Category Archive: Politics & Policy
Comments Off on Expert Answers on the Drug War: Highlights from Prof. Jeff Miron’s AMA
Last week, Professor Jeffrey Miron joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
The conversation focused on Dr. Miron’s 30+ years of study on the effects of drug criminalization. Check out some of the highlights below.
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University
The Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series continues on Wednesday, August 9th, with renowned economist and professor, Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University.
Dr. Miron has written over 100 op-eds for publications such as the New York Times, Washington Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Time, Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Newsweek. He has also written several books, including Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition (2004) and Libertarianism: from A to Z (2010). You may recognize him as the star of one of Learn Liberty’s all-time fan-favorite videos: “Top Three Myths of Capitalism.”
Mark your calendar and join us for the conversation on Reddit, Wednesday, August 9th at 3:00pm ET, where you’ll have the chance to ask him anything!
UPDATE: The AMA is now live!
Comments Off on Innovation in healthcare could be dangerous, but the alternative is worse.
While the politicians debate healthcare reform (again), let’s take a moment to consider how the basic flaws in our current system of “health insurance” put someone important at risk last week. That someone was me.
I felt sluggish for a while, and I said to my wife that I felt like I had a jellyfish lodged in my chest. She suggested it might be walking pneumonia. That seemed to make sense, so I spent some time on the Internet looking up that ailment, including its symptoms.
I got to thinking about how regulation is responsible for the enormous gap between the expert and the amateur. A lot of sites counseled me to consult a physician for an official diagnosis, but noted that walking pneumonia tends to go away without treatment.
I decided I would take the second route rather than suffer the time, the hassle, and the copay that comes with visiting a doctor.
The problem is that healthcare consumers have limited options. At the two ends of the spectrum, they can see a licensed doctor, or they can do it themselves. One option is extremely expensive, time-consuming, and reliable, and the other is free and still time-consuming but not as reliable. In between, there are few other choices. It’s possible to use a service like Teladoc or visit a drugstore clinic in some areas for minor issues like strep throat, an earache, or a sprained ankle, but in the absence of the current system of occupational licensing, there’d be a much broader continuum of possibilities between my unlettered amateur visits to Dr. Google and visits to an actual doctor’s office.
The problem is compounded by the fact that we pay for healthcare via “insurance” coverage, which isn’t really insurance but just prepaid healthcare. This system requires lots and lots of rules about what can and can’t be covered and what constitutes medicine. The entire healthcare market would function much more efficiently if there were more options. For treating a lot of conditions, you don’t need someone who went to four years of medical school and worked through a grueling residency. Better to save that talent for more challenging stuff and allow people to seek marginal improvements over DIY diagnosis.
Worried about quality assurance? There’s an app for that, and it’s called the market. Just as Underwriters Laboratory and Consumer Reports test products rigorously and vigorously, a free market would lead medical practitioners to sensitively vet service providers. The American Medical Association, for example, might offer its own certification course.
Note that certification is distinct from licensing. A license means government permission. Doing business without a license could land you in jail. Certification merely says that the certifying organization vouches for the quality of the product or service. If quality differences matter a lot to patients, the AMA certification will be extremely valuable.
But who’s going to protect people from charlatans? It’s a valid concern, but market mechanisms can complement existing rules against fraud. Courts and professional associations should be able to arrive at enforceable standards. Moreover, the relevant alternative to a cheap healthcare provider for a lot of people isn’t a medical doctor. The relevant alternative is doing it oneself. It’s hardly clear that a society of patients making decisions after consulting the Internet is safer and healthier than a society with lots of different healthcare professionals providing lots of different levels of service.
Comments Off on How thinking harder will let you eat more bacon
Last week, after I returned home from the grocery store — bags of bacon, lunch meat, and hot dogs in tow — my wife announced, “There’s a documentary you need to watch. It’s all about how this food is bad for us.”
The film in question was What the Health, a documentary by Kip Andersen of Cowspiracy fame. Among the film’s central claims is that processed meat — and to a lesser extent, nonprocessed beef — can give you cancer, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, the WHO classifies processed meat in the same carcinogenic category (Group 1) as cigarettes, asbestos, and plutonium.
According to Anderson and his research sources, such a classification means that “Processed Meats Cause Cancer.” This is an extraordinary claim that affords us an opportunity to clear up some confusion about how scientists talk about evidence.
Let’s talk about where the confusion lies.
Precision vs. “Oomph”
When assessing the world, scientists (at least, in the life and social sciences) are primarily concerned with two things: the amount of confidence in a given finding, and the strength of that finding. The two sound very similar, but they are not the same. The difference is outlined by the economists Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey, who delineate between what they call precision and “oomph.”
Say a drug company has developed a new blood pressure medication and submits it for the requisite clinical trials to obtain FDA approval. In its simplest form, this process might involve conducting an experiment wherein 500 people with high blood pressure are recruited and randomly split into two groups. Half of all participants would be given the real drug (the experimental group), and the other half would be given a placebo (the control group). After a specified amount of time, blood pressure levels would be measured and the differences between the groups would be compared.
Let’s imagine that the experimental group exhibited an average systolic blood pressure of 149, while those in the control group averaged 150. This outcome seems unimpressive, but what if every single person in the experimental group ended up one point lower than when they entered the trial, while every single person in the control group stayed exactly the same?
In this case, we can be fairly confident that the drug had a real effect. However, it wasn’t very powerful. It was reliably mediocre at reducing blood pressure.
