The Misuse Of Cost

     Typically, when you or I use the word cost, we mean the cost of something we must purchase, regardless of our desires. But cost, like need, has experienced a number of marginal and outrightly wrong uses in recent years.

     Here’s one for you: opportunity cost. You’ll hear that usage from time to time, especially among planners who must choose among projects that are equal or close in desirability. Money, time, and effort spent to pursue one project cannot be spent on any of the alternatives. That’s usually characterized as the “opportunity cost” of your choice. Yet it has no dimension that can be measured in dollars and cents; it’s a considerable distance from cost as a household budgeter thinks of it.

     Then there’s social cost. This, too, is almost always a nebulous conception without a dollar-and-cents dimension. It usually refers to purported damages to “society,” that faceless and amorphous entity, that arise from certain individual behaviors. It can even refer to unease among diverse sectors of society or hurt feelings within families: things not normally purchased at retail.

     But this morning, I encountered one that I find particularly irritating, despite the earnest attempt by its employer to put a dollar value to it. Here’s the jewel in its setting:

     Red states and blue states may like to point to one another as the source of all that is wrong with the U.S., but the truth is that each of the 50 states has its own virtues and vices. For example, West Virginia has the worst drug problem, and it certainly comes as no surprise that Nevada is the most gambling-addicted.
     The cost of state sins is something we have to share as a nation, though. Gambling alone costs the U.S. about $5 billion per year. That’s nothing compared to the amount of money we lose from smoking, though – over $300 billion per year. Harmful behavior on the individual level can add up to staggering economic costs on a national scale.

     “The cost of state sins.” My word! I had no idea that states, rather than individuals, could sin. It’s undoubtedly intended metaphorically, as is the attribution of sins to pastimes some enjoy and others don’t. But the proposition that a cost is involved raises some interesting questions.

     The first question of interest is obvious: Who pays this cost, and for what? It’s an embarrassing question, as there’s no sensible answer. The numbers cited in the article refer to such things as lost productivity, expenses for medical care, and damage to family relationships – none of which can be definitely allocated either to a particular behavior or to a state. For most negatives we experience are the fruit of more than one cause. Also, the state, in reality, pays for nothing out of its own pocket; what it buys, it pays for with taxpayers’ money. Worse, it spends with no guarantee that what it will purchase will possess value to any individual.

     The second question is: Are these cost numbers definite or arguable? It’s not as if they come from an invoice for some particular good or service. In many cases I find them arguable, for example in discussing the “cost” of gambling. Not all persons who gamble regard their losses as losses; some – perhaps even most – treat them as the price, willingly incurred, for a certain kind of entertainment. He who calls them costs because the money could have been put to capital formation is indulging in a kind of fantasy.

     To my mind, those two considerations render this use of cost in characterizing various “sins” a specious one. The monies involved are not recoverable. Oftentimes no tangible good or service was forgone to make the funds available for the “sin.” It’s not plausible that the possessor might have put those funds to some other use had he “thought twice.” And of course, the choices involved are those of individuals, not states.

     Just one more episode in the degradation of our language by the misuse of words.