Dec 12, 2010

Something for the toolbox


 CCPA Research Associate Marvin Shaffer has written a book that deserves to be in the toolbox of people questioning decisions around government projects.

The title of the book – Multiple Account Benefit-Cost Analysis: A practical Guide for the Systematic Evaluation of Project and Policy Alternatives – won’t have it jumping off the shelves in time for Christmas but activists should be asking for it in their stockings.

Shaffer is an academic and public policy researcher who regularly writes for this blog.  In 1993 he introduced the concept of multiple account benefit cost analysis to the BC government. 

Multiple account analyses goes beyond simple cost-benefit analysis.  Shaffer writes, it “is based on the premise that the role of benefit-cost analysis is to focus and inform, not resolve public policy debates…When the goal is to inform, the need for an overall bottom line disappears.  Indeed, it is often not even desirable.  A single summary measure of overall benefit can mask important information about the nature and distribution of benefits and costs.  More fundamentally, it can do a disservice by implying which alternative is best or what un-equivocally should be done.”

While some of the technical concepts in the book are a challenge for non-economists (like me), Shaffer illustrates them with case studies after each chapter that show how they are used.

Governments often use cost-benefit analysis to sell their particular ideas for projects.  Shaffer demonstrates that decisions around projects are rarely inevitable and most often they will depend on choices by the public and decision makers. His book helps arm activists with questions that need to be asked and issues we need to raise to challenge what we are told.

Shaffer’s book is available from University of Toronto Press or your local bookseller for $27.95.