Brain Mapping and Public Goods

A blog about business and economics.
April 2 2013 12:25 PM

Brain Mapping and Public Goods

165261828
National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins introduces President Obama during the announcement of the administration's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the White House on Tuesday.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Obama administration wants to launch a $100 million initiative to map the human brain, which is being hailed by American Enterprise Institute's Jim Pethokoukis as an example of "what government should be doing."

He's right, and it's a good opportunity to discuss the much-misused term public goods. A public good, in the economics jargon, is something that's nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. In other words, if I use some of it, that doesn't leave less around for you, and once it's out there, it's just out there. Scientific knowledge is a great example. When I learn something, it doesn't mean that you unlearn it. But a big problem with public goods is that they're valuable because they're nonrivalrous but underproduced because they're nonexcludable. So we have a lot of public policy dedicated to making nonexcludable things excludable in practice. That's what patents and copyrights are for. We also do some to subsidize the production of knowledge. That's everything from the day-to-day work of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to this big-picture science. Direct financing of knowledge production is a great thing for the government to do, especially because alternatives such as patents and copyrights tend in practice to be counterproductive to the advance of science.

Advertisement

The relevant linguistic fact, however, is that the vast majority of public services the government provides—roads and buses and schools and mail delivery—aren't public goods in the technical sense. Which doesn't mean they're all bad ideas. Oftentimes direct government service provision is a plausible solution to the problem of monopoly (roads especially) or else a convenient form of homeowner resource pooling (parks, libraries, etc.). But the true public goods are generally the things you don't think about all that often, like the ability to get reliable information about how many people live in San Antonio or various scientific research grants.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.