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.

Journal of the Plague No. 3: FUD

Red roses growing against a chain link fence
“Rose Sighs” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Under normal circumstances, I’d be hopping on Facebook in the morning to make my annual THE LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE KNOWN AS SPRING BREAK IS OVER post, but of course these aren’t normal circumstances. Spring break is over, technically, but school hasn’t started up again, and our school district hasn’t said what, if anything, is happening, other than how you can get lunch and breakfast for your kid (show up in a car with your kid between 11 am and 1 pm at various sites) and that they won’t be doing/requiring any online work (given that half of households with incomes under $30,000/year don’t have internet at home, I am grateful for that, at least).

My library is not open to the public, but we are still open in the sense that we all have to show up for work, and we’re doing various things like drive up book service (a matter of some controversy, along with all other drive up services) and books by mail, and answering the phones. But we have no way to provide many of the most crucial services we provide—namely public computer and internet access and printing for the many people who don’t have access to those things at home. I don’t really know how you’re supposed to apply for unemployment without the internet. I also don’t know how to make the internet available (beyond extending our WiFi into our parking lot) in a way that’s safe for people to use. Today we were told to show up for work tomorrow but that we should await further word after that.

FUD is an acronym I learned somewhere fairly early on in my web career, and unlike most tech world acronyms (PEBKAC comes to mind—Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair) it’s one that is fairly generous-minded. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, and it’s often used to describe the way novice users experience technology, and it’s often then leveraged as a marketing tool to get people to buy things they don’t need (like 196 rolls of toilet paper? I dunno). But I can think of no better description for the state we all live in now: we fear what might happen, we are uncertain of what might happen, we doubt, sometimes, the people we are meant to trust.

Today was not much fun at my house. No one slept the night before, and while 1600 square feet for three people is a great deal of room by global standards and is generally more than enough room for the people who live here, that is dependent on not all three of us being here all at the same time all the time. I could quite happily putter away at household projects all day, but I’d want to blast my music, which no one else likes. My mother could quite happily sit and watch church services and knit and listen to audiobooks, but of course then people keep interrupting her. And my son wants nothing more than to play with his friends and doesn’t understand why he can’t see them all the time, and why these days we’re only playing together outdoors, and why that, too, might soon come to an end. My yoga studio has been offering online classes, but there is nowhere in my house I can do yoga.

“Bread and roses, too,” I wrote in a comment on a Facebook post about why library staff were taking a break to ride abandoned scooters around the empty library. But here at our house, it’s all bread, no roses. And of course sometimes life is like that. “We must never complain,” says Ma Ingalls over and over again in The Long Winter. “We must always be grateful for what we have.”

Some days I agree with her, but some days I agree more with the factory worker I met in Puebla, Mexico twenty years ago. We were comparing our union contracts, and at some point I said I didn’t even know why we were bothering to ask for more because we already had so much by comparison. I will never forget what he said: If you, who have so much, do not continue to fight for your rights, what does that say to us?

I don’t know exactly what fighting for your rights looks like these days, but I believe it behooves us all to fight not only for our own rights but also, if we can, for the rights of those who have less than we do: for the hourly staff and freelance workers who have lost their jobs (speaking of which, why not buy one of my friend’s gorgeous photos?), for the homeless and those in jail or prison or detention camps, for whom social distancing is an impossibility, for the parents who must return to work tomorrow and still somehow find childcare for their kids, for all still required to show up to work in unsafe conditions. May we all hang together (at a six foot distance), for if not, we shall surely hang separately.

Journal of the Plague No. 2

Many years ago, my grandmother took me shopping, as she always did, to buy my mother something for Christmas and something for her birthday. One year, when I was perhaps nine or ten, my grandmother spent a long time convincing me that what my mother would really like was a fancy frilly set of underpants with a matching bra and camisole. I thought this was insane. Who cared about underwear, which no one but you was ever going to see?

My grandmother told me that whether anyone saw it wasn’t the point: the point was that you knew your were wearing it, and it was a sort of secret that made you feel more powerful and good. I still didn’t get it, but I acquiesced, because I loved my mother and my grandmother, and my mother seemed pleased when she opened the Marshall Fields box.

All these years later, of course, I understand both what my grandmother was saying and what she wasn’t (that, in fact, sometimes other people do see your underwear, and by other people I mean “people other than the girls in your cabin or the old hippie ladies at the swimming pool,” and it can be kind of exciting), but more importantly that there are things you do for yourself even when—perhaps especially when—no one else can see them, or no one else is watching.

