The Independent Institute


Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 3

Part 3 of 3

In previous Beacon posts (here and here) I explained that interventionists had often “moved the goalposts” in policy debates in which I’d participated. I first recounted an episode where Paul Krugman had moved the goalposts in a dispute over so-called fiscal austerity, and then I discussed the phenomenon in the context of the climate-change policy debate.

In the present post, I’ll focus on an example from the debate about Obamacare and Medicaid. As I stressed in the previous articles in this series, I don’t mean to suggest that only interventionists use this frustrating debate tactic. But since they often deem themselves as more scientific and rational than their opponents, it is particularly useful to document the examples in this 3-part series.

Episode #3: The Oregon Medicaid Experiment

Back in 2008, the state of Oregon had the funds to expand Medicaid coverage for its residents, but not enough money for all applicants. Therefore the state government employed a lottery to see who would get Medicaid and who would be denied. It was a great setup for an academic study, because it was one of the few times when researchers would have a literally controlled experiment. An academic team—including MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, the (in)famous proponent of the Affordable Care Act—received approval to go ahead with a two-year study of 10,000 Oregon residents, some of whom received Medicaid and some of whom were denied.

Normally, studies of Medicaid are plagued by a selection bias, because the people who are on Medicaid would tend (for other reasons) to be in poorer health. Additionally, the states that can afford to expand Medicaid might do so because they have a booming economy, which itself might promote better health outcomes. In such a context, researchers may quibble over the relevance of the results because of the confounding factors. The absence of such factors is the reason Oregon’s lottery design was such a unique opportunity for researchers.

Indeed, progressive fans of Medicaid publicly recognized just how significant the Oregon study was. After the first year of results came in, things looked very promising. For example, in 2011 Ezra Klein wrote a piece for Bloomberg in which he referred to the Oregon Medicaid study as the “gold standard” in the field. He was confident that the study showed “Medicaid matters” because the participants who got Medicaid all had better scores on access to various types of care.

In his 2011 piece, Klein didn’t mention any possible shortcomings of the study on the question of how Medicaid affects recipients versus non-recipients. No, at this point it was the “gold standard,” and Klein wished we had other studies with similar design that could be applied to other questions. Indeed, Klein, tongue-in-cheek, whimsically wished the Oregon study had shown that Medicaid doesn’t help recipients:

When writing a column, you want surprising results. “Health Insurance Doesn’t Improve Health” is a great headline, even if it isn’t great news. But by September 2009, after the first year of coverage and data collection, the Oregon experiment wasn’t returning surprising results. Just encouraging ones.

But then a funny thing happened. After the second (and final) year of the study, the benefits of Medicaid were not nearly so obvious. It was still true that the Oregon participants who’d gotten Medicaid were better off financially, and they still reported to interviewers that they were in better health (compared to the control group who lost the lottery and were denied Medicaid coverage).

Yet on every one of the physical measures of health used in the study—such as blood pressure or cholesterol—there was no statistically significant improvement in the Medicaid group vs. the non-Medicaid group. This seems to be exactly what Klein said would have been a surprising finding that a headline writer would have relished.

Yet oddly, when opponents of more government in health care bring up this awkward result, suddenly the progressive proponents of Medicaid don’t call the Oregon study “the gold standard.” For example, Oren Cass is a critic of Obamacare who has been disputing the now-popular claim that Obamacare has saved tens of thousands of lives. Since Obamacare achieved increased health insurance coverage of Americans largely through Medicaid expansion, the Oregon study is quite relevant. Cass recently summarized the Oregon results for his readers by writing, “In a randomized trial in Oregon that gave some individuals Medicaid while leaving others uninsured, recipients gained no statistically significant improvement in physical health after two years.”

Cass’s language was quite precise and accurate. This is how the Oregon researchers themselves (including Jonathan Gruber) summarize their results:

In the first one to two years of coverage, Medicaid improved self-reported health and reduced depression, but had no statistically significant effect on several measures of physical health.

And yet, Ezra Klein argued that Oren Cass was wrong in his claims about the Oregon experiment. Thus, Klein is implicitly arguing that the Oregon researchers themselves didn’t understand their results as well as Klein did. (Also note that Klein edited his original article, so now you have to scroll to the bottom to see him talking about Oren Cass.) Furthermore, there is now no longer any talk from Klein of the study being the “gold standard,” after which other studies should be modeled. Nope, this is how Ezra Klein now talks about the Oregon Medicaid study:

These [conservative] arguments are mainly referencing a study known as the Oregon Medicaid experiment. The study took advantage of a situation that reads like a dark satire of the American health care system: Oregon had money to expand Medicaid, but not enough money, so it held a lottery for poor people who needed health insurance. If you won the lottery, you got Medicaid; if you lost the lottery, you got nothing.

