more langourous approach to cost control.

There is another characteristic shared by public education, health care and infrastructure: not only do those enterprises face minimal, if any, competition, but there is a disconnection between the users of those services and the payers. The cost of public education to taxpayers often bears no relationship to their use of the system. The cost of health care is often borne by third-party payers, rather than patients. The users of public infrastructure are seldom asked to cover its costs. So while monopoly is worse than competition, third-party payments free users of the responsibility to make decisions at the margin, short-circuiting the role of consumer incentives in controlling costs. This could manifest in increasing marginal costs, but it is very likely to enable or even require administrative bloat to take place.

Free of competition, and with customers who do not face tradeoffs between usage and price, providers will manage both their services and costs based on rules established by third-parties, and worse, by multiple layers of payers (as when government subsidizes insurers, when employers offer insurance coverage, and when government subsidizes those employers for doing so). Third-party payers are sometimes lacking in information or direct control (e.g., taxpayers). Payers often face incentives that do not promote efficient delivery of services for which they are obligated to pay. The standards by which costs are justified are seldom subjected to a true market test.

If Cochrane is right, that cost disease is driven by administrative bloat, which in turn is often a consequence of regulation, a lack of competition, and third-party payments, then several general solutions suggest themselves: first, regulate lightly; second, promote competition; third, rely on direct, non-subsidized payments by users whenever possible. In education, these guidelines mean giving public schools more autonomy and allowing parental choice. For health care, they mean an end to mandates and regulatory burdens on insurers, employers and providers, allowing consumer choice in selecting health coverage, ending prohibitions on competition in the insurance marketplace, and eliminating tax subsidies. In infrastructure, the guidelines support streamlining the review process for infrastructure projects, avoiding subsidies to over-invest, relying more heavily on user fees to pay for infrastructure, and expanding the role of private developers and operators of infrastructure facilities.

The Looting Wage and Its Ultimate Victims


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Like children asking their peers to exchange quarters for nickels, advocates of a “living wage” hope that the government and voters will agree that workers should be paid by private employers at a rate the activists deem appropriate, regardless of skills. (The “living wage” is left-speak for a very high minimum wage.) Even worse, those advocates actually believe that such a trade can be justified. Or do they? The simple economics of the claim is undermined by assertions that a living wage is simply a matter of social justice. But social justice cannot be served in this way unless one’s definition is so bound up in virtue signaling that you don’t know the difference. It’s even too charitable to say that the left’s definition of social justice is simply bound up in the present and the short-term interests of specific groups. The unfortunate truth is that the “living wage” sacrifices the very well-being of a large number of individuals in those groups, now and in the future. Here’s why:

Suppose the government mandates a “living wage” as well as a series of measures intended to neutralize all of its unintended consequences. These measures would include a complete prohibition of involuntary terminations, investments in automation, price hikes, movement of capital abroad, and immigration. The measures must also include subsidies for failing employers. Just imagine the burden of compliance costs related to these measures, and the complex task of carving out exceptions, such as the allowable price hike in the wake of an increase in the cost of raw materials. What about the additional workers who would enter the labor force to seek employment at the higher wage? Should they be prohibited from doing so, or should employers be required to hire them, or should they be subsidized to hire them? And how will taxpayers afford all of these government subsidies?

Clearly, the situation described thus far is not sustainable. Both the initial wage hike and many of the other steps, ostensibly intended to cushion the blow on various parties, represent flagrant abridgments of private property rights, or rather, property takings! Of course, the real intent is for private parties to pay for the “living wage”. Presumably, employers are to pay the costs, especially large employers and their wealthy investors, like you when the value of those shares in your IRA, pension or 401k plan begins to tank. The reality is, however, that the unintended consequences will spread the cost in a variety of unpleasant ways.

Those in the coalition for living-wage legislation have not given much thought to the reverberations of such a change. At the most basic level, some people cannot command a high wage because they lack higher-order skills. Some have not learned the importance of reliability, of making sure they arrive at work by a specific time every day. Some have not learned the importance of concentrated work effort, of demonstrating that effort and avoiding excessive slack time. Some communicate poorly, or fail to comport themselves in a manner that commands trust. Some have a sketchy work record, presenting a risk to prospective employers. Living wage advocates assert that all of this is irrelevant, but it means everything to an employer.

