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Posts Tagged ‘public goods’

There has been a disturbing trend in the past decade for parents in the UK to refuse vaccinating their young children with the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This has been due to the (now debunked[1, 2]) scare following a paper in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield that claimed that MMR Jabs could be responsible for increasing the likelihood of children developing autism.

Unfortunately, despite the findings that Wakefield and his team had manipulated data, the striking off of Wakefield from the medical register and the full retraction of The Lancet paper, some parents continue to refuse vaccinating their children. The refusal of parents to vaccinate their kids is not the end result of this story, and their (unfortunate) children were not the only victims.

This is because the MMR Vaccine is not 100% effective [3] and is not given to everyone, namely, not to vulnerable parts of the population, including babies less than 1 year old and children who have a compromised immune system (for example those with AIDS or receiving chemotherapy). Normally, with high rates of vaccinations, these issues would not be a problem, as the ‘herd immunity’ would provide them with protection – the more people immune to infection, the less chance there is for someone without immunisation to come in contact with the infection. But as MMR vaccinations fell below the measles herd immunity threshold (94% [4, 5]) outbreaks of measles started occurring, affecting those children whose parents chose not to vaccinate them, but also those whose vaccinations had not been effective and the vulnerable population. In 2008, measles was declared to be endemic again in the UK after a break of 14 years [6] and a measles outbreak was recently declared in Merseyside [7]. Additionally, a recent story in the US paper USA Today reported that travellers from the US to, among other destinations, Western Europe were bringing back measles and infecting unvaccinated populations in the US [8].

Vaccinations are one of the most cited examples of ‘positive externalities’ – an idea in economics that in some circumstances society experiences benefits greater than the benefits received by individuals making the decision. There are also negative externalities – where society experiences costs greater than the costs incurred by individuals making the decision.

The MMR vaccination can be seen as both a positive and a negative externality – those who have received the jab decrease the possibility of outbreaks and therefore the possibility of you or I contracting measles (or mumps or rubella). This is a benefit for us that probably wasn’t taken into account by those who received their vaccination, so it is a positive externality. But we can also look at the lack of vaccination as a negative externality – as MMR jabs have become the norm, those who haven’t been vaccinated increase the chance of outbreaks and affect those who were unable to receive the vaccination or for whom the vaccination wasn’t effective.  This is an unintended and unaccounted consequence of the decision of parents to refuse vaccination for their children.

Another economic idea that is relevant here is that of the ‘public good’ – a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. This means that someone can consume the good without reducing the ability of anybody else to consume the good, and that it is not possible to exclude anyone from consuming the good. Herd immunization (and individual immunizations to a lesser extent) can be seen as a public good – everybody benefits from higher immunization rates and my enjoyment of the benefit doesn’t decrease your enjoyment of the benefit.

These ideas of externalities and public goods are highly relevant to environmental economics and are used on a daily basis in our work. Clean air and water and a stable climate are examples of public goods while pollution and carbon emissions are negative externalities that affect these public goods (public bads if you like). Environmental economists try to help decision makers take externalities into account through identifying and valuing externalities and contributing to design policies that make these externalities be explicitly taken into account in prices and behaviours (what we call ‘internalised’), such as a carbon or pollution tax or market-based instruments such as the sulphur and carbon cap and trade markets.

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[1] The Lancet – Retraction – Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children

[2] Wikipedia – MMR Vaccine controversy

[3] Bupa – Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine

[4] Wikipedia – Herd immunity

[5] BBC News – Measles outbreak ‘worst in years’

[6] Health Protection Report – Confirmed Measles cases in England and Wales – an update

[7] Merseyside measles outbreak declared

[8] USA Today – Unvaccinated behind largest U.S. measles outbreak in years

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Today’s Guest Moo comes from Manatee, our very first sea-faring cow! Manatee spouts off about the global commons that is Google Streetview…

What am I to make of finding out I’ve made onto Google’s Streetview.  Google awash with cash is going about every street in the land taking pictures (and emitting carbon) so that we can all see what every street in the land looks like. Except they capture not just streets and buildings but people. People like me. Sitting on my wall outside my house one lunch-time recovering from a bout of pounding my local streets in a vain attempt at retaining a modicum of fitness.

