Before the Crandall Canyon disaster recedes into media oblivion, it’s worth spending a moment to think about what economics does and doesn’t have to say about this grisly series of events.
The standard theory, which can be found in any labor economics textbook and even some principles texts, is that dangerous work is essentially a non-problem. Workers will only take a dangerous job if they get extra pay to compensate. This gives employers an incentive to make jobs safer up to the point when the cost of more safety exceeds the added wages they would have to pay. The result: the level of safety is efficient (marginal benefit of safety improvements equals marginal cost), workers with a taste for risk are efficiently matched with employers whose technologies make risk harder to reduce, and workers in dangerous jobs are no worse off than those in safe ones, since they have bigger bank accounts to keep them happy. There are two big regulatory implications: interference, like enforcing safety rules, is against the interest of both workers and employers, and the wage-safety tradeoff can be used to calculate a “value of statistical life”, which comes in handy whenever cost-benefit analyses need to be performed.
I kid you not.
The “consensus” view in the profession is that a wealth of empirical data validates this theory. The Environmental Protection Agency holds earnest discussions on whether the value of a life should be raised or lowered a bit, or perhaps set at a higher level for some groups (like the rich) compared to others.
There’s no point getting into a full-scale disquisition on this topic; my book from 11 years ago says it all. (Except for everything I’ve been saying since then....) One pertinent question we might ask, however, is this: what, if anything, does conventional economic theory tell us about a disaster like Crandall Canyon? Is this a theory for large data sets only, or can it be applied to a particular incident? My view: if it doesn’t make sense in any particular case, it doesn’t make sense in 60,000 cases.
So what do we have?
1. Efficiency: no, with the practice of retreat mining.
2. Risk-loving workers: we don’t know the psychological profile of the miners, but it would be outrageous to claim that the courageous rescuers, three of whom died on the job, simply had a higher tolerance for risk. Not knowing the difference between getting a kick out of risk and putting it on the line for others is typical of utility theory.
3. Fair distribution of risk: dubious. The tipoff is that three of the six miners now buried in the mountain were Mexican nationals; my guess is that they were not being offered whatever plum jobs were available in rural Utah.
Would it be too much to ask for an economics that, instead of spinning fantasies, asked practical questions like, what kind of labor market structures lead to this devaluing of human life? How can competition be prevented from leading to a race to the bottom (OK, not the best metaphor for coal mining) in safety practices? What forms of regulation can most effectively achieve the essential goals of public health and social justice?