Now let’s imagine that the experimental group exhibited an average systolic blood pressure of 130, while those in the control group averaged 150. In this case, we can be fairly confident that the drug has a real effect, and a strong one.
Hotdogs and Cancer Risk
As it turns out, the WHO’s conclusions about the effect of processed meat consumption on cancer risk are much more like the former (low oomph) case than the latter (high oomph). In fact, its Q&A explicitly states the following:
Q: Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Tobacco smoking and asbestos are also both classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Does it mean that consumption of processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco smoking and asbestos?
A: No, processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
So the WHO is confident that consuming processed meat causes cancer — presumably, just as confident as they are that smoking tobacco causes cancer. But they are not saying that the two are equally carcinogenic. As such, comparisons between the two are wholly inappropriate. Another way of thinking about this is in the adage many of us learned in high school chemistry: the dose makes the poison.
The WHO has gone to great lengths to clear up the confusion over the dangers of consuming processed meat — a fact that Anderson neatly skips over.
Why We Need to Understand How Scientific Findings Work
We are bombarded by unscrupulous, “scientific” claims every day. We are told that a certain substance is good or bad for us — summarized in plain terms by official-sounding bodies. Politicians do it, too: Harry Reid claimed that the Zika virus causes blindness (no). Attorney General Jeff Sessions has lumped marijuana in with other drugs and declared his intention to reinstantiate the drug war — a move that goes against all available evidence about marijuana’s supposed dangers.
Science is messy and complicated. Most of us — even the educated — are not trained to understand the nuances inherent to science. In statistics courses, I constantly urge my graduate students to attend to both precision and oomph, but the majority of them were unfamiliar with the distinction throughout their undergraduate years.
Getting people to attend to nuances in scientific findings is notoriously difficult, in large part because humans are what psychologists refer to as “cognitive misers” — we don’t like thinking too much about an issue if we can avoid it. After all, thinking is hard! As such, simple explanations like “X causes cancer, but Y does not” are incredibly appealing. It’s also a major reason why humans rely on heuristic reasoning, even when doing so is inappropriate.
Politicians, activists, and regulatory agencies take advantage of our natural proclivity for lazy thinking (or avoiding thinking altogether) in their attempts to influence our behavior.
Don’t let them. Do a little extra thinking. Explore the data for yourself. Ask questions.
And above all, enjoy your bacon.
 I am firmly of the opinion that “there’s a thing on Netflix you need to watch,” “there’s a book you need to read,” and “we need to talk” are among the most terrifying domestic utterances that occur with regularity. It’s worse in my case, as my wife is a well-educated, intelligent woman, so if she says I should look into something, I take her recommendation seriously.
Comments Off on Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger
Last week, Professor Michael Munger joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
Dr. Munger is an esteemed Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University. He has authored/co-authored 7 books and over 200 scholarly articles. A long-time friend of the Learn Liberty project, he frequently contributes to our blog, and has starred in nine Learn Liberty videos.
Check out some highlights from the AMA below.
I think we have become more not less tribal. The Downsian conception of parties is as an information shortcut: people “choose” the party that on average is closer to most of their policy positions. But we seem now to have gone the other way: party allegiance is stronger, and prior. And THEN I infer my policy positions from my tribal allegiance. It really does suggest some problems for traditional rational choice theory. But that’s why Public Choice, and the work Bryan Caplan (for example) is so useful: we should expect that people are stupid about politics. But they aren’t stupid because they are stupid; they are stupid because they are smart!
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Prof. Abby Hall explains why government agencies have an “incentive to expand.” Dave Rubin asks if we can roll them back.
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Student loans skyrocketed from the 1980s to the 2007 recession. Dr. Domitrovic says this is a bubble that needs to pop. For notifications of new Learn Liberty videos, click the bell above.
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Can economics tell us what kind of foreign policy will work in Syria or around the world?
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger of Duke University
This Tuesday, the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series continues with Michael C. Munger, Professor of Political Science at Duke University.
UPDATE: The AMA is now live!
Prior to his tenure at Duke, where he chaired the Department of Political Science for 10 years before coming to serve as Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Munger has also taught at Dartmouth College, University of Texas—Austin, and University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and served as a staff economist at the US Federal Trade Commission.
He is a long-time friend of the Learn Liberty project, a regular contributor to our blog, and star of a whopping nine Learn Liberty videos! Mark your calendar and join us for the conversation at Reddit.com this Tuesday, July 11th at 3:00pm ET where you’ll have the chance to ask him anything!
Comments Off on Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Bryan Caplan
Last week, Professor Bryan Caplan joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
Dr. Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a prolific author and blogger who has appeared on ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN, and been featured in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. He starred in Learn Liberty’s Econ Chronicles series of educational videos, and he recently appeared on The Rubin Report in association with Learn Liberty.
Check out some highlights from the AMA below.
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This is the journey of one North Korean survivor, Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea’s borders and then had to break free from its brainwashing.
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Economist and Iconoclast, Professor Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He is a prolific blogger and author of three books: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007), Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think (2011), and the forthcoming The Case Against Education.
Professor Caplan has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and has appeared on ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. He recently appeared on The Rubin Report in association with Learn Liberty, and starred in the Learn Liberty video series: Econ Chronicles.
Mark your calendar and join us for a rousing conversation at Reddit.com/r/Libertarian this Tuesday, June 20th at 3:00pm ET where you’ll have the chance to chat with Professor Caplan and ask him anything!
Update: The AMA is now live!