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July 11, 2008

“In America, they bring only a penny”
Posted by Avram Grumer at 11:17 PM *

Perhaps you have already observed that in the White House, human life is cheap. The EPA has reduced the value of human life, from $7.8 million five years ago to a mere $6.9 million today. MSNBC explains:

When drawing up regulations, government agencies put a value on human life and then weigh the costs versus the lifesaving benefits of a proposed rule. The less a life is worth to the government, the less the need for a regulation, such as tighter restrictions on pollution.

If you take the devaluation of the dollar into account, the value of a human life in euros has dropped from €7 million in 2003 to a mere €4.3 million now. So if any of our European readers have been thinking of putting hits out on Americans, you ought to be able to get a good deal.

In barrels of oil, the value of a life has plummeted from 312 thousand to 49 thousand barrels! Iraq is estimated to hold around 112 billion barrels of oil, which means that in 2003, at the time of the US invasion, Iraq’s oil reserves were worth about 360 thousand American lives, while they’re now worth about two million. We’ve actually only spent a bit over three thousand American lives there so far. What a bargain! No wonder Republicans want to stay the course!

Comments on "In America, they bring only a penny":
#1 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 12:04 AM:

It's like hearing "You do the math!" in voiceover only Satan's the one talking and the guy in the clown suit by the electric railroad models is setting fire to the little tiny station and trees and schoolhouse.

While giggling and honking his red bicycle horn nose in two-four time.

#2 ::: Darth Paradox ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 12:35 AM:

I believe it's actually a little over four thousand. Still a bargain... assuming we'd just be getting all that oil for free, as a reward for spreading democracy and freedom across the world.

#3 ::: Andrew ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 12:42 AM:

As I recall the coverage from NPR, the EPA still has the highest value on life of the various agencies, and their water branch has an even higher one.

Wouldn't those be bigger issues?

#5 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 02:28 AM:

I suppose it's better than ye olde 100 head of cattle...

#6 ::: Eric Chapman ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 02:49 AM:

Y'know, as a teenager I always said this country was one short emergency away from becoming a totalitarian police state straight out of a grim scifi plot. I brought it up a few times when fighting with my father, who assured me that the righteous media would never let this happen. He worked (and still does) in the newspaper industry.

We were both certain the other was wrong, but I don't think I ever expected to be so right.

But to see the math laid out like this, combined with all the other stuff that's come out in the last week (possible shock collars -- okay, they're bracelets -- for anyone who dares to travel on an airline; my great hopes for a righteous fillibuster of the FISA bill crushed by the ones I thought sure to protect my constitutional rights, etc).. the math above did something that no math has done since those teen-aged days in highschool.

That math made me want to weep.

#7 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 03:14 AM:

There's another inference.

The value of the Average American Life has dropped because the Average Anerican is expected to earn less over a lifetime. And the causes could include reduced life expectancy for other reasons than those the EPA is concerned with.

#8 ::: insect_hooves ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 03:25 AM:

This is what happens when unquantifiable constants in equations demand literal values - abstractions that are more hole than container. Totally. Fscking. Meaningless.

#9 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 04:10 AM:

#7, Dave Bell--if you look at the math, they DON'T include expected earnings in the figure.
How figure is reached
The the EPA figure is not based on people's earning capacity, or their potential contributions to society, or how much they are loved and needed by their friends and family — some of the factors used in insurance claims and wrongful-death lawsuits.

Instead, economists calculate the value based on what people are willing to pay to avoid certain risks, and on how much extra employers pay their workers to take on additional risks. Most of the data is drawn from payroll statistics; some comes from opinion surveys. According to the EPA, people shouldn't think of the number as a price tag on a life.

The EPA made the changes in two steps. First, in 2004, the agency cut the estimated value of a life by 8 percent. Then, in a rule governing train and boat air pollution this May, the agency took away the normal adjustment for one year's inflation. Between the two changes, the value of a life fell 11 percent, based on today's dollar.
My question is, that mysterious cut in 2004. Why? Did danger pay decrease? Did people's tolerance of risk increase?

This is all around creepy, and I can see no other reason that a desire to make it easier to put people in danger.
Sigh...and I was feeling so optimistic today...

#10 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 04:12 AM:

Sorry about my mistagging-the whole central section is supposed to be a quote, up to "today's dollar."

#11 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 04:40 AM:

#9 JimR, there's still a connection to wages, but it's a bit more indirect. And the whole thing starts to look a bit shabby, because it's reacting to The Market (all face Wall Street and grovel), and there is an inherent imbalance between the employer and the individual employee.

