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  • Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish author and president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a project based US think tank

  • where prominent economists are seeking to establish priorities for advancing global welfare.

  • He's the former director of the Danish government's Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen.

  • Bjorn became known internationally for his book 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'

  • in 2001 and 'How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place,'

  • 'Cool It' in 2007, which is also a movie and lately, published in 2018

  • 'Prioritizing Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of The UN's Sustainable Development Goals,'

  • among many other works and books. And so, I'm hoping we'll have a very productive conversation today

  • and welcome to this

  • discussion.

  • Bjorn: Thanks a lot Jordan.

  • Jordan: All right, so why don't you just start by letting people know what you've been up to?

  • Over the last, let's say, two decades

  • I know that's a very broad question. I've been interested in talking to you because I

  • read a number of your books a few years ago, and I was interested in their economic

  • analysis as a way of determining which which

  • crises, let's say, or which potential crises are real and, also, how they might be managed most intelligently.

  • Bjorn: Thanks a lot Jordan and so

  • fundamentally, what I try to do is to say and this really is very very obvious

  • 'We only have a limited amount of resources,

  • so let's make sure we focus those resources on the places where we can help the most. Where we can do the most good.'

  • Remember, what is it that we mostly focus on in the world?

  • It's very often the things that get the headlines, the things that people talk about and very often that ends up being

  • the things that have the cutest animals or the most crying babies or the groups with the best PR and

  • surely that's not the right way to prioritize. The right way should be to look at : If I spend a Dollar or a Peso or

  • Rupee here

  • Will I do more good than if I spent that same Dollar or Rupee or Peso over here?

  • So basically asking across all the different areas you can spend

  • resources, where do I help the most. Now, obviously, that's a huge

  • conversation in-and-of itself because it's not easy to just determine that but the basic idea is simply to say

  • Let's focus on the places where you can do the most good

  • Rather than the places where it makes us feel the best about ourselves. So that's really what I've been trying to do for

  • for two decades and you know

  • Prioritizing the world and trying to say 'Where should you spend money?' of course makes the the projects that we say

  • 'These are the really really great interventions!'

  • They all love us and think we're like the best things since sliced bread

  • but of course the projects of the policies that are not so effective, they think we're terrible so it creates a lot of

  • antagonism and makes a lot of people annoyed and interested, but I think it's crucial to ask these questions.

  • Jordan: Well, one question would be 'What's the alternative?'

  • You know like when I was looking at the UN Development Goals, for example, if I remember correctly

  • there was something approximating 200 of them and this was a few years ago

  • I worked on a UN panel and I thought 'Well, the problem with 200 goals is that you can't have 200'

  • They're not goals if there's 200 of them because you absolutely have to prioritize in order to move forward assuming some limitation on resources

  • Which is exactly what you just described and so then then the question would become

  • 'Well, how do you calculate benefit?' And that's a really difficult problem,

  • which is, I think, why it wasn't addressed with the mishmash of 200 goals.

  • Apart from the fact that you're going to offend people by rank ordering their priorities.

  • So why don't you tell people a little bit about the methods that you used because I think there are definitely interesting.

  • Bjorn: So, you're absolutely right. The sustainable development goals:

  • We actually worked with the UN back in 2015 when they were doing this. It was about

  • 60 to 90 (it was very unclear) UN ambassadors.

  • I actually met with a quarter of them

  • in New York and talked to each one of them and said 'Shouldn't we try to, you know,

  • focus on the targets that would do the very most good?' Now, of course, each one of them said 'Yes' individually,

  • but the the the combined effort of all the UN ambassadors was, of course, not to actually do the best goals

  • It was to get everybody's goals in there.

  • So, you know, the Norwegians had three ideas and the Brazilians at four and everybody else had you know

  • three or four that they want in there. That's why we ended up with a hundred and sixty nine targets

  • which of course simply means she promised everything to everyone everywhere and that means a lot of people are going to be very disappointed when

  • 2030 rolls around and we haven't actually dealt with all the things that we promised.

  • Jordan: Right, so what happens there

  • is that the people who are doing that, including everyone on the list,

  • maximize short-term emotional well-being of the people who had been doing the consultation at the cost of medium to long term progress.

  • But then, again,

  • they're not going to be around in 2030, in all possibility, to suffer the consequences of that.

  • Bjorn: Or, at least, yeah

  • or at least they're not nobody's gonna see that we fail to do as much good as we possibly

  • could because we will have done a little bit of good everywhere. But, doing a little good everywhere

  • It is not nearly as good as doing an enormous amount of good in the places where you can view the very most good with

  • extra resources.

  • Remember we're estimating

  • the total cost of the SDGs is somewhere in the range of two and a half trillion dollars and

  • the actual amounts available is about a hundred and forty billion dollars.

  • So we literally have five percent of what we're promising

  • So we're promising the world and then we say:

  • 'Hey, here's a small amount of money and let's spread it thinly so everybody gets a little bit of it'

  • Jordan: Okay,

  • so that's partly where you derive your premise that we're dealing with limited resources is that you're actually using a real number and

  • that the number you're using is what's actually available and when you wrote 'How to Spend $75 billion'

  • you basically took half of what was available.

