Is Finding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Worth 52,192 years of children’s lives?

[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?

I. Glenn Cohen

I. Glenn Cohen is the James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and current Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. A member of the inaugural cohort of Petrie-Flom Academic Fellows, Glenn was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty in 2008. Glenn is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics (sometimes also called "medical ethics") and the law, as well as health law. He also teaches civil procedure. From Seoul to Krakow to Vancouver, Glenn has spoken at legal, medical, and industry conferences around the world and his work has appeared in or been covered on PBS, NPR, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and several other media venues. He was the youngest professor on the faculty at Harvard Law School (tenured or untenured) both when he joined the faculty in 2008 (at age 29) and when he was tenured as a full professor in 2013 (at age 34).

3 thoughts to “Is Finding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Worth 52,192 years of children’s lives?”

  1. This is purely racist. Anybody remember the Bhopal explosion by Union Carbide leaving thousands dead in India or the neglect of the victims of Katrina hurricane? Or the people who are victims or organ theft and fraud? Are some people are just more worthy than others of having their tragedies acknowledged and more deserving of justice? One need only look at the lack of justice given the 78 young Cuban Olympians and others who died in the plane explosion by anti-Castro terrorists Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch to see how politics influences the difference in the way these and other Olympians who threatened were treated. It all boils down to a callous disregard to everyone else but one’s own clan. Primitive and short-sightedly selfish.

  2. Yes Glen – you are very wrong – for the reasons articulated below.
    Firstly, you state a possible reason (No. 3) to justify the search might be: “…to learn about what went wrong and potentially determine whether there is a systemic problem with these planes that might affect other planes”.
    But then you go on to say:
    “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”.
    The probable reason why nobody (who might have an answer) has not responded to you thus far is that your whole proposition is bordering on the absurd – at least in the eyes of people who deliver services in safety-critical industries, such as airline transport.
    Your comment that finding the answers saving many more lives “seems implausible” betrays a perspective that could only come from what many would describe as an “armchair academic industry” – disconnected from the real world of technology. (I am sorry to be so blunt).
    There are some very pragmatic reasons why this aircraft needs to be found and that is because some of the answers to what happened should lie with the aircraft in the Flight Data Recorder & Cockpit Voice Recorder equipment (FDR/CVR).
    Consider the following:
    1. At 6pm every Friday night (a peak period) there are over 6 million people in the air over the United States. Globally, over 10 million people travel by air every day of the year. This will continue as long as our civilization lasts and the figure will grow with each passing year. Each one of those future air travellers has a vital stake in MH370 being found and the reasons for its loss being understood – and ultimately that appropriate action is then taken to prevent a recurrence of those malign factors. That is the way technological systems have needed to develop since the dawn of humanity. If you were to put your proposition to each of those future air travellers – what do you think they would say?
    2. The purpose of the FDR/CVR (the so-called “black box”) is to allow the causes for the loss of an aircraft to be determined AFTER an accident has occurred, when in all likelihood the aircraft occupants are all likely to be dead. This is not for the benefit of the deceased, nor for the benefit of the grieving relatives. It is for the benefit of the living – millions of them – so that they too don’t become a statistic at the bottom of some ocean. If the causes of the loss of MH370 are not determined because a decision is made not to conduct a search, then those people will have died in vain.
    3. Initial development work on a prototype of the FDR/CVR for civilian airliners was first carried out at the Australian Government Aeronautical Research Laboratories in the 1950s, but initially there was reluctance in the airline industry to introduce it. As the number of aircraft losses mounted with the growth of airline transport and the greater complexities of jet operations, there was a change of heart. So, in the 1960s, aircraft manufacturers began to incorporate the FDR/CVR devices. Australia was the first country to make the installation of the CVR mandatory for airline operations.
    4. Since those early years the data retrieved from FDR/CVR equipment has been a major factor in helping to revolutionise air transport and bring it to the plateau of super-safety that all travellers now routinely expect. This has been achieved by learning what has gone wrong in the past, sharing the information throughout the industry, and then devising modifications to the way airline aircraft are operated and crews are trained. These improvements are ongoing.
    5. The most recent major manifestation of this “continuous improvement” learning philosophy has come about as a result of the loss of Air France AF447 over the mid-Atlantic in 2009 – enroute Rio to Paris. It took two years and shiploads of money to locate the wreckage and recover the FDR/CVR from the ocean floor. As with all air accidents, there were multiple factors contributing to this tragedy, however the failure of key technical systems should not have led to the loss of the aircraft. Due to previously unrecognised deficiencies in the way pilots were trained to fly modern highly computerised airliners, the pilots at the controls of AF447 simply did not have the skill-set to fully understand the complexities of what was happening to the aircraft at the time (a continuous aerodynamic stall). Consequently the aircraft literally fell from the sky without the crew ever comprehending what was actually happening during their last few short minutes of terror and confusion – so they could take no recovery action. (Most accidents have a human factor component). These facts were subsequently pieced together from the data retrieved from the Air France FDR/CVR, and as soon as this was understood, the airline industry around the world implemented immediate changes in the way pilots are trained. The lessons thus learned as a result of the search for AF447 have therefore provided an added measure of protection to the travellers on over 20 million airline flights a year from now on. If future generations of air travellers understood all this, I doubt that any would be supporting your proposal. The cost of that search was money well spent. Likewise, one can be sure that if and when the FDR/CVR from MH370 is recovered, further significant changes will occur in the way airline operations are conducted.
    6. A second point – the apparently large “cost” of the search is actually not a cost at all. Most of the search operations for MH370 are being conducted by the defence forces of the various countries involved. The annual budgets for defence operations are pre-allocated, thus little extra needs to be expended in the way of funds. This money would have been spent anyway because in reality the search operations for MH370 merely replace other defence activities that would have taken place in any case – such as training exercises etc. Civil defence and assistance (for earthquakes, hurricanes, etc) are valid secondary functions of defence organisations – for which they are uniquely suited.
    7. Lastly – it is worth pointing out that one of the social forces that undermines the sharing of aviation safety knowledge is actually the legal industry. This is due to the imperative of litigation lawyers to seek to attribute blame to someone in order to win their client’s court case. The unhelpful by-product of this is that individuals and air operators are pressurized NOT to voluntarily share potentially life-saving information so that airlines can learn from the safety incidents of others. This is quite a problem – maybe it is something that the Harvard Law School should turn its considerable resources to. Shakespeare might have been on to something when he had one of his characters (in Henry the Sixth) say: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.
    A postscript – I just want to mention that I object to the “racist” epithet hurled at you by the previous respondent (Elizabeth). In Australia we have no clear right to free speech as is the case in the USA. Australian legislation prohibits offending the feelings of individuals and groups on certain grounds. The use of the “racist” slur is used by many to shut down debate on important national issues – which then go unresolved. It is really quite a problem. The knee-jerk use of the term by Elizabeth was reprehensible.