And I'm not sure I would assume that employers pay employees for taking the risks. It needs the EPA to make them pay for the pollution they cause.

#12 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 08:03 AM:

This is what happens when unquantifiable constants in equations demand literal values - abstractions that are more hole than container. Totally. Fscking. Meaningless.

Well, that's the problem. The methodology they used may not have any real meaning to you. Or to your family.

But if the Army has an official value for a soldier's life that is only $1m for a Private First Class (value is hypothetical here), and the EPA has a value of $6.9m, that matters. That means that it's financially better for a person's family for them to die in something the EPA is in charge of... and that a death in a chemical spill is "more valuable" than a death in Iraq. And it is not a small difference. This has serious, long term consequences since we're busy with a war that kills more of our soldiers than it ever should.

Add in that the EPA is reducing the value it puts on human life, and it's not a picture I like. This has serious negative consequences for real people.

I would be much more comfortable if there was a policy encouraging the various government agencies to compare their "value of a life" numbers... and if they all had to use the highest value an agency could come up with. (which doesn't mean I'm *happy* just that my natural valuing of a human life at infinite is a bit happier with the compromises involved in dying in the real world)

#13 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 08:15 AM:

There are other issues with EPA's calculations on some of these things, of course. Namely: the cost-of-life equation isn't the only thing going into these calculations. The other thing is the dose-response curve for the pollutant in question. The usual assumption for many pollutants is that dose-response is linear at small values. How do we know to predict the dose-response curve? Well, in some cases we're guessing based on data for really really high exposures.

Really high exposures aren't always good models for long-term, low-level, chronic exposures. (For example, see this article on non-monotonic dose-response curves.)

@11: IIRC, the pay differential is actually based on risk and pay differences between professions. Extremely simplified example: take two professions, say professional fishing and driving a school bus. Subtract the bus driver's pay from the fisherman's pay, take the remaining number, and figure out how it stacks up against how much more likely the fisherman is to die.

Like all methods of calculating the cost of a human life, it has major issues. Fishing is probably more fun than driving a bus. Moreover, fisherman get paid based on their catch, and don't know exactly how much they're going to make from year to year. It's not like they're going to be able to sit down and do the fishing-versus-bus calculation every year.

There's also issues with how people perceive risk. Familiar risks are perceived as less unnerving to think about, so people are more likely to worry about working in a nuclear power plant than about working in a coal mine, even though all available statistics say the coal mine's more dangerous.

It also doesn't take into account the fact that people take jobs because they're what's available. If you live in West Virginia and you don't want to move away, you're going to be more likely to take a job at a chemical plant or a job as a coal miner. Not because they pay you enough to make up for the risk, but because they're the jobs you can get.

And hey, I can't even *find* the fatality rate for my profession online. What does that say about my ability to do the math?

#14 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 08:56 AM:

Wouldn't this value of a life calculation simply drop the value of a life (based on wage differentials for more/less dangerous jobs) in bad economic times, when people were more willing to take lousy jobs to keep food on the table?

I doubt there's much deep relevance to this number, honestly. Someone somewhere wants to plug this value into a formula on a spreadsheet, to assign a money value to some bit of regulation. It's likely that every single input to that formula is some kind of crude estimate like this--a guess about the costs of the new regulations, a guess about the number of life-years saved, a plausible-looking discount rate (because saving a life this year is worth a bit more than saving it next year), etc.

Am I missing the deep relevance here? Is there some evidence of the EPA monkeying around with the figures to get a lower value, so they can justify turning down some new regulation?

#15 ::: AliceB ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 10:43 AM:

"Am I missing the deep relevance here? Is there some evidence of the EPA monkeying around with the figures to get a lower value, so they can justify turning down some new regulation?"

Given their latest punt on the Clear Air Act as it relates to global warming, I'd say they don't feel like they need anything at all to justify their decisions.

#16 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 11:35 AM:

Would now be a bad time to mention that the rate of exchange between heroin and automatic rifles in the mountains of Central Asia has not changed much from what it was back in those easy-freezy days when Devo was fresh?

#17 ::: Luthe ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 02:12 PM:

Eric Chapman #6:
possible shock collars -- okay, they're bracelets -- for anyone who dares to travel on an airline;

WHAT?

#20 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 04:00 PM:

#6, 17-19
If used, just about guaranteed to kill off air travel. (Which may be the intention, for all I know.)

