Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Economics of Volcano Monitoring

Krugman comments on Jindal's volcano monitoring bit:

For example, knowing when a volcano is likely to erupt can save many lives; but there’s no private incentive to spend money on monitoring, since even people who didn’t contribute to maintaining the monitoring system can still benefit from the warning. [emphasis added]
Really? I'm not so sure of that.

Let's assume that government is completely out of the volcano monitoring business. Seems to me there would be an opening for a private-sector company to do its own monitoring and sell its warning services to people who are willing to pay for them. The beauty of this, of course, is that the fewer people there are subscribing, the greater the value: if, say, only 2% of the people in the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area have advance notice of Mt. Rainier erupting, then evacuation would be a tiny blip in the overall traffic. Compare that to the chaotic gridlock there would be if everyone were warned. (A situation like that would require massive government intervention to maintain an orderly evacuation...and as we all know, government has no business interfering in the free flow of traffic.)

The other 98%, of course, would suffer massive casualties. Well, boo-fricking-hoo. They should have been wealthy enough to afford volcano monitoring in the first place, and if they weren't wealthy enough they should have gone to live someplace that doesn't have volcanoes. New Orleans, maybe.

So maybe that's what the Republicans have in mind. The point here is that it's conceivable that their opposition to government-funded volcano monitoring isn't batshit crazy, but merely criminally, sociopathically selfish. I find that possibility oddly comforting.