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How would a reasonable person react if I said something to the effect of:

  • Woodrow Wilson, a favorite Progressive politician, was pretty clearly discriminatory in his Executive Branch hiring practices and very likely a racist. Therefore, all Progressives today are racists and should be dismissed and ignored.
  • The early proponents of the minimum wage, mostly Progressives, were very clearly motivated by the desire to price low-wage black migrants out of Northern Labor markets during and after the Great Migration. Former black sharecroppers, seeking a better life, managed to come North, particularly during WWI when lots of former factory workers were overseas fighting, and secured work in industry for low wages. Upon return, both existing whites and returning whites, mostly Progressive, enacted policies to make it harder for blacks to prosper and find work. Therefore all minimum wage advocates today are racists and should be dismissed and ignored.

By the way, the premise of each statement is true. We can go on and on and make up very long and exciting lists.

Of course, attacking people today because of some beliefs (and practices) of people in the past who may have shared the same label as today’s folks is pathetic, weak and anti-scientific nonsense. It is incumbent upon us to deal with the ideas as they exist today (not to say that the history is not informative, but history does not permit us to ignore the argument).

So, how come we get to hear crap like this all the time:

  • Some absolutely nutcase conservative politicians suggest that non only is climate change not happening, but that it is a hoax and even the basic GHG theory is wrong. Therefore, all people who may have ever thought that property rights, the price system, markets, advances in human freedom, etc. are attractive attributes of a society – they all should be dismissed and ignored because they, too, are climate deniers (whatever that means).

That this is the baseline for “debate” today is not just depressing. It’s anti-scientific, and plain wrong.

UPDATE: a reader sent me this (apocryphal?) from a beloved progressive figure.


Does this mean that I should PAY the U of R for the privilege of working here? Our contributions seem to be negative.  (type in Rochester in the search box) At least my alma mater is sort of average.

Take each though below to its most positive and its most negative possible outcome.

I want health care for all. Therefore, the county government of Monroe County, NY is going to train, educate, license, etc. all doctors, nurses, cleaning staff, etc. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to arrange all of the rules regarding creation of and sharing of electronic medical records. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to establish all rules regarding monthly payments into the system by all users (even if usage is free), they will establish all policies regarding reimbursements to doctors and staff and facilities for all procedures, outcomes, tests, etc. that you can imagine. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to contract for the building and maintenance of all medical facilities. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to ensure that all food served in medical facilities is safe, tasty and local, and of course freely available to all medical patrons. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to establish procedures for studying and evaluating the effectiveness of medical treatments, and following up personally on patient care. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to be responsible for researching, developing and applying innovations in drug and other medical therapies. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to be responsible for every and all aspect of the medical industry that you can possibly imagine.

OR …

I want health care for all. Therefore, one of the largest employers right now in Monroe County, NY, Wegmans, is going to train, educate, license, etc. all doctors, nurses, cleaning staff, etc. Wegmans is going to arrange all of the rules regarding creation of and sharing of electronic medical records. Wegmans is going to establish all rules regarding monthly payments into the system by all users (even if usage is free), they will establish all policies regarding reimbursements to doctors and staff and facilities for all procedures, outcomes, tests, etc. that you can imagine. Wegmans is going to contract for the building and maintenance of all medical facilities. Wegmans is going to ensure that all food served in medical facilities is safe, tasty and local, and of course freely available to all medical patrons. The county government of Monroe County, NY is going to establish procedures for studying and evaluating the effectiveness of medical treatments, and following up personally on patient care. Wegmans is going to be responsible for researching, developing and applying innovations in drug and other medical therapies. Wegmans is going to be responsible for every and all aspect of the medical industry that you can possibly imagine.

When someone indicates that they want, “health care for all,” it is hard to assess what, exactly that really means. Good economics starts here by asking, “at what margin?” Asking this question requires us to first define exactly what it is that we mean by “health care.” I am quite confident that I, Wintercow, can personally deliver “free” health care to every single American. How? Well, I am pretty sure I can take all of my life’s savings, and buy all of the Advil I can possibly buy with it, and have enough pills to give 1 single Advil pill to every man, woman and child currently living in America both legally and illegally. “But that’s now what I mean!” howls your companion. But saying, “I want to see everyone have health care” is a vacuous sentiment unless you articulate specifically what that means. For example, right now, given current tax and expenditure policy, every single “USER” of health care in America could have access to a virtually unlimited amount of 1980 quality health care, yet if you asked people if this is what they would want, they would surely so no as well. It is incumbent upon you to articulate just what you mean by “health care for all.” Second, the question requires we talk about “how much more” or “how much less” health care you are talking about. Just saying “we should have it” doesn’t help with the parameters of what that means. It can means lots of things to lots of people.

