Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pools and Unintended Consequences

Pools all across the country are being closed because of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

"Better safe than sorry," right? "If it saves even ONE child's life" then it's worth it?

Rationally evaluating risks is one of my hobbies. We're all (myself included) bad at estimating risk; situations or things that feel risky often aren't, and we can easily shoot ourselves in the foot by overreacting to small risks (the Iraq War being the largest recent example).

I can think of two ways this well-intentioned law will almost certainly end up killing more children than it saves.

First, if fewer children learn to swim because pools are closed, then more children might end up drowning over the next few years. I have no idea whether or not there will be a measurable increase; hopefully any change will be small enough to get lost in the statistical year-to-year noise.

Second, if a lot of money is spent fiddling with pool drains, then that makes us poorer overall. And, statistically speaking, poorer kids are more likely to get killed than richer kids. In the book Risk and Reason (very wonky; I've been slowly digesting it for a while now), Cass Sunstein cites economists who estimated that somewhere between $2 million and $10 million spent to comply with regulations costs about one life. The congressional budget office estimates that it will cost "less than" $40 million for state and local governments to comply.

The thought of Virginia Graeme Baker drowning at the bottom of a pool is horrible. It's a lot harder to imagine the children who might be saved because they learned to swim, or to image the handful of people who will die because we spent money on pool drains instead of programs to improve childhood nutrition or encourage immunizations or prevent kids from joining gangs or...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gavin - you're right on the mark. You should put this into the Gazette OpEd...