Category: Politics


Reefer Madness At The FDA

marijuana-leaf.jpgOne of the most troubling behaviors of the current administration is its repeated willingness to manipulate the distribution of empirical data with which it disagrees. From global warming to crime, the government seems more interested in promoting its policy preferences than transparently reporting the results of the research it performs or supports. The administration has a legitimate right to advocate for its positions. But if it wants to argue that marijuana ought to be illegal, as the FDA did last week in its Inter-Agency Advisory Regarding Claims That Smoked Marijuana Is A Medicine, it seems to me the better policy – both from an honesty and a credibility point of view – is to concede the facts that cut against you, and make your case anyway. In its press release last week, the FDA asserted that:

A past evaluation by several Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), concluded that no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States.

True as this may be, a 1999 review of studies by the National Institute of Medicine suggests that marijuana offers potential therapeutic value for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation. Also, it notes that “until a non-smoked, rapid-onset cannabanoid drug delivery system becomes available…there is no clear alternative” to smoking. Why can’t the administration concede the existence of this data review by another federal agency?

It seems to me that the administration is driven by a decision, ex ante, that marijuana ought to be illegal. If it were truly interested in investigating the utility of the drug, it wouldn’t make serious research into its value exceedingly difficult. So the federal government ignores data suggesting the value of marijuana. It makes it hard to generate more research on marijuana. And it is therefore able to rail against the many states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. There are reasons to believe that, if the government allowed the debate to flourish – by sharing data that does exist and promoting the production of new data – its position might become weaker. But if marijuana is in fact effective as a medicine, perhaps the FDA should legalize it. And if the government’s real argument is something other than efficacy – that it is very likely to be misued, for example, or that its increased availability will lead to a rise in DUI cases – then it should make that case instead.

In some respects, this approach to policy debate reminds me of an argument made by death penalty opponents who argue that the death penalty is bad policy because it is expensive. But why is it expensive? Because opponents litigate these cases very aggressively. There are many good reasons why some people may oppose the death penalty. But it seems to me that when the people complaining about the cost of capital punishment are the people generating this expense, one should at least be skeptical. I’m not denying that the expense argument might mask a a deeper claim: perhaps these cases are so expensive, and require so many appeals, because the state fails to provide excellent counsel in the first instance. But if this is true, wouldn’t a more logical solution to the cost problem be a requirement that states spend money on quality counsel up front, to save in the long haul? In the end, the real claim underneath cost is fairness: the quality of a person’s lawyer should not determine whether he receives a death sentence. That may not “sell” as well to certain voters, but it is the more honest argument.

As for reefer, when government is making the arguments, I think we have a right to expect honesty. The FDA’s dubious pronouncement appears driven primarily by the administration’s emotional hatred of marijuana. Personally, I’d prefer FDA decisions to be grounded in evidence-based research rather than simply madness.


A Feminist Gets Married

I got hitched Saturday. Beforehand, I had been sheepish about telling my students I was getting married. It seemed inconsistent with my professional persona as an independent, fearless, freedom-fighting law professor. So I waited until the last possible minute to mention it. “OK, I have a quick announcement,” I began a recent Criminal Law class. “I do apologize, but I have to cancel next Thursday’s class because… um… well… my partner and I have decided to get married.” My students then began to clap. Gads, this was worse than I’d imagined it would be. The applause grew.

“No, no—please don’t clap. This is a truly freakish event that was never supposed to happen to someone like me.” Applause turned to laughter. Now I’d gotten myself in a fix.

Gavin had faced none of this angst. He had told his journalism students months ago, and he’d enjoyed their applause, while I skulked around my school as if I had a dirty little secret.

Read More

But Certainly Everyone Has $200 to Donate?

Michelle Cottle has a delicious critique of the NYT Thursday Styles Section, aptly titled The Gray Lady Wears Prada. Cottle juxtaposes the “high-minded liberal sensibility” that the Times’s bobo readers aspire to cultivate with the breathless high-end consumerism of Thursday Styles’ Hermès scarves and Jimmy Choo mules. The most revealing quote comes from Times editor Bertram “Trip” Field III, who insists that “we’re [not] trying to serve only those readers who can afford a $10,000 watch.” When Cottle examines the egalitarian timepieces Trip’s claimed to have covered, it turns out the cheapest one is an $890 Prada.

