Are some lives worth more than others? The thought may seem repugnant, but in truth, our society actually does put hugely varied price tags on human lives. In Howard Friedman’s new book, “Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life,” he details how these values are calculated and underscores the existence of stark and unfair discrepancies in our current systems. Howard joins Jared Correia to discuss how this reality intersects with legal systems and the pressing need for greater equality.
Howard Friedman is a data scientist, health economist, and writer with decades of experience in the private sector, public sector and academia.
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The Legal Toolkit
Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life
Intro: Welcome to Legal Toolkit bringing you the latest legal trends and business initiatives to help you manage your law firm with your host Jared Correia. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Jared Correia: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of the one and only award-winning Legal Toolkit Podcast here on the Legal Talk Network. If you are looking for a copy of the NES version of Contra I am your guy, just send a self-addressed stamped envelope my way.
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In this episode we are going to spend some time delving into a very light topic area, the value of human life, but before I introduce today’s guest, let’s take a moment to thank all of our sponsors.
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My guest today is Howard Friedman, a statistician, health economist, writer and artist who teaches at Columbia University. Jared Diamond called his first book ‘Measure of a Nation’ the Best Book of 2012. His new book and the subject of our podcast ‘The Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life’ is out this year and the subject of this interview. This continues my streak of interviewing people who are far more accomplished than me.
On that note welcome to the big show, Howard, thanks for coming on.
Howard Steven Friedman: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be on.
Jared Correia: Yeah, we really appreciate it. This is going to be cool. As I said before we started a little different topic area for us, so I think people will be pretty interested in this.
So before we get started I always like to start with an icebreaker question. So I was reading your bio and it looks like you like to do acrylic painting, can you talk to me about that hobby of yours and why did you choose that medium? Is it because acrylic paint dries fast and you are a busy guy?
Howard Steven Friedman: It’s because acrylic paint is forgiving. I used to try water. No, it’s totally serious. I used to try watercolor painting and when you put watercolors on and you realize you just messed up, you can’t really paint over it. It’s always there, and oil painting involves chemicals which I was always horrendous in the lab. So the last thing I want to do is go ahead and sit around and have serious chemicals sitting around the apartment, but when you do acrylic, you make a mistake, walk away, get a cup of coffee, get a beer, come back an hour later and just go right on top of it and the mistake will disappear. So it’s a very forgiving medium.
Jared Correia: I like this, drinking is evolved, you can make a lot of mistakes, sounds like a nice metaphor for life, right? So let’s segue into that.
Your new book is called ‘The Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life’ and so why did you write the book and why did you decide to write it now?
Howard Steven Friedman: Well, from my perspective you keep seeing so many examples of how some people’s lives, they are highly valued and they are very well-protected whether we talk about the for-profit sector and companies, our legal system and the courts, our regulatory system, while other people they are left unprotected, they are compensated poorly, they are less susceptible to injuries and really open to far more risks. The decisions that involve these valuations of people’s lives are often left to technical experts, quantitative people, such as myself.
And, for me, I think it’s critical for people to understand that their lives are constantly being valued and priced. And when they are underpriced, they should really be involved, they should understand it and do something about it, to make sure that their life is valued fairly and that they are not placed at unnecessary risk.
Jared Correia: So in terms of the book that you have written, I think people should know, it doesn’t sound like this is a philosophical exercise in a sense of like Jeremy Bentham or Emmanuel Kahn would run this, right? What you are trying to do is, identify and point out the ways that modern society places relative value on the lives of individuals, including across socioeconomic brackets.
Howard Steven Friedman: Absolutely, I couldn’t have phrased it better, and so what I try to introduce in the book is many examples of how this happens. When I can I give you some insight into the formulas without showing the formulas, but telling them what’s the math, what’s driving this decision, and then helping them see where are their inequalities. And sometimes it’s a racial inequality, sometimes it might be gender-based, sometimes it could be based on what nationality you are, but as I do this I systematically walk through a conversation from September 11th Victims Compensation Fund to our civil courts, our criminal courts, our regulatory system, healthcare, life insurance, all the way out to looking at even some things that have happened in more recent eras, such as the Boston Bombing.
Jared Correia: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting all that subject matter examples you get into in the book and I want to address that in the second part of this show, but another thing I am interested in is, I feel like nowadays everybody is like a stats person, right? I mean, data is so prevalent in the business world, people are like, oh sure, I understand data, but you are actually like a real-life statistician. So how does that discipline affect the way you look at the question and the way you created this book?
Howard Steven Friedman: So I appreciate that, I think we are going to coin a new phrase called Data Posers for the people who stayed as data expert but they are not quite.
