Book Review of Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing By Frank Akerman and Lisa Heinzerling

Glen T. Martin

This book specifically examines the cost-benefit analyses undertaken by  U.S. government analysts over the past several decades in the face of many environmental issues and the climate crisis itself. It is directed at the dominant forms this analysis has taken with the ascendency of neoliberal economics in Washington, D.C. This happened a decade or more after important environmental laws were enacted in the United States in the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. government has been colonized by conservative economists who devise “cost-benefit” formulas for environmental action that routinely inflate the costs and deflate the value of the benefits of environmental laws and regulations.

In Part One below, I will summarize points made in the book showing the distorted and falsified modes of analysis employed by these conservative government bureaucrats and economists. In Part Two, I will further investigate the issue of value and “pricelessness” raised by these authors. In doing so, I will try to place the excellent points made in this book into the larger global framework of value in relation to the climate crisis and human existence in general. In Part Three, I will raise a few very fundamental critical issues regarding the central thesis of this valuable and well written book. I will argue that deep transformation under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth is the only coherent solution to the climate crisis.

Part One

The economists who integrate cost-benefit analysis into U.S. government functions have embraced the ideology of capitalism that declares markets to be the supreme arbiter of efficiency (Chapter 2).  Under capitalism, a private company will incur costs of acquiring resources or materials for production, and the costs of labor and machinery in production, in order to produce a product offering something that consumers want and for which they are willing to pay. In this way the company makes a profit beyond the costs of resources and production. If consumers do not want the product and will not buy it, then the market “efficiently” will not produce it. Market competition keeps costs to a minimum while producing products people want, which (according to this mainstream economic theory) is efficiency in action.

Advocates of this free-market doctrine, of course, find that government regulation of businesses, whether for environmental reasons, worker safety on the job reasons, fairness and decent pay reasons, or any other reasons, interferes with the efficiency of the market, distorting its beneficial workings. How much are we willing to pay for saving some human lives from cancer deaths? How much are we willing to pay for reducing toxic lead poisoning in our children? (pp. 3-5). How much for worker safety? How much are we willing to pay for preserving unspoiled wilderness areas? (pp. 5-7). The assumption, critiqued by these authors, is that the market can put a price on all these things and give us quantifiable answers. “Cost-benefit analysis sets out to do for government what the market does for business: add up the benefits of a public policy and compare them with the costs” (p. 37). The authors continue:

In principle, one could correct for the potential sources of bias in estimating the costs of regulations and other public policies. No such correction is possible in assessing the benefits of regulation, because the benefits are, literally priceless. Herein lies the fatal flaw of cost-benefit analysis: to compare costs and benefits in its rigid framework, they must be expressed in common units. Cancer deaths avoided, wilderness and whales saved, illnesses and anxieties prevented—all these and many other benefits must be reduced to dollar values to ensure that we are spending just enough on them, but not too much…. Most or all of the costs are readily determined market prices, but many important benefits cannot be meaningfully quantified or priced, and are therefore implicitly given a value of zero. (pp. 39-40)

Perhaps beginning most emphatically with the election of conservative Ronald Reagan as U.S. President in 1979, the great moral principles that undergirded the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act began to be attacked and eroded. These moral principles included the ideas that it is people’s right to breath clean air and drink clean water, and that deaths from bad air and water are wrong in themselves. Lives are priceless.

From the point of view of the neoliberal economics that triumphed worldwide with Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thacher in the U.K., these regulations interfered with the free market, as did public ownership of forests, resources, and other government services.  The neoliberal mantra was “deregulation” and “privatization,” converting everything possible to profit-making businesses, with minimum government regulatory interference. This alone, they declared, could give us the cost-benefit efficiency provided by capitalist markets.

In Chapter 3, the authors examine the role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), founded in 1970, and since colonized by advocates of cost-benefit analyses for all government functions. They give specific examples of the absurd calculations of this office, always attempting to show the high costs and low benefits of government regulation, using arcane economic concepts to quantify everything (including the monetary value of human lives), supposedly showing that most government regulations were inefficient and costly, and that the “free market” could do a much better job.

