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Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing Hardcover – February 24, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
How does one put a cost on a human life? And what effect does air pollution have on our health? Ackerman and Heinzerling focus on such questions in this volume, a skeptical and instructive look at how economists put a dollar value on intangible risks and rewards. What sounds like a purely technical process has enormous political implications, thanks to the pervasive use of cost-benefit analysis in government decision making. Because this analysis is used to quantify the impact of often controversial regulatory and tax policies, the economists' numbers loom large in public policy, which Ackerman and Heinzerling clearly deplore. They've composed a lively and engaging attack, both well reasoned and well documented, on the myriad ways that these little-scrutinized figures are manipulated for political gain. While it's no surprise to anyone who has worked with statistics that numbers are frequently massaged to advance a particular point of view, the authors argue that in some cases the massaging leans toward misrepresentation or outright incompetence. For example, one study attempted to downplay the hazards of toxic waste dumps by noting that accidents with deer hurt more people every year; but then, there are many more deer than toxic waste dumps. This is a thoughtful book that is partisan but not strident; at the same time, it assumes a certain degree of mathematical sophistication.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"Ackerman and Heinzerling combine sophisticated criticism and a provocative policy perspective with an accessible style and an eye for contemporary political issues." —Harvard Law Review
"If you've ever wondered where some really bad ideas—more arsenic in your water, say—could have come from, this book will provide the answers." —Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
Top customer reviews
I give to this book 3 stars because I see a lack of deepening on very important related subjects. One of them is the role of the commons and their destruction around the globe. And a second example is a lack or critics on the capitalist system itself that need to put a price on everything.
Otherwise the authors go in the right direction. It's a good undergrad book, but for it lacks what I told above.
The book does an excellent job presenting current-day policy decisions and breaking down the assumptions and arguments that led to their adoption. In doing so, Ackerman and Heinzerling show that the `pro-free market' mantra championed by business interests, and gaining popularity in some political circles, is proclaimed a success on the grounds of cost-benefit conclusions. However, the authors dig deeper to examine the questionable methods which seemingly prove that the market creates efficient outcomes and that regulation is often only a costly hindrance. Additionally, Priceless invites readers to consider injustices imposed historically, and in the current-day free market, in the absence of regulation and laws restricting certain activities. Slavery, child labor and toxic pollution are just three examples used in the book where free market efficiency is questioned. Seemingly, "anything profitable that is not prohibited by law is likely to occur" in a free market scenario.
Free market efficiency dictates that labor is first directed to produce the most fiscally profitable goods regardless of what's socially optimal or needed. This is one serious danger of relying purely on monetary terms and profit-maximizing behavior to make choices. Similarly, cost-benefit analysis falls into the same trap. Things which are seemingly priceless, such as human life, are given a monetary value to determine whether endangering activities are prudent and/or have the right to occur. Furthermore, the costs and benefits of action are often calculated using questionable methodologies which can be manipulated to justify decisions based on the analyst's preference. One poignant example provided was the federal government's Office of Management and Budget's (OMB's) 2002 estimate that the value of protecting 60 million acres of forest land was a mere $219,000/year. This value was calculated solely by using the cost saved from not building roads in the area and not needing to provide for their ongoing maintenance. Any environmental benefits of the forest's ecosystem and the value it served as a home to plant and animal species were completely ignored. Also disregarded were the future values society might derive from its existence. In terms of cost, the OMB asserted that preserving the land was preventing society from realizing $184 million in economic activity which the forest could provide for. Given such manipulated estimates, government protection of the land was argued to make no sense from a cost-benefit standpoint and regulations which are seemingly beneficial were discounted to inefficient protectionism by free-market advocates.
Priceless devotes much time to examining human-life valuation and estimates in monetary terms. The authors' review of literature on the subject concludes that $5-6 million (in 1999 dollars) seems to be a generally agreed upon range for the value of a human life in most U.S. studies conducted during the past two decades. A quite disturbing aspect of these valuations is that all human life is purportedly not of equal value. The $5-6 million term is often discounted for the elderly, poor and those who are disabled. For example, using a Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) model common to health economics, those in a wheelchair are often given less valuable lives than someone who can walk. However, does a disabled or elderly person value their lives less than a healthier or younger individual? Clearly, justification for such valuation would be morally opposed by much of society and the cost-benefit calculations which assume such values would be viewed as equally unacceptable.
