The “Dreadful Algebra” of Life’s Value

It’s a little dark, morbid, and sad, but I find myself at an odd crossroads of thought regarding government policy and the valuation of human life. This began with a recent episode of the Planet Money podcast, Lives Vs. The Economy. Right behind that I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast episode, Who Gets the Ventilator?

It is, arguably, the role of government to make these sort of hard decisions in a way that encourages “the greater good.” As the Planet Money podcast highlights, when these choices involve saving lives, it can be really difficult to perform a cost/benefit type analysis because valuing human life is… complicated. They point out the “cost of death” model used in the past, where your value was determined largely by lost wages that you could have made if you still lived.

An economist reinvented the number at some point, instead basing it on implied hazard pay for high-risk jobs. This is… a very economist approach to solving the problem, but I certainly feel his $10M-14M number is much better than the previous $300K. As far as the government is concerned, every individual is worth more than a million bucks.

An interesting point of discussion was also that a flat number is used regardless of age. They mention the 2003 kerfuffle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where, to quote the NY Times, “A Bush administration policy to base some regulations on a calculation that the life of each person older than 70 should be valued less than the life of a younger person” was a thing. I understand the impetus behind this, but there’s a lot of strange “trolley problem” logic going on there. In the end, the whole idea is somewhat horrifying.

It reduces people to life expectancy and leaves out all the accrued knowledge, wisdom, and experience we lose with each passing. A post I read by Dr. Greg Mankiw, an economics professor and blogger, served to drive that point even further home. As I have said many times before, it’s easy to lose track of the human and the human costs of these things.

I don’t assume that I have all the answers, or any answers really. While I believe that my opinion has value, it is perhaps of lesser value than the opinions of experienced experts. I’m trying to think of a way to include such things in addition to the existing base value, but it seems inherently difficult to balance. The experience of our elders can be transmitted to younger generations and by extension has value well beyond a single human lifetime. All of science is the direct result of this exact process. Ideas thought, tested, and/or proven by previous generations are passed on and serve as the basis for future discovery.

Balance must exist, though. This is why the flat value works as well as it does. All the knowledge and experience in the world cannot help a younger generation that’s been left by the wayside in favor of the older generation. In disregarding the older generation a foolish youth wastes time and resources learning the same lessons over and over again.

At the moment, I suspect that while a specific dollar value is occasionally required, there are very few ways to capture the real value of something as unique as one individual, the mental and emotional costs of those lives connected to theirs, or the value of knowledge and experience they possess.

The question is always: what atrocity may be committed on an individual or small group to allow the survival of the larger group, tribe or race?

It seems such an awful and dehumanizing tragedy to assign any such value. Which is why, I suppose, Sir Pratchett referred to it as “the dreadful algebra of necessity.” It reminds me much of Fable 3, actually. An entire game designed to test how far you’re willing to push morality in order to save the human race.

Okay, that’s enough of that. Let us leave these dark thoughts behind for a time and find some joy in the world, yes?

Y’all take care, and be nice to each other. Every user on the internet, even the hateful and spiteful, are still human and deserve to be treated as such. If we attack and belittle them, then from their perspective we have become the very thing we would accuse them of.


blapril-2020-200Hey, it’s Blapril time! The goal is to simply promote and stimulate the blogging community by encouraging people of all skill levels and backgrounds to post. The official post can be found here and it’s never too late to start.

2 thoughts on “The “Dreadful Algebra” of Life’s Value

  1. The value of human life is ultimately determined by those who are given the power to make such determinations. Who gives that power? We all do. The machinations of culture, government, politics and religion all shape how the value of human life is derived. And it changes over time. Always will.

    As a “boomer”, I can’t begin to count how many times I have been told by my younger generational peers, that I needed to just go ahead and retire, or die, so they could have a chance to advance in the workplace. Apparently the “value” of my years of experience and service to the company, that helped it grow to where it is now, that allowed them to even be hired in the first place, is of no value or concern to them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ugh, as someone who is technically considered a “millenial,” I’m sorry. I find this whole generation warfare business distasteful and disrespectful. For what it’s worth, I find my own knowledge and experience in the workplace often falls on deaf ears. Everyone wants a quick fix yesterday, not an actual solution.

      But, I digress. I hold onto some glimmer of hope that things can be better. It is my dissatisfaction with the way things are that has motivated my current choices. I can but hope the world ends up a better place for it.

      Liked by 1 person

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