Thursday, June 14, 2007

Q&A with Steven Landsburg, on "More Sex"

Courtesy of Steve Dubner. Some of my favorites snippets:
Our personal welfare is almost always in conflict with the greater good. When something exciting happens at the ballpark, everyone stands up to see better, and therefore nobody succeeds. At parties, everyone speaks loudly to be heard over everyone else, and therefore everyone goes home with a sore throat. The one great exception is the interaction among buyers and sellers in a competitive marketplace, where — for fairly subtle reasons — the price system aligns private and public interests perfectly. That’s a miraculous exception, but it is an exception. In most other areas, there’s room to improve people’s incentives.

Thousands of people die each year for lack of a healthy kidney, while hundreds of millions walk around with spare kidneys they’re unlikely to need. That’s nuts. I agree with you guys that most people can probably see that it’s nuts. For some reason, most of those people seem reluctant to embrace the one mechanism — the market — that can actually solve this kind of problem.

So if you want to be charitable, all you have to do is hoard your money, or for that matter burn it. But that’s not the best way to be charitable, because you can’t control who gets the benefits. Miserliness is like a random act of kindness; effective philanthropy is about directed acts of kindness. And I argue in the book that a philanthropist who really cares about helping others will usually pick a single charity and target his giving to that one charity. If 100 children are dying of rickets and another 100 are dying of scurvy and you have enough funds to save two children, there’s no particular reason to save one of each; you might as well give your entire contribution to either the Rickets Foundation or the Scurvy Foundation. Either way, you’ve saved two children. And if you have even the slightest inkling that one of those charities might be more effective than the other, then that’s where both your dollars should go.

I do disagree that an STD-free person helps the casual sex pool by jumping into it. An abstainer's risk has a higher opportunity cost, i.e. by copulating with some who is already engaged, the abstainer may contract an STD, even as the abstainer lowers the pool's overall STD probability. The cost outweights the benefit, assuming equal preferences.

I also disagree that denying or suppressing personal demand lowers the prices for everyone else--this assumes everything is zero-sum (a very bad assumption that market bears make all the time and a lot of bears get killed by a stampeding bull market that is not zero-sum, especially over the last few centuries).

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