A couple of additional difficulties with the sentiment of “we should all have health care” include the fact that we are sort of making a huge assumption that “access to health care” means “going to the doctor” and further that going to the doctor improves health outcomes. Certainly 100 years ago that would have been a dubious position to hold. Despite our amazing modern knowledge of medicine, I find myself vaguely in that camp today, at current margins. Another problem with suggesting that everyone gets free healthcare is that someone has to provide it. Surely there are not enough dedicated people in the world to endure years of medical training and angry patients just out of the goodness in their hearts – so how do you encourage all of the nurses, doctors, researchers, etc. to become those things if you are somehow going to be providing it for free. Finally, what if the best way to expand access to medical well-being has nothing at all to do with the doctors? I tend to believe that one’s lifestyle choices make a huge difference on how healthy a life you live – and is it at least not reasonable to ask the question of whether dedicating trillions of dollars of spending to “medical care” is not best directed somewhere else in order to maximize the chance that people live health lives?

We are not here to break down the US healthcare “system” and whatever problems it may have, today, but remember, I do not know of a single person who does not wish that all human beings have the chance to enjoy better health outcomes. Saying “everyone should have health care” is a pretty vacuous shorthand for suggesting the former.  And blindly suggesting that everyone should have healthcare is making huge assumptions about who is going to provide such care, that accessing such care improves outcomes, that we know what kind of care you are talking about and that medical care is opportunity costless. Indeed, the sentiment that “we should have health care for all” is almost entirely incoherent. I recommend you see a doctor to get that corrected.


Planned Obsolescence

If this is a particular hobby horse of yours, that companies produce shorter-lived and shoddier products than they “could” … explain housing, and the modern car. Explain oil rigs. Explain school buildings. Explain professional photographs. Explain Advil.

In the intellectual climate we seem to be operating in, the most likely answer to these I would expect to see on a college campus is, “those are mistakes/anomalies.”

The part I can’t shake about these arguments about evil corporations planning obsolescence is to consider one very common complaint about the modern food industry: packaging and preservatives. Explain THAT.

Today we learn that the U of R, in conjunction with the United States Food and Drug Administration, is putting on an “America’s Got Talent” competition. Check it out here.

Students at the University of Rochester are invited to participate in the 3rd annual competition! The competition aims to promote student interest in Regulatory Science – the science of developing new tools, standards and approaches to assess the safety, efficacy, quality and performance of FDA-regulated products. The competition involves each team developing and presenting a proposed solution to a current opportunity in the area of Regulatory Science.

Good Grief Charlie Brown! There always has to be a plan, a solution, a policy, a program, right? Imagine a student group getting up to do their presentation and spending 5 minutes in silence? Imagine a group suggesting that perhaps we can pay more attention to drug lag and drug loss and the very real possibility that the mere existence of the FDA (certainly its marginal existence) is killing people. Imagine a group suggesting that just like the world free rides on American military might (a dubious assumption particularly if you think it possible that such projections of military force induce more violence around the world), we might perhaps outsource some of our work to the Europeans or Brazilians or Japanese, etc. who already have their own stringent regulatory bodies in place. Heaven forbid a group got up and recommended a dual system of drug approval and development, with producers choosing whether to get FDA stamps of approval or to go it alone. Imagine.

Then imagine unicorn chariot races through fields of golden poppies.

In this interesting article on whether “we” want more equality or something else, the author includes a discussion of an idea that is very common:

People might be troubled by what they see as unjust causes of economic inequality, a perfectly reasonable concern given how much your income and wealth are determined by accidents of birth, including how much money your parents had, your sex, and the color of your skin.

There is no question at all that I, myself, had no agency in where and how I was born. Just as I had no say in whether I was born in the U.S. versus Zambia, I had no say about whether I was born to a lower-middle-class family in Queens versus a 7th generation Boston Brahmin. Fine. But here is where you get yourself walked out of the dinner party …

Did my parents have no agency about my particular circumstances? In other words, while I had no say about what my lot in life would (presumably) be, my parents surely did. I suspect that if my parents had this feeling that their kids would have no future, have no way to improve their condition, then they would have been less likely to have given birth to the six of us (I have 5 siblings). Indeed, wouldn’t the high birth rates in the poorest countries of the world be even harder to explain if folks had no optimism about their childrens’ futures? I am not sure this ponderance changes anything, but it is remarkably under-discussed in these matters.

Here is a previous edition in this series.

