Just How Bad Has Post-9/11 America Become? Some Insights from Eritrea

abuseBy Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall

Eritrea, a small African country east of Sudan and north of Ethiopia, is probably not a place you would like to visit, let alone reside. A small country with a population of about six million, Eritrea is incredibly poor, with a 2013 GDP per capita of approximately $700. In addition to widespread poverty, the government of Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. In fact, during the first ten months of 2014, the number of refugee-seeking Eritreans nearly tripled compared to the previous year, with about 40,000 people seeking asylum in Europe alone.


Pennsylvania, Delaware to Identify as State-Based Obamacare Exchanges

Healthcare_costs_small1There seems to be a trend in the United States of people formerly identifiable with one set of easily recognized characteristics deciding that they “identify” as having another set of characteristics.

This is also happening with Obamacare exchanges.

The Supreme Court will soon announce its decision in King v. Burwell, resolving the question of whether Obamacare tax credits can be paid in states using the federal exchange (healthcare.gov) or only in states with their own exchanges. Some states with federal exchanges are trying to “identify” them as state exchanges.


Render unto Caesar: Obama Preaches to Catholic Health Association

Obama_CatholicsLast Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech on healthcare to the Catholic Health Association (CHA), which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. The president recycled his campaign speech, making many claims about the cost of care, medical bankruptcy, and uninsurance, all of which we have debunked countless times in this blog.

He also asserted that Obamacare created jobs, claiming the health law was responsible for job growth since 2010. In fact, quality job growth coming out of the Great Recession has been remarkably slow in comparison with previous recessions, as I discussed in a previous blog post.

The most depressing part of the speech was his cheering the CHA for its role in passing Obamacare: “We would not have succeeded, if it had not been for you.” He got that right. The hospital lobbyists were critical in dragging Obamacare over the line, and the CHA comprises the largest denominational trade association of hospitals.

The CHA posts an interesting, short article about its history, noting that “between 1884 and 1915, Catholic hospitals in the United States had nearly tripled from some 200 to almost 600.” What a great history of growth, all achieved without federal intervention in health care! Some might even describe it as a blessing.

The late Pat Rooney, a pioneer of Health Savings Accounts and faithful Catholic, was a relentless critic of Catholic hospitals that gouge the uninsured with high prices. I wonder what the Catholic leaders, lay and religious, who founded America’s Catholic hospitals in the 19th century, would have to say about their descendants’ utter dependence on the federal government to carry out their mission.

* * *

For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, please see the Independent Institute’s new book, A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America, by John C. Goodman.

Government’s Demonstrated Security Incompetence Warrants Abolishing Its Powers

Most-Powerful-Intelligence-AgenciesThe pro-surveillance state narrative says that 9/11 resulted from U.S. security agencies’ “Failure to connect the dots.”

Apparently this “failure” stemmed from there being too few agencies and/or their having too-limited powers, because its “correction” necessitated the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security (is the purpose of the Defense Department—which failed to defend even its own headquarter building on 9/11—to defend something other than “the homeland”?), the federalization of American airport security and the creation of the TSA, and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, providing security agencies extra-Constitutional powers to collect data on U.S. citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.

Today, advocates for the surveillance state are decrying the expiration of the PATRIOT Act and its replacement by the USA FREEDOM Act as now preventing the security agencies “from collecting the dots, to put them together,” declaring opposition to the PATRIOT Act to be a “war against intelligence.”

Mass collection of all electronic data on all Americans, in this narrative, “just replaces what a lot of agents used to do by hand... it gives you faster profiles.”

Let’s take a look at these contentions.

First of all, 9/11 could indeed be characterized as an “intelligence failure:” how difficult should it have been been to connect these dots:

Two months before the hijackings, FBI agents in Phoenix reported their suspicions about Arab students at a Phoenix flight school, and directly referred to the possibility of a connection to bin Laden.

In a memo from the Phoenix FBI to headquarters, the agents recommended an urgent nationwide review of flight schools “for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions” of a terrorist connection. The memo reportedly cited Osama bin Laden by name.

FBI higher-ups paid no attention to its agents.

While the current CIA Director claims that the data collection programs under the USA PATRIOT Act have “really helped stop attacks,” he offers no evidence that they have in fact done so. And what we know from reality is that the two attempts to blow up planes since 9/11 were stopped by their fellow passengers—civilians, not government agents.

Meanwhile, TSA can’t even connect its own internal “dots.”

On the front lines: TSA failed to stop undercover agents from smuggling weapons and explosives past checkpoints 67 times out of 70 attempts—an astounding 96% fail rate.

