W. Kip Viscusi on Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society

ViscusiLike it or not, sometimes we need to put a monetary value on people’s lives. In the past, government agencies used the financial “cost of death” to monetize the mortality risks of regulatory policies, but this method vastly undervalued life. Pricing Lives tells the story of how the government came to adopt an altogether different approach—the value of a statistical life, or VSL—and persuasively shows how its more widespread use could create a safer and more equitable society for everyone. In this book, Kip Viscusi provides a comprehensive look at all aspects of economic and policy efforts to price lives. Pricing Lives proposes sensible economic guideposts to foster more protective policies and greater levels of safety in the United States and throughout the world.

What do you mean by “pricing lives,” and where does this occur?

What we mean by pricing lives depends on the context. For the government’s risk and environmental regulation policies, the challenge is to determine how much we are willing to spend to prevent each expected fatality. The principal measure used to set this price is known as the value of a statistical life (VSL), or the amount society is willing to pay to prevent the risk of each statistical death. Companies also set an implicit price on life every time they make products that are not risk-free. Sometimes companies have assigned numerical amounts to the value of the fatalities that are prevented, though how they have done so is seriously flawed and has greatly undervalued life. There is also a role for pricing lives after fatalities have occurred. Regulatory agencies set the penalties that firms must pay for regulatory violations that led to the fatalities. The courts also set a price on lives in wrongful death cases in terms of the amount of compensation that must be paid to the decedent’s family after the death.

Why should there be any limit at all on what the government spends to save lives?

So long as resources are limited, we cannot make an unbounded commitment to a risk-free society. The practical issue is where to set these limits. In the 1980s, I was asked to settle a dispute between OMB and OSHA over the proposed hazard communication regulation. OMB had rejected the proposal, concluding that the costs exceeded the benefits. In my analysis of this debate, I introduced the VSL concept to government agencies. Doing so made the calculation of the benefits of risk regulations ten times more valuable than they were under the previous cost of death approach. It also led to the issuance of a regulation that previously had been rejected because it was viewed as being too costly. Although some government agencies were slow to adopt the higher VSL numbers, this approach is now the norm in government agencies. The VSL is the most important single number used in the evaluation of government regulatory policies.

Where can we get these values of a statistical life numbers?

The most reliable evidence is based on U.S. labor studies of the extra pay workers get for extra risk.  Suppose, for example, that a worker was paid $900 extra per year to face a risk of 1/10,000. Then, for a group of 10,000 workers, they would be paid $9 million (10,000 × $900) for the one expected death to their group. My current estimates of the VSL in the U.S. place this value at $10 million. Once people understand that the VSL greatly exceeds people’s earnings, the criticism that the approach is immoral generally diminishes. Instead, people wonder how people can value their lives by more than what they make. The reason for this surprisingly large value is that they are not buying out of the prospect of certain death. Instead, the VSL only pertains to very small risks of death that are much less costly to prevent.

What do other countries do? Does this U.S. labor market evidence have any pertinence to them?

Many other countries have also adopted the VSL approach, usually based on studies in which people are asked in interviews how much they are willing to pay for safety. Unfortunately, the VSL estimates that are used outside of the U.S. are very low—far lower than is warranted based on the income levels relative to the U.S. Even countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia greatly undervalue lives, with far greater disparities observed for many low-income countries. In this book, I present an approach for transferring the U.S. estimates to other countries, along with appropriate adjustments for income level differences. The estimates I provide for a wide range of countries will greatly increase the value placed on safety throughout the world.

Are there other factors, like age, that can affect the VSL?

What matters is people’s own willingness to pay to reduce risk. Unlike purported economic measures, such as the cost of death approach, people can still have a high VSL even if they are retired. As it turns out, the VSL rises over people’s lifetime, and then does decline somewhat, but it does not plummet with age. The VSL for those age 65 and over is very similar to that of people in their early 20s. There was a public outcry against the Environmental Protection Agency when it attempted an age adjustment that put “seniors on sale, 37% off.” Unfortunately, this age adjustment was not based on any U.S. labor market evidence but on a more speculative interview study from the United Kingdom. Typically, government policies have impacts across the entire population so that in most instances, relying on an average VSL is all that is needed. 

This whole idea of pricing lives sounds similar what businesses do when they decide how much to spend on product safety improvements. Do they get it right?

Unfortunately, companies historically have underpriced lives as well, as they have focused on how much they have to pay in court after a fatality rather than on how much it is worth to consumers to reduce the risk of death. Companies fell prey to the same cost of death approach that government agencies used to use. Jurors have expressed alarm after reviewing these corporate practices, sometimes levying punitive damages of $100 million or more against companies that have valued lives in this way. The result has been that most companies have abandoned such risk analyses altogether and now keep such deliberations secret, for fear of liability. In my book, I propose that companies adopt the VSL in their product safety decisions and that they be given legal protections to encourage responsible corporate risk analyses.

How is it that setting a finite price on life can provide “guideposts for a safer society?”

A properly set VSL raises rather than reduces the amounts that government agencies throughout the world assign to the prevention of fatality risks. Adoption of this approach for corporate risk decisions likewise would lead to safer products. In this book, I also advocate that the VSL be used to set penalties for regulatory violations leading to fatalities. Doing so would lead to an enormous increase in penalties by, for example, boosting penalties for job safety violations by a factor of 1,000. The courts similarly can use the VSL in both assessing product safety and setting damages in situations where deterring risky behavior is the concern. My proposed expansion of the application of the VSL will provide greater incentives for safety in all these contexts. What is particularly striking is that the single VSL number can serve multiple purposes and set the price on life in so many different situations.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.