A more or less true (and perhaps slightly exaggerated) story about the man I met in the park who believes that it is possible to put a price on a human life.
In early May, I drove out to Lost Mountain State Park to sit on a bench near the tennis court where my daughter took tennis lessons two years ago. It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was nearly empty. The courts had been shut down for weeks. I started coming here a few weeks earlier following a powerful instinct to touch the old normalcy of tennis lessons and Saturday trips to the mall and drinks out with friends after work—all of the things that COVID-19 has stolen from me and my family. I sat in the same spot where I once watched my seven-year-old daughter swing her racket at tennis balls and was able to forget, for a few minutes at least, that I was living in a time of plague.
I thought I was alone, but I was wrong about that.
My fellow citizens excel at the death math now, the grim counting that must accompany such a novel spasm of mass dying. A century ago, local newspapers kept count during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Big newspapers would publish paragraph-length snippets from hot zones around the country with the numbers of dead and sick, and every newspaper big and small published obituaries. You could count the dead from your city or county because the newspapers studiously reported them. In some newspapers during October and November 1918, eighty percent of the death notices listed “influenza” or “pneumonia” as the cause of death, and many of them died in their twenties and thirties. We keep track of the COVID-19 deaths also, but with much better data collection, and the Internet of course, which allows us to watch the numbers rise across the span of a day. We have an army of Ph.D-level statisticians and data analysts and the interactive map makers at Johns Hopkins University and NBC News.
But counting the dead is not nearly as difficult as the accounting that will be necessary after it ends. What is the value of all of these human lives and how will we calculate their absence? How will we measure the cost in a currency other than currency, because in America, one must dig deeply to find anything that doesn’t carry the stink of money.
“Even life and death.”
And that was when I first realized that he was standing there, a smallish and unobtrusive man who appeared to have materialized suddenly from air molecules. I could see him clearly now, standing there, speaking aloud as if I had just walked into the middle of a conversation he was having with himself.
“What did you say,” I asked?
“I said that you can most definitely put a price on a human life.”
“It’s not popular to say it, you’re right about that.”
“Unpopular because it is heinous and immoral.”
The smallish man shrugged. “Maybe so, but this is the world we live in.”
I don’t know what possessed me to do this, but I shared a story from the summer of 1985 when I worked as a college intern at a daily newspaper in Woodbridge, New Jersey. My first job at the newspaper was to write obituaries, and I was trained to do it with the solemn assurance that for some people, their death notice would be the first and last time they would ever be mentioned in print. During my second week, I was cornered in the copier room by a strange old woman who wanted to tell me about her first job in journalism. This was Jeanne Toomey, who, as it turns out, was the first female crime reporter ever hired by The Brooklyn Eagle, which employed her as a reporter in the 1940s. We chatted for a long time and when I told her that I was writing obits, she told me that one of her first jobs in journalism was to go to the docks in Brooklyn and count the coffins being offloaded from freighters newly arrived from the war in Europe.
“That story always stuck with me,” I said. “I think maybe it was the juxtaposition of those two things, having to sum up people’s lives in a few short paragraphs and hearing that story about the coffins on the docks. It got me thinking….
“About how to value a human life,” the strange little man asked?
“No, that it is impossible to sum up the life of any person.”
“For some, it’s easier than others I would think.”
“Every life is precious.”
“To someone, yes, that is always true. But in the scheme of things….”
The scheme of things. I know exactly what that means.
My new friend knew that he was on thin ice. He knew that in the court of public approval, I would win this argument every time, but still, he kept going. This is the guy who can’t stop himself, who feels compelled to speak. It was probably during his prep school days that he first realized that people would lean in and pay attention if he made an argument clearly and concisely, backed up with facts (and yes, he did go to prep school; he told me this). He had learned early the thrill of feeling that he was right —factual and confident and convincingly evidentiary—and so he must keep going. What other choice is there?
He had obviously given some thought to the question before.
He quoted a Wired Magazine article that estimated the human body could be priced out by its transplantable organs and genetic material to upwards of $45 million. He did not have the itemized list of organs memorized, but he thought he was clever enough to be able to quote the article in the first place, to know that it even exists and to be able to call it up from memory like that. But I could see the bead of sweat on his lower lip. He is so full of shit, I thought, but obviously that has never stopped him before. If he has numbers, he just keeps going. So he started in on SPAM---the Superb Person Atomizing Machine, which is a theoretical device that can break the human body down to its basic elements. In this case, he remembered some of the salient numbers, and he rattled them off with obvious glee. The human body is 65% oxygen, 10% hydrogen, 1.6% calcium, and so on. He fired off a few more numbers and then summed it up: The atomizing machine would spit out a pile of elements worth about $160.
But of course, he was missing the point. I knew it. He knew it. There is so much more to a human life than its constituent elements – the thousands of relationships, the millions of tiny decisions, the stream of conversations one rolling into the next over a lifetime, the computing power of the human brain, the awesome fact of flesh-and-blood descendants.
