The Washington Post has reported that the Environmental Protection Agency has made an announcement that should surprise no one who has lived through the last seven and a half years of the Bush Administration: a human life in the United States is now worth less than it used to be.
Last week, it was revealed that an Environmental Protection Agency office had lowered its official estimate of life’s value, from about $8.04 million to about $7.22 million. That decision has put a spotlight on the concept of the “Value of a Statistical Life,” in which the Washington bureaucracy takes on a question usually left to preachers and poets.
This value is routinely calculated by several agencies, each putting its own dollar figure on the worth of life — not any particular person’s life, just that of a generic American. The figure is then used to judge whether potentially lifesaving policy measures are really worth the cost.
EPA, and other government agencies (different agencies use different values) use the value of a statistical life in cost-benefit analysis. For example, in attempting to determine whether to regulate a toxin, the government calculates the cost of regulation then calculates how many lives will be saved by the regulation and multiplies that number of lives times the value of a life to determine the benefit. Under the old valuation if it costs 250 million dollars to implement and enforce the regulation, it would not be implemented unless it saved over 31 lives (250 million divided by 8.04 million=31). Now that human lives are cheaper, no action will be taken unless 35 lives are saved (250 million divided by 7.22 million). In other words, this means that now regulation will not be required in situations where it would have been in the past.
This is the first time that a government agency has ever reduced the “value of a statistical life.” And it was EPA that did it. Care to take a guess why?
I confess, it seems likely to me, and perhaps to you as well, that the reduction in the value of a statistical life is directly connected to the Administration’s twist-itself-into-knots tactics to avoid regulating greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clear Air Act in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling last year. The Bush administration did not agree with the ruling so it did what it always does when it doesn’t like a law: it ignored it. The White House has done everything that it could to avoid regulating CO2, from censoring testimony to Congress by the head of the Center for Disease Control on the health consequences of Climaticide, to refusing to open the email from EPA in which it tried to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Now it appears to be trying to avoid regulation of CO2 (and regulation in general) by raising the bar for taking action.
If, at this moment, you are scratching your head and mumbling words like, idiots, miscreants and scumbags, I fully understand.
So, how does one calculate the “statistical value of a (human) [just thought I’d throw the word human into that bureaucratic expression to provide a little perspective] life”?
It wouldn’t work for researchers to survey Americans at gunpoint and ask how much they would pay not to die. Instead, an unlikely academic field has grown up to extrapolate life’s value from the everyday decisions of average Americans.
Researchers try to figure out how much money it takes for people to accept slightly bigger risks, such as a more dangerous job. They also look at how much people will pay to make their daily risks smaller — such as buying a bike helmet or a safer car.
“How much are you willing to pay for a small reduction . . . in the probability that you will die?” asked Joe Aldy, a fellow at the D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future.
The rest is more or less multiplication: If someone will accept a 1-in-10,000 chance of death for $500, then the value of life must be 10,000 times $500, or $5 million.
If this strikes you as really stupid reasoning, well, it’s because it is. Okay, maybe I can make that calculation about a bike helmet since bike riding has certain obvious dangers, but how do I make it about an unknown toxin in the food that I eat or the computer screen on my laptop? How does an individual make this calculation for complex processes that most people don’t understand or even know about, such as biodiversity, ecosystem services, melting permafrost, or a change in disease vectors because of global warming from increased CO2 emissions?
The whole system needs to be scrapped. It is based on a series of false premises. The most obvious of course is that it reduces the value of human life to a financial estimate, which makes it possible for the Bush administration to argue with a straight face that saving the planet from run-away climate change is too expensive! It ignores the fact that people place radically different values on things (I place a high value on wilderness; my neighbor could give a damn.) and averages us together into a meaningless hodgepodge whose only value is that it satisfies some dimwit bean counter’s desire for “NUMBERS”. It also ignores future human (it always ignores non-human ones) inhabitants of the planet. Since there is absolutely no way to calculate how much they will think anything is worth, they are simply left out of the equation. They are not left out of the consequences however.
We need a new paradigm. Our goal should not be to calculate how much poison we’re willing to ingest in exchange for a new carpet. We shouldn’t accept any poison. We should demand only poison-free products, and while that may be difficult to achieve in some instances, it is a better way to think about these questions than the current way which is little more than “How many people can we kill before we have to do something about it.”
Since my life is worth less now, do you think I can take a deduction for the loss on my next income tax return?
Crossposted at Daily Kos