150? How About 4500?
Good for Senator Leahy

Weighing the True Costs and Benefits in a Matter of Life and Death

Robert Frank--Ben Bernanke' coauthor on their Principles of Economics book--has a nice response to one of the pieces of immoral toxic swill that periodically emerge from Slate:

Weighing the True Costs and Benefits in a Matter of Life and Death - New York Times : Slate this month.... The subtitle says: "A woman who couldn't pay her bills is unplugged from her ventilator and dies. Is this wrong?"... the answer is "no."...

[T]his argument as morally preposterous. Well, yes. But it is also economically preposterous... some details.... The patient was Tirhas Habtegiris, a 27-year-old legal immigrant being kept alive by a ventilator as she lay dying of cancer last month in the Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Tex. Physicians offered no prospect for her recovery. She was hoping, however, to hang on until her East African mother could reach her bedside.

Ms. Habtegiris had little money and no health insurance. On Dec. 1, hospital authorities notified her brother that unless another hospital could be found to treat his sister, Baylor would be forced to discontinue care after 10 days.... Baylor disconnected her ventilator on Dec. 12, invoking a law signed in 1999 by George W. Bush, then governor of Texas.... Unlike the comatose Terri Schiavo, Ms. Habtegiris was fully conscious and responsive when she was disconnected, according to her brother. She wanted to continue breathing. Her brother and several other family members have described the agonizing spectacle of her death by suffocation over the next 16 minutes. Her mother never got there....

In Baylor's defense, Mr. Landsburg argues that Ms. Habtegiris's treatment would have failed the economist's basic cost-benefit test, which says that an action should be taken only if its benefit exceeds its cost. The cost of care is relatively easy to calculate, but measuring its benefit is more difficult, and it is here that Mr. Landsburg stumbles.... He is mistaken for multiple reasons... he ignores the economically compelling reasons for having social safety nets in the first place... most people favor collectively financed rescue efforts. That a poor person would not, or could not, buy private insurance against such contingencies is entirely beside the point.

Even more troubling, Mr. Landsburg completely ignores moral emotions like sympathy and empathy. As economists since Adam Smith have recognized, economic judgments are often tempered by these emotions.... [L]arge numbers of people benefit when a patient in imminent mortal danger receives treatment. Had the opportunity presented itself, many would have eagerly contributed to Ms. Habtegiris's care. But organizing an endless series of individual private fund-raisers for such cases is impractical. So, we empower government to step in when the need arises.

Mr. Landsburg's argument finesses the important distinction between a "statistical life" and an "identified life"... introduced by the economist Thomas C. Schelling.... It is one thing to risk one's own life in an unlikely automobile accident, but quite another to abandon a known victim in distress.

By offering a transparently unsound economic argument in defense of the Habtegiris decision, Mr. Landsburg unwittingly empowers those who wrongly insist that costs and benefits have no legitimate role in policy decisions about health and safety. Reducing the small risks we face every day is expensive. The same money could be spent instead on other pressing needs. We cannot think intelligently about these decisions without weighing the relevant costs and benefits. But using cost-benefit analysis does not make one a moral monster.

In the wealthiest nation on earth, a genuine cost-benefit test would never dictate unplugging a fully conscious, responsive patient from life support against her objections. Mr. Landsburg's argument to the contrary is wrongheaded, not just morally, but also economically.

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