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Political economist Schelling (JFK School of Government, Harvard) specializes in trying to untangle problems of economic policy--distinguishing the problem-solving aspects from the ethical and political concerns. In this collection of 15 previously published essays, he takes up such issues as gasoline pricing, policies regarding organized crime, decisions involving terminally ill patients, and much else--including the rationality of New Year's resolutions. Schelling believes in economics as a science of choice; and though he often criticizes his fellows--for putting issues in terms of ""efficiency,"" for example, instead of saying that a potential solution is preferable because it lets more people have more of what they want--his faith never wavers. Dealing with the social cost of death, for example, Schelling lays out some of the ways in which death is special: its impact on families; the fact that it comes only once, and awesomely; the fact that it is generally treated as a low-probability event during an individual lifetime, etc. But death is an important economic concern in areas from insurance costs to government budgetary items--those that effect statistical deaths through overall health impact. The first set of exceptional considerations makes death difficult to deal with; Schelling, however, thinks we should find ways for the ""consumer"" to think about what it's worth (in individual costs) to reduce the risk of death. So he devises some hypothetical questions about how much income an individual might willingly defer to lessen the likelihood of untimely death over fixed periods of time; then, he puts the question in terms of an individual as a member of a group--what would it be worth to each to lower the probability within the group? Schelling is trying to reduce the question to a size meaningful for the individual, so that a reasoned choice can be expressed. The alternative is to rely on behavior--consumer behavior, the linchpin of welfare economics--and that is misleading because individuals facing an immediate choice may not choose as they would collectively at a distance. Finding the right distance is his concern; but whether the issue is death or the decision to quit smoking, it isn't clear that economic reasoning adds anything to the analysis of ethical questions. Is the individual who extracts a promise from others not to let him out of a painful experience the same one who pleads to be let out while under pain? When Schelling gets through, the answer isn't any clearer; he never takes sides and argues for a particular position. A technician's approach to sticky questions--likely to be discussed in academic circles.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0674127714
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press