How Low Can You Go?



One argument for a sharp increase in tobacco taxes is that it would force smokers to pay for the increased medical costs they generate. But some economists say higher medical costs are only half the story. Peter Passell wrote last July in the New York Times that "a full accounting must also include the savings from smoking. Yes, savings: the reduced cost of private pensions, Social Security and nursing home care for smokers who die before their time." And on a full accounting, according to studies cited by Passell, the social costs of smoking may be too small even to justify current taxes, much less an increase.


The economists making these arguments are breaking new ground. Public policy has always generally made the assumption that life is a benefit and worth preserving. But, on a "full accounting," a lot of people--particularly old people--are clearly more cost than benefit. So a policy that encourages them to kill themselves, such as low prices for cigarettes, makes good sense-- if you accept the economists' paradigm. Following this logic, it might also be prudent to give seniors publicly funded discounts for tobacco. The sooner they kill themselves, the lower future Social Security costs will be.


Many other policies have been based on foolishly one-sided calculations. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, assumes that life is worth extending when it develops regulations for drugs and medical devices. But defective pacemakers, unsafe pharmaceuticals, and other life-shortening treatments for the elderly are probably socially beneficial because they cut the cost of pensions, Social Security, and nursing home care. Let's hope the cost-benefit analysts cited by Passell can straighten out David Kessler on this issue.




After the preliminary hearings in the O.J. Simpson case, National Public Radio's commentator Daniel Schorr made a modest proposal. Rather than simply give away this bonanza for free to the TV networks, Schorr proposed that the state of California lighten its fiscal woes by auctioning off broadcast rights to the upcoming trial.


With the Simpson trial providing hundreds of hours of home entertainment, why shouldn't the state get a cut of the profits? The first preliminary hearing in July drew an audience estimated at between 25 and 30 million, dramatically raising ratings for CNN and the major networks. While the full trial couldn't be expected to sustain that level of interest, its value at auction clearly was at least that of a major sports event.



Some may be disturbed by a precedent of this kind. After all, if California can sell off TV rights to the trial, what if Simpson were convicted? The state could also sell rights to the appeals, clemency hearings, O.J.'s Last Mile (imagine if he could be persuaded to run!), and the execution.


To be sure, such sales might give the state an unseemly interest in prolonging the appellate process or even in bringing murder charges against other celebrities. Televising the execution would also raise some delicate ethical issues, such as whether the state should take into account the value of TV rights when considering options for capital punishment. (Lethal injection seems far less likely to draw as big ratings as, say, a firing squad.) But, delicate as these issues may be, it scarcely seems prudent to forgo this new fountain of public revenue on the mere speculation that it might distort the judicial system. Murder is bad enough; but, hey, throwing away the revenue from celebrity trials would be a real crime.


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When sociology professor Fernando Cardoso was elected president of Brazil in October, many of his colleagues in other countries were elated--not least of all because of old academic jealousies. Economists getting elected to high office, that's an old story. Sociologists getting elected, that's news. Those who were inclined to dwell on the negatives pointed out, however, that the job doesn't carry tenure. So why take it? No one who has experienced academic politics can doubt that the real thing must be a relief. Still, given Brazil's history of military coups, you'd have to worry that "publish and perish" is a risk.




It had seemed that political rhetoric in America could not plunge any lower, when Newt Gingrich told his state's voters just before the election, "The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. People want to change, and only way you get change is to vote Republican." Of course, the mother who killed her children--and accused a black man of abducting them--ought to remind everyone of the ubiquity of human evil and the relentless effort to pin it on scapegoats. Mr. Gingrich ought to know about that.

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