Jared Correia: I will call my lawyer friends, we will trademark it.
Howard Steven Friedman: I love it, all right, great minds think alike on this one. I will get the t-shirts, you get the hats. So in all seriousness, when you look at it, it’s a question of really understanding what factors are predictive or influencing or correlated with these outcomes, and the outcome I am focused on right now is how much is a human life valued. So if we think about that as from a data perspective, that’s the outcome of interest. What we see is in many different areas of life there are different formulas. Sometimes the formula is actually written down, it’s in an Excel spreadsheet, it’s in someone’s fancy Python or R code, other times it’s not written out, but we see from the analysis of the data clear trends, factors that shouldn’t necessarily be influencing that outcome, the value of life, but they are anyway, it’s back to that point about, well, justice is supposed to be blind, but is it really blind? I think a lot of data shows us that it isn’t.
Jared Correia: Oh totally. I think it’s really interesting if you look at like different verticals like even in this world of sports where a lot of this analytic analysis was first brought to a lot of people’s minds like the Moneyball thing in baseball that’s putting a value on a player in a sport, and it’s not too far a jump to make to put a value on someone’s life as well.
So in the second half of the show I want to get into examples but we are going to take a break for now. Let’s pause for a moment, we have reached to the end of the first half of the show. Listen to words from our sponsors, we will come back talking with Howard Friedman.
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Jared Correia: All right thanks for coming back. I have returned from picking all the marshmallows out of the lucky charms for my kids.
So let’s get back to our conversation with Howard Friedman about his new book ‘The Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life’.
So I thought the cover of your book was pretty compelling, it’s like a guy with a bag on his head and the UPC code stamped on it. I think that’s a pretty good reflection of your thesis. Do you have any hand on that? Is that acrylic painting or did somebody actually —
Howard Steven Friedman: I had the opposite hand because when I saw it, I said I hate this cover and then I was reminded of the fact that my acrylic paintings are not really that – they are not bestsellers is a nice way to put it and maybe I should trust the people who designed book covers. So I stepped back and I said, all right, let’s just run with it and I have learned to love it.
Jared Correia: I think the operative phrase there is your acrylic paintings are not bestsellers yet. There’s still time, my friend, start with the books, move to the paintings.
Well, let’s talk about this subject matter that you brought up in the first half of the show, this idea that people’s worth is assigned on the basis of wealth in the society. Can you talk a little bit more about how that works, generally speaking?
Howard Steven Friedman: So there are examples where this is true and I’m going to get into one right now, the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, but it’s not always true, and that will bring to my point about, when we can we should start with the idea of equity, equity being fairness.
So in the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund government money was set aside for a fund that would pay the families of the victims, it was administered by Kenneth Feinberg and the particular fund was given instructions, it was told that they had to take some considerations for economics. Now the way it ended up being administered, the lowest compensation was $250,000 and the highest compensation for a victim was at 7 million. Yet I should say an injury paid someone even more. So the highest payouts for deaths range from about 250,000 to around 7 million and someone who was injured got paid even more about 8 million.
Well, that leads a bunch of questions, why are some lives worth 30 times more than others, and why is an injury worth more than death itself? The key to that 30x range was very much income. Highest earners were given higher values, but what Mr. Feinberg did, which was brilliant was, he capped the earnings so that he wasn’t having a 500x or a 1000x range in the payouts, and he required a minimum payout. And the interesting thing is, in our legal system that minimum payout doesn’t exist and we can talk about cases where death does not actually merit compensation.
Jared Correia: Now that’s really interesting. I didn’t know that before hearing about your book and I don’t think a lot of people knew that, but you also contrast that to the way funds were distributed through the Boston Marathon Bombing Fund as well and how did that work differently than the 911 fund?
Howard Steven Friedman: Well, it’s very interesting, the difference. Now the first thing to mention is the Boston Marathon Bombing afterwards a fund was created with private money and there were no restrictions placed on how it would be dispersed, they hired Kenneth Feinberg again.
Now Feinberg after the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund specifically stated that it would have been simpler to administer and fairer if he valued all lives the same and that’s exactly what he did for the Boston Marathon Bombing. He looked at the amount of money that he had in the fund, he distributed some amounts for immediate needs of victims and for the families of the people who died. He paid the exact same amount.
So he lived up to the principle that he stated and he showed that this can be done and it was not controversial, people very much accepted the idea that regardless of whether the victim was rich or poor that the loss of their life could be compensated on an equal dollar basis.
