Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Do Words Hurt?

Over at Above the Law, Elie Mystal argues that "words don't hurt anybody" and that people in Canada should just "chill" when it comes to uncivil behavior by certain members of the bar. 

I am going to have to take issue with the statement that words don't hurt anybody.

This simply is not true. Hostile words can inflict stress and cause a stress hormone known as adrenaline to rise, causing people to go into fight or flight mode. Unfortunately, neither fight or flight is usually an appropriate response in our modern society, so there is often no useful outlet to return our bodies to homeostasis.

Excessive stress in turn can actually increase your physical age by causing your chromosomes to degenerate. For evidence, go here.

Excessive stress is also associated with high blood pressure, the development of varicose veins, and an increased risk of heart disease.

Excessive stress may also result in increased levels of visceral fat (aka "belly fat") which in turn is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and diabetes.

Excessive stress may increase the likelihood of developing cancer. See this Scientific American article on that point.

Excessive stress may also impair working memory which is needed to reason, comprehend, and learn. It may also impair spatial memory.

The bottom-line is that the old adage that "stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is simply false. It is understandable that people would want to think that this is true, because the negative physical health effects of the stress we inflict on others or that is inflicted upon us is not immediately obvious. But over time, the effects of incivility can and will add up and even possibly result in negative health outcomes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Economics 101 Incentives for Controlling Healthcare Costs Don't Work

Over at Baseline Scenario, James Kwak insightfully discusses Atul Guwande's findings in a recently published New Yorker article and explains why health care incentives don't work. Basically, the insight is that since only a few patients consume a hugely disproportionate amount of healthcare dollars for severe conditions, that providing incentives to cut down visit the doctor visits (to stop the so-called "over-consumption" of medical care) actually increased medical costs in a plan that implemented this strategy. As James Kwak explains:
One refrain you heard incessantly during the health care reform debate was that we have high health care costs because of overconsumption and we have overconsumption because people don’t bear a high enough share of their marginal health care costs, so the solution is to increase copays and deductibles. This is what Economics 101 would tell you: people respond to incentives. But Gawande discussed one large company that tried this year after year, but only saw their costs going up. The problem was that while most members responded to the higher copays and kept their costs more or less steady, the 5 percent of members who generated 60 percent of the costs behaved differently. Or, rather, they also reduced consumption (of doctor’s visits and prescription medications), but as a result they often had catastrophic outcomes. These were people with heart disease on cholesterol-lowering medications, and when they went off their medications they ended up in the hospital with heart attacks and then with congestive heart failure.
Read the whole thing.

A Proposal for Cooperation Among Bleeding-Heart Libertarians and Liberals.

Today, over at the Bleeding-Heart Libertarian blog, an extremely interesting and provocative post by Gary Chartier got me thinking about how libertarians of the bleeding-heart variety and liberals might successfully work together.

As Chartier argues, it is undoubtedly true that much of the power of the state is used to benefit those in privileged positions of power. As an example, think about the Copyright Term Extension Act which extended copyright protection on all existing works for 20 years to benefit Disney (protection for Mickey Mouse was about to expire) and other holders of very old copyrights that were about to expire... There is no way that one can argue with a straight face that increasing the length of copyright protection for existing works provides much incentive for the creation of new works, especially given that copyright before the extension already extended significantly beyond the life the creator before the act. (And it should be remembered that the purpose of giving the Congress power to grant copyright was "to promote the progress of science and useful arts" by providing adequate incentives to creators. In contrast, the purpose was not to enrich copyright holders at the expense of everyone else, although that seems to be the effect and purpose of the act.) So, this is just one example of a law, among many, meant to benefit a narrow, powerful, and privileged interest at the expense of freedom for everyone else.

Here is the problem I have though. While not denying that danger of "capture" or the concerns brought up most prominently in the public choice literature, I believe it is possible for the state to have an extremely positive role in advancing everyone's shared interests (i.e. basic science research, the funding of universities, the provision of universal education) and also in advancing the interests of the disadvantaged. Or to put it another way, just because we should try to stop the state from doing bad things, that does not mean we should try to use the state to do good things. I think that one area where liberals and bleeding-heart libertarians are likely to partially part ways is that bleeding-heart libertarians are much more likely to be extremely skeptical of even the "good" functions of the state. Nonetheless, I do think that caution and concern about the possibility of state power being corrupted or having unintended (as well intended) consequences should, in theory, be something that liberals and bleeding-heart libertarians can agree on.

Or to put it another way, maybe bleeding-heart libertarians might productively think about how to counteract "capture" in a perhaps second-best world where the state is taking on more of a role that they think is perfectly optimal. And maybe liberals could think about how market mechanisms might be taken advantage of in areas that have traditionally been used by the state, even if this is not their first-best scenario. For example, maybe liberals should think about whether school vouchers that could be used at private schools might be a better alternative to more centralized control, whether by local school boards or state and federal governments, given the difficulties that schools that face too many mandates may have innovating. And maybe bleeding-heart libertarians could compromise and consider whether the amount of vouchers and total education spending could be increased to address concerns that liberals may have about access to high quality schools for poorer students, and also whether regulations that prevent schools that accept vouchers from denying access to "undesirable" students might be necessary. Basically, if a bleeding-heart libertarians prefers less education spending, and a liberal is worried that inadequate resources devoted to education will perpetuate socioeconomic disadvantage, perhaps there is room for compromise that will make everyone better off.

While it is true that state power is often twisted to give advantages to those (like Disney in my example) who do not need any such special solicitation, the perhaps much more difficult question is how to reform state power so that it can play a more productive role, given the reality that no one is likely to get their way all of the time. In my school voucher example, bleeding-heart libertarians would be expected to allow overall education spending to go up, even though they may be very skeptical about the size of government. Liberals would be expected to trust parents to choose good schools for their children, even if they are skeptical that all parents would exercise this power responsibly and would no doubt continue to worry about students who fell through the cracks as a result. Also, if vouchers are in the hands of parents, wouldn't this partially address public choice and capture concerns? Sure, private schools would have an incentive to lobby for greater funding for their own benefit. But, since that money would ultimately go through the hands of parents who would be empowered to change schools, it would be hard for private schools to direct increased funding to their own pockets without providing increased services (which would mean increased expenses, thus making lobbying somewhat less desirable).

Just a thought. Maybe there is more room for an alliance between liberals and certain libertarians than I have previously considered.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

David Frum on Means Testing Medicare

David Frum has a really excellent article on the issue of reforming Medicare. It is worth thinking about.

The Return of Debtors Prison

For those wondering how things have gone wrong in this country, this article in the Wall Street Journal should be some food for thought.

What happens to the financial industry when they lose countless billions of dollars and we are worried that they cannot pay their debts? They get bailed out. What happens to ordinary people who do not pay their debts to the financial industry? Well, they just might end up in jail.

We live in interesting times.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Forget Watson, What About Poker Bots

Computers just keep getting more and more intelligent with advances in artificial intelligence. First, there was Deep Blue, which beat world champions at chess. Now there is Watson, which can take a complex game requiring natural language processing (Jeopardy) and beat most humans.

But what about poker? Poker is more complicated, because a good part of it involves reading people and determining how aggressively they are playing and also reading when the same person shifts from a more aggressive to less aggressive mode of play. So far, poker playing computers have not done so well, but it turns out that apparently some are starting to learn, as illustrated by this New York Times article.