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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An economist made me blush

Economist Steven E. Landsburg couldn't possibly be more annoying with his overwhelmingly large brain. His logic is way more impenetrable than mine.

Landsburg makes the argument in this book excerpt in The New York Times that little more promiscuity on the part of sexual conservatives would help solve the AIDS epidemic. Yes, more sex is safer sex. Apparently, he reaches this conclusion by applying the economics principles of supply and demand to STDs. Since I'm still wrapping my head around this, here's the argument in his own words.

Consider Martin, a charming and generally prudent young man with a limited sexual history, who has been gently flirting with his coworker Joan. As last week's office party approached, both Joan and Martin silently and separately entertained the prospect that they just might be going home together. Unfortunately, Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin happened to notice one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin's absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell - and Joan got AIDS.

When the cautious Martin withdraws from the mating game, he makes it easier for the reckless Maxwell to prey on the hapless Joan. If those subway ads are more effective against Martin than against Maxwell, they are a threat to Joan's safety. This is especially so when they displace Calvin Klein ads, which might have put Martin in a more socially beneficent mood.

If the Martins of the world would loosen up a little, we could slow the spread of AIDS. Of course, we wouldn't want to push this too far: if Martin loosens up too much, he becomes as dangerous as Maxwell. But when sexual conservatives increase their activity by moderate amounts, they do the rest of us a lot of good. Harvard professor Michael Kremer estimates that the spread of AIDS in England could plausibly be retarded if everyone with fewer than about 2.25 partners per year were to take additional partners more frequently. That would apply to three-fourths of all British heterosexuals between the ages of 18 and 45.

The bizarre part of the argument is that it's so anti-individualistic. It's group theory applied to individual sexual choices, which in the end, doesn't feel relevant to actually reducing the rate of infection. But it does. This might be something for the CDC to think about. It's also another reason for keeping ideology out of science when it comes to disease prevention and control.

Question for the class: Does he come off like a) a sex-starved maniac, b) an overbearing economist, or c) all of the above?


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