On the commensurability of efficiency

In this week’s round-up, I highlighted a recent paper in the journal Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. There are some interesting ideas presented regarding the challenge of decision-making at the individual patient level, and in particular a supposed trade-off between achieving efficiency and satisfying health need.

The gist of the argument is that these two ‘values’ are incommensurable in the sense that the comparative value of two choices is ambiguous where the achievement of efficiency and need satisfaction needs to be traded. In the journal round-up, I highlighted 2 criticisms. First, I suggested that efficiency and health need satisfaction are commensurable. Second, I suggested that the paper did not adequately tackle the special nature of microlevel decision-making. The author – Anders Herlitz – was gracious enough to respond to my comments with several tweets.

Here, I’d like to put forth my reasoning on the subject (albeit with an ignorance of the background literature on incommensurability and other matters of ethics).

Consider a machine gun

A machine gun is far more efficient than a pistol, right? Well, maybe. A machine gun can shoot more bullets than a pistol over a sustained period. Likewise, a doctor who can treat 50 patients per day is more efficient than a doctor who can treat 20 patients per day.

However, the premise of this entire discussion, as established by Herlitz, is values. Herlitz introduces efficiency as a value and not as some dispassionate indicator of return on input. When we are considering values – as we necessarily are when we are discussing decision-making and more generally ‘what matters’ – we cannot take the ‘more bullets’ approach to assessing efficiency.

That’s because ‘more bullets’ is not what we mean when we talk about the value of efficiency. The production function is fundamental to our understanding of efficiency as a value. Once values are introduced, it is plain to see that in the context of war (where value is attached to a greater number of deaths) a machine gun may very well be considered more efficient. However, bearing a machine gun is far less efficient than bearing a pistol in a civilian context because we value a situation that results in fewer deaths.

In this analogy, bullets are health care and deaths are (somewhat confusingly, I admit) health improvement. Treating more people is not better because we want to provide more health care, but because we want to improve people’s health (along with some other basket of values).

Efficiency only has value with respect to the outcome in whose terms it is defined, and is therefore always commensurable with that outcome. That is, the production function is an inherent and necessary component of an efficiency to which we attach value.

I believe that Herlitz’s idea of incommensurability could be a useful one. Different outcomes may well be incommensurable in the way described in the paper. But efficiency has no place in this discussion. The incommensurability Herlitz describes in his paper seems to be a simple conflict between utilitarianism and prioritarianism, though I don’t have the wherewithal to pursue that argument so I’ll leave it there!

Microlevel efficiency trade-offs

Having said all that, I do think there could be a special decision-making challenge regarding efficiency at the microlevel. And that might partly explain Herlitz’s suggestion that efficiency is incommensurable with other outcomes.

There could be an incommensurability between values that can be measured in their achievement at the individual level (e.g. health improvement) and values that aren’t measured with individual-level outcomes (e.g. prioritisation of more severe patients). Those two outcomes are incommensurable in the way Herlitz described, but the simple fact that we tend to think about the former as an efficiency argument and the latter as an equity argument is irrelevant. We could think about both in efficiency terms (for example, treating n patients of severity x is more efficient than treating n-1 patients of severity x, or n patients of severity x-1), we just don’t. The difficulty is that this equity argument is meaningless at the individual level because it relies on information about outcomes outside the microlevel. The real challenge at the microlevel, therefore, is to acknowledge scope for efficiency in all outcomes of value. The incommensurability that matters is between microlevel and higher-level assessments of value.

As an aside, I was surprised that the Rule of Rescue did not get a mention in the paper. This is a perfect example of a situation in which arguments that tend to be made on efficiency grounds are thrown out and another value (the duty to save an immediately endangered life) takes over. One doesn’t need to think very hard about how Rule of Rescue decision-making could be framed as efficient.

In short, efficiency is never incommensurable because it is never an end in itself. If you’re concerned with being more efficient for the sake of being more efficient then you are probably not making very efficient decisions.

