Casey Mulligan Worships Market Icons and Denounces Apostate Health Economists

Casey Mulligan kept repeating “market analysis” and “compensating differential” like an Evangelical minister invoking Jesus, though with less charisma and more of an Aspy affect. Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist, was speaking about the Affordable Care Act at the opening plenary of the American Society of Health Economists conference last week. Despite his audience’s knowledge of both economics and the ACA, Mulligan made few substantive points. In fact, Mulligan behaved like a religious zealot, denouncing many health economists as apostates who ignore “market analysis” and demonstrating his own devotion to Platonic ideals of economics.

Mulligan seemed like a religious zealot first and foremost because he did not bother to engage in real analysis or provide evidence. Obviously, Mulligan is a very smart, highly trained economist, who is more than capable of analyzing the complexities of anything he wants. But at least at this event, he did not do so.

(Caveat: This post is based on my memory, my notes and conversations with others. I will check my memory once ASHEcon posts the video.)

Leaving the plenary furious, I wondered if I was seeing Mulligan through partisan eyes. Although I see the flaws of Obamacare—the avoidable, the unavoidable, and the tradeoffs—I am a supporter. I decided to ask conservative health economists, over the course of the three-day conference, what they thought of Mulligan’s performance. I sought out those who I knew to be or suspected might be Obamacare critics. (Since I did not ask to quote anyone and had not even planned to write this post when I asked, I will not name anyone.) My survey is obviously not representative of audience members, biased towards those I know and happened to run in to—and had a sample size in the single digits.

The consensus was overwhelming: “same stuff over and over again” and “not a lot of content.” The most complimentary responses were: “he didn’t explain very well” and “there was a lot to be conveyed, but it didn’t happen.”

Mulligan was not utterly without substance nor was his substance without merit. In the interest of fairness and to give you a flavor of what he did and did not say, below are all of Mulligan’s points with more explanation and context than he provided: Continue reading

The Ferocious Winds Blowing Us Towards Inequality For All: Four Ways to Stop Over-promising about Higher Education

During the closing credits of Robert Reich’s documentary, Inequality for All, some of those profiled describe how, now inspired, they plan to take action against inequality. Erika Vaclav—Costco worker, mother, former owner of a foreclosed Condo and wife of laid-off Circuit City manager—plans to follow her husband into higher education. With the song 9-to-5 playing in the background, she says proudly, “I want to become a lawyer.”

My heart sinks. Erika doesn’t know that law school graduates now struggle to get jobs or that lawyers’ earnings and job security have plummeted. Erika envisions a law degree taking her permanently into the middle class. I envision it leaving her with much debt and few job prospects.

The jobs of the highly educated are not immune to the information revolution or globalization. Lawyers are hurting in part because software can do discovery (searching documents for relevant information) more cheaply than live lawyers. Other educated workers are also likely to be hit by the ferocious winds of the Information Revolution blowing towards inequality.

Professors, policy wonks and politicians—not just Reich but many of us—need to incorporate these forces into our policy pontifications. Let’s stop over-simplifying and stop over-promising what higher education can do. If we don’t, we’ll misdirect and mislead people like Erika. Continue reading