I think the most engaging articles that I write, at least to me, are the ones that start with a simple comment or observation that is indicative of a huge trend which I can comment on. There have been two of them that happened during the year of the pandemic. One was just a statement said in frustration that got me thinking and one was a huge movement with regular protests that filtered all the way to my hometown. The smaller one was when one of my friends, a conservative hunter type, was lamenting the government pandemic regulations. The words he used was something along the lines of the government being afraid to “clear out the herd a little.” I took his meaning to really be a question of “Why not accept that some will die so that so many don’t have to suffer while living through the economic shutdown caused by the virus.” It’s a question I’ve heard whispered by many but not often debated in public because of the social implications. The second thing, something I missed entirely at first (more on that in a bit) was the Black Lives Matter movement. Once I finally learned what was going on a week after it happened, I couldn’t help but think the movement got it all wrong. The assumption in the slogan of “Black Lives Matter” was that black lives don’t matter but other colors do. I’ve come to the conclusion that a more truthful slogan should be “No Lives Matter.”
Another word for “matter” is “worth” as in “Financial Worth”. You can’t have a conversation about what matters without at least touching on the financial impact. Money is, at its core, a reflection of values. Infinite worth of a human being ultimately would mean we value people so much that everyone should have access to infinite resources when needed. That is technically impossible, so where do you draw the line? What is a life actually worth? Turns out there is an answer.
Four Million Short
When I was a kid I used to watch a show called The Six Million Dollar Man. It was, if I recall correctly, about an astronaut named Steve Austin who was in a bad crash which put him in a near death state with most of his body broken beyond repair. The government used secret technology to “heal him” with artificial limbs essentially turning him into a bionic (né, cyborg) government super agent. The series was great fantasy escapism for a young child. At the time six million was a near unfathomable amount of cash to the layman. Today it’s nothing, but it turns out that the show was close to being spot on, at least as far as pegging a value of a human being to a dollar figure. According to a Planet Money show, one very much worth listening to, we, as in humans, are apparently worth about ten million dollars. It’s not as heartless as it sounds. The show is really reporting on the fact that as a society, we really do have to figure out what the value is for a human life from a dollar perspective. It’s necessary as the mechanics of our world revolve around money. Examples of this need include court decisions and insurance payments which revolve around payments for loss of life. The show discusses the debate over lifetime earnings valuation versus total economic impact. I have to give the producers of the show credit, they took a sensitive and emotional subject and made it very accessible.
So let’s look at the numbers as it relates to my buddy’s predictions. According to a New York Times article, if left unchecked, the pandemic could have killed 200,000 to 1.7 million. This would have had an economic impact of two trillion to 16 trillion dollars across the US economy. We most likely could have absorbed that, realistically we are as all of the controls we put in place have cost the economy about 16 trillion. By way of comparison the economic impact of the great recession was a little over 19 trillion. So, technically, my callus friend was right. If we did absolutely nothing, let some people die so that others lives wouldn’t be disrupted, and suffered a worse case scenario, it would have come to the same end financially without the massive impact on people’s lives. Realistically I don’t think it would have become a worse case situation. When I look at other countries who were light on formal government controls, the people, through social trends, changed their behavior to be in line with pandemic best practices. In the end this is just academic. The real worry, as often stated by political actors, was about the fact that we have a bit less than a million hospital beds and the number who would need them could be closer to ten to twenty million. That last bit tells me that the value of human life, at least during the initial phases of the pandemic, has less to do with economics and more to do with keeping an entire industry functioning through a period of overload.
As I said the other thing that got me thinking about the value of human life was the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier I mentioned I completely missed Black lives matter as it was starting up with the riots. I’m pretty sure I told this story before, but It’s worth repeating, if anything I should because it helps to lighten an intense subject making it a bit more approachable. We had been on vacation and typically do not check work emails when our auto responders are on. Our kids are also glued to their tablets loaded with kid shows and we tend not to watch TV and only check the weather. When we got back I looked at my email, and I had one from the head of the fairly large organization I work for. That, in and of itself is somewhat uncommon. The subject of the email was very uncommon. The email talked about staying close to our family during these incredibly turbulent and dangerous times. I yelled out to my wife “we missed something big, I don’t know what, but it was definitely big!”. A few seconds and one internet search later I was all caught up. As I witnessed the additional protests over the ensuing weeks, including many at my own hometown, I realized what was going on was much more complex. It was part outrage at the death of George Floyd, part rallying cry for leftist organizations, and I think something akin to a pressure relief valve from all the issues relating to the pandemic. What got lost was the concept of valuing human life.
