High U.S. Income Drives Health Spending

U.S. health care spending is not out-of-line internationally, despite whatever shortfalls our health care system might embody. By that, I mean that health care spending is almost exactly what U.S. income levels would predict based on cross-country statistical evidence. Other countries are certain to spend more as their own incomes grow. Take another look at the relationship shown in the chart above: it predicts that health care spending per capita grows 1.8% for every 1% increase in household income. In fact, the share of consumption devoted to health care rises as income rises. Quite simply, the slope of that curve means that health care qualifies as a luxury good.

The chart and conclusions above come from an exhaustive analysis at the Random Critical Analysis (RCA) blog, which is also summarized nicely by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution (to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for several great topics of late). The analysis goes further in asserting that income causes health care spending.

When real income changes, health spending responds in a manner that is consistent with cross-sectional results…. It takes 3-4 years for payers and for providers to completely respond through reimbursement policy, premiums, services offered, and so on. Still, the strength of the long-run relationship is nonetheless readily apparent in the US time series. … Comparable results are obtained in OECD data with similar household income measures.”

So we spend more on health care because we can and, in a strong sense, because we want to. And here is an interesting wrinkle: we actually consume more health care services, we don’t just pay higher prices. Health care prices do increase with income, but at a slower rate than income. This implies that higher quantities of health care are delivered in high-income countries. As the post at RCA notes, health care prices in the U.S. are not “inexplicably high”.

If you visit the post at RCA, note that it’s very easy to browse between sub-topics from the list of sub-links on the right. The analysis covers many other nuances. I’ll mention one more very important one, which is emphasized by Tabarrok: our high level of health care consumption does not involve a loss of goods consumed from other sectors. In fact, quite the opposite. The prices of most goods and services have declined relative to income over the years:

The typical American household is much better fed today than in prior generations despite spending a much smaller share of their income on groceries and working fewer hours. I submit this is primarily a direct result of productivity. We can produce food so much more efficiently that we don’t need to prioritize it as we once did. The food productivity dividend, as it were, has been and is being spent on higher-order wants and needs like cutting edge healthcare, higher amenity education, and leisure activities. … Similar patterns have doubtless been playing out in other essential consumption categories.

… these trends indicate that the rising health share is robustly linked with a generally constant long-term of increasing in real consumption across essentially all other major consumption categories.”

The share of income dedicated to health care in the U.S. is not a dysfunction in the health care sector, nor is it reflective of any dysfunction. That doesn’t mean there are no dysfunctions, however: our health insurance system severs the economic link between consumers and providers, nullifying the price incentives that normally yield effective market outcomes. price transparency is a casualty of the system as well; flaws in the Affordable Care Act create incentives for consolidation in health care delivery, undermining competitive forces; and tax deductibility of employer-provided coverage is a subsidy to those best able to pay for medical expenses and health care coverage.

There is no doubt that these peculiarities lead to suboptimal combinations of services and outcomes. I have written about that in several posts, including “Hospital Price Insanity” in December of 2019. Certain services are vastly overpriced; utilization levels suggest that expensive technology is unnecessarily duplicated; resources are over-allocated to medical tests as well as emergency rooms; and certain markets are underserved. As for outcomes, comparisons are difficult given the lifestyle issues that feed demand for health care in the U.S., such as obesity and smoking. This point too is treated in the long post at Random Critical Analysis.

Other health care systems certainly have their own dysfunctions (see my post “Single Payer: Queue Up and Die Already“, from January). There are undoubtedly wasteful  misallocations of resources and lost opportunities for improvements in care in all these systems. But in terms of the share of resources we dedicate to health care, our system places us at a point along the same locus toward which other developed nations converge: health care spending is reliably related to income. There are problems, but that is not one of them.

