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Aaron Carol, at The Incidental Economist, has a post showing that disease prevalence (including obesity) in the United States is a very, very small portion of what is driving health care costs:

Before you start in on me about how obesity is linked to other things and such, you should know that the overall McKinsey & Company analysis showed that the prevalences of disease in the US could account for perhaps an extra $25 billion in health care spending. Let me make a new chart for you:

Yes, obesity is more prevalent in the US, and yes, caring for it costs real money. But even if we get obesity down to the levels in other countries, it’s not going to magically erase the problem. We are spending two to three times per person what they are. There is no simple fix here. There is no one, and no thing, we can easily blame.

Everyone, always will look for a scapegoat. It is in our genes. The good vs. evil story is the oldest trope in existence. Look at the current outcry against “evil speculators” in oil markets (I wonder why Krugman doesn’t make a post about that?). Humans live through stories, humans respond strongly to in-group loyalty, humans have value preferences that lead them to view the world radically differently. I’ve often stated in debate that those who think that a single-payer health care system would somehow reduce our expenditures to a level consistent with other OECD countries are dreaming, at best, or delusional, at worst. And every single data point that passes by in the health care debate does nothing but strengthen the position that Robin Hanson articulated: health care altruism is a permutation of our evolutionary drive to “show we care”; or rather, make infrequent, and very large expenditures to show our loyalty to an alliance. The frequency has gotten greater as our society has gotten richer, but the underlying motive is still linked to our evolutionary roots.

Against this strain of thinking is the hypothesis that Matthew Yglesias articulated in his Bloggingheads diavlog with Karl, that people are stingy in the voting booth, but acquiescent in the doctor’s office. So separating payment and service would act as a brake on health care expenditure. I’m very skeptical of this argument. After all, health care expenditures have risen at a higher rate than GDP/per capita in many countries around the world.

A more interesting question, though, is why is the US different? My crude outline of a hypothesis is that people in the US have only recently come to “share a heritage” that is the United States. It’s only been around 100-ish years that people have really come to view themselves as “Americans”. In the absence of a shared heritage (which provides a built-in in-group), it has been especially important to engage in acts that show inter-tribal loyalty. The US spent a greater amount of money/life/time ending slavery, securing women’s right to vote, and ending segregation than a lot of other countries. We’ve also spent more money/ink/time securing a the minimal welfare state that we have, that is exceedingly expensive (relatively speaking). Not surprisingly, we also spend a ton of money/ink/time on health care that is of extremely dubious effectiveness. A cynic might say that this represents the greater wealth of the United States…but that doesn’t really provide an satisfactory explanation. We have low taxes, so we get away with a lot of inefficiency, but I don’t think that is the underlying driver of our proclivity to expend a lot of resources doing different things.

I think that history will show that Robin Hanson is right, and that whatever health care arrangement we devise, it will continue to be significantly more expensive than the world norm. That it has relatively little to do with the structure of the market (though I stand firmly behind a completely free market in primary care/pharmaceuticals [except antibiotics/microbials]), and a lot to do with our evolutionary drive as a “multi-tribal” society.

Since I can remember I’ve loved reminding my audiences that economics is not morality play. It wasn’t until Paul Krugman started blogging that I realized that I must have picked it up from one of his early writings.

That virtue can sometimes be vice is one of the most fun lessons of economics. There is a perverse delight in explaining how foreign aid may impoverish the Third World but sweatshops would make it grow rich.

I can understand why many of my fellow economists were so eager to transport this insight to the political realm. Politics they argued was a fight between interest groups – a battle over the fiscal commons. There weren’t good guys and bad guys. There were just naturally self-interested people.

Tyler Cowen pays homage to this legacy in a recent NYT piece

James M. Buchanan, a Nobel laureate in economics — and my former colleague and now professor emeritus at George Mason University — argued that deficit spending would evolve into a permanent disconnect between spending and revenue, precisely because it brings short-term gains. We end up institutionalizing irresponsibility in the federal government, the largest and most central institution in our society. As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan’s essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic.

Curiously Tyler refers to a rational actor model as a moral critique but then again he certainly knew Buchanan better than I.

Still, to borrow a phrase from another of my favorite economists, the only problem with this analysis is that it is at odds with the facts.

If we want to build a model of what the government spends money on we would be best to start this way: ask people what social obligations do they believe “society” has. Look around for the cheapest – though not necessarily most efficient – programs that could credibly – though not necessarily effectively– address those obligations. Sum the cost of those programs. That will be government spending.

