At an April 23 press conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded indignant when a reporter asked if anyone had objected to New York’s policy of forcing nursing homes to admit recently discharged COVID-19 patients.
“They don’t have the right to object,” Cuomo answered before the reporter finished his question. “That is the rule, and that is the regulation, and they have to comply with it.”
New York isn’t the only state to adopt a policy ordering long-term care facilities to admit COVID-19-infected patients discharged from hospitals. New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California—three states also hit particularly hard by the novel coronavirus—passed similar policies to free up hospital beds to make room for sicker patients.
The practice is coming under increased scrutiny by health experts and family members of deceased patients who say the orders needlessly put the most susceptible populations at risk.
“The whole thing has just been handled awfully … by everybody in regard to nursing homes,” said Kathleen Cole, a nurse who recently lost her 89-year-old mother who lived at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, New York. “It’s like a slaughterhouse at these places.”
Cole, who shared her story with the Bucks County Courier Times, told the paper her mother, Dolores McGoldrick, became infected with COVID-19 on April 2 after Ferncliff re-admitted a resident who had been discharged in late March. Two weeks later her mother, a former school teacher, was dead.
McGoldrick is one of nearly five thousand COVID-19 victims who died in New York nursing homes, according to new figures from The New York Times. New York’s high nursing home death toll is not an outlier. California recently released data showing that some 40 percent of California’s COVID-19 fatalities have come from eldercare homes. In Pennsylvania, nursing homes account for 65 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Both states, like New York, had orders in place that required nursing homes to admit recently released COVID-19 patients.
These results are not surprising to some. Health experts and trade associations had warned early on that forcing nursing homes to take on newly discharged COVID-19 patients was a recipe for disaster, noting that such facilities didn’t have the ability to properly quarantine the infected.
“This approach will introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes. There will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths. Issuing such an order is a mistake and there is a better solution,” American Health Care Association President and CEO Mark Parkinson announced in March after New York’s order went into effect.
David Grabowski, a professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, sounded incredulous when asked about the policy.
“Nursing homes are working so hard to keep the virus out, and now we’re going to be introducing new COVID-positive patients?” Grabowski told NBC.
Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition in New York, echoed that sentiment.
“To have a mandate that nursing homes accept COVID-19 patients has put many people in grave danger,” Mollot told the Bucks County Courier Times.
The question, of course, is why states began ordering nursing homes to take in COVID-19 infected residents. The one thing we know of COVID-19, and have known from the beginning, is that the virus is particularly deadly for the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
State leaders will have to answer that question themselves. But one answer might be that central planning is inherently irrational.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek observed that the problem with trying to centrally plan economies and other complex social orders is that central planners cannot possibly access, comprehend, and weigh the vast amount of information relevant to their sweeping decisions.
The only way to cope with this “knowledge problem” is by bringing to bear the special knowledge that each individual has about the matters he or she is intimately familiar with. And that can only happen through decentralized processes, like the market price system.
This lesson has been lost on many, but particularly so on politicians and bureaucrats who imagine they possess the knowledge to design a more perfect social order. As Hayek famously explained in The Fatal Conceit:
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.
This is why individuals are more competent decision-makers about their own affairs than governments. For this reason, a society that removes decision-making from individuals and places it in the hands of central planners invites disorder and endangerment, the economist Thomas Sowell has observed.
“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong,” wrote Sowell.
Media were quick to describe the nursing home tragedy as a “market failure,” pointing out that 70 percent of nursing homes in the US are for-profit. This is hardly a market failure, however. Long-term care facilities saw the danger and warned public officials what would happen.
What were they told?
“That is the rule, and that is the regulation,” Cuomo told them, “and they have to comply with it.”
Gov. Cuomo and other officials responsible for these policies are guilty of Hayek’s fatal conceit. In their hubris, they presumed to know enough to centrally plan a complex society’s response to a complex pandemic, and to know more than individuals with local knowledge, industry expertise, and skin in the game, like the elder care experts and businesspeople who tried to warn policymakers about the disastrous effects the policy would have.
This presumption may stem from another kind of conceit: the dictatorial arrogance on display when Cuomo indignantly insisted that unquestioning compliance was the only appropriate response to his mandate.
Tragically, that conceit was quite literally fatal for many of the most vulnerable members of society.
Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, and Fox News. This article was originally featured at the Foundation for Economic Education and is republished with permission.
If you think silly and arbitrary bans are a thing of the past, think again.
In April, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, proposed banning the popular video game “Fortnite,” saying it was irresponsible to allow kids to play it.
“The game shouldn’t be allowed,” said the former bad boy prince. “It’s created to addict. An addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible. It’s so irresponsible.”
Nobody, as far as I know, has yet proposed legislation to ban the popular game, which is played by 125 million people and reportedly generates $2 million in revenue per day. But the anecdote serves as a reminder of how cavalier humans tend to be about prohibiting things they personally object to.
If you think silly and arbitrary bans are a thing of the past, think again. If anything, the impulse to ban and regulate has only increased in a world that has gotten much faster.