One of the more infamous cases of life-value discrimination appeared in the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) life-evaluation section. In the report, the value of lives affected by climate change was determined using the economic value produced by the countries they inhabited. This meant assigning a $1.5 million value to those in rich countries, a $300,000 value to those in middle income places and a $100,000 value to inhabitants of the world's poorest countries. The outrage which ensued led to a modification of the number in the 2001 IPCC report to $1 million/person, regardless of where they lived.
Beyond the debate regarding proper methods for financial valuation of life, the authors question whether this academic practice is even relevant. Ackerman and Heinzerling contend that reasonable people do not make choices based on the value of their lives and that the supposed price of an individual's existence is nothing more than a dangerous simplification. Rather, they argue for society to make decisions using the precautionary principle where policies should err on the side of caution when irreversible and/or devastating health and environmental effects are at stake. Qualitative factors and a sense of morality should be prioritized before any quantitative measures of how society directs or restricts their resources. On the surface, this approach may seemingly be at odds with the calculable predictions of economic practice. However, the authors argue that conventional economics do not have jurisdiction over the realm of `priceless' elements of the world and human life. After all, should human life and the environmental conditions of the earth be treated as a commodity which can be assigned a monetary value and then `sold' on the market? `No' is the resounding answer provided by the authors of Priceless.
One final critique the authors deliver against cost-benefit analysis regards the practice of discounting for the future. This method, common to modern financial decision making, `shrinks' the value of outcomes on the distant horizon so as to make them seemingly insignificant. The practice assumes money not spent now will appreciate in nominal and real terms before being handed over to future generations. In regards to climate change, there are seemingly two choices a society can make: 1) research and implement clean, renewable energy now and embark upon conservation practices; or 2) save the money which could be put to these programs in a trust fund for future generations which will deliver them principal plus the interest earned. However, the irrelevance of such an analysis becomes clear when considering that the problems of climate change may become unsolvable for future generations. Melted Polar Regions, widespread species extinction, evaporated water sources and infertile growing conditions are certainly going to not be compensated for by any amount of money put away by past societies in a trust fund. For these reasons, it appears wise for current-day society to proceed using the precautionary principle lauded by Ackerman and Heinzerling in regards to the human activities creating climate change.
Priceless concludes with the authors providing four principles which can be relied upon in lieu of the cost-benefit approach. These include: using holistic, not atomistic, methods; favoring moral imperatives over cost comparisons; adopting the precautionary approach when dealing with uncertainty; and promoting fairness towards the poor and future generations. Additionally, we should heed the extreme forecasts when contemplating potentially catastrophic events, such as climate change. Society should consider the potential implications of action (over-investment in pollution control and clean energy) versus inaction (irreversible, widespread environmental change and threats to humanity) and note that the errors on each side are not symmetrical. Erring on the side of caution in this case seems to be the indisputable ideal for society, regardless of what different economists' cost-benefit analyses prescribe.
In summary, Ackerman and Heinzerling's Priceless provides solid reasoning in favor of alternative methods to cost-benefit analysis when regarding the environment, human health and life. I would recommend this book to economists, policy makers, practitioners of law or anyone else interested in considering how such valuations and their subsequent polices are, and should be, created.
Ackerman and Heinzerling convincingly demonstrate that this accounting is heavily politicized, with the costs of health or environmental regulations vastly overestimated, and the benefits to society vastly underestimated. This is often because matters of life quality and morality, which are essentially "priceless," tend to be given zero value in these purely accounting-oriented analyses. And in all cases, arcane and shifty accounting methods can further push the results of the cost-benefit analysis in the direction desired by the politicos who are crunching the numbers. The authors tend to shy away from the obvious conclusion that such supposedly impartial economic "science" is really a cover for politicians and corporations to advance their harsh anti-regulatory agenda and ideology. However, they still do a marvelous job of pointing out not just the errors of such accounting methods (via many real-life examples), but also in showing that supposedly "impartial" economics are advanced for immoral, unjust, and even anti-human ends. As Ackerman and Heinzerling conclude, true economic and environmental justice requires holistic thinking about the state of the real world, not atomistic politics. You can't put a numerical price on everything, especially human life and public health. [~doomsdayer520~]