Contrary to Jonah Goldberg and others who see Canada and the United States as examples of two clashing ideologies, they are actually examples of two different ethnic distributions.  The United States is not Canada because there is ethnic strife between Southern Blacks and Southern Whites. That strife reduces the sense of moral obligation on the part of the white majority and so reduces government spending.

I want to be very clear that I don’t say this to paint those against social spending as racists. From where I sit I am betting that most of the intellectuals lined up against expanding the welfare state are naively unaware that their support rests upon racial strife. Otherwise they would realize that as America integrates they are doomed. They are fighting as if they believe they have a chance of winning. Given the strong secular trend in racial harmony, they do not.

I point this out also to show why the major Republican strategy for limiting government was doomed from the start and why I am also not particularly worried about Americas fiscal future per se.

In the 1980s some conservatives believed that they might not be able to cut government but they could cut taxes and thereby starve the beast. Rising deficits would force the hand of future governments. Spending would have to be cut in order to bring the budget into balance.

Much of the current handwringing about fiscal irresponsibility is a sense of alarm not only on the right, but throughout much of the political center, that these spending cuts are not actually materializing.

But, by what theory of government did you ever believe they would? Governments don’t look at how much money they have and then decide what they want to buy. They decide what they want to buy and then they look for ways to fund those purchases.

Divorcing the two – through sustained deficits – was only going to lead to ever increasing levels of debt. This is what we got. At no point was the beast ever starved. The peace dividend lowered government spending growth somewhat, but that was undone by the war on terror. Otherwise spending hummed along, as it always will, with the government buying things the public thinks it ought to buy.

Yet, if this is causing upset stomachs among many of my fellow bloggers it calms mine. Its quite clear how this will end. Racial strife will continue to abate. The public will coalesce around the welfare state and taxes will be raised to meet the cost.

The fundamentals do not predict rising debt forevermore. The fundamentals predict a VAT.

This is not to say I am unconcerned about our economic future. Health care costs will continue to eat up more and more of our economy unless something is done. However, trying to convince people that health care is not a social obligation a fool’s errand. The best you could do is convince them we have no obligation to the other. As the other integrates this will likewise prove impossible.

No, people will ultimately believe that health care for all is a social obligation and therefore government will pay for it. There is no more analysis to be done on that part of the question.

The only part left is looking around for the cheapest program. This is where our attention should be focused. Can we lower the cost of those obligations? Can we make medicine more efficient?

If we can there will be economic room for other things. If we can’t, well just hang in there until the artificial intelligence revolution.

A problem I have tried to highlight is that healthism (medical care, “healthy lifestyles”, prevention, etc) does not always lead to better average outcomes.

A study I just ran across offered people a choice between enhanced probability of survival, a pretty major health outcome, and raw healthism. The people chose healthism.

Cure me even if it kills me: preferences for invasive cancer treatment.

PURPOSE: When making medical decisions, people often care not only about what happens but also about whether the outcome was a result of actions voluntarily taken or a result of inaction. This study assessed the proportion of people choosing nonoptimal treatments (treatments which reduced survival chances) when presented with hypothetical cancer scenarios which varied by outcome cause.

METHODS: A randomized survey experiment tested preferences for curing an existent cancer with 2 possible treatments (medication or surgery) and 2 effects of treatment (beneficial or harmful). Participants were 112 prospective jurors in the Philadelphia County Courthouse and 218 visitors to the Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport.

RESULTS: When treatment was beneficial, 27% of participants rejected medication, whereas only 10% rejected surgery with identical outcomes ( 2 = 5.87, P < 0.02). When treatment was harmful, participants offered surgery were significantly more inclined to take action (65% v. 38%, chi(2) = 11.40, P = 0.001), even though doing so reduced overall survival chances.

CONCLUSIONS: Faced with hypothetical cancer diagnoses, many people say they would pursue treatment even if doing so would increase their chance of death. This tendency toward active treatment is notably stronger when the treatment offered is surgery instead of medication. Our study suggests that few people can imagine standing by and doing nothing after being diagnosed with cancer, and it should serve to remind clinicians that, for many patients, the best treatment alternative may not only depend on the medical outcomes they can expect to experience but also on whether those outcomes are achieved actively or passively.

Now, there are lots of reasons why this might make sense. People want to go down swinging. They want to feel like they did something.

It may be that on a deep level we are not programmed to avoid death so much as we are programmed to fight for life. This makes perfect sense as an evolutionary design. Attack-threats-to-life is an easier problem to solve than maximize-life-expectancy and in the natural environment the two are likely to yield roughly the same answer.

However, in the modern environment this is not always the case. Sometimes taking a wait-and-see approach is the optimal survival strategy, even if it doesn’t feel right.

