Cost-Benefit Analysis
Whose Interest, Whose Rationality?

by Larry Lohmann

first published 31 May 1997

Summary

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is often regarded as a pure form of practical reasoning which can shift accountability onto supposedly impersonal mechanisms, summarize complex choices in a formulaic way, and transmute popular pressure, political debate and political conflict into quiet, office-bound operations performed on fixed and agreed-upon preferences. Yet CBA’s commensuration of things which no one has any experience in commensurating leads to odd new ways of treating reason, democracy, public opinion, space, time and personhood. And the more practical steps are taken toward its algorithmic ideal of decision-making, the more unforeseen political and social difficulties crop up, including popular resistance, which elites using CBA find hard to handle.

This article is based on a presentation to the Yale University Program in Agrarian Studies.

Contents

Introduction

Three-quarters of a century ago, in March and April 1927, after an exceptionally wet autumn and winter, the Mississippi river burst through its levees in 145 places in what was described at the time as the worst natural catastrophe the US had ever suffered. An area occupied by nearly a million people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illnois and Kentucky was flooded, killing 246 and wiping out planted or growing crops on over 21,000 square kilometres of land. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals were drowned, and the total monetary losses to property and industry could not be calculated. Tales of dozens of snakes swarming onto isolated islands to escape the rising waters and frightened wild deer sharing Red Cross camps with shivering refugees have passed into literature and legend.

The memory of the great flood endured and helped consolidate federal support for large-scale water projects well into the New Deal years. By that time, depression and unemployment had added new and even more potent reasons for pressing forward with such schemes. Naturally, there was a need to ensure that the new funds were spent properly. Of some help here was the system of comparing costs and benefits used by the Army Corps of Engineers, the premier national water development agency. By the 1930s, indeed much earlier, some such system had become necessary for public image-making as well as internal accounting. The personal judgments of the technocratic elite, based on difficult-to-communicate craft knowledge, institutional interest and a great deal else, were not as insulated from challenge by elected elites and other agencies as they were in France or the UK. When a query was made (though this might not be very often), some explanation had to be essayed, at least for the benefit of the audience watching the questioner and the questioned. Numbers were convenient and attractive items of exchange across this boundary. They both gave "evidence of fairness in the selection of water projects"1 and helped justify the rejection of projects the Corps didn't want to build. The difficulty was that in the early 1930s, these numbers were narrow in application, confined to tangible, relatively local costs and benefits such as capital outlay and flood damage or maintenance expenditures avoided. These benefit-cost ratios were unlikely to harmonize smoothly with a New Deal style of investment.

This was some of the context when, in 1934, a National Resources Board committee headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, friendly to the idea of adding to the list of candidate projects for federal funding, recommended what it called a "striking revision of costing technique". The idea, the Board explained, was to "include not only private but social accounting". "Intangible factors", it proposed, could be quantified and added to projected water project benefits according to "a generalized formula". The damage a project did to homes and the resulting loss in tax revenue, according to this idea, could be commensurated with and balanced against not just irrigation or power production, but also increased recreation opportunities, aesthetic improvements, and other unmarketed factors. Two years later the Flood Control Act of 1936 repeated these notions, but in order to control federal spending also specified that the government could participate in schemes only "if the benefits to whomsoever they may accrue are in excess of the estimated costs."2 At the same time, the Act preserved a distinction between "national" and "local" benefits in order to ensure that local authorities would repay many of the costs.

"Intangible" benefits. Benefits "to whomsoever they may accrue." These moves, I think, are representative of efforts on the part of the state and other agencies, then and at other times, toward widening cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in a way which suggests it can become a surrogate for at least some of the larger functions of practical reasoning. I've tried to suggest already some of the attractions this strategy might have -- helping to shift accountability onto supposedly impersonal mechanisms, overcoming bureaucratic akrasia in a relatively open society during a time of crisis. But it holds out several more utopian promises as well. One -- for officials who might genuinely believe in the usefulness of commensurating disparate alternatives -- is to summarize complex choices in a formulaic way. Another is to reduce the attention that needs to be paid to income distribution. Still another is to transmute popular pressure and political debate and conflict into quieter, office-bound operations performed on fixed and agreed-upon preferences. Then there is CBA's ability to suppress questions of who gains and who loses, who dreams up a project and who opposes it, making historically-embedded changes seem commensurable, as parts of a list to be summed rather than a story to be told.

But there is a flip side as well. Commensurating things which no one has any experience in commensurating, and figuring out where to place the inchoate commensurating institutions among others in society, help shape, among officials, intellectuals and others, odd new ways of treating reason, democracy, public opinion, space, time, and personhood. And the more practical steps are taken toward an algorithmic ideal of decision-making, the more unforeseen political and social complications and difficulties crop up which elites using the technique find hard to handle. So, at any rate, I'll try to argue, following a long line of economists, political scientists and philosophers of a skeptical Aristotelian stripe who have commented on similar issues.

Many of these complications, as with what James C. Scott calls "state simplifications",3 follow on from attempts to remold human activities to fit a model which at first may have been taken merely to describe them. Yet their presence doesn't necessarily remove the incentives or the institutions which led to the assimilation of CBA to practical reasoning in the first place. The dilemma which results, and which tends to reproduce itself decade after decade in a variety of arenas and forms, is the subject of the bulk of this paper. A concluding section will ask what the persistence of this dilemma means for the strategies of social activists contesting projects and initiatives in which CBA is invoked, and of engaged scholars who mean to make a contribution to resolving the conflicts in which CBA is implicated.

The half-dozen vignettes I'll use to sketch the outlines and extent of the CBA dilemma will deploy a variety of academic idioms, from that of US history to those of sociology, anthropology, environmental politics, philosophy, law and the history of ideas and mentalities. My aim is not to advance new insights in any of these fields but to use existing research to suggest the advantages of viewing the record of professional economic research and practice involving CBA as in part a disguised transcript of continuous micro- and macro-political and social conflict involving opposition to simplification and centralization. Nor is the paper intended as a contribution to debates within neoclassical economics. The issues of commensuration which lie at the heart of the dilemma, although they are affected by politics within the discipline, arise before the complexities of formal economics get under way. Being integral to the structures of ordinary life, moreover, they are a topic no one is unqualified to discuss.

Planners, politicians and economists

Although a serious study of the background out of which cost-benefit analysis grew would have to include, among other things, a consideration of the ways the great US railroad projects of the 19th century were justified, my discussion of the CBA dilemma can perhaps profitably begin with a brief glance at some of the controversies surrounding the big water projects of the first part of this century.

The 1936 Flood Control Act, in licensing an expanded cost-benefit framework, solidified protected practices for political speech and action which enabled water projects to be either blocked or promoted in new ways and idioms. For one thing, the Act gave Congress a convenient incantation to resort to when rejecting egregiously pork-barrel projects tacked on as amendments to its bills by opportunistic members. It could always be said that such proposals first had to be filtered through the CBA conducted by the Corps of Engineers or some other agency, a process both time-consuming and moderately resistant to at least some of the more obvious types of logrolling. Such CBA helped agencies put on an appearance of openness, yet keep things in the hands of traditional guilds as much as possible. Just as water project engineers, when challenged, could maintain they were merely reading off imperatives presented to society by nature, so cost-benefit analysts and the agencies they worked for, when harrassed, could eventually claim to be merely reading off the overall rational choices society was already presenting to itself. And while formulas and data might in principle be publicly available and unreliant on the arcana of incommunicable expertise, they were in fact obscure enough for analysts under pressure to be able to invoke professional privilege, particularly before an uninquisitive Congress.

