Essay: Some Conflicts of Interest Have Little Conflict

Let’s say you make a lot of money in some industry or another, and you’re lucky enough to get an appointment to an agency that regulates that very same industry. Your regulatory decisions could affect your bottom line, and so you have a conflict of interest and you should either be forced to give up your job as a regulator or get rid of all your financial interests in the industry with the provision that you may never acquire financial assets in the industry again. And if you’re a doctor on the payroll of a pharma company, your employment status most definitely affects your medical decisions.

That’s a pretty simple and obvious concept to anyone who doesn’t work in industry. People who work in any given industry tend to think “outsiders” wouldn’t know enough about the industry to regulate it, so of course you’d need someone with major conflicts to understand what really needs to be done. And so it goes.

But other people are described as being conflicted when they really don’t have any conflicts at all. Let’s say you are a researcher, and you apply to a corporation for funding for your research. Congratulations, you now have a huge grant from Megacorp Inc. to fund your lab, materials, research assistants, etc. in hopes of developing new products. You are now just a handsomely rewarded employee of Megacorp Inc. Your only interest is in developing new products for them.

It’s true that some will describe you as conflicted because they think you should be looking out for the public good, but that really isn’t in your job description. You’re just developing products.

And this is why we need public funding for research. So we can demand that researchers we are paying work for the public good and not in the interest of for-profit corporations.

man next to doctor
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Don’t force me to pay for your religious practice

Members of the Catholic Church have expressed outrage that the new health laws require them to provide contraception to women. This was weeks ago, but Catholics continue to double down on this position. They say the state has no right demanding that they violate their own religious beliefs.

This argument makes perfect sense. The government has no right telling private individuals how they should conduct their affairs. So long as they aren’t taking public money, serving the general public, or hiring non-Catholic employees, there should be no controversy at all.

But according to an article in Mother Jones:

Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the US Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from. The USCCB, which has been such a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has seen its share of federal grants from HHS jump from $71.8 million in the last three years of the Bush administration to $81.2 million during the first three years of Obama. In fiscal 2011 alone, the group received a record $31.4 million from the administration it believes is virulently anti-Catholic, according to HHS data.

Under the first amendment, the government must not establish a religion. Funding of faith-based charities avoids violating the first amendment by demanding that those charities do not use their services to promote their faith or discriminate against those of other faiths.

Requiring them to use public funds to offer public services without discriminating against non-Catholics is not an attack on religion. Permitting charities receiving public funds to discriminate against non-Catholics would be using my taxes to promote religious views I find reprehensible. I am amazed that conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party members aren’t outraged at this use of taxpayer money. Surely conservatives believe we should trim the federal budget and protect religious liberty at the same time.

If Catholic Charities want to exclude contraception from their health plans and refuse to recognize the rights of same-sex marriages, they should immediately refuse all public funding, including federal, state, and local funds. If they refuse, the federal government should simply withhold the funds (courts have supported such actions in the past). Or, they can continue to receive taxpayer money and offer their services without discrimination.