Chapter 4 considers the question of putting a monetary value on human life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US developed a cost-benefit analysis of regulations for removing arsenic from drinking water. Arsenic, of course, is a deadly poison for human beings that often appears in drinking water drawn from various underground sources. What are the costs of arsenic removal to a certain “safe” low level (e.g., 10 parts per billion (ppb)) as opposed to the benefits of saving so many lives? A complex formula for calculating the value of a human life put the EPA estimate at 6.1 million dollars per life.  This figure then became a common value used in many other cost-benefit calculations, such as analysis of companies paying higher wages to workers in jobs that have a higher risk of injury or death (pp. 75-81).

Only if you have a calculated cost for the value of a human life, you can do a cost-benefit analysis showing whether regulation is beneficial and efficient or whether it is inefficient and needlessly costly. The authors of this book, however, assert that “human life is the ultimate example of a value that is not a commodity, and does not have a price” (p. 67).  Yet the OMB and EPA in the U.S. have calculated prices for everything, for you cannot do a cost-benefit analysis without these calculations (Chapter 5).  What is the price of health versus sickness?  What is the price of dealing with bladder-cancer versus dealing with a common cold?  They have calculations for it all.

How can government perform efficiently unless it can give a determinate value to every benefit sought, whether saving human lives, regulating safety conditions on the job, creating good traffic laws, or removing the poisons from drinking water?  The authors advocate the “precautionary principle, calling for policies to protect health from potential hazards even when definitive proof and measurement of those hazards is not yet available.” They quote from the great Rio Declaration adopted by the U.N. Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. (pp. 117-118)

However, the market is all about efficiency, and government regulation often interferes with market efficiency, so the precautionary principle is out the window if it cannot satisfy a cost-benefit analysis that tells us what whales are worth (versus their extinction), what health is worth (in terms of income that is not lost or lives that are not cut short), or what it is worth to exclude deadly poisons from our drinking water.  And in these calculations, as Akerman and Heinzerling make clear, there is nothing about fairness.

The calculation of the value of a human life includes income expected or lost.  In the value of human life with respect to an estimate of income lost from an early death, it turns out that the lives of high-income people are worth more than low income people (pp. 71-74).  Similarly, for older, retired people, who are no longer earning an income.  According to these calculations, their value is considerably less per life than the value of younger people (pp. 101-02).

Even the value of lives, health, and the planetary environment of the future are discounted with respect to the present in these cost-benefit calculations (Chapter 8). There is no such thing as “intergenerational equity” since the lives of future people are worth so much less than the consumer preferences of present generations. This book is full of interesting examples of the absurd conclusions and calculations made by the OMB and EPA in the U.S. for the last several decades, conclusions that defy common sense, repudiate the precautionary principle, and violate human decency, fairness, and our sense of moral values.  It sparks outrage and horror to read these stories about what these economic ideologues are doing to us all, to future generations, and to the most basic canons of human common sense and moral decency. The authors write:

The imperatives of protecting human life, health, and the natural world around us, and ensuring the equitable treatment of the rich and poor, and of present and future generations, are not sold in markets and cannot be assigned meaningful prices…. Our view is sharply at odds with the contemporary style of cost-benefit analysis in Washington. The new conventional wisdom assumes that the priceless is worthless: today’s decisions require calculations and bottom-line balances, and only numbers can be counted…. An alternative method of decision-making is badly needed. (pp. 207-08).

Akerman and Heinzerling recommend as their alternative a “holistic approach,” rather than the “atomism and reductionism” of the cost-benefit analysis that calculates the value of individual objects and then computes a totality of them all.  Under the holistic approach decisions “depend on multiple quantitative and qualitative factors,” and the qualitative factors include human “rights and principles, not costs and benefits” (p. 213). Included in this recommendation is the “precautionary approach to uncertain and potentially dangerous risks” and the promotion of “fairness—toward the poor and powerless today, and toward future generations” (p. 210).

