[Note: This post is meant to be provocative and press a public policy question in the most thought-provoking way possible. Losing a loved one is among the most heart-wrenching experiences in a life time and my heart goes out to all those with loved ones on the flight waiting for answers. But one of the major points of this post is to highlight our tendency to spend more on identified lives not statistical ones for just these kinds of reasons and ask if it is justified.]
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is likely run to “Hundreds of Millions of Dollars” according to the most recent estimate from ABC News. This is based on extrapolation of the difficulties involved and the experience of searching for Air France 447 which cost 50 million USD. Let’s take a conservative estimate of 100 million USD to find the plane, probably on the low end. Let us put aside the possibility that even with that expenditure the plane will never be found, again an assumption that counts against the argument I will be making. This is 100 million dollars spent, roughly speaking, on “helping.” It is very unlikely that there are any survivors, so I don’t think this can reasonably be thought of as “life-saving” (I will assume it is not, but if it were that wouldn’t make that much of a difference in the argument I will offer though it will require confronting the question of Should the Numbers Count for life saving?).
Instead the money is being spent (1) to satisfy the somewhat diffuse curiosity/grief of those who have watched this in the media, (2) to give answers to the very deep need for closure of the loved ones of those flying on these planes, and (3) to learn about what went wrong and potentially determine whether there is a systemic problem with these planes that might affect other planes.
All of those are worthy goals. But are they worth 100 million USD? In the category of “helping” or “life-saving” what else could we do with the money? Let me draw on one estimate mentioned by Ezra Klein in the WaPo and Don Taylor at the Incidental Economist from a paper by Tammy Tengs “Five Hundred Life Saving Interventions and Their Cost Effectiveness“
I chose the cheapest intervention, influenza vaccines for children age 5+ which is estimated to cost $1,300/life year saved in 1993 dollars. I then updated that to 2013 dollars with a conversion calculator to generate a cost of 1915.89 USD per life year saved (it may also be that this intervention is now cheaper than it was at the time of Teng’s paper). I then divided 100 million dollars by that number to get my 52,192 life years saved for children estimate. That is fairly back of the envelope and there are lots of tweaks you would do to get a more exact figure, but it is close enough to make the point: Why are we spending so much on Malaysia Airlines search when we could be saving so many lives?
There are political reasons, of course. It is also possible that someone has concluded that finding out the answer to what happen to this plane will save many more lives (that seems implausible, but possible), though I have not seen anyone articulate or substantiate that answer.
Instead, I think the main reason why we are spending this money is a “quirk” (many think it is a “bias” but that may presuppose the answer to the question) of our focus on identified lives (real people who are out there who we can identify and “know” in some sense) over statistical lives (those who are just as real but not made psychologically individuated to us). We hosted a conference on this topic from law, medical, philosophical, and social science perspectives a couple years ago. Videos here, here, here, here, here, and here (you can also find the Q & A associated with each session on the YouTube menu). Norm Daniels, Nir Eyal, and I have a new volume collecting the papers under contract with Oxford University Press that should be out in the next year. Internally among ourselves we disagree whether there is ever a circumstance where the “bias” is not a bias but a justified form of moral reasoning. But even for those who believe favoring identified lives is sometimes justified, I think this is a hard case to justify the expenditure and this should be a question we should be asking in the coverage of this issue. Am I wrong?