Judgment highlights economic cost of saving lives

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It comes down to what a life is worth.

In the 1960s, a Nobel laureate in economics, Thomas C. Schelling, proposed letting people assess their own lives. Observe how much they were willing to spend to reduce their risk of death – by buying a bicycle helmet, driving within the speed limit, refusing to buy a house near a toxic waste site or demanding more high for more dangerous work – government agencies could calculate a price.

This can however lead to strange figures. As Australian ethical philosopher Peter Singer pointed out, you can save a life in poor countries with $ 2,000 or $ 3,000, and many of these lives can still be lost. “If you compare that to $ 9 million,” he said, “it’s crazy.”

The discussion becomes even more delicate when we consider the age profile of the dead. This begs the question: is saving the life of an 80-year-old man as precious as saving the life of a baby?

Cass Sunstein, a lawyer who worked for the Obama administration, head of the White House office in charge of these assessments, proposed to focus government policies on saving years of life rather than lives, such as it is the custom in other countries.

“A program that saves young people is better in this sense than an otherwise identical program that saves the elderly,” he wrote.

In the George W. Bush administration, the E.P.A. tried to go in the preferred direction of Mr. Sunstein. To calculate the costs and benefits of the legislation regulating soot emissions from power plants, he had to determine the value of the reduction in premature mortality. Rather than valuing each life saved at $ 6.1 million, as it had done in the past, it applied an age reduction: people over 70 were worth only 67% of life of the youngest.

The response from AARP and others has been fierce. And the agency abandoned the idea. “E.P.A. I will not use, I repeat, an age-adjusted analysis in decision-making, “argued Christine Todd Whitman of E.P.A. administrator at the time. Yet by putting the same price on all lives, the agency implicitly devalued the remaining years of the young.

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