Thursday, January 27, 2022

Who Pays?

Who Pays for the Losses from Our "Freedom"?

Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, January 27, 2022, p. A4

As Dad pulled into Uncle Chet’s Iowa farmyard, the first thing I spotted was my older cousin’s shiny, new motorcycle. Would he give me a ride? He proudly obliged. We sped up the dirt farm road to the intersection and back, thankfully without incident.

Once back in Iowa City, I blurted out my overwhelming desire for a motorcycle. Dad didn’t say “no.” He just said I should talk to my friend Russ about it.

“Russ” was Dr. Russell Meyers, University of Iowa chair of neurosurgery and a pioneer of ultrasonic neurosurgery. I just knew him as a friendly guy at my folks’ parties who played boogie-woogie on our living room piano while others swayed.

Dr. Meyers’ described to me the brain surgery he provided motorcycle riders after accidents. I never again rode a motorcycle.

Years later I watched such an accident. Two students, the man navigating, the woman clutching him, without helmets or protective clothing, were speeding south on Riverside Drive. He lost control, and they went screaming down the road on bare skin.

They were exercising their “freedom,” like others today who refused COVID vaccination, and are now filling overcrowded hospitals or among the 850,000 dead.

My question, for this column, is: How should the cost of their care (or a lifetime of disability payments) be allocated?

Those causing another’s loss pay for it. Borrow your neighbor’s lawn mower, break it, and the civilized norm is what Thomas Friedman applied to the U.S. in Iraq: “the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it.” You pay for the lawnmower repairs.

This norm is also the law in many contexts. To have known, or ought to have known, that your actions could result in someone’s death can give rise to a criminal charge of manslaughter, or civil liability for wrongful death.

Why should the same principles not apply to someone who causes economic losses to others by negligently doing harm to oneself? Let’s say, motorcycling without a helmet, extreme sports like wingsuit flying and solo climbing without a safety rope – or refusing a COVID vaccination? [Photo credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 3.0]

For the sake of argument, let’s grant such folks the “freedom” to do these things. Most of us don’t like to hear about or see anyone suffer severe pain, injury or death. But these individuals have only themselves to blame. What harm have they done to us?

Plenty, as it turns out. The extra costs and stress on first responders and health workers at the time of the incident. If the person survives, the continuing, and perhaps lifetime, costs of treatment and disability payments. If they die, the costs of funerals and burial.

If the individual was supporting dependents, the dependents have lost her or his future earnings (a major item in wrongful death cases) and suffer emotional distress.

And all of us have lost what the person might have contributed: their skilled workmanship, start-up businesses, inventions, cures, sense of humor.

Solutions? Start by acknowledging their “freedom” isn’t free. Others are paying for it.

Nicholas Johnson is the former co-director of the Iowa Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy. Contact:


First motorcycle ride. Recollection of personal experience; no recorded source.

Dr. Russell Meyers. Taylor J. Abel MD1, Timothy Walch PhD1, and Matthew A. Howard III MD1, “Russell Meyers (1905–1999): pioneer of functional and ultrasonic neurosurgery,” Journal of Neurosurgery, v. 125, Issue 6, pp. 1589-1595, Dec. 2016,

Students’ accident. Recollection of personal experience; no recorded source found.

850,000 dead. CDC, “COVID Data Tracker,” (last visited Jan 19, 2022)

Friedman’s “pottery store rule.” Thomas L. Friedman, “Present at … What?” New York Times, Feb. 12, 2003, (“The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq -- and we own the primary responsibility for rebuilding a country of 23 million people that has more in common with Yugoslavia than with any other Arab nation.”)

Manslaughter. “Manslaughter,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, (“Involuntary manslaughter is negligently causing the death of another person.”)

Wrongful death. “Wrongful Death Action,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, (“A civil action against someone who can be held liable for a death.”)

Extreme sports. “Extreme Sport,” Wikipedia, (“Action sports, adventure sports or extreme sports are activities perceived as involving a high degree of risk. These activities often involve speed, height, a high level of physical exertion and highly specialized gear.”)

Rachel Brown, “41 Extreme Sports Listed from Intense to INSANE!” Active Cities, no date, (40. Wingsuit Flying, 41. Solo Climbing (without safety rope))

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Doing Well By Doing Good

Doing Well By Addressing The Poor
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, January 18, 2022, p. A6

I asked Senator Hubert Humphrey what he told newly elected senators. He said, “I tell ‘em they have to work four years for the Lord and then two years to get re-elected.”

