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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/2/12

What's a life worth?

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What is a life worth? What about one year of life? On the David Pakman show, two stories made our crew consider this question.

On March 11th, 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly sneaked out of his American military base and opened fire on sleeping families in two nearby Afghan villages, totaling 16 dead and six wounded. Two weeks later, the US paid $50,000 in compensation for each death and $11,000 per wounded.

Alan Northrup was playing pool in 1993 when he was handcuffed and arrested for the rape and kidnapping of a housekeeper -- a crime he didn't commit -- and spent 17 years in prison, before DNA testing exonerated him and he was set free. Northrup left prison with $2500 and received no compensation from the state of Washington, which isn't on the list of 27 states that provide remuneration for wrongful imprisonment. Northrup also isn't eligible for many services that paroled convicts can obtain because, according to Washington state agencies, Northrup wasn't actually guilty of the crime he did time for, and therefore doesn't fit the definition of a released criminal.

For the 27 states that provide compensation to the innocent, payouts vary significantly. Sometimes it's $50,000 per year, while a few pay more, and many less. Wisconsin's rate is $5,000 per year, Missouri's is $50 per day. New Hampshire's total benefit is capped at $20,000, and some states have a total payout maximum of $500,000, $1 million, or no limit at all. By the way, Alan Northrup also received a bill for $111,000 for the child support he wasn't able to pay while in prison; his prison job only paid 42 cents per hour.

The broader question is whether a year of life can and should have a value assigned to it, and by extension, whether a single human life can be quantified in terms of dollars. In the US, the following estimates have been applied to the value of life:


  • $50,000 per year of quality life (international standard most private and government-run health insurance plans worldwide use to determine whether to cover a new medical procedure)
  • $129,000 per year of quality life (based on analysis of kidney dialysis procedures by Stefanos Zenios and colleagues at Stanford Graduate School of Business)
  • $6.9 million per life (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • $7.9 million per life (Food and Drug Administration)
  • $6 million per life (Transportation Department)

Not only is the value of life an important issue for economics, healthcare, political science, worker safety, insurance, globalization, environmental impact assessment, and countless other areas, it also brings up many questions about how we value, prioritize, and think about our society. This invariably links back to issues of political theory. Without question, some would argue that the value of someone's life does depend, at least in part, on how much value they are likely to add, in terms of dollars, to the global economy during their lifetime. By definition, this connects -- at least in some way -- to the salaries they earn. That gets us to the question of whether people who earn more money are worth more as people, something that -- hopefully -- most disagree with. There's no question that this is a complex issue, as entire books have been written analyzing individual aspects of valuing life.

Fortunately, in much of what is colloquially called the first world, or industrialized nations -- both admittedly obsolete and not particularly accurate terms -- the legal system considers a life to be priceless, and this is reflected in slavery being completely illegal; a person cannot be purchased. Systems other than the legal system, however, do value life either explicitly or implicitly. In the "real world," some limitations on resources exist, at least based on the current allocation of resources, every life is not saved, and it brings up the question of prioritization.

This drives the discussion in two directions. The first is basic ethical dilemmas, the ones discussed in philosophy, medical ethics, and other classrooms across the world, as well as in a popular program segment on my broadcast, Morality with Motamedi. Included under this heading are the infamous Trolley Problem (google it!), and countless others.

The second direction is a real discussion about the state of resource allocation as a planet. Increasingly, more and more scholars ranging fields from economics and business to agriculture and environmental studies are subscribing to the belief that scarcity for certain basic services need not be the norm. In order words, with a real reorganization -- a paradigm shift -- basic life requirements and services like healthcare, food, housing, electricity, and running water would not need to be part of the free market, abundant in some areas but almost nonexistent in others, but available to all. The theory is that we have a problem of distribution rather than of resources. One such set of ideas is contained in The Venus Project, if you're interested in more reading. What do you think?

David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program, "The David Pakman Show," writes a monthly column. He can be reached at


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David Pakman is the host of The David Pakman Show, an internationally syndicated progressive talk radio and television program airing on over 110 stations across 4 countries, on DirecTV, DISH Network, and across the web on a hugely popular podcast (more...)
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