This created two similar groups that researchers could study: one that got Medicaid, and one that didn’t. The study only lasted two years, and it only included 10,000 people, so there is much it can’t tell us about the long-term effects of having health insurance...

But the study also disappointed Medicaid’s backers: In particular, there was no evident improvement in blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol levels after two years.

Some researchers have argued that the study didn’t have enough enrollees to measure those indicators...

But the Oregon study isn’t the only important study on the effects Medicaid has on health outcomes. [Bold added.]

As with our other examples, my major problem here isn’t that Ezra Klein’s specific objections to Oren Cass (and other conservatives citing the Oregon study) are dubious. Rather, my point is that Klein’s tone now is night-and-day different from how Klein described the Oregon study back when it supported his policy views. Back in 2011, we never heard any misgivings about the study only lasting two years and only including 10,000 people. No, back then it was the “gold standard” and it confirmed that Medicaid improves the health of its recipients.


In this 3-part series of posts I’ve summarized three episodes in which progressive proponents of more government intervention have moved the goal posts in the middle of a debate. To reiterate, this is a human tendency not unique to interventionists. But it is particularly ironic that this group engages in the practice when they so often accuse their opponents of being unscientific and ignoring evidence.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.


Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 2

Part 2 of 3

In a previous Beacon post, I explained that interventionists had often “moved the goalposts” in policy debates in which I’d participated. I specifically recounted an episode where Paul Krugman had moved the goalposts in a dispute over so-called fiscal austerity.

In the present post, I’ll focus on an example from the climate-change policy debate. As I stressed in Part 1 of this series, I don’t mean to suggest that only interventionists use this frustrating debate tactic. But since they often declare themselves to be more scientific and rational than their opponents, it is particularly useful to document the examples in this 3-part series.

Episode #2: Basing Climate Policy on the Peer-Reviewed “Consensus” Science

It is well established in the debates over climate change that people who question the orthodox views are denounced as “deniers.” The United Nations publishes a periodic report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that codifies the latest peer-reviewed results so that the public and policymakers can be informed by the genuine scientific consensus, rather than using cherry-picked authors or studies to justify their preconceived political views.

It’s also well established in the debates over climate change that the bare minimum humanity must do, is to take steps to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the Paris Agreement (out of which President Trump recently pulled the United States) had, as its central component, a goal for all the participating nations of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels...”

With this as context, you may be amazed to learn that I used the most recent IPCC publications to make a strong case that the economic costs of limiting global warming to 2°C would exceed the benefits of avoided climate-change damages. In other words, using the UN’s own published summaries of the latest and most reputable literature on the costs and benefits of climate change policies, I was able to make a case that the 2°C ceiling would be a cure worse than the disease.

You don’t need to take my word for it. William Nordhaus, one of the pioneers in the economics of climate change and creator of one of the computer models used by the Obama administration’s task force on the “social cost of carbon,” has said that, “The scientific rationale for the 2°C target is not really very scientific.” In a world of perfect enforcement by governments around the world, Nordhaus thinks an optimal carbon tax would end up allowing some 2.3°C of warming, and if we take into account realistic limitations on government action, a more plausible target is closer to 4°C of allowed warming.

Now notice in my argument here that I am not “denying climate change” nor even using alternative modeling groups or rogue scientists. I am literally quoting from the UN’s own published documents and from a carbon-tax supporter whom the Obama administration acknowledged as an expert in the field.

Yet when I bring up these inconvenient truths, climate-change alarmists certainly don’t say, “Wow! You did exactly what we told you to do; you got your data from the latest IPCC report. Maybe the 2°C ceiling isn’t the slam dunk we’ve been confidently telling people.”

No, on the contrary I hear a combination of angry denunciations, plus an exasperated admission that the economic models leave out a lot of the problems associated with climate change. Some people will admit that the “median” projections might not justify the policies on a cost/benefit basis, but they nonetheless support them as analogous to insurance and push them as a way to minimize the chance of (unlikely) catastrophe.

Here again, it’s not that what the climate-change activists are saying is (by itself) an unreasonable claim. But I never heard all of the weaknesses of the UN’s published summaries of the peer-reviewed literature until I started pointing out that the UN documents didn’t support the mainstream policies advanced in the name of fighting climate change.