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Transformative treatments: a big methodological challenge for health economics

Social scientists, especially economists, are concerned with causal inference: understanding whether and how an event causes a certain effect. Typically, we subscribe to the view that causal relations are reducible to sets of counterfactuals, and we use ever more sophisticated methods, such as instrumental variables and propensity score matching, to estimate these counterfactuals. Under the right set of assumptions, like that unobserved differences between study subjects are time invariant or that a treatment causes its effect through a certain mechanism, we can derive estimators for average treatment effects. All uncontroversial stuff indeed.

A recent paper from L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy introduces an argument of potential importance to how we can interpret studies investigating causal relations. In particular, they make the argument that we don’t know if individual preferences persist in a study through treatment. It is in general not possible to distinguish between the case where a treatment has satisfied an underlying revealed preference, or transformed an individual’s preferences. If preferences are changed or transformed, rather than revealed, then they are, in effect, a different population and in a causal inference type study, no longer comparable to the control population.

To quote their thought experiment:

Vampires: In the 21st century, vampires begin to populate North America. Psychologists decide to study the implications this could have for the human population. They put out a call for undergraduates to participate in a randomized controlled experiment, and recruit a local vampire with scientific interests. After securing the necessary permissions, they randomize and divide their population of undergraduates into a control group and a treatment group. At t1, members of each group are given standard psychological assessments measuring their preferences about vampires in general and about becoming a vampire in particular. Then members of the experimental group are bitten by the lab vampire.

Members of both groups are left to go about their daily lives for a period of time. At t2, they are assessed. Members of the control population do not report any difference in their preferences at t2. All members of the treated population, on the other hand, report living richer lives, enjoying rewarding new sensory experiences, and having a new sense of meaning at t2. As a result, they now uniformly report very strong pro-vampire preferences. (Some members of the treatment group also expressed pro-vampire preferences before the experiment, but these were a distinct minority.) In exit interviews, all treated subjects also testify that they have no desire to return to their previous condition.

Should our psychologists conclude that being bitten by a vampire somehow satisfies people’s underlying, previously unrecognized, preferences to become vampires? No. They should conclude that being bitten by a vampire causes you to become a vampire (and thus, to prefer being one). Being bitten by a vampire and then being satisfied with the result does not satisfy or reveal your underlying preference to be a vampire. Being bitten by a vampire transforms you: it changes your preferences in a deep and fundamental way, by replacing your underlying human preferences with vampire preferences, no matter what your previous preferences were.

In our latest journal round-up, I featured a paper that used German reunification in 1989 as a natural experiment to explore the impact of novel food items in the market on consumption and weight gain. The transformative treatments argument comes into play here. Did reunification reveal the preferences of East Germans for the novel food stuffs, or did it change their preferences for foodstuffs overall due to the significant cultural change? If the latter case is true then West Germans do not constitute an appropriate control group. The causal mechanism at play is also important to the development of policy: for example, without reunification there may not have been any impact from novel food products.

This argument is also sometimes skirted around with regards to the valuing of health states. Should it be the preferences of healthy people, or the experienced utility of sick people, that determine health state values? Do physical trauma and disease reveal our underlying preferences for different health states, or do they transform us to have different preferences entirely? Any study looking at the effect of disease on health status or quality of life could not distinguish between the two. Yet the two cases are akin to using the same or different groups of people to do the valuation of health states.

Consider also something like estimating the impact of retirement on health and quality of life. If self-reported quality of life is observed to improve in one of these studies, we don’t know if that is because retirement has satisfied a pre-existing preference for the retired lifestyle, or retirement has transformed a person’s preferences. In the latter case, the appropriate control group to evaluate the causal effect of retirement is not non-retired persons.

Paul and Healy do not make their argument to try to prevent or undermine research in the social sciences, they interpret their conclusion as a “methodological challenge”. The full implications of the above arguments have not been explored but could be potentially great and new innovations in methodology to estimate average causal effects could be warranted. How this may be achieved, I’ll have to admit, I do not know.

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