Monday, February 22, 2010

Can we ever do too much for our children?

While riding in an elevator today, I was made aware on a TV screen that pediatricians want hot dogs and candy to be redesigned to prevent children from choking. No, I'm not joking. This advice is straight from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Lee Sanders, an associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, sums up the article by stating, "I think it's very reasonable to strengthen regulations to prevent choking injuries for children." I couldn't help but start thinking about all the other potential causes of accidents we see in society, and what it would take to try to prevent them all. There is always a cost.

If we pretend that, purely for the sake of argument, the cost of making these changes to hot dogs and candy amounts to approximately $100 zillion (a large amount of money), it should be easy to convince most people that the changes are probably not worth the cost. In fact, there are probably many other more pressing things that the $100 zillion could be used for. So just having parents be vigilant of what their children consume would be much more sensical. But if we can see that a cost so large would make these regulations irrational to enforce, however good-hearted they may be, then we should also say that if the marginal cost of these regulations is even a tiny bit above the marginal benefit of having them then enforcing them in such a scenario would also be foolish. After all, if the marginal cost were greater than the marginal benefit, this is by definition telling us that there are better uses of capital than spending it on modifying hot dogs and candy.

Well then who exactly did the analysis to determine these regulations are worthwhile? And how did they determine this? The answer obviously is that nobody bothered to calculate the costs since the benefits are automatically taken to be a good thing no matter what. Side note: this could actually describe the vast majority of legislation and regulation that comes out of the government, unfortunately. It is likely the case that modifying the shape of hot dogs and candy is going to cost far more than having parents take responsibility for what children consume. Therefore, these regulations should never be permitted to pass until someone even begins to do a cost-benefit analysis.

And by the way, the best entities to conduct these calculations are the businesses who produce hot dogs and candy, because they eat (yes, pun intended) the consequences of making food that could cause children to choke and therefore force the businesses to lose customers. The very fact that these businesses still exist in society profitably means that the public finds there to be more benefits than harm from the food that these businesses produce. Rest assured that if this children-eating-hot-dogs-or-candy-often-choke pandemic were really as bad as these doctors imply, the businesses would have gone the way of history long ago. After all, would you take your children to eat food that is widely known to cause other children to choke?