My first reaction was no big deal – unlike many who have objected to Google’s efforts as some kind of online paparazzi on a well Googlish type scale.  But then I started to think about it and think about it as an economist.  Economists and especially environmental economists talk a lot of property rights or rather the absence of property rights.  Properly functioning markets infused with well defined property rights will solve most environmental ills some of us believe.  And there is much to commend the prescription.

I started to think about property rights when I thought about me being captured resting on my wall by Google. I checked what they say about protecting my privacy apart from blurring of my face (but its still pretty unmistakable – and quite Manatee like – and still not obscure enough to dampen the “OMG you look like a hobo in jogging gear” reaction of my kids).

Google claim (http://www.google.co.uk/help/maps/streetview/privacy.html):

“Street View contains imagery that is no different from what you might see driving or walking down the street.”

This statement intrigued me. Sure I can report a problem and presumably request they remove my image (respecting I guess my sort of property right to my image, but I haven’t tested it yet), but it is the “no different” bit of their claim that got me thinking.

What Google have captured with me on Steetview is a moment. A unique moment defined by its own space and time.  It is absolutely different to any other moment – there can never be another combination of time or space like that one (unless I find myself a Tardis).  Ever.

Every minute of every day we consume such moments and these can never be repeated. I may go for a run again, wear the same jogging pants and sit knackered on the same wall but it will be at a different time on a different day.

This to my mind implies that viewing moments in space and time are bit like consuming a private good.  The consumption of a true private good as we know is both rival and excludable. Does that characterise my moment?  To consume my moment you would have to walk down my street at the right time.  Any other place or time and you are excluded from enjoying my moment. So by virtue of time and space I can exclude you from consumption of this moment.  It is also kind of rival as well up to a point.  If you are walking down the street at the right time and happen to be with a friend you kind of consume the same view at the same time.  So that tends to suggest non-rival in nature.  But walk down the street with a thousand of your friends (I bet you are that popular) and I doubt you will all enjoy the same view at the same time.  So the rival aspect kicks in at some point (a bit like a system of water pipes).

But here’s the thing.  Google with the input of a car, some fuel and time, a camera, some people and some carbon thirsty servers located somewhere in sunny California (sorry they claim to be carbon neutral I think) have transformed my rival and excludable private moment into something that is a lot more non-rival and well nigh non-excludable (ok you need a computer and an internet connection).  Anyone can share that unique moment in time and space and given their server capacity lots of anyones can consume the same moment.  You don’t any longer have to occupy that precise time and space to capture or consume the moment.  The private has become public.

Up to this point like me you might be thinking so what?  It is human instinct to record things for posterity.  We have always captured moments – through oral traditions, the written word and lately through photos and video.  And without such recording many exceptional and revolutionary moments would have been lost to us all.  Google is just transforming through the clever use of modern technology those private moments and turning them into some kind of global commons of moments.  And think about the potential gain. How useful it would have been to have, as an example, the Google Streetview car touring the streets of Jerusalem about 2000 years ago.  All those unresolvable arguments finally resolved through the timely capture of a few private moments.

But therein lies the problem with Streetview. It may be a global commons of moments.  But it is a commons of pretty random and most likely dull moments (though I guess you might laugh at my moment on the wall).  And even Google can’t capture all in the universe of private moments and I bet they can’t predict when and where the good or worth capturing ones will pop up (like the colourful and noisy Sikh weddings that take place most summers down my street).

So I am left wondering if this particular commons is one we want to take care of and look after or even look at.  Only I suspect if you are burglar by trade and that is another problem I haven’t even touched upon.

The tragedy of this commons is not the threat of over-use, but really that it is far too ephemeral for most of us to care.  The economics lesson here is that if you want people to look after and care for a commons then you should let them own a bit of it.  The problem with Streetview is that by design none of us own it.  Without our consent Google in its increasingly classically inefficient command and control manner is capturing a set of private moments that is way inferior to the ones we might have willingly provided ourselves.  Google have strangely ignored what made its own YouTube and things like Facebook and Twitter so successful.  Those are also all collections of private moments (pictures, video, comments, thoughts) transformed into a global commons.  But they thrive because we choose the moments we want to share (and who can share them) and they are all the more valuable and worthy because of that simple but democratic reality.

I have decided I don’t mind Google having my moment on their Streetview. More fool them for recording that one.  If only they had asked they could have had a much better one and without the cost of all that carbon…

– Manatee

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