Friday, October 15, 2010

How Many African Children is a Chilean Miner Worth?

The niche that I think is appropriate for this blog is that of utilitarian division of resources, focused primarily on US resources and the health and welfare of US citizens. Today I want to draw on the popular media circus of the day as an example of the question we should all ask all the time: how can we best spend our resources to maximize health and welfare?

I have yet to see the bill, but I read that it cost millions of dollars to rescue the 33 miners trapped in Chile, and much aid came from the US. I am going to make up numbers for the math I'm about to do to illustrate a point. Let's say that it cost $3.3 million to rescue the miners. That comes to $100,000 per person. These are Chilean men in the career of mining, so an expected lifespan of 70 would be optimistic. Let's say that the average age of the miners is 35. So, the rescue saved 35 years per person for $100,000 = $2,857.14 per life-year. That's pretty inexpensive in American terms. Heck, that's practically free compared to Avastin and mammograms. Based on the media, it seems that Americans are excited and happy about this rescue, so I doubt there are many who would begrudge the men this cost. What if the real cost of the rescue was $33 million? How would you feel then? There are over 40 million Americans who can't get any help paying for more life-years when they have problems.

Michael Moore, who I'm usually not impressed with, recently wrote a letter to President Obama pointing out that for two months of the cost of the war in Iraq we could dig wells that would provide Africans with clean drinking water. Many areas of Africa suffer from disease related to their water, and many people have to spend so much time getting water that is taken away from time they could be getting educated or working. I have not verified these claims, but they seem plausible, and I'm just trying to illustrate a concept. It seems that a well for 3000 people costs about $30,000. The Water Project says that $10 can give a person clean water for 10 years. Over 2 million children in the world die each year from a lack of clean water.

Let's say that giving these people clean water only lets them live 10 years longer on average because they then die from some other cause. We're looking at $1 per life year. It's almost unbelievably simple. So, a Chilean miner is worth thousands of African children.

Why isn't the US jumping up to save tens of thousands of Africans for the price of a handful of Chilean miners? Let's brainstorm.

1) The Africans are not as useful contributors to the American military-industrial complex.

2) Africans are black.

3) Africa is poorer than Chile.

4) A collapsed mine is an accident that happened to hard-working, blue-collar, Christian folk that Americans can relate to. Living in Africa is perceived as something an African can choose to stop doing. Nevermind that people with no money and no education really can't just up and move to a better place, and nevermind that the miners intentionally chose a dangerous job.

5) Let China do it.

6) There are only a handful of trapped miners, so we can save all of them and look like heroes. Even though we could save tens of thousands of Africans for the same price, there would be millions we did not save, so we wouldn't look as heroic.

7) Saving the miners was exciting and thrilling, with the constant danger of cave-in or other calamity, so it drew lots of attention and people who could capitalize on the attention. Building hundreds of wells is boring, so there would be no media circus out there to draw attention to participants.

This situation mimics the situation inside the US. We have poor, suffering people in America. We have the money to help millions of them easily and inexpensively. Instead, just enough of us are ignorant and hateful enough to say that these millions of people over here are less deserving of living healthy lives than that other handful of people over there. Just enough people lack compassion and humanity and intelligence that we as a country would rather waste billions of dollars on inefficiency and profits for the rich than give basic levels of care to our countrymen in need.

If you really care about life, maximize the life returns on resource investments. Let's spend our money where it will help the most.