24 February 2011

Value of a Life-- Going Up?

Just a quickie set of thoughts here.  On February 16, the New York Times reported that several federal agencies had recently increased the value those agencies placed on human life.  For example, the NYT stated that the EPA was now using a value of $8.1 million per life, up from $6.8 during the previous administration, and that the FDA was using a value of $7.9 million, up by more than half from $5 million in 2008.  On first glance, it seems crude to even suggest that anyone or anything, much less the government, can place a value on "a" human life, not any particular human life, just "a" life.   To some degree, many of us subscribe to the more Romantic notion that the value of a life (and in particular our own lives and the lives of those that we care about) is infinite and incalculable.  Nevertheless, there are quite good reasons to allow the government to set these kinds of values-- governments typically use such values in calculating the relative costs and benefits of a particular policy or regulation, and courts and attorneys use these values or those similar to them in order to compensate those who have lost loved ones due to negligence, etc.

But rather than defending the practice of placing a monetary value on a human life, the question I want to ask is: why is it going up and why is it going up at this particular moment?  The technical answer is easy: the value of a life goes up because Americans are self-reporting greater risk aversion and increased self-evaluation.  But why ought the value of a life to go up?  Millions are unemployed (and many for increasingly lengthy periods of joblessness), entire cities are being swallowed by blight (e.g. Detroit), and contemporary governmental budget strains foresee a coming time when the government will take a greater portion of our personal wealth (in some form or another) but we will receive fewer benefits and services in return.  By simple supply-and-demand, our current economic predicament suggests that our lives ought to be valued more cheaply (i.e. the supply of persons has risen (through population growth) while the demand for persons (employment + other productive activities) has remained the same or fallen).  Nevertheless, the valuation has risen sharply precisely when the US has entered this prolonged recession.  I wish I had some kind of answer, but for now, I am just intrigued by the question.