Asking the Right Questions in Public Policy
Nicolas Loris /
I read this on my Metro ride to work this morning:
Between 1978 and 2001, Americans’ average life span increased almost three years to 77, and as much as 4.8 months of that can be attributed to cleaner air, researchers from Brigham Young University and Harvard School of Public Health reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.
Some experts not connected with the study called the gain dramatic.
“It shows that our efforts as a country to control air pollution have been well worth the expense,” said Dr. Joel Kaufman, a University of Washington expert on environmental health.”
After reading this, I shared the exact same sentiments as economist Russ Roberts:
How do you figure? To answer that, you’d need a measure of the expense. That number, and the alternative pleasures, delights and health benefits we might have generated from those dollars, is missing from the article.
I also love that phrase, “as much as.” That means that 4.8 months was the upper bound. I wonder what the lower bound estimate was.”
Imagine being able to ignore all costs and reap the benefits, no matter how big or small. I could pay $100 for a McDonald’s cheeseburger, take one bite, and be perfectly satisfied because I received some benefit.
Fortunately, people perform cost-benefit analysis in their heads, most of the time without even realizing it. Should I stay up late on a work or school night and watch a movie because I really like it? But is it worth the cost of losing two hours of sleep along with being tired and inefficient the next day? Similar internal discussions and decisions can be made when purchasing items at the grocery store or the mall. Cost-benefit analysis happens all the time.
Public policy should be no different. Even though at times politicians pretend we live in a costless world, the reality is we don’t.