Jared Correia: And that sounds like a positive development out of obviously like a terrible tragedy. Let’s extend the conversation a little bit, because you mentioned the core system in your prior answer. So we do a show on law legal system, so you talk a little bit about in your book about the criminal justice system and how the weighing of the value of life dramatically affects that institution as well, could you address that a little bit?
Howard Steven Friedman: Certainly, and we’re talking about examples of the huge ranges in valuation of life, it reminds me of the particular case of Cheryl Thurston. Cheryl was an inpatient at a New York Mental Institute. She was severely disabled, required one-on-one supervision while bathing. Well, one time she was left unsupervised in the bath, had a seizure, was found unconscious. She died within a day. Her sister sued and the judgment was somewhat shocking because there was no question about culpability, but even though it was clear that the care facility had failed to do their job. There was no actual award of damages.
And the judge themselves said that had Cheryl been chattel rather than a human being that there could have been some payment for lost value. What it came down to was Cheryl was not a source of income, she was costing money and it just seems absolutely tragic and criminal that losing a cow or a chicken can result in payment, but losing your sister doesn’t.
Jared Correia: Yeah, that’s a good example and really sad, and so I think that’s really important to note in the context of the civil courts. And how about in the criminal justice system, does it play out the same way? When money recovery is not necessarily involved?
In the criminal justice system we’re supposed to believe that justice is blind, but the data shows very clearly that who the victim and who the criminal are do influence criminal investigations and the outcomes. A simple example would be vehicular manslaughter.
So you have an accidental death because of let’s say, a car runs over someone. Well, who the victim was will impact what exactly is the jail time. If the victim was a homeless person on average the jail time is substantially less than if the victim was a successful businessperson, for example.
Now there’s no logical reason why that should be, certainly from the point of view of justice being blind that doesn’t seem at all fair, but that is what the data shows. And an example that really hits home for us is the tragic case of Karina Vetrano. You may recall a few years ago this young woman, she was raped and murdered while jogging near her home. Well, the murder received tremendous media coverage. New York City that year had over 300 murders, but that particular murder resulted in a taskforce of about 100 detectives working on the case according to ‘The New York Times’.
Now, why is one horrific death and this terrible rape and murder deemed to be worth such a massive investment in police time, while the other hundreds of murders that year certainly didn’t get that same amount of attention. Well, there’s a lot of factors that play into it. The media certainly plays into it, but clearly who the victim was played into it as well.
Jared Correia: Yes, and I think this is the right form to be talking about this as well. We got lawyers listening, there are things that lawyers can do to improve this situation. So thanks for helping me, Howard, cover some of these explicit legal topics. Our sponsors and listeners are now like undoubtedly happy. As to the former, listen to some more words from our sponsors here. We’re going to take our second break and then we’ll come back and put a bow on this right after that.
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Jared Correia: All right, thanks for staying with us. I didn’t get any better offers either. We continue to talk with Howard Friedman, who’s been educating us on how our society values human life in the 21st Century, so let’s find out more.
So, Howard, one of the things I thought was fairly obvious in this construct is life insurance and how that applies to valuing human life, I mean, that’s entirely what life insurance is about. So as somebody who is writing a book like this what’s your take on that and how much do you love or not love actuarial tables?
Howard Steven Friedman: I could stare at actuarial tables all day long and be the happiest person alive, but that’s what nerds do.
Jared Correia: I didn’t say it.
Howard Steven Friedman: In all seriousness, life insurance really is the area where most people think of in terms of valuing human life, because that’s the one that’s on yourself. This isn’t some other economist or data scientist or statistician doing the work, it’s you yourself figuring out how much money do you need to have in case you die prematurely?
How much money for your family? Whether it’s going to be replacing the lost income, or whether it’s going to meet the expected needs of your family when you’re not around, and to put that dollar figure on, can be done with a very clear calculation. You could look at what is your expected income overtime? How much of it would your family need? And come out with that number.
Although the truth is, most people do something a little bit simpler. They take a guess as to what seems like a big number and they look at the premiums and they say, well, that should just about do it. Now it’s not mathematical, but that is how it’s often done. That said, I advise people to at least take the moment, think about from the point of view of the survivor. What do they need, your family, and what can you afford and find that middle ground.
Jared Correia: Yeah, that sounds like life planning in general though, that number seems good. We’re going to go with that.
Howard Steven Friedman: I have to tell you the truth. In the real world, people look at affordability, what premium could I actually pay and what number feels large enough? But it’s that feels point that I have an issue with, because this is something that you could calculate. If you know how to use an Excel spreadsheet, you could simply make some estimates and do it yourself, or contact someone who can do those calculations for you. It’s not too difficult. We can all understand it.
