Journal of the Plague No. 4: The Pinto and the Cost of Human Life

Yellow Ford Pinto in front of industrial building
Ford Pinto at Studio 1970. Photo by John Lloyd.

Some of you may recall the Ford Pinto, a small, economical car manufactured from 1971-1980. They were cheap, popular, and had a bad habit of blowing up, causing serious injury and sometimes death to their drivers and passengers.

According to reporting first done by Mother Jones, an internal Ford memo found that an $11 part would have fixed the faulty system that caused the cars to blow up. One might assume, then, that Ford issued a recall, fixed all the Pintos for $11 each, and sent everyone on their way again. But instead, having already paid out money to the survivors of Pinto explosion victims, they first decided to do a little math.

As Lewis Hyde notes in writing about the Pinto story, “In order to apply a cost-benefit analysis to a situation in which the core equation is ‘cost of safety parts vs cost of lives lost,’ one must first put a price on life. Ford was spared the embarrassment of doing this themselves because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already done it and Ford merely cribbed the figures.

Table showing  price of human life broken down by productivity lost,  medical costs, funeral costs, etc. Total is $200,725
The cost of a traffic fatality from a 1971 NHTSA study.

Ford, in doing the math on how many fatalities and injuries they’d have to pay out for each year versus the cost of adding an $11 part to 11 million cars decided, in the end, it was cheaper to let people die.

I have been thinking a lot about the story of the Ford Pinto (which figures as a plot point in one of my favorite novels, Ghost Dance by Carole Maso), and what it tells us about humanity, particularly when compromised by corporate interests, and what it might tell us about the decisions our governments, companies, and organizations are making right now.

Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said “my mother is not expendable and your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable and we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life,” and, all problems with Cuomo aside, I was filled with a sense of relief, for here, suddenly, was an actual leader talking about actual human lives.

Every time I listen to the news, I hear about the economy, and to be sure, as an economic determinist, I would never argue that it does not have an effect on people’s lives—indeed, I have argued for years that capitalism is killing people faster than almost anything else. But that is not what is meant by “the economy” as described by most news outlets. They mean the Dow Jones Industrial Average, not what Molly Ivins used to call the Doug Jones Average—the way that real people are living, and, in this case, dying.

I keep trying to live by the decisions I feel are best and to call into question those that I feel are detrimental to the well-being of my community. Of course I don’t know which decisions are best on a higher level, but I know that every expert I have heard suggests the same basics: stay at home. Wash your hands. Sanitize your high touch surfaces. Stay at least six feet away from others when you do go out.

Like many, because of my job, I’m not able to follow all those precepts all the time, although perhaps my salary and my health insurance are enough to cover the cost. I hope you and yours are staying as safe as you can, and I hope, in the end, we do not decide that (as they say in Casablanca) human life is cheap.

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