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

What Does Protectionism Protect?

What does protectionism protect?

Some claim that it protects jobs, but that’s not true.  By raising the price of the “protected” good, it reduces quantity demanded, thus reducing the need for labor and other inputs in that particular industry.  Plus, by increasing the price of the protected good, it reduces demand from other areas of the economy just to pay for the new price, costing jobs and inputs into those areas as well (eg, if you have $100 and a suit jacket costs you $50, you have $50 to spend on a night out.  If, due to tariffs, the price raises to $100, you now have nothing to spend on a night out if you buy the suit jacket).

Some claim protectionism protects industries/firms; helps them grow.  That’s not true, either.  As Mercatus Center scholar Dan Griswold reminds us: “Protected industries tend be lazy about innovation and customer service because they are shielded from normal market competition – think the U.S. Postal Service.”  Protectionism tends to weaken the protected industries, not strengthens them (this, in turn, could lead to perpetual calls for protection by the industry.  A good example of this is the US sugar industry.  The subsidies and tariffs it receives were only supposed to be temporary, while the new American nation got on her feet.  Almost 300 years later, they’re still around).

Some claim protectionism protects the economy, it “makes us great” by encouraging exports and reducing imports.  This isn’t true either.  As Dartmouth College professor Douglas Irwin reminds us: “a tax [tariff] on imports is equivalent to a tax on exports. Any restraint on imports also acts, in effect, as a restraint on exports.”  Whether you measure economic gain in the number of exports or the total volume of trade, tariffs reduce both, so it can’t encourage economic growth.

So what, then, does protectionism protect?  Nothing, so far as I can tell.  All it does is reduce the number of goods a society can enjoy by increasing prices.  This is why I call protectionism by its proper name: scarcityism.

What-ifs and Whatnot

Two friends are sitting by a pool on a hot day.  One of the friends, Joe, casually says to Smith (the other): “Smith, it sure is a hot day today.  I hope the sun doesn’t dry up all the water!”

“Don’t be stupid!” says Smith.  “The sun doesn’t cause water to evaporate.  It causes the water level to go higher!”

Joe looks at his friend perplexed.  Smith continues:

“It’s real simple.  The sun hits the water, water gets warmer and starts to evaporate, right?  So the pool master comes out and adds more water to the pool.  On net, the water rises!  Ergo, the sun causes a higher water level!”

Joe, still confused, says “No, that’s not true.  The effect of the sun is to evaporate the water.  The pool master coming in is serendipitous; it’s a ‘what-if’.”

Smith laughs.  “Oh Joe.  Don’t be so dogmatic in your thinking!  Always insisting that the sun causes evaporation!  But I have clearly proven that wrong.  These chemists who constantly insist evaporation occurs because of the sun are just ideologues.”

Joe, rolling his eyes, goes back to his book.


And so it is with minimum wage, too.  Minimum wage advocates love to construct all kinds of “what-ifs” to explain why minimum wage has no effect (or even a positive effect) on employment.  But by doing this, they hide the effect of minimum wage behind all sorts of stories and claim, then, they have turned theory on its head.  But constructing what-ifs are easy.  Any storyteller can do it.  But what-ifs and serendipity make poor bases for public policy.


Make Sure the Cure Isn’t Worse Than the Disease

TANSTAAFL.  Every action taken has costs, and sometimes those costs are borne by those who had no say in the matter (“negative externalities” to use the technical term).  The existence of externalities is often used to justify government involvement in markets (pollution tends to be the common example).  Lately, however, protectionists scarcityists have begun using that argument to promote their policies, noting job loss as an externality.  Some, more generally, claim “practical people not tied to free trade dogma understand that trade sometimes is good and that it’s bad other times.”

It certainly is possible that, any given transaction, may have enough unforeseen negative consequences as to have negative net benefits.  However, the bar needed to justify government action is high:

From a purely economic perspective*, protectionists have two tasks before them:

1) Prove that imports cause greater net harm than domestic production


2) Prove the proposed solution minimizes the net loss (or, inversely, maximizes net benefits). This is where comparative institutional analysis comes in.

The mere existence of condition (1) is neither necessary nor sufficient to justify government intervention. If the cost of government intervention exceeds the benefits therefrom, then even though the free market option has a net loss, it is the optimal solution because the resulting intervention would make matters worse!

The existence of condition (1) may require collective action to solve, but it may be more cheaply solved via non-government collective decision making (ie, a firm).**

There may be cases where government decision making is the lowest cost option.  However, it is very much a case-by-case basis.  Blanket legislation (like a tariff) does not allow for the necessary flexibility to make such decisions.  In order to minimize costs (and thus maximize net benefit), freedom must be given first preference, with the burden of proof upon protectionists.

*There could be many other arguments for protectionism, such as legal, or national defense.  I shan’t get bogged down in a discussion here.  I’ll leave that to the experts.

**For a more in-depth discussion on this point, read The Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, in particular Chapter 5.