Jared Correia: So either you like math or are you going to find somebody, who likes math? Fair. So we talked previously about 911 Boston Marathon Bombing, let’s take this up to the present day. Right now as we’re recording this show, everybody is worried about the coronavirus that’s becoming a global health concern, not to do a deep dive on this, but what is the initial reaction to the spread of the virus, say about how the parties involved value of human life?
Howard Steven Friedman: So it’s obviously a critical concern and it reminds us of this consideration of how much do I need to spend in order to prevent an illness or a potential death. In the book I talk a lot about Ebola where it was a tremendous issue going on in a few countries in Africa, but it didn’t generate a lot of attention in the United States and certainly not a lot of investment until cases arrived here in the United States, and that’s where our attention really got drawn, and I think with the coronavirus, it’s already spread globally, there are many cases in the United States already, and as we try to put in money to invest in reducing the transmission, and developing means of mitigating it, what we’re looking at is this whole question of, how much do I spend on prevention and the value of the human life.
Now, we do recognize that it was really growing quite rapidly in other countries and it really seemed to get a lot more attention when there were more cases here in the United States. That’s not shocking. This happens a lot, as we see a health issue that’s global, come closer to our shores we invest a lot more money in it. I am not saying that that’s the right thing to do, but I do think it’s somewhat a reflection of human nature.
Jared Correia: Oh, it makes sense and I just should say at this moment that like, I think my Philosophy professors from college would be very happy to see me having this discussion on the podcast.
Now, I got one serious question for you and then one fun question. So in your book, here’s a serious question. You talk about the concept of discounting and how that can be dangerous when it’s applied to human lives, can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Howard Steven Friedman: I’d be happy to. So discounting in this case is the fact that when you look at something that has cash flows overtime, like let’s say I have to spend a certain amount of money to do a prevention program this year but the lives that are going to get saved most of them are 5, 10, 15, 20 years in the future that I have to account for that timing.
Now when we talk about it, about dollars and cents, like let’s say you purchased a bond today and it’s going to issue a coupon to you every year, well, a hundred dollars today is worth more than a hundred dollars five years from now and more than a hundred dollars ten years from now. So if discounting brings all of the dollars into one single unit, so that you can compare cash flows across time. When you start thinking about human lives, if human lives are valued in dollars and cents, what that means is when people discount applied to the value of a human life, they’re saying that a life today is worth much, much more than a life 20 or a 100 years from now.
Why this is critical is, when people do calculations of how much money should I spend to prevent, let’s say a major disaster that would happen 50 or 100 years from now, the value, the benefit of those lives saved doesn’t appear to be as large because of that discounting, because the benefit of saving a million dollars, a hundred years from now is not the same as a hundred million dollars today.
Jared Correia: That’s really fascinating, and this has been a great discussion on the subject of plummeting values. I think I saw online that you are a Knicks fan, is that correct?
Howard Steven Friedman: It’s been a painful existence for me for a long time. May I offer you my favorite Knick moment —
Jared Correia: Yeah, I was just going to apologize but if you want to spin off a story, feel free.
Howard Steven Friedman: I would love to. I constantly enjoyed every year Patrick Ewing waving his finger and guaranteeing a championship, and to this day I would love to find where Mr. Ewing lives so I could mail him a dictionary of what the word “Guarantee” means.
Jared Correia: Don’t worry. James Stone will have to sell the team at some point, right? Like that’s got to happen.
Howard Steven Friedman: He doesn’t. That’s the beauty of unlimited pockets.
Jared Correia: Well, thank you for indulging me on that topic and others. We have reached to the end of yet another episode of The Legal Toolkit Podcast. This is a podcast about how society places value on human life and we’ve been talking with Howard Friedman who’s the author of ‘The Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life’.
Now I’ll be back on future shows with further insights into my soul, the soul of America and the legal market. If you’re feeling nostalgic from my dulcet tones, however, you can check out our entire show archive, anytime you want at legaltalknetwork.com.
So thanks again to our guest today, Howard Friedman. Howard, can you tell everybody how they can find out more about you and/or get a copy of your new book.
Howard Steven Friedman: Absolutely. So all you have to do is Google “Howard Friedman” and the words “Ultimate Price” and there’ll be tons of opportunities jumping up for where you could purchase the book or read more about myself and the book itself, and of course you can always go down to your local bookstore if those still exist.
Jared Correia: I think there are some here and there. So check out the book, really interesting, and it’s been a pleasure doing this interview. So thanks again to Howard Friedman, author of ‘The Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life’, check it out.
Finally, thanks to all of you out there for listening. This has been The Legal Toolkit Podcast where like the barenaked ladies say, “It’s all about value”.
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