Here is an example of how you get univited from polite company on a major scale (as he already has):

It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics. This conclusion of Mr. Kealey’s is so heretical as to be incomprehensible to most economists, to say nothing of scientists themselves.

For more than a half century, it has been an article of faith that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer. It was the economist Robert Solow who demonstrated in 1957 that innovation in technology was the source of most economic growth—at least in societies that were not expanding their territory or growing their populations. It was his colleagues Richard Nelson and Kenneth Arrow who explained in 1959 and 1962, respectively, that government funding of science was necessary, because it is cheaper to copy others than to do original research.

“The problem with the papers of Nelson and Arrow,” writes Mr. Kealey, “was that they were theoretical, and one or two troublesome souls, on peering out of their economists’ aeries, noted that in the real world, there did seem to be some privately funded research happening.” He argues that there is still no empirical demonstration of the need for public funding of research and that the historical record suggests the opposite.

The Holy Zero

Lots of you have been asking what I think of a program to provide “free” or “near free” college tuition to Americans. While I wouild not place such a policy in the rarefied air of things like Cash for Clunkers and Rent Control laws, it is certainly on a hot air baloon making its way up there. There is at least one element of the current debate that I appreciate, that politiicians seem to modestly respect the idea that “free” ain’t free and that the resources to do free colllege do have to come from somewhere. That said, remember that ANY decrease in tuition in America is likely a redistribution away from the neediest people in America and toward a less needy population – and this is wholly aside from the obvious idea that spending hundreds of billions more dollars in American subsdizing what has become a consumption activity and degraded academic activity comes at the same time “we need” to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change (but as you probably have learned, climate change is not something people actually care that much about, they SAY they care that much about it but it truly is not a top priority almost anywhere in the world – go check out the myriad survey data on this for starters) or taking measures to work with very needy refugees around the world and more.

I tend to believe that if the debate about “free tuition” were genuine, it is a case of cargo cultism gone very bad. You see, “successful” people have college degrees, so what we should do is make sure lots of people have successful degrees. Of course, this conveniently wipes away the fact, yes fact, that what happens prior to college is of far more serious concern than getting people into college. But I do not believe it is a case of cargo cultism, my belief is that the is pandering and political theatrics. After all, there is already universal access to free college tuiition at state and local supported community colleges. Seriously. Not only have the real costs of community college not changed in 30 years, it is not hard at all to make access entirely free today. Yet not many people take advantage of this, and beyond that, what we know about the outcomes of community college attendees suggests that attrition is very high and there is not evidence that democrtizing college access in this way has had a large impact on the lifetime earnings of their attendees or our broader economic and social picture.

So, what is it, exactly, that people want free? Big, giant, gloriously well appointed, universities? As a taxpayer I’d have a very hard time accepting the notion that we should be supporting students going to places with climbing walls, football teams, “team green” initiatives, frats and sororities, outing clubs, and so on – so where does this “free” tuition lead? Over time it will surely lead to political pressure on colleges to change what they offer and to whom, and it is surely going to lead to political pressure to keep tuition down. One of the papers I wrote before I became a teacher examined whether in fact colleges and universities responded to higher student subsidies by “eating more” … in other words, do expenditures and student fees increase in response to students having more financial aid and the schools getting more institutional support? I’ll let you ponder the possible answers to that question on your own.

Furthermore, not only are students not at all prepared for college, after all current college completion rates are only about 50%, it is not at all clear that conventional colleges are the best way to improve the later life outcomes of students. Why college subsidies? Why not, instead, roll that into a broader cash grant program for everyone to take advantage of, and use however they wish? What these programs look like to me, in any case, are fairly naked attempts to “redistribute” (as if it was “distributed” in the first place) income from less favored groups to a political constituency that favors particular classes of politicians. There are surely other attractive political aspects of this – there are public colleges in every voting district, so this is one of those subsidies that has a little sugar in it for everyone.

Finally, and there is a lot more to say, it would be nice of the blowhards that offer up such programs were aware of what these sorts of things have done in the past and have the potential to do in the future. I strongly suggest that future higher education quality would not be enhanced but rather compromised by these plans. And in response to the obvious capture of these new revenues by colleges, there would be increasing pressure for future price and spending controls and even more political pressure to control what is and is not done on university campuses. Furthermore, with much more federal funding making its way into higher education, would you see political pressure on students to take particular majors and engage in particular activities so that taxpayers “get their money’s worth?” Will universities be allowed to attract star academic talent? If you pay a hot-shot psychologist $500,000, that is 7 other regular professors that could have been hired. There’s no doubt that political pressure to “reevaluate” our priorities would be forthcoming. I actually quite like the prospects for that, as a lot of the current constituents in higher education could probably use a dose of their own medicine from time to time – so paradoxically the political decline of higher ed may provide the impetus to make improvements elsewhere. Not mentioned in all of this is that for all of the political handwriting about college access and affordability, going to college is still an incredibly good financial deal – though I am in the camp that suggests that the “going” part is over-considered in the analysis, college tends to select for people that would do well regardless of whether they went or not.