None of this is ever included within the neoliberal, free market capitalism that has dominated the U.S. (and much of the world) over the past four decades. They write: “Health and environmental protection ultimately involve our values about other people—those living today, and those who will live in future generations.” This is “an ethical question that must be answered prior to detailed decision-making” (p. 229).

The logic of the market deals with cost-benefit efficiency, never moral values, which cannot be quantified. Equity, justice, ethical obligations to others—none of these questions can be answered by the mainstream economics imposed worldwide by Washington, DC.  Ethically we must be concerned both with people in the future and those trapped worldwide in poverty today. We must face the tradeoffs and dilemmas honestly and pragmatically, with a “sense of moral urgency”, without compromising what is priceless (p. 234).

Part Two

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”  The recognition of human dignity is perhaps the supreme moral principle.  From this principle, the Declaration derives its entire list of human rights. In addition, the 1994 U.N. Draft Declaration of Principles of Human Rights and the Environment states:

All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically secure environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible. . . . All persons have the right to an environment adequate to meet equitably the needs of present generations and that does not impair the rights of future generations to meet equitably their needs. . . . (Weiss 2001, 670)

All human beings have personal, social, and environmental rights, which translate into the moral obligation of governments to protect and promote these rights. Why do persons have these rights?   Because all persons share in human dignity, an intrinsic value that cannot be translated into monetary terms.

Immanuel Kant made this insight the second form of his famous Categorical Imperative: “Always treat every person as an end in themselves, never merely as a means.” He clearly explained that this was because persons have dignity (rather than price) (1964, Orig. Pub. 1783). Persons are intrinsically valuable and our relationship with ourselves and all others cannot be quantified by any price. Persons are not a means to anything else, but “ends in themselves” (see Martin 2018, Chap. 2).

The great traditional religions of the world all recognized something sacred, divine, or transcendent about human life. That is, they all recognized human dignity. In the West (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), humans were made in the image of God. Something about the gift of freedom and moral responsibility gave us this non-quantifiable intrinsic value. In the East (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) (generally speaking) humans were identified with the whole, with God or the Tao or Buddha nature as expressions of that whole. Freedom and moral responsibility were also part of being a creature self-aware of its inner identity with the divine.

These traditional ways of recognizing human dignity did not receive wide-spread serious challenges until the 17th century with the rise of the scientific method in Europe. This method included a new understanding of how everything in the universe was mathematically quantifiable. Empirical methods were developed to investigate these quantifiable relationships and the new knowledge that gave human beings immense power to manipulate their environment and invent ever new and more powerful ways of doing so (technology).  What I have called the “early-modern paradigm” involved assumptions based on atomism and reductionism, and assumptions about universal causality as well as the relations between mind and matter (Martin 2008; see Harris 2000).

Because it was so effective in manipulating nature, this early-modern paradigm spread worldwide and formed the basis for the on-going progress of the sciences. This same atomism and reductionism were behind the development in the 17th century of both the system of sovereign nation-states and global capitalism. Both capitalism and sovereign nation-states are based on the atomistic, incorrect early-modern paradigm. Capitalism is based on the atomism of individual and corporate self-interest, and nation-states on the atomism of an Earth divided into absolute, militarized sovereign territories. Today these worldwide institutions continue to dominate the thought and behavior of most persons on the planet (ibid). Together, they are a major source of our global environmental crisis.

But science as a progressive, self-correcting method is not tied to any dogmas or reductionist doctrines. Since Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, the discoveries of quantum physics in the 1920s, and the continued discoveries of microphysics and astrophysics through the present day, one science after another has converted to holism. Science now understands that you cannot reduce everything to its parts (atoms), and that reductionism is an incorrect interpretation of the world.

Out of this holism the ecological sciences were born—the understanding that human beings, economics, and all human institutions are not independent of nature but a subcategory of nature. All parts, from atoms to species to human communities, have no substantive reality of their own independent of the wholes to which they belong. Holism understands that if we do not conform civilization to the planetary biosphere that supports all life, we will be making our life, along with much other life on Earth, literally extinct (see Daly 1996).