Thus we see how interventionists moved the goalposts in the climate policy debate. In the next and final installment of this series, we’ll see a similar move when it comes to discussing Oregon’s Medicaid experiment.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.

Three Times Interventionists Moved the Goalposts, Part 1

Part 1 of 3

One of the most frustrating things in debate is when you decisively win the initial point of contention, only to have your opponent “move the goalpost” to a different claim. To be sure, this is a human failing, not unique to any particular political perspective. I’m sure I myself do this too. But I have certainly noticed it when people use it against me, and so in this series of posts I’ll review three times that interventionists moved the goal posts in a political debate.

Episode #1: Paul Krugman on the 2013 Budget Sequester

As part of the bipartisan compromise to raise the debt ceiling, a combination of tax hikes and budget cuts was activated in February 2013 when certain conditions hadn’t been met. At the time, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was aghast, calling the automatic measure a “fiscal doomsday machine” that would cost 700,000 jobs.

By April 2013, the economy didn’t seem to be in great shape. Krugman was confident that the budget cuts were taking their toll, even though the Federal Reserve had launched QE3 (in September 2012). Some economists—calling themselves “market monetarists”—had argued that easier money could offset the effects of the Republican austerity measures. But Krugman disagreed, writing in April 2013:

[A]s Mike Konczal points out, we are in effect getting a test of the market monetarist view right now, with the Fed having adopted more expansionary policies even as fiscal policy tightens.

And the results aren’t looking good for the monetarists: despite the Fed’s fairly dramatic changes in both policy and policy announcements, austerity seems to be taking its toll. I would add that the UK experience provides a similar lesson. Mervyn King advocated fiscal consolidation – I’d say that he shares equal responsibility with Cameron/Osborne for Britain’s wrong turn—but more or less promised (pdf) that he would and could offset any adverse effects on growth with monetary policy. He didn’t and couldn’t. [Bold added.]

So as of April 2013, the economy wasn’t doing so hot, and Krugman was happy to endorse Konczal’s idea that the U.S. experience would be a test of the relative power of monetary policy versus fiscal policy.

Well, as it turned out, the year 2013 was economically pretty good, relatively speaking. Several market monetarists, remembering that Krugman himself had said the fiscal tightening would be a test, started running victory laps. So did Krugman admit he had been wrong, and maybe the (modest) cutbacks in federal spending weren’t so disastrous as he had warned?

Nope. Here’s what Krugman wrote in January 2014:

One way to look at the US economy in 2013 is that it was, in effect, trying to begin a strong recovery, but was held back by terrible federal fiscal policy. Housing was making a comeback, state and local austerity was, if not going into reverse, at least not getting more intense, household spending was starting to revive as debt levels came down. But the feds were raising the payroll tax, slashing spending via the sequester, and more.

Incidentally, these other factors are why I don’t take seriously the claims of market monetarists that the failure of growth to collapse in 2013 somehow showed that fiscal policy doesn’t matter. US austerity, although a really bad thing, wasn’t nearly as intense as what happened in southern Europe; it was small enough that it could be, and I’d argue was, more or less offset by other stuff over the course of a single year. [Bold added.]

Does everyone see how Krugman moved the goalposts? Back in April 2013, when he thought he would win the argument, Krugman was happy to say the U.S. economy was providing a good test of his claim that budget cutting wasn’t going to be offset by the Fed. Then when the test he himself put forward blew up in his face, Krugman acted as if the market monetarists were the ones who had invented such a silly criterion—of course there are all sorts of other complicating factors, making it impossible to glean much from a single episode like the U.S. experience in 2013.

(Incidentally, not only did Krugman never admit any problems due to his warnings over the problems of Republican austerity, he eventually turned vice into a virtue: By early 2016 Krugman was citing the “Obama Boom” as proof that the Republicans had been refuted for warning about the job-killing effects of ObamaCare and the 2013 tax hikes.)


Thus we see a classic case of Paul Krugman moving the goalpost in the debate over fiscal “austerity.” In my next post I’ll document how interventionists moved the goalposts in the climate change debate.

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For more on economic theory and public policy, see Choice: Competition, Enterprise, and Human Action, by Robert P. Murphy.

Review: Megan Leavey Explores Emotional Trauma of War

The film Megan Leavey carries a message much more important than its pedestrian name and movie trailers imply. This is not a feel good war film, nor one principally of battlefield heroism. Instead it’s a poignant and relatable story about human trauma and healing based on the real life experiences of coincidental war hero and her role as the handler with her bomb-sniffing dog.

