This week Slate columnist Matt Yglesias became the latest in a long list of commentators, analysts, and politicians to be seduced by the alluring notion that you can quantify, measure and model the value of a human life in intellectually stimulating, value-free, and career-advancing ways.
This false technocratic gloss is all the rage nowadays: in corporate boardrooms and academic halls, on the pages of the commentariat and in the corridors of power.But life isn’t algebra. Let “x be x” long enough and one day you’ll find that the factor being removed from the equation is you.
I know. I’ve been there.
Blinded By Science
It’s a platitude: Every human life is precious. But there are tables, spreadsheets, and models based on the opposite belief, that human lives have variable and quantifiable value. I’ve worked with those tools. The effort can be exciting – and blinding.
Yglesias stirred up some justified outrage this week when, in writing about the building collapse in Bangladesh which killed more than 300 workers, he said that “it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different — and, indeed, lower — workplace safety standards than the United States.” To be fair to Yglesias, the death toll in Bangladesh hadn’t yet topped 300 when he wrote those words. (It was only 240 or so at the time.)
Yglesias rejected calls to develop a “unified global standard for safety,” saying that “in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum” – as if starving or not starving is a “choice,” or the “enrichment” he describes comes to any but the few and powerful.
“Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States,” notes Yglesias helpfully, “and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans.”
Yglesias wasn’t being evil, just stupid and narcissistically self-involved. What’s important is the way he did it, with that increasingly familiar false neutrality of the person who simply “explores ideas.” Then he wrote a “kinda/sorta” apology in which he said he was angry at how his piece had been received, but acknowledged he must have “miswritten” it.
“Miswritten” is a neologism which presumably means “What I wrote is wrong.” But Yglesias doesn’t actually say that. To me it looked like he was saying “Sorry for my bad timing.” And, “I think Bangladeshi life is cheaper than ours, but not necessarily that much cheaper.”
I’m not piling on Yglesias, a job which has been ably done by others. I’m making a different point: Ideas matter. Words matter. And, unfashionable as it has become to acknowledge this among our technocratic class, values and emotions matter too.
What might Mr. Yglesias have written if he had been alive in 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 garment workers? Most of the dead were women – hardly more than children, many of them – between the ages of 16 and 23. The youngest was 14 years old. Most of them were Jewish or Italian by background, making them the contemporaries of my own grandparents and those of many Slate readers.
Would a 1911 Yglesias have explained that “the Lower East Side is a lot poorer than the rest of the country” and added that “there are very good reasons for Jewish and Italian immigrants to make choices” others wouldn’t make? That’s not a cheap shot. It’s a precise analog for his comments.
Fortunately, we chose to uplift and protect ourselves as one people instead, and our economy prospered for nearly a century. Apparently empathy is an economically sound emotion.
My grandfather, an immigrant tailor who helped unionize his fellow garment workers, would be pleased to hear that.
What is the sound of one town dying?
Imagine what the coverage would have been like if Islamic terrorists had bombed the little town of West, Texas. Amy Goodman captured the scene of that tragedy powerfully:
A mushroom cloud climbed high into the sky. The explosion registered 2.1 on the Richter scale, the same as a small earthquake.
But terrorists didn’t blow that town up. The negligent and greedy pursuit of profits did. Read the next sentence in Goodman’s description and picture the nation’s reaction if terrorists had been behind it.
911 calls flooded in, with people reporting a bomb, many injured and others engulfed in a toxic cloud. Sixty to 80 houses were leveled.
Imagine the coverage. That’s the coverage we didn’t get from a business-created, rather than terrorist-created, horror show.
Greg Mitchell has an excellent write-up on the criminal aspects of the Texas explosion, whose death toll climbed to 15 today. So does Mike Elk. Both of them note the untold stories of apparent criminality behind the Texas tragedy.
But the stories which were most conspicuously absent from most media reports were those of the victims. Let’s take a moment to rectify that now, thanks to an unusually sensitive writeup in USA Today. There isn’t room for all of them, so we’ll mention a few and keep the others in our hearts.
There was 52-year-old Jimmy Matus, a sales manager. 29-year-old Joey Pustejovsky, a volunteer firefighter. Farmer Perry Calvin, whose children were 9 and 2. 65-year-old Judith Ann Monroe, who loved spending time with her grandchilden and doing crossword puzzles.And volunteer firefighter Morris Bridges.
We’re told that on the morning he died, Bridges “picked up his 2-year-old son, Jaimeson, said ‘Daddy loves you,’ and kissed him goodbye.”
Put that in a spreadsheet.
What’s the sound of one politician whitewashing death …
Gov. Rick Perry argued that Texas and the Federal government did just fine when it comes to the West fertilizer plant, adding that “through their elected officials (voters) clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.”
I don’t remember a time when candidate Perry said “You know, if you go with our deregulation philosophy, once in a while a whole lot of innocent people will die horrible deaths while a few dozen nearby houses explode.”
