The Independent Institute


In Politics, Innovation Isn’t Always Progress

40299973 - statue of liberty at sunset as viewed from brooklyn new yorkBoth Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton called for innovative solutions for what ails America. For the former it was a new fence on our southern border that will supposedly be funded by Mexico; for the latter it was free (i.e., taxpayer subsidized) college tuition. Fresh ideas, they told us, could “make America great again” and render us “stronger together.”

Neither campaign stopped to consider that it was an innovation that led to our current woes, one that most Americans view as their country’s greatest contribution to political science: the U.S. Constitution.

Undoubtedly, blaming America’s “paramount law,” as Chief Justice John Marshall called the Constitution, seems like scandalous heresy. Americans are taught that their fledgling nation was going down the tubes until ratification of the Constitution in 1788 ensured that the United States of America would survive the failures of the Articles of Confederation. The standard narrative portrays the Federalists, the proponents of the new Constitution, as visionaries and paints the Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification, as men of little faith with no concept of future American greatness.

What the conventional tale leaves out are Confederation’s significant accomplishments.

Entitlement Mentality?

59198107 - microphone in focus against blurred crowd. filming protest.I’m not sure what to think about the anti-Trump protests following the election. If the protests occurred before the election (and there were some), I’d think the protesters were expressing their views that people should not vote for Trump or support his policies. Now that he’s been elected, that decision is behind us, and Trump has done nothing since the election that warrants a protest. What are they protesting?

They could be protesting the system itself—the electoral institutions that led to Trump’s victory. Probably not, though. Surely they would have been happy with the system had it chosen Clinton. They could be protesting their fellow citizens who voted for Trump. Those voters are the ones who determined the outcome of the election. Trump was just one of their choices.

What I’m seeing in the protesters is an entitlement mentality. A democratic election in which they happily participated didn’t go their way, so they are protesting the outcome that didn’t give them what they wanted. They are acting like spoiled children, maybe because they are spoiled children.

Faith and Courage on Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw_Ridge_posterWith faith comes conviction; with conviction comes courage; with courage comes action; with action comes leadership; with leadership comes social change. That chain could easily encapsulate the main storyline of Hacksaw Ridge, an engaging and sobering biopic focused on the heroic acts of World War II medic Desmond Doss.

Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist when he enlisted in the Army to fight during World War II. His faith had deep personal roots, a reaction to his violent childhood where he was physically encouraged to fight with his brother and was abused by his alcoholic father. His pacifism arose in the aftermath of a fight where he nearly killed his brother as a child (at least in the film version of the story). He interpreted the commandment “thou shalt not kill” as literal and universal (he was also a vegetarian). Allegiance to this commandment wouldn’t normally be a problem, unless you enroll in the Army during wartime. Doss felt the call to serve his country after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he reasoned he could serve his country by saving the lives of men as a medic. So, he joined as a Conscientious Objector, and became one of the few enlistees to be granted CO status.

The story, however, is as much about Doss’s comrades as it is about his own life. Doss (played artfully in an understated performance by Andrew Garfield of The Social Network and Spider-Man fame) remains steadfast in his faith and pacifism even as he is faced with physical abuse by his fellow recruits in basic training, relentless pressure by his commanding officers (played by Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) to quit, a court martial that nearly landed him in jail for the remainder of the war, and a relentless deluge of bullets, mortar shells, and artillery barrages in one of the bloodiest battles of the war (Okinawa). His fellow soldiers are resentful of his unwillingness to even train with a rifle, believing his beliefs are simply cover for cowardice. This resentment continues as they enter battle, but are won over by Doss’s unflinching courage and dedication to saving them as their company is decimated and eventually overrun by the Japanese.

Doss saved at least 75 U.S. soldiers in real life, and the movie does a great job of giving the audience a close up of many of them as Doss carries them on his back in the midst of battle, hides them from roving Japanese patrols, and lowers them down a 400 foot cliff to safety on the beach. He stayed on the ridge to save his comrades, despite their abuse and doubts, even after his company had abandoned their positions. His bravery and commitment to each of them, regardless of how badly they treated him, changed their hearts and their understanding of courage. Doss was the first Conscientious Objector to earn the U.S. military’s highest honor—the Medal of Honor—and viewers will have no doubt why at the end of the immersive film.