How would employers attempt to to survive under a living wage? One doesn’t have to think too deeply to realize that wage floors lead to a loss of jobs for several reasons. Those lacking the skills to justify the higher wage will be out the door. Some employers will fail, finding it impossible to pay the hike in their labor costs or to pass it along to their cost-conscious clientele. The living wage is likely to lead to premature automation of many tasks otherwise requiring unskilled to more moderately-skilled workers. The capital investment needed to automate any manual process may well become worthwhile given such a shock to wage rates. Moreover, while some in the living wage movement complain that U.S. employers seek-out lower wage rates abroad, the living wage itself would lead to more of this substitution. The living wage also creates opportunities for those willing to work illegally at sub-minimum wages, including many undocumented immigrants. By driving a larger wedge between the wages of other home countries and the U.S., the living wage creates an incentive migrate In pursuit of the enlarged set of black-market opportunities for labor.

So just imagine having the government mandate a wage that is nearly double the market-clearing level. The quanity of labor demanded declines and the quantity supplied increases, leaving a surplus of workers at the mandated wage. The demand for labor declines still more as the weakest firms close shop. And it declines still more over horizons long enough to enable investment in automation and relocation of production to foreign shores. Add to the mix an expanded flow of workers from abroad. Not all of these surplus workers, native and immigrant, would be willing to take “underground” work at a rate below the living wage, but some will.

So, which of the measures listed in the second paragraph would mitigate the costs imposed by the living wage? In reality, none of them would succeed without spreading the cost more widely. Prohibiting involuntary terminations? Businesses will fail and/or prices will rise. Prohibiting investment in automation? The same. Prohibiting price hikes? Business failures, terminations, and premature automation. Prohibiting movement of capital abroad? An outright revocation of property rights and a distortion of incentives for productive investment, which would also discourage the movement of capital into the country, not just out.

Are there measures that could make the “living wage” a sustainable outcome? Yes, but they cannot be accomplished immediately by decree. Indeed, doing so would thwart the achievement of the objective. In short, productivity must increase. While productivity is multi-dimensional, education, training and work experience all foster improvement in a worker’s ability to add value. Unfortunately, our system of public primary and secondary education has been unsuccessful in producing graduates who can compete in the labor market, even at today’s minimum wage. Wholesale reforms are needed, but even the best educational reforms will take time to come to fruition. In the workplace itself, apprenticeship programs could provide under-skilled workers an avenue toward greater competitiveness at higher wages. Again, apprenticeships may only make economic sense to employers at a legalized sub-minimum wage, as Australia allows.

Second, productivity is dependent on the quality and quality of the capital invested in a business. The key to improving this capital is profitability. It’s ironic that living-wage advocates fail to see that their proposal runs directly counter to steps that would contribute to  productivity and wages. Instead, they seem intent on killing the geese that lay golden eggs! Far better to allow those eggs to be transformed into new capital assets that can enhance worker productivity and justify higher wages. Some jobs will be replaced by automation, but capital and new technology tend to create new kinds of jobs and inevitably boost worker productivity. (See “Will Automation Make Us Poor?” by Aaron Bailey.) Employers will still have an interest in seeking out, if not developing, new talent. The automation should take place as part of a more natural evolution, not one prematurely hastened by unrealistically high wage mandates.

The living wage is a prescription for failure and a death-knell for the private economy. It will fail the least-skilled workers and even some semi-skilled workers who cannot compete for jobs at the living wage. It will automate jobs before the natural time dictated by the market-driven process of technical evolution. It will lead to higher prices, which drive down the real value of any wage gains that workers manage to capture. It will lead to business failures, especially among small businesses. It will offer false hope to unskilled immigrants. It will reduce capital investment among smaller firms struggling to meet the higher wage bill. It may well lead to a slew of even more destructive public policies, such as business subsidies and other price controls. And it will create dependency on the state. The living wage is a destructive policy and ultimately a prescription for the death of self-sufficiency. It  cannot foster real social justice.