An old man broods on mortality
Pandora was sitting at home listening to one of the Reith Lectures a few days before Christmas. In it former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, was discussing the value society puts on a human life. He was doing so in the context of Covid-19 and the dilemma between eradicating the disease and maintaining as much as possible of the economy. Pandora sensed a light going on - it couldn't surely be a coincidence that the Governor and the former head of Network Rail, Mark Carne, were never seen in the same room together. Were they perhaps one and the same person, differing only because a trainee in the false documentation department made an error?
Pandora allowed his mind to contemplate the value of a human life (as one who had passed the actuarial exams such contemplations are not wholly unfamiliar). Mark I (the Gov) explained that different countries place different - widely different - values on a human life. In the USA it is between $1 million and $10 million, which is hardly useful in forming public policy. In most of western Europe it's quite a bit higher than in the UK. What about us? This is where Pandora began to hear the approaching hoof-beats of a hobby horse. Let's think about Mark II for a while, and let's bring in alongside him the Head Honcho Of The Highways. How much will each of them spend to prevent one human death on their system? And while we're at it, how many inches of print will the newspapers occupy if one of these unfortunate deaths should occur?
Pandora believes that the answers will be different - widely different. He is not able to explain this, except perhaps by noting that the Honcho is responsible for far more deaths than Mark II ever was, and that Stalin was fond of pointing out that whereas one death is a tragedy, one million deaths are a statistic. Sleeps comfortably the Honcho? 1700 deaths a year? 5 a day.
There is a twist to the tale. If a single death - a suicide, say - occurs on the railway, the protocol is to have trains running again in no more than 90 minutes. The railway is rightly seen as a public good, and it should be out of use for the minimum period needed to allow the BTP to satisfy themselves that no crime had been committed (the victim was not fleeing attack, for example) by interviewing the driver and any other witnesses. If the driver in a single vehicle car crash is killed Police Scotland routinely close the road for several hours, necessitating lengthy diversions and massive delay. What are they looking for? The public good of Her Majesty's highways seems to be unimportant. Is there a public good in the Police knowing why the crash occurred? Pandora doubts it, believing that a box somewhere merely needs to be ticked.
In each case a life had been lost, but the effect on society - on the rest of us - is disproportionate. Yet a death on the railway has a far higher cost-of-avoidance that a death on the roads. Pandora wishes that Mark I and Mark II could explain this to him. Pandora wishes that the Honcho actually existed, for if he did he too could answer a few pointed questions instead of hiding behind Comrade Stalin.