 

 

Not Obama’s Economy

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The “Trump economy” hasn’t been half bad, though one can’t attribute all of the results to the economic policies of his administration. In fact, the economy was growing when he took office, though it took several years after the Great Recession to recover under Barack Obama, and various sectors were showing strains before Trump took office. And yes, Obama inherited a very bad economy, but he went off the rails a few weeks ago in a pathetic attempt to take credit for ten-plus years of economic growth. Here is one of his tweets:

Eleven years ago today, near the bottom of the worst recession in generations, I signed the Recovery Act, paving the way for more than a decade of economic growth and the longest streak of job creation in American history,”

The tweet was immediately ridiculed by Trump, as is his habit, but at best Obama received lukewarm support from his usually adoring media outlets. How interesting, however, that just a few days before Obama’s tweet, Chuck Jones, a regular Forbes contributor who really needn’t prove he’s an Obama hack, submitted a scorecard of economic performance covering President Trump’s first three years in office. It was an exercise in throwing shade at a series of good numbers. Then, a week later, Jones had the chutzpah to claim the Obama’s “shovel-ready” stimulus program of a decade ago, which proved anemic in its effects, was the proximate cause of healthy growth under Trump’s watch. Who gave him that idea?

Jones’ effort to diminish Trump’s economic accomplishments is music to the ears of leftists wistful for the days of Obama. They fancy Jones’ appearance in what they assume to be a right-leaning outlet as an enhancement to the credibility of his claims. Forbes, however, is certainly not the bastion of conservatism the Left would have you believe. Their model pays contributors who drive circulation, which has little to do with political alignment. To the extent that Jones is able to stroke the predilections of the Left, he probably can play well at that game.

The truth is it’s difficult to attribute variations in economic growth to different presidential administrations. This fairly well-balanced piece at NPR.org gives one very simple reason:

Let’s stipulate that presidents of both parties often get more credit and blame for economic conditions than they deserve, given that much of what happens is outside their control.”

It is true that a new administration inherits economic conditions and policies from its predecessor. Trump inherited an economy that was growing, but there were plenty of strains, including sluggish wage growth, low labor force participation, weak business startups, and a languid housing sector, as this link makes clear. Moreover, economic expansions have lasted an average of only about five years in the post-WW2 era. The current expansion was about 90 months running at the time of Trump’s inauguration, a stage at which vulnerabilities might develop. But new policies often lead to new economic realities. In Trump’s case, that included tax cuts, and especially corporate tax cuts that spurred hiring and wage growth, and more liberalized regulation. Accommodative monetary policy by the Federal Reserve also provided an assist. As the chart at the top shows, Trump’s platform lifted small business enthusiasm considerably, which is a broad indicator of economic vibrancy. Of course, his trade initiatives have probably had negative effects thus far, but his way of negotiating new trade agreements might well end up making a positive contribution, on balance.

Now, the danger of a caronavirus pandemic is presenting major economic challenges. It’s unlikely to produce as many deaths as a bad flu season in the U.S., in part because the Trump Administration took quick action to limit domestic exposure. Nevertheless, the economic consequences of the virus and attempts to control its spread will be significant. At least the economy was strong when the shock occurred, so it is reasonable to expect a rebound if the outbreak runs its course over the next month or two.

The economic record since Trump took office has been impressive given the stage of the business cycle at which he took office. Not only that, but minority wage growth has surged, and minority unemployment has fallen substantially. Let’s face it: Obama and Joe Biden are eager to neutralize any plaudits a strong economy might earn Trump in an election year, but they shouldn’t embarrass themselves by trying to take credit for it, and Chuck Jones could do better than carrying their water.

 

 

Socialist Supremacy’s Dark History of Culling the Race

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Can you think of a social philosophy steeped in many years of blame-making and hatred for “others”, including massive persecution, more than a passing flirtation with racism, and genocide. Why, that would be socialism! Marion Tupy’s 2017 article on racism and socialism at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) blog is a good reminder, just in case you know anyone having a romantic fascination with collectivist ideology. I know too many! And if they subscribe to the notion that socialism eschews racism, they are sadly mistaken. In fact, to put it kindly, socialists ultimately eschew anyone standing in their way. Here are a few excerpts from Tupy’s article:

… Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were both socialists and eugenicists, bemoaned the falling birthrates among so-called higher races in the New Statesman in 1913. They warned that ‘a new social order [would be] developed by one or other of the colored races, the Negro, the Kaffir or the Chinese’.

Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary and friend of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, offered his views on race in his 1952 memoir The Motorcycle Diaries, writing, ‘The Negro is indolent and lazy and spends his money on frivolities, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent.’ …

In the New York Tribune in 1853, Karl Marx came close to advocating genocide, writing, “The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.” His friend and collaborator, Engels, was more explicit.

In 1849, Engels published an article in Marx’s newspaper, Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In it, Engels condemned the rural populations of the Austrian Empire for failing enthusiastically to partake in the revolution of 1848. …

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians,’ he continued. ‘The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.’

Here Engels clearly foreshadows the genocides of the 20th-century totalitarianism in general and the Soviet regime in particular. In fact, Joseph Stalin loved Engels’ article and commended it to his followers in The Foundations of Leninism in 1924. He then proceeded to suppress Soviet ethnic minorities, including the Jews, Crimean Tatars, and Ukrainians.”

As Tupy notes, socialists are given to dressing-up their repressions as “class struggles”, as opposed to racism when it suits them, ideological eliminationism, and genocidal paroxysm. And these fits have often had pronounced “disparate impacts” on ethnic, racial and national minorities. In this sense, Hitler, the national socialist was no exception. Again, from Tupy:

Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, for example, was partly rooted in his belief that capitalism and international Jewry were two sides of the same coin. As he once famously asked, ‘How, as a socialist, can you not be an anti-Semite?'”

Socialism is not an ideology of “kindness”. As a practical matter, it is an ideology of coercion, control, and extreme inequality of outcomes. It is antithetical to the ideal of personal liberty, not “liberal” in any real sense of the word. It should come as no surprise that the practitioners of socialism have indulged in virulent intolerance and racism. And it’s not simply a matter of “my way or the highway”. It’s often my way or death for those who don’t fall in line, and a highway to hell on earth for those who do.

Central Planning With AI Will Still Suck

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Artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) will never make central economic planning a successful reality. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde of the University of Pennsylvania has written a strong disavowal of AI’s promise in central planning, and on the general difficulty of using ML to design social and economic policies. His paper, “Simple Rules for a Complex World with Artificial Intelligence“, was linked last week by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Note that the author isn’t saying “digital socialism” won’t be attempted. Judging by the attention it’s getting, and given the widespread acceptance of the scientism of central planning, there is no question that future efforts to collectivize will involve “data science” to one degree or another. But Fernández-Villaverde, who is otherwise an expert and proponent of ML in certain applications, is simply saying it won’t work as a curative for the failings of central economic planning — that the “simple rules” of the market will aways produce superior social outcomes.

The connection between central planning and socialism should be obvious. Central planning implies control over the use of resources, and therefore ownership by a central authority, whether or not certain rents are paid as a buy-off to the erstwhile owners of those resources. By “digital socialism”, Fernández-Villaverde means the use of ML to perform the complex tasks of central planning. The hope among its cheerleaders is that adaptive algorithms can discern the optimal allocation of resources within some “big data” representation of resource availability and demands, and that this is possible on an ongoing, dynamic basis.

Fernández-Villaverde makes the case against this fantasy on three fronts or barriers to the use of AI in policy applications: data requirements; the endogeneity of expectations and behavior; and the knowledge problem.

The Data Problem: ML requires large data sets to do anything. And impossibly large data sets are required for ML to perform the task of planning economic activity, even for a small portion of the economy. Today, those data sets do not exist except in certain lines of business. Can they exist more generally, capturing the details of all economic transactions? Can the data remain current? Only at great expense, and ML must be trained to recognize whether data should be discarded as it becomes stale over time due to shifting demographics, tastes, technologies, and other changes in the social and physical environment. 

