Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cheaper than asteroids!

This week, while everybody was watching videos of a meteor in Russia, a larger asteroid passed by the earth. It might hit us next time it comes around.

Space agencies track the risk from things like asteroids, but it's unclear how much to spend on this sort of thing. The Planetary Society writes:
Near-Earth object surveys have found (we think) 98% of the largest objects that present the most risk, reducing the actuarial risk due to asteroid impacts from 250 fatalities per year to 64 per year. Based on past discovery rates and projecting forward through proposed future projects, over the next 16 years, we should achieve 90% completion of discovery of asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter. The effect of this 16 years of work -- at a cost of roughly a billion dollars -- will be to reduce the actuarial risk to 33 fatalities per year. If you see asteroid surveys as a form of insurance, then you're spending about two million dollars per fatality avoided.
Is $2 million per life a good price?  It's repellent to even think about putting dollar values on lives, but we do it all the time.  If you buy the cheaper car instead of the safer, more expensive one, for example, you're trading off money and safety.

US government agencies define the “value of a statistical life” somewhere around $7 million. If they're deciding whether to institute new safety regulations on seat belts or air pollution, for example, they want to know whether spending billions of dollars is worth it. “Worth it”, for American lives, is around $7 million.

That's a pretty arbitrary number, and it isn't the same for all lives. What's the dollar value of a life in Haiti or Cambodia? I don't know, but I know the US government sure wouldn't spend $7 million to save one.

GiveWell currently estimates that its top-rated charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, saves lives for about $2,300. That's a pretty great deal, considering. In my whole life, I don't expect to earn $7 million. But I do expect to save hundreds of lives by donating to cost-effective charities.

The nice thing is that economies are not zero-sum. It's not just a question of shuffling money around; sometimes there are win-win solutions.  Some changes (like immigration) create more well-being for everyone, and we should aim for those.

But in the meantime, it's nice to know that you can save people's lives for a lot less than it costs NASA.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

I was interested to hear a friend advocate a tool against world poverty that I hadn't thought of: immigration.

The World Bank estimates that migrants around the world sent home $406 billion dollars last year.   Young people move to rich countries, get jobs that pay far better than they could make back home in India or Mexico, and send some of their earnings back home to their families.  That money amounts to more than twice the global aid to developing countries.

What about the effect on rich countries?  Despite the popular debate among immigration, both liberal and conservative economists mostly agree that immigration is good for the US economy.   When immigration rises, there are more inventions and patents, more companies founded, more taxpayers, and more young people available to care for our large crop of elders.  Some unskilled workers in rich countries do face more competition for jobs.  But in general, immigration is a win-win situation.

I work with immigrants who have been caught without proper paperwork and are detained in jail as they await deportation.  I've met some very brave people there, people who came to the United States to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries.  It seems ludicrous that my government spends about $3 billion a year to catch, detain, and deport people who are mostly otherwise law-abiding construction and farm workers.  They tell me about the years they worked for better lives not just for themselves, but for their families. The wages that paid for diabetes medication for their mother and school fees for their kids.

It's crazy that we're deporting these people.

So I'm excited to see this topic getting more attention lately. Something like an expanded temporary work visa system would allow thousands or millions of poor people to support their families.  Given that it wouldn't cost us anything, and would in fact help our own economy, it seems we should at least allow them to do that.

More on this topic at Giving What We Can's new series and Robert Wiblin's blog.