Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What Are the Costs and Benefits
of Saving the Tasmanian Devil?

Tasmanian devils are very unusual marsupials that live, surprisingly, in Tasmania, an Australian State, a large island south of the rest of Australia. [cf the NYTimes (free registration required); thanks to BenS for the link]

In March and April, males engage in vicious, blood-soaked combat, said Dr. Menna Jones, a wildlife biologist... Females select "big butch dudes," Dr. Jones said, and allow themselves to be dragged by the scruff of the neck into a burrow. There they scream and fight for several days, mating many times for hours at a time.
Over the past decade, there has been a plague, of sorts, afflicting Tasmanian devils with a sort of facial tumour.

Right now, wildlife experts are struggling to comprehend the nature of the fast moving epidemic. Moving at a rate of 6 to 10 miles a year, it is 100 percent fatal. Only the west coast, isolated by mountain ranges inhospitable to devils, is disease free. Nearly half of the estimated 150,000 devils in Tasmania are now dead.
[digression: try to make sense of that last sentence]

Is it worthwhile trying to save the species? What are the expected costs of doing so? What are the expected benefits? Saving the species will involve opportunity costs -- those scarce resources could have been used for something else of value.

The answers to these questions surely involve probabilities about which we have only a vague sense. And yet we [we? well, Tasmanians and Australians and maybe a few others] must make decisions on the basis of these vague probabilities and estimates.

Explicitly or not, we will behave as if we do.

Update. An anonymous comment via e-mail:
Have you posed the right question? Which would we be better off saving (given the same costs), a faculty of , say, 20 socionomologists or 75,000 Tasmanian Devils? How many tourists will spend money to see one or the other?
Who Links Here