#21 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 06:38 PM:

#6 and #17 - 20...does anyone have any idea why we're only hearing about this shock-bracelet-for-air-passengers idea now, when the letter referenced in the WashTimes article was written in 2006 (and the promotional video is from 2003)? Because I'm really interested to know whether it's just a case of someone coming across the info after the idea has been discarded as unusable...or if it's come to the public eye now because the DHS/TSA/other think(s) it(they) can get away with it now...

Either way, no way in hell I'll wear one.

Reading the article actually made me nauseous. I don't remember the last time that happened.

#22 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2008, 11:46 PM:

But if the Army has an official value for a soldier's life that is only $1m for a Private First Class (value is hypothetical here), and the EPA has a value of $6.9m, that matters. That means that it's financially better for a person's family for them to die in something the EPA is in charge of... and that a death in a chemical spill is "more valuable" than a death in Iraq.

While I don't know if the EPA uses the same meaning for the official value of a human life as I was taught, the value as I understand it has nothing to do with compensation after death.

What I was taught (industrial health and safety class, chemical engineering program) is that for every given safety feature there is an installation and maintenance cost, and there is the probable number of lives saved.

If a safety feature will cost $10,000 to install and has a probability of preventing 100 serious injuries or deaths each year, it is worth installing. $100/person in the first year.

If a safety feature will cost $10,000,000 to install and has a probability of preventing 1 serious injury or death - the EPA would not require it, because it is more than the $6.9M they have selected as the value of a human life. If that same feature has a probability of saving 5 lives ($2M/person), then an organization that values a human life at $6.9M would install it, but an organization that values a human life at $1M would not.

#23 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 12:46 AM:

Back when I was a rural mail carrier, my son (then a firefighter) said "I don't like to think of you driving those rural roads with the log trucks on them. You should have a safer job. You should work for the fire department." I said "What? You know, where I grew up, there was a firefighters' memorial monument. I've never heard of a mail carriers' memorial." He said "Oh, well, you could be a dispatcher." I said, "Oh, well, I could be a clerk in the post office too, but I don't want to." But it was clear that he thought of the fire department as warm fuzzy employment because he worked there.

#24 ::: J.K.Richard ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 05:06 AM:

You are all just whining. A bunch of whiners. Whining constantly about the economy --- and there's not indication that the economy is failing right now.

Whiners.

#25 ::: Doug Burbidge ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 05:29 AM:

Surely the value of a life is two pennies?

Or is that the value of a death?

#26 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 06:17 AM:

#25

Less. At the current exchange rate, 2 drachma are worth less than US $0.01. Getting into Hell is cheaper than it's ever been.

#27 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 11:32 AM:

I haven't bothered to do the work, so I'm a little loathe to bring it up, but: How different is this from what any Western/Japanese government does it? I watch for the tendency to dislike things "about America" that may just be generic to government.

Once:

Because I was curious about his reaction, I once told an ex-refusenik* about the American government's encouraging children to turn in their parents for drugs offences. His response was a gratifying, "That sounds Soviet."

I replied, "Yushku, you 're like the child of abusive and crazy parents who doesn't understand that some of the stuff they did is what all parents do."

*Trained geologist who'd spent ten years as a hospital janitor, assisting in several births along the way; Denied access to computers, so he designed a relational database using 20,000 index cards, which he probably go "na'levo" from friends. Big fan of Reagan, who took a personal interest in him when he was still a refusenik...nice guy, who could be forgiven his authoritarian patches. Another time, I'll tell you about the physicist zoo-keepers of Kharkov.

#28 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 11:34 AM:

Duh:
     "; Denied" --> ". Denied"
      "go from friends" --> "got from friends"

#29 ::: Jim Satterfield ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 03:16 PM:

It somehow reminds me of those AGW deniers that are constantly saying that they don't refuse to recognize that things are warming but work hard to make it seem like it's a very small problem.

"It's not going to get as warm as even the moderate parts of the models say. The poles and glaciers aren't going to melt enough to raise the oceans that much. And since that's the case it's cheaper for us to adapt to the changes than try to drastically reduce CO2 production." So their arguments go. If you actually accept the first two parts it minimizes the potential cost and suffering. And that's just what they want. When it's pointed out that there are factors that can't be adequately quantified at this time and that therefor the IPCC left them out (making their estimates very conservative) and that makes it quite possible that things could also be worse than the current models predict you can hear the crickets chirping.

Change the assumptions. Change the numbers. Suddenly your policies can make sense...sort of, maybe.

