By Mark D. White
The final two posts at the "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium at the LPE Project are more practical, focusing on the impact of CBA techniques in health care and the environment. (Kudos to the LPE Project for this fascinating and provocative collection of essays.)
In "The 'Value of a Statistical Life': Reflections from the Pandemic," Mark Silverman (Franklin & Marshall College) questions the validity of the concept of willingness-to-pay (WTP) on which most CBA calculations are based, especially insofar as they are taken to reflect risk-reward trade-offs, which are at the center of policymaking during the pandemic. He identifies two specific problems in particular:
The first is specific to the notion of worker rates of substitution between income and risk. In the pandemic-induced recession of 2020, with a restricted range of job opportunities, and little publicly provided material support, newly-acknowledged “essential” workers had little choice to but to accept increasingly risky jobs with little or no hazard pay. In fact, the worse the bargaining position for workers, the less they will “value” their lives – lest they risk their livelihood.
The second criticism focuses on the endogeneity of the underlying preferences. Even assuming away the question of worker bargaining power, we are still left with the question of whether, as a matter of policy, our social willingness to pay for mortality risk should be defined exclusively in terms of agents’ WTP as revealed by the market.
In "The Shaky Legal and Policy Foundations of Cost-Benefit Orthodoxy in Environmental Law," Amy Sinden (Temple University) surveys the numerous difficulties with using CBA to screen environmental policies, given the difficulty of quantifying (or monetizing) environmental improvements. Sinden lays out the implications of this failure:
If important benefits are left out of the equation the vast majority of the time, then CBA operates at best as an informal screening tool, telling us, if we’re lucky, whether the benefits of a regulation in a rough sense exceed the costs. (When you’re not so lucky and your partial benefits estimate comes out lower than your cost estimate, it doesn’t tell you much of anything.)
Once demoted from a formal optimization tool to a rough screening tool, CBA loses its normative pedigree in welfare economics and joins the ranks of the other perhaps less theoretically beguiling but highly pragmatic cost screening tools that Congress has so often relied on in crafting our environmental statutes. These are the scrappy, street-smart tools of regulatory decision-making, like feasibility analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, and multi-factor balancing—tools that arguably make up for in pure pragmatic effectiveness what they lack in theoretical elegance. Once your goal is no longer to reach the mythical state of economic efficiency, but rather to ensure that costs are not in some general sense unreasonable, these other tools may actually get you there more quickly, easily, and—dare I say—efficiently.
She concludes that, rather than doubling down on CBA, the federal government should defer to individual agencies, who
should decide how to most appropriately account for costs and benefits by choosing among the wide array of tools available. This choice should be tailored to the particular context in which the rulemaking arises, giving particular attention to the feasibility of quantifying and monetizing relevant costs and benefits, along with the agency’s statutory mandates.