On Balance: From the SBCA President: Impressions of the 11th Annual Conference

Clark Nardinelli, SBCA, On Balance, JBCAMay 15, 2019

By: Clark Nardinelli

The 2019 Annual Conference and Meeting of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis took place March 13-15 at George Washington University’s Marvin Center. The conference was attended by 329 friends of benefit-cost analysis, the largest number of attendees since the first conference in 2008. The attendees were treated to a cornucopia of benefits and costs, eminent speakers, and good conversation.

Forty-three conference sessions covered topics presented by researchers and practitioners from around the world, reflecting the global applications of benefit-cost analysis and the reach of the Society. Presentations tackled subjects as diverse as the Olympics, taxes, crime prevention, international environmental agreements, sanitation, prohibition, deregulation, drawbridges, nudges, and the statistical value of a dog life. Discussants’ perspectives, questions and comments from audiences, and spirited talk during breaks and evening receptions were often as enlightening as the presentations themselves. It all came together to create an ideal event for those who care about benefit-cost analysis.

This year’s conference showcased the benefit-cost analysis of health and development policies in low- and middle-income countries. The sessions on “Benefit-Cost Analysis in Global Health and Development” and the plenary session wonderfully illustrated the value of benefit-cost analysis in evidence-based policy-making in resource-limited settings.

The two sessions focused on “Benefit-Cost Analysis in Global Health and Development” built on the findings and research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project on reference case guidance for benefit-cost analysis, with presentations demonstrating the application of methodological recommendations in illustrative case studies. The case studies were particularly salient in demonstrating the difficulty and complexity of policy interventions and how benefit-cost analysis, done properly, can inform decision making—an important lesson for both higher- and lower-income countries. Many of the papers presented at these sessions have now been published in a special open access issue of the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis (Volume 10, Issue S1, Spring 2019).

Benefit-cost analysis poses both thorny theoretical questions and challenges in its practical application. Some conference sessions explored foundational questions, such as intertemporal discounting, the value of a statistical life, and the implications of uncertainty, while other sessions dealt with practical matters of regulations and regulatory policy, such as continuing looks at the results of deregulatory and regulatory reform policies in the United States.

The sessions on comparative analyses were most welcome; I especially enjoyed seeing papers and panels comparing approaches to regulation, international experiences in regulatory reform, and international comparisons of food safety policies. The enormous burden of foodborne illness in developing countries, recently shown in the Global Burden of Disease project of the World Health Organization, makes global food safety policy a health priority.

Cass Sunstein (Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University) delivered the keynote address during Friday’s lunch. Professor Sunstein spoke on “Sludge and Ordeals,” which included the 9.78 billion hours of government-imposed paperwork that he inherited in 2009 when he became administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein characterizes much of the paperwork as

“sludge”—hours that reduce access to programs, increasing costs and reducing benefits. Using homely examples, Sunstein showed how people are effectively denied goods and services, with the problem compounded by behavioral biases. Although efforts could be made to reduce sludge, Professor Sunstein reminded us that paperwork can promote legitimate goals, such as protecting privacy, encouraging self-control by making it more difficult for consumer to make impulsive purchases or impulsive decisions, and rationing to ensure that program benefits go to those who need them most.

On Friday afternoon, Dean Jamison (Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco) gave the plenary address on “Valuing Investments in Health for Development: Reflections on Three Dynamic Decades.” His talk highlighted the evolution of economic evaluation in global health, including the use of cost-effectiveness analysis and the transition to increased use of benefit-cost analysis. He emphasized the role of benefit-cost analysis in incorporating the non-health outcomes associated with health interventions, as well as the health outcomes of interventions aimed primarily at achieving non-health goals.

Looking back today after a few weeks, I recall how well the annual conference embodied the Society’s mission to bring together persons from diverse disciplines and countries and create opportunities to exchange information and ideas on the theory and practice of benefit-cost analysis.

As in past years, the conference’s formal sessions and informal conversations gave participants a chance to escape from their day-to-day work and think more broadly about the state of the field. In doing so, they displayed no reluctance to question theoretical and empirical foundations, to extend methods into new areas, and to ask if practitioners and theorists are getting things right.

It is impossible to do justice to the many conference sessions and the keynote and plenary addresses with just a few words. But suffice to say that I found it all exciting and fun and I’m already looking forward to next year’s meeting and conference. Be on the lookout for the call for abstracts for next year’s conference in March 2020, which should come out this summer.