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

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.