Policy Change Often Makes the Past Irrelevant: Planning algorithms are subject to the so-called Lucas Critique, a well known principle in macroeconomics named after Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas. The idea is that policy decisions based on observed behavior will change expectations, prompting responses that differ from the earlier observations under the former policy regime. A classic case involves the historical tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. Can this tradeoff be exploited by policy? That is, can unemployment be reduced by a policy that increases the rate of inflation (by printing money at a faster rate)? In this case, the Lucas Critique is that once agents expect a higher rate of inflation, they are unlikely to confuse higher prices with a more profitable business environment, so higher employment will not be sustained. If ML is used to “plan” certain outcomes desired by some authority, based on past relationships and transactions, the Lucas Critique implies that things are unlikely to go as planned.  

The Knowledge Problem: Not only are impossibly large data sets required for economic planning with ML, as noted above. To achieve the success of markets in satisfying unlimited wants given scarce resources, the required information is impossible to collect or even to know. This is what Friedrich Hayek called the “knowledge problem”. Just imagine the difficulty of arranging a data feed on the shifting preferences of many different individuals across a huge number of products,  services and they way preference orderings will change across the range of possible prices. The data must have immediacy, not simply a historical record. Add to this the required information on shifting supplies and opportunity costs of resources needed to produce those things. And the detailed technological relationships between production inputs and outputs, including time requirements, and the dynamics of investment in future productive capacity. And don’t forget to consider the variety of risks agents face, their degree of risk aversion, and the ways in which risks can be mitigated or hedged. Many of these things are simply unknowable to a central authority. The information is hopelessly dispersed. The task of collecting even the knowable pieces is massive beyond comprehension.

The market system, however, is able to process all of this information in real time, the knowable and the unknowable, in ways that balance preferences with the true scarcity of resources. No one actor or authority need know it all. It is the invisible hand. Among many other things, it ensures the deployment of ML only where it makes economic sense. Here is Fernández-Villaverde:

The only reliable method we have found to aggregate those preferences, abilities, and efforts is the market because it aligns, through the price system, incentives with information revelation. The method is not perfect, and the outcomes that come from it are often unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, like democracy, all the other alternatives, including ‘digital socialism,’ are worse.”

Later, he says:

… markets work when we implement simple rules, such as first possession, voluntary exchange, and pacta sunt servanda. This result is not a surprise. We did not come up with these simple rules thanks to an enlightened legislator (or nowadays, a blue-ribbon committee of academics ‘with a plan’). … The simple rules were the product of an evolutionary process. Roman law, the Common law, and Lex mercatoria were bodies of norms that appeared over centuries thanks to the decisions of thousands and thousands of agents.” 

These simple rules represent good private governance. Beyond reputational enforcement, the rules require only trust in the system of property rights and a private or public judicial authority. Successfully replacing private arrangements in favor of a central plan, however intricately calculated via ML, will remain a pipe dream. At best, it would suspend many economic relationships in amber, foregoing the rational adjustments private agents would make as conditions change. And ultimately, the relationships and activities that planning would sanction would be shaped by political whim. It’s a monstrous thing to contemplate — both fruitless and authoritarian.

Statism and Self-Harm

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Some have a tendency to think their problems can be solved only through the intervention of some powerful, external force. That higher power might be God, but at a more temporal level, government is often presumed to be a force to fix all things that need fixing. “There oughta be a law” is a gut reaction to things we find injurious or that offend; government has the resources, or the coercive power to get the resources, to undertake big, appealing projects; and of course government has the coercive power to “rearrange the deck chairs” in ways that might satisfy anyone’s sense of justice and fairness, so long as they get their way. Whenever people perceive some need they believe to be beyond their private capacity, or mere convenience, government action is the default option, and that’s partly because many think it’s the only option.

That’s the appeal of “democratic socialism”, to use a name that unintentionally emphasizes a very real danger of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. It’s a dismal way station along the road to serfdom, to borrow a phrase from Hayek.