Human Value and Organization Size
When I look at the world, I see large organizations and systems upon which they are built. There are people in charge of these systems. These people have to make decisions. In our world decisions are made by money. It’s that simple and some would argue that heartless. If every organization was just the size of a family unit where it’s size was such that every decision maker could have a personal relationship with everybody they’re making decisions about, then I think the human component would have much more priority in decision-making. This is, at its core, why I make the point that It’s not just black lives that don’t matter to the system, no lives matter to it.
I often see this with business. A classic example has to do with the way nurses are treated. There are many specific levels in the nursing field each with specific responsibilities. They start with two levels of Nursing Assistant and then four levels of actual nurses. The titles for each level are CNA I, CNA 2, LPN, RN, BSN, and then Nurse Practitioner. For organizations, it’s all about the finances, so to be important to them, to matter, you have to be able to make them money. Even with the shortage of nurses, the quality of their work life is challenging. Nursing is a tough job. From a practical standpoint, and from my experience observing medical businesses over the years, the only one who get treated well, like their presence matters, are the Nurse Practitioners. This isn’t the case everywhere, but it’s definitely a good rule of thumb. It’s not surprising because the Nurse Practitioners is the level where they go from organizational cost to profit center. More nurse practitioners = more billable services = more profit. To be clear all nurses work very hard, and all matter, but there is a very different feeling when you are the one who is putting cash in the pocket of your employer. Because of the gatekeeper credentials related to every flavor of medicine you tend to see this frequently in that sector. Nurses and other medical jobs are easy examples yet far from the only ones, especially when it comes to something akin to billable hours. If you bill you are valued. If you are billable and there are very few of you, then you are highly valued. Programmers and licensed technicians also fall into this category.
Human Value without Finances
Can someone with limited skill sets be worth as much as a highly skilled or licensed individual? Mechanically, from a financial perspective as we just looked at the answer is a clear no. One is a consumer or a cost and one is a producer or a profit center. Socially, the answer is clearly yes. This is where the conflict all stems from. We are taught that human life has infinite value, even if we can’t provide every human with infinite resources. I’m heavily involved in a non-profit that caters to people with very limited skill sets, so limited that they can’t function independently in society. Upon reflection, this experience is another reason why I believe that there is limited societal value for people who aren’t producing at a very high level. I’ve seen first hand what we, as a society, do for people who can’t take care of themselves. The infrastructure is limited at best. Do these people have a huge emotional impact on their respective families and community? That answer is invariably a resounding YES. Do we have an infrastructure designed to get them the best resources available even if we know they will only make minor progress? That answer is a clear NO.
How do you make your life matter?
I think the question of how do you make your life matter, your own personal life, is what this whole commentary comes down to. If the world cares about money, and you have a ton of it, then you will matter at least to the larger world. Professionally the answer is easy. You can’t just be a good worker bee. You have to be one of the people where whatever credential you hold will make money just because you hold it. In theory you can be the type of person who makes things happen without a credential, yet in my experience that doesn’t work as well as having that piece of paper. No matter how good you are, eventually there’s someone above you who comes along with a personality conflict or a different idea on what they want and then you get hit with the great reset switch in your career. If your one of three Nurse Anesthetists at a hospital and the new director of operations thinks they get away with two, you can still make your $150K/year right up the road the next day. If you are a high quality loan broker at a bank and the new division head thinks they need to close your section or branch, you don’t start at the same salary the next day. If you are getting pinged by recruiters every week, then you may be in a good situation. Otherwise, your life doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the world.
How do you make your life matter socially? How do you define worth even if you aren’t a financial rainmaker? That’s probably the fodder for a whole series of articles but I think there is one easy way to do it. You have to be a catalyst, preferably one where you are allowing others to better themselves. You have to be the person who shows up, who connects, who listens, and who cajoles enough to incite action but not so much where you are a nag. You have to know when to stick it out, not take offense and when to cut ties with caustic influences. All this takes wisdom, emotional maturity, a deft touch and a personality where your thoughts and actions are outward verses those that are inward.
The world cares about money and productivity, so being able to make and control more money is what matters to the world. People, for the most part, care about people. The type of person who can drive others to truly be better is pretty damn rare. I guess that’s why they matter so much. Sadly there is no way to encourage that type of behavior on a yard sign with a pithy slogan. If there was a sign promoting a movement like that, I’d definitely be the first to put it up in my yard.