Monday, September 06, 2004


Government Measurements of a Statistical Life

I am constantly getting into arguments about "the value of a human life" and the fact that human lives are not all equally valuable, despite the emotional objections of some. It is quite clear that ceterus paribus, a 24 year old who dies is more of a lose to society than a 64 year old who dies. Yet no matter how many times I argue with people they always end up just shaking their head in disgust. It makes me think I need to argue better...or at least argue with people who are willing to be swayed. Well, I ran across this paper and thought it was worth pointing out. The main point of the article is that it is wrong for government agencies to use a set value for a statistical life without regard to who is effected by the issue and what the statistical value of the lives of the people in that group would be. There is much more meat to the article than that, but I couldn't help but chuckle at all the times the author felt the need to accentuate that they are not stating "poor people are worth less than rich people." Well here I go again...if wealth is any measure of the contribution that you provide to society (please see the Francisco speech for an empassioned argument for why it often, though not always, is a good measure) then yes, poor people are worth less than rich people. Complaint letters should be sent to whoever the hell you want, just so long as it's not me.

Curious: What about people whose lives are valuable to others, but who do not earn wealth? Such as Superman, George Bailey, an infant, an elementary school teacher, or your neighborhood social worker? How do we measure the value of these lives?

(Additionally, don't forget that emotional logic is just as valid in an argument as non-emotional logic. Remember--the truely wise think with both their minds and their hearts. So all those counter arguments of, "That just feels wrong" are worth something afterall.)

Okay, first of all, we calculate the value of anything the same basic way; take all of the benefits and add them up, subtract all the costs and that gives you the net value. People are no different. Going back to the value of the lives of the rich vs the lives of the poor. Yes, there are wealthy individuals who are a net drain on society and there are poor individuals (such as superman) who provide a great net benefit to society despite not having much wealth. However, as groups, there is no reason to expect there to be any average difference in the amount of charitable public goods that are provided by the rich and the poor. (In fact, that is not entirely true as there is a positive correlation between wealth and charitable work, not just charitable donations). Therefore the assertion stands quite easily that without knowing about a specific person and tallying their benefits and costs up, the rich will on average be "worth" more than the poor. In making policies where we cannot do the calculations for every individual but we can get a representative sampling of the groups that will be effected it would still make sense to place a higher value on the rich vs the poor. (So the author of the paper doesn't kill me, I should add that he actually points out that a lower value may imply more, not less, funding for programs to save lives of the poor).

I might also add that it just "feels" right that the rich should be worth more than the poor. I'm glad you mentioned that this is a valid argument, because otherwise people would just say I'm a cold hearted evil bastard.
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