Placing a Value on Life

Alan Zendell, July 8, 2020

Long ago and far away, as a young aerospace engineer, I was fortunate to have an older, wiser mentor. In 1966, June was incredibly hot on Long Island. Our nearly windowless building was stifling, the air so lacking in ventilation that some people slumped over their desks, unable to stay awake, and that was before the air conditioning failed. Three days later, with the outside temperature north of 95 and the A/C still nonfunctional, my mentor heard me muttering about why the company hadn’t fixed it. He led me outside into the hot smog, which was more breathable than the air in the building, and said, “You really don’t know?”

He explained that it was a game, part of the business model that allowed a modern mega-corporation to stay solvent. Back then, the U. S. Government contracted large projects like ours (the Apollo Moon missions) by awarding several billion dollars to a prime contractor that subcontracted most of the work. The drawback of that model was that to win the prime contract a company had to have a couple thousand “warm bodies” sitting around, available to hit the ground running. That caused enormous headaches for overhead conscious companies; the cost could bankrupt them.

My company, Grumman Aerospace (now part of Northrup Grumman) had a proud tradition of never having had a major layoff, even during the depths of the Depression. They preferred to manage the size of their workforce by giving employees “incentives.” Thus, the failure to repair the A/C in the midst of a blistering heat spell. If employees became uncomfortable enough, they’d quit on their own, until their numbers reached a supportable level. Grumman considered that less cynical than wholesale layoffs of thousands of professional engineers and tradespeople, but the principle was the same. Management believed the survival of the company was paramount, and everyone would benefit over the long run, even if the cost was a degree of human misery.

Over the ensuing fifty-four years, I’ve grasped the universality of that idea. Every large organization, be it a business or government entity functions that way. Fast forward to today and the ongoing struggle between people who believe we have to re-open our economy before it is irreparably harmed and those whose highest priority is minimizing deaths and long-term complications for people who contract COVID-19.

On its face, the debate is legitimate. Neither side is completely right or wrong. Even if our principal concern was reducing misery and death, we don’t know enough about the virus to know which approach will work best over time. Even if our nation’s leadership were pure of heart, selflessly motivated to find the optimum balance between normal commerce and protecting people from the virus, balancing short-term suffering and prosperity against the security of our country would be a daunting challenge. We would have to marshal all our scientific, economic, and health care resources and insulate our decision-making from politics and special interests.

We don’t know if we will ever have an effective vaccine or if contracting and recovering from the virus will make us immune. We don’t even know, either, if herd immunity, the holy grail of infectious disease specialists, can ever be achieved. If COVID-19 becomes a fact of life indefinitely, we will have to permanently adapt the way we live to survive. It’s called Natural Selection. Have you seen any dinosaurs lately?

Our biggest problem is that our president is not interested in finding an optimal solution – the greatest good for the greatest number. He keeps a heavy finger on the scale, tilting it toward business as usual. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead. I wonder if Trump realizes that motto came from a naval encounter that seriously weakened the Confederacy he so loves.

Don’t be fooled. Trump, ignorant as he may be about science and epidemiology, understands full well what he is doing. Holding massive rallies, refusing to acknowledge the need for masks and distancing, and playing down the value of testing are all part of a cynical calculation. Opening the country completely, even if that resulted in millions of deaths and ultimately crashed our economy is a risk he is willing to take because he knows it’s his only hope to be re-elected. If you don’t believe that, there’s an oft-sold bridge in Brooklyn you might want to bid on.

Trump is a gambler. Like any habitual risk-taker, he understands that with unlimited resources, a gambler could repeatedly double down on his bets, and eventually, he’d roll a seven. Since one aspect of Trump’s mental illness is an exaggerated view of his own wealth and power, he ignores the mathematical certainty that in the real world, the one the rest of us inhabit, he’s more likely to crash and burn. Like all the other times he suffered that fate in business, when it happens, he’ll just walk away and let everyone else pick up the pieces.

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