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The Economics of Mosquitoes

You might not think that mosquitoes would be a great topic for economists, but two recent papers prove otherwise.

I grew up in Minnesota. The state motto is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which meant that there was never a shortage of mosquitoes. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go in the backyard in the summer because the mosquitoes were so bad. At some point along the line, the government started spending money on mosquito abatement in the Twin Cities, the mosquito problem died down, and our backyard was reclaimed. Minnesota mosquitoes didn’t carry diseases, so they were merely an inconvenience. In areas with malaria, however, mosquitoes are far more than an annoyance.

Hoyt Bleakley, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, documents the long-term benefits of malaria eradication in the American South in the 1920s, and then later (when DDT became available) in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. By comparing areas that did and did not have malaria problems before the eradication campaigns, Bleakley cleanly measures some of the benefits of abolishing malaria. Using individual-level census data, he finds that getting rid of malaria led to higher wages and literacy rates for children who grew up post-eradication. Wages rose 10 to 40 percent after eradication in the places that were worst affected by malaria. (He also has some surprising and powerful findings with respect to worms.)

David Cutler, Winnie Fung, Michael Kremer, and Monica Singhal, in a recent NBER Working Paper, document equally impressive impacts of anti-malaria campaigns in India. They find a 12 percent increase in literacy and primary school completion rates following the implementation of these programs.

Papers like these are important reminders of how radically technological advances have changed our lives. It’s important to remember that not long ago, infant mortality, malnutrition, and disease burden were the norm.