The Chilean Mine Rescue

21 10 2010

The rescue of 33 miners from Chile’s Copiapó Mine was nothing less than spectacular. The operation was viewed by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide, and a government spokesman estimated its cost to be “somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million.” He added that one third of that amount is estimated to be covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned mining company Codelco, and the government itself.

I’m not sure what the difference is between funds coming from a state-owned mining company and the state itself, but assuming that government spending projections are frequently underestimated, let’s use the $20 million figure. That figure leaves $13 million coming from government. There is no such thing as government money. Government money is taxpayer money. Taxpayers spent $13 million to rescue 33 miners. This spending presents us with a surprisingly difficult choice: The money could have been spent elsewhere. For example, that $13 million could have doubled the income of 35,000 of the people who earn $1 per day, likely saving or extending many of their lives. The World Health Organization estimates that there were an estimated 164,000 measles deaths worldwide in 2008. The CDC cost of the measles vaccine is $85 per dose. The $13 million would have covered vaccination for nearly every person who died of measles in 2008.

I hereby present to you excerpts from the blog of Professor Steven Landsburg, one of my favorite economists.

________________________

People are dying so that you can read this blog. Your internet access fees could more than double the income of a $400-a-year Ghanaian laborer. People are starving to death, and there you sit, with resources enough to save them (and with reputable charities standing by to effect the transfers), padding your own already luxuriant lifestyle. That’s a choice you made. It’s a choice almost everyone in the First World makes. It might or might not be a horrific choice, but it’s one for which we easily forgive each other.

(Do you already give money to Ghanaian laborers? I applaud you and I wish others would do the same. But it doesn’t change the fact that other Ghanaian laborers are dying so you can have your Internet.)

Someday you might find yourself strolling through a desert with a bottle of water and stumble on a man dying of thirst. I bet you’ll offer him some water, and I bet you’d think much less of anyone who didn’t. But there is, as far as I can see, no important moral difference between surfing the web while Africans starve and strolling through the desert while men die in front of you.

I said there’s no moral difference, which is not the same as saying there’s no difference at all. We evolved to be callous towards those who are distant (or invisible) and kind toward those who are close.

But. But. The principles that guide our individual choices are not always the principles that should guide our policy choices. When it comes to spending public funds, we instinctively continue to favor the visible, even though we might all have preferred to be born into a world where the invisible count equally.

_______________________

The miners in Chile were and are visible. Their faces were on television screens worldwide. Perhaps the rescue of the miners inspired 1 billion people to act more kindly to others or to give more charity, but the decision to spend $13 million to save the lives of 33 men* isn’t as easy to make as many people think. Spending choices are difficult, which is why we choose not to think about them. Sorry for making you think, but it’s important to always be aware that there are opportunity costs to every decision.

*And those 33 presumably knew that there was a risk in mining work.

posted by jay

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8 responses

21 10 2010
Rivky

Really interesting stuff, articulated very well. Thanks, Yair!

21 10 2010
jayhorowitz

Thank you!

22 10 2010
rach g.

You didn’t take into account the concept of government bloat and partition.

I’m not intimately familiar with the structure of the Chilean government, but it seems like a fair assumption to say it’s broken down into different ministries, each of which receives a certain portion of the state’s tax revenue as its budget. The $13M being spent is almost certainly coming from the Ministry of Mining (http://www.minmineria.cl/574/w3-propertyvalue-2297.html), which means it can be used either to rescue these miners or for other mining-related goals, such as encouraging private-public partnerships. There’s no option of using the $13M to vaccinate for measles, because this money is partitioned. So it’s either rescue the miners, work on other mining goals, or let the money sit there.
Under those circumstances, a rescue doesn’t seem wasteful at all.

22 10 2010
jayhorowitz

Of course it does. Just because the funds are partitioned doesn’t mean that spending $13 million to rescue 33 people is a better decision than spending that money to save the lives of many more.

Saying that something is impractical doesn’t excuse the moral problem, it just extends the problem by another step to the partitioning itself.

22 10 2010
Talia

I have a lot of comments on this and I’m not sure which to say.

But, I will add that I agree, every decision that we make with our money is not as simple as we think.

I find it extremely disturbing that the amount of money we pay in rent every month is more than the average per capita yearly income in some poor countries.