Government, however, repeatedly demonstrates it’s sheer incompetence and its expedience as a vehicle for graft. And it’s not as if these failures go unrecognized. Everyone knows it! This is nowhere more true than when the state interferes with private markets or attempts to steer the economy’s direction at either an aggregate or industry level. But here we have a dark irony, as told by Nick Gillespie at Reason:

Again and again—and in countries all over the world—declines in trust of government correlate strongly with calls for more government regulation in more parts of our lives. ‘Individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt,’ explain the authors of a 2010 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. That’s certainly the case in the United States, where the size, scope, and spending of government has vastly increased over exactly the same period in which trust and confidence in the government has cratered. In 2018, I talked with one of the paper’s authors, Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economist who grew up in the Soviet Union before coming to America. Why do citizens ask a government they don’t believe in to bring order? ‘They want regulation,’ he said. ‘They want a dictator who will bring back order.'”

Against all historical evidence and forebodings, the wish for a benevolent dictator! As if it’ll be different this time! Are we all statists? Certainly not me, but the Left is full of them. One prominent example is columnist Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who has expressed the sometimes fashionable view that “things get done” under dictatorships:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. … That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

Tell it to the interred Kazakh and Uighur Muslims undergoing “reeducation” in China. The Right has its share of statists as well, and it is typically expressed in desires for enforced social conservatism.

People seem to have a vague idea that everyone else must either be misbehaving or in misery. And despite the well-tested fallibility and lack of trust in government, people persist in believing that the public sector can conjure magic to solve their problems. But the state gets bigger and bigger while solving few problems and exacerbating others. In fact, as government grows, it makes rent seeking a more viable alternative to productive effort. Like the giant zero-sum game that it is, the expansion of government provides the very means to pick away at the wealth of others. When faced with these incentives, people most certainly will misbehave on small and large scales!

The truth is that individuals hold the most potent regulatory force in their own hands: the voluntary nature of trade. It protects against over-pricing, under-pricing, and inferior quality along many dimensions, but it demands discipline and a willingness to walk away. It also demands a willingness to put forth productive effort, rather than coveting the property of others, and taking from others via political action. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, if you think things are expensive now, wait till they’re free!

Single-Provider Education, Ideology, and Lunch

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Advocates of public education sometimes can’t help themselves from demanding that parents abandon their own informed judgments and principles for the good of the collective. A friend sent me the links below along with his misgivings about the motives at play. These are his words:

Here are two examples of something that drives me crazy and amounts to little more than treating my child (and me) as a [resource] to be spent for the improvement of others. The first calls for parents who pack lunches (because they are healthier and cheaper than school lunches) to stop packing and use the school hot lunch so the added scale of moths could improve foods for everybody.

The second is the same, but about attending public school instead of private – again, so that the parental force added to the public schools will help improve public schools. Never mind if public schools are actually good for you.” 

The links are from the New York Times and Slate, respectively:

Why Are You Still Packing Lunch for Your Kids?

If You Send Your Kid To Private School, You Are a Bad Person

In terms of the simple economics, I’d boil these motives down to two things: a desire to achieve scale economies, which is forgivable as far as it goes; and a desire to strengthen the public education monopoly. Of course the latter brings perks for all those who participate in the management and operation of public schools, which have absorbed an ever-increasing volume of resources with little or no improvement in academic results. But the motives involve politics as well as economics. The apparent mission of the public school monopoly encompasses more than the mere provision of education. As I have discussed in more detail in an earlier post, it fosters the inculcation of collectivist values in our children. Public schools, and a few private schools catering to wealthy progressives who would say public schools are good for your kids, are hotbeds of social justice doctrine and identity politics.

Here are my friend’s closing thoughts:

“I’ve always been resistant to private school because we already pay for public [schools] and public [schools] are good enough. But lately I’ve been thinking about private school, in large part to keep [my son] away from these sorts of folks who want to use him for their own purposes…”

Those purposes can be kept in check only through school competition and parental choice. Like any creditable provider of services, schools should cater to their customers, not the other way around.

