Suzanne Fields

"What's a granny worth?" The question, if not necessarily granny, is worth a free lunch on Washington, so the house was packed for a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute. The organizers not only ran out of seats, but out of knives and forks at the buffet table as well as copies of the institute's white papers (the lifeblood of Washington wonkery).

"You can read them on our Web site," I was told ( I did, and others should, too, but if you're not familiar with the arcane vocabulary of think-tank economics, they're difficult. "Little Red Riding Hood" this is not.

The question, however, is important for lots of reasons. It tells us a lot about how Washington works, how politics plays into decisions, the way the bean counters influence information and the way special interest groups spin - and distort - information.

An estimate of Granny's worth is important to policy-makers in a cost-benefit analysis of the "Clear Skies," or clean-air, legislation. The "worth" of someone over 70 was reckoned by somebody in the government to be $2.3 million, compared to $3.7 million for someone younger than that. This demonstrates the effects of inflation, I suppose, since someone in Tin Pan Alley once found his million-dollar baby in the five-and-ten cent store, but the government's estimate was anything but music to the ears of organized Americans of 70.

Seniors labeled the estimates the "senior death discount" and environmental groups joined them in decrying the financial formula. The environmentalists were less interested in valuing granny than in fighting "polluters." Less value ascribed to the elderly lowered the estimated cost "benefits" accrued from clean air. The environmentalists printed up leaflets accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of valuing seniors as "worth 3/5 of a Person" - "Senior Discount - 37 Percent Off."

Christie Whitman, administrator of the EPA, saw a public-relations debacle inherent in the spin, and scooted away from it: The EPA had never reviewed it; it came from the White House Office of Management and Budget, and probably over the transom. The spinning was a shame, because the issue is something most of us don't understand and ought to learn more about. A lucid discussion over how the men in green visors who influence specific legislation get their numbers would be very useful.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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