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Mr. Bottom Line
Page 2

Graham was born in Pittsburgh on October 3, 1956, third of the four children of Irene and Thomas Carlisle Graham. Thomas had gotten his start in the steel industry as a draftsman with Jones & Laughlin. By the time John was graduating from high school, Thomas had become CEO of the company. Later, he moved on to bigger firms, such as U.S. Steel. He was profiled by the New York Times in 1995 as a contentious figure who had a "ferocious insistence on lifting productivity" and so much enthusiasm for cutting costs and slashing jobs that his nickname was "the smiling barracuda."

John Graham says that when he was growing up, "business was the talk of our household." His father held strong views on business issues. The elder Graham complained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1977 about "the enormous cost burden placed on the industry by the environmental program. The American steel industry is in serious danger of being jawboned, regulated, and legislated nearly to the point of oblivion."

John's brother followed their father into the steel industry. His two sisters are businesswomen. But John denies that his father's passion for business productivity had a major impact on his own career. He says that his interest is in health and environment, and his mother, "the health guardian of our family," was more influential. But he adds that what led him to public policy was debate, with its intense focus on national policy decisions. He started in high school and kept at it through college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. (He met his future wife, Susan Woerner, on the debate team there. She is now a certified financial planner. The couple has two college-age daughters.)

"I knew in six seconds [Graham] had been a debater," says Robert Blendon, a Harvard colleague, by "the way he framed his arguments and got his points across in four minutes." Graham also has the debater's competitive zeal and coolness under fire. One of his college opponents, Frank Cross, still remembers a debate of twenty-five years ago. Cross had just learned about a recent death involving the drug whose risks they were debating, and he figured the brand-new information would blindside Graham's team. He was right. But Graham didn't give up. He told his partner to dump his now-useless opening speech, and while the hapless partner used up his allotted eight minutes humming melodies, Graham himself worked furiously on a new rebuttal. Graham's team still lost. But, says Cross, now a University of Texas law professor, "the point of the story is that John Graham is a creative thinker who is not constrained by convention."

Graham's senior honors paper at Wake Forest was a cost-benefit analysis of the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Next came a master's degree at Duke, with a thesis on the societal value of human life. In risk analysis, Graham had found the perfect outlet for his tremendous intellect and quantitative skills. (Counting up risks is so much a part of John Graham that his golf partners never need to write down their scores. He keeps everyone's scores in his head.) From graduate school on, Graham's productivity was astounding. He often publishes an article a month, either academic or popular, for months on end.

Graham earned a Ph.D. in urban and public affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His dissertation on driver-side airbags is probably the most prominent study in which he comes down on the side of more public safety regulation. In 1983, the Supreme Court cited his research in a decision backing the federal airbag requirement. A Supreme Court mention is an incredible coup for a graduate student, and I asked Graham how he felt when he heard about it. But when Graham talks about his achievements, it's rarely in personal terms; rather, it's in terms of what they mean for the methodology to which he's devoted his life. His face lit up at the memory, and he said, "That was a clear case of victory for this kind of analysis."

Graham joined the Harvard faculty in 1985 as an assistant professor of policy and decision sciences. In 1988, three years ahead of the university norm, he was granted tenure.

During his sixteen years at Harvard, John Graham and controversy became well acquainted. In studies, articles, and books, he questioned the way government regulated a host of pollutants, including arsenic, dioxin, nuclear materials, PCBs, pesticides, benzene, and chlorine. In Graham's signature study at Harvard, "Five Hundred Life-Saving Interventions and Their Cost-Effectiveness," he and his doctoral student Tammy O. Tengs calculated that existing health and environment rules cause the "statistical murder" of 60,000 people every year by squandering resources. One example: "We regulate potentially carcinogenic benzene emissions during waste operations at a cost of $19 million per year of life saved, while 70 percent of women over the age of fifty do not receive regular mammograms, an intervention that costs roughly $17,000 per year of life saved."

Critics replied that just because more people should have mammograms doesn't mean other people should have less protection from benzene. Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown University law professor, wondered why Graham and Tengs didn't ask "whether the combined billions spent in this country on soft drinks, fad diets, leaf blowers, riding lawn mowers, and cable television might be better spent on Nicorette gum and the nicotine patch." NRDC's Linda Greer, a Ph.D. environmental toxicologist, asks, "If you have breast cancer, does that mean you shouldn't look both ways before crossing the street? Society doesn't have to triage so drastically that we can only care about the top three risks and nothing else." Yet Graham regularly cites the figure of 60,000 statistical deaths. His constant theme is that programs like Superfund waste money because measures like smoke detectors are more cost-effective.

Most controversial of all was the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which Graham founded in 1989. Under Graham as director, up to 60 percent of the center's budget came from corporations, including Dow Chemical, Exxon, General Electric, Monsanto, and Union Carbide. The center has produced hundreds of diverse publications, including articles on daily dialysis for kidney patients and public attitudes about Alzheimer's. But some of its work under Graham seemed tailored to the lobbying needs of funders. A study paid for by the American Farm Bureau Federation, for instance, said that eliminating the most toxic pesticides could disrupt the food supply and lead to 1,000 premature deaths. (The idea that Americans would die of malnutrition from lack of pest control, wrote three scientists at Consumers Union, was "not remotely credible.") And when Graham wrote the Philip Morris tobacco company in 1991 to ask for annual funding of $25,000, he mentioned the center's "major projects underway in carcinogen classification" and added, "It is important for me to learn more about the risk-related challenges that you face."

Is keeping arsenic out of drinking water worth the expense? What's the value of Superfund? These are valid questions. The nation can't spend unlimited amounts of money to keep everyone safe. Government is obliged to set priorities. But cost-benefit analysis isn't the only way to set them. Congress has written specific goals into many environmental laws -- some based on cost, some on other values. The Food Quality Protection Act permits any given pesticide to cause one case of cancer per million people. Some parts of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts call for "reasonably available" technology or "best practices" -- requiring polluters to install the best pollution control methods already in common use. Even when the law ignores cost, EPA sometimes works it in. The section of the Clean Water Act that applies to fish kills at power plants calls for the "best technology available." Says Super of Riverkeeper, "For thirty years, that's been taken to mean that you use the best technology available if the costs are not wholly disproportionate to the benefits. We aren't going to spend a million dollars to save two fish."

EPA has been adding up the dollar costs of its rules for decades. Graham insists on pricing out benefits, as well, and elevating the results to new importance. Frank Ackerman, a Harvard-trained economist and Tufts professor, says cost-benefit analysis is biased by nature. "The process of reducing life, health, and the natural world to monetary values is inherently flawed," he and Heinzerling wrote in a booklet called Pricing the Priceless. He adds, "The idea of assigning a price to human life is very troubling, morally and ethically. Human life is the ultimate example of a value that is not a commodity and does not have a price."

There is also the question of, well, risk. Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, says you can't take the risk out of risky things by reducing it to percentages and probabilities. No one can say for sure whether dioxin will do profound damage to future generations; even if your best guess is 10 percent, the risk is not zero. "Many of these things we're talking about have unknown probabilities," he says. "They're uncertain in a pure sense. If there's something that has unknown potential probabilities and enormous potential consequences, then we should be pretty careful. That's called the precautionary approach, and it has governed environmental decisionmaking for decades."

Ackerman asks, "Which is more troubling: If you overestimate the dangers of a health risk and overspend to prevent it? Or if you allow an extremely hazardous pollutant to spread throughout the environment? Graham has thrown precaution out the window."

NRDC on the Bush administration



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This article was made possible by NRDC's Josephine Patterson Albright Fund.

Photo: Scott J. Ferrell

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council