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Bush-enomics and the value of human life


Fri, Dec 16th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

I would say 30,000 more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis, President George W. Bush said matter of factly last Monday in response to a question of how many Iraqis have died in the war. Weve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.

Bush was talking to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. He wasnt sure where he got the number 30,000. His handlers said it was a credible number. A John Hopkins study in the Lancet, the British medical journal, has put the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war at more than 100,000.

Another questioner challenged the administrations linkage of the Iraq War to 9/11. Bush said, I made a tough decision. And knowing what I know today, Id make the same decision again. Removing Saddam Hussein makes the world a safer place and America a safer country.

Wow. This guy knows that more than 30,000 (or is it 100,000?) people have been killed and he would do it all over again. I suppose if God had told me to invade a country I too would feel as if I had some kind of divine immunity. Maybe God said, George, dont worry about the numbers.

Numbers do seem rather impersonal:

Yah, our group got 30 walleyes.

We met our goal of 20,000 units in April and second quarter demand looks good.

The movie King Kong took in 75 million dollars over the weekend.

Numerical details give meaning to what they refer to - as in the examples above - fishing, production and sales.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics - A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, apply economic principles to answering everyday questions. Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

Which raises the question, how much is a human life worth?

One American insurance company has a life value calculator, which asks several questions about age, income, etc., and assigns a life value quotient. Its purpose is to sell life insurance based on the notion that a life has value in relation to other lives - spouse, children, etc.

The economist Allan Feldman argues that the value of life is the amount you are willing to pay to extend life for a finite period. In Feldmans model, the amount is roughly equal to what that person would spend on personal consumption during that time.

Other economists argue that the value of life is the amount an individual is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death.

The courts, however, use a human capital model to determine damages in wrongful death cases. The court looks at loss of income over time and other factors.

So how much is a human life really worth? Is an Iraqi civilians life worth less than an American soldiers? Is a Muslim life worth more or less than a Christians?

According to an Israeli research firm, per capita income in Iraq has fallen from $3600 in 1980 to approximately $600 in 2003. Plugging into our American insurance calculator income of $600 for a 40 year old Iraqi male as well as $600 for his 40 year old wife, (and assuming that they have two kids and they will both retire at age 62), the value of the mans life was 94 times his annual income of $600, or $56,183. Assuming this man is the standard Iraqi who has died in the war, then Bushs 30,000 killed would total a value of $1,685,490,000 - more or less.

While those numbers may reflect loss of life from a lost income perspective, what we dont know in all those 30,000 more-or-less persons is whether the price of a brother or fathers life is worth more than that of a strangers? Or whether a mothers life is worth more than that of her childs?

Is a poor persons life of the same value as a wealthy persons? What about an Iraqi and an American, are their lives of the same value?

And is Saddams life worth more than 30,000 other lives? What about a 100,000?

Saddam took countless lives trying to stay in power. And now we have done the same to oust him.

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