The price of a life and George W. Bush post-White House

(Reuters) - 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 toba...

(Reuters) - 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" noticed.

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 statistical life.'"


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 combat AIDS.

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?


By Steven Brill
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.

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