I’m not going to tsk-tsk consumerism here—been there, done that. But I do think Cottle’s insightful piece discloses another aspect of elite journalism—a class bias so pervasive that it’s not even noticed. I think such biases also work their way into scholarship. For example, the bien-pensant consensus on campaign finance reform has long held that we want races funded by a large number of “small donors”—presumably those who donate less than $500. But really, with median family income around $65,000 and average household savings near zero, how many of these small donations are going to come from those at the bottom half of the income scale?

Thankfully, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres’s “Patriot Dollars” proposal addresses this issue by proposing donation vouchers of equal size for all voters. But I’m wondering where else implicit class biases inform a scholarly consensus…any ideas?

Necessary Investment Incentives?

scrooge mcduck.jpg

Pretty soon the alternative minimum tax is going to hit millions more taxpayers—even people making less than $50,000 annually. This extended reach will primarily harm those who work hard, pay property taxes, and have other deductions for things like dependent care, education, and health care. This AMT bite was never intended by Congress—it’s just reaching down the tax bracket because the figures it’s based on were drawn up decades ago.

You’d think this problem would be at the top of the tax reform agenda. Sadly, no. Rather, the big debate is over whether to extend tax cuts on investment income. As brilliant NYT tax reporter David Cay Johnston observes,

Among taxpayers with incomes greater than $10 million, the amount by which their investment tax bill was reduced averaged about $500,000 in 2003, and total tax savings, which included the two Bush tax cuts on compensation, nearly doubled, to slightly more than $1 million.

So this debate is basically about whether to make such windfalls permanent, or to try to stop our current fiscal irresponsibility and actually do something about our massive national debt.

But perhaps I misunderstand the issue. Is there a good policy reason for tax cuts for the superrich? Would they simply refuse to invest if better tax treatment weren’t given—choosing instead, perhaps, to roll around in vaults of money ala Scrooge McDuck? Would they renounce U.S. citizenship and move to the Isle of Man? I’m just trying to understand this policy on a higher level than positive political theory (which would, of course, predict that those best able to invest in money-intensive politics would get the highest returns). I guess I need to start reading the Tax Prof Blog!

A Triumph for Divided Government?

Apparently Massachusetts politicians have hammered out a plan providing universal health coverage in that state. The bill is an interesting mix of mandates, incentives, and taxes. There’s still some chance a squabble over taxes on businesses that don’t provide insurance coverage may scuttle the deal. But overall, it’s a very encouraging sign.

As the deal is finalized, I’ll be watching my indefatigable friend Nathan Newman’s blog (and that of PLAN, a group advocating social justice on a variety of fronts in state legislatures, and the Center for American Progress). Newman appears pretty pleased with the direction of reform now. If it works, it might stand as a great argument for divided government. Everyone knows health care reform is necessary, but few interests appear willing to give anything if “the other side’s” party is the only one responsible for legislation (remember the scorched earth tacticians Harry & Louise?). A Republican governor in Massachusetts, balanced by a strongly Democratic legislature, appears to have broken the gridlock.

Boutique Medicine: Tax it, Don’t Ax It

Sick of waiting weeks for a doctor’s appointment? Or hurried visits? Well, “concierge physicians” have got a deal for you. Just pay a retainer to a practice (usually between $2,000 and $5,000 annually), and you’ll get immediate attention, long visits, and personalized preventive care. There’s just one catch—when you and, say, 400 other health care “consumers” sign-up at a given practice, it drops the other 1500 patients it had been serving to concentrate solely on retainer patients.

Is this problematic? Some important Democrats say yes, and have moved to kick “concierge physicians” out of the Medicare program. Tommy Thompson resisted that move when he headed HHS—and now he’s on a leading concierge franchise’s board. But since he’s left, some lower level officials at HHS have been raising concerns about “boutique medicine.”

