''To me, benefit-cost analysis is analytical common sense,'' said Paul R. Portney, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an environmental research group. ''The idea is that we don't have the resources to do everything. So we have to choose carefully.''
Mr. Portney said critics who said that cost-benefit analysis would always lead to the curtailment of regulation were mistaken. In many cases such analysis might show the need for stricter regulation, he asserted.
As an example, he said that cost-benefit analysis of the clean air standards would likely show that the rules for auto emissions were unnecessarily stringent to protect human health but those for stationary sources of pollution, such as factories and power plants, were not strict enough.
But he warned that cost-benefit analysis could not simply be a ''mechanistic'' exercise of adding up the numbers and making a decision. ''Qualitative'' factors must also be considered, he said.
Lester Lave, an economist at the Brookings Institution, said that cost-benefit analysis ''is a delightful tool for economists because it is complete, flexible and allows you to look at everything.''
But when the question of society's values enters the equation, the considerations often become political, he noted. The problem with the President's order, he asserted, is that it says ''you shall choose the alternative with the most social benefits.''
''Well, anyone who has ever dealt with cost-benefit analysis knows there is never a unique alternative,'' he said, adding that it is better to talk of ''trade-offs'' between social benefits and costs without attempting to be too specific.
Here is another.