 

 

Diversity and Despotism

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Diversity is a fine thing, but who can define it precisely, and along what dimensions? It is essentially an amorphous concept, defined in ways that vary with context and often by political fiat. In my view, the best diversity outcome is always that which results from impartial decisions. That goes for hiring, firing, admission, and the like; in distributing rewards; in making loans; and in price or non-price rationing decisions. And by “impartiality” I mean those decisions should be made without respect to superficial qualities such as skin color, country of origin, sexual preference, religious faith, and political philosophy.

“Superficiality”, however, depends on the context of the decision at hand, or it might describe an outcome that is superficial to the decision criteria: an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require great physical strength is likely to be skewed toward males. Likewise, an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require strong English language skills is likely to favor those whose first language is English. And an impartial selection of a new physics professor should be the candidate having the strongest expertise in physics. The point is that impartiality can seldom guarantee outcomes that are consistent with the demands of diversity activists. In fact, to the extent that diversity objectives may emphasize qualities that are superficial to the decision at hand, they undermine impartiality.

Should research physicists devote their energies to dreaming up ways to promote diversity within their field? Electrical engineers? Will that help them advance the state of knowledge in their disciplines? As a member of an alumni board, I have personally witnessed the department of economics at a state university grapple with diversity reviews and/or mandates in hiring, class enrollment, and curriculum. Economics is actually a field that has strong things to say about the negative consequences of bias and discrimination, and the department should not have to jump through hoops proving it to “diversity administrators” who may well lack the qualifications necessary to assess that part of the curriculum. There is no question that devoting energy and resources to these bureaucratic pursuits is wasteful of faculty time as well as resources furnished by taxpayers. But that isn’t even the worst of it.

The amorphous nature of diversity confers power on its enforcers in business, government, and academia. We know that rank-ordering alternatives in pursuit of an objective may conflict with the selection that best satisfies the diversity fashion du jour. But today our society has devolved to the point at which corporate HR departments insist that individuals be browbeaten into “recognizing their bias” and evaluated on “promoting diversity”. Hiring and promotions at universities in fields as “diverse” as physics and language arts are dependent on a candidate’s ability to convince diversity administrators of their sincere and inventive strategies to promote diversity.

In a post titled “Wokeademia“, John Cochrane comments on these “diversity political tests”:

It’s not about whether you are ‘diverse,’ meaning belonging to a racial, gender, or sexual-preference group the University wishes to hire. It is a statement, as it says, of your active participation in a political movement.”

He quotes Jerry Coyne on the “diversity equity and inclusion statement” required by the University of California:

Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life…. Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test…The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine….”

Cochrane sheds additional light on this phenomenon in a follow-up post:

I started this series impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications. There is a much simpler economic explanation however. As the quotes from the UC system make clear, the central requirement of the diversity statements is to document past active participation in, and require future approval and participation in all the programs produced by the diversity staff.

Jerry Coyne may have nailed it: ‘By hiring large numbers of deans and administrators whose job is to promote initiatives like the above, colleges like Berkeley have guaranteed that this kind of process will only get more onerous and more invidious. After all, those people have to keep ratcheting up the process to keep their jobs going.'”

Here is one more follow-up from Cochrane on the spread of Wokeadamia in which he offers a sampling of academic job descriptions from schools around the country. The heavy emphasis on one’s track record in promoting diversity, and on one’s future plans to do so, may well eclipse a candidate’s actual qualifications for the job!

It’s fair to say the misplaced emphasis on diversity has reached crazy proportions. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, reports on a recent episode at the University of Montana in which the school held an essay contest for Martin Luther King Day as part of its effort to respond to complaints of a lack of racial diversity on campus. The population of the state of Montana is just 0.4% African American, so it should come as no surprise that there are relatively few blacks on the campus of the state university. The nine-member prize selection committee had a non-white majority, but only six students entered the contest, all of whom were white. All four winners were white females. Not only were the selections condemned by activists, but the winners were threatened and the university effectively negated the whole contest.