And behind the scenes,TSA missed 73 airline industry workers on terrorism-related watchlists—approving them for employment by airlines, airport vendors, and other airport employers.

And according to a member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “The publicly available facts are disturbing, but the classified details are even worse.”

So, if U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability to provide security is the same regardless of any expansion of their sizes, numbers, budgets, and powers—is there any reason not to reverse the expansion of their sizes, numbers, budgets, and powers?

Government Charges Hastert with “Crime” of Withdrawing His Own Money

DennisHastertDennis Hastert, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has been charged with lying to the FBI about the reason he was withdrawing money from bank accounts. Should what Hastert did be illegal, or any of the government’s business? Let’s look at the facts.

From the charges, it appears that Hastert (1) withdrew $3.5 million of his own money from banks to (2) pay an individual “to cover up past misconduct” and (3) lied to the FBI about the reason he was making the withdrawals. It appears that the past misconduct was (4) molesting a student when Hastert was a high school teacher and wrestling coach. Let’s look at each of these four things to see whether the charges are warranted.

I’m going to wait to discuss (4), but will state the obvious up front. It’s not acceptable for teachers to molest their students, and it is also against the law. I’ll discuss this at the end of the post, because Hastert is not being charged for this.


Whose Fossil Fuel Use Will G7 Leaders Reduce by 70%?

G7 leaders, led by German PM Angela Merkel (in blue) vowed this week to achieve aggressive cuts to global carbon emissions, although their plan was a bit lacking on details. [Image Source: EPA]

G7 leaders, led by German PM Angela Merkel (in blue) vowed this week to achieve aggressive cuts to global carbon emissions, although their plan was a bit lacking on details. [Image Source: EPA]

Our global political masters met in Germany this week: see how green they are? They’re walking ... in a field: can’t get any greener than that!

And, as usual, they are coming up with the definitive solutions to the greatest threats of today: the end of the use of fossil fuels—in 85 years.

No worries if that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky: they also promise to hit a 30-70% reduction by...2050!

The reduction certainly won’t come from the G7 leaders: no cutbacks in motorcades, fleets of presidential 747s, entourages of hundreds:

Obama’s one-night trip to Brussels last year entailed an entourage of 900, with 45 vehicles transported in three cargo planes (not to mention Air Force One and the Presidential Airlift Group), and his trip through Africa included hundreds of Secret Service agents, 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks, and fighter jets flying in shifts.

As also reported, last year’s UN summit on climate change held in Peru generated more CO2 than a small country.

So, if we can’t look to our “leaders” to set the example of conservation, just whose use of fossil fuels will Obama et al. restrict to achieve their lofty goals?

I’ll give you three guesses. (G7 leaders to their subjects: “Conservation for thee but not for me!”)

Then, start contemplating how a centrally mandated 70% reduction in today’s cheapest and most readily available energy will likely play out your daily life.

Meanwhile: these folks say no carbon use by 2100 is too late; while others point out there’s been no increase in warming in 18 years.

New TV Show Sparks Unnecessary Moral Outrage (and Proves People Don’t Understand Basic Economics)

12556986_SCBS recently released a new show titled, “The Briefcase.” Normally, I wouldn’t have given such a show a second glance...

But then I read reactions to the show on social media.

I found myself vaguely ashamed for [watching]...I kept reminding myself that I had to watch it in order to write about it.

[P]ossibly the most disgusting show on TV.

[The show] pits people in need against one another for entertainment.

[C]an we all agree that “The Briefcase” is an absolutely sickening premise for a reality TV show?

So what on Earth is the premise of this show?! Perhaps it’s a natural curiosity, perhaps I’m a genuinely terrible person, but I had to find out what lay behind what one writer called a “deviously surgical” premise for a show.

So I broke down and watched the first episode.

The basic plot is the following. A family experiencing financial hardship is given a briefcase with $101,000. The first $1,000 is theirs immediately to spend. Then comes “the twist.” The family is informed that there is another family, experiencing hardships that are either just as bad, or worse than their own. The family then has to decide over a period of several days how much of the remaining $100,000 to keep and how much to give to the other family. They can give away all of it, some of it, or none of it. Over the course of their decision-making process, they are offered more information about the other family, their circumstances, debts, and other details. In the final minutes of the show, the family is shocked to learn that the other family has also been given a briefcase and has been facing the same choice.

Call me a cold, calculated economist, but I fail to see the issue here—aside from the fact that the show just isn’t very good television.

Some people are claiming that the show exploits people—it’s “pitting poor people against each other.” The problem with this logic is that without a doubt this show is making its participants better off! The individuals are free to make their choice—regardless of whether they choose to keep all the money or give it away.