  • Bjorn: That yes, I was about much much earlier on and that was mostly sort of a oh, it's a fun idea to say:

  • 'How would you spend a specific amount?' Yes, and that was half

  • So we weren't saying we should spend all of it in the exact way that we were talking about.

  • Jordan: Okay, so to agree with you

  • So to agree with you, people have to agree that

  • Everything can't be done for everyone all at once at infinite expense and that it's useful

  • practically and and also

  • Even in a utopian sense in the desirable sense to rank order so that the obvious

  • Money that's available the money that's genuine available can targeted best.

  • And so then the next question would be: 'How do you go about that in the least

  • controversial and most empirically sound manner? (To do the rank ordering)

  • Bjorn: So, we use

  • cost-benefit analysis

  • which is a very well-established economic tool that tries to say: 'All right, for each of the proposals that you come up with -

  • How much will that proposal cost?' Now, remember, this is not just economics. Most of the cost will be money

  • but for instance if you want to immunize

  • small children

  • You also have to ask the mothers to spend perhaps a day to go to the place where their kids will be immunized.

  • That'll, both, cost them labor (they can't do labor that day), maybe they will have transportation costs, they'll have food costs

  • There'll be extra other cost

  • So we try to add all of those costs up and say: 'So, what's the total cost of this project?'

  • Then we look at all the benefits and remember the benefits of both economic

  • Yes

  • But they're also social, for instance kids not dying or kids not being sick and they're often also environmental.

  • So we tried to take all of those benefits of both the economic the environmental and social benefits.

  • Add them all up into one number that is

  • denominated in Dollars or Rupees or whatever your currency is and then you can say: 'Well, for this many Dollars

  • you can do this much good' and that means you can also say: 'For every dollar spent you can do this much good."

  • Obviously I'm simplifying this but in a sense what it means is if you do it

  • Right and a lot of economists spend a lot of time trying to make this right if you have all the same

  • parameters across all these different areas

  • It actually means you can start comparing

  • Different interventions across all the different areas and say: 'Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck?'

  • And of course that is what it matters if you're actually going to do good so we did and this is not good

  • please don't buy this book because this is this is a very long and

  • Academic book but we did this long and academic book with with more than 50 of the world's top economists

  • Looking across all these different areas

  • but the beauty is you can actually

  • Put it in just one chart and I'm going to show you that and then we'll also put it up there on your website

  • So this is the ones

  • One-page chart that has all the targets here and for each of the targets

  • There's an analysis that says: 'How much will this cost? How much good will it do?' and then it shows 'For every dollar spent..How much good will it do?'

  • If it's a long line, it'll do a lot of dollars of good if it's a short line not so much.

  • So it really becomes this very simple menu for the world to say: 'Where can you spend your resources?'

  • And of course this doesn't mean you know, just like when you go into a restaurant you get a menu

  • It doesn't mean you buy the cheapest thing or the most nutritious and maybe you're in the mood for you know

  • an unhealthy cake

  • But it's incredibly important to know what is the cost and what's the benefit and knowing this

  • Makes it a lot more

  • likely that the world is going to focus itself on some of the really long bars where it can do a lot of good for

  • Every dollar or your Peso spent.

  • Jordan: Ok. So now

  • if I was thinking about critiquing this, lets say, from a social science and/or

  • Political perspective the first thing that I would object is

  • Well, how do you... how is it that you know that your calculation of the costs and the benefits are

  • accurate and how do you know that they're

  • essentially as free as possible of any undue political bias

  • So because your critics, no doubt, will object, as perhaps they should, that there will be

  • Let's call them implicit biases even though I'm not a fan of that idea in some sense

  • There's going to be underlying presuppositions that weight the manner in which the economic

  • Calculations are made and then of course, you also have to buy the idea that the cost-benefit analysis approach is actually valid

  • So, can you tell me what you guys did to forestall such or to take such criticisms into account?

  • Bjorn: Sure, and so first of all, we don't just ask one team of economists

  • We also have other teams

  • critiquing those

  • economists and we exactly try to make sure that there's sort of critiques from both sides if you will so we know that this is

  • not just an ideologically driven number, but it's actually an empirically pretty clear number that says for instance if you focus on on

  • Vaccinations you're actually going to do and what we find is you're going to do $60 a social good for every dollar you spend

  • Now you could argue: 'Well, what would be sort of the

  • Ideological spin you could put on that?' Well one thing is to say: 'Well, did you measure all humans as equal?'

  • Yes

  • we actually did. And of course, you could argue from an economic point the same point that they're not. I think very few people would

  • want to do that but what we do is across all these areas, all people are ranked as

  • equally important. That is: equally valuable, and that's obviously political gonna consideration

  • But I think one if we're looking across the world, that is the right one

  • If anything that probably means that most rich country people are evaluated way too little compared to what they're actually willing to do themselves

  • But this means that we actually get the weighting right in the sense of saying: 'Where are you gonna spend extra money if your goal

  • is to help the most in the world?'