Coming to Terms with the “Value” of Life

The rhetorical debate behind the NYT’s front-pager

Last week, my colleague Felix Salmon expressed his love for The New York Times’s front-page article on Thursday about federal agencies increasing the value of a “statistical” human life in cost-benefit analyses of various regulations.

Salmon has a right to feel enamored. It’s a good piece, which explained why, “To protests from business and praise from unions, environmentalists and consumer groups, one agency after another has ratcheted up the price of life, justifying tougher - and more costly - standards.” It also examined why the Department of Transportation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency have arrived at different figures for the value of life.

It’s worth noting, however, that much like the changes themselves, the Times’s high-profile coverage is overdue. Greenwire, The Associated Press, and Chemical & Engineering News all picked up on the rising value of life in articles published in January and early February. Rather than making the rise the focus of their stories, however, the news hook was a suggestion the EPA made in December to ditch the term “value of a statistical life” in its relation cost-benefit analyses.

“We are not putting a value on a human life,” the director of the agency’s National Center for Environmental Economics told Chemical & Engineering News and other reporters in January. The EPA proposed the term “value of mortality risk reduction” in an effort to make that clear, but the agency’s scientific advisory board rejected it.

The Times wisely ignored the semantic debate in order to concentrate on why the trend toward increasing the value of life “is a sensitive subject for a [presidential] administration that is trying to improve its relationship with the business community, much of which has bitterly opposed the expansion of regulation.” As Salmon noted in his review, “The first thing to admire about the piece is that it doesn’t dwell on ethics or philosophy, as most such stories do — there are no rhetorical flights of fancy about the government trying to put a dollar value on love, or that kind of thing.”

The actual numbers that agencies are using, how those numbers differ, and how they’ve changed over time are, as Salmon suggests, what really matters. But the semantic debate is not totally irrelevant or unimportant, especially for journalists.

In the draft of a white paper, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics wrote, “We fear, as do others, that the prevalence of such terms of art as‚ the ‘value of a statistical life’ has contributed to unnecessary confusion and consternation among decision-makers and members of the general public.” As an example of the confusion (which could come off as a blame), it cited an AP article from 2008, which revealed that the agency had devalued life by nearly $1 million since 2004 (CJR complimented the scoop at the time). The EPA took issue with the headline, which read, “American Life Worth Less Today,” as well as the opening line, which stated, “[EPA] has decided that an American life isn’t worth what it used to be.”

Greenwire turned around and reported, “The [AP] headline was wrong, supporters of cost-benefit analyses say, because the government is not predicting the value of saving people who would otherwise die. Instead, regulations reduce the risk of death by a tiny amount — say, by one-in-a-million — for millions of people.”

The AP wasn’t wrong, however. The Times front-pager took a similar stylistic tack, suggesting in its lede that the EPA is “grappling with a subject that is more the province of poets and philosophers than bureaucrats: what is the value of a human life?” The paragraph goes on to say that, “The answer determines how much spending the government should require to prevent a single death.”

The discrepancy boils down to a little provocative flourish and a statistical point of view. When discussing the cost of a regulation that will reduce a “single death” per 100 people, everybody in the at-risk population has a 1 out of 100 chance of being that additional life saved. In other words, the regulation reduces everybody’s risk by 1 percent. The “Value of a statistical life” reflects the first point of view, which is more individualistic. “Value of mortality risk reduction” (also referred to as “micro-risk reduction”) reflects the second.

The Times made a smart decision by not burdening its readers with the agency’s ongoing debate about which term to use, but journalists should be aware of the rhetoric that surrounds it—and of the EPA’s capacity to point fingers. The AP deserves credit for consistently being on top of this story, and regardless of their focus, all of the articles cited above did a fairly good job explaining what the agency is measuring and why.

Post script: Most of the articles also explained how government agencies calculate the value of a statistical life (or mortality risk reductions), which is generally based on surveys of the extra pay that workers receive for high-risk jobs, or on surveys that ask people what they would be willing to pay to avoid a certain risk. Another proposal in the EPA’s white paper suggested placing a greater value on preventing cancer deaths compared to other causes of death, because people are more afraid of cancer and would pay relatively more to avoid it.

All of the news outlets highlighted above mentioned the “cancer differential,” but only the AP dug deeper. Its report quoted risk expert David Ropeik, who called the idea “dangerous” because people tend to overestimate the risk of cancer. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Ropeik elaborated, explaining that people tend to fear cancer more than heart disease—believing the former causes more pain and suffering—even though heart disease is much more likely to kill them. Because of such “gaps” in our perception of risk, “we push for government policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what’s more likely to kill us. Resources devoted to lesser risks aren’t available to protect us from the bigger ones - meaning that our overall risk goes up.” [Disclouse: Ropeik has contributed to The Obervatory.]

The debate about the cancer differential is related to the debate about terminology. When the EPA suggested that it begin referring to the value of “mortality risk reductions” rather than of a “statistical life,” it was trying to stress that it wasn’t putting a value on actual human beings, or, as Ropeik put it, that “these aren’t real people with faces and arms and legs. These are statistical, abstract lives.” When it came to the cancer differential, however, the agency seemed to be encouraging the opposite point of view, asking people to think about real human experience. It’s a discrepancy with a lot of nuance, but one that reporters should be aware of.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , ,