Interesting Times: Worry about the right things

Thinking smart is necessary before doing good.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, the Herzliya Conference heard from someone named by Time among the "most influential" 100 people on earth, and by the Guardian among the "50 people who could save the planet." He stood out a bit among the stuffy crowd, wearing jeans, a polo shirt and a backpack. Meet Dr. Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg is 42, but could probably still pass as a university student. He is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and so is one of the few academics who could stake a serious claim on a Nobel prize before he even has tenure. He certainly deserves one, in my book, even though he is a crusader for something almost embarrassingly obvious: Money should be spent where it does the most good. His brainchild is the Copenhagen Consensus (, which invited international experts to rank global problems and ideas according to where the biggest bang for the buck could be achieved. As he explained to the Herzliya audience, "It is basically a triage: There are lots of problems; so let's not do things we do not know how to, let's not do a little good at high cost, but instead let's do lots of good at low cost." The results were eye-opening. The experts found that throwing money at some problems produced 30 cents of benefit for each dollar of costs, while, at the other end of the spectrum, $1 spent resulted in $40 worth of benefits. Need it be pointed out that this is not a minor difference? THE TOP four ideas each had at least a 10-to-1 return on investment, landing them in the "very good" category. They are, in reverse benefit order: controlling malaria (for $13 billion, the 1 billion cases of malaria could be halved); eliminating trade barriers in rich countries (these cost poor countries billions); micronutrition (supplying vitamins to malnourished people would cost $12 billion and produce much larger benefits). Finally, the big winner was money spent to prevent (not treat) HIV/AIDS, through educational programs and providing condoms. This paid off at a rate of 40 to 1, and would obviously save millions of lives. No less interesting is what landed at the bottom of the list: attempting to combat climate change through agreements to reduce carbon emissions. "It is not that it is not a problem; it's not that we aren't causing this problem to occur; but rather the solutions offered are poor." Lomborg said. Lomborg argues that the threat from climate change is exaggerated, given that warming would kill some people, but would save many more lives, since cold is an even bigger killer. He also slams Al Gore for claiming that the oceans could rise five meters over a century, when the UN climate panel estimates a 30-centimeter rise in sea levels. Instead of costing the world economy some $180 billion, as the Kyoto Protocol would, with minuscule (if any) net benefits, Lomborg advocates spending about $25 billion on research to bring down the cost of alternative energies, such as solar power. Such research could also reduce global dependence on oil, which would have great benefits for international security and prosperity. The findings of the Copenhagen Consensus, which will hold another "thought Olympics" to come up with its new priority list in May this year, should provide a real challenge to environmentalists. The question is not whether to spend money on addressing the problem that has captured the global imagination, but whether to do so smartly, in a way that costs much less and will likely produce much more benefit. Further, anyone who cares about people, and not just ideological fashions, should be for spending money first where it will save the most lives and prevent the most suffering. "We cannot focus on the entire world's problems; there is not enough money and not enough time. There is not enough room on the front-page, so many issues get shafted to the back pages or off the news entirely… Most of us worry about a few things; we should make sure to worry about the right things, therefore we must prioritize," Lomborg noted. HE IS NOT only right about the world, but about Israel. The sponsors of the Herzliya and Caesarea Conferences - the main strategic and economic conferences of the year - should jointly sponsor the formulation of a "Jerusalem Consensus" devised via the same process that Lomborg invented, in order to rationally advocate Israeli spending priorities. If honestly done, I can already predict the winning policy prescription: deploying a nationwide speed camera system on our roads. Speed cameras have cut road deaths by as much as half in England, France and Australia. The cost of such a system would be recovered many times over by the tickets collected from speeding drivers, while the benefits of saving hundreds of lives every year would be in the billions of shekels - not even counting the infinite moral value of each human life. In addition, every government ministry and every Knesset oversight committee should go through its own form of Lomborgian exercise. If they did, the Education Ministry, for example, would find that it spends untold millions on programs that produce little benefit, while other programs that have proven effective are starving for funds. The same can be said about every major government bureaucracy, including the IDF. There is no free lunch. When we invest our own money, we understand that "opportunity costs" are real. But we don't seem to demand the same discipline from governments. The cost of sinking money and attention according to faddish priorities is not just the wasted funds, but not enjoying all the good that could have been done with the same, or fewer, resources. On both the national and global stage, opportunity costs are measured in human lives. Whether people are succumbing to HIV, malaria or road carnage, every dollar or shekel that is misspent means that more people will unnecessarily die. [email protected]