And I sure don’t remember the part where the people of Texas said “Well, we’re comfortable with that.”
… and another one blaming the victims?
Meanwhile the Guardian reports that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasana, falsely claimed that the building had been successfully evacuated but that some people died after “they went back in to get their things.” They sacrificed themselves for their wallets and keys, he was saying.
Then his Home Minister suggested that the building’s collapse was caused by striking workers who “pushed at its gates and columns” too hard, as if its walls had fallen to the raging Samsons of Labor.
The Guardian also reports that the building’s owner, a local politician who belonged to the Prime Minister’s political party, “is accused of exploiting his political influence to flout planning regulations.” He had reportedly been warned of the danger many times. Sounds a little like Texas, doesn’t it? And all the victims were garment workers, just like those in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
There’s an old saying. Sometimes it’s heartwarming and sometimes it’s not, but either way it’s true: Folks are the same the world over.
Lonely in Washington
The technocratic impulse says that human loss can be weighed against concepts of abstracted “freedom” and “wealth,” without considering the distribution of either among the general populace.
Death is the ultimate discarding of human life. But lives are also discarded through long-term unemployment, which has shattered the Rust Belt. There are as many as 70,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit alone. Other industrial cities, including my home town of Utica, New York, are scarred with collapsing factories and abandoned, crumbling houses that look like sets from a post-apocalyptic movie. One of them is the house where I was born.
Long-term unemployment is ruining the lives of an estimated 4.6 million Americans while harming their families, friends, and communities.
They held a hearing in Washington this week on long-term unemployment, and we now know how many elected officials showed up: One.
The rest must have been eating free hors d’ouevres at a Pete Peterson-funded event, while”Fix the Debt” CEOs explained that the deficit is our most urgent problem. That crowd’s been having a little spreadsheet problem of its own, a problem which illustrates the limits of the technocratic dream: Models and spreadsheets can be fixed as easily as horse races, and they can be as flawed as the human beings who create them.
Early in my corporate career I learned about what in the sexist jargon of the late 1980s and early 1990s was called a “Key Man” policy. My employer took one out on me.I couldn’t fly on the same airplane as other “Key Man” insureds, because it would be too expensive to lose more than one of us in the same crash.
If they haven’t taken a “Key Person” policy out on you,then trust me: You don’t figure into their algebra. That’s why we have laws and regulations.
There are no value-free social equations. There are only people – people with goals, agendas, personalities, and drives. Some of them are powerful people who don’t care about workers in Texas or Bangladesh or New York City. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about me, and they don’t care about Matt Yglesias. You’re useful until you’re not, and that’s it.
Math is useful too, as long as you remember that it’s a tool and not a value.
I was flattered about that “Key Man” policy, until I thought about it years later. My death might have caused them some inconvenience and a little bit of money, and that was a problem. They solved it. Then my death wasn’t as much of a concern.
It wasn’t personal, of course. It never is.
Punishment and Reward
I didn’t link to Yglesias’ Bangladesh piece, and I don’t plan to. We’re all economic actors, as economists like to say. Outrage over a piece like his turns into links. That turns into traffic, which turns into more compensation or career opportunity. We need to stop rewarding bad behavior.
That goes for Rick Perry and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, too. And we should make it really unrewarding to harm or kill workers – by putting the executives who knowingly do so in jail. Public outrage finally forced the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to issue arrest warrants for the owner of that collapsed building.
Will we ever see arrest warrants in West, Texas? Or for the criminal acts on Walk Street which contributed so heavily to our long-term unemployment problem? There’s one thing the numbers point to with certainty: If they’re not stopped, we’ll have more human catastrophes.
What’s the sound of one planet being distracted?
This morning a Google search on “West Texas explosion” yielded 252 million hits, “Bangladesh building collapse” delivered 550 million. “Boston Marathon bombings” yielded more than 2.4 billion hits. That doesn’t mean the world thinks a Boston life is worth 47 times as much as a Texas one, or 440 times as much as a Bangladeshi’s. But it does mean that some forms of tragic death are less fascinating then others, or get less media coverage for ideological reasons. (The myth of media objectivity is another technocratic delusion.)
The mass killings of innocent workers? Why, it’s almost as if we consider them routine. They are routine, and they’ll stay that way until we stop treating real people as if they were inputs for someone’s simplistic mathematical model. They’ll be routine until we learn the real lesson, one which is clear and jargon-free and can be understood without any math at all:
When one life is cheapened, every life is cheapened.
There are no exceptions to this rule. It applies to everyone, everywhere, sooner or later, including you and me.
It’s best to learn this lesson before you waste your own life pursuing technocratic fantasies or math-driven delusions of objective analytical grandeur. It’s best to learn it before you have some serious amends to make. It’s best to learn it before it’s too late.
I know. I’ve been there.