Category: Economics

Time for Genetic Insurance

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act that cleared the Senate Tuesday on a 95-0 vote would bar employers from using people’s genetic information or family histories in hiring, firing or assigning workers. Insurance companies could not use genetic records to deny medical coverage or set premiums. (from ABC News)

I understand the desire to pass such a bill but if genetic “discrimination” is made illegal then as genetic testing becomes common we risk serious problems of adverse selection. People who test postive for a genetic disease will buy more life and health insurance threatening the financial stability of insurance companies.

Genetic insurance is a better way of handling the problems brought on by genetic testing. Genetic insurance would pay out depending on the results of a genetic test. If you turn out to have a gene implying a higher risk of heart disease, for example, then the test would pay you enough to cover your now higher health and life insurance premiums and perhaps also something to cover the possibility that you will have a shorter working life.

I think of genetic insurance as a “free-market” idea but it also has Rawlsian undertones. We are all behind the veil of ignorance as far as (some) of our genes are concerned. Buying insurance before a genetic test lifts the veil goes some way to compensating those who, through no fault of their own, were unfortunate to get a bad draw from nature’s lottery.

Addendum: I originally discussed genetic insurance in Tabarrok, A. 1994. Genetic Testing: An Economic and Contractarian Analysis. Journal of Health Economics 13:75-91. A shorter version is in Entrepreneurial Economics.

How much is height worth?

Judge’s study, which controlled for gender, weight and age, found that mere inches cost thousands of dollars. Each inch in height amounted to about $789 more a year in pay, the study found. So someone who is 7 inches taller – say 6 feet versus 5 feet 5 inches – would be expected to earn $5,525 more annually, he said.

Read here for the full story. The commentary of Randall Parker argues that international competition, most of all with the Chinese, will force Americans to embrace genetic engineering for superior intelligence.

Our stalled energy bill

Remember all that hubbub about the new energy bill, following the Great Blackout? What ever happened? Lynne Kiesling offers a useful update on where things are at.

Here is part of her overview:

There’s a lot of stuff in those measures that is economically unsound and may even increase net energy use, such as increased ethanol use. But my political science friends tell me that as long as Denny Hastert is speaker of the House and the Iowa caucuses have the power they do in the Presidential election, corn farmers will be able to sock it to us, good and hard…ethanol’s nose gets in the tent through a renewable fuels mandate, not through the federal fuel oxygenate requirement. Ethanol a renewable fuel? Stop for a second to think about how ethanol is made: till soil, fertilize, plant corn, harvest, process it using lots of fossil fuel energy and creating air, water and soil emissions in the process, transport it in trucks, trains and barges to its consumption location. So there are a few parts in the production process that require fossil fuel use, and consequently result in emissions.

In other words, special interests and political rent-seeking are preventing us from adopting a sounder energy policy. Will things ever change? Stay tuned to Lynne’s blog for periodic updates.

More on Canadian medicine

Median waiting time for radiation treatment for breast cancer in province of Ontario: 8 weeks

Median waiting time for angioplasty in the province of British Columbia: 12 weeks

Median waiting time for radiation treatment for prostate cancer in province of Quebec: 12 weeks

Median waiting time for cataract removal in the province of Ontario: 20 weeks.

Median waiting time for cataract removal in the province of Saskatchewan: 52 weeks.

Median waiting time for a tonsillectomy in the province of Saskatchewan: 80 weeks.

For the full story, replete with additional statistics, and also some graphs, click here.

Parapundit now offers an update on the sorry state of Canadian medicine.

Wining about Taxes

Jennifer Rosen totals up the taxes on a bottle of wine. This summary is direct from Walter in Denver.

1. Federal import license, $500, 3 to 5 month wait.

2. Register an office for each state in which the wine is sold, $100 to $350 per state.

3. Find a distributor for each state or even each county. These distributors will add their own markup to the price of your wine. State governments will not allow you to act as your own distributor.

4. Create and print a new English language label for the wine. The label will have to meet the federal requirements for warning labels and such.

5. After shipping, wait ten days for the wine to clear customs.

In Rosen’s hypothetical case the bottle of wine that sells in its home country for $4.50 winds in U.S. stores at $15.50 per bottle.

Tax protestors often note that half of the average American’s paycheck goes to taxes. When you count the cost of regulation, government’s cost is actually much higher.

Cream Skimming

Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia has some comments on my debate with Tyler on vouchers. He notes that the public school system separates students according to ability with honors classes, AP classes, magnet schools and so forth. Yet, few people call this “cream skimming.” I think Glen’s point blows the peer-effects argument against school choice out of the water.

