Russian Reform

In "When Property Is Theft" (December), Edwin Dolan ascribes Russia's failure with capitalism to a dysfunctional court system that does not protect property rights and a corrupt banking system that puts profits before stability. Dolan sees a long period of drift and experiment until the "government" (some future government) stops "enriching the ruling class at the expense of ordinary people."

After a steady stream of articles on government as the problem and market forces the solution, it is startling to find REASON suggesting that the private sector can be at fault and in dire need of government intervention. Of course libertarians have always believed that the little government they would allow should uphold property rights and enforce contracts, but was it ever thought that free-minded individuals (bankers, no less) would conspire for quick profits at the expense of the national economy?

Perhaps the "answer" lies back at the beginnings of laissez faire, as conceived. People will pursue their own self-interest, constrained only by market forces. According to Dolan, however, market forces are not in place in Russia and will have to be imposed by a determined government. Apparently the invisible hand is not self-starting; it needs to be set up and regulated, at least until there are appropriate institutions and the avarice of the population has cooled.

Denton Porter
Long Beach, CA

Edwin Dolan replies: In asking whether the invisible hand is "self-starting," Denton Porter raises a point that is at the heart of the "who lost Russia" debate now raging among Western observers of that country's efforts at reform.

There are three points of view:

1) Yes, it is self-starting if only government would get out of the way and dismantle such barriers to enterprise as the bad tax system, corrupt bureaucrats, protectionism, etc.

2) No, it is not self-starting, because Russia lacks the "soft infrastructure" of a market economy, e.g., civil courts, property protections, and rational accounting standards, which took centuries to evolve in the West but should have or could have been imposed by government fiat if only Russian reformers and their Western advisers had recognized them as a high priority.

3) No, the invisible hand will not self-start in Russia, because of cultural and ethical factors, such as lack of trust, prevalence of "black envy," dominance of the "guardian" moral syndrome over the "commercial" moral syndrome, and a history of authoritarianism under czars and commissars. Holders of the third view are the real pessimists because, unlike holders of the first two, they don't see any possibility that government could help either by stepping aside or by imposing solutions.

My own view has changed over time. When I arrived in Russia in 1990, I, as a good libertarian, was a strong adherent of the first view. I now lean toward the third, although I think there is some truth in the second in terms of misplaced priorities of both the Russian government and its Western advisers.

By the way, Russian bankers are not, for the most part, "free-minded individuals" but sophisticated con artists who have systematically defrauded their depositors, creditors, and minority shareholders.

Radon Reaction

Concerning "Gaseous Menace" (December), there is a radon study that Kenneth Silber did not mention. Bernard L. Cohen, a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, headed up a 10-year study of radon and lung cancer. He looked at radon concentrations and lung cancer deaths in more than 1,600 U.S. counties.

The results surprised Cohen, who was sure radon caused lung cancer. The counties that had the highest radon concentrations had the lowest lung cancer death rates. And the counties with the lowest radon concentrations had the highest lung cancer death rates. Cohen did not want to believe the results. He tried to find some factor to prove the study wrong. He could not find one.

Cohen's conclusion: High level radioactivity kills, but low level radioactivity does not; it is beneficial.

Everett DeJager
Cincinnati, OH

To test the linear-no threshold theory (LNT), I developed a compilation of radon measurements from available sources which gives the average radon level in homes for 1,729 U.S. counties, comprising about 90 percent of the total U.S. population. Plots of age-adjusted lung cancer mortality rates vs. these radon levels show an unquestionable tendency for lung cancer rates--with or without correction for smoking prevalence--to decrease with increasing radon exposure, in sharp contrast to the increase expected from the fact that radon can cause lung cancer.

In quantitative terms, the theory predicts an increase at a rate of 7.3 percent per unit (pCi/L) of radon exposure, whereas the data indicate a decrease of 7.7 percent, with an uncertainty of only 0.5 percent. This finding started a study that extended over many years.

One problem was that this is an "ecological study," relating the average risk of groups (county populations) to their average exposure. In general, the average dose does not determine the average risk, and to assume otherwise is what epidemiologists call "the ecological fallacy." However, it is easily shown that the ecological fallacy does not apply in testing LNT. All other problems with ecological studies that have been discussed in the epidemiological literature have also been investigated and found not to be applicable here.

All explanations for the discrepancy that we could develop or that have been suggested by others have been tested and found to be grossly inadequate. Three independent sources of radon data have been used, but all give the same result. Three different sources of data on smoking prevalence similarly fail to explain away the finding. In fact, even a perfect negative correlation between radon and smoking prevalence cannot eliminate the discrepancy.

Effects of confounding were studied for over 500 potential confounding factors, but these did little to explain our discrepancy. For example, the strong negative correlation between lung cancer rates and radon exposure is found if we consider only the very urban counties or only the very rural; if we consider only the richest counties or only the poorest; if we consider only the counties with the best medical care or only those with the poorest medical care; if we consider only the wettest counties or only the driest; if we consider only the warmest counties or only the coolest; and so forth for all 500 potential confounding factors. It is also found for all strata in between--for example, considering only counties of average wealth, only counties of average medical care, only counties of average temperature, etc. It is also found if we consider only counties in a given section of the country.

The only plausible explanation I can find for this discrepancy between LNT and the observations is that the linear-no threshold theory fails, grossly overestimating cancer risk in the low dose, low-dose rate region. There are no other data capable of testing the theory in that region.

Bernard L. Cohen
Physics Department
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA

Note: This is a condensation of a paper by Cohen, "Test of the Linear-No Threshold Theory of Radiation Carcinogenesis for Inhaled Radon Decay Products," Health Physics, 68 (1995), pp. 157-174.

The article about radon was an excellent contribution, but I have one possible correction. I believe that, although radon is an alpha emitter, this radioactivity is not the source of its suspected harmful effect.

I believe the danger from radon, and the reason it is more dangerous in the lungs, is due simply to the chemical nature of its ultimate daughter. Radon emits an alpha and mutates to polonium. Polonium is also an alpha emitter and, in turn, quickly mutates (with a half-life of several minutes or less, depending on the isotope) to lead. I believe it is the deposition on lung tissue of metallic lead from radon that is believed to cause lung cancer, not genetic mutation caused directly by energetic alpha particles.

Thomas Cunningham
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, CA

Kenneth Silber replies: My article's fourth paragraph pointed out the correlation between high residential radon levels and low lung cancer rates in regions such as New England and the Rocky Mountain states. I also noted that some scientists speculate that radon can help prevent lung cancer. While I did not specifically cite Bernard L. Cohen's research, I did take it into account, along with other studies of radon's health effects.

In reply to Thomas Cunningham's letter, both radon's alpha emissions and its daughter products have been cited as possible health threats.

Taxing Thoughts

As a former Libertarian Party candidate who ran on a tax reform platform twice, I can testify to the conclusion John Hood reached in "Tax Reform Schools" (November). Discrete, incremental, and simple tax policies are more likely to succeed with voters and officeholders. One strategy Mr. Hood did not mention was to support a site value tax (a tax on land only) as a substitute for the real estate tax (a tax on both buildings and land), personal property tax, income tax, and sales tax. It has several advantages: It simplifies administration and reduces administration costs; it limits total government expenditures; it is comprehensible to the average voter; it reduces the average person's tax bill; and as Milton Friedman has pointed out, it is the least objectionable form of taxation because it does not strike at production, i.e., work, saving, and investing. I would recommend it to any tax reformer.

Paul E. Gagnon
Franconia, VA