Yet no huge shifts took place overnight. For some time the politics/technique boundary continued to be presented in the public arena as one between the ugly machinations of patronage or graft and the mysteries embodied in (say) the incorruptible artisans of the Corps. Thus in the 1940s the Corps was still able to get away with reporting that three water projects in Michigan, Alaska and Pennsylvania were justified given the "welfare of the communities" affected or the "importance of future development in the region" despite low benefit/cost ratios ranging from 0.53 to 0.82. Even when numbers had to be brought into line with decisions, the process seems to have been more relaxed and unconcealed than it would be today. Under pressure from Congress in 1945 to find some way of justifying a Maryland dam it had earlier rejected, the Corps took only a few days to levitate the B/C ratio from 0.37 to 1.5 by adding figures for "improved water supply", "pollution abatement" and power benefits downstream owing to "better-regulated stream flow".4

New achievements in creative accounting were also evident at the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers' main competitor. The Bureau showed itself capable of crediting a dam it wanted to approve not only with the value of the wheat grown on the land it was to irrigate, but also the net or even the gross value of the bread that might be baked from the wheat, as well as increased attendance at local cinemas. Local project boosters were not to be outdone in imaginative tallying up of "secondary" or "indirect" benefits, although sometimes they had to be shushed. One group of enthusiasts calculated the number of seagulls that would live on a proposed reservoir and multiplied this figure by the seagulls' rate of grasshopper consumption and the value of the grain the grasshoppers would have eaten. Meanwhile, with all the tentativeness and false starts of artists developing a new style of perspective, technocrats began assigning numerical values to the effects of a project on, for example, "recreation" or wildlife. Because "intangible benefits" were "nonreimbursible" to the federal government and thus subsidizable by the whole mass of the country's taxpayers, strong incentives also arose for local project champions to seek out and quantify them.

As the license encouraged by concepts such as "benefits to whomsoever they may accrue" became entrenched in bureaucratic routines, analysts found themselves striving to build up more systematic structures for unilaterally imagining communities which extended great distances from particular projects in both space and time. Under cover of method, numbers evolved into even more striking forms. The possible effects on the state of Maine of a hypothetical development on Oregon's Willamette River might need to be quantified, while the calculation of what was then called "present worth" committed officials to the hubristic task of "estimating" the "average price level expected" over the expected 50- or 100-year life of a project "with a reasonably high degree of certainty of realization", then applying to these figures various discount rates of disparate provenance.5 Throughout, the imperative to boil down social costs and benefits into a single number necessitated the imaginative fusion of different classes, genders, and groups into a single block.

In the 1940s, amid new efforts to rein in spending, tension grew between the Corps of Engineers and competing railroad companies, utilities and other government departments, who were eager to probe the basis of Corps cost-benefit numbers in Congressional hearings and elsewhere. The differences among the CBA techniques which various agencies had evolved in the New Deal climate were also becoming an embarrassment to the government. In the end a natural move was for the Federal Inter-Agency River Basin Committee and the Bureau of the Budget to try to regularize the different rituals. Predictably, this only made things worse. The more explicitly each new "universal" basis for expanded CBA was set out, the less credible and more contested it became. The River Basin Committee's report of 1950, for example, which was four years in gestation, recommended that for convenience's sake the opportunity cost, or "benefit foregone", connected with the use of a good on a project always be set equal to that good's market price. This, of course, attracted criticism in that it not only equated the market price of a good to the value people currently placed on it, but attributed to the market the ability to prophesy future uses and valuation of the good. Yet the alternative was to fall back on what economist R. J. Hammond aptly termed "imaginary" data. Difficulties with opportunity costs and discount rates have proven intractable down to the present.

Amid continuing accusations of pork-barrel politics and heavy sarcasm emanating from engineers and others about "meaningless" numbers, some observers wondered whether quantitative CBA was capable of taking all the political heat it was being groomed to do. In 1955, the Second Hoover Commission advised backing off from the quantification of intangibles. "Verbal discussion of the intangible benefits and costs will communicate the facts to Congress more clearly than invalid benefit estimates," concluded another critic, giving voice to a sentiment which has since become commonplace among analysts of the efficacy of CBA. "Relevant figures may be submitted without forcing them into the benefit-cost framework".6 But the time was apparently past when CBA's ideological role in decision-making could be so easily shrunk, even if other impersonal entities had been ready to step in to take its place. A suggestion to reinstitute oversight embodied in the persons of an interagency "Board of Impartial Analysis" rather than in a list of rules had been rejected in 1949 by the Corps and by Congress and never came up again.

Growing professionalization

In the 1950s, amid demands for more economic expertise to help commensurate unmarketed goods, a new wave of professionalization began sweeping over cost-benefit analysis, creating more of an identifiable, solidary CBA community with an occupational interest in practices of quantifying the value of unmarketed goods. The Corps started hiring more economists, and other areas of government activity began to be looked into by cost-benefit analysts. At around the same time, the new welfare economics began to make its influence felt. The idea that a worthy project could be unfavorably assessed by a competent CBA became, in official circles, something closer to a paradox. By 1965 it was possible for an economist to write that the "economic valuation of benefits and costs of an institution, plan or activity must attempt to take account of values of any sort".7 Discussion grew intense about such issues as techniques of valuing lives. Should one (for example) tot up discounted future earnings, production or consumption? Calculate the discounted present value of expected losses others suffer as a result of one's death? Look at jury aweards in compensation for death? Measure preferences for a risk-free environment by attempting to survey people's willingness to pay for it, or check how much they actually do pay for it? As CBA became a serious academic economic specialty, new theoretical blood was transfused into the idea that the technique could be made into an impersonal process immune from political challenge and discredit.

Yet instead of this happening, the old dilemma merely took new shapes. One was an enduring two-track discourse which featured, on the one hand, specialist economists committed to refining and deploying CBA and, on the other, economists and other experts who endlessly exposed the limitations of the technique. Many of the same arguments and rhetorical stances evident in 1955 were repeated in 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1995 with little movement on either side of the front. In 1972, to take a random example, one distinguished trio of economists optimistically saw the technique as "a routine that, once set in motion by appropriate value judgments on the part of those politically responsible and accountable, would -- like the universe of the deists -- run its course without further interference from the top".8 At about the same time, two other economists had this to say:

"In spite of years of refinement in the theory of cost-benefit analysis no one has succeeded in making it impartial or indisputable ... the basic error [is] trying to do the impossible: to reconcile incommensurable values in one quantitative objective figure ... no amount of technical wizardry will succeed in absolving us of the need to resolve ... conflict through political processes."9