More generally, the argument in the peer-effects literature is that we shouldn’t let smart kids escape the public school system because their presence gives dumb kids a positive externality. I detest this argument. Children are not pawns to be moved about to satisfy the desires of some grand master. A decent school system treats children as ends in themselves. (In preparation, one might add, for life in a society that treats every individual as an end in themself.)

Is health care good for you?

Robin Hanson frequently tries to convince me that more health care, at the margin, doesn’t make us any healthier. A well-known Rand study found that 30 percent increases in health care consumption did not make people healthier. Nor does the international cross-sectional evidence drive the point home. Once you adjust for income, greater health care spending does not appear to make people healthier.

Robin now sends me this study, which shows that greater Medicare spending doesn’t make people any healthier. Areas with high Medicare spending don’t produce extra health, and yes, this result does adjust for the relevant variables. This, of course, would make Medicare reform a good deal easier, you cut cut spending without fearing catastrophe.

Why, then, do we spend so much on health care? Robin claims we do it to “show that we care” for our relatives. I’ve suggested we
do it simply to avoid the feeling of regret, should one of our loved ones die, and we then feel we “didn’t do enough.”

By the way, here is one of Robin’s essays, “Buy Health, Not Health Care,” he suggests that your doctor should lose a lot of money when you die.

My take: I never manage to win this debate with Robin. I don’t have much evidence to cite in favor of health care spending (email me if you know some). But I am suspicious when I hear the claim that health care does not matter at the margin. Which margin? The last unit you bought? The next unit you might buy? And how big a unit? No one wants to give up penicillin. And exactly which margin are these studies measuring?

On one hand, the economist in me would be happier if I had some evidence that all the extra American health care spending was bringing a concrete return. On the other hand, I hate going to the doctor, in fact I never go. If I could tell my wife that this was rational, well, that would be better than making the economist in me happy.

I’m moving to Switzerland!

Not only are taxes low in Switzerland, but according to Alvin Rabushka beginning in 2004 (not 1994 – earlier version had a typo) the Schaffhausen Canton will introduce an income tax with declining marginal tax rates. Beginning at 8% the marginal tax rate will peak at 11.5% and then decline so that the very highest income earners will face a marginal income tax (from the Canton) of just 6%. I like this not only because my income is relatively high but also because declining marginal tax rates are a property of optimal tax systems (see here for an introduction to optimal tax theory).

Is Austrian Business Cycle Theory Back?

Two new papers on ABC have been written recently by mainstream economists. The Great Depression as a credit boom gone wrong is by Barry Eichengreen and Kris Mitchener under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements and The Austrian Theory of Business Cycles: Old Lessons for Modern Economic Policy? is by Stefan E. Oppers under the auspices of the IMF. Both links are courtesy of Bruce Bartlett’s Talking Points.

Behavioral economics

Michael, at www.2blowhards.com offers a useful post on behavioral economics, replete with useful links. For instance, this interview with Gary Becker offers Becker’s criticisms of this movement, scroll toward the end, if you don’t read the whole thing. You also can read about how Becker came upon the economics of crime and punishment while looking for a parking spot: “I started thinking about my chances of getting caught…”

More Bickering

Two quick notes on Tyler’s comment on my recent post on vouchers.

First, whether the school or the parent is sent the check is irrelevant (this is a basic theorem in economics). My point, however, was that parents cannot add-on to the voucher amount – i.e. the Chilean system has extensive price controls. Another way of saying this is that in the Chilean system parents never spend any of their own money on the private (subsidized) schools. I think a good voucher system requires that on at least some margins parents spend their own hard-earned dollars on their children’s education.

Second, Tyler thinks that the most convincing evidence is that Chileans did not improve on an international scale. Actually this is the least convincing evidence and it illustrates my point about the power of HU’s tests. The private schools in Chile increased by about 20 percentage points over the relevant time frame. Suppose that private schools were better than public schools by 10 percent then the aggregate gain at the national level would only be 2 percent. Small exogenous decreases in the quality of the public schools could easily swamp this gain.

Business Regulation

Andrei Shleifer and colleagues have engaged in a massive collection of data on legal regimes around the world. The World Bank has now released a major report written by the same group called Doing Business 2004 (summary here). In addition, the data from their project is available on the World Bank website Doing Business. This is a major resource for economists.

Here’s a nice graph from the report (click to expand).

regulation.JPG

What is in a voter’s self-interest?

