What is YOUR life worth? In Dollars that is. $600,000 to $13.5 Million depending on …

I’m bumping up this old post about the value of life in dollars because it’s a VERY interesting topic, and I’ll try to update this with more information eventually since there must be new studies.   WHAT ARE YOU WORTH?

Most importantly I want to stress how important it is that we DO in fact value lives in this fashion.   Many people foolishly cringe at the notion of placing value on lives, suggesting that “life is priceless” and therefore we can’t do this.  

The problem with that naive view is that WE DO THIS ALL THE TIME!   We just do it indirectly.   In fact in wars we spend a LOT of money to kill a LOT of people in an effort to make the world a safer place (or protect our own national interests).   In that case we are actually placing a negative value on certain lives.   e.g.  the US spent billions to kill Bin Laden, which meant the value on his life was actually a negative number!    The argument in that case is that killing Bin Laden, costly as it was in blood and treasure, would save many thousands of lives in the future.    Reasonable people can disagree on the merits in that type of case, but clearly we should be using some sort of standard metrics rather than whim and politics as we decide how to allocate resources to lives and to deaths both in war and in life affirming endeavors.

Whenever you take risks or subject your family or others to risk you effectively create a value relationship.   Drive over the speed limit to work in the morning?     By doing that you have both broken the law AND you have subjected yourself and others to the increased risk of faster driving speeds.    Yes, YOU DID!    No big deal because we do this type of thing all the time, but it’s important for people to start recognizing the risk / reward / convenience / money relationships  we create every day as we go about our daily lives.    The bureaucracy is absolutely right to work out equations that look at the costs and benefits of life saving measures, because without these we apply funding willy – nilly (as is often the case), leading to very inefficient spending patterns that are created from political spending.

The BEST example of this cost effectiveness  approach writ very large and brilliantly is the Copenhagen Consensus, an effort by statisticians, scientists and economists (including several nobel prize winners) to allocate limited resources in a more intelligent fashion.    It’s incredibly to me ho unwilling most people are to apply this type of approach, but I think the root of the challenge is that folks don’t realize how poorly we currently allocate resources.    Military spending, for example, is much larger than most Americans understand and the things purchased often have pathetic returns on the investments.  Yet both democrats and republicans favor the ongoing massive spending for political reasons.    As Ron Paul very cleverly noted in a presidential debate we need a strong defense, not an expensive one.  Of course there are even more examples of waste on the entitlement side of Government spending and literally millions of wasteful efforts on the private side of spending, but that’s fodder for other posts.

——— from my 2006 post ———–

This cost allocation study Notes that the EPA is willing to spend almost twice what the Dept of Transportation is willing to spend to keep YOU alive. The numbers seem old so there may be some adjustments, but interesting is this:

In policy and regulatory analyses, EPA uses a value of $4.8 million to represent the cost of a premature death. This value is the mean of estimates from 26 studies dating back to the mid 1970s that have attempted to place a value on the cost of premature deaths. Estimates from those studies range from $0.6 million to $13.5 million, reflecting the large uncertainties in trying to estimate the public’s willingness to pay to avoid premature death.

The Department of Transportation has adopted a value of $2.7 million per premature death, based on a comprehensive 1991 study by the Urban Institute

People are reluctant to accept this type of “dollar valuation” analysis even though it’s commonplace in legal settlements and is a VERY APPROPRIATE way to allocate public funds. Note that the 4.8 million dollars the EPA spends to save a life would save thousands of lives if spent in alternative ways. One can argue that the complexity of this type of analysis undermines the rationale behind using this “lives for dollars” game, but it’s a weak argument. Yet even with this appropriate method of trying to allocate dollars to lives and then allocate them most effectively, we tend to apply funding in odd ways and squander billions due to political budgeting.

Earthquakes and Cyclones are a small part of a much more tragic story

Some would say it’s cruel or inappropriate to suggest that the big tragedies are the daily death toll from disease and malnutritioon even more than the horrible scenes we’ve been seeing on TV from Burma/Myanmar and China as a result of the Cyclone and the earthquake that will take between 100,000 and 150,000 lives when all the reports are in.  

