Defining the Placebo Effect Carefully

I agree with Tyler that there is some serious evidence for placebo effects, especially although not exclusively for subjective components of disease. But the evidence is usually overstated because it is confused with the natural tendency of sick people to get better. A typical medical study, for example, will compare the results of a new drug against a placebo. The improvement in health of those on the placebo is then labeled “the placebo effect” – but this is wrong. To correctly identify the effect of the placebo one needs three randomly selected groups – a treated group, a placebo group and a non-treated group. The effect of the placebo per se is then measured by the health differences between the placebo and non-treated group. Although spontaneous healing effects are large, placebo effects when measured correctly tend to be small although not non-existent.

Happy Birthday

Did you know that AOL/Time Warner owns the rights to the Happy Birthday song? First published in 1893 the song still earns revenues of some $2 million a year. You don’t have to pay AOL for singing the song, however, unless you do it for profit – movies that feature a birthday scene can pay up to $50,000 for the rights. Interestingly, the Happy Birthday song is usually not dubbed which may account for the fact that it is sung in English in many countries around the world even by non-English speakers. Saddam Hussein was once caught on videotape singing it to his daughter.

A report on the bounty hunter conference tomorrow!


Of the strange beliefs that Tyler examines he finds craziest the idea that slender hands might signal artistic ability. Maybe, but you know what they say about truth and fiction. Recent research indicates that finger length relative to height and the relative length of the ring to index finger can predict a great deal about male depression and intelligence, who is most at risk for heart attacks and sexual orientation. The theory is that testosterone and other hormones like androgen are the direct causes but fingers are a particulary good marker for hormone production.

Dollars for Donors

The shortage of human organs for transplant grows worse every year. Better immuno-suppressive drugs and surgical techniques have raised the demand at the same time that better emergency medicine, reduced crime and safer roads have reduced organ supply. As a result, the waiting list for organ transplants is now 82,000 and rising and more than 6000 people will die this year while waiting for a transplant.

The economics of the shortage are so obvious that one popular textbook, Pindyck and Rubinfeld’s Microeconomics, uses the organ shortage to explain the effect of price controls more generally!

Perhaps because the shortage is growing, opposition to financial compensation for cadaveric donation (compensation for live donors is a distinct issue) appears to be lessening. The AMA, the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and the United Network for Organ Sharing have agreed that tests of the idea would be desirable. (A group of clerics, doctors, economists (I am a member) and others has formed to lobby for the idea – see our letter to Congress.) Currently, even tests are illegal but Representative James Greenwood (R, Pa.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 2856) that would create an exception.

Aside from the obvious benefits of saving lives, financial compensation for organ donation would likely save money. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation. There are some 285,000 people on dialysis in the US. Transplants are cheaper than dialysis by something like $10-$25,000 per year. About a quarter of those on dialysis are on the waiting list but perhaps as many as half could benefit from a transplant (fewer people are put on the list because of the shortage.) Let’s take the lower numbers. Assume that a quarter of the patients on dialysis could benefit from a transplant and that cost savings are $10,000 a year for five years. Then ending the shortage would save 3.5 billion dollars. Note again that this is a lower estimate. How much would it cost to end the shortage? No one knows for certain but I think a $5000 gift to the estates of organ donors would increase supply enough to greatly alleviate the shortage – that would involve doubling the supply to 12,000 for a paltry cost of $60 million. If this is not enough – raise the gift – anyway you cut it, the savings from dialysis exceed the costs of compensating donors by a large margin.

We should in fact count the value of the lives saved. If we can save 6000 lives and value each life at 3 million dollars (a lower value than what the US government typically uses in its calculations) then that is a further gain of 18 billion dollars.

A Tragedy of the Commons?
Economics provides another way of looking at the crisis. Currently we have organ socialism – anyone who needs an organ is allowed access to the organ pool regardless of whether or not they contributed to the upkeep. As with other resources owned in common we get over-exploitation and under-investment. Consider, instead a “no-give, no-take policy” – only those who have previously signed their organ donor cards are allowed access to the pool. Not only is this more moral than the current policy it creates an incentive to sign your organ donor card. Signing your card becomes the ticket to joining a club – the club of people who have agreed to share their organs should they no longer need them. Equivalently signing your organ donor card becomes analogous to buying insurance. I discuss the idea further in Entrepreneurial Economics.

An organ club has in fact been started – I am not just an adviser, I’m also a member! You can join too at

Where are all the new drugs?

