Monthly Archives: February 2014

The self-defeating partisan politics of tobacco harm reduction

Every now and then I read something that I wish I wrote.  Usually that means “I wish I had thought of that”, though in this case it means “I keep trying to write this, but it remains a long-running draft.”  The “this” in question is this anonymous blog post at the progressive news and commentary (and thus, in effect, advocacy) site, Daily Kos.  (Note that the post is in an open contribution space and so cannot be interpreted as one of the semi-official opinions of Daily Kos.)

My favorite observation in the whole thing was:

I had intentions of writing this up as a huge research piece but frankly it’s more important to get it out and start the discussion.

The anonymous author is a true scholar.  One of these days, I will get my full piece about this also.  In the meantime, here is the content:

Let’s get right to the point: Democrats are blowing it on vaping, aka e-cigarettes. There is as we speak a full-scale assault going on against what may be the best tobacco harm reduction tool ever invented. The war has been developing for a while and recently has kicked into high gear, and the most troubling thing is it’s being perpetrated mostly by Democrats, against their own philosophies, goals, and political interests.

The piece goes on to say a bit more about that point, though as the caveat states, it is just throwing it out there, not really doing the research or analysis.  You can go read the rest.  It is short.

What struck me as most interesting about this, is that the post read like what any intelligent and honest outside observer should say about the fight over tobacco harm reduction (THR) in general and e-cigarettes specifically, but which you pretty much never see.  That is, it is what every halfway-decent news reporter writing about the subject ought to be saying.  Of course, it is quite likely that the author of this piece is not an outside observer, but a stakeholder (i.e., a vaper who supports progressive values and is frustrated by ostensible progressives acting as totalitarians when it comes to tobacco products).  Still, it reads like what someone honestly reviewing the available information for a day would conclude.

Of course, that means it was not exactly right.  It contained the usual naive propaganda about why e-cigarettes must be low-risk.  (E.g., Yes, the ingredients are recognized as safe as food additives.  But, no, that does not mean they are safe to inhale — just try inhaling a raisin.)  But it got that side of it mostly right.  What it got exactly right, though, was how supporting harm reduction fits perfectly with progressive values, and yet the U.S. political party that is closer to such values (though generally falls far short of them, it should be noted) has gone all-in in opposing it.

In general, the partisan alignment on anti-THR is just moronic.  I recall when another self-styled progressive information site (albeit one that is generally rather loony compared to voices like Daily Kos), Truthout, declared that THR must be evil because Brad Rodu spoke about it at an ALEC conference.  Since ALEC is evil (in their opinion), then so must be THR.  I wonder what would have happened if someone at ALEC had spoken about child slavery. Would they have decided that opposing it was some secret right-wing plot too?  That is the path that this “our team vs. their team” mentality leads down.

Larger groups that have supported the tiny anti-THR special interest group as one of their own have shot themselves in the foot, as well as given a huge gift to both the Republican party and to people who want to smear progressive efforts to improve people’s lives.  When a progressive voice embraces anti-progressive, anti-freedom, anti-people causes like anti-THR, it facilitates those who want to smear core progressive values as communist or Nazi or the like.  Gentle policies to, say, make sure people living in a rich society have enough money to feed their family are hardly radical or authoritarian.  But anti-THR is authoritarian, as is all of the current-day anti-tobacco faction (as well as the “public health” special interest faction in general).

So long as it is associated with “the left” (whatever that means), however, anti-THR is an incredibly damaging ball-and-chain.  Efforts to keep the majority of the population from slipping into a modern-day feudal servitude matter a lot more than anti-THR, but anti-THR and other “public health” efforts evoke much more vehement reactions by individuals, for obvious reasons:  The policies are much easier to understand, the causal pathway is clear, and they are generally effective.  So while assistance programs to help the poor or banking regulations are pretty subtle, difficult to evaluate, and do not always work, bans on e-cigarettes are obvious in both their existence and impact.

They are, that is, if you are an e-cigarette user.  If you are, you might benefit more in your life from greater banking regulation or the EITC than from being able to vape without stepping outside.  But it is easy not to realize or think about that, and thus vote against the party that made you step outside.  The Republican party, which currently is all about supporting the economic interests of the 1%, does a remarkable job of enlisting middle-class and poor voters to vote against their economic interests because they vote based on orthogonal high-profile issues like abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and such.  But perhaps that gives them a bit too much credit, since the other party is doing so much to help them with that by going out of its way to turn people into single-issue voters who vote R.

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“Mammograms don’t work” is good news

The latest study to show that screening mammography has very little or no benefit for average risk women, and that it causes a great deal of cost due to unnecessary tests and treatment, came as a shock to everyone who was unaware of the fact that the evidence already suggested that.  The mortality benefits might be a little bit on the positive side, but not enough to justify the enormous costs, which includes causing some excess mortality.  (Note: “average risk” means “on average, when employed by the entire population”, which leaves open the possibility that identifiable high-risk groups might still benefit.)

