Whatever the causes of the Washington DC Metro crash that took the lives of nine people and injured scores of others, our first thoughts will be with the victims' families, and our reaction will be Never Again.
But there is another way of looking at casualties, statistical and actuarial, a style of thinking prized and highly paid in the Capital and around the Beltway and in academia. To the humanist rhetoric of infinite human worth, the idea that when a person dies a world is destroyed, it opposes the economic logic of limited resources and the bureaucratic watchword of consistency.
At an academic lunch some time ago, after a report of the collapse of a local parking garage -- I don't remember whether there were casualties -- a colleague in the policy culture launched zestfully into the thesis that not enough structures were falling down, that it showed that they were being built too safely, misallocating resources. There seemed to be an optimal number of building collapses. Maybe he was just provoking the rest of us, but I recall him sounding like he meant it.
Stephen Colbert lampooned the Environmental Protection Agency's reduction of the value of a statistical life a year ago as a typical Bush tactic to subvert regulation:
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The disturbing truth is that even at the old, higher number, the loss of 9 human lives would not be grounds for replacement of the older model cars offering less survivability. Even if all nine casualties could have been spared, the $888 million estimate cost of replacing 1970s cars newer, safer models would have been almost $100 million per life, more than twelve times the pre-2008 $8.04 million statistical value of life used by the EPA.