Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Banzhaf on the History of the "Value of Statistical Life"

As a torts professor and an historian of regulation, I was intrigued by this paper, but I imagine it may also interest those who study late-twentieth-century legal thought, historical approaches to risk, and the relationship between warfare and welfare: H. Spencer Banzhaf (Georgia State University) has posted "The Cold-War Origins of the Value of Statistical Life (VSL)." Here's the abstract:
This paper traces the history of the "Value of Statistical Life" (VSL), which today is used routinely in benefit-cost analysis of life-saving investments. Schelling (1968) made the crucial move of thinking in terms of risk rather than individual lives, with the hope to dodge the moral thicket of valuing "life." But as recent policy debates have illustrated, his move only thickened it. Tellingly, interest in the subject can be traced back another twenty years before Schelling's essay, to a controversy at the RAND Corporation following its earliest application of operation research to defense planning. RAND wanted to avoid valuing pilot's lives, but the Air Force insisted they confront the issue. Thus, the VSL is not only well acquainted with political controversy; it was born from it.
The full paper is available here.

If you're not acquainted with the VSL and its current role in U.S. law and policy, here's some basic information, from Syracuse University's "Value of Statistical Life" research project:
In economic terms the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) is the amount of money a person (or society) is willing to spend to save a life. Since there is no formal market for lives, the only way to measure the VSL is through indirect methods (e.g., surveys or observed human behavior in risky environments). . . .  Understanding the value of life is important for government policies where citizens' lives are at risk or where the goal is to save lives. . . . In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency and the U.S. Office of Management  & Budget have specific guidelines for the VSL.