The recognition of human dignity as well as the discovery of holism serves as a counter-movement, indeed a complete reversal, from the early-modern paradigm of atomism and reductionism. Holism means we are all interdependent and interrelated with one another (worldwide), and dignity means that our most fundamental relationship to one another and to future generations is moral, and not quantifiable.  These are universal, planetary values requiring universal, planetary solutions.

A decent, healthy economics must conform to these realities, as well as to the laws and limits associated with our interdependency within the planetary biosphere. It must become holistic and recognize that economic decisions must be thoughtfully integrated into the holism of moral principles, human dignity, and equality as well as the holism of our planetary biosphere that supports all life on Earth.  Holism means that we are one species on this planet, one civilization all interdependent with one another.

If we want to survive the climate crisis, if we want a life for future generations, we must think and act holistically. We need a holistic institutional framework that both transforms the atomistic Earth system and promotes the ascent to a worldcentric consciousness. We need to join all nations together under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 A broad consensus has developed among psychologists and ethical thinkers (as well as integral wisdom scholars such as Ken Wilber) that human beings are evolving, growing, to higher levels of moral, emotional, interpersonal, and intellectual maturity, both as a species and as individuals. We grow out of the egoism of childhood to the ethnocentrism of our immediate social environment within which we grow up to the worldcentric level of seeing ourselves as human beings first and our differences with others as purely secondary. Finally, proper growth moves into cosmocentric levels in which we experience a harmony with the fundamental principles of the cosmos itself, and with the holism of the universe, sometimes also called God.

True human maturity begins at the third stage of growth. What Ken Wilber (2007) calls the “worldcentric” stage of development, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) calls the stage of “moral autonomy.” At this stage (which Kohlberg explicitly identifies with Kant’s ethics), one no longer takes one’s values from the surrounding ethnocentric culture but rather recognizes universal values autonomously, judged for their coherence, consistency, and universality.  My book Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence argues that mature worldcentric and morally autonomous human beings have progressively understood the concept of human rights within ever-larger frameworks since the 18th century.  This is summarized in the following chart.

THREE GENERATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Political Rights (18th century): The recognition that all humans have reasoning ability and therefore the right to political freedoms, allowing them to participate in government as well as live independent lives.
Economic and Social Rights (19th century): The recognition that all humans pursue goals in their lives, and therefore possess the rights to an economic and social well-being that makes reasonably possible the pursuit of their goals.
Planetary Rights (20th century): The recognition that neither political nor economic rights have meaning apart from a world system that includes substantial peace and a protected, viable planetary biosphere capable of supporting a healthy and productive lives.   (Martin 2018, p. 210)

Human beings have been growing for the past three centuries into a moral maturity progressively recognizing universal human rights and dignity. These so-called third generation “planetary rights” are embodied within the Earth Constitution. If we want a future on this planet, we must organize both economics and politics (in the form of global democracy) under the authority of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. We have planetary rights to both peace and a protected global environment. We can only survive on-going climate disaster by joining together under this constitution. It embodies both the holism discovered by contemporary science and the planetary maturity discovered by psychologists and spiritual thinkers.

Part 3

Akerman and Heinzeling appear to know nothing of these planetary conclusions. They are writing in terms of the internal discussions within the United States, characterized by progressives versus conservatives, human rights defenders versus free market ideologues.  Perhaps, this is why the hope for a decent human future may primarily lie with thoughtful people outside the United States.

The internal level of planetary awareness or worldcentric maturity within the US is relatively low. These authors find it necessary to argue that there are some things that are priceless and non-quantifiable.  The dominant consciousness within the U.S. does not even see these obvious truths. The U.S. government is dominated by egocentric and ethnocentric capitalists who continue to operate under the delusory early-modern paradigm of atomism and reductionism.

