Monday, January 25, 2010

Economics of Flu Vaccines

In the last few months, the H1N1 influenza virus, or “swine flu,” has been dominating the news, and many people are worried about access to flu vaccines or “flu shots.” (That is, unless you work for Goldman Sachs, who got first dibs. But don’t they always?)

Unlike other viral diseases, flu viruses constantly mutate, or change into new “strains.” A vaccine that works to protect against a specific strain one year will probably not work to prevent against a new strain the next year. Because of this, hundreds of hours of lab work are devoted each year to identifying specific flu strains, developing a vaccine against them, and then producing that vaccine in large enough quantities to distribute to the population.

This year, the efforts of flu vaccination labs have been split, with only some of the labs producing vaccines against the "regular" flu, and the rest working on vaccines against the specific H1N1 swine flu strain. Because of this, the supplies of the regular flu vaccine are greatly reduced, and the supplies of the H1N1 vaccine are limited. Since both vaccines are necessary to completely protect against the flu, the amount of both vaccines is not enough to inoculate the same number of people who would normally have been covered by the "regular" flu vaccine alone in previous years.

Given the scarcity of both traditional and swine flu vaccines, how should the existing vaccine be distributed? If the goal is to maximize societal health, the flu vaccine should first be given to those whose health would benefit from it the most, who are people at risk of complications and death from the flu, including young children, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised. On the other hand, if the goal is to minimize the cost of the flu to an economy, the most productive and important members of society should get the first vaccine.

To a certain extent, extreme examples on both ends are small in number and easy to take care of. For example, health care employees are at greater risk of contracting any disease and, consequently, of infecting those whose health is vulnerable. So it’s clear they should be the first in line to get the vaccine. But what about people who don’t have such critical jobs (and keep in mind that you probably qualify as one of these people)? This topic relates not only to the health of the economy, but your personal health as well.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think that the goal of those who control flu vaccine policy should be to get the best health outcome, to minimize the cost to GDP, or some combination of the two? What public health policies would achieve your preferred policy goal?

2. Assume that society does want to maximize productivity in dollar terms rather than health outcomes. Now, take into consideration the fact that those who do get sick might require expensive medical treatment, the cost of which will be partially borne by society. How does this alter the analysis of who should receive the vaccines?

3. Economists often are fond of markets as allocation mechanisms because the forces of supply and demand determine a price that allocates goods to those who are willing to pay for them the most. How would a market for flu vaccine work? Why is it different from a market for non-life-affecting goods and services, like books or cars?

4. Firms (especially ones with high-productivity employees) value their employees’ health. It is estimated that that the total yearly economic cost of the flu in the U.S. is over $80 billion. Many companies have started to recognize this and have made attempts to protect their own economic interest by paying for or providing flu vaccines to their employees. As a result, employees who otherwise may not have been vaccinated (since the unsubsidized cost exceeds the expected health benefit) are more likely to accept the free vaccine. Is this efficient? Is it equitable?

5. Vaccines have a limited shelf-life – that is, they can only be used for a particular period of time if they are to be effective. For this reason, the timing of development, production, and distribution of flu vaccines in the United States is largely based on the pattern of the flu season in previous years. Go to Google Flu Trends to see a graph comparing the incidence of flu activity in the United States this year with previous years. How does the current flu season differ from previous years? If you were in charge of setting production policy for 2010, what might you change in order to produce the correct amount of vaccine for each strain of flu at the appropriate time?

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Fed Chairman Bernanke Chosen as Time Magazine's Person of the Year

In a December 16, 2009 article, Michael Grunwald details the reasoning behind Time Magazine’s choice of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for Person of the Year. The article delves into Bernanke’s background such as his working class roots and the consensus that he is “a leading scholar of the Great Depression.” It also details the unique nature of the crises of 2007-2008 to which the Fed responded in creative and beneficial ways.

Chairman Bernanke is currently awaiting a Senate vote to be confirmed for another term as Fed chairman. The vote is being held up by a Senator from the far left and another from the far right. The Time article is largely critical of those who oppose Bernanke, portraying them as nitpicky demanders of perfection who fail to realize that the Federal Reserve’s actions over the past two years most likely “prevented an economic catastrophe.” It is apparent that the Fed, like most people caught up in benefiting from the bubbles of those years, took too long to recognize the danger signs. Yet, the desire to criticize and rein in the Fed’s power now that the crises are largely history is short-sighted and will be harmful to long-run inflation rates. Most economics textbooks cover the extensive research that shows that greater central bank independence goes along with more stable and lower inflation rates.

As Bernanke is quoted in the article, "We came very, very close to a depression ..." That is because in the fall of 2008, the collapse of the financial sector and asset prices looked remarkably similar to the events that marked the start of the Great Depression. However, thanks largely to the bold actions of Bernanke’s Fed, the US experienced a severe recession rather than a depression. That distinction is significant and reason enough for the awarding of Time Magazine’s honor. Grunwald’s article gives evidence that Bernanke’s knowledge and research into the Depression made him the perfect man to hold one of the most powerful positions for influencing the world economy. As written by Grunwald, “He didn't just reshape U.S. monetary policy; he led an effort to save the world economy.”

Admittedly, the severe recession has caused significant hardship to billions of people. However, based on economists’ consensus definition of recession, the US economy has been in recovery and thus out of recession for several months now. Indeed, the figure to the right shows a picture of an economy that will most likely experience positive net job creation in coming months. Such positive net job creation has not occurred since the recession began in December 2007. This scenario looks much rosier than could have been hoped for back in the fall of 2008. This is an important reason why Bernanke is expected to be confirmed for another term:

Price for Will Ben Bernanke win Senate confirmation for a second term as Fed Chairman? at

Finally, Bernanke’s critics need to understand that macroeconomics is not a true science. Despite the mathematical rigor required to publish articles in the field, macroeconomists cannot perform true experiments with a nation’s economy. Therefore, there is no comparison “control group” of a US economy run by someone who chose not to bailout AIG or who refused to dramatically expand the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet with risky assets. We will never know with any respectable precision what might have happened if it had not been for Bernanke’s bold leadership.

Perhaps someday a scientific genius will invent a time machine so that Bernanke’s critics can go back to the early 1930s to experience a collapsed economy. Most economists agree that the experience of those years is the best counterexample to show what we would have experienced without bold action by the Fed and our elected officials. Let the critics be reminded that the demand for perfection is all too often the enemy of good governance.

Discussion Questions

1. What is your reaction to Time Magazine’s choice of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for Person of the Year? Why?

2. Suppose that you were able to cast a vote in the Senate on Bernanke’s reappointment. How would you vote? Why?

3. Imagine you were currently chairperson of the Fed. What, if anything, would you be doing differently?

4. Do you approve or disapprove of the movement to rein in the power of the Federal Reserve? Explain.

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