Who gets the Last Seat on the Plane? Why Aid Hates Economics

Not long ago, I was returning home from a trip when the airline bumped me from my flight due to overbooking. The airline rep was very sympathetic, but I didn’t want her sympathy, I wanted A Seat On the Plane. She had traded off my wishes against those of other passengers, and I lost. Economists are unpopular because we say there is always SOME resource that is overbooked in aid, and aid is Forced to Choose: who is going to get the Last Seat on the Plane?

Politicians and advocates try to argue their way out of the Scarcity and Tradeoffs, using one or another of these proven strategies:

(1)   There really is no scarcity

This is Sachs’ central argument for more money in aid –you should never be forced to choose who should live and who should die, so you should always ask for more aid money. This has been effective as advocacy, but still doesn’t make aid money an infinite resource – there is still a limit on how much rich people will give. And the scarce resource is not only money – it is also political capital, rich peoples’ attention, or effective and accountable aid workers in the field. So using AIDS as an example, sure you should do some of both treatment and prevention – but how much of each? In the end, they are still competing for limited Seats on the Plane.

(2)   Our project doesn’t use any scarce resources

This argument is usually made by omission. The Millennium Villages don’t advertise that they are dependent on one extremely scarce resource -- Western experts -- perhaps it would then become obvious that they are neither scalable nor sustainable. And of course there is a big tradeoff between the Millennium Villages and better projects you could do with this scarce Western expertise. A better project replaces the scarce foreign expertise very soon with more abundant local expertise and labor – such as training programs to transmit foreign technical skills to locals, who will in turn pass it on to other locals.

(3)   My cause actually is the same as your cause

Advocates of one cause often argue many other causes NEED their cause. If the necessity is absolute, then indeed the tradeoff disappears. If it is less than 100 percent absolute, there is still a tradeoff. Hey, Other Passenger who took my seat: don’t claim that You are so Important that it’s pointless for Me to get on a plane without You! Unless You are the Pilot.

In summary, there really is scarcity and aid really is forced to make intelligent choices. Be sure to give a seat to the pilot.