However I’m compelled to point that out because TV news and our own human inadequacies at processing math and information mean that the silent catastrophes of easily preventable diseases – which kill some 20,000-30,000 people per day – are the real catastrophes on this planet yet they go largely unreported and ignored because we focus our attention on the spectacular problems rather than the more pressing ones or interesting ones.     You don’t have to trivialiize the tragic loss of life in violent conflicts or natural disasters to recognize that there is a *far greater* loss of life in the day to day problems we largely ignore.   No, these do not “keep those populations in check” as some poorly informed folks suggest.  On the contrary rising the standard of living is one of the surest ways to reduce birth rates barring the draconian type of approach taken in China with the “one family one child” policy which has also worked.

What would work to a solution to the real tragedies?  First, we need to do a little math and recognize that the daily death tolls from preventable, solvable problems are huge compared to the death tolls from the things many people worry a lot about yet cannot influence much (Middle East Conflicts) if at all (Earthquakes).  

After recognizing we can save millions of people *monthly* from a shift in resources we need to view national security in broader terms, recognizing that a greater measure of global stability – the primary goal of our US military projection throughout the world – would be more easily attained with strategic spending on simple and preventable education and disease programs combined with a modest marketing program to make sure those assisted recognize who the good guys really are.     Currently the USA spends a subtantial amount (though it is tiny compared to our capacity) helping fight poverty the third world.  Yet we get little if any credit for this.   Unfortunate because this does not inspire more of the type of assistance that creates global win-win situation where people can thrive and the US can help maintain global stability at a fraction of the cost of military approaches.

Why aren’t others seeing this?    US politics have created a crisis of economic and military stupidity.   Liberals insist – naively and with little research to back them up – that globalized corporate capitalism hurts the poor more than it helps them.    There are regional exceptions, but if you look around you note that where there are multinational skyscrapers and multinational influence (New York, Hong Kong) there is … a lot more prosperity and a lot less poverty than where global business is banned (Myanmar, North Korea).

Meanwhile most conservatives remain sadly and stupidly hypocritical when it comes to funding our bloated military, which currently accounts for well over half of all global spending.  People who should know how to balance a checkbook abandon all fiscal reason in an ego and emotionally driven fervor to fund every weapon they can get their hands on, often leaving veterans to fend for themselves where this type of spending is clearly an essential obligation of the country to support those who have served.

COMMENTS are VERY WELCOME, even if you think I’m totally full of sh** on this!   

9 killings over the weekend. In Iraq? No, Chicago.

As somebody who believes that real math and reason should govern our perceptions about the world, it is difficult to reconcile how people become almost obsessively concerned with certain categories of death or destruction while ignoring others.

For example regardless of how you view the war in Iraq, the death toll appears to be comparable to …. shootings in the USA.    Obviously  there are caveats needed for this simplistic comparison – US is larger, civilian deaths in Iraq are not as well documented and down from the past, etc.   But my point is that if deaths are what bother you then you should familiarize yourself with key death statistics, and you should advocate US spend accordingly.   The most important stat is that *tens of thousands* of  people die around the world every day from easiily preventable illnesss such as Malaria, AIDS, Intestinal viruses, and more.  Unlike violent deaths, which often spring from irreconcilable ethnic, economic, religious, or cultural tensions, deaths from disease are almost universally considered to be “undesirable”.   Also, research has made it clear that lowering death rates generally lowers the birth rate.  The notion that saving people just creates more people to save is …  not supportable.   Yet we (yes, I mean YOU!) continue to pour *trillions* into military and low ROI social programs while a fraction of that amount would create massive infrastructure improvements and save tens of millions of lives.  

I don’t understand the aversion to sensible spending, but I think it stems from some key defects of our human species:

1) We are programmed and designed to respond more to single instances of things rather than massive instances, and to respond locally rather than globally.  Thus we will work harder to save a single child in need of a heart transplant than a whole village in India dying from lack of sanitation.   This focus was functional evolutionarily but now is breaking down in our big world where disaster can loom large for huge numbers of people.

2) We (yes, I mean YOU!)  suck at math.   Many people in power don’t even grasp the chasm of difference between a million and a billion dollars.  Contractors in the military exploit this fundamental math ignorance of people in congress and military decision makers on a daily basis.   The answer of course is to follow the advice of the founders (and even Gen Dwight Eisenhower!) and take this massive and inappropriate military spending out of the hands of bureaucrats and politicians.   In fact the answer is to massively curtail military spending immediately by 50% to 90%.   The security implications are minimal, but people refuse to do the analyses.  I’m absolutely *stunned* by how ignorant and sheepish most of my fellow fiscal conservatives are about the waste in the military.  It is glaring, massive, and preventable – even more than the massive levels of waste in the US social services sector.

