With large numbers of people now shivering in fear over Ebola, it has occurred to many that it would be nice if we had a vaccine against the deadly virus. If we had a vaccine, people in the countries where the disease is prevalent and the health care workers who care for the sick could get the vaccine and quickly bring the disease under control. The threat of Ebola would soon be history.
The interesting part of this story is that we could have had a vaccine, if the government had been willing to put up the money. The New York Times reported last week about a vaccine that was developed nearly a decade ago with funding from the Canadian government. According to the article, the vaccine was 100 percent effective in protecting monkeys exposed to Ebola from contracting the disease.
However it was never tested in humans. The cost of doing such testing would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It could be as high $1 billion. To put that in context, this would be roughly $3 per person in the United States, assuming that there was no international sharing of development costs. Over the course of a decade that would be a bit more than 30 cents per person per year, or 0.003 percent of what the federal government has spent over the last decade.
But the government wasn't willing to spend the money. Undoubtedly politicians would have expressed outrage over spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a vaccine to prevent a disease that primarily affected people living in Africa.
The refusal to fund the development of an Ebola vaccine is not the only case where narrow-mindedness carries a high price. Another great example is the issue of traffic congestion. Many cities now sell access to traffic lanes that promise less congested travel. In some cases, drivers are willing to pay as much as $10 for a trip for a less congested route to their destination. This comes to $20 a day, or $5000 for a full year of commuting.
Designated lanes for those willing to pay is one way to get a quicker ride to work. Another way is to have fewer cars on the road. And, a good way to have fewer cars on the road is to improve public transportation options. This can be done by having subsidies for bus or train travel. Maybe we could even make it free so that people don't have to fumble with change and slow down busses when they board.
But hey, why should people in cars pay for people who ride busses. It's much better for them to pay thousands of dollars a year to get access to special fast lanes.
While the spread of Ebola and needless traffic congestion are both areas where many have paid a price from their determination not to help others, the greatest cost comes in the context of global warming. The extent of global warming depends on the worldwide level of greenhouse gas emissions. This means that if we want to maximize the impact of spending to prevent global warming, we would spend the money wherever we could get the largest reductions per dollar.
As a practical matter, the cheapest reductions in emissions would be in developing countries like India and China, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. As these countries build up modern infrastructure, they could at a relatively low cost adopt greener technologies. However, even though the additional cost for clean energy in these countries may be relatively small for people in the United States, it would be large for countries in the developing world that still struggle to provide their people with food, medicine, and other essentials.
In this context, the logical path would be for rich countries like the United States to pay for developing countries to adopt clean technologies. (Yes, our economy is still weak, and it would be stronger if we paid for developing countries to use clean technology. But that is an economic lesson for another day.) Unfortunately, this route is not feasible politically because our politicians would scream about helping people in the developing world. They argue that it is much better to spend more to accomplish less so that we can keep our money at home.
There is a real cost of having determined selfishness as a fundamental political principle. Maybe it’s too complicated for a typical politician to understand how supporting mass transit can help even people who don’t take mass transit. It may require too much concentration for them to realize that paying to get India or China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions helps people in the United States.
But we should all be able to clearly see how much we benefited from not spending the money to keep Africans from getting Ebola. All the people across the country who are now terrified about getting the disease can at least be happy that their politicians in Washington kept them from wasting $3 on a vaccine that would help poor people in Africa.