Thursday, August 19, 2004

If you thought you knew Glenn Reynolds, read this article from Tech Central Station.

I would argue that these investments -- which were among the most dramatic public investments of their times -- were probably not undervalued by those who made them, or by those who benefited by them. But they are undervalued by those of us who take them for granted today. We assume that health is the norm, and sickness the departure, that deadly epidemics are a thing of the past, that water from the tap is safe to drink. But like so many things in life, things are that way because people worked hard to make them that way, not because it's the natural order. And if we want them to stay that way, we'll have to work hard to keep them that way.

Which leaves the question of what to do next. I'm not a physician, or a public health expert, but it seems to me that we face two major areas of challenge. The first is to develop a reliable worldwide system of detecting, and responding quickly to, new outbreaks of disease. The SARS outbreak provided some useful lessons (like "don't cover up the outbreak of a new contagious disease"), but the real problem is that there's not enough of an infrastructure there. We need one.

This will be expensive, but cheap compared to area number two, which is traditional infectious-disease control. Keeping water clean, making sure that sewage goes where it belongs and not where it doesn't, keeping the food supply clean, making sure people are vaccinated and learn to wash their hands, etc. This is expensive. In the United States and the West generally, it calls for a renovation and updating of infrastructure laid down a lifetime ago (read more about that here), and for the re-focusing of a public health establishment that in recent decades has been focusing on side issues (like accidents and gun control) at the expense of its core mission. In the rest of the world, it calls for doing this core mission for the first time.

The capital costs for such a venture are enormous. Modern technologies will help in some areas, but the effort is so huge that it's bound to be enormously expensive. On the other hand, as Fogel also notes, the benefits are likely to be much greater than is generally appreciated. Fogel points out that Britain's economic explosion in the latter part of the 19th century was largely the result of better health. Before that, a sizable chunk of the population was simply too sick to work much, and served as a drag on the economy. That's the state of the world now, really -- and it will only get worse as new diseases like AIDS, SARS, and whatever comes next make their way across the globe.

I've been meaning to blog about this for some time, but it just blew my mind. Is this the Glenn Reynolds who talks about how wonderful the tax cuts are, not only because they give ordinary families like his more money to spend, but because they were the only way to get government to cut spending? Everything he says is more than true - and many liberals would be too cowed to say it. I'm not sure how it fits with his other posts on Instapundit, but it really makes you think.

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