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Big Assumptions, Big Risks

Thinking about the choice between online-only learning and returning to regular classes reminds me of a scenario I share with my economics classes: Assume you could put seatbelts on every new school bus produced each year for $100 million.

Further assume that all kids would wear the seatbelts and, as a result, 3 children who would have otherwise died in a bus accident, would be saved. Then I pose the question: Would you vote to spend $100 million a year to save 3 students’ lives? After students have had time to write down their answers and the rationale behind their decision, I will take a vote. 

The results are usually about 90 % in favor of spending $100 million a year to save 3 lives and 10% opposed. There is great eagerness in the votes of the 90%, but only a sad resignation in the responses from the NO voters. The spenders are given a chance to defend their votes, and the comments are very predictable. Most of the arguments boil down to the belief that every life is precious, and we cannot put a dollar value on those lives. 

Then it is time to hear from the people I jokingly refer to as “the cold-hearted crowd.” That evokes some nervous chuckles before I tell them I would vote against the spending too. Instead of me telling them why I let the students opposed to the spending do it for me.

Some, who need a refresher course on the word “assume” argue that kids would not wear the seatbelts. However, the sharpest students will always point out the many things we could spend $100 million a year on that would save far more lives. 

Here are some things more dangerous than school busses: pools, bathtubs, buckets (20 kids a year drown from falling into 5-gallon buckets), and plastic bags. These hazards are in addition to the many deaths from car accidents, poisons, and guns. 

In response, some in the pro-spending crowd will say that we still need to put seatbelts on school buses, while spending more on every other thing that is a risk to young people. To be fair, we have plenty of people in politics with that kind of viewpoint, but that does not make it a valid argument. 

Back in 1980 I heard about the Dale Carnegie course and requested some information. The course is designed to “master the communication skills necessary to strengthen interpersonal relationships, develop a commanding attitude, and instill confidence and enthusiasm in your workplace.”

Doesn’t that sound like something everyone would want? The Dale Carnegie sales rep told me about the course, but I only remember two things he said. First, it was going to cost me $400, which works out to about $1100 in today’s money. When I objected to the cost, the sales rep told me the other thing I remember him saying. He said, “Look at all the benefits and don’t even consider the cost.” As we talked, he repeated the “don’t consider the cost’ mantra again and again. I wonder if that worked with anyone. 

Conversely, the economic perspective involves making choices based on a consideration of costs and benefits. We use the economic perspective every time we consider where we’ll go for dinner or set the volume level on our TVs.This is hard-wired into us from early in our lives. 

If I tell my young grandsons I will buy them each one package of candy, I can observe them looking at all the options and see the wheels turning in their heads. What their young brains are doing is performing a series of cost-benefit analyses before arriving at a decision. 

Decisions are forced on us because of the scarcity of resources in our world. Because we all want more than we can possibly have, choices must be made. In making choices, it is very important that we weigh the costs and benefits accurately. If we overvalue the benefits of a decision or undervalue its costs, we will end up with a very negative outcome. 

There are many benefits to returning to in-person classes and these have been repeated again and again, but there are also great costs, most notably, the health and lives of our teachers, staff, and students along with the people they encounter away from school. 

I will not minimize the impact of closed schools on students’ well-being or family finances, but I do not think any possible benefit is worth the life of even one person in our schools. Even though such a view was contrary to my stated assumptions, the kids who point out that students would be unlikely to wear seatbelts are realists. 

Reopening schools is considered safe based on some giant assumptions: the reliability of people to self-monitor, the daily cleaning and disinfecting of rooms, and the ability to keep students masked and practicing social distancing.

I think we would have better luck getting 100 13-year old’s to wear seatbelts on a long bus trip. I hope for all of our sakes, I am wrong, but I doubt it. 

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