The value of life has gone up in the past few years, according to the calculations of a number of government agencies about how much should be spent to prevent a single death. The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of life at $9.1million last year, quite a bit up from the $6.8 million figure the agency used during the Bush Administration. The Food and Drug Administration says that life is worth $7.9 million last year, another increase over an earlier figure: In 2008, the FDA put an $5 million value on life. The Transportation Agency sets its sights a little lower, quoting values of around $6 million for a life.
High figures or, perhaps, not high enough. These calculations are based on economic theories of cost-benefit analysis according to which ‘differences in wages show the value that workers place on avoiding the risk of death,’ according to an article in the February 16th New York Times:
Say that companies must pay lumberjacks an additional $1,000 a year to perform work that generally kills one in 1,000 workers. It follows that most Americans would forgo $1,000 a year to avoid that risk — and that 1,000 Americans will collectively forgo $1 million to avoid the same risk entirely. That number is said to be the “statistical value of life.
The New York Times notes that the estimates for the value of life ‘may keep climbing.’ The EPA, for instance, ‘might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths, because cancer kills slowly,’ while the Department of Homeland Security ‘suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.’
These figures have concrete repercussions in that they lead to regulations and higher costs set by the Office of Management and Budget that are passed on to businesses. One reason the Transportation Department is putting the value at life at $6 million is ‘justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.’ And businesses are now seeking to ‘[reconsider] the effectiveness of cost-benefit analysis as a check on regulations,’ with the United States Chamber of Commerce starting to campaign for Congress to have a greater say in the ‘rule-making process, reflecting a judgment that formulas may offer less reliable protection than politicians.’
One has reason to be at least a bit cynical at this whole notion of setting a monetary value to life. As Robert Hahn, a leading scholar of the American regulatory process and a professor at the University of Manchester in England, ‘“The reality is that politics frequently trumps economics.” He does acknowledge that ‘putting a price tag on life still was worthwhile, to help politicians choose among priorities and to shape the details of their proposals.’
I see his point though I also think this whole debate reveals how data-driven our society has become. Regulations and standards are necessary so that products are created that are, indeed, safe and that don’t (to the extent possible) endanger people’s lives. It’s certainly telling that it’s businesses that are expressing caveats about the higher estimates on human life, as the new regulations get passed onto them in the form of higher costs, which are then passed onto consumers.
Taking a more philosophical, and humanistic, stance that the value of life is priceless and can’t be estimated, perhaps the question to ask is, how much are we willing to pay, to keep ourselves alive?
Photo by lisa_h.