ECONOMIST AT THE FDA
Back in the 1980s, I heard it said that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was that Republicans staffed federal regulatory agencies with economists and Democrats staffed them with lawyers. The Bush administration has followed that pattern at the FDA, where Mark McClellan, an M.D./econ Ph.D., is the agency head. Dueling evaluations of his tenure in the Boston Globe and NYT shed light not only on McClellan's own policies but on the environment in which the FDA functions: one in which success is often measured less in public health than in anti-business activism. My favorite quote is this extreme statement, treated seriously in the Globe:
"He's really been a disaster, possibly the worst commissioner I've seen," said Dr. Sydney Wolfe, director of health research at consumer group Public Citizen in Washington. "He is more well-liked by the pharmaceutical industry than any other commissioner I can remember."
Note that Wolfe doesn't point to any bad policy outcomes. But McClellan doesn't share his reflexive hatred of the pharmaceutical industry, so he must be bad. The NYT account, which is far more positive than the Globe's assessment, likes McClellan because he's banned ephedra and hasn't made policy according to right-wing religious doctrine.
Both pieces are worth reading, especially during a political season where nobody is paying much attention to the vast power of the regulatory state. Unlike tax and spending policies, most regulations receive little public debate--and much of what does occur is on symbolism, not substance--and they tend to be permanent. The potential for damage and distortion is enormous. (For my general views on the problems of regulation, see The Future and Its Enemies.)
As a side note, stories about Mark McClellan or his brother Scott, the White House press secretary, often mention that their mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is a Republican elected official, the comptroller of Texas. What they don't say is that she's not a go-along-to-get-along Republican, having seriously ticked off the establishment last summer by sending the budget back to the legislature for revision on the grounds that it wasn't really balanced. As best I can tell, on casual readings, she mostly lost her battles with the legislature, which took out its wrath on her agency.