Until such time as thought, feelings, personal preferences, and technical expertise are officially outlawed, people will make decisions that seem arbitrary to others. That’s often because others don’t understand the decision parameters and are in no position to judge its impartiality. But sometimes personal preferences will reflect bias against superficial characteristics. Economists have noted that such bias nearly always comes at a cost to the decision maker. For example, if the best job candidate is black, then the decision to hire a white is economically inferior and will harm the firm’s competitiveness. And of course there are laws prohibiting overt discrimination in many aspects of economic life. Beyond that, we can condemn such bias as might exist, but it is often impossible to discern except as an often errant appeal to statistical genera or “disparate impact”, and it cannot be prevented while maintaining a free society. Political tests, in particular, are not consistent with a free society and should themselves be prohibited.

Beepocamyth: Neonics Don’t Kill the Buzz

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False claims that a certain class of pesticides threaten the world’s bee populations are commonplace, and we hear the same more recently about various species of birds. The origins of the “beepocalypse” rumor were not based on scientific evidence, but on a narrative that developed among environmental activists in response to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that began around 2006, roughly a decade after neonicotinoid pesticides (so-called neonics) replaced earlier, more toxic compounds as the pesticides of choice. But Jon Entine writes at The Genetic Literacy Project:

What causes CCD? It still remains a mystery, in part. But researchers turned up historical examples of CCD-like bee die offs across the globe over hundreds of years, well before the introduction of pesticides, but activist groups would have none of it.”

CCD essentially tapered off by 2009, according to Entine, and the number of honeybee colonies are higher now that before the introduction of neonics. See Entine’s charts at the link showing changes in honeybee populations over time. In Australia, where the use of neonics has been especially heavy, bee populations have grown steadily and remain quite healthy.

Entine’s article provides a nice summary of the real and imagined threats to the world’s bee populations as well as distorted claims associated with normal winter die-offs. He provides a number of useful links on these subjects, and he summarizes research showing the lack of any real threat to bees from neonics:

Over the past seven years, there have been a flood of studies about the potential impact of neonics on bees. Many small-scale, forced-feeding studies that generally overdosed bees with neonics found various negative effects; not a surprise, many entomologists have said, as they do not replicate real world impacts.

In contrast, a multitude of large-population field studies—the ‘gold-standard’ of bee research—have consistently demonstrated there are no serious adverse effects of neonic insecticides on honeybees at the colony level from field-realistic neonic exposure. …

By last year, even the Sierra Club—for years one of the leading proponents of the honeybee Armageddon narrative—was backpeddling, writingHoneybees are at no risk of dying off. While diseases, parasites and other threats are certainly real problems for beekeepers, the total number of managed honeybees worldwide has risen 45% over the last half century.'”

Then Entine turns his attention to another front in the war on pesticides: a Canadian study in which white-crowned sparrows were force-fed a mixture of seeds and pesticide via gavage — ie, through a tube:

Only sparrows force-fed the highest dosage were affected, and then only temporarily. They stopped eating, quickly lost body weight and fat, became disoriented and paused their migratory flight—all after tube full of chemicals was forced down their throat and into their stomach. … That said, within a few days of what was likely a trauma-inducing experience, all recovered completely and continued their migration normally.”

Yet the authors reported that the very existence of some wild birds is threatened by neonics, and the media, always eager to report a crisis, ran with it.

Paul Driessen also describes the junk science underlying misleading narratives regarding pesticide use. It is a driving force behind legislation in the House and Senate that would ban the use of neonics in National Wildlife Refuges, where the Fish & Wildlife Service permits farmers to grow various crops. Driessen has some advice for Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), a sponsor of the legislation:

She should also recognize potentially serious threats to bees, wildlife, soils, waters and plants in refuges from sources that she, her colleagues and their environmentalist and media allies routinely ignore: solar panels, for instance. Not only do they blanket many thousands of acres, allowing little to grow beneath or between them. They can also leach cadmium and other metals into soils and waters. They should no longer be built near wildlife refuges.

Finally, it’s not just bees. It’s also birds, and bats – which are already being killed and even eradicated in many areas by America’s 56,000 wind turbines. Imagine what Green New Deal turbine numbers would do.”