I’ve been sick for most of the past week and living in pajamas, which was lovely except for the being sick part. Yesterday my fever finally went down, and I put on real clothes and walked my son to the park to meet his friend. Today I put on nicer clothes and went to work.

My work at the moment is, like many libraries (though by no means all) closed to the public, but we’re all still there, trying to figure out how to reinvent library services in a time of pandemic. We don’t have any patrons in, and the only people who see me are my coworkers and the occasional delivery person, but it bothered me inordinately that I didn’t have any lipstick on, because my doctor mother told me to throw out all my old lipstick and lip balm, and I complied.

Those of you who’ve known me forever probably find this lipstick thing confusing—I often do myself—but a couple of years ago when I had to wear contacts for awhile, I started being inordinately bothered by the dark circles under my eyes, and I decided I’d rather wear lipstick to detract from them than eye makeup to cover them up, and now I’m just in the habit more days that not.

I had to pick up a prescription on my way home, and I wandered around Walgreens for a little while just seeing what was in stock and what was not, and marveling at the “As Seen on TV” aisle, and wondering if I had any excuse for buying office supplies (I don’t), and generally being impressed by the wide variety of bizarre consumer items for sale in the midst of this crisis, and then I noticed they were having a “buy 2 get 1 free” makeup sale. As with most such sales, at the rate I go through things this is not really a good deal, but years of frugality in order to pay off debts mean I almost never buy anything but food and clothes, and the temptation was too great. I picked out three lipsticks (of the kind that the New York Times once told me was the best of drugstore makeup) and some more lip balm and my prescription, and $30 later I was out the door with my day to day equivalent of a white lace camisole trimmed with pale blue ribbon, plus some lithium.

Of course, that was once more than a week’s grocery money for me, and half of me wondered if now was the time for frivolity. After all, someone broke into my friend’s office and stole her hand sanitizer the other day. As a therapist I was talking to recently said, we are going to see the best of humanity, and the worst.

I’d like to think of my purchases today as derpy—a word my son and his friends just taught me, which they say means “a tiny bit stupid and a lot funny.” Given the gravity of the decisions so many must make now—decisions that quite possibly affect people’s very lives—I hope there is still room for some derpiness—or at least for some decisions that give you your secret superpowers, whatever those are, for surely we all will need them.

Journal of the Plague No. 1

The influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, November 1918. (Harris Ewing/Library of Congress via AP)

I feel we should all be draping ourselves in white sheets at my house, but instead most of us are draping ourselves in wool, or at least I am, because I am freezing all the time, except of course when I’m boiling up, which usually happens in the middle of the night. Hot flash? Fever? Who can say?

My mother returned from a conference in Florida Sunday night sicker than I’ve ever seen her—quite literally delirious from fever at times, coughing, barely able to cross the room much less carry on a conversation. By the time she was strong enough to get to the doctor, it was Tuesday, and she tested positive for influenza A, but it was too late to start Tamiflu, so she was sent home with a raft of other drugs of the sort one generally only throws at the truly ill—prednisone, Zpac, and so on.

Wednesday morning I woke up feeling not too hot. I’d had a cough for several days but, but I often have a cough in the winter. By the time I’d gotten to work and finished emptying the cash drawers, I felt much worse and went home to discover that I, too, had a fever. That was the first day of the virtual appointments the UIHC was offering, and I got one with ease and got to talk to a doctor at length. She told me I was “the muddiest case” she’d seen all day, but we decided flu A was the most likely and to throw some Tamiflu at it in case we’d caught it in time. It’s Monday now, and I’m still home with a fever that comes and goes.

In my waking hours, in addition to trying to keep my child entertained, I’ve done very little but follow library Twitter for news of library closings. When this crowd-sourced document of public library closures started, it had only 29 listed. It’s up to 772 now, as I just submitted my library, which just decided to close tomorrow earlier today. I also added the library in the town where I live, which closed Sunday, so who knows how many more there are that haven’t been reported. But there are about 35,000 public libraries total in the United States, so even this is just a fraction.

Tonight will be the last Monday night (or any night) my library is open to the public for the foreseeable future, and I’m sad not to be there. Monday have been my night at the library for seven years now. In those seven years there have been only a handful of times that I haven’t made the final announcement: “The time is 8:30 and the Coralville Public Library is now closed for the night. We will reopen tomorrow at 10:00 am. Thank you for your patronage, and have a good night.”