The Price of Human Life

The Price of Human Life

August 16, 2013

DT Cochrane

This American Life is a great public radio show based out of Chicago. They just hit their 500th episode and to celebrate, Ira Glass talked with his other producers about favourite past episodes. Alex Blumberg, one of the producers of Planet Money, reflected on a particular co-production with This American Life. All the way back in episode 98, Adam Davidson, Blumberg’s collaborator, talked with insurance adjusters about the price of his life.

This piece is both humorous and disturbing. The two insurance adjusters are making quick translations of the qualities of Davidson’s life, and Davidson is trying to argue that life insurance adjustments should account for the fact that he loves his parents, reads lots of books and watches foreign films. The insurance adjusters tell him he needs to see his parents more, get married and have more (monogamous) sex. Alternatively, if Davidson gets into a fatal accident, the price of his life increases if his death is slow and painful.

The piece is still miles away from the capitalization formula, yet it is still a great example of how the logic of capital rests on the quality-quantity relationship. Moreover, it gives a sense of just how shrewd one must be to reduce human life and its manifold of qualities to a price. Davidson may not have expected this, but these American insurance adjusters spend part of their day trying to figure out which state it is “best” to die in.

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2 thoughts on “The Price of Human Life”

  1. While I’m a fan of Planet Money, listening to it demands some financial and media literacy. Although better than 99.9% of the mainstream financial reporting, it remains very liberal in its perspective. Its critical stance presumes the possibility of a well functioning market that will be just and efficient.

    1. With respect to the orientation of Planet Money in general, I certainly agree. Despite being a team of enthusiastic, smart journalists, and despite following interesting stories, Planet Money repeatedly runs into problems because it seeks to quickly fill the gaps of its theoretical knowledge with what is abundantly available: supply-demand, equilibrium, utility. There is no reason to do this, especially because Davidson and Bloomberg started Planet Money with no formal training in economics.
      In a way, I like this piece above because Davidson is not trying to find a theoretical answer to all this. Instead, he appears to be surprised that the qualities of his life do not easily translate into a magnitude of utils.

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