The policy question within all of this is whether or not the government should subsidize, fully in some cases, people making choices which are likely to lead to worse health outcomes. I am of course not suggesting that people, not be allowed to pursue worse health outcomes if that’s what they want.

However, should the state be picking up the tab?

I cannot think of an explanation for this trend:

The number of Americans hospitalized for dog bites almost doubled over a 15-year-period, increasing to 9,500 in 2008 from 5,100 in 1993, a new government study reports.

The increase vastly exceeded population growth, and pet ownership increased only slightly during the same period, said the report’s author, Anne Elixhauser, a senior research scientist with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Is this a healthcare utilization trend? Is the rise of “how to” dog training TV shows to blame (I’m looking at you Cesar Milan!)? Is it a trend in the kind of dogs that people are owning, i.e. a shift to more aggressive breeds? What is going on here?

While critics are wont to cite Medicare Part D as an expensive Bush handout to drug companies, it has received praise in the past from others. For instance, here is Tyler Cowen:

I’d just like to note that — relative to its reputation — the Medicare prescription drug benefit is one of the most underrated government programs of our time.  If the goal is to cut or check Medicare spending, and I think it should be, we should do it elsewhere in the program.

It’s also possible that the prescription drug benefit will do more for peoples’ health (as opposed to their financial security) than will the Obama plan.

However, a new NBER paper suggests that the program increased spending by previously the uninsured without any improvement in health outcomes:

In this paper, we provide an assessment of the effect of Medicare Part D on the previously uninsured…We find that gaining prescription drug insurance through Medicare Part D was associated with an 63% increase in the number of annual prescriptions, but that obtaining prescription drug insurance is not significantly related to use of other health care services or health, as measured by functional status and self-reported health.

In short, what it provided was more medical spending without better health outcomes, what you might call a Hansonian result. I would be curious to know if this changes Tyler’s assessment.

Did you know that you can’t tell the future in Maryland? I’m not saying that you are physically (or psychically) unable to peer into the future and divine important information for residents of the Chesapeake Bay State, but that you are legally forbidden from doing it unless you have obtained a license to do so. Most licensing is not as frivolous as the fortune-teller example, yet as Karl recently argued, many commentators who are otherwise concerned with bad government policy tend to ignore it. This appears to be a problem with both the left and the right, so I want to offer arguments for both liberals and conservatives that occupational licensing is worse than they thought. Today I will attempt the harder case of persuading liberals, tomorrow conservatives.

I think the liberal tendency tend to ignore or even outright support occupational licensing comes from two motivating beliefs: they envision it as a way to generate upward mobility and create middle class jobs, and they believe it to be effective way to prevent people -especially poor people- from being ripped off, injured, or otherwise done harm.

The appeal of licensing as a way to create better jobs is obvious. Making it harder to do a job certainly restricts supply, and so as you would expect the evidence has shown licensing increases wages. The evidence shows that, while the impact varies by occupation, the average increase in wages from licensing is 10% to 15%. So if licensing helps barbers get a 15% increase in his wages, then that can appear to be a desirable wage subsidy.

The first problem with this is that every occupational license that affects wages does so by limiting supply. This means that for every increase in hairstylist wages from licensing, there are would-be hairstylists thwarted and pushed into a lower paying job. In his book “Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition?”, Morris Kleiner uses state-by-state variations in licensing to show that employment growth for a given occupation is 20% higher in states where they aren’t licensed.

Furthermore, given that 73% of licensed workers have a college degree, and 44% have more than a bachelors, these higher wages will frequently come from the pockets of individuals with lower-income than those who benefit. Studies on the impact on prices of licensing generally find effects ranging from 4% to 35%, so the amount is significant. Increasing the wages of inner city barbers may be a good thing ceteris paribus, but in reality this happens at the expense of other inner city residents.

Another problem is that occupational licensing is often a tool with which one occupation fends off competition from another, usually lower wage, occupation. For instance, many states have regulations preventing dental hygienists from practicing without the supervision of a dentist. Dentists have an average of six years more schooling than a hygienists, who on average have 2.6 years of post high-school education. In addition, dentists make on average $100 an hour, and are 80% male, whereas hygiensts are 97% female and make around $37 an hour. Kleiner and Park find that these regulations transfer $1.5 billion dollars a year from hygiensts to dentists. This is a highly regressive transfer to a male dominated, higher educated, higher paid job from a female dominated, lower educated, lower paid job. In a very similar vein with likely similar impacts, many states restrict the ability of nurses to practice without the supervision of doctors. In fact these regulations are currently growing as regulators rush to restrict the number nurses working in retail health clinics in a variety of ways to prevent them from competing with doctors.

