Reducing the Discount Rate

The Environmental Forum, Vol. 29, No. 6, pp. 24-29 (November/December 2012)

University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-32

8 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2012

See all articles by Ben Trachtenberg

Ben Trachtenberg

University of Missouri School of Law

Date Written: November 19, 2012


Underregulation kills. When a sensible and effective rule is proposed but then not implemented, society loses whatever benefits the regulation would have provided. When those benefits take the form of saved lives — if, for example, the rule would have kept a carcinogen out of the workplace — failing to enact and enforce a regulation means people die. Unfortunately, federal agencies in the United States systematically undercount the benefits of rulemaking, causing regulators to forsake the implementation of lifesaving measures that would have been enacted were benefits estimated more accurately. The result is American lives lost, every year.

This article presents two arguments against the “discounting” of future human lives as part of cost benefit analysis, or CBA. Our first argument is that because CBA has thus far ignored evidence of rising health care expenditures, it underestimates the “willingness to pay” for health and safety that future citizens will likely exhibit, thereby undervaluing their lives. Our second argument is that until recently CBA has ignored the trend of improved material conditions in developed countries, and most agencies continue to ignore it entirely. As time advances, residents of rich countries tend to live better and spend more, meaning that a strict economic evaluation of future lives would discount the relatively impoverished lives of present citizens compared to the projected luxurious and healthy existence of our expected descendents, just the opposite of what happens in agency practice.

Keywords: discount rate, cost benefit analysis, CBA, discounting, human lives, regulation, underregulation, agencies, future benefits

Suggested Citation

Trachtenberg, Ben, Reducing the Discount Rate (November 19, 2012). The Environmental Forum, Vol. 29, No. 6, pp. 24-29 (November/December 2012), University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-32, Available at SSRN:

Ben Trachtenberg (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO MO 65211
United States

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