But even the consciousness of the authors of this book (Priceless) is not particularly worldcentric or mature in a planetary sense. In their argument with the free market ideologues, they attempt to appeal to the best example they can think of in which values and precautionary principles (not reductionistic cost-benefit analyses) have been behind U.S. government economic decisions. The example they give is U.S. military spending:

Advocates of military spending appeal to beliefs about threats to our way of life, offering broad statements for response and, in classic “command and control” mode, proposing major weapons systems on the basis of their expected technical performance. Questions of cost minimization and budget constraints enter only at a much later stage, in the details of implementation. Those who complain about excessive costs are suspected, often correctly, of harboring deeper objections to the weapons programs under discussion…. Why, then, do we imagine that there is a stingy, fixed total of resources available for defending ourselves, our children, and our surroundings against environmental and occupational harm?  No one ever imagines it when it comes to defending ourselves against military threats. (pp. 219-220)

Is the political dialogue in the United States really so naïve as to think that the vast U.S. military-industrial machine built up since World War II is really about moral values, about something noble and worth defending?  Have all the antiwar struggles of thinking people and groups against the Vietnam War, the Central America wars of the 1980s and 90s, the Yugoslavia War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the Syria War, and the danger of nuclear holocaust, without end, not made a dent in the thinking of these mainstream liberal advocates of environmental protection? Have they not read about the sordid history of the CIA, which is a global criminal organization? (Valentine 2017).

Have they not heard of imperialism, the drive to global domination, world system exploitation of the periphery by the center, or “national security” needs to control the Middle East supplies of the world’s oil? (e.g., Petras and Veltmeyer 2005).  The otherwise excellent points in this book, and their many detailed examples of the bizarre economic reasoning behind the free market ideologues who have colonized the U.S. government, deserve attention. But their solution, that we need to deal with the climate crisis according to the same values that make us spend so much on militarism, truly appears to derail any reasonable solution to the climate crisis. Their appeal to “holism” appears as totally inadequate.

U.S. militarism, empire, and imperialism are part of the same ideological package behind the free-market ideology that resists facing up to the truly daunting challenge of climate collapse. Capitalism requires military force to protect markets and resources. If militarism is their example of noble values that do not require a reductionistic cost-benefit analysis, then it may be that their reasons for wanting to confront the climate crisis are equally spurious. Where is the human universality and solidarity required by truly universal values embodied in the value-chart above?  How can our necessary solidarity with the rest of the world in dealing with the climate crisis be reconciled with our on-going military spying, aggression, and domination over the rest of the world? There is a contradiction here of gigantic proportions.

Where is there a worldcentric maturity that sees human civilization as one holistically interdependent phenomenon?  It is not to be found in this book. The need to confront climate crisis is linked to the equally urgent need to confront the possibility of nuclear holocaust and global militarism.  The world’s anti-war movements and the world’s environmental struggles are two sides of the same coin. We need a new world system predicated on peace, justice, and sustainability as universal human values, as universal human rights, not as so-called “American” values.

We need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth as the most promising document that can give us the economic, political, and moral foundations for a truly new and liberated human civilization. It along provides the holistic framework necessary for uniting humanity to deal with climate crisis, justice issues, and demilitarizing the world. Nothing less than this will make a future possible for subsequent generations. The Earth Constitution is truly the key to the next stage in human intellectual, spiritual, and moral maturity. Its ratification should be our central priority. Both the values, and the future, that it embodies are truly “priceless.”

Works Cited

 Akerman, Frank and Lisa Heinzerling (2004). Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. New York: The New Press.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Found on-line in many languages and many locations such as www.earth-constitution.org and www.worldparliament-gov.org.   In paperback from, edited by Glen T. Martin at the Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 201

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Newport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Kant, Immanuel. 1964. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. H. J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development: Volume Two, The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Martin, Glen T. (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical & Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: the Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. 2005. Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. London: Zed Books.

Valentine, Douglas. 2017. The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, Inc.

Weiss, Edith Brown (2001). “Planetary Rights,” in The Philosophy of Human Rights. Ed. Patrick Hayden. New York: Paragon House, pp. 618-636.

Wilber, Ken. 2007. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Integral Books.