March 19, 2004

Stubborn Economists

You can always tell when somebody is set back on their heels by having their argument challenged when their argument is a quantitative one and they resort to handwaving that such effects must be minor and unimportant. This is different from positions like the Laffer Curve, or my own argument that net numbers, not gross numbers of innocent lives lost should be used in morally evaluating Iraq from a humanitarian perspective. The validity of such arguments does not depend on the exact numbers. They are true across the vast majority of circumstances.

So is the argument that artificial hearts don't save lives one that is numbers dependent or does the lack of numbers just indicative that nobody wants to do the long laborious research process.

Long and laborious, hah!

Three google searches leads me to the Division of Transplantation, one phone call and a single transfer leads me to Laura Tidwell, who's off to get the real numbers and who suggests the following links for good statistics on transplantation while she's looking:

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network

The actual numbers (and how significant an effect this actually is) should be in an update at the bottom when I get the callback.

The only numbers in the mix so far are the 77 days of average use that such temporary artificial hearts are used for. Now this doesn't mean that you're on a heart for 77 days on average and you keel over. You might get a permanent solution of a donated heart in 40 days and that, according to Alex Tabarrok's calculation would bring down the value of the artificial heart by bringing down its use value.

If I didn't die last month because of a lack of a transplanted heart and I get a transplant a month or two later that will last me years, the value of the temporary solution is quite high and not quantifiable in such a simple formula as lifetime extended by permanent heart divided by lifetime extended by temporary heart. This is also why it's not unjust to pay a great deal more for gasoline off a tow truck that you call than gasoline at the gas station. You're buying two different things that have different values.

It seems odd to be arguing for marginal analysis with somebody who rights the marginal revolutions blog but here I am. Money spent on increasing donations versus research dollars on an artificial heart are not a proper comparison. First of all, organ donation encouragement needs to be looked at not in total spending but at the margin. How much extra fuss and expense do you need to go through for the next heart?

Also, you need to look at expenses for artificial hearts in a different way. The ultimate goal is a heart that will work fine without being chained to external machinery. If you can take intermediate results of that research and make a product out of them, all to the good. The income will help fund further research to a permanent solution.

What's happening is that you're comparing a production problem (increase heart supply via donation) with the rehabilitation of a waste product (failed intermediate steps toward the permanent, wholly internal, artificial heart) of the research program to create a substitute good for donated hearts. What's being protested is a method of fundraising for the research program.

Thus, even if the argument were entirely true (and I'm still waiting for that return phone call to get the actual data) it's a stupid one to make because the mechanism a research program uses to save lives versus a production level procedure is entirely different. It's apples and oranges.

Posted by TMLutas at March 19, 2004 10:45 AM