  3. Thanks for the interesting reply Alexis. I appreciate the pushback though I think we continue to disagree, but your response is helpful in clarifying our points of disagreement.
    I don’t disagree at all on the value of continuous learning and improvement in this in other industries. But it IS a value term that has to be considered and calculated. What would be useful, from a cost-benefit analysis point of view, would be to try to quantify the value of what was learned from, say, the Air France disaster, in terms of life years saved, multiply that by an expected value term on finding the Malaysia black box (given what I understand is extremely formidable geography and space) and compare that to the cost expenditures and consider alternative uses in terms of life years saved. I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have, but as you and I both acknowledge not one that is going on (you because you think the conversation is stupid, me because I think this is the identified lives bias at work and no decision maker has been forced to have such a conversation). So, has anyone tried to quantify that data?
    On the cost point, for you to be correct would require a view of the world where all these people in the armed services are sitting around doing nothing and waiting for air disasters to scramble such that these are purely sunk costs. At least in the U.S. and Canada, from what I know, the armed services are quite busy and have other socially valuable alternative uses of their time (including building levees, peacekeeping, general defense). Is that not the case with the other countries involved in the search? Even if your depiction of the armed services was correct, realize that there is a budget line item from tax revenue that is allocated to them based on expectations of their time allocation. If this kind of work was not being undertaken, that budget item could be re-allocated.
    Third, even if we prioritized air safety for the reasons you suggest, do you have reason to believe spending the money on finding this air plane would be better for continuous improvement than other uses of 100 million dollars as to air safety, such as more international monitoring of standards, other research and development, etc?
    In sum, when there is a very visible event like an air crash or miners trapped in a mine we are drawn to spending a lot. This is a documented phenomenon. But that does not mean it is sound public policy or ethics to do so, when there are other alternative ways of spending the money (in that sector or another sector). Some governments have been quite thoughtful about this. You may find this 2009 report that includes safety industries to the UK Government on the value of lives saved interesting
    PS: i actually think that Elizabeth’s “racist” epithet was being hurled at my opponents and not me, FWIW, but in either event agree ad hominem is not the way to go.

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