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December 22, 2006, Volume 14 Nr. 4, Issue 223

The Relative Value of Human Life.
No Iraqi Civilians on Mount Hood.

Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

Evelyn Rusli, in an article for the (Sept 10, 2002) entitled, Professors calculate monetary, statistical value of human life, writes that the value of a human life in US dollars is,

1.54 million. Exchange rate – 190 million yen, 980,000 British pounds... the statistical worth of a person according to studies by economics professor Orley Ashenfelter.

Richard P. Morin in, Economist Feldman takes a different route toward assessing value of a life reports writes that David Feldman in his paper, The Value of Life Revisited, proffers that a human life is worth whatever the individual is willing to pay to extend that life for any given finite time period. Feldman's model holds that the worth of a human life should not be based upon the individual

...buying extra probability of survival, it should be about buying extra years of life. Uncertainty coupled with an unknowable state should be set aside, and replaced with certainty coupled with choice of additional units of a known state.

Other economists disagree with Feldman. They say that a human life is worth whatever expense any person is willing to pay to reduce the possibility of their death. These cold-calculations offer little comfort to the individual who is unable to come up with the expenditure necessary to continue their existence. It is telling, but not surprising, that economists would consider human life to be valued in terms of dollars, Euros, or some other monetary unit. The reality is that most of the world's people cannot afford to purchase the “extra probability of survival”, nor the price of “reducing the possibility of their death”. The human will to survive is strong and ever-present. The money to pay for survival, however, is another matter. Callous neoliberal economics renders human capital inconsequential. To neoliberalism, the use value of a human being does not matter. Only their surplus value matters to the capitalist, thus making the value of rich human life greater than that of the poor.

Marc W. Herold, in his July 22, 2002 posting, The Value of a Dead Afghan: Revealed and Relative, states that when it comes to the value of human life,

The dominant 'model' in practice, however, remains not the neoclassical economists' 'willingness to pay' perspective, but rather the simple old discounted future earnings model which focuses upon human beings as a machine generating a stream of income into the future...

In 1984, the Wall Street Journal's Barry Neuman wrote that Indians don't expect compensation for lives lost in the Bhopal poisonous gas leak because "the certainty of reincarnation satisfies the Hindus; for the Moslems, what God wills, God wills."6 The Times of India caustically noted that about $40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.7

Using the same logic in the United States, one might conclude that Christians don't expect compensation for lives lost in accidents and other tragedies as their transition to heaven is reward enough. There is, of course, no cornucopia of Christians rushing to take up residency with “God”.

The Christian ethic fosters the perception that all human life, including a fertilized egg cell, is precious. This infinite-value-of-human-life notion is what compels people to reach for their checkbooks when seeing malnourished or impoverished people on television. It also produces right-to-lifers who kill abortion doctors in order to save blastocysts. Does the value of a human life, however, change with the characteristics of the human being? Does a human life's value depend upon skin color, religion, language, or culture? Does it matter if the human life is Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or poor? There are six-billion people on planet earth. Does each human life have infinite value,? Do just the Christians or wealthy deserve to live by virtue of their ability to purchase their life extension?

Putting Iraqis On Mount Hood

In the middle of December, 2006, the United States media and its system of mass worldwide distraction presented the real life and tragic human story of three mountain climbers lost on Mount Hood, Oregon. One climber was found dead. The other three climbers remain missing as of the date of this writing. Prospects for finding them alive are not good. Rescue attempts are hindered by harsh weather conditions and difficult snow covered terrain. Yet, the herculean effort involving a team of hand-picked rescue mountaineers continues. Support crews consisting of paramedics and avalanche experts are combing the mountainside. Aircraft scour the landscape. The urgency to save the missing mountain climbers is both necessary and commendable. One cannot escape the conundrum, however, that white people's lives lost on skies are worth much more than lives in Iraq, or Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The US mass media does a good job in presenting the news of unfolding dramas like that taking place on Mt. Hood. They do a poor job presenting the reality of children dying daily in Iraq. Yet, the same audience, the taxpayers who are paying for the rescue attempts on Mount Hood, are also paying for the death and destruction in Iraq. There is no rescue in the works for the Iraqis, nor the Palestinians. There is no eager nor urgent presentation of the “pictures of the destruction and civilian victims of the Anglo-American aggression in Iraq”(Robert Fisk). And that is no accident. One small group of humans has infinite value, the other vastly larger group has none, or less.

A half-million children died in Iraq as a result of the US-instigated United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State during the sanctions, said when asked about these deaths that “We think the price is worth it”. According to Madame Albright, Iraqi children's lives do not have infinite value. Perhaps, things would be different if they were white, or lost on Mount Hood?