Alan Krueger reports on survey research that shows that people do not vote according to their self-interest. In particular, he bemoans the fact that a majority of the poor want to get rid of the estate tax. This and other odd results are due to “ignorance and uncertainty” says Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist. If only the poor were better informed they would vote against tax cuts for the rich. Moreover, a better informed electorate would be a good thing. I take issue with both of these positions.

Take the normative position first. Assuming that voters voted self-interestedly, would a more informed electorate be a good thing? Doubtful. If everyone voted their “interest,” as Krueger and Bartels conceive it, every bureaucrat, welfare recipient and old person living on social security would vote for more government. Naturally, I think this would be a disaster but even those who think this would be a good thing ought to give pause when they consider how much more polarized our society would become were it not for the fact that ideology cuts across class lines.

Moreover, isn’t it interesting that when the poor vote against their “self-interest” they are labeled “uninformed” – Bartels compares them to Homer Simpson. But when Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand or rich philanthropists like Bill Gates Sr. vote against their “self-interest” they are called enlightened. What Krueger and Bartels refer to as self-interest is actually masking an ideology.

Is it true that informed voters would vote differently? (Krueger cites some evidence suggesting that in fact this is not the case – at least not as much as one would expect – but he doesn’t offer an explanation.) To understand this one should first realize that voters are uninformed because it doesn’t pay to be informed. The probability that one vote sways the election is infinitesimal so voters are rationally ignorant. Does this imply that voting is random? Not at all. Voters who care about ideas even a little are free to vote their ideology at low cost. Thus, in my view, the fact that votes don’t matter gives us hope. It’s only because votes don’t matter that libertarianism has a chance of success. Of course, I recognize that the same facts gives socialism a chance at the polls but I hope good ideas will win out.

Addendum: I’ve been influenced on these issues by our colleague, Bryan Caplan – although I give the ideas a more positive spin than he does. I recommend his paper Libertarianism Against Economism: How Economists Misunderstand Voters, and Why Libertarians Should Care from The Independent Review and his other papers on rational irrationality which you can find on his web page.

Bickering with Alex over vouchers

Oh, yes, it is time for that again.

Alex thought that Brad DeLong and I should be cheerier over the prospects for vouchers. My previous post had cited a study of vouchers in Chile, showing no real educational improvement over twenty years.

Like Alex, I am willing to give vouchers a try, but I think he is overselling the idea. Why I am not convinced by Alex’s pep talk?

First, Alex cites a study of Colombian vouchers, which showed improvement from a voucher program. Point granted, but I think that correct conclusion is simply that sometimes vouchers improve schooling, sometimes they don’t. The most convincing Chilean evidence, not cited by Alex, is simply that overall educational performance, on the international scale, did not improve after twenty years of vouchers.

Second, Alex argues that Chile did not have a pure vouchers scheme. Again, point granted, but no implementable vouchers scheme will be pure, let us take this for granted. Have you read about the Washington D.C. voucher proposals, which would force private schools to admit a certain percentage of “voucher students” by lot? Not surprisingly, the good private schools don’t want to participate in the program, if it passes.

Alex overestimates how far the Chilean system deviates from a pure voucher model. True, the Chilean system makes the payment to the private school, rather than to the family. But according to most theories of tax incidence, this should not matter. The private school will lower tuition accordingly, hoping to capture more students, and thus a greater payment from the government.

Overall, what is going on? Education is not just another commodity. Some of it is signaling, in which case subsidizing it doesn’t bring great gains. Another big part of education is selecting peers for our child. A school filled with bad kids is a bad school, whether it is private or public. It is not obvious how much a private school can make bad kids good. As experience in Eastern Europe and around the world shows, certain kinds of education may be a prerequisite for well-functioning markets, the right values don’t follow from markets automatically.

Most generally, educational performance varies with many factors, not all of them depending on the scope of the market. There are, in fact, very many good public schools, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Now Chile is a relatively homogeneous and urbanized country, with 13 million plus inhabitants. The country also has a reputation for discipline, order, and strong family structure. Is it plausible to think that such a region can have reasonably good public schools, so good that vouchers won’t elevate their youth to another level? Yes.

Vouchers would give U.S. urban youths another educational chance, but let us not expect too much from this reform.

More on sales

I sell bonsai by the roadside. The best sign I have discovered so far is “One day only”

Some good signs I display before the motorist gets to my truck include:”50% off”, “$15-500”, “bonsai for Mom”, “bonsai” (written in chinese). “See the 300 year old bonsai”
What other signs would your [Industrial Organizaton] class suggest?

How quickly can IO students come up with the three main reasons why “for Mom” works better than “for Dad”, even though any bonsai club is predominantly male?

From BonsaiDave, an avid reader, responding to my earlier post on Persian carpet sales.