AMHERST, MASS. — "How do you measure a life?" Jonathan Larson, the author of the musical "Rent," answered his own question: "Measure in love." Ken Feinberg, the special master of the Sept. 11 Victims' Compensation Fund, has a different formula. It's based on last year's tax return.
Mr. Feinberg, who will have final say on each compensation package, has enshrined the massive gaps in income and wealth that characterize America in the 21st century. Under his guidelines, the families of each survivor will receive $250,000 for pain and suffering, plus $50,000 per child, plus an amount based on the victim's age and income.
So if you were a single, 65-year-old service worker earning $10,000 a year, your family gets $300,000. The young, rising-star bond trader, who leaves a wife and two children and was earning $175,000 a year, gets $4.35 million.
No amount is likely to comfort the families. But our problem is not the figures; it's the fact that each victim's worth is tied to income. The fund is based on a market model. Each person's standing is determined by his or her ability to compete in the marketplace. Those with greater incomes are not only worth more, but will probably become more valuable over time. In the competition for compensation dollars, lives that were already unequal become much more so after death.
Wealth is not the only inequality perpetuated by Feinberg's algorithm. Some families are more valuable than others. The largest settlements go to married victims with children. Ostensibly, their families need the cash most. But who is Feinberg to determine which life is most worthy? What about the single person whose elderly parents lived with her and depended on her wages? The woman whose disabled husband had thousands of dollars of hospital bills? The window washer whose salary was sent back to Honduras to support half a village?
Insurance companies use similar models, with similarly inequitable results. But this is not an insurance settlement or a legal award; the fund is taxpayers' money. And many taxpayers do not agree that a young, well-off bond trader deserves $4 million more than an older worker. Especially in New York, the home of opportunity, it is wrong to predict a person's value based on one point in time. The fund speaks of calculating "income potential." What about the temp at Cantor Fitzgerald who was about to make a brilliant suggestion to her boss? What about the waiter who was studying for law school? The fund assumes, once a janitor, always a janitor; once a bond trader, always a bond trader. And your family should stay that way.
We propose compensation based on a political model rather than a market model. Sept. 11 represented a political attack. The victims were not only wage-earners, but also members of our community. Our government will compensate them in part because they were unwitting soldiers in the struggle against terrorism. Our political system demands a different calculus. Democracy declares that all people are equal. The fund has enough to pay $1.6 million to each family. Based on a democratic model - the ideal represented by the flags flying everywhere - we propose a solution as radical as democracy itself: All lives are precious. All victims deserve equal compensation.
Eve Weinbaum is assistant professor of labor studies and Max Page is assistant professor of architecture and history, both at the University of Massachusetts. Ms. Weinbaum is the author of 'With Economic Justice for None' (The New Press, 2002). Mr. Page is the author of 'The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940' (University of Chicago Press, 1999).