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How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

It seemed an odd subject for a film: the story of the 9/11 victims’ compensation Fund. But Worth explores the issue of how we value a life.

Keaton as Feinberg

I’ve written about that before, in the context of Covid-19, and how much economic pain we should accept per life saved.* In the case of 9/11, the government feared an avalanche of economically ruinous lawsuits, so set up the fund to give survivors taxpayer money if they’d agree not to sue. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (played by Michael Keaton) was named “Special Master” to run the fund. It would become operative only if 80% of eligibles bought in (within a two-year window).

Feinberg constructed a payment formula, with a floor and a cap, heavily based on lost earnings — a commonly used measure in “wrongful death” lawsuits. The cap immediately incurred pushback from lawyer Lee Quinn, representing families of high earners demanding bigger payments. Feinberg’s other nemesis was Charles Wolf (played by an understated Stanley Tucci), who organized a legion of more plebeian folks.

Feinberg as Feinberg

Wolf insisted Feinberg’s approach was all wrong. But in their interactions, Feinberg never simply asked him, “What do you propose?” Which didn’t seem at all clear. During my own career as an administrative law judge (proceedings often in the World Trade Center), contending parties would always offer different explicit plans for resolving issues. Evaluating those competing plans, I’d reach an answer.

Tucci as Wolf

Nevertheless Feinberg, after a rocky start, in which he seemed pretty clueless toward the complex human feelings at play, gets his consciousness raised, and winds up more or less satisfying Wolf by (my interpretation) junking his formulas and deciding payouts based on impressionistic evaluations of individual circumstances. Also, Feinberg tells Quinn to get lost. And while fund buy-ins lagged ominously until near the deadline, they finally did flood in, blowing past the 80% requirement.

I understood why a formulaic approach was inadequate, with some flexibility imperative. A human individual’s “value” is only tenuously connected to his earnings; indeed, the value of one’s life is mainly to oneself, which counters basing it on income. Which of course leaves the conundrum of how to price that self-value in dollars. Unfortunately the film was fuzzy about how Feinberg’s revised method actually worked, giving no concrete examples. I’m dubious that an impressionistic approach based on someone’s unfettered judgment would produce results fairer than some thoughtfully crafted formula. As Feinberg himself suggested near the film’s beginning, fairness in a situation like this is probably an impossible chimera.

Michael Keaton did a pretty accurate Ken Feinberg, based on my own recollection of my law school classmate. (A reason I wanted to see the film; I can’t recall another portraying someone I personally knew.) Even back then Feinberg was a compelling personage. I particularly recall his announcing to me, in his standard stentorian voice, “I gave you a bullet vote.” It was a Faculty-Student Committee election, at the height of 1960s “student power” agitation. With two seats up for ballot, I ran against a pair of activist types, and my candidate statement said I didn’t believe in student power; that students didn’t know enough to run the university. I surely didn’t. And never imagined winning (especially given my introverted lonerism). Yet oddly enough I was elected — thanks in part to that Feinberg bullet vote.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/covid-19-how-much-is-a-life-worth/



This post first appeared on The Rational Optimist | Frank S. Robinson's Blog On Life, Society, Politics, And Philosophy, please read the originial post: here

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How Much is a Life Worth? A 9/11 movie

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