Megan Leavey doesn’t break artistic ground. Instead, the film relies on stand-out performances by the cast and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s yoeman’s approach to putting together a first-rate movie. As a result, critics may have underestimated the emotional power of the film, particularly for movie goers that have experienced emotional trauma through violence and know someone who has.

The biopic follows Leavey (Kate Mara, House of Cards, The Martian, The Fantastic Four) as she joins the Marines to escape a dysfunctional family life and the tragic death of her best friend. She hasn’t quite sowed her wild oats, however, and is punished by cleaning the cages for her unit’s bomb-sniffing dogs.

As she observes the handlers and training, Leavey connects with the dogs and their mission. She begins to see herself as a handler, and this invigorates a sense of purpose. Under the relentless pressure of her master sergeant (rap artist Common, American Gangster, Terminator Salvation, John Wick: Chapter 2), Leavey develops discipline and focus. Marine Corps hazing is shown for what it is—both a test of discipline and a mechanism for “toughening” soldiers up.

The Funding Fallacy

People on both the right and the left routinely commit the funding fallacy when they assess research and writing. This fallacy is a variant of the hoary rule, Follow the money. The idea is that if an institution or person funded an analyst’s work directly or indirectly, that analyst was ipso facto a hired gun who merely strove to do the funder’s bidding.

I have been around university and think-tank research and writing for half a century, and I can testify that this belief is, as a general rule, incorrect. Not that no specific instances occur; of course they do, especially in think tanks and related organizations, but sometimes in universities as well. Nevertheless, the more accurate general rule is that analysts do what they believe to be good work regardless of who funded the work or why.

In my own case, for example, the great bulk of my research and writing took place without any specifically related financial support other than my regular salary from a university or my fee for service (e.g., editing a journal, evaluating research proposals, or lecturing) from a think tank. Dedicated funding for a specific project more often comes from sources that wish to support a specific type of research or a specific researcher than it comes as a prepayment for the services of an intellectual prostitute.

SCOTUS and Trinity Lutheran: Should We Celebrate?

The Supreme Court ruled this week that the state of Missouri cannot exclude non-profit, religious organizations from programs for which secular non-profits are eligible. The Washington Post has a news story on the opinion here. According to the Court “But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The final vote was 7-2. The addition of Justice Gorsuch, despite what many on the Left predicted earlier this year, was inconsequential.

I took some heat for my op-ed in the WSJ in which I challenged lawyers and lay people alike to reconsider whether in a working and sane federal system a case such as this should be adjudicated in federal court. Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen wrote this piece attacking my op-ed and I responded with this blog post.

So, does the Court’s opinion change my mind? Not in the slightest. The fact remains that Trinity Lutheran is a Missouri church that challenged the state’s application of a state constitutional provision that prohibited state tax dollars going directly to a in-state religious institution. The state grant program was funded by in-state tire sales. Application of Missouri’s constitution did not result in the establishment of a church nor did it interfere with worship/doctrine. In a country with a functional federal system, a case like this should be adjudicated in state court.

However, in light of our dysfunctional federal system, the High Court properly applied existing law and precedent to reach the “correct” result. Unlike most libertarians and conservatives, I’m not in a celebratory mood over a decision that is billed as a great victory for religious liberty. I feel more like a Soviet worker who has received an extra monthly ration card. That additional bottle of vodka might go down smooth, but when I wake up I’ll still be a citizen of a corrupt and centralized regime.


William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

One Nation . . . Indivisible?

As a child in government schools, I must have recited the pledge of allegiance thousands of times. And not once did it occur to me that the “one nation . . . indivisible” part of it is simply an embrace of the Lincolnian heresy, a preemptive attack on the potential for any kind of organized withdrawal whatsoever. At this point in history, can we not see what a terrifying affirmation this doctrine really is? No matter how oppressed people may be, their secession from the overbearing super-state is obstructed by invisible ideological walls. Thus the words of the Declaration of Independence have turned inward and eaten themselves like an absurd snake consuming itself from the tail forward. Recall those words?

[T]o secure these rights [of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, . . . [W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . . . [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The Declaration from which the foregoing passages are copied was a declaration and justification of the secession of thirteen British colonies from the British Empire. To repeat, secession from the established state. Yet, owing to the Republican triumph in the War Between the States, the victorious party’s anti-secessionist doctrines became enshrined in the dominant ideology of the nation. Too bad. Secession is certainly not necessarily a bad thing, however repulsive one might find the secession of the Confederate states to have been in 1861.

