February 11, 2008
Looking Out the Window: Epidemiology and Sippy Cups

My lovely wife and I are expecting our first child in early August, and one way I’m preparing for fatherhood is by volunteering in the preschool ministry at church. It has been challenging but delightful, so far, and I’ve learned a lot in just a few short weeks (mostly about how much I still don’t know). It has also been an interesting exercise in “looking out the window” in accordance with Ronald Coase’s famous admonition. Yesterday’s adventures reading storybooks and dispensing saltines to one-year-olds got me thinking about three e’s: epidemics, externalities, and evolution.

As I understand it, illness spreads like wildfire among groups of small kids. We take a lot of precautions (hand sanitizer for everything, each child’s belongings carefully labeled), but this can only be so effective. Contagious illness may create a negative externality through direct transmission, but a more subtle problem might exist when we consider the fact that as bacteria and viruses are passed from host to host, they mutate and become progressively more resilient. The fact that one kid might make everyone else sick is only half the story; even once everyone gets better, there is likely a newer, ever-so-slightly-more-powerful bug floating around.

Trying to match kids with their individual reusable sippy cups brought this into high relief. Spill-proof sippy cups are definitely drops in the prosperity pool, but failure to match kids with cups or failure to properly sterilize the cups may transmit germs. That got me to thinking about the role of disposables. On one hand, disposables are held up as an example of avarice and waste, and to the extent that some of the costs of using disposables can be socialized, an externality may exist (though I hasten to add, following Walter Block, that this is not a “market failure” but rather a failure by the state to adequately specify and enforce private property rights). At the same time, disposables might reduce disease transmission and, therefore, slow down the rate at which bacteria and viruses evolve.*

The negative externalities from production can be resolved by clarifying property rights; if anything, disposables could produce positive externalities.* Has anyone examined this rigorously? Comments are open if someone can provide a link. I got to thinking about this in part because of an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal about furor in China over disposable chopsticks.

*-Notes below the fold.

*A colleague who read the first draft of this made two points. First, someone failing to wash a reusable mug between uses might infect himself/herself repeatedly. Second, if there are positive externalities from use of disposables, the “optimal” policy according to the textbook models would be to subsidize use of disposables.

Posted by Art Carden at 07:50 PM in Economics


Congrats on the baby--having a son is the coolest thing to happen to me.

Re your recent post on inequality--the Cox and Alm piece is a good one but the headline on it (something like "You Are What You Consumer"; probably supplied by the NYT not the authors) is unfortunate. It'll only play into the hands of folks who decry materialism, consumerism, ...

Lastly, welcome aboard!

Posted by: Frank at February 11, 2008 08:06 PM

I had another thought on the subject. Obviously there are people who believe quite strongly that disposables are more sanitary, and that they are worth the added cost: people working in medicine. Doctors and nurses use disposable gloves, clothing, even scissors, tweezers, and other tools. If it works for them, it will probably work for infants sharing sippy cups.

On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that this is an example of our health-care system encouraging inefficient, wasteful behavior, and that medical personnel should be reusing these things instead.

Posted by: Mike Hammock at February 11, 2008 10:08 PM

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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