The Value of Human Life Just Ain’t What it Used to Be

By Fred Lee on 18 July 2008 8 comments
Photo: duchesssa

At a time when the cost of everything is going up, from the gasoline we put in our cars to the food we feed to our families, isn’t it refreshing when the price of something significant is actually going down? Well, actually not always, especially when it involves the value of your life.

In an interesting development as reported by the AP , the government, or more specifically the EPA, has determined that the value of human life simply isn’t worth what it used to be five years ago, dropping 11% to a paltry 6.9 million dollars.

The value is the amount of money a person is willing to spend in order to reduce the risk to their lives, as well as how much more an employer needs to pay in order for a worker to assume greater risk. The number was achieved through a complex series of calculations, which are well beyond the scope of this blog, that drew upon payroll statistics as well as surveys.

However, unlike statistics calculated from insurance claims or wrongful death lawsuits, the value is not based on earnings or potential contributions to society, or for that matter such intangible things as the amount a person is loved or depended upon by his or he family. In fact, the chairman of the EPA’s scientific advisory board referred to the calculations as “basically numerology” and was “not a scientific issue.”

After all, is it really reasonable to put a value on a person’s life? Furthermore, like most issues that can adversely affect our health and well being, doesn’t it stand to reason that less is better, and none is best, not unlike arsenic in our water or mercury in our fish?

So it may make us scratch our heads in curiosity as to why they even had to determine this value, and for that matter, why it dropped.

And of course, the issue boils down to one of policy. The government uses this value when weighing the consequences of a policy versus the value of human life that may suffer or be lost as a result of it. With this in mind, the less value for a life, the less there may be a need for regulation, such as oversight on pollution or safety, ultimately making it easier to avoid environmental regulations.

In all fairness, the EPA does put the highest value on human life compared with other government agencies, in spite of the administration’s repeated efforts to align their numbers with other departments.

And the current decrease is not without precedent. According to the AP report, the EPA for years kept the value of human life stable at around 7.8 million (between1996 to 2003), but in 2004 lowered the amount to 7.1 million when drafting a new pollution rule.

While the administration defends their practices of modifying the numbers, it is interesting to note that in 2002 EPA actually determined that the people over the age of 70 were 38% less valuable than their younger counterparts. When news of change became public, the administration quickly reversed their decision.

Which just goes to show you that these issues are problematic when you mess with the wrong people.

The question is, what do you and I have to do to become those wrong people? Then again, I think by now the answer should be clear.

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Guest's picture

This is super interesting, and of course putting a value on human life is absolutely crucial to creating public policy. We _could_ have a perfectly clean environment, perfectly safe cars and roads, unlimited healthcare, etc....but we'd run out of resources and bankrupt ourselves. You've got to have a really unpleasant number in there somewhere that allows you to figure out how efficiently your tax dollars are being spent.

It's used for good and bad...even corporations need to have a dollar figure to figure out what their safety margins are. You can never make a perfectly safe product, and safety correlates very strongly to cost in a lot of products (cars, planes, etc). From the government's perspective, it needs to know how much a taxpayer is willing to spend to get a quality of life improvement.

Of course, it's still hard to think about someone 'putting a value on human life' but that's exactly what any engineer is doing when he designs a bridge.

Fred Lee's picture

I agree, there is a certain degree of utilitarianism involved in any functioning society, but it does have a callous quality to it, and I'm guessing that nobody likes the idea of their value going down. Then again, it's something we experience, to varying degrees, in our everyday lives through our jobs and relationships.

Even still, it makes you wonder when things like this occur to seemingly accomodate the passage of policy that might not otherwise have been economically feasible in terms of human life.

Guest's picture
K. P.

the EPA says a lot of things. Funny though, how they change their minds so much. What I say is that this is nothing. The value of life is how much you want it to be.

Fred Lee's picture

I couldn't agree more. The value of your life is what you make of it, but it is interesting when money values are tweaked in order to seemingly accomodate various bills by policymakers. Like you allude to, it sort of makes you wonder what it all means.

As for the EPA, and for that matter the FDA, SEC and all those government institutions, they truly can be a joke, simply acting as puppets for the administration's agenda, but in truth, they do serve a purpose. And while at times they can seem ineffectual, just think of how lawless things could get without them.

 In fact, there was a time when they didn't exist and businesses were free to do whatever they pleased. While some may argue that the free hand of economics will keep them in line through supply and demand, it wasn't the case, and horrific things occured in terms of their business practices. Just read Upton Sinclair's the Jungle.

And, when you think about it, a lot of today's economic woes are the result of businesses (banks and lenders) doing whatever they please, with nobody ensuring sound business practices. This is popularly referred to as deregulation.

So I agree that the EPA often operates with smoke and mirrors, but they do serve a purpose, and under a different administration coud be more effective.

Thanks for your thoughts, and have a nice day.

Guest's picture

Socially, the value of life is much cheaper than $6.9m. At least if you are one of the undesirable members of this human race. A few examples...

The UNFPA actively promotes forced abortions of Chinese babies who would cause the population of China to become a burden. It is a "right" in the US to kill your child if you don't think he/she is valuable enough, and as long as the baby is not yet born completely. Barack Obama agrees that some American's are not as valuable as others.

The EPA is on to something when they say that old people are not as valuable as "regular" people. Carl Marx would be proud with today's effort to eliminate the unproductive members society through euthanasia and forced medical executions (i.e. Terry Schaivo)

I'm surprised in this culture of death that we live in today, the figure would be as high as $6.9m. Maybe they should add a disclaimer that its the going rate for only the "normal" people in society.

Andrea Karim's picture

People like you make me sad. Do you really think abortion is about eliminating something that has a monetary value attached to it? As someone who has known one too many women who have had to abort fetuses conceived through rape, I just can't take the stark black-and-white view that you and your ilk seem to have regarding the actual value of life.

Spend a day volunteering for the Special Olympics. There is a culture of life in this country. You just have to open your eyes.

Guest's picture


The value of old people has declined in post-Marxist Russia. Back in the communist days, they had subsidized housing so old folks had a cramped little apartment. Today, many live on the street and die.

Guest's picture

So you'd rather have communism back?