This twin-track railway rolls on today throughout the transatlantic planning world. Stimulated partly by the bureaucratization of environmental concerns, CBA is now ensconced in universities and well-funded research centers attracting a new generation of bright young economists, and is more widely used by governments and multilateral development banks than ever. The reductio ad absurdum arguments satirizing the technique which appear regularly in the scholarly literature or are communicated through popular media have so far been of limited relevance to its hydra-like political standing. As if the 1950s debates had never been, for example, there appeared in the 1990s a cost-benefit manual for Britain's Department of Transportation evaluating road benefits according to time savings for motorists, which forecasts the total number of kilometers driven by different kinds of vehicles, laid out in four significant figures for every year until 2025. United States government guidelines and discount rates for cost-benefit analysis of federal programs and legislative proposals, established in the wake of President Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12291, have proved hardly less controversial than the River Basin Committee's report of 1950 -- a fact which appears to have given pause to surprisingly few economists and policymakers. Among more recent work which has been swallowed up in the political void, meanwhile, is a study surveying the large number of attempts to estimate the external costs of coal-fired electricity, which found that they differed by a factor of up to 50,000, or more than four orders of magnitude, despite the extreme precision with which the results were typically expressed; and an evaluation according to which existing US regulations imply estimates for the statistical value of a human life which differ by a factor of nearly 1,900, or between US$70,000 and $132 million per life saved.10

Public hearings

One arena in which the CBA dilemma manifests itself today is that of public hearings or inquiries of which CBA forms a part. As in the 1950s, the more deeply CBA is discussed in public, the less general intellectual and political credibility it is able to sustain. Yet no sooner has the technique been said by some to have been buried than it is resurrected by others.

In 1968, for example, the British government was seeking a site for a new London airport. Its first choice for the airport, in Stansted in Essex, had already been defeated by local opposition, and officials were aware that any other communities proposed for the project would also be likely to mount heavy resistance. The solution, as it so often is, was to appoint a special commission to advise on the site and thereby perhaps absorb some of the political heat. The commission, under Justice Roskill, in turn attempted to delegate much of its decision-making to CBA. The ensuing CBA exercise was the most thorough ever undertaken in the UK. Great labor was expended at the start to ensure agreement among all the contending parties on the premises of the study. As one witness reported, spectators at the hearings were treated to the "spectacle of the flower of the English planning bar gargling gingerly and reverently with the cost-benefit figures, including more than a day spent by the Commission's own counsel upon explaining, a bit pontifically and dogmatically, the relevant methodology".11 None of the preliminaries was contested by anyone present. For each prospective site a long list of items was costed including rail construction, surface access, noise, meteorology, and losses to property, recreation, and agriculture.

As the commission went about its work, however, observers couldn't help noticing that no weightings for uncertainty were included, and began objecting, for example, to the ideas that air travel could be treated as a want on a par with others and that the poor's money was given equal weight with the rich's. Ultimately the commission was attacked as concocting a "horse and rabbit stew" (one rabbit, one horse), in that it mixed a painstaking cardinal ranking employing precise sums of quantifiable factors relating to each site with a cursory ordinal ranking of the sites according to wider social and environmental impacts of air traffic growth, waving its hands to aggregate the two. Attracting special ridicule along the way were the commission's use of the fire insurance value of a Norman church (£50,000) and its valuation of a human life (£9,300). The government had little difficulty in disregarding its final 1971 recommendation.

Characteristically, CBA apologists scrambled to rewrite the narrative of the Roskill failure as one of imperfect technique12 compounded by political pressure exerted by overemotional local pressure groups. For a while, nevertheless, British transport planning was more sparing in its use of CBA. Yet the technique made a strong comeback in the 1980s and 1990s among government road-builders.

Surveyors and surveyed

As cost-benefit analysis has grown more sophisticated, the dilemma which afflicts it has reappeared in the micro-political arena of the contingent valuation survey. In contingent valuation -- one of the leading techniques developed after the Second World War for finding a hypothetical price for unmarketed or unowned goods -- a sample of subjects are quizzed individually to determine the maximum amount of money they would be willing to pay, as individuals, for, say, clean air, the conservation of local lakes, or the survival of blue whales -- or, alternatively, the minimum amount they would accept for their loss. Like public hearings, these questionnaire sessions are a political interface where the attempt to reinterpret practical reasoning along CBA lines, hatched and licensed largely in offices and other professional settings, meets its often recalcitrant subjects face to face.

One problem surveyors face is that even in the most commoditized societies, practices of assigning prices to (or otherwise commensurating) a wide range of items are likely to be unfamiliar, circumscribed, irrelevant or disallowed. In that case the question "How much would you be willing to pay?" is unlikely to elicit responses satisfactory to surveyors. In some cases it is simply difficult to make sense of the question. One survey seeking to monetize the sub-clinical health effects of increased levels of ozone asked people how much money they would be willing to pay to have avoided having been tired easily one time during the last month. In another recent experiment designed to test hypotheses about how to measure the "intrinsic" value assigned to life, interviewees were asked how much they would pay not to have a researcher kill a potted Norfolk Island pine tree plonked down in front of them. Other researchers have asked people to assign comparative numbers to the options of saving a given number of lives today and saving a greater number in the future.13

In cases in which the question makes marginally more sense, it may nevertheless be understood and responded to in a great variety of ways: for example, on the model of an extortion demand; fleamarket vendor's gambit; challenge to honor, prestige or some other form of "symbolic capital"; corrupt judge's request for a bribe (or honest judge's test of a defendant's values); prostitute's solicitation; invitation to discuss the "imaginary market" the surveyor is attempting to construct; close friend's idle query on a holiday walk; or obnoxious joke. Correspondingly, "How much are you willing to accept for place A?" may be received as a different question depending on the profane or sacred standing of the A in question.14

Thus one number given by respondents may be "a defensive reaction to a perceived threat", another a "random number produced under the social constraints of a questionnaire interview".15 Zero bids may come from people who value the item in question but are too poor even to imagine paying for it, and may also come from respondents too disgusted with the survey scenario to fall in with the pricing game.16 Most figures offered by respondents to a New Zealand survey testing people's willingness to pay to prevent development of an island were "gestures in a political process".17 When another survey asked what Wyoming residents would accept in monetary compensation for loss of visibility due to pollution from a power plant, most interviewees rejected what they saw as the surveyors' assumption that they could be "bought off to permit pollution" and either refused to cooperate or entered what surveyors call "protest bids" requiring infinite compensation.18 In six Scottish contingent valuation studies, it was obvious even to the surveyors that between one-quarter and one-third of respondents could not be made to take the questions seriously.19

Like opinion polltakers and other social-science surveyors, cost-benefit economists are professionally obliged to try to suppress this indeterminacy and diversity.20 The preference sets they uncover must be well-behaved, fixed, exogenous and first-order; the prices they formulate usable; and the numbers they come up with "hard" enough for both the calculational needs of office-based analysts and the public-relations needs of officials who need to cite figures in public.21 That means subjecting respondents' statements to a cascade of institutional processing.

