Blood, Kidneys, Hair, Life: This Is What Your Body Is Worth

Peter Scharf's film sets out to determine the material value of the human body around the world.

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Oct 22 2014, 9:00am

Filmmaker and researcher Peter Scharf giving blood. All Images: Press images from "Was bin ich wert?"

This post has been translated from Motherboard Germany.

But now you have a price tag on your back—that's the bad news.

Peter Scharf's film and research project, "Was Bin Ich Wert?" (How Much Am I Worth?), investigates how much a body is worth in terms of compensation from insurance companies, health coverage, and government compensation.

Oh, and the nice profit margin on a Moldavian kidney when it's implanted it in someone else.

All people aren't equal when it comes to calculating the value of a body, of course, even if it is just a pile of spare parts. The calculations are pretty complicated, and compensation often depends on someone's country of origin.

The film follows Jörn Klare's book of the same name. Scharf determines how much his body is worth, and measures its material worth against other people's. Even if Scharf ended up getting a good deal as a Western European, this project generally won't make the average person feel good about themselves.

• Upbringing

Raising a kid in Germany today costs an average of 120,000 euros; 160,000 euros if they get a higher education. This figure is a bit higher in the US, where the cost of raising a child is pegged at \$245,340. Economically, however, these aren't necessarily "costs." You can write off the sum as an "investment."

• Material value

If you wanted to buy the materials that your body is made of in a pharmacy, all the amusement would only amount to around \$1,900. The most expensive component is the 20 percent carbon. Thirty pounds of carbon is going to run you at least \$1,000.

Tim Steiner from Switzerland has sold his back to an artist. For his lifetime and beyond. Image: "Was bin ich wert?"

The wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia. \$14,000 compensation for a lifelong trauma?

• What your organs will fetch

There isn't really a free market for dealing organs. And since many people don't give them away willingly, the prices can be somewhat distorted. But Peter Scharf was able to meet three men in a Moldavian village while making his film who each got about \$2,292 for their kidneys.

Unfortunately, the three men didn't bargain for the price, because they weren't even asked beforehand whether they'd like to sell their kidneys. It started with the prospect of finding jobs in Turkey. There, their passports were taken. They ended up on an operating table next to a happy transplant receiver.

In total, Scharf estimates all your organs would be worth around \$2.1 million.

• What it would cost to get you new organs:

Here we go again, dealing with really shady markets. An illegally transplanted organ will cost you between \$80,000 and \$200,000. Of course, most of that ends up with the fixers who arrange the deal.

Unfortunately, you won't get a guarantee that your body will accept the organ. And organ dealers aren't really the kind of folks you want to discuss reimbursement with.

Compensation is based on the notion that a dead person is destroyed capital. Here are a few examples from Scharf's film: After 9/11, the American government paid out around \$5.5 billion to victims and survivors of the attacks.

They didn't give the same amount to each of those left behind, of course, because people aren't all worth the same amount. So the relatives of a banker got around \$5.5 million and a dishwasher's family only got \$197,000, 'cause the banker would have earned more money over the rest of their life. That was Kenneth Feinberg's argument, at least; he was the one who distributed the money for the American government.

By the way, the average compensation for people who died in the train accident in Eschede, Germany in 1998 was around \$19,101. During the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, the survivors were paid a mere \$1,273 in compensation.

Hair dealing in Ukraine: \$76 for 100 grams of hair.

• How much it may cost to keep you alive

In principle, German health insurance companies are prepared to give out as much money as is needed to preserve your life. So in hospitals they do what they can and send the bill to the insurance companies later. According to Peter Scharf, sometimes old people are discouraged from certain surgeries, because it would be too "expens… ughh, dangerous."

To be blunt, the British healthcare system assumes that a healthy year in a person's life is worth between \$31,792 and \$47,054. But if you have a limited lifespan anyways, due to an HIV infection for example, then the costly surgery on your left knee isn't really worth it anymore. You get that, right?

• What you yourself think you're worth

Estimating how much your life is worth isn't that easy. For you, your life should be near priceless. But you can't do calculations with infinity. So the American economist Kip Viscusi thought of a simple way around it. Imagine you're sitting in a football stadium with 10,000 people. One of you will be randomly selected and killed. How much would you pay to make sure you aren't chosen? Remember, the chance that you'll be chosen is only 1 in 10,000.

Victims of illegal organ transplantations after an operation.

Let's say you think, "Okay, I'd pay \$1,200." We'll take this number and use it for the rest of the people in the stadium, who probably said something similar. In the end, everyone together would pay \$12 million (\$1,200 x 10,000) not to be chosen.

This calculation is called Kip Viscusi's Value of Statistical Life, and is used when, for example, transportation ministries are considering whether it's worth it to build a traffic light at a dangerous intersection. Since poor people have less money for minimizing risk, it's quite possible that a traffic light in the Bronx isn't worth it, but the one at an intersection in Westchester gets built.

•   How can I spontaneously turn my body into a source of money?

The easiest way is by selling your blood. For giving blood a maximum of six times a year (\$25 each) and giving plasma 39 times (\$19 each), you'll get \$891.

After watching Peter Scharf's film to its heartening end, I contacted the director with a few questions about his mammoth mathematic calculations.

Motherboard: Aside from all the calculations, what's the point of your film?

Peter Scharf: The dark core of it is that humans are continuously being calculated in more and more systems. Someone can just decide in healthcare systems when you're over cost. It was simplest to use economic value when calculating the 9/11 compensations. However, using these economic theories in all parts of society is what was shocking and threatening, and therefore, it's what should also be questioned.

What's the worst case scenario if we don't question this tendency?

That we as people become part of a giant cost-benefit analysis. For example, why do we have four years of high school instead of five? Not because it's better for the kids. It's because a kid that only has four years of high school is more cost-effective than a kid who's in high school for five years. The school saves 1/5 of the costs and a person goes into the job market one year earlier. It's about raw figures.