John Pilger, in Squeezed to death, Guardian unlimited (March 4, 2000, writes,

Denial is easy, for Iraqis are a nation of unpeople in the West, their panoramic suffering of minimal media interest; and when they are news, care is always taken to minimize Western culpability.

An Associated Press report of December 19, 2006 reveals that the Hood River County (Oregon) Sheriff's office, in its climber rescue attempt, spent almost,

...$5,000 a day for the first three days and about $6,500 a day after that...only part of what will be become the final price tag, in part because much of it is being done by volunteers and the military, which in the past has tagged such missions as training.

Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes and Columbia University Professor and Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz have issued a statement, where they “calculate that the [Iraq] war is likely to cost the United States a minimum of nearly one trillion dollars and potentially over $2 trillion”. Dividing the lower figure of $1,000,000,000,000 by the killing of 655,000 Iraqis (Lancet study) yields a cost of $1,526,717.56 per Iraqi casualty. Right wing critics accuse the Lancet study casualty figures as being exaggerated. If that is the case, then the cost per casualty is even higher. Instead of placing infinite value on human life, we are placing a value on human death.

Secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld, with his “lean and mean” military and “Shock and Awe” strategy denigrates the concept of human capital. Rumsfeld lays waste to one of the ten supposed tenets of the Judeo-Christian ethic: thou shall not kill. It is mind boggling that many so-called Christians would go so far as to commit murder in order to protect the life of a blastocyst, a mass of cells, while remaining silent on the dying tens of thousands in Iraq. The value of human life then, is based upon the value system of the evaluator. And US evaluators, like any other, are prejudiced.

The US media long ago stopped presenting the news. Shedding the burden of objectivity, the media protects the for-profit system upon which it depends. The US media, an embedded Capitalist institution, inculcates the value system of the status quo. It tells consumers what has value and what does not. As John Pilger puts it, the media turns Iraqis into non-people. The realty is that media present a biased view of events as dictated by the realities of the political framework that allows it to exist. The media is part and parcel of the power structure. It knows where its loyalties lie. The disproportionate coverage between US deaths versus Iraqi death and suffering in the Iraq war,

...reveals something less honorable and quite telling about why America is losing the war in Iraq, and why Iraqis despise the American presence regardless of their dependence on it for survival (dependence isn't love, as any jailbird can say of his warden): Americans don't give a crab's beard about Iraqis, neither at home nor in Iraq. A kidnapped Iraqi is sand in the wind, a dead Iraqi as valueless as the nano-weight of newsprint it takes to record the nameless figure. If it's recorded. (Self-indulgence as Strategy. American Lives, Iraqi Props, Pierre Trsitam, June, 2006, Candide's Notebooks.

If Iraqi children and other victims of the Iraq war were lost on Mt. Hood, would we attempt to save them? The cost of rescuing them would be far less than what we spend on killing them: two-billion dollars per week. We might then begin making the case that an Iraqi human life is worth just as much as a US human life. Perhaps, even as much as the life Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, or Morgan Stanley's CEO, John Mack. On December 20, 2007, The International Herald Tribune, in its business section ran an article with the headline, “Goldman Sachs breaks Wall Street CEO bonus record, pays Blankfein $53.4M”. It reported that,

John Mack's record for the biggest bonus ever paid to a Wall Street CEO did not last even a week. It was smashed by the $53.4 million (40.45 million Euros) that Goldman Sachs gave its chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

George W. Bush, in his press conference of December 20, 2006, stubbornly stated again that he was going to stay the course in Iraq, that winning is the only opinion. Winning in Iraq is the only thing that matters to Bush, whatever winning means. It does not matter how many lives “winning” takes. George W. Bush gives the world his own definition for what human life is worth, and the world rejects it. Despite Congressman John Conyers, Nancy Pelosi and Henry Heid, the people of the United States reject it as well. The people's demand for Congress to impeach George W. Bush, as the US Constitution demands, is growing louder. Meanwhile, unfortunately, as Tom Engelhardt in a piece entitled, “Good Evening, Vietnam”, writes,

...undoubtedly, when we're done, the Iraqis will be forgotten and - as in the Vietnam era - this will be called an "American tragedy," to be followed by an "Iraq Syndrome," and so on into the Möbius strip of history, farce, and catastrophe.

After all, an American life is worth more than any other.

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government -- Thomas Jefferson.

Jozef Hand-Boniakowski is co-editor and co-publisher of Metaphoria along with his life partner and wife, JeanneE. He is 30-year veteran retired teacher and a member of Veterans For Peace. His writings have appeared in Metaphoria, After Downing Street, Buzzflash, Counterpunch, Thomas Paine's Corner,, Omni Center, Rutland Herald, Times Argus, and others. 

©2006 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, Ph.D.

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