The first round of processing takes place in the interview room or on the questionnaire sheet itself. Here better-behaved respondents will "subordinate themselves and their ways of making sense to those of the survey designers. If [the survey] does not make sense ... respondents will see these 'failings' as their own", many of them coughing up numbers largely out of a desire to please or impress.22 The second round sees the resulting mass of figures firmed up and sculpted into consistency through unilateral reinterpretation and editing. For example, subjects who balk at answering questions about how much money they would be willing to accept for, say, the loss of their homes, may be interpreted, or pushed into interpreting themselves, as making straightforward demands for infinite compensation. Naturally, these have to be rejected as absurd, since they would trump all others automatically, leaving no room for weighing alternatives against each other and thus no policy pointers.23 They are therefore either thrown out as manifestations of the subject's "irrationality" or edited down to what he or she "must have really meant". For example, the Roskill Commission considering sites for a third London airport unilaterally reinterpreted bids for infinite compensation for homes which would be destroyed by a new airport as demands for compensation of 200 per cent above the market value.24 Other so-called "outliers" reflecting subjects' strongly-held views can be eliminated from the data set using justifications from statistical theory. "Soft variables" difficult to quantify may simply be eliminated from the analysis.25 Alternatively, a new interview team can be dispatched to brief recalcitrant subjects more thoroughly or reassuringly so that when they are questioned again they disgorge preferences which can be fed more easily into the computational process and so that there is no "perception of interviewer pressure" [sic].26 A third round of processing occurs in the meeting room or on the printed page where experts or their patrons summarize the cost-benefit analysis to the public -- and where, again, the original study subjects have little bargaining power over how their opinions are interpreted. Here anyone urging that discussion on the issue at hand be opened up outside the CBA framework is likely, paradoxically, to be dismissed as wanting to "opt out of the debate". Similarly, skepticism concerning the notion of fixed individual "preferences" will be read as "opposition from those who do not want preferences to count, because the majority sometimes does not want what they want".27 One result of "scientizing" values -- transforming them from practical, evolving capacities for social life into quantifiable "facts" -- is that their holders become less qualified to say what they are. As one angry survey subject remarked recently:

"The way they can manipulate this is basically by saying, 'well, right. We're not going to fund [this conservation scheme] any more'. Then there'll be a public outcry saying 'Why not? You're supposed to be looking after the environment!' And they could directly turn round and say, 'well, we took public opinion'".28

The point is not that there is some metaphysical obstacle to interviewers attempting to get new costing practices going during their interviews, nor to their treating items which already have prices as if they were nothing more than fungible commodities. As Viviana Zelizer documents, the borders between what can and cannot be priced or otherwise commensurated are in constant historical flux,29 and as Margaret Jane Radin argues, "commodified understandings of certain transactions can coexist with noncommodified understandings."30 The point is, rather, that imposing practices which would commensurate plural values in all circumstances is much harder, and would have far more radical real-world consequences, than most contingent valuers imagine.31

For one thing, starting up new pricing procedures, or requiring that existing ones blot out other, non-commensurating practices, often conflicts with entrenched ways of making choices which involve reasoning about goals which are multiple, mutually irreducible, unclear, only partially determinate, and constantly open to modification. Such choices, as Martha Nussbaum stresses, are made on a basis which is "qualitative and not quantitative, and rational just because it is qualitative, and based upon a grasp of the special nature of the items in question."32 The nature of this particular class of reasoned choices is not clarified but rather obscured by attempts to commensurate the options. As one subject of a contingent valuation survey protested after being asked questions aimed at finding out how much households would be willing to pay for a wildlife enhancement scheme in the UK's Pevensey Levels, "I think you can put a value on nature but not a value in money terms. A value is what we teach our children".33 Changing that would take decades, centuries, or longer, not minutes as required by the contingent valuation surveyor.

In addition, the contingent valuation survey poses its questions to an odd unit of society: the individual. Asking individuals for their "ill-considered preference[s] for one site in isolation", many of the Pevensey survey's respondents considered, was "to insult their intelligence",34 since they were well aware that other places and the communities who lived in them also had valid claims on available resources -- claims which they would also need to learn about and discuss with the people concerned before expressing their values to a central authority. Part of what survey subjects resist in CBA is its tendency toward forging and disciplining a "public" of individuals legible to, responsive to, and instructed by centrally-located experts and officials and toward discouraging horizontal links, mutual learning, and the social use of reason among individuals in local areas with similar problems.

It is sometimes suggested that these modes of opposition will disappear when new, purified questioning techniques are developed which expose respondents' "underlying" preferences for clean air and water, the "real" price of global warming, the "correct" algorithm capturing and depoliticizing rational choice, and so forth. Thus one prominent environmental economist asserts that

"the absence of markets in environmental services creates a practical problem of measurement -- i.e. one of finding out what people's preferences actually are in a context where there are no apparent markets -- but it does not create a conceptual problem of measurement".35

By overlooking the roots of micro-political resistance to CBA, this insistence is likely only to perpetuate it. So, too, is the characteristic claim of frustrated economists committed to promoting and developing CBA that opposition to the technique stems from ordinary people's "ignorance" and "irrationality".

An international encounter

The controversy engendered by cost-benefit analysts' efforts to claim privileged status for their interpretation of the views of others and of themselves is hardly confined to contingent valuation. Other techniques, which infer the amount people would pay for an unmarketed good by examining their market behavior, must also proceed against a resistant background of custom, unpredictability, and local insistence on complex, overlapping, partly self-defined modes of valuation.

At the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, CBA of purportedly global scope has been used in order to advise on action to mitigate greenhouse gas buildup. The technique is attractive to US and other industrial-country elites in this forum partly because its weaknesses in dealing with distributional and narrative issues are politically useful in a situation in which accusations of responsibility for global warming are tied to demands for proportional contributions toward alleviation. Economists at Working Group III of the Panel, using data on how much money different groups spent to avoid risk of death, in 1995 calculated the value of a statistical life of a US citizen at $1.5 million and that of a statistical life of a "developing country" citizen at $100,000. This figure was used in further calculations which suggested that climate change would cost twice as much "socio-economic" damage to the industrialized countries as to the rest of the world.

The numerical idiom, however, protected the economists only for a short time. Eventually the figures touched off a furore among Third World delegations to the IPCC, who contested this interpretation of their countries' citizens' appreciation for safety. The calculations were sent back to their authors. Under the circumstances, economist Samuel Fankhauser's response that these authors had merely been reading off "people's appreciation for a risk-free environment" using published economic data was hardly likely to contain the opposition. With its undertones of "they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented", it suggested that the economists' interpretation of others' actions at a distance regarding matters of survival had decisively greater authority than that of the actors themselves.36 As in the 1940s, the attempt to ground legitimacy in impersonal numbers based on a commensurability assumption had reaped a harvest of conflict, again confirming British geographer John Adams's observation that "far from resolving controversy, cost-benefit analysis generates it".37 While cost-benefit analysis, like public relations and opinion polling, may often be tolerated in theory, many of its more intimate practices are not, it often being the case that the better acquainted people become with these practices, the more they oppose them.

The intellectual career of an intuition

The larger ambitions of cost-benefit analysis -- and with them, the CBA dilemma -- are kept alive by a great deal more than the institutions of economics and of the "simplifying" state. Since Plato, at least, CBA's central premise -- that all rational choice presupposes commensurability -- arguably has had enduring appeal to a wide range of intellectuals (at least in certain moods and contexts). If subjects have ever made a rational choice between two options, the idea goes, then they have already implicitly commensurated them, God but give us the eyes to see it. The idea is that all rational choices are made by quantifying the alternatives and then choosing the one with the highest value. On this view, cost-benefit analysis only makes explicit what everybody already does implicitly, and so should be uncontroversial.