There is much more to say of course. Lest you think I am cranky (I suppose I am), remember that at least over the course of my expected lifetime, I personally would stand to benefit a great deal from any such program, and it is likely that my own children would probably benefit a bit too. Finally, on the political side, before I ever got behind a program like this, I would like to see an honest politician say, “well, let’s spend $XXX billion more on higher education, I am not sure it will do much, but in order to pay for it, I will permanently spend less on THIS OTHER program by the same amount.” That way, we see where real priorities are. There simply aren’t enough rich people around to steal all of their money to pay for this and all of the other goodies that politicians inevitably are going to promise the sheeple. And I’ll say it now as I will say it hundreds of times before … our governments at all levels already spend more dollars than the GDP of every other country on earth aside from China, yet we still need “more” in order to finally start making progress on important political goals?

In case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from …


In response, a student of mine shares a little of his own story (with his permission):

As I read through your response to the USA`s proposition of making higher education free, I thought that perhaps I could point out a couple of consequences of it that I have had the chance to experience first-hand. I am an International Student coming from Brazil, where I previously attended a public (no-tuition) university`s Law School for three years before transferring to the University of Rochester (and becoming a freshman again). Now, the system works differently there (obviously): in Brazil public (i.e.tuition-free) universities are considered much better than their private counterparts (and one goes to Law School directly from High School), but I think at least some observations may translate to the US, even with mitigated effects.
1. Very successful individuals are still attracted to teaching there, because of the status it provides. Nevertheless, the salary a public university pays is not enough for someone to support oneself (much less a family), so the salary as a professor is usually a secondary income source while they perform other jobs in other companies during the rest of the day. This leads to the professor being unable to offer office hours, or prepare the classes properly, or dedicate any time outside of the classroom to his students. Being a professor is used as a title to boost their actual profession outside of the classroom instead of being a profession in-and-of itself.
2. Since they are employed by the State, it is extremely difficult for a professor to get fired. Therefore, professors would miss class unannounced, arrive very late for it, or simply not worry at all about preparing for class and show up without a plan of teaching. This is not to mention professors that did not correct the exams at all (instead assigning grades randomly, and admitting to do so in front of the classroom). Any kind of complaint would get lost in the bureaucracy of the University management, which depended on the Education Department to make decisions.
3. Funding would be a problem, as you very well pointed out in your e-mail. Now, I know things tend to work much better here, but just for illustration purposes, I would provide some examples from back home: (i) no club gets any funding whatsoever from the University, (ii) no-one lives in campus housing, because there is none (iii) the infra-structure of the university would be falling apart: I studied in what is widely considered Brazil`s best Law School, and the wooden chairs we sat on were so old that they still had place for quill pens in it. The other pubic universities probably had it worse.
Now, obviously things are very different here, and I doubt consequences would be so extreme, but I think some of them are interesting to point-out, even as a matter of curiosity.
But that’s of course Brazil. We’re different here, right?

Check out what has been going on at Williams College. I’m no impartial spectator here, being a Lord Jeff and all.

I always found it interesting that at universities it is perfectly acceptable for the establishment to criticize its critics, but the critics are not permitted to criticize the critic criticizers.

  1. Shocker – an author that I know writes lots in support of unions finds evidence in support of unions. In this case, Richard Freeman, et al, suggest a link between unions, a successful middle class and mobility. To be fair, Freeman’s seminal book is more even-handed than you might think. However as far as this paper goes, if unions positively select for productivity, as they surely must, then the findings would not be surprising. I wonder if a similar paper written from an occupational licensing perspective would find the same things?
  2. Medicare payment reimbursements as a private insurer focal point.
  3. Make your head spin – examine where the uncertainty is in climate-economic modeling.
  4. Medicare Advantage plans (i.e. private plans administering part of the government program) seem to reduce costs and usage without adverse effects on health outcomes. I am sure many an Op-Ed will appear in Slate and the NY Times regarding this finding.
  5. How much did industrial pollution contribute to mortality during the Industrial Revolution? I view this as pretty awesome evidence.
  6. Score yet another “victory” for the hypothesis that “no K12 education interventions work.” This time, special reading instruction support for teachers is not found to improve student reading outcomes. Again, another result surely to be spread far and wide by the mainstream media.

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