#30 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 06:03 PM:

#27:

Because I was curious about his reaction, I once told an ex-refusenik* about the American government's encouraging children to turn in their parents for drugs offences. His response was a gratifying, "That sounds Soviet."

I replied, "Yushku, you 're like the child of abusive and crazy parents who doesn't understand that some of the stuff they did is what all parents do."
If you're implying that encouraging family members to inform on each other is something all governments do, I don't think that's true. And if it is true, it doesn't need to remain true, in polities where the citizens have some control over the actions of their government.

Yes, I realize the USA may no longer qualify for that category.


On the other hand, the type of calculation described in #22 *does* require a number, even if it's a made-up number. But in that case, the consequences of *lowering* that number are quite obvious: fewer safety precautions when they might be expensive, and as a result, less safety for the citizens of the country that values them less. This is a pretty good argument for a rule that that value should only ever go up (pushing industries inexorably in the direction of greater and greater safety).

Tort law imposes a related calculation (anyone who doesn't want to be bankrupted by a tort lawsuit might want to try to prevent the accidents that spawn them; anyone who carries tort liability insurance is likely to be harassed by his insurer to implement risk-reducing measures), a fact which ought to be borne in mind whenever you hear about tort reform. Some attempts at tort reform are attempts to remove the economic danger (to business) of the accidents, without removing the accidents.

#31 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 07:42 PM:

> If you're implying that encouraging family members to inform on each other
> is something all governments do, I don't think that's true.

I would hold that they do, for crimes that they deem particularly grave---the differences lie in the relative sanity of the gravity meter. The Dutch, even with their current government, would still probably be contemptuous of going that far for a few pot plants, but would encourage kids peaching their parents' serious, violent, crimes.

I can understand some anarchists' take on this, that this proves that democracy is not really better than autocracy, but I think that's excessively topological---some governments are coffee cups, some are doughknots, and some are burning tyre necklaces.

#32 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 08:52 PM:

Chris, #30: Some attempts at tort reform are attempts to remove the economic danger (to business) of the accidents, without removing the accidents.

I have yet to see one that didn't fit that description. As far as I'm concerned, the phrase "tort reform" is just code for "let the greedheads do whatever they like, without recourse for those they damage in the process."

#33 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2008, 06:54 AM:

I work for a state DOT, and have to do similar cost/benefit studies all the time in determining when to locate guardrail. Basically, if the object being protected has a high crash incident rate (as in being right near the road with a lot of traffic on it), or it has a high probability of causing a fatality (think bridge abutment or concrete sign post), then the guardrail installation/maintenance/repair would be worth the cost due to the value of the people it would save.

The program uses a million dollars as the "cost" of a human life.

#34 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2008, 06:55 PM:

#31: U.S. constitutional tradition protects people from having their spouse inform on them (IIRC), but doesn't extend that protection to other immediate family/household members (children, parents, etc.) I have always regarded that as an oversight in need of fixing, rather than as an opportunity to catch more potheads (or even murderers).

#35 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2008, 08:34 PM:

If you're implying that encouraging family members to inform on each other is something all governments do, I don't think that's true. And if it is true, it doesn't need to remain true, in polities where the citizens have some control over the actions of their government.

Here's the thing - if a family member is abusing the family relationship by committing a crime I think the government should definitely encourage the family to turn them in; domestic violence and abuse aren't things that can or should be dealt with solely within the family and hidden from the outside.

I think that offences that don't break family trust (in addition to illegal drug use etc. I might include things such as creative tax accountancy) shouldn't be being targeted for turning in (in part because hardly anyone is going to). I note that here in the UK, when the Police make an appeal for witnesses for high profile violent crimes, they will often say something like "If you know anything about this incident, even if it concerns a family member, we would strongly encourage you to come forward", which is fair enough.

#36 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2008, 09:16 PM:

Chris #34: Spousal privilege in court testimony arises from the common law, not the Constitution. The details are a bit complicated.

#37 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2008, 12:52 PM:

Am I correct in believing that spousal privilege is entirely voluntary on the part of the spouse? I'd always assumed that if your spouse _wanted_ to testify against you, they[sic] could---but they could not be compelled to do so.

I'd assumed so, and so it set off warning bells when, in an episode of "Weeds" a couple of seasons back, a character claimed that if they[0] married another character, their[0] testimony couldn't be used against them[1]. (Neutral and confusing pronouns used to avoid a spoiler---and I haven't seen beyond that episode, so don't spoil the dramatic consequences for me.)

(And spousal privilege doesn't cover confederates of the spouse, I'd assumed.)

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