Life Is Now Worth About 6 Million Dollars
As the players here remake the nation’s vast regulatory system, they have been grappling with a subject that is more the province of poets and philosophers than bureaucrats: what is the value of a human life?
The answer determines how much spending the government should require to prevent a single death.
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.
The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.
The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.
And the numbers may keep climbing. 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.
The trend is a sensitive subject for an administration that is trying to improve its relationship with the business community, much of which has bitterly opposed the expansion of regulation. The White House said the decisions on the value of life were made by the agencies. The agencies, for their part, referred any questions to the White House.
“This administration utilizes the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation, drawing on widely accepted methodologies that have been in use for years,” Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the rule-making process, said in an e-mail.
Several independent experts, however, said that the increases were long overdue, noting that some agencies had been using the same values for more than a decade without adjusting for inflation. One office at the E.P.A. cut the value of life in 2004.
“Agencies have been using numbers that I thought were just too low,” said W. Kip Viscusi,a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University whose research is cited by most of the federal agencies as the basis for their calculations.
Businesses would prefer to discuss the consequences of the increases — new regulations and higher costs, which they say are hampering economic growth — rather than suggest that the government has overstated the value of life.
But some industry representatives said assigning a value to life was inherently subjective, and that the recent changes were driven by the administration’s pursuit of its regulatory agenda rather than scientific considerations.
“It looks like they just cooked the books — they just doubled the numbers,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group for the trucking industry, which faces higher costs under some of the Transportation Department’s new rules. The Bush administration rejected a plan in 2005 to make car companies double the roof strength of new vehicles, which it estimated might prevent 135 deaths in rollover accidents each year.
At the time, Transportation officials figured that the cost of the roofs would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million. So the agency proposed a smaller increase in roof strength that might save 44 lives a year.
Last year, the Obama administration imposed the stricter and more expensive roof-strength standard, and it published a new set of calculations showing that the benefits outstripped the costs.
Most of the difference came from the increased value of human life. By raising that number to $6.1 million from a figure of $3.5 million in the original study, the Obama administration rendered those 135 lives — and hundreds of averted injuries — more valuable than the roofs.