Quantifying Risk

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Many laws that give an executive branch agency the authority to issue regulations require cost-benefit analysis. In matters such as environmental, safety or health related regulation this frequently involves putting some sort of value on human life to weight against the economic cost imposed upon business to comply with the regulation.

The two most common methods of looking at this issue are both intensely controversial. One method basically puts a dollar value on a human life, say $5,000,000, and estimates how many lives will be saved by a regulation. The other method basicallly puts a dollar value on a year of lost life expectency (or lost healthy life expectency) and attempts do determine the number of years of life that will be saved by a regulation.

The two methods differ significantly in how they prioritize various regulatory actions. Senior citizens argue that the lost years of life measure devalues their lives and discourages efforts to prevent harms to vulnerable people in their later years. Advocates for the "years of lost life" approach argue that to talk about "lives lost" in the abstract is question begging as everyone is going to eventually die anyway and the real question is when and how, and not whether someone will die. A lost years of life approach places great importance on pre-natal, infant and accident related loss of life, while placing a signficantly lower importance on aggravations of what are commonly end of life conditions like heart attack, stroke, geriatric falls, and cancer.

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