Monday, April 03, 2006


Everyone has AIDS

While I was watching the Duke-LSU game the other night, there was a commercial with the fellow from CSI (I think Grisham) and he was talking about AIDs.

I think he specifically said, "if you think you are safe, you are dead wrong".

Honestly I have very little sympathy for anyone who "gets" AIDs out of their own actions. Perhaps we should feel bad or sorry for their predicament, but I mostly don't... mostly.

I couldn't help but think of the little jingle from Team America, which I guess is originally from the play Rent. The truly comical part of it is that it was a real marketing plan for further AIDs awareness and funding. See here.

So my real issues with all of this is that subsidizing research only distorts the real risks associated with risky behavior. Sex education, free condoms, free testing, and pregnancy counseling, subsidized abortion, and subsidized child-rearing (medical, food, school) are all examples that lead to the distortion of the real risks associated with sexual activity.

The same could probably be said for subsidizing pregnant women (via medicaid, TANF). Since it distorts the real risks associated with sexual activity and the natural by product of that activity, it also distorts the real risks associated with parenthood in general.

Sorry, I am not for AIDs research. Atleast not governmentally funded research.

There's a lot that could be said here, but I'd like to focus on a particular philosophical issue.

Suppose it turns out that a certain group of people (horny teenagers) are disposed to be imprudent. For a small expenditure on condoms and sex ed, we can save many of them from the consequences of their imprudent behavior, which has much higher expected costs than the costs of condoms and sex ed.

Their imprudence plays a key role in the story here -- it explains why they're simply not going to apply the future costs of their decision properly.

Should we pay the money up front? I think it's an easy answer, and we should. (Here as always, I'm an old-fashioned maximizing consequentialist.) Also, I tend to be sympathetic to the imprudent -- I see their errors as weakness, not evil. Imprudent people can be frustrating to deal with, but so can children, for the very same reasons. And I am sympathetic to children.

(also: hi, Jenna!)
I am not sure if it is a matter of imprudence, but rather myopia. The use of imprudence makes it seem that their decisions are necessarily rash and not thought out. Teenagers are likely risk lovers.

Who knows exactly if they have realized the full risks associated with their risky behavior, but some evidence from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco use would suggest that they are aware of at least some of it. Additionally, I think myopia is a better approach, since the discount rate may be the key factor rather than simple misjudgment.

Are teenagers necessarily irrational decision-makers?

On your comments:
If there is reason to believe that simple sex ed and condoms are enough, why do we subsidize everything else as well? What deterrant effect do they now have?

This actually reminds me of how William Easterly approached on the "Cash for Condoms" program in Africa.

I am not sure if their decisions are weaknesses or simply justified rational decisions (contrary to our own deductions and discount rates) or the actions of a risk-loving individual.

I also think that the extensive subsidies distort the decision making process -- making the waters of thought rather muddy.
Personally, I'd be surprised if the subsidies distort anybody's thought process. It's a very rare teenager who's thinking about the level of government spending on AIDS when the opportunity for sex arises.

Teenagers can make rational decisions, but they're not quite as good at it as older people. And in the case of sex (where humans of all ages are prone to make irrational decisions) they're very likely to be unreliable.

I think that you can replace "imprudent" with "myopic" throughout the above post, and my argument will still work.

Let me also add that free condoms don't "distort" the risks of sex. They genuinely reduce the risks.
Don't you think that the artificial assurance (safety net) from the use of a condom or via sex education classes, actually takes away from the ability of an individual to see the future streams of risk and benefits associated with the activity?

We tend to see this with individuals for decision-making in savings and investment (retirement and LTC), health care, driving, smoking and a bevy of other risky activities that are skewed because of external involvement.

Additionally, I think condoms can reduce the risks of certain aspects of sexual activity. They don't reduce emotional side effects or other aspects involving relationships. Also, do individual actually have more sexual activity because they feel "safe" by using condoms? If so, then they actually put themselves at increased risk because of the subsidized assurance.
First, I don't see how sex education creates an artificial safety net. I think it gives individuals a clearer view of how to maximize benefits while reducing risks.

They say at the bottom of the table here that while the average rate of pregnancy per year for couples that use only condoms is 12%. If you "use a good-quality condom correctly, the annual risk for pregnancy is 3%." Some of the instructions about correct use aren't trivially obvious, like "don't use oil-based lube", "pinch the tip," and "hold the base of the condom when pulling out." It seems likely to me that good condom education would increase proper condom use, which would decrease problems like disease and pregnancy. (The stats above support the contention that proper condom use reduces the possibility of bad things happening to near zero. Remember that they're about annual use.) Use birth control too, and you're safe. Since HIV seroconversion rates are generally pretty low, I doubt that you get more bad things happening when people use condoms than when they don't.

Personally, it seems pretty clear to me that the emotional side effects of not having sex are far worse than the emotional side effects of having sex. Not having sex makes me feel depressed and pathetic; having sex makes me upbeat and cheerful. Sex is also lots of fun, and people having fun is an acceptable goal of public policy.
I agree that it is fun. I am not sure if your statements are an accurate assessment of the emotional aspects of sexual activity -- especially for teenagers.

While it is likely a good choice for individuals, I don't think that maximizing happiness is an appropriate role for a government or in public policy.

Limited involvement is likely better.
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