Americans have cheered secession in many parts of the world in recent decades. Yet, in the USA, secession remains tainted by its association with the defense of slavery in the 1860s. Americans need to get over that knee-jerk association and recognize that secession might—not necessarily, but might—be an essential first step in people’s escape from an intolerable government and in the reestablishment of their liberties.

Will the Workday Shrink to Four Hours?

Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese firm Alibaba, anticipates that in 30 years the workday will shrink to four hours. He cites as evidence the continual decline in the number of works hours of the average worker. But while average hours worked has declined, some people work 60 to 70 hours a week and more, and for many of them a reduction in hours worked isn’t likely.

Workers engaged in manual labor, or whose jobs involve following the instructions of their supervisors, a reduction in hours worked is feasible and perhaps desirable. For knowledge workers, hourly productivity is higher the more hours they work (up to some limit), because they accumulate knowledge as they work. People who want to get ahead in those professions have to work longer hours.

For cashiers and assembly line workers, an eight-hour shift could be shared by two individuals, each working four hours, with no loss in productivity. And if fatigue on the job was an issue, productivity might even rise. A job like corporate CEO could not be divided in two and remain anywhere near as productive. The CEO makes decisions that have huge impacts on the direction of the company, and the more time the CEO spends gathering information and assessing alternatives, the more productive the CEO will be.

The same idea holds for many knowledge workers. Even secretaries will be more productive in the afternoon if they understand what went on in the office in the morning.

A Kind Word on Behalf of the Mexicans

“The immigration problem” or “the border problem” has been a heated topic of debate and politicking in recent years. (This recent spurt is only the most recent in a series that goes back for centuries in U.S. history.) In large part this debate pertains to the entry of Mexicans, especially undocumented Mexicans, into the USA. For those who support a strong “closed borders” or “secure the border” position, the debate often involves claims about Mexicans—what sort of people they are, what one may reasonably expect them to do if they become residents of the USA, what crimes they have committed or will commit in the future, and so forth. Anyone who is familiar with Mexicans is struck repeatedly by the sheer ignorance and the false claims that immigration opponents marshal in support of their position. The president himself has trotted out howlers about Mexican rapists and drug traffickers as important, standing problems of even the existing flow of Mexicans into the USA.

I have a working familiarity with the social science literature on immigration. (In the past I have written articles for economic history and demography journals that dealt with various aspects of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) More to the point for present purposes, I have considerable personal experience with Mexicans. I grew up on the rural west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s in a place with a population composed of about two-thirds Mexicans and their native-born children. In October 2015, I emigrated from the USA, and since then I have lived in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. I speak Spanish, though not with the fluency I would like, and in one way or another I deal with Mexicans nearly every day. So when I think or speak about Mexicans I do so with some personal as well as scholarly background.

In this light, I am stunned by how many Americans have a false impression of Mexicans. Of course, any generalization about them will be subject to qualifications. Mexico is a large, diverse country with a large, diverse population. And obviously from individual to individual great variations exist. No population consists of nothing but good people (however defined) or nothing but bad people (however defined).

Review: Wonder Woman’s Anti-War Theme Elevates Superhero Action Film

Wonder Woman is already one of the year’s most successful films just three weeks into its U.S. box office run, and for good reason: It’s a smart, well-executed action film. Despite acting that is just above average for superhero films—probably no Academy Award performances in this movie—the directing is top notch, special effects scaled to serve the story, and the screenplay holds the story together despite a few significant plot holes early on.

Wonder Woman is Diana Prince (Israeli actress Gal Gadot, Batman v Superman, The Fast and the Furious), the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator, One Hour Photo) who rules over a race of Amazon women warriors. Ancient Greek Gods created the Amazons to protect humankind from their own corruption. Hidden on the island of Themyscira, Queen Hippolyta forbids Diana, the only child on the island, to train as a warrior, while the queen’s sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright, The Princess Bride, House of Cards, Moneyball), recognizes the child’s natural abilities and begins training her in secret.

In 1918, American spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Star Trek, Hell or High Water, The Finest Hours) breaks through an invisible shield protecting the island and is pursued by a German warship. A grown Diana saves Trevor whose plane has crashed into the sea. A German landing party attempts to recapture Trevor, but they are defeated by the Amazon warriors at great cost to the women warriors (including the heroic death of General Antiope).