Tag Archives: Policy

Why Aren’t Flu Vaccines Free for Everyone?

If you have health insurance in the United States, you can usually get a flu vaccine for nothing. But for the 28.9 million Americans who are uninsured, a flu vaccine can cost up to $50. For a population that is often hard pressed, this can be unaffordable. And if you have a family of 4 to vaccinate, the numbers are even worse.

Meanwhile, COVID vaccines cost absolutely nothing, whether you have insurance or not. Why aren’t we doing the same for flu vaccines?

Medicare pays $10-60 for flu vaccines, with an average price of $36 across all the vaccines they cover. If the federal government bought one for every uninsured American, the price would be $1.04 billion.

In the midst of the COVID pandemic, it’s easy to forget just how deadly the common flu can be. But the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans per year since 2010.

How do we decide if a policy is worth it compared to the number of lives it could save? The government uses a figure called the “statistical value of a human life” to measure whether many policies, such as environmental regulations, are worth it or not. That figure is about $10 million.

At that rate, giving a free flu shot to every uninsured American would only have to save 100 lives a year in order to pay for itself entirely. That’s just 0.2% to 0.8% of all flu deaths. Offering free flu vaccines to 8.8% of the entire population would probably prevent a lot more than a fraction of a percent of flu deaths.

Let’s give this policy a try!

For more on health, check out these posts:

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Photo: “01a.UStreet.NW.WDC.13September2015” by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We Need Science Funding More Than Road Repairs

As the Biden administration pushes for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, I dug into some numbers on federal research funding today. Most basic scientific research is funded by the federal government, including the critical advances in mRNA technologies that laid the groundwork for COVID vaccines. But this funding has fallen by more than 1/3 since the 1970’s, measured as a percentage of GDP:

In absolute dollar terms, funding has increased, but far below the rate one would predict given our burgeoning economy. Meanwhile, the infrastructure bill contemplates $110 billion in funding for road repair. This despite the US having some of the best roads in the world (slightly better than those of Switzerland) and among the world’s lowest commute times. Even in the New York area, which many single out for having poor road infrastructure, I see mostly smooth pavement wherever I go.

Science funding will never be as visible as road repair. You don’t see men in orange jackets out there with big trucks. But without basic research, we will find ourselves falling behind competitors like China and left without the tools we need to meet future challenges. What if we had faced the COVID pandemic without the scientific groundwork laid by massive research funding in decades past?

For more on science and policy, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Joe Biden” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Apartments Are Banned from 76% of San Francisco

I came across in incredible stat today. Apartments are banned in 76% of San Francisco. It’s no wonder that it’s the most expensive city in the United States.

In fact, given increasingly restrictive zoning, 54% of the homes in San Francisco could not be built today! The picture in New York City is similar, where 40% of Manhattan homes couldn’t be built under current zoning codes.

I find the anti-development discourse often focuses on “greedy developers” when a more appropriate person to focus on might be “working class mom who doesn’t want to live 90 minutes from work.” How we frame the problem may be the key to winning the argument. The “neighborhood character” trope is another NIMBY standby, but against a struggling single mom who spends four hours a day commuting on a bus to her job as a nanny and just wants an affordable place near her job, i think their argument loses its punch.

Housing in expensive cities like SF and NYC could get more affordable in a different, more painful way. Everyone I know of who lives in San Francisco is decrying staggering amounts of crime and school closures that have gone on over a year. The tech industry has moved to Zoom and found real efficiencies there. I live in the NYC area and can attest that crime has increased substantially.

Perhaps the way San Francisco and similar cities get cheaper isn’t by building, but by self-destruction.

For more on zoning and politics, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Typical San Francisco house” by 4nitsirk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

10 Years of Legal Weed: Fewer Opioid Deaths, More Jobs and Tax Revenue

I got an interesting message in my e-mail this morning. The NPR Planet Money newsletter reviewed the prior nearly ten years in legal marijuana in some states, and came to some interesting conclusions:

What’s changed:

  • More marijuana use
  • Way more jobs
  • Way more tax revenue. California makes over $600 million a month.

What hasn’t:

  • No effect on crime or traffic accidents
  • No change in price of marijuana. Evidently the product and service at the legal stores is so good people prefer it to anything else.

What might have:

Use of opioids. In the working paper linked from the newsletter, I found this incredible stat:

…Chan, Burkhardt, and Flyr (2020) show that RMLs [recreational marijuana laws] reduce opioid mortality by 20% to 35%, implying that both opioid use and misuse decline as legal marijuana access expands.

Given the mass death caused by opioids, this alone seems like reason enough to legalize marijuana in my book.

I read this newsletter with particular interest since I live in New Jersey, which recently legalized marijuana but doesn’t yet have weed stores the way California, Colorado and other states do. It looks like we mostly have positive changes to look forward to.

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Photo: “Vancouver Global Marijuana March 2015 – by Danny Kresnyak” by Cannabis Culture is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Is Zoning Keeping Poor People Poor?

I recently subscribed to a newsletter from the journalist Matthew Yglesias that has turned out be outstanding. A message I received this morning really struck me. Yglesias argues that the best thing we can do for the poor, given that housing is their biggest expense, is to build housing like crazy:

This is diametrically opposed to the narrative we so often hear, that new development replaces the urban poor with, well, people like me. Yglesias’ argument makes sense in terms of basic supply and demand. New York is creating 3.9 jobs for each new housing unit. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the numbers are far worse, at over 6 jobs per new housing unit! (And sure enough, SF/Silicon Valley is more expensive than NY.) Unless the average household size is about 4 in the case of NYC or 6 in SF/Silicon Valley, this simply won’t work. There will be more workers who need apartments than there are apartments.

What happens then? You guessed it: your rent goes up. However, I was greatly encouraged by this tidbit:

Now, you’re on my territory! I’ve lived in Hudson County, NJ for about 6.5 years and love it here. And I did notice that we seem to build a lot more than New York does. But you know what they say: the plural of anecdote is not data.

The data is in! And it’s striking, especially since Brooklyn’s population is around 2.6 million and ours is under 700,000! Dividing Brooklyn’s roughly 2,559,903 residents by 9696 new permitted units gives us 264 residents per new apartment allowed to be built. In Hudson County, that ratio is approximately 672,391 residents divided by 8,238 units, or 82 residents/new unit.

We are building housing more than three times as fast as Brooklyn, our nearest competition!

So, is all of Hudson County a noisy construction site surrounded by snarled traffic? Hardly! There are countless parks, a beautiful waterfront walkway, and lively, pedestrian-friendly streets. It’s actually not so different from Brooklyn, except it’s cheaper and arguably safer, especially these days.

Yglesias’ argument also makes sense given an inside view into NYC development that I happen to have: my friend Tim* is a commercial real estate broker in New York City. He often works with owners of lower productivity industrial real estate in poorer parts of the city that were recently upzoned to allow apartments. A typical client might be the owner of a small factory that is not very profitable, who can do better selling his land to a developer who will build apartments. The factory can move somewhere cheaper nearby (hello, New Jersey!) and people can have places to live.

My one bone to pick with Yglesias’ otherwise excellent article is:

I think a lot of sensible people have different opinions on that one!

Check out Yglesias’s website here. Tons of great reporting of the sort we don’t see enough of!

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*Not his real name

Photo: “MichaelPremo_MsWard-4364” by michaelpremo is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0