The NYTimes reports that “introductions of new drugs plummeted last year to 17 from a high of 53 in 1996, despite a near doubling in annual research spending, to $32 billion.” The Times blames lost lab productivity from mergers. Based on close second-hand experience – my wife is a microbiologist who worked at a pharmaceutical firm as it underwent a merger – I can attest to the fact that mergers create havoc. Reaping the potential economies of scale and scope that drive the merger requires that product lines be discontinued and new lines of hierarchy established. But the power struggles involved in the transition are dissipative and disheartening. It’s not uncommon for some research programs to be canceled and then started again as new coalitons form. The uncertainty alone is draining. The best of the researchers have no stomach for this ordeal and jump ship.

The Times gets a number of things wrong, however. It can take a dozen or more years to research, develop and get a new drug approved so it makes no sense to compare this year’s research spending with this year’s output. The fact that research spending is up even though current output is down is a positive signal of potentially better things to come.

The Times also misses the fact the FDA was approving drugs faster in the late 1990’s than for many decades previously. The FDA got burned, however, as Pulitzer prize-winning critics accused it of endangering the public. Sadly, the FDA learned its lesson and slowed down. (See here for more on FDA incentives and why the Pulitzer prize committee did us all a disservice.)

Finally, the Times says nothing about why the mergers are taking place. One reason is the rising cost of pharmaceutical research. It now costs $900 million dollars to bring the average new drug to market. Firms are merging in order to better control these costs and diversify their risks. FDA reform could lower these costs.

Torts and Crimes in Mississippi

Tyler noted how the rotten court system in Jefferson County Mississippi is finally being investigated by the FBI. At the heart of the investigation are contributions by lawyers to elected judges. It also doesn’t help that Jefferson has a large and poor minority-population. See the links for why this is important. Email me if you want copies of the papers and don’t have a subscription to the journals.


It’s not surprising that background music can have a significant effect on how people shop (fast versus slow has the expected effect on shopping and dining time, for example). I am amazed, however, that the style of music can affect what people buy. British researcher Adrian North (includes many abstracts of North’s music research) and colleagues split up a wine shelf into French and German wines. On alternate days they played French and German music.

When the tape deck wafted French accordion tunes down the aisle, shoppers bought a total of 40 French wines and only eight German wines. On days when the pounding beat of a German oompah band greeted shoppers, they bought only 12 French wines but 22 bottles of German wine.

Should libertarian economists vote Democrat?

Jeffrey Frankel, a member of President Clinton’s CEA, charges (Milken Institute Review, registration required) that:

When it comes to economic policy, Republican and Democratic administrations have switched places since the 1960s. The Republicans, who were so long identified with free markets and less-is-more government, have become the party of fiscal profligacy and market intervention. Democratic presidents have (by comparison) become the agents of fiscal responsibility and arms-length microeconomic policies.

Robert Ekelund and Mark Thornton have a rebuttal in the latest issue of the MIR (3rd quarter, 2003) but it’s a strange “rebuttal” that begins:

We certainly agree with Jeff Frankel (Milken Institute Review, 1st Quarter 2003) that the “Republicans have become the party of fiscal irresponsibility, trade restriction, big government and failing-grade microeconomics.” However, we would argue that there is less mystery to this exchange of economic platforms with the Democrats than meets the eye. The Republican Party was established in the 19th century as a party of big government and economic intervention.

For my take see my earlier post, The Beast Isn’t Starving.

Manufacturing fallacies

Some fallacies just keep coming back no matter how many times they have been exploded. Jobs in the manufacturing sector are disappearing and have been doing so for 30 years. The reason this has occured, however, is not because we have “sent the good jobs overseas” and it is not because our manufacturing sector is “rusting.” Jobs have disappeared because the manufacturing sector has been spectaculary successful. When measured in terms of what ultimately matters, output, the U.S. manufacturing sector has more than doubled in size over the past 30 years. We are now producing more “stuff” than virtually ever before and because of productivity improvements we are doing it with less labor. The graph below from The Economist is for the G7 countries, not just the U.S., but it conveys the correct idea. (For the US data see Robert Hall’s recent testimony before Congress).

“Job destruction” is a vital aspect of progress. If we had not destroyed millions of farm jobs most of us would still be working in agriculture today.

