Risk and Reason: Safety, Law, and the Environment Paperback – 11 Mar 2010
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'Regulatory policy debates often fail to serve a constructive role. Advocates of risk and environmental regulation maintain that only with zero risk will we be safe. Economic critics seek to impose cost-benefit tests on these policies that many believe ignore the distinctive character of safety and the environment. In Risk and Reason, Cass Sunstein eliminates the impasse in the regulatory policy debate with a balanced policy perspective that recognizes the legitimacy of these competing concerns. Sunstein's carefully crafted analysis shows how the limits on society's resources can be reconciled with a vigorous effort to protect citizens and the environment.' W. Kip Viscusi, Harvard Law School
'Cass Sunstein is an outstanding scholar and I have been vastly impressed by almost everything I have read of his. This work explains and justifies the increasing use of cost-benefit analysis in American regulatory contexts. It reveals how the technique, when suitably adapted, can counteract 'irrationalities' in the perception of risks. I appreciate Sunstein's clarity of expression and fluidity of style; and he is able to draw on empirical and other studies while remaining reader-friendly in his approach.' Anthony Ogus, University of Manchester
'Professor Sunstein has contributed a masterly and multifaceted analysis of government policy towards the protection of the population from risks. The central theme, the use of rational methods, mainly cost-benefit analysis, but also more market-based forms of regulation, is analyzed from an extraordinary variety of viewpoints. The author has drawn, with deep knowledge and originality, on recent developments in cognitive psychology and in legal doctrine to complement rationalistic and economic viewpoints.' Kenneth J. Arrow, Stanford University
'In his fine book Risk and Reason, Cass R. Sunstein offers a wide-ranging analysis of the problem of managing environmental health risks.' Science
'Sunstein offers a sophisticated argument as to how we should reason about risk through cost-benefit analysis, and how this reasoning can improve risk regulation. This book is worth reading, both because of its comprehensive scholarship and because it exemplifies a particular approach to law and economics.' Journal of Law and Society
Risk and Reason explains the source of problems regarding such issues as safety, health, and the environment and shows what can be done about them. It points the way toward a sensible system for reducing risks, one that could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
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As reasoned as the book is, it also constitutes a direct attack on all those who expouse the "precautionary principle." While I do not agree completely with the author, who seems to feel that rational study allows for the discounting of any risk to the point where it can be economically and politically managed at an affordable cost, he certainly take the debate to an entirely new level and his book is--quite literally--worth tens of billions of dollars in potential regulatory risk savings.
Most compelling is his methodical aggregation of data from several sources to show that the cost of saving one life (he notes that we fail to distinguish adequately between a life saved for a few years and a life saved for many years, or between young lives saved for a lifetime and old lives saved for a brief span of time). Table 2.1 on page 30 is quite astonishing--of 45 major regulated risks, one (drinking water) costs over $92 billion per premature death averted; eight including asbestos cost between $50 million and $4 billion; seven including arsenic and copper cost between $13 million and $45 million; 14 including various electrical standards cost between $1 million and $10 million per death averted; and 15 cost less than $1 million per death averted.
What cost human life? Even on this there is no standard, and even within a single regulatory agency (e.g. the Environmental Protection Agency) there are different calculations used in relation to different risks being regulated. The author does a really fine job of comparing the public perception of the value of a life saved ($1.3 million for automobile-related risks, $103 million for aviation-related risks) with the values used by the government and the courts, which vary widely (into the billions) but seem to hover between $10 million and $30 million per life saved and without regard the the number of life-years actually involved.
The heart of the book is in its conclusion, where the author proposes a four-part strategy for dramatically reducing the cost of regulatory risk management, suggesting that we focus on 1) disclosure of information to the public; 2) economic incentives; 3) risk reduction contracts; and 4) free market environmentalism. With respect to the latter, he is strongly supportive of allowing the "sale" of pollution privileges between nations and industries and companies.
For additional observations on reducing risk to the future of life see my reviews of Joe Thorton on "Pandora's Poison," Raffensperger and Tickner on "Protecting Public Health & The Environment," Novacek on "The Biodiversity Crisis," Czech on "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train," Lomberg on "The Skeptical Environmentalist," Helvarg on "Blue Frontier," and Wilson's "The Future of Life."
Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig join Jerry Berman and Marc Rotenberg and Mike Godwin as America's "top guns" in responsible law-making. This book makes a great deal of sense, is worth a great deal of money, and should guide the future evolution of regulatory and information-driven risk management.
The book gives the reader a lot of recent case studies, such as the sniper murders in the Washington DC area in fall 2002, the SARS epidemic, the Love Canal controversy in the 80s, as illustrations of people's unjustified fear, which in the same time neglects the real hazards, such as obesity, indoor air pollution, sun exposure, etc.
Risk and Reason advocates the government to produce cost benefit analyses (CBA) before choosing an emotional course of action. Sunstein argues in his book to see CBA as a pragmatic tool, designed to promote a better appreciation of the consequences of a certain regulation, rather than a form of unethical, barely human calculation, treating health and life as variables for some kind of huge maximising objective function. The author succeeds in delivering this message to the reader very well.
Sunstein urges toward four alternative strategies in optimal cost-saving risk regulation: disclosure of information to the public, economic incentives, risk reduction contracts and free market environmentalism. With the economic incentives he means financial penalties for harm producing behaviour, and tradable emission rights (similar as the Kyoto protocol is designed to reduce global warming. The alleged fact that risk creators might be given a right to create harm is shown to be false.
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