I have more thoughts but i’m having trouble putting them to words and I should be cooking for Shabbos. Perhaps another time…

22 10 2010
jayhorowitz

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

/Yair

22 10 2010
Les Lampman

It all seems so easy when reduced to the ridiculous and presented as a one-to-one decision point. It’s not so easy in reality when there’s no such thing as parity and the numbers become overwhelming.

Just how much of my income should I give up to help a Ghananian miner? How many are there? What will change if I help one? How many would I have to help to change the circumstances in which they work and live? Is Ghana the only place where people need help? If not, how many other places could I send my money? Would it help in those places as much as in Ghana? Ad infinitum. To which one might add…where is Ghana and why should one worry about there more than another place?

Bottom line: there are too many choices and situations where one could become involved, and it’s overwhelming to many who are trying to deal with everyday life at home. There’s no parity between what costs are in one country compared to another; trying to compare the income of workers in one part of the world with another is absurd and futile.

Landsburg posits a situation that isn’t reality. It’s the same as your mother telling you to clean up your plate to save all the starving children in China (in my day). Nice thought but the premise doesn’t hold water. And I don’t disagree with the notion of helping, only with the way in which it’s presented.

There was no choice in Chile. None, nada, zip. There was absolutely no chance that anyone involved in the situation would not go after the miners regardless of cost. The world community would not have stood for it, any government (or other) official even hinting at the thought that cost meant anything in the rescue attempt would have been slaughtered (I mean figuratively but it could have been literally).

I live a mile from a bridge that’s 180 feet off the water, and the water runs under it in wild whirlpools and with high currents. It seems to be (unfortunately) a popular place to jump to end one’s life. It’s almost 100% successful if that’s the end goal yet the county spends tens of thousands of dollars every year to launch rescue craft and personnel, and the Coast Guard spends even more to launch a helicopter, every time someone jumps. The cost per incident is atrocious but can you imagine the public outcry if an official suggested that we just let nature have her way and save the money? Isn’t going to happen so we continue the effort and damn the expense. It’s the human way and that isn’t going to change.

In the end there’s nothing to think about but do make sure and clean your plate, you don’t want other people to starve.

22 10 2010
jayhorowitz

I appreciate your points, but I disagree. Just because the numbers are “overwhelming” doesn’t change the moral calculus. We can spend $13 million to (potentially) save 33 lives in one location, or we can spend that money to save more than 33 lives somewhere else. Even if we saved 34 lives somewhere else, the benefit analysis tells you to spend the money elsewhere.

A cold look at things means exactly what you imply: not “worrying about people there more than any other place.” It doesn’t matter where the “there” is. What matters is that you may be able to get more bang for your buck somewhere else, and you can’t ignore that.

I don’t see “cleaning your plate to save the starving kids in China” as a good parallel. On the face of it, finishing your food because others don’t have as much food is absurd. You’re not going to send your leftovers to the hungry. (You may purchase less food next time and donate the money saved to charity.) But in the case of the Chilean miners the analysis makes sense. Money was being spent. The question was where and on whom.

(Regarding income comparisons, my point was less about purchasing power and more about the number of lives that can be saved, prolonged, or improved significantly for a given amount of money.)

Of course the Chile rescue had to go forward. You’re spot on that the world wouldn’t have stood for doing nothing. But that’s because we treat the near and the far differently. When something is in your face (the miners on television), you feel an urge to do something. When something is abstract and distant, that need is minimized. That’s why charities put pictures of emaciated children, war-torn villages and dirty jungle hospitals on their solicitation materials.

Finally, let’s talk about the bridge near your home. Let’s say the hundred thousand dollar rescue of a suicidal stranger was to be paid for entirely out of your pocket, and you were given the choice between spending that money rescuing the stranger and spending the money feeding starving children. The World Food Program website claims that $1 feeds four children one meal. Let’s make the decision more real: Your choice is now between saving one person who has tried to commit suicide and giving 365 hungry children three meals a day for one year. You choose. And it is your money. Or your kids’ if it’s financed. But the Coast Guard is funded by you, and it’s ultimately you who should be upset if you don’t like spending tens of thousands of dollars in dangerous rescue attempts of bridge jumpers. You’re of course right that no politician could propose that and survive. The interesting question is why.

Very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts,
Jay

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