Hacksaw Ridge takes a few liberties—Doss actually served in three major battles in the Pacific in addition to Okinawa (Guam and Leyte), and his heroic acts unfolded over weeks rather than days, among others more minor—but the film stays largely true to the real-life story. The battle scenes have been likened to Saving Private Ryan in their realism, earning a R rating and an element that shouldn’t surprise audiences that have seen director Mel Gibson other movies such as Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ. He doesn’t spare his audiences from the brutal horror of war, and that serves the purpose of the story while honoring the faith-driven courage of Doss. Indeed, the graphic nature of the scenes, death, and injuries on both sides of the battle are essential to conveying the depth of his faith. Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, Doss keeps his faith, imploring God to give him the strength “save one more.” These aren’t mere words in dialogue; they were words he uttered to himself at the moment as a video interview of the real-life Doss shows at the end of the film.

The cinematography is awe inspiring, from the vistas of the land beach to the devastated ground strewn with corpses, maimed humans, and burnt foliage even though the film is a bit plodding in the first 30 minutes as Doss’s backstory is fleshed out. The pace quickens, however, once Doss enters boot camp, and he faces the hostility of other recruits. Gibson uses several pivotal plot points, including a moment when his fiancée encourages him to quit to avoid being imprisoned for disobeying an officer, to bring the audience along as Doss’s each test solidifies his convictions and emboldens him to continue. One of the more memorable moments in the film is near the end the battle, when Doss picks up the rifle of a wounded soldier as the Japanese advance on their position. The soldier—his drill instructor (Vaughn) from boot camp—smiles wryly thinking that Doss is finally going to give in and take up the rifle to defend himself and their position. Instead, he uses the rifle to fashion a stretcher to pull his abusive sergeant to safety (as the sergeant shoots at the enemy during their retreat).

Libertarians and conservatives put a lot of thought, time, and effort into the importance of building the voluntary institutions necessary to maintain a civil society. Too little attention, in my view, is put into the importance of faith in providing the courage to challenge and overcome those political and social forces that undermine and destroy it. Hacksaw Ridge uses the faith and courage of Desmond Doss to show just how important those elements of character are, and how their sincere and steadfast application change hearts and minds. Although Hacksaw Ridge can be viewed as an anti-war film, the story is more than testimony to the brutality of war and the nobility of pacifism; it’s an extended, unflinching reflection on the nexus between faith, courage, and leadership in a place where the descriptor “hell” understates the true magnitude of the horror people face and how souls are tested.

Will More Government Oversight Prevent Medicaid Abuse of the Disabled?

36914302 - caregiver holding elderly patients hand at homeThe Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has designated 16 programs as “high error,” meaning that money goes offside due to fraud, waste, and abuse. Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that subsidizes medical services for low-income people, ranks highly on the list. The U.S. government considers almost ten percent of its $297.7 billion contribution to Medicaid—$29.1 billion—to be paid “improperly.”

The Department of Justice has had significant success tracking down and charging those who bill Medicaid and Medicare falsely. However, there is an even worse type of abuse happening in Medicaid: actual physical abuse of the most vulnerable patients in the system. This abuse often goes hand-in-hand with financial fraud in the area of personal-care services.

According to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Medicaid spending on in-home personal care of disabled people has grown ever since a 1999 judgment that many disabled people were being institutionalized in violation of their civil rights.

Reflections on Donald Trump’s Election

55986706_MLAs the markets and pundits react to Donald Trump’s enormous upset victory, let me offer my own reactions. As an economist, I will focus on matters pertaining to economic policy.

The Danger of Hubris and Denial. Everybody recognizes that the “experts” and polls were totally wrong. Indeed, I was listening to NPR around 6 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, and these commentators were all but speculating on President Clinton’s Cabinet. Later, around midnight, I was curious how NPR’s anchors would handle the blow. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that the explanation was, “Trump motivated more bigots than we expected.”

Yet this type of reaction reflects a complete evasion of the media elite’s own failings. Indeed, part of the support for Trump came from people who are not bigots but are sick and tired of being called names simply for disagreeing about the proper size of government. I didn’t vote for Trump—I no longer vote, as a matter of principle—but I have had discussions with plenty of Trump supporters in the past two years. I don’t know a single person who approved of his boorish comments about women; they were all voting for him despite his obvious flaws as a person.

