Government weighs the worth of human life

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Dec. 20, 2002
Knight Ridder Newswire, Lexington Herald-Leader, Boston Herald, Toledo Blade, Boise Idaho Statesman, Shreveport Advocate, Spokane Spokesman, Tucson Citizen
By staff report
© Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder Newswire.

WASHINGTON - Saving the life of someone 70 or older might be worth only 63 percent as much as saving the life of someone younger, according to Bush administration regulators.

Twice this year, the White House Office of Management and Budget told the Environmental Protection Agency to apply that discounted value when it was trying to assess whether new anti-pollution regulations would be worth the costs they impose on polluting industries.

The idea is that if a regulation would cut pollution enough to extend an older person's life, how much would that be worth in dollars, compared with how much it would cost the polluter to comply.

It is standard federal practice to run such cost-benefit analyses for any proposed regulation, but the OMB's proposal to value the lives of senior citizens less than younger people, which previous administrations of both parties also tried, raises serious ethical and scientific questions, some experts said.

V. Kerry Smith, the director of the Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said his studies of workers' attitudes toward occupational risk found no significant difference between old and young when they weighed how much they would pay to reduce the risk of death.

"You could just as well say life becomes more precious the more you enjoy it, and you don't really want to cash in your chips," Smith said.

The 63 percent life-valuation measure is based on the principle that it is fairer to count the years of life saved by a government regulation than the number of lives, said John D. Graham, the regulatory chief at the OMB. The traditional approach values each life equally, regardless of age.

Graham ordered the EPA to use the new 63 percent standard in addition to its traditional approach.

Both methods "offer insight to policy-makers," Graham said in an e-mail interview. "These analytic factors are only one of many perspectives, including fairness, that enter into policy making."

The benefits of a potential federal regulation will be less when the cut-rate standard for life is applied in a cost-benefit analysis.

Earlier this year, at the OMB's direction, the EPA performed a cost-benefit analysis on President Bush's proposal to reduce power-plant pollution. It also analyzed a proposed 867-page rule to cut pollution from snowmobiles.

In both instances, when the number of senior citizens' lives saved was assigned a dollar value using the 63 percent standard, the proposed rule was judged to offer less benefit to society than it would have if all lives were valued equally.

For example, each life under 70 saved by the snowmobile rule would be worth $3.7 million under the cut-rate standard, while those older than 70 were said to be worth $2.3 million.

Some environmental activists and liberal Democrats object to the approach.

"They are not using sound science. They are simply trying to come up with a pretext to cut the value of health and safety standards in order to protect industries," charged Frank O'Donnell, the executive director of the Washington-based Clean Air Trust. "It is really outrageous from a moral standpoint to make an arbitrary distinction between the value of life of older people from the value of the life of younger people."

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, called the idea "faulty science based on bad facts."

Other experts say the OMB's concept is reasonable but its application might need to be refined.

"If you have limited resources, it's more important to save 30 years rather than one year," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you are extending a life by a year or six months, that's less important than extending a life by 30 or 40 years."

While the principle might have merit, the 63 percent value the OMB uses appears to be based on out-of-date and inappropriate science, according to experts in cost-benefit risk analysis.

The Bush administration bases its valuation on a 20-year-old scientific survey of British citizens, who were asked how much they would pay for a safer bus system.

The study's author - Michael Jones-Lee, an economics professor at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne - said it now was woefully out of date and doesn't apply to the United States.

Jones-Lee said a second study he did five years ago found only a 10 percent difference between what the elderly and younger people would pay to avert death. He said even that gap probably would disappear in America because U.S. seniors have a better quality of life than their British counterparts.

"The bottom line is the picture is fuzzy," Jones-Lee said in an interview yesterday. "I certainly wouldn't argue for my 1982 figure."

The bulk of scientific research in the field doesn't support the OMB's 63 percent policy, said James Hammitt, a professor of economics and decision sciences at Harvard's School of Public Health and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which Graham used to run.

"It's really a social question that's wrapped up in a moral question," Hammitt said. "At the simplest level, we say a life is a life, any death is a death. But since obviously we all die sometime, it's worth stepping back to look at the idea where a young death is worse than an old death, because a young person has longer to live."

Graham said his agency was looking at the scientific foundations of its analyses "and will continue to refine their use in regulatory analysis."

EPA claims value of American life worth much less in today's money  EPA claims value of American life worth much less in today's money

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