None of this is exactly pretty, and it’s easy to see why Appelbaum couldn’t get straight answers out of the technocrats he talked to. But if anything the amount of wiggle room is smaller than I would think reasonable:
In December, the E.P.A. said it might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths, because cancer kills slowly. A report last year financed by the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.
Both those numbers could and arguably should be significantly higher, I think. Dying of cancer is a particularly gruesome — and expensive — way to go. And the cost of the terrorist attacks of September 11 is well up in the trillions at this point — getting on for a billion dollars per initial life lost.
So color me impressed that the US government has found a way of getting things done and remaining empirical in an atmosphere which by its nature is always going to be highly political. It comes as no surprise that the Obama administration is using values higher than the Bush administration did — that’s part of what Obama meant when he promised to toughen up government regulation of corporations. I’m just happy that there’s a culture in Washington of basing these decisions on some kind of numerical argument.
(On which matter I have one quibble with Appelbaum’s piece. He says that if companies must pay lumberjacks an additional $1,000 a year to perform work that generally kills one in 1,000 workers, that would impute a $1 million value on a human life. I don’t think that’s true: you should take the present value of $1,000 per year before you multiply by 1,000. So the imputed value of human life here would be much higher than $1 million, depending on how long the average lumberjack works at his job.)