Is a Trump Revolution in the Offing?

23231312 - trump international hotel, las vegas, nevada - february 2, 2012 - donald trump speaking with the media

I have now demonstrated to my complete satisfaction that as a political prognosticator I am a total bust. Not that I put much effort into trying, to be sure, but I certainly developed firm ideas as the politicking proceeded over the past year or more. When Donald Trump first appeared on the horizon as a presidential hopeful, his actions struck me, as so much about the man and his ideas has struck me, as a bad joke. I gave him no chance of gaining the Republican nomination. After he had surprised me by doing so, I gave him a negligible chance at best of winning the election against Hillary Clinton, who was the overwhelming favorite of the political establishment and the beneficiary of a powerful political machine. Thus, my record in regard to Trump so far has been: wrong and wrong again. Of course, many others no doubt saw the matter much as I did, but companionship in error is no basis for excusing my incorrect judgments.

Now that Trump has been elected, many people—including some of my close acquaintance—are practically wailing and gnashing their teeth at the prospect of a Trump presidency. I understand why they feel as they do. I myself look forward to his actions in office with the greatest trepidation. I have always regarded him as a loose cannon, a man so ill-anchored in any visible principles and so lacking in genuine understanding and wisdom about economic and governmental affairs that I have marveled at observers who expected him to do this or that. To me, he has been and remains a complete crap shoot. At this point it is difficult to think of anything he might do that would come as a complete surprise to me, inasmuch as a vast set of possibilities seems always to be “on the table” for him.

The U.S. Military: The Cost of the Sacred Cow

10087412_MLCriticizing the U.S. Armed Forces is largely taboo. For many, U.S. military programs are a sacred cows, something to be shielded from criticism and any sort of objection. Even those who are usually critical of other forms of government spending and growth balk at the idea of cutting military spending or reducing the U.S. military’s bootprint.

Indeed, even among many economists, issues surrounding the military and “national defense” more generally are largely immune from criticism. Consider, for example, that national defense is often the textbook example of a “pure public good.” A pure public good is one that is both “non-rival” and “non-excludable.” In theory, one person’s use of national defense does not diminish another person’s use and there is no way for the government to effectively deny protection to one person. (As an aside, my frequent coauthor, economist Chris Coyne, makes a very good argument for why we should rethink this idea.)

The concept of defense as a pure public good, and the way economists and others model national defense, have important implications. When making decisions regarding military operations, it is almost always assumed, by academics, politicians, and lay people alike, that decisions are made in the “public interest.” That is, those responsible for defense policy set aside their own wants and instead focus on maximizing some broader social welfare function. In essence, it becomes a math problem.

I Voted . . .

20712757_ML. . . and I don’t feel good about it.

I’m writing this on election day, so I don’t know the outcome of the election. Clinton? Trump? The lesser of two evils is still evil. I conjecture that many people—even Clinton and Trump voters—see it this way, based on some casual evidence: I still see more Obama bumper stickers from the 2012 election than I see Clinton or Trump stickers.

I’m registered as a Libertarian, but the campaign that Gary Johnson and the Libertarians ran eats into any good feelings one might have enjoyed from a Johnson vote. My impression is that Johnson wasn’t running a serious campaign.

Johnson’s greatest visibility came from some widely publicized gaffes that gave the impression that not only is he not prepared to be president, he didn’t even make the effort to prepare. Anyone who kept up with the news would have been able to identify Aleppo and name the North Korean dictator.

Rolling Stone Defamation Conviction Reveals Danger of Dogma When Addressing Campus Sexual Assault

Unsafe On Any Campus?Former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole P. Eramo won her defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine, and the implications are significant. Successful defamation suits are rare in the U.S., in large part to protect the freedom of speech and press. I think, however, the jury verdict was correct in this case. Indeed, the verdict highlights the problem of what happens when an enormously complicated problem is shoeboxed into a simple storyline informed more by dogma than evidence.

