What is the value of a life?

I was listening to the radio this morning and they were interviewing David DeLong, who’s written a book about how companies need to prepare for their baby boomer employees’ retirement and eventual death. His argument is that an incredible amount of knowledge will be lost when these people leave their companies, and if businesses aren’t prepared for it, disastrous consequences will result.

A listener called in with a rare good question: has anyone ever calculated the impact of September 11 on the bottom lines of the businesses who lost significant numbers of employees in the disaster? DeLong basically responded that he didn’t know, but the interviewer did remember that at least one company was nearly completely wiped out. If that’s the case, then one might wonder if there was any impact at all. Who would be around to feel the loss?

DeLong could recall a case of a fountain that was built 20 years ago in Texas. The pond at the fountain’s base was supposed to be three and a half feet deep, but ten years back, the last of the original maintenance crew retired. The replacement crew filled the pond nine feet deep, and over the next couple years, four people drowned before anyone figured out to drain some of the water out.

If only the managers of the park had figured out to ask the old crew how deep the pond should be before they retired, the inference is, those four lives would have been saved.

One implication of this concept is the idea that there’s something special about knowledge contained in a human. You can build all the databases you want, but only a human knows how to retrieve the knowledge when it’s needed. The question is, if no one knows what they’re missing, then what’s the value of what we lose when someone dies?

Now that nearly as many Americans have died in the War on Terror as were killed by the terrorists in the war’s initial “battle,” it makes you wonder: are the people really what we missed when the World Trade Center was destroyed? Do we view the war in Iraq as as great a tragedy? After all, the number of dead Americans is about the same.

What’s the difference between 3,000 troops dying over there and 3,000 stock brokers and secretaries dying over here? You might argue that the people in the WTC died for no purpose, but the troops had the goal of fighting for freedom. Now that it’s clear that the troops are also dying for no purpose, that argument falls apart. Somehow the WTC disaster still feels like a greater tragedy.

So the question remains: why does the WTC attack seem so much more shocking than the loss of troops? Arguably it’s is because of the loss of the buildings. These are not even buildings that were especially well-liked — and if you’ve ever stood at the foot of the towers, you know how unappealing they were up-close. But unlike people, we expected those towers to last. We saw them as a permanent part of the city, and their loss was irreplaceable.

Think about the emotional difference between the WTC and the Pentagon attacks. While hundreds died in the Pentagon, the building was quickly repaired. Now the Pentagon tragedy seems more like a footnote compared to the WTC attacks.

With the WTC attack, we see what we’re missing in every photo of the New York skyline. In the Pentagon, and in Iraq, we don’t notice what we’re missing. There’s little visible evidence of a loss, so we just don’t think about it any more.

People respond much more vehemently to things they can see. That’s why the recent gas price increases have been so damaging to Bush. People can see it whenever they fill up the tank, and even when they just drive by the gas station. I pay more to water my lawn than I do for gas, but somehow the price of water doesn’t get my goat as much. I think the price of gas is more of a reminder to Americans of the futility of our invasion of Iraq than the numbers of dead troops being anonymously transported home, just as the missing World Trade Center is the most vivid reminder of September 11.

The headmaster of our kids’ school is retiring this year, and there was a huge celebration with the entire student body and all the parents in attendance. A portrait was unveiled, to be displayed in the school for future generations of students to admire. This was impressive, but still — who’s going to remember a portrait 20 years down the line? The big surprise was that one of the school’s two major buildings will be renamed after him. Now that’s something students will remember: they’ll walk under his name every day when they show up for school. He was overcome with emotion at the honor.

Few people’s lives will ever be honored by the naming of even a small building, let alone half of a school with 900 students. Have you ever noticed that nearly every highway overpass, nearly every bridge, no matter how modest or mass-produced, bears someone’s name? You’ll see a “bridge” that’s no more than a corrugated tube running under the highway, with barely a trickle of foul water seeping through it, and, sure enough, it’s named after someone. And yet few of us will even rate this small bit of recognition.

We all want to be remembered beyond our lives on earth, and yet most people die without affecting more than their immediate group of friends and family members. When those people, too, pass, there will be nothing to mark those lives other than perhaps an entry in an old phone book, or a few family photos passed on to the next generations. Eventually, even the names associated with the photos will also be lost.

I suppose that’s the value of a life.

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One Response to What is the value of a life?

  1. RaCooL says:

    Just dropped by…Feel kinda depressed after reading it.

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