That ends my rant for the day.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogging…


You call the $13 billion in pork barrel projects wasteful spending? It’s a whimper to the Military’s Bang Mega-Budget!

Taxpayers, many in Congress, and all three presidential hopefuls are all ranting against the stupidity of earmarking in congress – the process AKA porkbarrelling where congress people insert unnecessary projects into spending bills and/or other legislation such that we taxpayers pay for projects that are usually wasteful and sometimes scandalous.    Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” is the current poster child, which was allocating tens of millions to build a bridge that would service a tiny Alaska village of something like a few dozen people.

Yes, of course these projects are stupid, but to focus on them to the exclusion of the _real_ waste in Government spending is nonsense.    It’s like complaining that the president makes $400,000 a year when he would work for less.    This earmark money is *chump change* in a federal budget of trillions, where the things we should focus on are how to reduce the insanity of spending too much on wasteful social services projects (insert pretty much any one here) and most importantly our military budget, which is incomprehensibly large and incomprehensibly foolhardy:

Military $550,000,000,000.     Over half the world’s military spending is ours, and much of it is unnecessary.   Note the current Air Force tanker fleet fiasco where on the one hand Democrats argue this staggering contract should go to more expensive Boeing which as a US company would preserve more jobs, while Republicans argue who knows what about this.    The right answer is scale this back – significantly – because US security no longer depends on massive capitalized military juggernaut.    If there is a *single* lesson we should learn from Iraq it is that the USA cannot use massive military superiority to keep the peace.   In fact Iraq may demonstrate the opposite – our massive superiority is one of the factors that insurgents use against us, and is a major reason that the Iraq government has little incentive to get their own military providing better security for the people of Iraq.    

But even if our trillions bring security to Iraq it has been a fools bargain.    The same spending for infrastructure improvements in USA and around the world would have changed the global landscape in a significant way – certainly more than even the most optimistic scenario for Iraq independence.

Contrary to some of the nonsense spouted by modern “conservatives” and many hawkish Democrats as well, the founders of the USA believed in low military spending, very weak federal control, and in very cautious global dealings.    Until we return to those sensibilities we risk everything with the continued reckless military (and social service) spending spree.     

The proposed US Defense Budget is an outrage

As a fiscally responsible guy I had to chime in on the proposed US Defense budget which is, in a word, indefensible.     

At $515,000,000,000  this amount is conspicuous for several reasons, and I find it incomprehensible that people who call themselves fiscal conservatives continue to support the insane levels of inappropriate military spending.

One of the biggest reasons the proposed budget is irrational is the very low ROI on military spending.    Unlike infrastructure spending, the military spend does not leave you with more bridges, roads, and buildings.   It’s only justifiable to the extent it *protects value* and protects the national interests.     One need look no further than the Iraq war to see how questionable it is to suggest that spending 500 billion plus there has “protected” much of anything.   

One could probably make a strong case for the WWII military effort as it clearly rescued much of the world from the tyrannical grip of Nazi domination, but note that this spending came *after* the hostile actions.    I think GW would argue that spending now is a preventative measure for much greater spending later if regions like the middle east explode into much greater instability than now.   This is an arguable point, but I’d like to see his ROI calculations on this.     When you are talking about spending hundreds of billions annually you can reshape the entire planet with infrastructure improvements, and it is very hard to see how the military protection advantages would trump the tax, infrastructure, and good will advantages of redirecting military spending to other things or – probably more appropriately – lowering taxes and letting that help the economy and individuals.

I’d sure like to see the type of cost benefit analysis you’d do if the US was run more like a business than a bureaucratic empire, but one of the defects of our two party democracy is that neither party is interested in fiscal responsibility – they both want to spend irresponsibly and recklessly but on different things.    

This amount is more than all other nations combined, and more than half the entire global military budget.   It is true the US has historically born much of the expense of trying to maintain global stability  (for complex reasons), so simply noting this is half all defense spending does not explain enough.  However this amount still is highly questionable because many nations like Japan should be footing their own defense bills.

Note that this budget does not include funding for Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Much will go for bloated, advanced weapons systems that have little place in a world where most of the threats are from asymetric warfare practiced by fundamentalists with 12th century sensibilities.

It is about time for people who call themselves fiscal conservatives to stop their sheep-like, bleeting support of these huge military budgets and start applying the same (correct) standards they apply to other government spending to the defense budget.