The premise is, as might be expected, often regarded as self-evident among neoclassical economists:

"Every decision implies a monetary evaluation."38

"Measurement is essential, since trade-offs are inescapable."39

It also underlies the widespread idea that CBA, even if it should not determine, at least "aids" and "clarifies", decision-making -- not only indirectly, by encouraging the collection of relevant information and revealing the sensitivity of decision-making to initial assumptions, but directly, through commensuration and summing:

"Is the area in question more valuable, in some sense, as wilderness or as a source of resource inputs? To say that intangibles cannot be compared with tangibles is, with respect to this question, to say that it cannot be answered. To say that they cannot be compared and to recommend the preservation option ... is to exhibit confusion and inconsistency. For to recommend preservation is simply to say that it has been in some way compared with development and found to be preferable. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of making the comparison explicit, and uses a particular criterion, notably the willingness to pay of individuals."40

But the idea has much wider currency than this. It is also espoused by journalists:

"Knowingly or unknowingly, people who decide that they would rather pay more for electricity than destroy a forest to build a dam are implying a valuation of the forest -- crudely put, somewhere between the increased cost of electricity and 'priceless'."41

And even the tempestuous heroes of novels of international intrigue:

"I said into her ear: 'You are blessed with an education and the capacity for rational judgment. What you do is you put everything in one scale of the balance -- job, husband, all that -- and me in the other. See which goes down. Take the one that goes down.'42

Even by otherwise careful historians of CBA itself:

" ... a richly nuanced or profound analysis of a large question is never logically excluded by the attempt to quantify parts of it ... Though tools like [CBA] can scarcely provide more than a guide to analysis and a language of debate, there has been strong pressure to make them into something more... An effective method should not be a mere language, focusing discussion on central issues, but must be constraining."43

This intuition helps push the intellectual image of "rationality" as a whole away from what philosopher Richard Rorty calls "reasonableness" -- tolerance, respect for the opinions of those nearest one, willingness to learn, nondefensiveness, and reliance on persuasion rather than force (which are traits over which no one has a monopoly) toward that of rituals of measurement, calculation and aggregation (which are the special province of an economic and bureaucratic priesthood).44 The ideas that values are all commensurable, that the public consists of an expert-friendly set of isolated individuals, and that rationality is a matter to which experts have privileged access, are mutually reinforcing.

Yet the inevitable return of the aspects of rationality repressed by cost-benefit thinking ensures that the CBA dilemma will regularly resurface within academia -- even sometimes within single individuals -- just as it does elsewhere. Thus the general view that rational comparison entails commensurability has been explicitly tackled and ably re-demolished in various scholarly vocabularies in recent years by a distinguished set of economists, philosophers, anthropologists, legal scholars and policy analysts45 -- some of whom also contribute to cognate debates about commoditization and deliberative democracy. In many ways these demolitions mirror or complement the types of popular opposition which appear in, for example, contingent valuation surveys.

Such authors point out, for example (I pastiche a few selected threads of criticism for illustration), that the argument that "measurement is essential, since trade-offs are inescapable" is invalid. Even if the premise ("trade-offs are inescapable") is granted, the conclusion ("measurement is essential") does not follow. The argument confuses one aspect of reasoning characteristic of simple bureaucratic procedures (comparing vegetable prices, weighing babies during health checkups) with the whole of rationality. Farmers who consider allowing commercial logging in their community forests, for example, need not necessarily be weighing the advantages of cash against the disadvantages of losing water, food or spirits of place; or the "opportunity costs" of lost income against the benefits of subsistence or spiritual well-being. Instead, they may apply a moral rule in a way that such comparisons never get started, or they may modify or respecify one end in light of others. Making their values commensurable would not "clarify" such decision-making procedures but rather change them. Looking to criteria such as weight and monetary value to define rational choice is insufficient in contexts in which people need to reason not just about means but also about clusters of interlocked, mutually irreducible ends and how to develop them in light of those means.46 Judges may need to decide whether or how a rule applies to a particular situation; artists, critics, students or scientists may acquire through discussion and practice a new language, taste, perception or goal which shares no criterion of value (or piece of apparatus) with the old, but merely comments on or recontextualizes it; bureaucrats may need to reinterpret goals and adjust means and ends to each other in such quick succession that CBA can get little foothold; writers may find that the goals of essays change in the course of their composition, depending on what they find they can express and what they discover in the course of writing; shoppers and cooks may find that problems of how much food to buy or make are not in practice separated from procedure and solutions and wind up giving short shrift is given to the utilitarian rationality and "schoolish" mathematics presupposed by CBA.47 In such situations, rational choice cannot be a matter of trying to satisfy criteria set in advance in order to reach singular, fixed goals. As David Wiggins notes, "deliberative specification of ends" constitutes "most of what is interesting and difficult in practical reason", suggesting that the experienced and perceptive person, not just sets of criteria, are indispensible touchstones of rational choice.48 Yet if each individual's values and ends are to some extent mutually incommensurable, the range of irreducibly plural ends across individuals is often even greater, and that across societies greater still, reinforcing the need to locate reasoned deliberation not in the comparison of quantities but in discussions of groups of people using the languages they themselves deem relevant in an egalitarian atmosphere.

Such lines of argument are useful largely for the way they alert intellectuals to the strangeness of the belief that "deliberation must be either quantitative or a mere shot in the dark".49 They help make it possible to obey John and Jean Comaroff's injunction to "regard our own world as a problem, a proper site for ethnographic inquiry"50 -- in particular, to inquire into why, as Peter Self remarked of the Roskill hearings, intelligent people might assume that "trial by quantification" is the "only sensible or possible way of reaching such a difficult decision"; and why even those who were dubious about the proceedings did "not know how to criticize them," as there seemed to be "no alternative between accepting the logic of cost-benefit or falling back upon purely emotional positions of dissent".51

No intellectual critique, ethnography or political economy of CBA's commensurating practices is likely by itself, however, to have much impact on the incentives, institutions and mentalities which sustain the technique's higher ambitions. Materials for critiques of contemporary CBA's central fallacies, after all, were available in academia long before current controversies arose, yet have had limited effect on their development. From 20th century political thought alone, there is, for example, Otto Neurath's now largely-forgotten idea of a non-market "economy in kind" in which there would be no need for common units to compare states of affairs and make decisions. Neurath saw "no possibility of reducing the production plan to some kind of unit and then to compare the various plans in terms of such units", pointing out that it was "non-technical matters" which determined the "choice of technically calculable plan", and attacked Ludwig von Mises's contrasting algorithmic view of reason as "pseudorationalism", noting that there cannot be "rules of insight" which determine unique answers to all decisions.52 From the right, Michael Oakeshott resuscitated the issue some decades later with his eloquent critiques of Rationalism in Politics and of the notion that "'rational' activity is behavior in which an independently premeditated end is pursued and which is determined solely by that end." "This is not a satisfactory notion of rational conduct," Oakeshott went on, "because it is not a satisfactory account of any sort of conduct ... if this is rational behavior, then it is not merely undesirable; it is in fact impossible."53 From the left again, the Frankfurt School weighed in with its strictures against the domination of "instrumental reason", and as the great technocratic decade of the 1960s was about to open, Charles E. Lindblom had the effrontery to suggest taking a close look at the reality of working bureaucratic practice before concluding that it could be made more "rational" through first isolating ends, then seeking and comparing all available means.54

Attempts to expand CBA's role in decision-making, in short, are the product of a political process and culture sufficiently entrenched and mystified -- some would say an irrationality so institutionalized -- that the CBA dilemma, or something like it, is likely to be a fact of life for some time to come. Activists and intellectuals who need to live and move within a political environment charged by the tensions it generates have little choice, for the time being, but to evolve multipronged intercultural tactics and alliances for contending with the technique.

