Know Thy Worth

Wife left you? Boss fired you? Don't worry—some bureaucrat thinks you're worth a million bucks.


Knowing your own worth can be very useful, as in, "Mrs. Bidwell, I know I can't offer your daughter a fancy house, expensive clothes, or a personal computer to help our kids get into college, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does appraise me at $3.5 million." Know your worth, or at least have it written down somewhere—that's an axiom to live by.

Here's how you can determine your own value: Pretend that you are pigeon hunting in lower Manhattan. You stalk the sidewalks of Vesey Street accompanied by your guide, your carriers, several useless servants whose presence is stipulated by the union, and your loving spouse. Just on the far side of Syms Men's Store ("Where an Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer"), you spot a prize pigeon knecking its way innocently toward some crumbs. One of the natives quickly hands you your pigeon rifle, but as you line the bird into your cross hairs, 10th-grade biology streams through your consciousness.

You remember the laws of natural mutation. One pigeon in 10,000 has, by freakish accident, been given the mind of Bernard Goetz. If you try to shoot him, he'll pull a magnum from under his wing and blow you away (see "Pigeon Vigilante Slaughters Brokers," New York Post, Jan. 12, 1985). At that moment, with a 1 in 10,000 chance of death staring at you through your scope, how much money would you give to determine whether that particular pigeon is a Bernard Goetz mutation?

Personally, if I were faced with a 0.0001 chance of death, I'd pay about $500 to get out of it. It follows that if I were faced with a 0.001 chance of death, I'd pay $5,000 to get out that. And, tracing the quaint laws of math to their conclusion, we can determine that I would pay $5 million to avoid certain death. I appraise myself at $5 million. I think that's a fair price; if anybody kidnapped me and asked for more than $5 million, he'd find himself in a buyer's market.

To put it simply, take the amount of money you'd spend to avoid a 1/10,000th chance of death, then multiply it by 10,000, and you will have determined your worth.

This sort of thinking is obviously farcical, a quality that accounts for its many practical applications. For example, consider bureaucrats at OSHA mounting a new regulatory assault. They can use it when they then have to go out and cook up a methodology that justifies their new regulatory program to the Office of Management and Budget (whose slogan is "We've Got Money, and Plenty of It").

First, the OSHA types figure out how much the regulation is going to cost, and then they multiply it by 10 (that's their fee). Then they've got to draw up the value of the benefits, somehow ensuring that the benefits are more than the costs. Part of the benefits (real or imaginary) often consist of saved lives.

Initially, OSHA tried to persuade OMB that any regulation that saves lives should be approved, because human life is precious. But OMB didn't buy that for one minute—"If human life is precious, how come there's so much of it lying around?" So OSHA had to go out and place a monetary value on human life. And it had to be a value that's high enough to justify all sorts of regulations.

Suppose OSHA decides that henceforth all pimento bits must be glued to the insides of the olives, because unglued pimento bits tend to fall out of the olives, onto the barroom floor, and bartenders keep slipping on them and skewering their arteries on misplaced club sandwich toothpicks. It costs $70 million a year to glue pimentos into olives (genetic engineering's attempts to produce prepimentoed olives have so far resulted in Greek crabapples). At the same time, one bartender in 10,000 (or maybe 10 zillion, but let's not quibble) dies every year in a pimento-related accident. That's about 40 bartenders a year. The question OSHA must ask (not necessarily with any intellectual rigor) is, Is it worth $70 million to save 40 bartenders?

To answer, you and I would insist on sampling the respective talents of each of the 40 bartenders—extensively, if necessary. But the OSHA professionals, mindful of the fact that four drinkers in a google are killed each year by rabid Tequila worms, refuse to take the risk of going into a bar. They meditate safely in their air-filtered offices protected by bullet-proof vests and corrosion-proof goggles (typewriter keys have been known to bounce off cylinders, massacring innocent office workers), quietly trying to figure out how 40 bartenders can be worth $70 million.

The courts are not much help. The average award for deaths caused by industrial negligence, including among bartenders, runs about a quarter of a million dollars. The really big awards that you read about in the paper are usually levied against surgeons who confuse nose jobs with mastectomies.

Similarly, chemistry offers OSHA little aid. Estimates of the chemical value of the body range from 95 cents to about $50, although people who can drink milk and sweat diamonds are worth considerably more.

And my own solution—to take the average of what Leo Buscaglia thinks you're worth and what your teen-age daughter thinks you're worth—has already been rejected by top-level bureaucrats.

So OSHA people find themselves in a bind. They have trouble justifying expensive regulations on the basis of a few lives, especially when they know deep in their hearts that someone might come along and point out that the money spent on those regulations might be spent elsewhere to greater effect—even by the very taxpayers it would have to be taken from. Who knows; it could be that, with Uncle Sam's hand in his pocket, some poor taxpayer won't have enough money to mend those broken stairs (OSHA's friends over at the Consumer Product Safety Commission know all about that one).

But all this does not deter the folks at OSHA (Where an Educated Taxpayer Is Our Worst Enemy). Unreliable sources have confided to me that a bunch of OSHA bureaucrats periodically get together and create an absolute scale of human worth, based on occupation. The scale relies on all sorts of multivariate regression techniques and ranges from the least-valued members of society—prisoners on death row—all the way up to OSHA bureaucrats. The rest of us are squeezed into the tiny space in between.

Personally, I'm content with this state of affairs. Of course, I'm not delighted that OSHA has spent hundreds of my tax dollars fudging up statistics that prove I am worth far more than I really am. But on the other hand, think of all the money I might have otherwise spent on psychiatric treatment. Whenever I feel a twinge of self-doubt, I call up my fans at OSHA and ask them to appraise me. They tell me I'm worth the sun and the moon. It makes me feel good. It gives me reason to go on living. I walk with my head a little higher. And I'm a little more careful around unglued olives.

David Brooks is an editorial writer for the Washington Times.