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Valuing Life

Humanizing the Regulatory State

The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is the United States’s regulatory overseer. In Valuing Life, Cass R. Sunstein draws on his firsthand experience as the Administrator of OIRA from 2009 to 2012 to argue that we can humanize regulation—and save lives in the process.

As OIRA Administrator, Sunstein helped oversee regulation in a broad variety of areas, including highway safety, health care, homeland security, immigration, energy, environmental protection, and education. This background allows him to describe OIRA and how it works—and how it can work better—from an on-the-ground perspective. Using real-world examples, many of them drawn from today’s headlines, Sunstein makes a compelling case for improving cost-benefit analysis, a longtime cornerstone of regulatory decision-making, and for taking account of variables that are hard to quantify, such as dignity and personal privacy. He also shows how regulatory decisions about health, safety, and life itself can benefit from taking into account behavioral and psychological research, including new findings about what scares us, and what does not. By better accounting for people’s fallibility, Sunstein argues, we can create regulation that is simultaneously more human and more likely to achieve its goals.

In this highly readable synthesis of insights from law, policy, economics, and psychology, Sunstein breaks down the intricacies of the regulatory system and offers a new way of thinking about regulation that incorporates human dignity– and an insistent focus on the consequences of our choices.

240 pages | 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Economics and Business: Economics--Government Finance

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Economics, Law and Society

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Public Policy


“There are many economists, philosophers, and legal scholars who write about the value of human life and how to incorporate it into policy, but few of them have actually put this into practice in a government position. The most prominent scholar to do so is Cass Sunstein, whose latest book, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State, provides an invaluable perspective from someone who has experience in both the academic and policy realms. . . . In Valuing Life, Sunstein surveys a wide range of practical research and real-life policymaking in his characteristically lucid style, offering a candid and humble account of his administrative tenure in Washington. He performs an invaluable service in revealing how government regulators balance pragmatic concerns of resource scarcity with principled ideals of respect and dignity.”

London School of Economics Review of Books

“Sunstein, who served as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) from 2009 to 2012, argues that government must always consider the impact of proposed regulation on human life. Sunstein describes how the OIRA actually works, explains the role of break-even analyses in government regulation, and explores how the government might account for risk to nonquantifiable goods, such as privacy. . . . overall this is a lucid book that sheds light on how the government reasons, and how it ought to reason, about the regulations that shape our everyday lives.”

Publishers Weekly

“As an accessible introduction to regulation, the book benefits from Sunstein’s recent and significant experience, and his vision for new directions in public policy.”

Library Journal

“Written with clarity and elegance, this book explains how White House oversight of the federal regulatory state is conducted—both the procedures and the analytics.  It is a must read for academics and practitioners interested in improving the quality of federal regulation.”

John D. Graham, Indiana University and former Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OMB

“An immensely insightful look at one of the least understood and most influential agencies in the government and the complex factors that it considers in helping to determine what is and isn’t subject to government regulation. “

Carol Browner, distinguished senior fellow, Center for American Progress

“What happens when the world’s leading academic expert on regulation is plunked into the real world of government? Sunstein is that expert, and he was the regulatory boss of the US government from 2009 to 2012. Valuing Life describes both how Sunstein’s ideas about regulation influenced his tenure in government, and how his experiences in government have influenced his ideas about regulation. This immensely rewarding book, written in the humane, beautiful style that Sunstein is known for, should be read by everyone who cares about how our government works.”

Eric Posner, University of Chicago

“Sunstein draws on his experience as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to analyze the standards used for government regulations. . . . He provides both clear explanations and concrete examples of how the behavioral orientation in economics can contribute to the world of cost/benefit policy formulation. Recommended.”


“It begins with an “insider” account of Sunstein’s time in the White House. Rather than a memoiristic tale about the personalities of the Obama administration, however, Sunstein focuses almost entirely on the OIRA’s day-to-day operations, laying out exactly how the office comes to approve regulations. He clearly invests government regulation with a great deal of importance, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call him passionate, he is certainly convinced that bureaucracy can do real good, specifically in the context of the regulatory state.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

Table of Contents

Franklin’s Algebra

Inside Government

Human Consequences, or The Real World of Cost-Benefit Analysis

Dignity, Financial Meltdown, and Other Nonquantifiable Things

Valuing Life, 1: Problems

Valuing Life, 2: Solutions

The Morality of Risk

What Scares Us

Four Ways to Humanize the Regulatory State

Executive Order 13563 of January 18, 2011

The Social Cost of Carbon

Estimated Benefi ts and Costs of Selected Federal Regulations

Selected Examples of Breakeven Analysis

Values for Mortality and Morbidity

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