These laws are usually proposed to serve a greater good or to protect people. Unfortunately, they usually miss the mark and often have adverse consequences. Here are a few of the worst laws proposed and passed in 2019 in no particular order.
10. Massachusetts Lawmakers Try to Criminalize Saying “B*tch” (Proposed)
Massachusetts is looking to up the ante in the war on pottymouths. State Rep. Daniel Hunt (D–Boston) proposed legislation (H.3719) that would make it a crime to say “the b-word” (as my children would say) “to accost, annoy, degrade or demean” someone. Those found guilty would face a $200 fine and up to six months in jail(!).
9. California’s Crackdown on the Gig Economy (Passed)
A reported 57 million Americans work as freelancers, adding an estimated $1 trillion to the economy each year in flexible gig work. That number is about to shrink, however. California lawmakers, in an effort to save us, passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), which uses a complicated ABC test that redefines many gig workers as full-time employees. Unsurprisingly, many companies cannot take on swaths of new full-time employees, who would become eligible for numerous benefits. So thousands of workers lost jobs, including 200 workers let go by Vox Media a week before Christmas. Three months earlier, Voxhad called the legislation “a victory for workers everywhere.” That’s what economists call a Cobra Effect.
Hazing is said to go all the way back to Ancient Greece, where Plato wrote of “practical jokes played by unruly young men” at his academy. It’s not uncommon today to see young people get carried away with this tradition, however. One such case can be found in Andrew Coffey, a Florida State University pledge who in November 2017 died after excessive drinking. In response, Florida lawmakers passed what has been described as the “most cutting edge” anti-hazing law in the US. Though no doubt well-intentioned, the law allows prosecutors to charge people who weren’t even present for a hazing but were simply involved in its discussion. It’s not difficult to see how an accidental tragedy could end up ruining even more lives.
7. Alabama’s “Anti-Road Rage Act” (Passed)
Nobody likes slow left-lane driving. I’m on the record saying it’s my worst pet peeve. But Alabama’s “anti-road rage” law, which prohibits drivers from driving in the left lane for more than a mile and a half without passing, is hardly the solution. Drivers are more than capable of policing slow drivers through the usual means—excessive horn beeping, silent cursing, and arm-waving. The stiff fines—up to $200 a pop—will likely fall on unsuspecting out-of-state drivers and be little more than a cash cow for police.
6. Pennsylvania’s “Violent Video Game” Tax (Proposed)
Early in 2019, a bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers floated one of the silliest proposals of the year: a 10 percent tax on video games rated “Mature or Adults Only.” The bill was a transparent cash grab and went nowhere in the legislature. The legislation’s poor showing was probably less attributable to the dubious link between video games and violence and more to stiff opposition from the $43.5 billion gaming industry. Either way, the episode affirmed Gideon J. Tucker’s famous axiom: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”
5. California’s Ban on Single-Use Shampoo Bottles (Passed)
Anyone who has traveled is familiar with the little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion hotels provide their guests. Well, you won’t find them in California much longer. In October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will ban (starting in 2023) hotels from supplying the little bottles as part of an effort to use less plastic. Violators will be fined $500 for their first offense and up to $2,000 for additional violations. Meanwhile, as lawmakers wage war on tiny shampoo bottles, the Golden State continues to struggle with a human excrement problem that has resulted in a surge of typhus.
4. Virginia Raises the Smoking Age to 21 (Passed)
Smoking is bad for you. Don’t take it from me; it says it right there on the pack. SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy. Despite the warning, an estimated 34 million US adults smoke. That’s their choice, right? Well, Virginia lawmakers took it upon themselves to prevent young adults (18-20) from legally purchasing cigarettes. The law amounts to little more than a condescending intrusion into the lives of young people since they’ll just have friends purchase their smokes for them. But it’s still annoying, especially since many of these people are legally obligated to sign-up for selective service.
3. & 2. Oregon and California’s Statewide Rent Control Laws (Passed)
Economists disagree on a lot of things, but they pretty much all agree on this: Rent control is really harmful. “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing,” observed Swedish economist (and socialist) Assar Lindbeck. Alas, new laws in Oregon and California, the first of their kind, show how little politicians understand about economics. The caps on rent are sure to further reduce housing supply and quality, and increase housing prices in the long run. California’s housing problems are well documented. Unfortunately, they’re about to get a lot worse. (As FEE has observed, the solution to high housing costs is more housing, not price controls.)
1. California’s Water Tax (Proposed)
California Governor Gavin Newsom has the unfortunate distinction of making the list a fourth time. Newsom’s water tax, a proposal he ultimately withdrew, was perhaps the strangest. As Carey Wedler noted on FEE earlier this year, the “Environmental Protection” section of Newsom’s budget sought to
establish a new special fund with a dedicated funding source from new water, fertilizer, and dairy fees, to enable the State Water Resources Control Board to assist communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, in paying for the short-term and long-term costs of obtaining access to safe and affordable drinking water.
Ensuring citizens have clean water is a noble goal, to be sure. But the means are highly questionable. Utilizing markets is the best way to address water shortages, not passing new taxes. Newsom’s proposal, which sparked sharp pushback from his own party, is sort of like passing a food tax to make sure people don’t go hungry.