Considering all of the above ways in which licensing tends to benefit relatively higher wage individuals who on average have a college degree or more, it strongly suggests the impact of licensing is regressive.

The second motivation of liberals in supporting occupational licensing is that they see it as an important regulatory tool with which to protect consumers. I think part of the problem is that liberals tend to envision the debate in terms of the most extreme examples. The number one response I get from liberals when I criticize occupational licensing whatsoever is to say “what, and you think anyone off the street should be allowed to do brain surgery? Typical libertarian extremism”. But this is framing the issue wrong in two ways.

First, it is wrong to assume that in the absence of licensing occupations, these jobs would be practiced by Joe Schmoe off the street. College professors, for instance, generally do not face licensing requirements, and yet we don’t suffer from a scourge of colleges hiring high school dropouts to teach physics.

Second, the options are not just occupational licensing or absolute laissez faire. It’s best to think of licensing as existing on a spectrum of occupational restrictions that range from very heavy, like the government defining who, what, and how very specifically, to exceedingly light, like optional registration. Liberals can support moving down this ladder without believing we need to get off it entirely.

For instance, instead of occupational licenses, governments could mandate testing, and offer certification for those who pass and have some set of qualifications. They could also allow private groups to offer alternative, competing certifications. Consider how much we have benefitted from the alternative certification process of Teach for America. In addition, there are variety of ways to have less restrictive occupational licensing, which the differences between states shows. After all, the empirical literature on this topic can exist because states vary greatly in the extent of licensing. Indiana has around 11% of it’s workforce licensed, while California has 30%. If all states moved towards regulatings more like Indiana it would be an improvement without requiring any sort of radical libertarian experiment.

Another problem with occupational licensing as a regulatory tool is that there is a lot of evidence that it does nothing to increase quality. One strain of research shows that malpractice insurance premiums aren’t lower in states with occupational licensing, which you would expect if licensing was increasing service quality. Other evidence comes from research into the effectiveness of nurses in providing primary care services, which has shown they do no worse than doctors. Still other research shows that licensing and certification for teachers does not increase outcomes. While the set of occupations which are licensed is broad, and the evidence for many jobs limited, the balance of the literature on licensing suggests it does not increases quality. Part of this is probably because, as discussed above, in areas where there is no licensing other mechanisms arise or be mandated to ensure quality can be monitored.

Not only does it licensing increase quality of services performed, but for many individuals it may price them out of the legal market and into black markets or performing the services themselves. This means people doing their own plumbing or, like Matt Yglesias, giving themselves haircuts, because licensing pushes prices higher than consumers are willing to pay. Potentially worse, low-income individuals may simply forego these services, causing more damage in the long-run… well, not for haircuts.

A great example this comes from underground dentists who operate in dirty basements using unclean equipment. Here is a description of what this looks like in New Jersey:

They set up their shingles in dingy basements, garages and spare rooms in apartment buildings across New Jersey.

The equipment includes seating ripped out of cars, rusty tools to probe inside mouths and soda bottles to dispose of spittle…

In Union City last summer, Luis Eduardo Gallo-Enriquez walked into a small office one floor below the waiting room of a licensed dentist, looking sweaty in muddied jeans, according to one of his patients. Gallo-Enriquez, a 45-year-old Ecuadorean native, was more than an hour late for an appointment but proceeded to charge the 25-year-old Secaucus woman $600 to apply her braces — using rusty tools and no X-rays or dental impressions — and put her on a monthly payment plan.

When she contacted him about a problem she was having with a chafing wire, he told her he had set off on a Caribbean vacation and advised her to trim the wire herself with a nail clipper, assuring her, “I tell this to people all the time,” she recounted.

Operations like this would be drummed out of business by other low-cost models if licensing were weakened. Think dentists in Walmart. Forcing transactions into the black market also prevents the other quality improving institutions, like credentialing, malpractice, and independent review organizations, from functioning. Word of mouth doesn’t even work as well when a service is illegal.

One last cost of licensing that will bother liberals is that by being issued at state, county, and even city levels, it decreases geographic mobility. A barber licensed in one county may have to jump through all sorts of hoops to practice in another, which will increase their cost of moving.

Overall I think that occupational licensing is something that liberals should care about, and that reducing it would particularly benefit low-income individuals. If more liberals were involved in criticizing licensing then the conversation would not so often end up with libertarians arguing for more extreme reforms like the removal of all legal requirements for doctors, and instead would focus on more pragmatic solutions like figuring out how we can all be more like states like Indiana, and how to encourage alternative credentialing institutions that allow more flexibility.

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