The Politician and the Mechanic Conspire to Rip Me Off

Virginia requires yearly “safety” inspections of automobiles. Yesterday, it was my turn – it cost me $15 bucks and an hour of my time. What a pain. Merrell, Poitras and Sutter (MPS) (summary here, reference below) estimate that nationally inspection programs cost in excess of a billion dollars a year (I think this is a serious underestimate – see below). What do we get for our time and effort? Not much. MPS find that mandatory inspections do not reduce highway fatalities or injuries. Not surprising really since there are already good incentives to maintain one’s car and accidents are most often caused by factors, primarily driver behaviour, that are not inspected. (By the way, yes there is an externality but if self-interest alone causes you to replace a broken headlight then on the margin the externality is irrelevant – economists often forget this point.)

MPS arrive at the billion plus figure by summing inspection fees and travel time. But the major cost of the inspection system, in my opinion, is unnecessary repairs. Mechanics have an incentive to indicate a car needs repairs and it is difficult to know when they are speaking the truth. This problem is bad enough when you have brought your car to the mechanic voluntarily – at least then you know the car has a problem. But the potential for opportunistic behaviour is worse when you are required to take your car in for inspection and if you don’t follow the mechanic’s advice you fail. The mechanics know they have you over a barrel and act accordingly.

The citation for the MPS study is Merrell, D. Poitras, M and Daniel Sutter. 1999. The Effectiveness of Vehicle Safety Inspections: An Analysis Using Panel Data,” Southern Economic Journal, Volume 65, pp.571-583.

All Oil to the People!

In an economy based on labor, leviathan government faces an inherent, albeit weak, constraint – tax and regulate too much and you will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (or the goose will run away). But in an economy based on oil the goose can’t run away and is almost impossible to kill. As a result, natural resource based economies tend to be corrupt, war-stricken, and slow growing. After 35 years and some 350 billion dollars in oil revenues the people of Nigeria, for example, have had no increase in per-capita GNP.

Iraq is another case in point, which is why it’s crucial that we not squander the opportunity to create new institutions for getting oil wealth away from governments and into the hands of the people. Norway and Alaska distribute revenue from “stabilization funds” but these appear not to be very effective, especially in countries that begin with weak institutions. Economists Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Arvind Subramanian argue in favor of direct payments of revenues to citizens but I think Vernon Smith, our colleague and recent Nobel prize winner, offers the best approach – distribute shares, real ownership, in the oil producing lands to every citizen.

Aside from the benefits to the Iraqi’s can you imagine what a great public relations boost this would be to the United States? In one swoop, we would credibly demonstrate to the Muslim world that the war was not about our rapacity, provide for a thriving domestic economy in Iraq, and lay the foundations for a stable democracy.

The Dumbing Down of Safety

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, parents are supposed to be allowed to transfer their children from “persisently dangerous” to safer schools. But, according to this article in the NYTimes, “44 states have set the legal threshold for persistently dangerous schools so high that no schools in those states fit the definition.” Consider Locke High School in Los Angeles which in the last three years has had “33 assaults with a deadly weapon, 116 beatings, 66 robberies and 17 sex offenses.” But these crimes resulted in only 11 (!) expulsions and CA requires a school like Locke to have 30 explusions before allowing parents to transfer their kids to a safer school.

The fact that the standards qualify virtually no schools is accidental, say state officials in CA and elsewhere. Nonsense. It would be easy enough to write the standards in terms of percentages. Define any school in the top x% of schools for violence as qualifying. (We can then argue whether, for example, x should be 5, 10, or 25 percent.) A percentage standard would always qualify the worst schools even if they were pretty safe but remember that all we are talking about is giving parents the option of moving their children. Is it too much to ask that we err on the side of child safety?

Kissing Cousins (More)

A John Tierney article in today’s NYTimes argues that the Iraqi tradition of cousin marriage and consequent clan loyalties make it difficult to establish democracy. (See Tyler’s earlier post for a map and some other links.) Most interesting claim is that the Western taboo against cousin marriage was promoted by the church explicitly in order to reduce loyalty to the clan and promote universal love. Key quote:

Cousin marriage was once the norm throughout the world, but it became taboo in Europe after a long campaign by the Roman Catholic Church. Theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas argued that the practice promoted family loyalties at the expense of universal love and social harmony. Eliminating it was seen as a way to reduce clan warfare and promote loyalty to larger social institutions – like the church.

By the way, recent genetic research indicates that cousin marriage does not lead to dramatically higher abnormalities in children.