cover image PRICELESS: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

PRICELESS: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Frank Ackerman, . . New Press, $25.95 (277pp) ISBN 978-1-56584-850-4

How does one put a cost on a human life? And what effect does air pollution have on our health? Ackerman and Heinzerling focus on such questions in this volume, a skeptical and instructive look at how economists put a dollar value on intangible risks and rewards. What sounds like a purely technical process has enormous political implications, thanks to the pervasive use of cost-benefit analysis in government decision making. Because this analysis is used to quantify the impact of often controversial regulatory and tax policies, the economists' numbers loom large in public policy, which Ackerman and Heinzerling clearly deplore. They've composed a lively and engaging attack, both well reasoned and well documented, on the myriad ways that these little-scrutinized figures are manipulated for political gain. While it's no surprise to anyone who has worked with statistics that numbers are frequently massaged to advance a particular point of view, the authors argue that in some cases the massaging leans toward misrepresentation or outright incompetence. For example, one study attempted to downplay the hazards of toxic waste dumps by noting that accidents with deer hurt more people every year; but then, there are many more deer than toxic waste dumps. This is a thoughtful book that is partisan but not strident; at the same time, it assumes a certain degree of mathematical sophistication. (Jan.)