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Putting a Price on Life 

Putting a Price on Life 

In his new book, Howard S. Friedman spotlights unfair metrics that lead to unequal treatment. 

Each day, the physicians, nurses, technicians and support personnel of Johns Hopkins Medicine strive to save the lives of patients, believing — as do all in medicine —that every human life is priceless. 

But real life can get in the way. 

As renowned statistician and health economist Howard S. Friedman ’99 (Ph.D., biomedical engineering; MS, ’98, applied statistics) powerfully demonstrates in his latest book, insurance companies, judges, government and private industry use a variety — and often unfair set — of metrics to assess what an individual’s life is worth. 

“These price tags often value the lives of the young more than the old, the rich more than the poor, whites more than blacks, Americans more than foreigners, and relatives more than strangers,” Friedman writes in Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life. “Despite the fact that these price tags are flawed and illogical, they are regularly employed, with substantial, real-world implications.” 

Having spent an earlier part of his career as a lead statistician in the private sector, including as a founder of his own data consulting firm, Friedman joined the United Nations Population Fund in 2007 and has served as its chief statistical modeler on a number of key UN projects. He also is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and its Data Science Institute.  

He has written about 100 scientific articles on applied statistics, health economics and public health, as well as textbooks on applied data science. Also an exceptional painter, Friedman published a book, Angels and Stardust (1995), featuring his poems and artworks. 

In an earlier book, Measure of a Nation (2012), Friedman dealt with America’s failure to improve its performance in health care, education and other areas by comparing our record in these fields to those of 13 other industrialized nations. 

He hopes that Ultimate Price, written for a lay audience, will anger — and energize —its readers to seek more equitable methods for accurately assessing a person’s worth.  

“The public can act, especially in situations where they identify inequality, when something does not seem fair,” Friedman said in an interview earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic made the disparity in the nation’s valuation of human life “crystal clear.” 

He says, “We have a long history of showing that mass mobilization can generate response.”  

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