Oregon Law Review : Vol. 89, No. 4, p. 1313-1356 : Health Inflation, Wealth Inflation, and the Discounting of Human Life
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This Article presents two new arguments against “discounting” future human lives during cost-benefit analysis, arguing that even absent ethical objections to the disparate treatment of present and future humanity, the economic calculations of cost-benefit analysis itself—if properly performed—counsel against discounting lives at anything close to current rates. In other words, even if society sets aside all concerns with the discounting of future generations in principle, current discounting of future human lives cannot be justified even on the discounters’ own terms. First, because cost-benefit analysis has thus far ignored evidence of rising health care expenditures, it underestimates the “willingness to pay” for health and safety that future citizens will likely exhibit, thereby undervaluing their lives. Second, cost-benefit analysis ignores the trend of improved material conditions in developed countries. As time advances, residents of rich countries tend to live better and spend more, meaning that a strict economic monetization of future persons values the lives of our expected descendents above those of present citizens. These two factors justify “inflation” of future lives that would offset, perhaps completely, the discount rate used for human life. Until regulators correct their method of discounting the benefits of saving human lives in the future, the United States will continue to suffer the fatal costs of under-regulation, and agencies will remain in violation of legal requirements to maximize net benefits.