We’ve talked a lot about vaccines on this blog, including both the benefits of vaccines and how to get people vaccinated. For example, last month I posted about Robert Barro’s estimate on the number of additional vaccines needed to save 1 life. Barro put it at about 250 vaccines. Using some reasonable assumptions, I further suggested that each person vaccinated has a social value of about $20,000. That’s a lot!
But how do we convince people to get vaccinated? Lotteries? Pay them? In addition to just paying them (the economist’s preferred method), another good old capitalist method is advertising (the marketer’s preferred method). And a new working paper tries just that, running pro-vaccine ads on YouTube with a very specific spokesman: Donald Trump.
Running ads on YouTube is pretty cheap. For $100,000, the researchers were able to reach 6 million unique users. And because they randomized who saw the ads across counties, they are able to make a strong claim that any increase in vaccinations was caused by the ads. They argue that this ad campaign led to about 104,000 more people getting vaccinated, or less than $1 per person (the actual budget was $96,000, which is how they get 93 cents per vaccine — other specifications suggest 99 cents or $1.01, but all of their estimates are around a buck).
Considering, again, my rough estimate that each additional vaccinated person is worth $20,000 to society (in terms of lives saved), this is a massive return on investment. Of course, we know that everything runs into diminishing returns at some point (they also targeted areas that lagged in vaccine uptake). Would spending $1,000,000 on YouTube ads featuring Trump lead to 1 million additional people getting vaccinated? Probably not quite. But it might lead to a half million. And a half million more vaccinated people could potentially save 2,000 lives (using Barro’s estimate).
I dare you to find a cheaper way to save 2,000 lives.
In game theory, coordination games reflects the benefits of everyone settling on the same rules. Settling on the same rules can avoid a conflict and destructive competition. For example, some rules may be arbitrary, such as on which side of the road we’ll all drive. It doesn’t much matter whether a country’s vehicles drive along the right or left side of the street. As long as everyone is in the same lane, we overwhelmingly benefit from our coordination. The matrix below describes the game.
The above game reflects that whether we agree to drive on the left or on the right is trivial and that the important detail is that we agree on what the rule is. Rules like this are arbitrary. No amount of cost benefit analysis changes the answer. Other coordination rules are seemingly arbitrary, but do have different welfare implications. For example, according to English common law, a farmer was entitled to prohibit a herdsman’s flock from trampling his crops even if the farmland had no fence. Herdsmen were responsible for corralling their flocks or paying damages if they grazed on the farm. With lots of nearby farms, total welfare was higher with a rule of cultivation rights rather than grazing rights.
But the property rights could have been assigned to the herdsman instead. The law could have said that the sheep were free to graze with impunity and that the onus was on the farmer to build fences in order to keep the sheep at bay. In a world where there are a lot of farmers who are very nearby to one another, a small flock of sheep can do a lot of damage. And so, the cost-benefit analysis prescribes that herdsmen bear the cost of restricting the flock rather than the farmer. The matrix that describes this circumstance is below.
The above matrix reflects that agreeing on any rule is better than no rule at all. And, the rule that is selected has societal welfare implications. Choosing the ‘wrong’ rule means that we could get stuck in a rut of lower payoffs because coordinating a change in the rules is hard.
Another way in which the specific rule can be important is by whether it instantiates or works contrary to pre-existing incentives. Before compulsory schooling laws were passed, US states already had very high school attendance rates. Most parents sent their kids to school because it was a good investment. The ages at which children should be required to attend is largely, though not entirely, arbitrary. And wouldn’t you know it, most states applied their compulsory schooling legislation to the age groups for which the vast majority of children were already attending school. Enforcing a law against the natural incentives of human capital investment would have been more costly. The particular ages of compulsory schooling had different welfare implications due to the differing costs of enforcement.