Several months ago, we asked our community, “What if some social problems may be easier to solve than to manage? And what if solving said problems violates our moral institutions and political institutions?”
The inquiry was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s feature in the New Yorker: “Million-Dollar Murray.” In it, Gladwell discussed power-law and the reasons why people fail to solve social problems. (Power-law distributions are those in which the majority of activity can be found at one extreme.)
“Million-Dollar Murray” told the story of Murray Barr, a chronically homeless former marine who racked up over one million dollars in hospital bills over a ten-year period. Homelessness has a power-law distribution: The majority of people are homeless for about a day, but quickly recover and move on with their lives. Ten percent of the homeless population, however, are episodic users and nearly consume public funds at the rate they swallow drugs and alcohol.
What Gladwell exposed is that it is much more cost-effective to solve social problems, rather than to simply treat them.
This reluctant truth made a bold appearance in this week’s New York Times.
“For the first time in history, lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and others kill more people than communicable ones,” writes Mark Bittman, Opinionator columnist, about the fiscal toll of treating ‘lifestyle diseases.’ “Treating these diseases — and futile attempts to ‘cure’ them — costs a fortune, more than one-seventh of our GDP.