Problems of tactics and alliances

Cost-benefit analysis, buoyed up, formed and reformed by the types of action and conflict this paper has sketched, is never a "guide to analysis and a language of debate" in the sense of an instrument which benignly, or without provoking reaction, rearranges the materials needed for decision-making into a more perspicuous pattern. Committed to a profoundly controversial normative political theory, it is unable to substitute for, represent, model, or clarify central aspects of existing forms of decision-making. Yet nor, despite its undoubted capacities to help public officials project an appearance of being effective without being accountable, is CBA ever an inert or merely cosmetic mask behind which the usual machinations of a supposedly "non-technical" politics go forward. Rather, it is a mobile and evolving set of practices of political intervention with its own distinctive history, effects, uses, and institutional center of gravity, and engendering its own characteristic images, desires and beliefs.

Yet at the same time that the cluster of language-games which constitutes CBA is distinguishable from others, it also influences and is influenced by them. Perturbations "within" CBA will have refracted or translated effects "outside", and agitation undertaken "outside" or "against" CBA will have refracted or translated effects "inside". Attempts to affect either "inside" or "outside" may entail having to work in both simultaneously.

Thus just as a survey subject may find it strategic to protest against one set of willingness-to-pay questions in the morning while in the afternoon to answer another with feigned straightforwardness, so democracy-minded activists and critics may be forced by CBA's near-ubiquity to fight some of their battles on its turf -- not necessarily in propria persona, but as part of a varied movement. They may, for example, ally themselves with expert colleagues who delve into cost-benefit figures in order to expose inconsistencies, errors, indeterminacies, or absurd assumptions. Faced with a B/C ratio for the Tehri dam of 1.25, anti-dam activists may see the advantage of demonstrating, as Vijay Paranjpye did, that using a more thorough method of evaluation, the ratio would come out at 0.63;55 faced with low estimates of global warming damage based on questionable or US-based data, island nation leaders may see the advantage of communicating with foreign environmentalists skeptically probing the "cost" figures. Sometimes used to promote pork-barrel politics, CBA can also be deployed to restrain it; often employed to block or roll back environmental legislation, its valuations of "intangibles", risks, or future incomes can also, in theory, be rejiggered to the advantage of conservation. While one wing of a social movement launches a radical attack on CBA, another may be forced to acquiesce to discussing a doomed project in cost-benefit terms in order to give a respected political opponent a chance to avoid losing face. To what extent such tactical flexibility runs the long-term risk of strengthening cost-benefit culture will always be contested, but it is doubtful whether a general lesson can be extracted from particular cases.

What is more certain is that work "inside" CBA requires, to be effective, simultaneous work "outside" or "against" it. First, it is only when cost-benefit analysts become answerable to broad-based movements external to the bureaucratic and academic institutions which are home to the technique that they will find numbers to fit and reinforce the decisions taken through open debate. Unless these movements exert pressure on cost-benefit analysts from "outside", CBA figures cannot be relied on not to reflect the vested interests of political, bureaucratic and economic elites.56 Moreover, because CBA numbers are usually fairly implausible, governments and corporations have little reason to pay attention to them unless they have independent political pressure backing them up.57 More fundamentally, working "against" CBA is necessary to any strategy which sees decision-making itself as developing the views, values and customs necessary for political choice, rather than as the aggregation of exogenously-determined and unchallengeable preferences of autonomous individuals. It is also necessary to the extent to which the treatment of issues such as biodiversity in terms of commodity or market norms "itself is part of our environmental crisis".58

Creative scholarly research can complement, although it cannot replace, other activities "outside" CBA. In the UK, some academic economists and geographers have joined anti-roads and global warming activists to question the dominance and techniques of environmental CBA, but a great deal more could be done to open up CBA's tangled everyday practices for discussion within university forums on development, biodiversity, population, economic theory, sociology, anthropology, history and political science. For example, few concerned anthropologists have as yet written on the field encounters of surveyors of people's willingness to pay for public goods, or followed economists into the offices where they "reveal preferences", and few sociologists have studied the networks through which the practices underlying algorithmic models and ideologies of practical reasoning are propagated into and out of economics departments, think tanks and government departments.

Occupying a shaky dual role both "inside" and "outside" the institutions, groups and practices responsible for CBA are recent initiatives promoting institutional "alternatives" to the technique. These include, for example, multicriteria mapping and multicriteria evaluation,59 group contingent valuation,60 citizens' juries,61 advisory institutions mediating between citizens' groups and political parties or government, and special forums set up to allow groups with different plans for public goods to negotiate among themselves and then recommend a conclusion to decisionmakers.62 Such projects are analogous to working "inside" CBA insofar as they are designed to appeal to political and policy elites who would otherwise regard CBA as an obvious choice for meeting their interests and needs for legibility and centralization. They remain stubbornly "outside" CBA norms, however, insofar as they reject the notion that rationality requires a common metric for all alternatives and refuse to transform social values and processes into a unitary "fact" over whose characterization an intellectual elite has special privileges. As a result, these projects are likely to be subject to a larger dilemma of which the CBA dilemma is a special case. They run the risk of being regarded simultaneously by certain state elites as unwieldy, by a powerful neoclassical economic establishment and official audit culture as unacceptable, and by popular movements as overly susceptible to capture and transformation by technical specialists or other elites whose interests and procedures are seen as alien or hostile to rational deliberation. As with CBA itself, they grow out of particular political impulses and social practices, but it is in the interplay of those practices with others and of politics at all levels that they will find their fate.63

Notes and references

1 Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995): 149. I rely on Porter's fine account of CBA in earlier US infrastructure policy throughout this paper, although I disagree with some of his conclusions. See also his "Objectivity as Standardization: The Rhetoric of Impersonality in Measurement, Statistics, and Cost-Benefit Analysis" in Allan Megill, ed., Rethinking Objectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).

2 R. J. Hammond, Benefit-Cost Analysis and Water-Pollution Control (Stanford: Food Research Institute, 1960), p.5. See also his "Convention and Limitation in Benefit-Cost Analysis", Natural Resources Journal (1967), pp.195-222.

3 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Like Prussian forestry science or Tanzanian "villagization", CBA involves an attempt to impose new classifications on society or nature to render them more "legible" to centralized state agencies bent on achieving a restricted set of goals. Two related techniques which also underwent a period of rapid development during the heyday of enthusiasm for social engineering in the US during the first half of the 20th century are public opinion polls and public relations. All three techniques help big organizations structure a "public" to their needs and procedures, enjoy the backing of expert institutions, and trouble and anger many they intimately affect. All are now ubiquitous in industrialized societies, being tolerated in theory even by many who resist them in daily life and used tactically even by many who loathe their anti-democratic aspects. See Larry Lohmann, "Whose Voice is Speaking? How Opinion Polling and Cost-Benefit Analysis Synthesize New 'Publics'," Corner House Briefing Paper No. 7 (Sturminster Newton: Corner House, May 1998). For deeper background relating to the rise of various practices of commensuration in earlier periods of North Atlantic history see, e.g., Witold Kula, Measures and Men, trans. by R. Szreter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1976) and Richard W. Hadden, On the Shoulders of Merchants: Exchange and the Mathematical Conception of Nature in Early Modern Europe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).

