A memorable Dilbert cartoon strip features Dogbert as a “creativity consultant” who is directed by his boss to come up with some hard quantitative data. The boss barks: “The only way to make decisions is to pull numbers of the air, call them ‘assumptions,’ and calculate the net present value.” The punchline: “Of course, you have to use the right discount rate, otherwise it’s meaningless.”
That encapsulates the faux-rigor of regulatory decisions for protecting health, safety and the environment. Ascertaining the dollar value of human life using the most rigorous science possible is a politically useful charade.
As the New York Times recently reported, the scientifically determined value of a life at the Environmental Protection Agency has gone up from $6.8 million in the Bush II years to $9.1 million at present. Across town, the FDA decides whether to ban an unsafe drug based on a valuation of $7.9 million per life. In deciding whether automakers will install new safety features, the Transportation Department figures $6 million.