It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo.
A couple of years ago, after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning.
The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. It has been ingrained into the American psyche over several decades. On a recent trip to the Caribbean, my friend’s wife exhibited nervous guilt while collecting empty soda, water, and beer bottles destined for the trash since our resort offered no recycling bins.
“I feel terrible throwing these into garbage,” she said, wearing a pained look on her face.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there was a good chance the bottles she was recycling back in the States were ending up just like the ones on the Caribbean island we were visiting.
As Discover magazine pointed out a decade ago, recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was “recyclable.”
“This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,” researchers concluded.
Since that time, things have only gotten worse. Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a story detailing how hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts.
Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it. Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.
One reason for this is that China, perhaps the largest buyer of US recyclables, stopped accepting them in 2018. Other countries, such as Thailand and India, have increased imports, but not in sufficient tonnage to alleviate the mounting costs cities are facing.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, told the Times.
Cost is the key word. Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time.
“Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, told The Times.
Has Recycling Always Been An Illusion?
How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. Nearly a quarter century ago, Lawrence Reed wrote about the growing fad of recycling, which state and local governments were pursuing—mostly through mandates, naturally—with a religious-like fervor. There were numerous problems with the approach, he observed.
The fact is that sometimes recycling makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. In the legislative rush to pass recycling mandates, state and local governments should pause to consider the science and the economics of every proposition. Often, bad ideas are worse than none at all and can produce lasting damage if they are enshrined in law. Simply demanding that something be recycled can be disruptive of markets and it does not guarantee that recycling that makes either economic or environmental sense will even occur.
If only lawmakers had heeded Mr. Reed’s advice, or that of John Tierney, who offered similar guidance in The Times the following year.
Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes make sense–for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative.
That’s economics, you say. What about the environment? Well, the environmental benefits of recycling are far from clear. For starters, as Popular Mechanicsnoted a few years ago, the idea that we don’t have sufficient space to safely store trash is untrue.
According to one calculation, all the garbage produced in the U.S. for the next 1000 years could fit into a landfill 100 yards deep and 35 miles across on each side–not that big (unless you happen to live in the neighborhood). Or put another way, it would take another 20 years to run through the landfills that the U.S. has already built. So the notion that we’re running out of landfill space–the original impetus for the recycling boom–turns out to have been a red herring.
Recycling Efforts Backfire and Create Waste Themselves
And then there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions?
The data on this front is thin, and results on the environmental effectiveness of recycling vary based on the material being recycled. Yet all of this presumes the recyclables are not being cleaned and shipped only to be buried in a landfill, like so much of it is today. This, Mises would say, is planned chaos, the inevitable result of central planners making decisions instead of consumers through free markets.
Most market economists, Reed points out, “by nature, philosophy, and experience” a bunch skeptical of centrally planned schemes that supplant choice, were wise to the dynamics of recycling from the beginning.
As engineer and author Richard Fulmer wrote in 2016,
Recycling resources costs resources. For instance, old newsprint must be collected, transported, and processed. This requires trucks, which must be manufactured and fueled, and recycling plants, which must be constructed and powered.
All this also produces pollution – from the factories that build the trucks and from the fuel burned to power them, and from the factories that produce the components to build and construct the recycling plant and from the fuel burned to power the plant. If companies can make a profit recycling paper, then we can be confident that more resources are saved than are used. However, if recycling is mandated by law, we have no such assurance.
Again, economics is the key.
It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.
It’s taken three decades, but the actions of hundreds of US cities suggest Americans are finally willing to entertain the idea that recycling is not a moral or legal imperative.
Whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden remains a fugitive at large, but that didn’t stop him from popping up and chiming in on the recent presidential election.
Snowden, who in 2013 blew the lid on the NSA’s massive covert surveillance program, recently appeared on camera via live stream to talk about privacy in an event hosted by StartPage.
Naturally, the topic of Donald Trump came up a few times. At one point Snowden was asked, “if the outcome [of the election] was better or worse for your case.” (I presume the question was referring to Snowden’s prospect of receiving a presidential pardon.)
Snowden deflected the part of the question that spoke to a possible pardon, saying the election was not about him. But as he continued his response got interesting.
After criticizing the authoritarian tone of the campaign, Snowden said people should stop focusing so much on presidents.
“This is the thing I think we begin to forget when we focus too much on a single candidate. The current president of the United States, President Barack Obama, campaigned on a platform of ending mass surveillance in the United States. He said no more warrantless wiring tapping. He said he’d investigate and end criminal activities that had occurred under the prior administration…. And we all put a lot of hope in him because of this. Not just people in [the United States]…but people in Europe and elsewhere around the world. It was a moment where we believed that because the right person got into office everything would change. But unfortunately, once he took that office we saw that he actually didn’t fulfill those campaign promises.”
Snowden highlighted Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay and end mass warrantless surveillance as specific broken campaign promises. Snowden said he was bringing up these points simply to drive home a larger message.
“We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear into elected officials,” said Snowden. “At the end of the day, this is just a president.”
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