4 Porter, Trust in Numbers, p.160.

5 Hammond, Benefit-Cost Analysis, p.22-23.

6 Otto Eckstein, Water Resource Development: The Economics of Project Evaluation, Harvard Economic Studies 104, Vol. CIV (1958), p.41.

7 Robert Dorfman, Measuring Benefits of Government Investments (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1965).

8 United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Guidelines for Project Evaluation (1972), cited in Porter.

9 Steve H. Hanke and Richard A. Walker, "Benefit-Cost Analysis Reconsidered: An Evaluation of the Mid-State Project", Water Resources Research 10 (5) (1974), pp.898-908.

10 The electricity study is Andrew Stirling, "Regulating the Electricity Supply Industry by Valuing Environmental Effects", Futures 24 (10) (1992). For official US valuations of human life, see Clayton P. Gillette and Thomas D. Hopkins, Federal Agency Valuations of Human Life, A Report to the Administrative Conference of the United States (1988). See also Lewis A. Kornhauser, "The Value of Life", Cleveland State Law Review 209 (1990); M. W. Jones-Lee, The Value of Life: An Economic Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) and Richard Zeckhauser, "Procedures for Valuing Lives", Public Policy 23 (1975).

11 Peter Self, Econocrats and the Policy Process (Boulder: Westview, 1975), p.158. See also Commission on the Third London Airport, Report (London: HMSO, 1971).

12 Nathaniel Lichfield, "Cost-Benefit Analysis in Planning: A Critique of the Roskill Commission", in Benefit-Cost Analysis: An Aldine Annual (1971), pp.378-404.

13 Maureen L. Cropper and Paul R. Portney, "Discounting and the Evaluation of Lifesaving Programs," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 3 (1990), pp.369, 375, and other references mentioned in Daniel A. Farber and Paul A. Hemmersbaugh, "The Shadow of the Future: Discount Rates, Later Generations, and the Environment," Vanderbilt Law Review 49, pp.267-304.

14 John O'Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (London: Routledge, 1993); Mark Sagoff, The Economy of the Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

15 Jacquelin Burgess, J. Clark and Carolyn Harrison, "'I Struggled with This Money Business': Respondents to the Wildlife Enhancement Scheme CV Survey Discuss the Validity of their WTP Figures" and "Culture, Communication and the 'Information Problem' in Contingent Valuation", Ecological Economics, forthcoming. Burgess et al. report that one contingent survey's subjects confided that they had been mystified by "a question I couldn't answer ... didn't understand ... struggled with". See also B. Fischoff, "Value Elicitation: Is There Anything in there?", American Psychologist 46, 8, (1991), pp.835-847. As Farber and Hemmersbaugh comment, "Why should people possess preferences about choices they have never had to make and reasonably can expect to have no future power over?" (p.301).

16 D. S. Levy, J. K. Hammitt, N. Duan, T. Downes-LeGuin and D. Friedman, Conceptual and Statistical Issues in Contingent Valuation: Estimating the Value of Altered Visibility in the Grand Canyon (RAND: Santa Monica, 1984), pp.28-30; T. H. Stevens, J. Echevarria, R. J. Glass, T. Hager, and T. A. More, "Measuring the Existence Value of Wildlife: What Do CVM Estimates Really Show?", Land Economics 67, 4 (1991).

17 D. Vadnjal. and M. O'Connor, "What is the Value of Rangitoto Island?", Environmental Values 3, (1994), p.375.

18 R. D. Rowe, R. C. D'Arge, and D. Brookshire, "An Experiment on the Economic Value of Visibility", Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 7 (1980).

19 N. Hanley in association with ECOTEC, The Valuation of Environmental Effects: Stage II, Scottish Office Industry Department/Scottish Enterprise (1991).

20 The diversity referred to here is not of numbers, but rather of social practices. The numbers obtained by surveys are, predictably, variable. For example, US researchers found that one sample discounted future lives saved within 25 years at an annual rate of 8.6 per cent yet within 100 years at a rate of 3.4 per cent ("What Price Posterity?", The Economist 73 [23 March 1991], while a Swedish study using a different methodology found rates more than 10,000 times lower, around .0001 per cent (Cropper and Portney, "Discounting and the Evaluation of Lifesaving Programs"). Other studies have found that respondents did not discount future lives at all or even valued them more than present lives, while some subjects have refused to give any weight whatsoever to deaths occurring many years in the future on the ground that science will surely discover a method of eliminating any risk in the meantime (Cropper, Sema K. Aydede, and Paul R. Portney, "Discounting Human Lives," American Journal of Agricultural Economics [1991], pp.1410, 1412; John K. Horowitz and Richard T. Carson, "Discounting Statistical Lives", Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 3, pp.403, 410 [1990].) A more important point overlooked by most commentators on such statistical circuses, however, is that even if the figures yielded by different methods were identical, the question would still arise of what they meant, and whether contingent valuation were suppressing certain practices necessary for the exercise of rationality.

21 How seriously cost-benefit analysts treat any particular CBA figure when among themselves awaits ethnographic investigation. What is perhaps more important is the ability to promote public belief in the abstract, overall process of measurement and computation.

22 Burgess et al., "'I Struggled with this Money Business'" and "Culture, Communication and the Information Problem."

23 Dieter Helm and David Pearce, eds., Economic Policy Towards the Environment (London: Croom Helm, 1991); R. Kerry Turner, "Environment, Economics and Ethics" in David Pearce, ed., Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy (London: Earthscan, 1991).

24 J. G. U. Adams, "London's Green Spaces: What Are They Worth?" (London: London Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth, 1989).

25 Laurence H. Tribe, "Policy Science: Analysis or Ideology?", Philosophy & Public Affairs 66 (1972), p.2. See also Farber and Hemmersbaugh, "The Shadow of the Future".

26 W. M. Hanemann, "Valuing the Environment through Contingent Valuation", Journal of Economic Perspectives 8, 4, (1994), p.24. While cost-benefit analysts claim that they can become neutral conduits of correct information and passive, unbiased recorders of people's valuations of their own lives and surroundings, in reality, as geographer Jacquelin Burgess and her colleagues point out, questioner and respondent will always be "locked in dialogue", each acting on the other. Burgess et al., "Culture, Communication and the Information Problem". No matter how hard they try, pollsters and contingent valuation surveyors can't make themselves invisible as political actors, nor turn their questionnaires into "nonpolitical" arenas. Every interview is a step in the evolution of society's views. For a delightful debunking of the fantasy, shared by Hanemann and many other economists and sociologists, that interviewer influence can be eliminated, see Lewontin, R.C., "Sex, Lies and Social Science: An Exchange", New York Review of Books, 25 May 1995, pp.43-44. Lewontin has additional dispiriting news for the "objective" social science surveyor: people often do not even "tell themselves the truth about their own lives".

27 David Pearce and Dominic Moran, Letter to the Editor, New Scientist (1994).

28 Burgess et al., "Culture, Communication and the Information Problem". In this CBA shows similarities with public opinion polling, which has partly transformed what counts as "popular opinion" from a social process emerging from the give and take of crowds or communities of individuals in streets, coffeehouses and meeting-halls -- as it tended to be viewed in 18th-century England -- into an aggregation of yes-no or multiple-choice responses of well-mannered, isolated private individuals to prepared, standardized questions. See Susan Herbst, Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). See also Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans, by T. Burger and F. Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).

