By John Clayton
An article in a recent edition of the Washington Post captured my interest, and one of its primary points stuck with me throughout the week. The article, “End Obamacare and people could die. That’s okay,” was by Michael R. Strain, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This means that he is at least a little more conservative than I am and a lot smarter, so I will try to do him proper justice. He discusses the concept of VSL which we all know stands for the Value of a Statistical Life. His basic point is that all sorts of societal decisions—political, economic, or what have you—result in deaths that might have been prevented by other actions. He writes, “In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals—including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more healthcare choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal healthcare spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.”
He quotes an economist and “leading VSL expert,” W. Kip Viscusi, that VSL “serves as the basis for the standard approach used by government agencies to establish monetary benefit values for the predicted reductions in mortality risks from health, safety, and environmental policies.” The dollar value that Viscusi says that U.S. government policies place on the value of a statistical life is “between $6 million and $10 million.”
Strain discusses crime, speed limits, and gun control as examples where our policies reach a balance between the restrictions we accept as reasonable or economically advantageous and a certain number of deaths. He cites, as an example, that if we had sentries and surveillance cameras everywhere, we could probably reduce homicides to almost nothing, but no one would want to pay for or live with such a solution.
His discussion ultimately swings back through the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a balanced discussion of what medical insurance should or should not cover—small-scale expenses versus catastrophic expense—which carries him into Republican alternative strategies of which he is in favor. It’s thought-provoking, and he criticizes both sides of the debate for their respective misrepresentations and excesses. It was a welcome break from the Obamacare lament I hear from so many, “It made my health insurance more expensive.”
I also heard this week that various jurisdictions around the country are tightening up their enforcement of and penalties for handheld-device-use while driving. It hasn’t been long enough since my last rant on this issue and my own mea culpa for my own transgressions, but it does occur to me that our tolerance for various smartphone activities while driving suggests that there is a certain level of traffic mishaps we are willing to suffer in exchange for our almighty personal convenience. We all know the prohibition of handheld devices is routinely ignored, and we also know that talking hands-free, while legal because we value it, also qualifies as distracted driving. So what’s the deal? Do we put up with it as long as no one we know gets injured or killed? Does something change when that happens? I wonder what the VSL is as it relates to distracted driving?
The next step in this concern will probably be self-driving cars. We’ve all read about them, and we know they are technically viable. At some point, we will have to wrestle with what constitutes their societal acceptability. I am more than willing to accept that Google or some other developer can drive a car more reliably than I can and certainly better than all those other drivers out there (please, picture the writer rearing up in full self-righteous hauteur). Honestly, I’m fine with the concept. If all of us are hurtling around the beltway watching cat videos on YouTube in cars guided by real-time software and GPS, we are probably safer than we are now. When I get nervous is when I hear the caveat, “Of course, drivers have to remain somewhat aware of their progress as it may become necessary to resume control of the vehicle in certain situations.” I don’t think that is going to work; there is no halfway here. If self-driving cars are only going to sometimes be self-driving cars, then it isn’t going to work. If we are supposed to drive, then we shouldn’t be focused on anything else. If the cars are going to drive themselves, then we have be free to fully disengage because, believe me, we will be totally disengaged, if not asleep. Then again, perhaps I am wrong, and if our 30,000 deaths a year on the roads goes down to 10,000 per year, we’ll be satisfied, depending on who makes up the 10,000. What’s the value of your life?