They Know the Price of Everything

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Review of 'Priceless', Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling, New Press £17.95

According to a recent ruling by US regulatory body the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a human life is worth around $6.1 million. This figure was reached using simple mathematics - someone working in a hazardous job (in which one in every 100,000 workers is killed) is paid on average $61 more per year than a worker in a safer workplace. This means that each death is 'worth' $6.1 million.

Reducing the intrinsic worth of a human life to a monetary exchange value leads to a system in which crude estimates of price decide whether or not it is economically viable to save lives or allow people to die. Such fuzzy logic has inspired a reaction in the form of Priceless by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling. The book is an exposé of the way in which money is at the centre of government policy. The authors especially attack the concept of cost-benefit risk analysis, which is used by the US government and corporations to justify allowing toxins in drinking water, the non-ratification of the Kyoto treaty, and letting the timber companies plunder the US's national parks.

Neo-conservative John D Graham is the new 'regulatory tsar' in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs/Office of Management and Budget. Graham holds the EPA and other regulators to account, often arguing for less regulation and bigger profits. The cost-benefit system advocates have moved from being a radical right wing fringe to holding the reins of power in Washington.

To give an example from the book, global warming is a very real danger to our planet, but such a complex system cannot be satisfactorily reduced to a balance sheet of monetary values for cutting greenhouse gases against monetary values for the cost of global warming. This is used to justify the reckless refusal to tackle the problem by Bush and friends, who won't even sign up to the already weak Kyoto treaty.

One central problem with using the cost-benefit system is the supposition that there is a necessarily small, finite budget from which all public services are funded. The argument becomes, for example, that if you can use $1 million to save the lives of two hospital patients in one type of operation, you could use that same money to save ten times that many elsewhere. It is the quantifying of life into economic units that Priceless rails against. In reality, there is more than enough wealth in society to tend to the majority of environmental and social problems without needing to play different problems off against one another.

The conclusions of the book are interesting, but fail to address the problem sufficiently. For example, the authors advocate a system similar (albeit improved) to that used in Europe, whereby a disproportionate amount of money will be spent on averting disaster (on the 'precautionary principle') even if the situation is unproven. However, it is still the free market pulling the strings in both situations, and I felt that the authors, while very insightful, were quite pessimistic about ordinary people changing the world for themselves.