29 Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985). At the same time, Zelizer's work also suggests that money may be incapable of imposing the single metric that cost-benefit analysis would seem to require even on long-marketed goods. Because people tend to break money up into discrete, incommensurate categories (pin money, clothes money, education money), the analysts' question "Would you be willing to spend X dollars for Y?" can always be complicated by the counter-question "Which kind of dollars?" See Viviana Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Pay Checks, Poor Relief and Other Currencies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). For similarly complicating distinctions among preferences and wants, see Sagoff, Economy of the Earth and Harry G. Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp.11-25.

30 Margaret Jane Radin, Contested Commodities: The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts and Other Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p.102.

31 Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Cass R. Sunstein, "Incommensurability and Valuation in Law," Michigan Law Review 92, 779 (1994); Radin, Contested Commodities.

32 Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp.60-61.

33 Jacquelin Burgess, et al., "'I Struggled with this Money Business'".

34 Ibid.

35 Pearce, ed., Blueprint 2. In general, the more thoroughly contingent valuers attempt to adapt to criticisms, the less usable their techniques become for the purposes for which they were intended. For example, replacing the question "How much would you pay for X?" with the question "What should be done for X using tax money?" in contingent valuation surveys avoids the difficulties connected with the attempt to force respondents to consider X merely as a commodity of private interest, yet defeats the purpose of contingent valuation by effectively substituting for the entire CBA. See Michael Jacobs, "Valuation, Democracy and Decision-Making" in John Foster, ed., Valuing Nature? Economics, Ethics and Environment (London: Routledge, 1997), p.219.

36 Nature, 3 August 1995, New Scientist 19 August 1995, Samuel Fankhauser, Letter to the Editor, The Ecologist 25, 4 (1995), p.167. See also see also Mark Sagoff, "Should Preferences Count?", Land Economics 70,127 (1994).

37 Adams, J.G.U., "Cost-Benefit Analysis: Part of the Problem, Not the Solution" (Oxford: Green College, 1995).

38 Jean-Paul Barde and David W. Pearce, eds., Valuing the Environment (London: Earthscan, 1991), p.1.

39 World Bank, World Development Report 1992: Development and the Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

40 Common, Michael, Resource and Environmental Economics: An Introduction, London: Longman, 1988. Common has since changed his view, but his statement here still represents the opinion of a great many economists.

41 The Nation [Bangkok], 16 March 1988.

42 "She squirmed with impatience in my arms", the passage continues, perhaps unsurprisingly. James Buchan, Heart's Journey in Winter (London: Harvill, 1995).

43 Porter, Trust in Numbers, pp.86, 189, emphasis added.

44 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p.37.

45 See, for example, Elizabeth Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Rationality in Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); Arnold Isenberg, "Critical Communication", Philosophical Review 58, 4 (1949), pp.330-44; K. William Kapp, Social Costs of Private Enterprise (New York: Schocken, 1971 [1950]); Jean Lave, "The Values of Quantification" in John Law, ed., Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? (London: Routledge, 1986) and "The Savagery of the Domestic Mind" in Laura Nader, ed., Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power and Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp.87-100; I. M. D. Little, A Critique of Welfare Economics, Oxford, 1950; Joan Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); Richard Norgaard, Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future (London: Routledge, 1994); Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness and Love's Knowledge; O'Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics; Radin, Contested Commodities; Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Henry S. Richardson, Practical Reasoning about Final Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Sagoff, Nature's Economy (1988); Hamish Stewart, "A Critique of Instrumental Reason in Economics", Economics and Philosophy 11 (1995), pp.57-83; Sunstein, "Incommensurability and Valuation in Law"; David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).

46 See, e. g., Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth and Richardson, Practical Reasoning about Final Ends.

47 Jean Lave, "The Values of Quantification", p.97, and "The Savagery of the Domestic Mind," p.90.

48 David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth.

49 Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, p.61.

50 John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), p.6.

51 Self, Econocrats and the Policy Process, p. ix.

52 Quoted in John O'Neill, "In Partial Praise of a Positivist: The Work of Otto Neurath", Radical Philosophy 74, (1995), pp.29-38.

53 Michael Oakeshott, "Rational Conduct", in Rationalism in Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1962), pp.83, 89.

54 Charles E. Lindblom, "The Science of 'Muddling Through'", Public Administration Review (1959), pp.79-88.

55 Vijay Paranjpye, Evaluating the Tehri Dam (New Delhi: INTACH, 1988).

56 Mark Sagoff, "Economic Theory and Environmental Law", Michigan Law Review 79 (1981), p.1393. See also Jane B. Baron and Jeffrey L. Dunoff, "Against Market Rationality: Moral Critiques of Economic Analysis in Legal Theory," Cardozo Law Review 17 (1996), pp.431-96.

57 As John O'Neill notes, CBA figures placing a monetary value on biodiversity are both disbelieved and "unbelievable". It is merely that "it is part of the policy-making ritual to come up with financial figures". Such numbers are thus handicapped as "rhetorical devices in arguments with governments to persuade them to intervene in markets to protect environmental goods". "Managing without Prices: The Monetary Valuation of Biodiversity", Ambio 26, 8 (1997), p.550. O'Neill's view is confirmed by the skepticism with which many private corporations view CBA numbers when they do not accord with their interests. For example, faced with possible fines for "intangible" values lost as a result of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Exxon declined to be bewitched by the prospect that contingent valuation could attach definite monetary figures to the losses. Instead, the corporation sponsored a Washington conference attended by over 300 economists at which contingent valuation was attacked as "the dartboard of valuation techniques -- a dartboard with numbers so inflated they seriously skew the scoring". "'Ask a Silly Question... ': Contingent Valuation of Natural Resource Damages," Harvard Law Review 105 (1992) p.1990. As John Adams observes, "treasuries and big business are better equipped than most to notice when someone is speaking nonsense in their own language". "Cost-Benefit Analysis: Part of the Problem, Not the Solution", p.18.

58 O'Neill, J., "Managing without Prices", p.550.

59 Joan Martinez-Alier, Giuseppe Munda, and John O'Neill, "Weak Comparability of Values as a Foundation for Ecological Economics,", Ecological Economics 26 (1998), 277-286; Andrew Stirling, "Multi-Criteria Mapping: Mitigating the Problems of Environmental Valuation?" in Foster (ed.), Valuing Nature?, pp.186-210.

60 Jacobs, "Valuation, Democracy and Decision-Making", p.222.

61 Kristin Schrader-Frechette, Science Policy, Ethics and Economic Methodology (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985).

62 Jacobs, "Valuation, Democracy and Decision-Making," pp.224-25. Such deliberative institutions contrast sharply with CBA in that, among other things, they encourage arguments put in terms of public good, allow preferences to be changed, and encourage points of view being put from other perspectives than that of an individual in a marketplace.

63 I would like to thank Joan Martinez-Alier, Stephen Gudeman, Martin O'Connor, Carol Rose, James C. Scott, Thomas Summerhill and Robin Grove-White for references, and participants in the Yale University Program in Agrarian Studies colloquia in 1996-97 for valuable comments. Thanks are also due to the Program for financial support during 1996-97.

 

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