I learned other things about this man. They came spilling out in his monologue---the fact that he has a younger brother who is not as smart as he is, who is on Facebook every day sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. The older sister who lives in Santa Barbara, divorced with two kids. They talk maybe twice a year. "It’s just the way families are these days, distant," he said. "I hate it but what can anyone do about it?"
He said worked as a data analyst “crunching numbers for the big boys,” whatever the hell that means.
I was listening intently and nodding my head, but I was also thinking, this man is an insufferable know-it-all, which I suppose is exactly what you get when you flip over the QAnon conspiracy coin.
“You can’t do it,” I said. “There’s no way to measure the value of a human being.”
“Sure there is,” he assured me, “I work with people who make these calculations all the time. That is basically the entire insurance industry in a nutshell.”
In the late 1990s, I spent ten months working for a church in Camden, New Jersey, which was then one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America. I noticed immediately after moving there that Camden residents counted the dead. The murder rate was printed in the local newspaper and people would watch the number rise throughout the summer, one dead black or brown boy at a time, their bodies interred at the cemetery across the city line in Pennsauken.
Camden is to New Jersey what Detroit is to America. Fifty years ago, the city was thriving, home to iconic American companies like New York Ship, RCA, and Campbell’s Soup. An old man in Camden once told me that in the 1950s during the Autumn harvest, trucks full of freshly picked tomatoes would line up for over a mile outside of the Campbell’s Soup Factory, and the sweet smell of the vine-ripened fruit would waft over the entire city. When I lived in Camden forty years later, I had to drive outside of the city limits to find a fresh tomato. By the 1990s, Camden was an economic dead zone, a post-apocalyptic city. On the night before Halloween 1991—Devil’s Night—arsonists set 168 fires across the city. When the fire trucks arrived to put them out, some residents threw bottles and rocks at the firemen. If you called the police to report the kids who broke into the abandoned house next door, they would take 45 minutes to arrive, or sometimes they wouldn't come at all, and you would have to listen to the bangs and thuds from inside the house as they tore the copper pipe and wiring from the walls. The whole city was devouring itself from the inside, stripping copper pipe and wire from abandoned houses, breaking off pieces of metal from abandoned factory buildings, and much of this cannibalized metal would end up into gigantic mountains of scrap on the docks, waiting to be carted away in ships.
Soon enough, after a few weeks, I was following the daily death toll as well. I was commiserating with locals about these dead boys, most of whom were killed in the violence surrounding the drug trade. We all wondered if the annual number this year would exceed last year‘s. We all hoped it would not, but this was Camden after all. And soon enough, the act of watching these numbers descended into a generalized awareness of being surrounded by death, permeated by it. There is a pall of grief and sadness that lives in between each individual number, a chasm so deep and wide, so unquantifiable, that it paralyzed the imagination – one chasm after the next, one cheap headstone in a line of sight with the last one, and the one before that.
As it turns out, Brother of QAnon Conspiracy Nut remembered something he once read about Camden. I cannot now recall how it came up in the conversation, but will never forget what he said:
“In the 80s, Camden's entire property value was equal to one Casino in Atlantic City.”
My new friend from the park wanted me to know that I should be prepared for an uptick in deaths when the economy opened, but the economy must reopen soon, he insisted. Don’t let the cure be worse than the disease. He admitted that he dislikes dumbed-down slogans that are designed to be tweeted or slapped on a bumper sticker, but he more or less agreed with the sentiment.
“There was that Time Magazine article from around the start of the Great Recession." He snapped his fingers twice trying to remember the title. "Can I price a human…. No, The Value of a Human Life, that was it. These guys at Stanford figured out how much it would cost Medicare to extend the life of a person on kidney dialysis. It was $129,000. Well of course I’d have to adjust that for 2020 dollars.”
Everyone is counting the dead now. Not just you and your friends and family, but the politicians and kleptocrats and crony capitalists. So are the owners of grocery store chains and meat packing plants and cruise ship companies and airlines. So is my friend, the quant. He literally can’t stop counting. They’re looking at the dead in one column and the economy in another.
“Actually, it’s probably around six or seven million. That’d be my guess,” he kept at it. “The government values a life at $10 million flat, but that means nothing. I have to look at what a court is willing to pay out in a wrongful death case.”
They won’t actually come out and say it, but some of the people who insist that we open the economy and send the kids back to school believe that the number of COVID-19 deaths is acceptable given the circumstances. They believe that this is the unspeakable truth that nevertheless must be quietly acknowledged and accepted—a truth known to realists and tough-minded leaders like themselves. A truth known to generals in wartime. They believe that the death rate can be weighed against the economic damage. Cost benefit analysis. Risks and rewards. Blood sacrifices will be made. Burnt offerings. People will die. That is just the way of the world.
I parted company with my new friend and wished him well. It is not his fault after all. This is capitalism we’re talking about, the scheme of things. Capitalism will turn each of us into a tool at some point in our lives. There won’t be justice either for the tens of thousands of lives sacrificed to preserve the advantages of elites in the American economy, no Nuremberg to punish the guilty. Everyone will get a book deal and invitations to celebrity golf outings. Golden parachutes all around.
A few of them might even end up on Dancing with the Stars.