Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit links an article at Reason Magazine, reporting on something called the "2008 Copenhagen Consensus Conference," at which really smart people came together to recommend how to allocate limited resources to improve human flourishing in the most effective way.
It sounds like a good exercise: we can all come up with an endless list of things someone ought to do something about; but when you get practical--you ask, (a) what do we have to put toward all these projects and (b) what can we reasonably expect to accomplish, as a way to decide (c) which investments of time, talent and resources will actually help people the most, you have to make choices and it all becomes more realistic, with interesting results.
The exercise presupposed an arbitrary $75 billion budget. Of course it could have used a smaller or larger amount, but the fixed amount serves to focus decision-making.
As I read the article, here are the recommendations:
1. Supply vitamin A and zinc, badly needed by the 80% of the world's 140 million children who now lack them, by way of enriching foods and providing supplements. Cost: $60 million; benefit, in health and cognitive improvements, $1 billion-plus.
2. Widen free trade through international negotiations and agreements, bringing down trade barriers and elminating subsidies. I didn't see where the article assigned a cost to this, but it pegged benefit at a whopping $3 trillion a year, with all but $500 billion accruing to developing nations.
3. Fortify food with iron and iodized salt. Two billion people lack enough iron, and 30% of developing nations' households don't consume iodized salt. Cost: a paltry $286 million. (Every time Congress burps it costs the U.S. taxpayer more than that.)
After that it's "The other seven of the top ten solutions include expanded immunization coverage of children; biofortification; deworming; lowering the price of schooling; increasing girls' schooling; community-based nutrition promotion; and support for women's reproductive roles." I'm not sure what "biofortification" is, and my alarm bells go off on the last category, but the others all sound non-controversial and practical.
Wait, you say, what about pollution and global warming?
"At number 30, the lowest priority is a proposal to mitigate man-made global warming by cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases. This ranking caused some consternation among the European journalists at the press conference. Nobelist and University of Maryland economist Thomas Schelling noted that part of the reason for the low ranking is that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits."
"Also low on the list of priorities are proposals to reduce outdoor air pollution in developing country cities by installing technologies to cut the emissions of particulates from diesel vehicles. Other low ranked solutions included a tobacco tax, improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution, and extending microfinance. These are not bad proposals, but other proposals were judged to provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks available in the exercise. "
Read the entire article at Reason, with additional links if you want to follow up. This isn't the perfect list--one might question where relieving suffering from AIDS and malaria were ranked--but it is a helpful exercise; especially as we head into an election. How many people can we save through more vitamin A; yet we hear next to nothing about that, but a lot about "global warming."