In short, Rolling Stone published a story using the point of view of a woman who claimed she was gang raped at a UVA fraternity. The story began to fall apart rather rapidly as other journalists began investigating the victim’s claims, many of which appeared extreme on their face. The staff journalist failed to conduct her due diligence in verifying their truth, and criticized UVA administrators for failing to respond. (See a useful summary of how the story began to unravel by Robby Soave at Reason magazine here.)

Eramo was featured prominently in the article and, in the narrative, became the face of university intransigence, denial, and insensitivity. Eramo sued, and the jury found that the journalist and magazine, in the words of the New York Times (Nov 4, 2016), “acted with actual malice, a legal standard that means that the publication either knew the information published was false, or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true or not.” I believe in this case the magazine acted in reckless disregard for the truth in order to fit an internal narrative supported by the magazine’s organizational culture.

Rolling Stone eventually retracted the article, but only after other journalists made it almost impossible for the editors to support the story (and its narrative) based on the facts. The idea that a gang rape could occur in a fraternity without consequence had become so embedded in the journalistic world view of the magazine that researching the veracity of the claims by the victim was given low priority, even to the point where inconsistencies and holes in the story didn’t have to be investigated.

The case is a welcome step toward accountability for some in the media who have accepted a narrative on campus rape that over simplifies a very complex problem and where solutions require layered and nuanced responses. For example, research suggests that most reported rapes are not false, with false reporting ranging from 2% to 10%. An uncritical journalist (or other advocate) could easily jump to the conclusion that the details of the claims made by victims are true, including the identity of the perpetrators and circumstances surrounding the event. But the nature of human trauma complicates this conclusion.

The trauma of rape and sexual assault is most often psychological. The offenses are often perpetrated in isolated places such as bedrooms, apartments, or dimly lit areas. Once the complications of alcohol and drug use are added to the psychological trauma, victims’ stories often have holes or inconsistencies that make successful prosecution or ironclad verification of specifics difficult. But, as I discuss extensively in Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It?, the lack of evidence necessary to secure conviction in a criminal trial does not mean the rape or assault didn’t happen, or that someone didn’t perpetrate severe harm, or that someone wasn’t traumatized by the experience. Rather, conventional institutions, including the criminal justice system, are inherently incapable of achieving justice and addressing the harm created in many campus rape situations. A more holistic approach that is trauma centered and recognizes the complicated nature of the problem (and solutions) is necessary (see here and here).

The Rolling Stone defamation case is likely to become a signature event in the campus rape policy discussion. Some may worry that the suit may stall their efforts. However, if the public discussion now shifts from simplistic solutions to more nuanced and comprehensive approaches, including those that focus on rebuilding civil society on campus, real progress might be made on containing and even eradicating this serious problem at many of our colleges and universities.

The FDA Cannot Hire Staff with Starting Salaries of $160,000

11315568 - business man with an open hand ready to seal a dealWould a starting salary of just above $160,000 turn you off? Well, maybe if you had a scientific PhD and had to wait four months before the employer could decide whether to hire you or not, you would find a spot elsewhere.

This is the situation the Food and Drug Administration finds itself in, according to the Washington Post:

The Food and Drug Administration has more than 700 job vacancies in its division that approves new drugs, and top officials say the agency is struggling to hire and retain staff because pharmaceutical companies lure them away.

“They can pay them roughly twice as much as we can,” Janet Woodcock, who directs the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), said at a rare-diseases summit recently in Arlington, Va.

(Sidney Lupkin & Sarah Jane Tribble, “Despite ramped-up hiring, FDA continues to grapple with hundreds of vacancies,” Washington Post, November 1, 2016.)

As I’ve discussed before, the FDA is not short of money. On the contrary, its budget for drug approvals has increased significantly over the years. However, one reason it cannot hire enough staff to review new drug applications is that its hiring process is too slow.

If the agency cannot hire regulatory staff efficiently, how will it ever process drug approvals efficiently?

The fundamental problem is that the FDA is a monopoly, protected by government. Its staff do not suffer if new medicines and devices are not approved in a timely manner. Rather, patients, investors, and innovators suffer. The FDA has lots of reason to complain, because that is how it increases its budget.

However, it has no incentive to become more productive or efficient in approving new therapies. A bigger budget just makes the FDA bigger, but not better. Patients need more freedom to use new therapies without having their access strangled by the FDA.