Sore Losers: Two House Subcommittee Chairs Want to Discount the Lives of Seniors in Last-Ditch Effort to Downplay Benefits of Clean Air Regulation

by Amy Sinden

November 17, 2011

Remember that kid on the playground who always insisted on changing the rules of the game and then still threw a tantrum when he lost? That’s just the kind of spoiled-brat behavior we’re seeing from the coal industry and its elected agents on Capitol Hill this week. Coal and other polluting industries have spent decades complaining about the federal laws that protect public health and the environment, arguing that we should change the rules by which they operate, forcing agencies to perform complicated cost-benefit analyses before they can impose limits on polluters.  They’ve always figured (and mostly they’re right) that cost-benefit analysis would result in less stringent regulation, because the benefits of protecting public health and the environment are so difficult to quantify and monetize that agencies will end up undercounting them in comparison to costs. 

Imagine their disappointment, then, when Lisa Jackson starts playing by their rules . . . and winning!   It turns out, that for at least one type of air pollution – particulate matter – we do have some half-decent public health data.   It’s undoubtedly still incomplete, only accounting for a portion of the various ways that soot and other fine particles in the air mess with our bodies, but the data are enough to show that particulate matter pollution is causing an enormous amount of damage to our health – and that cleaning it up will produce huge benefits.   These numbers are so big that they outweigh the cost estimates by billions of dollars.   And they make things like EPA’s upcoming rule limiting mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants look like a really good idea.

In their desperation to make the benefits of clean air look smaller, two anti-EPA Republicans have reached back to an idea that was so callous and cynical and produced such an immediate furor when it was suggested a decade ago that even the Bush administration ultimately dropped it like a hot potato.  Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch first caught this yesterday and it deserves attention. In a letter Tuesday to Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein, two House subcommittee chairs friendly to the coal lobby, Representatives Andy Harris (R-MD) and Paul Broun (R-GA), suggest reviving the “senior death discount,” writing:

You have stated that “it makes a great deal of sense to focus on statistical life-years rather than statistical lives.” In spite of the fact that most mortality associated with PM2.5 happens in the population over 65 years of age, EPA puts the same value on mortality for all ages. In your view, is this practice appropriate?

Since older people have fewer years left to live, the thinking goes, their lives are less valuable. So if, for example, the life of the average American is worth $7 million, then we might set the value of grandma’s life at, say, $4.3 million.    

They’ve also obliquely suggested reviving another bad idea for valuing human lives that I thought had been safely relegated to the dust-bin – discounting the poor. It turns out when economists try to attach dollar figures to our lives, they’re essentially asking the question “how much are you willing to pay to avoid death (or a risk of death)?”   And, as Reps. Harris and Broun blithely point out in their letter, “willingness to pay is dependent on ability to pay.” You can see where this logic leads. If I have less money than somebody else, my life is worth less than theirs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created a public uproar when they tried this approach back in 1995 when they suggested that the lives of people in the developed world should be valued at $3.5 million, while the lives of people living in India were each worth $120,000.   Reps. Harris and Broun appear to be equal opportunity discounters, suggesting that all of our lives are worth less now that the economy has gone sour:

EPA's VSL has not been updated or discounted in light of our ongoing economic problems.  As you noted in 2003, "[w]illingness to pay is dependent on ability to pay," suggesting that economic issues could substantially diminish EPA's estimated health-based benefits.  Has OIRA recommended that EPA or other agencies evaluate VSL in light of economic conditions? If not, why not?

Their constituents ought to know that their Representatives now see them as worth less.

but aren't both of those questions quoting the president's appointee, cass sunstein?
— chad fhite
Yes, that’s right. They’re cleverly using Sunstein’s own past words against him, because he was on the record endorsing these specific anti-regulatory tricks they're trying to pull out of the dust bin (where they rightfully belong).
— Amy Sinden
Yes, that’s right. They’re cleverly using Sunstein’s own past words against him, because he was on the record endorsing these specific anti-regulatory tricks they're trying to pull out of the dust bin (where they rightfully belong).
— Amy Sinden
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Also from Amy Sinden

Amy Sinden is the James E. Beasley Professor of Law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and at the Temple-Tsinghua Masters of Law program in Beijing,China. She is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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