After thinking about retainer care for a while, I have a few conclusions about these efforts. In a nutshell: I think it’s unwise to try to ban concierge care outright. But I do worry about it. It’s consonant with a larger movement that TNR describes: “to radically transform health insurance altogether, so that risk is gradually transferred away from large groups ( i.e., the government and large employers) and onto individuals (i.e., you).” If health insurance starts to move from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” model, we can count on a diversion of scarce medical resources from a common risk pool to pockets of well-heeled consumers. Here’s why I think so…

Read More


Demography Ain’t Destiny

Daniel Drezner notes the latest study in the always irritating demographic-victory-of-the-scary-is-upon-us field of empirical research. This time, instead of the Chinese or the Hasidim, it’s the conservatives of Salt Lake City who will, if the trend lines continue unabated, take over the earth.

Look, there’s no doubt that far into the future, there will be way fewer bloodline-pure Italians, or ditto-pure Iowans born into Italy or Iowa. There’s also no question that if you’re only going on the basis of children produced, Salt Lake City will grow at a faster rate than Seattle.

But what conclusions can be drawn from these facts in light of the prevalence of immigration and assimilation? I have no confidence – none – that the political ideologies of parents with big families will result in successful political movements soldiered by their children. And if I was a political consultant, I’d be more concerned with the ideological ferment in Greater Los Angeles than I would in the ten Great Plains states that might rival it in population, even if your average couple in Scotts Bluff produces more kids than your average couple in West Hollywood. Or at least I would be if we didn’t have a Senate.

From Gradgrind to Glaeser

Economic analysis is often illuminating, but sometimes it just seems to provide cover for new Gradgrinds to ply reductionist utilitarianism. Case in point: the NYT Magazine has a glowing profile of Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard. As a patrician, provocateur, and polymath, Glaeser is reported to have single handedly revived the field of urban economics. Here are some of his prescriptions (as reported by Jon Gertner):

1) Don’t rebuild much of New Orleans— just let hard-pressed residents move somewhere else (and expect our exceedingly eleemosynary Congress to cut checks to each resident for $200,000, since that’s what they were planning to spend on infrastructure!). And don’t try to revive struggling rust-belt cities like Detroit, either.

2) “Car-based cities” are great; they “enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses,” and “the average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.”

I have a few questions for Glaeser. First, does his model value stability at all? Let’s say that this process of dispersion in search of better jobs leaves very few nuclear families with extended families nearby to help with child and elder care. Is the resultant need to hire day care workers and visiting nurses a boon to the economy, because unpaid labor to that end wouldn’t count in the GDP? Just how parsimonious are his models?

I have some personal experience with the “exodus from the Rustbelt” that Glaeser finds so appealing…

Read More


Tax Scholar: Bush Is An Atheist

george_bush_narrowweb__200x245.jpgMy colleague, Susan Hamill, is never one to shy from a fight. Four years ago she burst onto the scene with her article, An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics. This piece, which I’ve noted previously was a driving force behind an ultimately unsuccessful Alabama tax reform proposal, argued that (what she termed) “Judeo-Christian” ethics demanded that true believers support a more progressive tax scheme in the state. Her arguments were the centerpiece of the statewide debate on the referendum and she was targeted by Alabama’s Christian Coalition. (Curiously, she garnered the support of the national group.) I’ll never forget The Economist’s headline about this referendum: What Would Jesus Tax?

Well, my friends, Susan is back.

In her new paper, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, she argues that:

“the moral values driving the Bush Administration’s tax policy decisions reflect objectivist ethics, a form of atheism that exalts individual property rights over all other moral considerations. Given their overwhelming adherence to Christianity and Judaism, I conclude that President Bush, many members of Congress and many Americans are not meeting the moral obligations of their faiths.”

Powerful stuff! Susan joined the Alabama faculty as a tax scholar in the mid-1990’s. About five years ago, on sabbatical, she pursued graduate work at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School – not exactly a hotbed of liberalism. These recent pieces reflect a marriage of scholarship with personal passion. Not surprisingly, people from many perspectives can find ways to disagree with Susan. On the other hand, she exemplifies a professor who believes her scholarship must have practical consequences. I have tremendous admiration for both her work and the way she has chosen to structure her professional life.

Is Bush an atheist? Who’d have thought you’d read the Virginia Tax Review to find out.