Do Lost Statistical Lives Really Count?

Matthew Freeman

Dec. 30, 2008

The Fresno Bee’s Mark Grossi ran a piece this weekend about local deaths caused by air pollution. It must have left readers shaking their heads; indeed, that seems to have been the point. Here’s the lede:

The more than 800 people who died prematurely this year from breathing dirty San Joaquin Valley air are worth $6.63 million each, economists say. Relatives don't collect a dime, but society is willing to pay someone this price. Confused? You're not alone.

The story goes on to discuss just a few of the absurdities inherent in the process by which regulators put a dollar value on human lives lost – statistical lives, as they coldly refer to them. Grossi notes, for example, that different lives are valued differently – children’s lives are worth less than adults’. By the end of the piece, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that elaborate statistical methodologies are used to develop numbers that add up but still make no sense!


But it’s the premise of the story – that air pollution has caused 800 premature deaths this year in the San Joaquin Valley – that ought to grab our attention. It’s right there in the first sentence, but it’s all but overwhelmed by the statistical smokescreen that follows.


In fact, estimates are that somewhere around 70,000 Americans die prematurely from air pollution per year. That’s more than die in auto accidents (40,000 or so), and more than die of all but a handful of diseases. If air pollution were a disease – rather than something willingly inflicted on us by large, usually profit-making, institutions – it’d be the eighth leading killer on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list, trailing heart diseases and cancer, but ahead of the flu/pneumonia, and diseases of the liver and kidneys.


As it happens, obscuring the hard reality that we tolerate a huge number of deaths in the name of not overburdening polluters with “regulatory red tape” is almost certainly one of the reasons opponents of regulation warm to such statistical methods. It works for them. Think how much more powerful those numbers would be if we knew the names, faces, friends and families of those 800 victims.


In fact, given the death rate from air pollution, many of us probably do know a few victims. We just don’t know it. That makes it easier to avoid explaining to them why saving their lives isn’t worth the cost to economic production. That’s one of several reasons why it’s important that policymakers not buy into the myth that the costs and benefits of specific regulations can be neatly calculated, and that regulations are only worthwhile if cost-benefit analysts determine that they improve economic efficiency.

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