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Meanwhile, Out in the Real World


The debate over delaying the Obamacare mandates is not a trivial one, but it is the sort of strategic political manuevering that would have been familiar in Congress or in any state legislature in the 19th century. Meanwhile, in the 21st century:

LONDON (AP) — Surgeons may have a new way to smoke out cancer.

An experimental surgical knife can help surgeons make sure they’ve removed all the cancerous tissue, doctors reported Wednesday. Surgeons typically use knives that heat tissue as they cut, producing a sharp-smelling smoke. The new knife analyzes the smoke and can instantly signal whether the tissue is cancerous or healthy.

Now surgeons have to send the tissue to a lab and wait for the results.

Dr. Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London suspected the smoke produced during cancer surgery might contain some important cancer clues. So he designed a ‘‘smart’’ knife hooked up to a refrigerator-sized mass spectrometry device on wheels that analyzes the smoke from cauterizing tissue.

The smoke picked up by the smart knife is compared to a library of smoke ‘‘signatures’’ from cancerous and non-cancerous tissues. Information appears on a monitor: green means the tissue is healthy, red means cancerous and yellow means unidentifiable.

The research was funded in part by Imperial College of London and the government of Hungary. I sympathize with objections to government’s funding of research (politicized funding implies politicized research), but I suspect that it is almost always a better investment than the gazillions of dollars that will be spent on things like Obamacare and Medicaid. One of Tyler Cowen’s health-policy guidelines is: ”Always convert dollars of benefits, usually a private good, into dollars of support for medical research and development, a public good.  You will never end up at a margin where this is a bad trade.” That sounds about right to me. Markets are pretty good about democratizing access to new products — the cancer-detecting knife cost a very reasonable $380,000 to develop, and its creators foresee a steep decline once mass production is under way — whereas poorly structured benefits programs such as Medicaid have the perverse effect of limiting or reducing access to high-quality goods. 


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