(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Steven Brill
Aug 12 This is the latest installment of Steven
Brill's weekly column, "Stories I'd Like to See.
1. How government accountants value life:
Last week, the "New York Times" reported: "Buried deep in
the federal government's voluminous new tobacco regulations is a
little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts
see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes
that the benefits from reducing smoking - fewer early deaths and
diseases of the lungs and heart - have to be discounted by 70
percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when
they give up their habit."
I hope editors at "The New Yorker" or "Sixty Minutes"
Did you know that a federal agency - the Office of
Management and Budget, which did the cost-benefit analysis
described by the "Times" - actually employs people who calculate
how many lives will be saved by government regulations; then
calculates the dollar value of the lives saved, and then weighs
that value against the "cost" of the regulation? Apparently in
this case, part of the cost to be calculated was the cost of the
lost pleasure from quitting smoking.
According to this report to Congress, OMB must make a
cost-benefit analysis for every rule where the projected cost of
compliance is more than $100 million. The agency with the most
rules falling into that category has been the Environmental
Protection Agency, and OMB has consistently found that the value
of the lives saved exceeds the cost of compliance.
But what's the "value" of a life saved?
Here's what a footnote from that OMB report says:
"What is sometimes called the 'value of a statistical life'
(VSL) is best understood not as the 'valuation of life,' but as
the valuation of statistical mortality risks. For example, the
average person in a population of 50,000 may value a reduction
in mortality risk of 1/50,000 at $150. The value of reducing the
risk of 1 statistical (as opposed to known or identified)
fatality in this population would be $7.5 million, representing
the aggregation of the willingness to pay values held by
everyone in the population. Building on an extensive and growing
literature, OMB Circular A-4 provides background and discussion
of the theory and practice of calculating VSL. It concludes that
a substantial majority of the studies of VSL indicate a value
that varies 'from roughly $1 million to $10 million per
Don't you want to have Malcolm Gladwell or some other
talented observer take you inside and meet the people who
presume to make all these calculations?
And don't you want to be a fly on the wall with Leslie Stahl
or Scott Pelley of "Sixty Minutes" when the government concludes
- if it ever does - that the cost of the regulations is not
worth the lives saved?
Or that cheaper electricity and jobs saved in Kentucky by
not cracking down further on coal power is worth - or not worth
- the cost of x thousand lives lost from coal pollution?
Oh, and have they begun working on the cost of global
warming that raises sea levels x inches every 10 years?
2. Beyond the painting: George W. Bush's post-presidency:
Last week, former President George W. Bush returned to
Washington for an appearance timed to coincide with the
convening of a summit of African leaders in Washington. He gave
a speech detailing the continuing efforts of the George W. Bush
Institute, the foundation he created when he left office, to
Bush also announced that expansion of the institute's "Pink
Ribbon Red Ribbon" initiative aimed at providing screenings for
cervical and breast cancer in Africa.
I had never noticed any press about that program, and in
general, I probably fell into the category of people who thought
the former president's primary retirement activity was his
much-publicized painting. But if you read this detailed and, at
times, moving speech about Pink Ribbon Blue Ribbon, it seems
like the former president has been up to weightier projects than
oil portraits of foreign leaders.
So it seems like it's time for an update on the Bush
post-presidency. How does he divide his time? How has he
organized his work? What are his sources of income? Who are the
staff people helping him do these projects? Who are the donors?
His daughter, Barbara, has started and runs - also out of
the limelight - an organization called Global Health Corps,
which, according to its website, "provides a yearlong paid
fellowship for young professionals from diverse backgrounds to
work on the frontlines of the fight for global health equity at
existing health organizations and government agencies. Fellows
are currently working in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia
and the United States."
Does her organization work with her father's?
We also learned last week that the former president has
secretly been at work on a biography of his father, George H.W.
Bush. Given the relationship between author and subject, "41 by
43," as some have speculated the title will be, is certain to be
a best seller. It's also the kind of potentially revealing
project we would not have expected from a president who abhorred
introspection and discussions of his relationship with his
father when he was in the White House.
Which, again, suggests that we may be seeing a weightier
side of George W. Bush in his post-presidency.
Speaking of the book about his father, why haven't those on
the publishing beat written about how the revelation of that
secret project is likely to affect the fortunes of best-selling
author and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, who has been
working on his own book about George H.W. Bush? How are Meacham
and his publishers at Random House planning to deal with it?