Monday, July 28, 2008

Men and Beasts

The op-ed page in yesterday's Washington Post Outlook section included an opinion by Russell Paul La Valle about the decision to support giving rights to various primates by Spain's parliament, the Cortes Generales. The Wall Street Journal had an editorial about this on Friday.

In particular, the parliament's environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the recommendations of the Great Ape Project, which seeks to extend human rights to great apes. According to Reuters, the resolution "is expected to become law and the government is now committed to update the statute book within a year to outlaw harmful experiments on apes in Spain."

It is hard for me to see how mere beasts can have rights. That does not follow from our responsibility as stewards to care for animals and protect them from unnecessary suffering and death. Often one hears that rights accompany responsibilities. But apes have no responsibility to humans.

When Pope Benedict addressed the United Nations, he praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and said:

"The rights recognized and expounded in the declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high point of God's creative design for the world and for history. ... They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reason, Faith, Vocation

Tony Snow, the former White House press secretary who died earlier this month, gave the commencement address at Catholic University of America in May, 2007.

In this address, Snow gave five tips for living boldly, living a whole life:

  • Think

  • Go off-road

  • Commit

  • Get out

  • Love

Of course, he gives examples and explanations of why these actions are important. His discussion of "Commit" highlights the importance and joy of religious faith and of solid, happy marriages, both of which depend upon making commitments.

(My thanks to Amanda Shaw at the First Things blog for her article on this address.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Value of a Life

People have to make decisions about whether or not to spend money to reduce the risk of dying. For instance, should we spend more to buy a safer car? Or, should we purchase and install smoke detectors in our house? The typical person doesn't explicitly quantify the value of a life; they implicitly weigh the reduced risk versus the cost and make a decision.

Government agencies cannot make these decisions implicitly. They have to use explicit criteria, and often they do a cost-benefit analysis. An item in the news recently discussed the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency reduced its Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) to about $7,200,000.

The EPA, like other government agencies, must decide whether the cost of a new program or regulation is worth the cost. If the agency predicts that the cost of a regulation will be $100,000,000 but it will save 100 lives, then, using the VSL, one can state that the benefit (equivalent to 100 times $7,200,000 = $720,000,000) is greater than the cost. If the benefit were only 9 lives (equivalent to $64,800,000), then one would state that the benefit is not worth the cost.

How to do that and how to explain it are discussed in this article:

But how do you put a dollar value on a life, even in a generic sense?

It wouldn’t work for researchers to survey Americans at gunpoint and ask how much they would pay not to die. Instead, an unlikely academic field has grown up to extrapolate life’s value from the everyday decisions of average Americans.

Researchers try to figure out how much money it takes for people to accept slightly bigger risks, such as a more dangerous job. They also look at how much people will pay to make their daily risks smaller — such as buying a bicycle helmet or a safer car.

“How much are you willing to pay for a small reduction . . . in the probability that you will die?” asked Joe Aldy, a fellow at the Washington-based think tank Resources for the Future.

The rest is more or less multiplication: If someone will accept a 1-in-10,000 chance of death for $500, then the value of life must be 10,000 times $500, or $5 million.

But it is one thing to calculate the numbers and another to explain them to the public. The EPA has been fighting that battle since last week, when the Associated Press revealed that the agency’s air office had reduced its Value of a Statistical Life.

Al McGartland, the director of the agency’s National Center for Environmental Economics, said the air office had revised the old figure in 2004 after new academic research showed it was skewed too high.

“It’s based on better methods,” McGartland said of the air office’s assessment. He said the new number would increase over time, in part because of inflation.

The EPA’s value for life remains one of the highest. Earlier this year, the Transportation Department raised its value — but even after the increase, it stood at $5.8 million, more than a million dollars less than the EPA’s.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Atlantic Coast Conference

The Washington Post has had a couple articles about the ACC, five years after its expansion to 12 universities. The reviews are mixed. See Five Years After the ACC's Expansion, Is Bigger Really Better? and ACC's Forward Progress Limited.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tanker Decision

The U.S. Air Force's decision to award the contract for new tankers has been getting a lot of press in the last month, after the GAO decided that the Air Force used an inappropriate decision process, and the Air Force has decided to reopen the bidding.

The Washington Post had news stories on June 25 and on July 9.

The GAO has the following documents on its website: the decision to uphold Boeing's protest and testimony explaining the decision to Congress.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Featuring R.E.M.

Earlier today, the featured article on Wikipedia's home page was R.E.M.. It reviews the band's history and has lots of quotes from the band members and from others about their legacy and impact.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


The May-June 2008 issue of Interfaces, a publication of INFORMS, has two things of interest (the links below go to the abstracts; from there you should be able to get the full-text PDF).

First, another thought-provoking article by Gene Woolsey, this one about being an expert witness.

Second, the Books Review column has a review of the Handbook of Production Scheduling, edited by yours truly. The review says lots of nice things about the book, whose chapters were written by folks to whom I will always be indebted.

Team of Rivals

Stephanie says that she just finished Team of Rivals, a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it "is really wonderful." NPR has an interview with the author, and the New York Times has a review as well.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tennis, anyone?

Remember watching McEnroe and Borg at Wimbledon when we were kids? Those were the golden years for tennis. Michael Wilbon argues in the Washington Post today that last weekend at Wimbledon the sport of tennis recaptured some of the glory days.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Changing Faculty

The New York Times has an article about the changing demographics of university faculty and the moderation of their politics. (Thanks to The Catholic Thing for the pointer.)