The illusion that screening is beneficial comes largely from the fact that it detects a lot of biological cancers that never would have caused disease if left undetected, and thus — viola! — it creates a lot of people who had their cancer detected and survived.  More subtly, screening detects those cancers that are destined to cause disease earlier, and thus “survival time” (measured in terms of time since detection, rather than when the bad outcome actually occurred in someone’s life, which is obvious what matters) is longer even when there is no benefit from detection.

But what is really annoying me is all the lamenting that this is bad news (example).  It is not.  It is good news.

Breast cancer mortality rates are what they are.  If it turns out that they would be exactly the same without spending billions of dollars on screening — to say nothing of the pain and suffering, and the cancers that are actually caused by the radiation — then mortality risks can stay the same and we can save billions of dollars by ending the worthless effort.

Finding out that you have been doing something that was costly and harmful is annoying and perhaps embarrassing.  But it should not be hard to understand that it is good to discover it, not bad, and that correcting the error is a benefit, not a cost.  (Except, of course, to the industry that has been getting rich off it.)

Enough said, I hope.

Wind turbines definitely lower local property values. The only question is, how much?

I have not written much about wind turbines lately.  My work on that focused on their health effects on nearby residents.  But I became so fed up with the economically absurd and innumerate claims that they do no lower property values that I jotted down the following.  The primary home of what I wrote is found here, but I am reblogging it here just so I remember where to find it:

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Large wind generators (IWTs, for “industrial wind turbines”) cause health problems for nearby residents, kill birds, and destabilize the power grid. Something those impacts have in common is that it would be possible for them to not be the case, and so attempts to deny them represent merely a refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming empirical evidence. That “merely” contrasts with another impact, IWTs lowering local residential property values. Denial of that not only requires ignoring the specific empirical evidence, but requires a suspension of well-established principles of economics.

The value of a piece of real estate is what someone is willing to pay for it. More specifically, in a theoretical perfect market, it is what the person (or family or other entity) who values it second-most would pay for it. This is because whoever values it first-most would have to pay $1 more than that value in order to win the bidding for it. Anything that would cause that person in the second-most position to value the property less, therefore, lowers its value.

Many people are aware of the potential health effects of nearby IWTs, and thus will value a property enormously less if it is near IWTs. For many others, the audible noise or visual impact would lower the value somewhat. If the person who values a property second-most falls into either of these groups, the value of the property will be lower. There is no reason to believe that anyone prefers to have a nearby IWT, so there is no chance that person would like the property more and thus increase the value. (Note that this analysis does not consider the net change in the value of a property with income from IWTs that are actually on the property. For such properties there will still be a decrease in value from the proximity but might be a net increase because the income more than makes up for this.)

Moreover, even someone who does not personally worry about the health risk or find the aesthetic impacts objectionable will know that others do. Thus, he will know that the potential resale value of the property is lower, and since that contributes to the value, this will tend to push down the value for even those who do not mind living near the IWTs.

Thus, there is simply no question that IWTs lower the value of nearby property, and the only legitimate question is “how much?”, not “does it occur?” Anyone who insists that there is no reduction in value is trafficking in nonsense that is actually one step worse than the nonsense that there are no health impacts, in that it denies both the evidence and the irrefutable logic.

Of course, in reality markets do not function exactly like the theoretical simplification, but the same principle applies in the real world with only a bit of additional complication. The sale of a property does not attract the attention of everyone who might want to bid, and so the second-highest valuation is not based on every possible buyer, but only on those who are in the market at the particular time. But this changes nothing. More significantly, the market is not a perfect auction, so the highest offer (which determines the market value of the property) does not consist literally of someone outbidding the second-highest by $1, but rather some guesswork about what bid is enough to convince the seller that no better offer is available. But this offer will be no higher than the potential buyer’s value for the property, which will be lowered by the factors noted above, and the guesses about alternative offers will be pushed downward by those factors also. Thus the exact real world results may not be as predictable as the theoretical case, but the fact that there is a reduction in value is unchanged.

Finally, the person/family who values a property the most is almost always, by far, the one who is living there. This is why very few sales result from an interested buyer making an offer for a property that is not actively for sale. So when residents suffer problems from nearby IWTs that make them want to move, the market value is dramatically reduced because the bidding for the property no longer includes the person who previously placed the highest value on it. Even worse than this impact on the market value, the benefits from that piece of land to overall human happiness — because it no longer provides net benefits to those who valued it the most — is reduced even more.

Empirical studies are required to determine how much property values are decreased near IWTs, and that magnitude might affect policy decisions and certainly affects cost-benefit analyses. The methods for doing such studies are highly imperfect; hence, there is room to criticize the estimated magnitude.

One thing we know for sure is that any study or assertion that insists there is no impact — is wrong.