What price life? The problem that will bankrupt our world

Last night Matt Steinglass tried to put the outrage over the execution of apparently innocent Texan Cameron Todd Willingham in perspective.
Well, okay — say the guy was innocent, and Texas put an innocent guy to death this one time. And let’s even grant that it’s not the only case. In fact, imagine for the sake of argument that 50 percent of the people Texas puts to death were innocent. Texas executed 423 people between 1982 and 2008, so let’s call it 212 innocent people killed by the state. Now, look at all the time, effort and money being spent on trying to get Texas to reform or eliminate its death penalty practices. It must be millions of dollars, not to mention all the media attention. If all that money were being devoted to ending malaria in Africa, isn’t it obvious that it would save thousands and thousands of innocent lives?
The difference, of course, is that we know for certain that the Texas state government ended Willingham's life, whereas lack of investment by Western governments is only one cause of malaria deaths in Africa. Furthermore, we as a society are terrible at putting a price on life. Imagine the following hypothetical situation. We launch a rocket to Mars, but the ship suffers damage on the way there and does not have enough juice to make it home. The two astronauts have a year to live before they run out of resources, and rescuing them will cost $400 million. Furthermore we know for certain that the rescue money will be taken from foreign aid which will go to various health and aid measures and is estimated will save 2000 lives, although we'll never know for certain whose lives we're saving. This is akin to the trolley problem. For another thought experiment, replace $400 million with X and try to figure out the value of X where the government agrees that rescuing the astronauts will not be a good idea. $1 billion? $1 trillion? If I'm a senator, I'm holding these poor astronauts lives in one hand but I am holding a sort of intangible, expected value of lives saved in the other. The choice is pretty easy; vote to effect the rescue. When we know for certain we are the cause of death we'll go to unbelievable lengths to save a person; when we have the power to prevent a lot of death, but we are not the main cause of death it's easy to dodge the moral bullet. I think the only way we decide that we can spend the money in a better way is if we create some automatic decision rule which says that if it'll cost less than $X million to save a life then we should do it but if not then we shouldn't. Or if we destroy all rocketship technology, so that it becomes impossible to save the astronauts. This of course is the root of the healthcare problem in the US. Advances in medical technology in recent decades have allowed for amazing new treatments in every field of medicine, that save countless lives. The problem is that these treatments are massively expensive, and may end up making the whole country bankrupt. If a dying loved one looks you in the eye and the doctor says they need the new treatment to live, and you're not even going to pay the cost for the procedure but your insurer is, then you say yes to pretty much any cost (use the same procedure as above - a new treatment costs M dollars - at what number M should we decide that the treatment is not cost effective? $20 million per life saved? The problem is that we have to come up with the money somehow, and we haven't found a way to stop Medicare from eating holes in the budget yet. If we don't find a solution the country will go bankrupt; already, most of the increase in wages from now until 2030 is expected to be eaten up by increased medical spending. Once the life is in your hands, it's too late; you're going to pay any price to save it, or get labeled a cruel automaton, someone who values money more than human life. The fact of the matter is that if we're willing to pay $1 billion to save every life, then we're going to run out of money very quickly. Maybe you disagree, but I think that if we only have two ways to spend $1 billion we should fight disease in Africa instead of rescuing the astronauts. But if I'm a senator can you imagine attaching your name to a "No" vote? The current approach of politicians is to dodge the issue at all costs, but we don't have much room for error anymore.

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2 thoughts on “What price life? The problem that will bankrupt our world

  1. Matt Steinglass

    Yeah, I clearly wasn’t explicit enough with my sarcasm in the above post. I agree entirely with you that the situations are completely different; I was trying to express my disdain for Rick Perry’s statements that people shouldn’t be “getting tied up” in the review of the case–as if there are much better things we could be doing with our time than reviewing whether the state put someone to death unjustly. I don’t think there’s any excuse for not submitting that question to exhaustive review.


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