By David J Smith
How much is a human life worth? What is the value of a person? Now I am not talking about some metaphysical value, a moral measure of the human soul. This is not a question for the amateur philosophers or the local vicar. This is a question for the accountants, the economists, the bean counters. I’m talking cash money. Dollars and cents. How many greenbacks do I need to buy me a dead guy?
You may find this statement weird. Dark and twisted. You may be thinking: “Fuck you, man! Human life is priceless. You can’t put a dollar sign on it.” And you may be right. But that doesn’t mean it don’t happen. Every day people put a price tag on life. In fact, only last week, Shell Oil did just that. They paid $15.5 million for nine dead Nigerians. Faced with trial as an accomplice in their torture and murder, Shell opted for the express checkout. The cash-only lane. They did the math and worked out that this was a fair price for nine dead men.
But that’s what I want to know. Is that a good price? Did Shell get a good deal? Or did the families score big? How do you get to a value like that? How do you equate for love, hope, dreams, sex, rock and ice creams? How do you turn all these lost experiences into a cash figure? What’s the magic equation?
Human Life = (love + dreams + sex + hope) x (grief x dependants) ? time passed
(mortality – actual age) stiffness of upper lip
That sort of thing works if you’re a stoner hippy. But if you’re not living in a tepee on a beach in Goa, you will be all too aware that in the real world, cash is king. The only way for people to put a value on things.
So what constitutes a good price for a human life? I’m no accountant so I asked my friend, the internet, to help on this one.
As you can well expect everyone’s got a different opinion. The value of a life varies wildly from source to source. The US Environmental Protection Agency comes in large with $6.9 million. If you are going to die, go with these guys they pay the best. In the medical world, Stanford graduates have worked out that year of quality life is worth $129 000. An amount they use to assess if you’re worth treating or not. The US Army only values a soldier killed in Iraq at $100 000. But they do throw in $7 700 for your burial and at least two soldiers to form a guard of honour at your funeral. Although I do question the concept of a guard of honour made up of just two soldiers. Not really the 21-gun salute you would hope for.
There are all sorts of theories and formulae that economists use to get to these figures. Most deal with risk versus return. One study at Princeton used speed limits as their starting point. They noticed that several states in the US decided to raise their speed limits despite the fact that fatalities on the road would increase. This implied a willingness to sacrifice a few lives to get the benefit of added speed — shorter journey times. The Princeton economists calculated that for every life lost on the highway, a 125 000 hours of journey time were saved. And as the old cliché goes, time is money. So they multiplied the hours by the average salary and came to the statistical value of a human life. In 1997, their figure was $1.54 million. Today, it would be about $2.09 million.
Using this logic, Nigerians come cheap. The average hourly wage in Nigeria is about $0.91. Which puts a $113 000 price tag on a dead Nigerian. Not so good if you’re a Nigerian but really great if you’re a multinational looking for a bargain. In theory, Shell paid way over the odds on those men. They should have got all nine for under $1 million. So why is everyone so bummed with Shell? Why are they complaining? If anything Shell should be taking these people to the consumer board and saying “we got ripped off!”
Of course, none of that is true. I’m saying it for literary effect. A feeble attempt at rhetorical irony. Shell didn’t get ripped off. These men and their families did. Beyond the moral questions, beyond the grief and anguish these people have been through, they have also lost out financially. This figure — $15.5 million — is a drop of oil in a sea of profit. Shell has paid them so little that the amount will serve as virtually no deterrent to them or any other multinational planning on dealing with its problems with a machine gun.
Some more figures. Shell banged out $31.4 billion profit last year, and that is even with one of the worst final quarters in decades. Let’s write that figure out so we can really feel it, $31 400 000 000. You need a really big calculator to fit all those noughts. Now when you start looking back at the price they paid for the dead Nigerians, it starts to look a little paltry. In fact, it is less than 0.5% of Shell’s profit. That’s less than four hours worth of profit for these guys. Imagine where you were four hours ago, maybe you were eating breakfast and now it almost lunch time but not quite. In that time, Shell earned enough money to make nine human beings disappear forever. Over a year, they earn enough money to buy over a thousand dead Nigerians and still have a few billion in their back pocket.
So next time when the little light comes on and you’re passing the big red and yellow sign, think about what it really costs to fill up at Shell.
David Smith is one of those pretend writers who works in advertising. Using his words to sell sugary water and sneakers to the kids. He’d prefer to be one of those proper writers though. But it don’t pay the bills like the sugary water and sneakers do. He is originally from Durban but lives in Amsterdam. One day he will come back and live there by the sea.
To see more of his work.
Monday, July 06, 2009
By David J Smith