Help People. Help Dogs.
Swine Flu: The Pit Bull of Flu Viruses
On the “BSL in the Big picture” page, one of the ideas discussed is the economic idea that there is “no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything costs somebody something - nothing is free. Even if you buck the conventional wisdom and get a free lunch, what was free to you cost the producers of that lunch in time and material to make (and possibly transportation costs to get it to you). In economics we can discuss this principle in the context of "opportunity costs." If you choose option “A” you gain those benefits, but it costs you both directly (in the cost of acquiring “A”) and indirectly (not gaining the benefits of “B” and/or “C”). Losing out on the opportunities presented by “B” and “C” are the "opportunity costs" of acquiring “A.”
Economics is most often used to discuss money and financial issues, however its principles are not limited to that application (While money issues are economics, economics is not always money issues - a lesson best learned early if studying the "dismal science"). One example of where this principle can be applied is in the area of public policy. We have all grown familiar over recent years with the seemingly annual warnings of a dire flu season - but recently we have started to hear the word "pandemic." Most recently it was the killer Swine Flu. The pandemic alarm was sounded far and wide about Swine Flu and all the death and destruction it would wreak on the human population. In the end, the swine flu hardly lived up to its hype, taking far fewer victims than just regular seasonal flu does every year.
One doesn’t need to comment on the “goodness” or “badness” of the wide spread alarm leading up to the Swine Flu. Certainly an argument could be made supporting the “better safe than sorry” philosophy. But "better safe than sorry" is not a free-bee policy we can just try with no downside. This policy has opportunity costs. First, the World Health Organization, who was at the heart of the Swine Flu warnings, runs the risk of creating a “boy who cried wolf” scenario where there are so many pandemic warnings that when something truly dangerous comes along people are no longer motivated by the warnings to do what is necessary to abate the coming disaster. (Although our society seems to show a staggering tolerance for constant fear mongering, so maybe not.) The opportunity cost of the Swine Flu hysteria is what it costs the world in energy, awareness and resources that could have been used for diseases that kill a lot of people every year, such as Malaria and dysentery.
What could have been done for these diseases with all the resources that were put towards Swine Flu awareness campaigns and vaccine/medicine production? Whatever the policy decisions are regarding a flu “pandemic” they come with costs – in this case the cost is human lives.
In the area of public policy, this principle can also be applied to dangerous dog legislation. For all the hype and hysteria around dogs, and specifically pit bulls, year after year the threat never lives up to the hype. With 77.5 million dogs living among a population of over 300 million people in the U.S., interacting with dogs remains remarkably safe. Bites over-all are declining and fewer than 30 people a year are killed on average. But even with the relative safety, people are hurt and are killed so we do need to look at public policy to minimize these tragedies. The goal would be to avoid the dangerous dog policies that have the lowest benefit and highest opportunity costs.
The hype and hysteria around pit bulls is often supported with a “better safe than sorry” mentality. But as with the Swine Flu panic, it comes with opportunity costs. By spreading panic about the "appearance" or "breed" of a dog in the media, and in city council meetings, then passing ordinances that address the "breed/appearance" of a dog, people can be lead to believe this focus on appearance can protect them. Subsequently, those people do not focus on the factors that can actually enhance safety such as understanding canine body language and teaching children how to behave around dogs. So, one opportunity cost of breed-specific policies arises in the often addressed “false sense of security.” By warning people about dogs that look a certain way( option "A"), the cost is the opportunity to warn people about dogs that act a certain way (option "B").
Perhaps Denver, Colorado can boast a reduction in pit bull bites, but they cannot boast that their community is safer as a result of their ban. From a "cost/benefit" perspective, the added focus on pit bulls in the Denver community has the benefit of reducing pit bull bites and incidents, but the cost of that focus is that bites and attacks by other breeds increase. In addition to an increase in bites and hospitalizations while the pit bull ban has been in effect, there has even been a fatality in Denver during that time. A dog fatality is an exceedingly rare event and the fact that one could happen even in the face of a breed ban is a substantial indictment of the idea that breed bans can protect us. Towns like Kansas City, Kansas and Miami-Dade, Florida have had pit bull bans for over twenty years. Both have had fatalities in that time, while countless other cities that don’t have breed bans have not had fatalities. With the focus on appearance, the cost is that there are less resources that can be allocated for dogs of other phenotypes who display dangerous behavior. When Jimmie Mae McConnell was killed by two “pit bulls” in Kansas City Kansas, it was reported she called animal control about those specific dogs on multiple occasions. Also, police and animal control had issues with the suspect residence before - confiscating “pit bulls” at an earlier date and deeming the house “uninhabitable.” The opportunity cost of all the time and resources spent finding dogs that look “dangerous" (option "A"), was the opportunity to allocate those time and resources to protect this woman from dogs who actually were dangerous (opiton"B"). That is a steep opportunity cost.
Another opportunity cost of breed-specific policy comes with the allocation of community resources to enforce it. Even if BSL were proven to be successful at making people safer, society would have to weigh the costs of that success. Denver faces a $120 million budget shortfall and yet has spent hundreds of thousands (some say over a million) to enforce their pit bull ban. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence showing the costs of enforcing BSL, and research seems to support experience in this case. Ottawa, Ontario recognizes these high costs and have elected not to enforce the breed-specific elements of Ontario’s provincial dangerous dog law. All the money spent being “better safe than sorry” has high opportunity costs for a community. This is money that could be spent on schools, community centers and parks, youth projects or preventing and fighting violent crime. These can be costly missed opportunities.
Some people who advocate for BSL do so very passionately and believe in it strongly for personal (obviously not logical) reasons. Other people (we would contend more people) who support BSL do so with more of a “makes sense, why not?” attitude. It’s easy to support that position when a Swine Flu warning or a pit bull ban is considered in a vacuum. With the appearance that someone else is footing the bill, it is easy to ask, “What do I have to lose?” But public resources are your resources. You are footing the bill. When your community suffers you suffer, either directly or indirectly. When the opportunity costs of “better safe than sorry” are considered, it’s easier to see how the illusion of “safe” can really make us “sorry.”
Image 1 - P-Nut
Image 2 - http://www.ktis.fm/blogs/lisa/2009/04/
Image 3 - http://moopigwisdom.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html
Image 4 - http://travelingmanrick.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html