Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Saving One Life, Losing Three

With regard to the conversion from analog television transmissions to digital and the following proposals for subsidies for digital television (for those left behind in the conversion process), I posed the question, "Will this legislation save lives?"

I promised to post the best response to my inquiry. Of the responses I received, this one written by Vic best addressed my question and the tradeoff that the politicians sponsoring the subsidies did not consider.

Here is his answer:

"As with any decision, there is a tradeoff with this legislation—it is between spending that three billion on this digital conversion project and spending it elsewhere or nowhere at all (perhaps lawmakers could refund it as part of an overall reduction in government spending). The measurement by which we must judge this tradeoff is the number of lives saved, since the lawmakers claim that their legislation will “save lives”.

That claim means, then, that currently, lives are or will be ended prematurely by the inability of emergency personnel to communicate on an adequate number of frequencies, which would mean that there is or will be a shortage of frequencies. However, we know that that is not the case, because the whole proposed project is intended to shift the many millions of analog television viewers into the digital spectrum to make room for emergency users on the analog spectrum; that means that there are available frequencies on the digital spectrum right now.

It is unclear why emergency personnel instead cannot convert to the available digital frequencies if indeed they have already or soon will run out of analog ones. The answer must be either that digital frequencies will not save as many lives as analog frequencies will, which as absurd, or that the marginal (or total, depending on how the lawmakers would legislate it) conversion of emergency users to digital frequencies as demand for frequencies increases would cost more money, time, lives, etc. than converting all of the non-emergency users. If that is true, then that means that the three billion that supposedly would be sufficient for converting the non-emergency users would be insufficient for converting the emergency users.

In short, each of the following conditions by itself is necessary (but not sufficient) in order to save lives in emergency situations: analog frequencies have or will run out; the shortage hinders or will hinder, at the cost of human lives, the ability of emergency personnel to communicate; the legislation would eliminate the shortage and, therefore, the human cost; and it is more costly in money, time, lives, etc. to convert the emergency users than it is to convert the millions of television viewers, etc.

Lives are not at stake only in emergency situations, however. Even if, and only if, all of the conditions in the previous paragraph are met, the number of saved lives must be greater than the number of lives lost in non-emergency (and perhaps, still, some other emergency) situations. Those saved lives not only must outnumber any that were lost at the margin as a result of the very taxation of the three billion in the first place, but also they must outnumber the lives that could have been saved by putting that three billion to different use, if there is any other use that would outnumber the human cost of the original taxation.

I think it is virtually impossible to meet all of the conditions listed in the previous two paragraphs, which is necessary to do, in order to have a net increase in the number of lives saved. Therefore, the short answer to the first part of Capital Freedom’s question is 'no.' This legislation will not save lives."

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