More perspective is offered in this excellent six-part (and growing?) “Pesticides and Food” series (all at the link) by Kayleen Schreiber:

  1. Has pesticide use decreased? Yes, dramatically in per capita and per unit of output.
  2. Have pesticides improved?  Yes, with dramatically lower toxicity, improved biodegradability, and lower use rates.
  3. How dangerous is glyphosate (a herbicide)? Not very. Covered in my last post. Glyphosate is only 1/10th as toxic as caffeine.
  4. How do organic pesticides compare to synthetic pesticides? It’s a mixed bag, with great variability across both classes. Organics are more toxic in some applications, and synthetics are more toxic in others.
  5. Soil health: Are synthetic pesticides more sustainable than “natural” organics?  Organics require more tillage, which creates sustainability problems.
  6. Pesticide residues — Something to worry about? The USDA finds little residue in its testing, with extremely low detection rates for both organics and synthetics.

 

 

Knocking Noxious Weeds Down on the Farm

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Proof continues to mount that the use of glyphosate herbicide in agriculture and landscape weed control poses no danger to humans, the claims of covetous plaintiffs’ attorneys notwithstanding. Glyphosate is the compound in Roundup and Spectrum weed killers. Ag Daily summarizes the EPA’s 10-year review of the empirical evidence in “EPA reaffirms no human health risk from glyphosate has been found“. The article notes that glyphosate has been studied extensively around the globe:

The bodies supporting these safety findings include the European Food Safety Authority, European Chemicals Agency, German BfR, and Australian, Canadian, Korean, New Zealand and Japanese regulatory authorities, as well as the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues.

I should make one qualification about the EPAs findings: they apply to registered uses, and not to improper application or exposure to more than the prescribed use of glyphosate. Evidence that excessive exposure is dangerous is not in doubt, yet such findings are routinely presented as if they apply generally. This article in The Scientist makes clear that there are number of pathways along which glyphosate might be harmful to humans and animals (like anything else, really), but the evidence of those effects is mixed, at best, and limited to unrealistic conditions. Glyphosate, the so-called active ingredient, is heavily diluted for application, so it is correctly used in minute quantities. It is always important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use, wear appropriate protective gear, and in the kitchen, rinse your produce thoroughly just to be safe.

It’s also important to note that in terms of toxicity, glyphosate is benign relative to the herbicides it replaced, a process that accelerated in the 1990s. Michelle Miller describes a basic relation that is critical to understanding the real dangers posed by any natural or manufactured substance: Risk = Hazard + Exposure. So-called “natural” herbicides used on organic farms are often applied heavily due to their relative inefficacy, so heavier exposure to those herbicides may well offset the presumed health advantages of organic foods.

Glyphosate has additional advantages: it minimizes tillage of fields, which reduces the energy-intensity of farming and avoids unnecessary microbial disturbance, thereby reducing emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and CO2. It also improves farm yields, helping farms prosper and enhancing the world’s food supplies.

 

End of Snowfalls Is Greatly Exaggerated

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Snowcover Anomoly

Everyone seems to think it snowed more in their youth than in recent years, but that’s generally incorrect, at least for for late-stage baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials. Gregory Wrightstone thought the same thing as he reflected on his youth in Pittsburgh, but after checking snowfall records he was surprised to find an upward trend. In “Warming and the Snows of Yesteryear“, Wrightstone says his look at the records from other areas showed similar upward trends. The chart above from NOAA shows the Northern Hemisphere has experienced mostly positive snowfall anomalies over the past 20 years. So, the truth is that snowfalls have not decreased over the last 50+ years, contrary to our fond memories of big snows in childhood. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson thought the same thing in 1801, but I’m not sure whether he was right.

We’ve been told by climate alarmists that “snowfalls are a thing of the past” due to global warming (The Independent in March, 2000). If anything, however, snowfalls have increased, and big snowfalls still happen. As with so many climate predictions over the years, this too is a bust. Most of those predictions have relied on predictive models fitted with an inadequate historical record of data, and the models are inadequately specified to capture the complexities of global climate trends. Don’t bet the house on them, and don’t presume to bet my house on them either, please!