Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Ghostwritten op-eds and other things about which I know very little

Posted by Rich Sweeney on October 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I had a shocking revelation. I walked into a friend’s office at a fairly prestigious DC think tank, and she told me she’d finally finished writing the op-ed she’d been working on for the past few weeks. But when I looked at the draft open on her screen, her name was nowhere to be found, and three prominent Ivy League professors’ names were listed instead (Sorry this is so vague. Don’t want to get anyone in trouble). Now given that she’s only an RA, I can understand why her name wasn’t on it. But her boss has an Ivy League PhD himself, and as I mentioned, her think tank is pretty well known/ respected. She explained to me that this is common practice, and that in order to get an op-ed into a major newspaper, you need someone really famous to publish it for you.

Not sure about yall, but this completely blew me away. Sure I thought it was a little odd when some famous politician or academic would make a nuanced case for a very specific issue on the opinion page of the New York Times, but in my mind this just further confirmed their super-intellectual status. Of course now that I know this practice exists, I feel as though I can spot ghostwriting a mile away. Case in point is today’s health care / sabermetrics piece in the New York Times. Let’s just say that I highly doubt that John Kerry, Newt Gingrich and friggin Billy Beane got together and dreamed this up.

Actually I have two quick gripes with that piece. First, I’m sick of everyone talking about the fact that Tampa Bay has the second lowest payroll in baseball. Sure, their salary outlays for this season are only $44 million. But the opportunity cost fielding a team stacked literally top to bottom with top ten draft picks was a lot higher than that. It came at the expense of finishing at the bottom of the American League for the past decade, which meant a lot of foregone revenue. You couldn’t just go out there tomorrow and build the Rays for $44 million using Sabermetrics. (Can you tell I’m from Boston?)

As for the argument that health care providers need to better use statistics, I think the “authors” are confusing the effect with the cause. I’m no expert on health care, but if we observe that valuable information isn’t being used efficiently by market actors, it’s probably because they have no incentive to do so. HMOs are for-profit enterprises and I’m sure there’s boatloads of evidence based analysis going on there. They’re probably just maximizing something other than the expected well being of the patient.

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