Farewell, James Schneider
By David Henderson
Our guest blogger James Schneider will post his last entry tomorrow. Because his friend Bryan Caplan posted the welcome, I have asked for–and have been granted–the honor of writing his farewell.
I met James at a Liberty Fund seminar on health care in Indianapolis last May and appreciated his insightful comments at the seminar. For that reason, I was excited to see him become a guest blogger on Econlog.
I want to highlight, chronologically, four of his posts that I found particularly insightful.
In any event, the NIAAA [National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism] clearly has two messages tailored to two different audiences. On the one hand, they dispassionately explain the state of science using a small font, dense text, and the language of the specialist. Here they admit that much ignorance and confusion exists. On the other hand, they unambiguously advise expectant mothers to abstain from drinking alcohol as if the science was a settled matter. This is written in easy-to-understand language with lots of white space. This example illustrates a common phenomenon. Ordinary people do not receive medical information in an unbiased manner. Instead, medical research is frequently passed through a filter so that it provides only what is prudent to believe. Seemingly, the unspoken belief is that people can’t handle the truth.
2. Another of my favorites is “How Paul Krugman Made Me Afraid of the Government Debt.” In this one, he lays out Krugman’s story about the fact that buyers of the Argentina government’s bonds began to believe default to be likely led them to demand higher interest rates, which, in turn, made default more likely. Writes James:
What constitutes a reasonable debt level is determined in part by what financial markets think constitutes a reasonable debt level. If your debtors don’t think you can repay your debts, the resulting higher interest rates can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prudence might suggest that governments temper how much debt it piles on during periods of low interest rates; financial markets are stable until they are not.
3. My favorite piece is his “A Few Dangers of Heroin Prohibition.” Here are the two money paragraphs:
At least some people who currently inject heroin would ingest the drug through a safer method if the government made no attempt to discourage heroin use. Justifying this claim is a two-step process. Step 1: the free market, untaxed price of heroin would be a small fraction of the current street price. How cheap would unregulated heroin be? Jeffrey Miron compared the price of street heroin to the price of heroin legally produced for scientific research. This comparison suggested that interdiction increased the price of street heroin by a factor of 19. Step 2: one reason why heroin users inject is its cost effectiveness. As a heroin user’s tolerance increases, getting high without injecting becomes cost prohibitive. If heroin was much cheaper, cost would make injecting less financially imperative.
The second highlighted risk factor (having been in prison) is obviously connected to drug prohibition. The most dangerous time to be a heroin user is probably the first few weeks after getting out of prison. The primary cause of heroin overdose is respiratory depression: the user’s breathing slows down and over time body tissues suffer from a lack of oxygen. Users take more and more heroin as they develop a tolerance for its euphoric effects. These large doses of heroin would dangerously depress respiration except for the fact that the body develops a tolerance for heroin’s respiratory effects at the same time that it develops a tolerance for its euphoric effects. Abstinence lowers tolerance and makes the user more susceptible to respiratory depression, which explains why binging after a period of abstinence is so deadly. Putting heroin addicts in prison is the perfect trigger for this. As soon as they’re released, most users are eager to get back to heroin. It goes without saying that a heroin user would be less likely to face imprisonment if heroin was legal.
4. My second-favorite James Schneider post is his “Not Just Horsepower but Power without Horses.” It’s short and so I won’t try to pick particular paragraphs. It shows James’s appreciation for Frederic Bastiat’s “What is Not Seen.”
I will miss James’s insights but I look forward to his forthcoming book, which I’m sure will be full of insights at least as important as those above. It will be titled The Seven Deadly Sins and is about behavioral health economics.