Mistakes to Avoid When Discussing Health Care

Noah Smith has an interesting piece on health care at Bloomberg.  The piece is worth a read, although there are some head-scratchers in there.  Smith’s big conclusion is this:

In other words, don’t believe the argument that the cost difference between the U.S. and other countries is the inevitable price of a more innovative health-care system. Americans really are being greatly overcharged for their care. For whatever reason, health seems to be one industry where government does things more cheaply than the private sector.

There’s a problem with this conclusion, namely that it uses biased data to support the claim.  Health care is cheaper in other countries because the price system is rigged: universal health care keeps prices down by refusing to let them rise.  So, one cannot compare prices in a system where prices are allowed to fluctuate vs one where prices are determined by government diktat.

Prices are a signal.  They provide us valuable information about the relative scarcity of commodities.  When prices are allowed to adjust, they provide accurate information.  When they are not, they provide poor information, and lead to worse outcomes.

It is also important to note that monetary costs are not the only costs involved.  They are one cost, sure, but there are many other kinds of costs: wait times, quality, quantity supplied in general, that sort of thing.  Monetary prices can/will adjust for these different factors (for example, a luxury higher quality car may sell for more than a lower quality car), but if prices cannot adjust, these other costs will rise; there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, after all.

Let’s take, for example, Canada.  In the US, monetary costs for doctor visits may be higher, but in Canada, wait times are much longer (in the US, it’s approximately 24 days to see a doctor.  In Canada, it’s 20 weeks).  This is a real cost.  Quality of care is another cost.  In Britain, for example, you’re about 45% more likely to die in a hospital than the US.  This is a real cost.

It’s admirable to want to compare costs and benefits among two systems like Smith does, but he makes two major mistakes when doing so: 1) he compares price signals from a relatively free market to price signals that are artificially low, thus biasing his estimate (this is a point Bob Higgs has made repeatedly when discussing GDP), and 2) does not do a full accounting of the costs.  Smith may be right that health care is an area where government can provide cheaper than the private sector, but the evidence he puts forth for his claim is weak.

A Non-Technical Guide to Econometrics

Chris Auld has an excellent piece on his blog regarding interpreting the “competing” Seattle minimum wage studies from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley.  It’s long, but very much worth the read.  In fact, it’s probably the best short introduction to statistics/econometrics I think I’ve read (another great one is Chapter 1 of Robert Abelson’s Statistics as a Principled Argument.  I’m also a big fan of Angrist & Pischke’s Mastering ‘Metrics).

Allow me to highlight two items in particular from this blog:

There is no statistical magic which can fully overcome these fundamental [causal] problems.  We will never be able to “prove” what the effect of the minimum wage was: that’s not the way statistics work in general, and in a case study like `what was the effect of the 2015 increase in minimum wages on employment in Seattle?’ the best we can hope for is to bring some suggestive evidence to the table. [Emphasis added]


In other words, what they Berkeley team means when they report “no effect” on employment is not that there is no effect on employment (yes, that is confusing).  What they mean, again, is that there is no statistically significant effect on employment, whereas the UW team, using different data and somewhat different statistical methods, finds a statistically significant effect.  But the difference between statistically significant and statistically insignificant is often itself not statistically significant.

One team found there were no statistically significant effects on employment, but that result should not be misunderstood as a claim that the study “proves” the effect was actually zero… [original emphasis]

Any additional commentary I add here will only detract.  Read Dr. Auld’s post.  It’s excellent stuff.

H/T: Michael Enz

Minimally Critical

Below is a letter to Ben Zipper and John Schmidt of the Economic Policy Institute:

Dear Sirs,

In your June 26th report on the University of Washington’s minimum wage working paper on Seattle, you claim:

One initial indicator of these problems is that the estimated employment losses in the Seattle study lie far outside even those generally suggested by mainstream critics of the minimum wage (see, for example, Neumark and Wascher [2008])—as the authors themselves acknowledge.

With respect, sirs, this is a rather weak criticism.  In fact, it’s logical that the results of the study are outside the norm given that the Seattle wage hike itself is outside the norm; it’s an unusually strong hike.  Given that the wage hike is higher than previous studies, it’d signal to me methodological or empirical issues if the results weren’t outside the typical range.

In short, your criticism amounts to saying “it cannot be true slamming on the breaks causes an abrupt stop because tapping the brakes causes just a slight deceleration!”


Jon Murphy
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Update: an eagle-eyed reader caught a spelling error.  It has been fixed

Some Links

Scott Sumner points us to some good news on trade for the world.  His conclusion is excellent:

Unfortunately, one major country stands on the sidelines pouting while the rest of the world moves toward ever freer trade. Sad.

JMM: So much for making America great again…

Mike Munger reviews Nancy MacLean’s smear-job new book on James Buchanan and Public Choice

John McGinnis discusses what happens when government moves beyond its core functions.

Mike Rappaport on law and legislation

Mark Perry celebrates Thomas Sowell’s 87th birthday