There may never be another Hubert Humphrey, but there are officials who agree. Some may be responding to Jesus’ admonition we provide “the least of these” with food, water, shelter, clothing, health care – and prison visits (Matthew 25). Some acquire similar values from a different path.

Of course, others focus only on reelection -- pleasing major donors and party leadership.

Economics is not an exact science.

President Harry Truman’s assistant, Dr. John Steelman, described the President’s reaction to an economist providing “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” advice. When the economist left the oval office, Truman asked Steelman, “John, do you think you could find me a one-armed economist?”

That there are no “one-armed economists” is not because they are lacking in courage or knowledge. It is, as Harvard’s Alan Wang put it, “due to the inherently unpredictable sphere of study in which economics operates.”

“Greed – for lack of a better word – is good,” said Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, in the movie “Wall Street.” Milton Friedman established the precedent with his assertion that “businesses serve society best when they abandon talk of ‘social responsibilities’ and solely maximize returns for shareholders.”

It’s hard to make social progress without support from the “greed is good” crowd.

Fortunately, there’s a small group who see the selfish interests for all, including billionaires, from a “rising tide that lifts all boats.” They prosper “doing well by doing good,” aware that shortsighted greed can lead to shooting oneself in the pocketbook.

To boost an economy, 70 percent of which is driven by consumer spending, consumers need money. Cutting taxes for the wealthy may increase sales of private planes and yachts but doesn’t do much for our Gross Domestic Product.

The futility of the “trickle down” theory was best explained by Harvard economist Ken Galbraith: “If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
• Iowa has a skilled workforce shortage. Community colleges create skilled workers. Many high school grads can’t afford tuition. Iowa’s businesses don’t want to train them. If greed is good, why don’t businesses force the legislature to provide free community college for all? They’d get their skilled workers – and shift the cost to taxpayers. [Photo credit: Kirkwood Community College,]

• Employee healthcare creates both hassle and huge costs for business. A universal single payer system would eliminate both – and give taxpayers the bill.

• Self-described plutocrat Nick Hanauer makes a similarly persuasive case for a $15 minimum wage, citing Seattle’s experience. That way those who work in restaurants can afford to eat in them. Everyone benefits, including the plutocrats – according to the 135 economists who agree.

Iowa legislators, how about putting in at least one year for the Lord? If greed is good, suppressing the poor makes neither dollars nor sense.
Nicholas Johnson is the author of What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? Contact:

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“Four years for the Lord.” This is my memory from a personal conversation between only the two of us that does not seem to have been recorded anywhere else.

“Matthew 25.” Bible, King James Version, Bible Gateway,

President Truman, one-armed economist. “Quote Investigator,”

Alan Wang, “unpredictable sphere of study.” Alan Y. Wang, “No, Economics Is Not a Science,” Harvard Crimson, Dec. 13, 2013,

“Greed is good.” “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.” Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (movie), 1987. (a 2:05 clip from the movie “Wall Street” containing this quote)

“His point . . . was that businesses serve society best when they abandon talk of ‘social responsibilities’ and solely maximize returns for shareholders.” Richard Holden, “Vital Signs: 50 years ago Milton Friedman told us greed was good. He was half right,” The Conversation, Hoover Institution, Sept. 17, 2020,

GDP & consumer spending. Kimberly Amadeo, “Components of GDP Explained,” The Balance, June 26, 2020, (“Consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP.”)

Galbraith’s sparrows. John Kenneth Galbraith, “Recession Economics,” The New York Review, Feb. 4, 1982, (“If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”)

Workforce. Erin Murphy and James Q. Lynch, “Iowa lawmakers agree on need for workers — but not how to get them,” The Gazette, Jan. 10, 2022,

Minimum wage. Nick Hanauer.

Molly Ball, “A Plutocrat’s Case for Raising the Minimum Wage,” The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2016,

Google search phrase: economists who believe raising minimum wage helps economy (“stimulate consumer demand, business activity, and job growth”) -- with list of 135 names

Minimum wage is about to rise in 21 states, 35 localities as more › story › money › 2021/12/20 Google search phrase: which cities or states have a $15 minimum wage

$7.25 The minimum wage in Iowa is $7.25. This is the same as the federal minimum wage, which has not changed since July 2009. Iowa is one of 21 states that follow the federal minimum wage. Mar 9, 2021 Google search: what is minimum wage iowa

What You Need to Know About Iowa's Minimum Wage – Square › guide-to-iowa-minimum-wage

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