At a bare minimum, it makes their situation no worse. Consider the initial family given the briefcase. We’ll call them “Family A.” Family A has three options. They can keep all the money, give some of it away to “Family B,” or give all of it to Family B. For sake of simplicity, let’s assume that before the show, each family has $0.

Below are some of the possible outcomes (I assumed that “giving some away” meant half, though any distribution is viable).

Family A

Family B







What the chart above shows is what economists refer to as Pareto improvements. That is, in any of these scenarios, at least one person is made better off and no one is worse off as a result of the transaction. In the worst case, one of the parties ends up with $0—precisely what they had before the show started.

What about the “twist” at the end of the show—that the other family also has a briefcase?

In this case, taking both transactions into account, our outcomes look something like the following.

Family A

Family B







Once again, these are Pareto improvements. At least one family is better off than they were before and neither family is worse off. So while we may find the premise of this show to be in poor taste, or just plain stupid, let’s take a step back before we start making claims about exploitation. Without a doubt, the show is helping at least one family. Depending upon the decisions made by the participants, two families may wind up being significantly better off than they were at the start.

Health Jobs Double Growth in Jobs Report

Last Friday’s employment report was greeting as good news, with 280,000 jobs added in May. Health hiring doubled its April pace, adding 47,000 jobs (versus only 22,000 in the previous report), comprising about one of six nonfarm jobs. At a seasonally adjusted growth rate of 0.31 percent, health jobs are still growing faster than non-health jobs (0.18 percent).

As shown in Table 1, job growth continues to be concentrated in ambulatory settings, while nursing and residential care facilities added few jobs.

20150605 T1

Year-on-year growth is similar, as shown in Table 2, with jobs in ambulatory settings comprising two-thirds of health jobs, and jobs in nursing facilities effectively frozen. Health jobs grew at 2.79 percent versus 2.18 percent for non-health jobs.

20150605 T2

Technical note: In case it is not clear, these are jobs in health services, not in producers such as pharmaceutical or medical-device companies.

The Avengers of Civil Society?

avengers-age-of-ultron-alternateWhile watching the summer blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, I had trouble shaking thoughts from two books not usually connected to action heroes, let alone movies: Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. I doubt writer/director Joss Whedon had these social philosophers in mind when he was writing the screenplay. But, then again, perhaps the principles underlying these books are not that far-fetched for the creator of such character-driven projects as Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the 2015 film, Ultron uses each Avenger’s deepest and darkest personal fears to manipulate them and neutralize their effectiveness. Tony Stark’s (Ironman) hubris leads him to overreach in his ability to control and manipulate artificial intelligence, which becomes a professional and personal breaking point for the team. Natasha Romanova’s (Black Widow) personal brokenness from her training as an assassin and spy makes her vulnerable to manipulation that immobilizes her during a fight. Bruce Banner (The Hulk) becomes incapacitated through his fear over a lack of self-control and trust that others can rein him in. The Avengers are thus defeated by Ultron and forced to retreat to a safe house.

In their quest for personal redemption and world salvation, the Avengers can’t operate as solo heroes or even as just a team. They need to become a group that interjects different skills at tactically important times. They also must be strategic. This requires a deeper understanding and a more complete embracement of individual motivations, values, and priorities. The superheroes are forced to forge new bonds and develop new understandings among each other. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanova bond over their inability to have children after Bruce sees that her relationship with Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is platonic. Trust destroyed by Tony Stark’s machinations with artificial intelligence (after fears instigated by the Scarlet Witch) is rebuilt as the Avengers recognize the necessity of mutual cooperation, accept the sincerity of their personal goals, validate the truth of their common objectives, and find pleasure in working with each other and achieving success.


Racehorses and Circus Animals—Stifle Your Outrage

KY DerbyFlipping channels the other day, I came across an ad for SeaWorld. Instead of showing images of flipping dolphins, laughing children, and Shamu the killer whale, the commercial was more of a PSA. Instead of its typical advertising, the spot consisted of discussions about how the organization cares for its animals and their lifespans.

As it turns out, the ad campaign was a response to a documentary called “Blackfish,” a film that questioned SeaWorld’s treatment of its animals.

SeaWorld has long been fodder for animal-rights activists. (The mere mention of the name “SeaWorld” may make members of PETA foam at the mouth.)

It’s not just dolphins and killer whales, however, that make this and other animal groups upset.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Aside from being the home of Louisville Slugger baseball bats and a variety of bourbon (yes, all good bourbon comes from Kentucky), my home city is perhaps best known for the “fastest two minutes in sports.” The first Saturday in May, a field of three-year-old thoroughbred horses competes to win the Kentucky Derby.


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