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[Back to Essays]

Stern Measures

We raise the speed limit - there are perhaps more bloody deaths. We lower the speed limit - a hundred million people spend 20 minutes more each day dying on freeways. We cut a federal program - thousands or millions lose a benefit, and a few horror stories surface: A child starves; someone freezes on a park bench; mother of four can't afford a life-saving operation; family of seven lives in one unheated room, dining on powdered potatoes and peanut butter. We expand a federal program and 100 or 200 million people each have a little less money to do with as they please, a little more trouble making ends meet, wanting to get up in the morning, wanting to work as hard for less return, feeling in charge of their own destinies - how are we to measure such things?

The bloody deaths and starving children make better headlines, and it's hard to measure the quantity of death, once it has been spread so thin among so many in tiny cumulative doses, like 2nd-hand cigarette smoke.
There's more to it: For example, it is said that cutting expensive welfare programs will cut taxes, which will allow that much more money to be invested in production, which will increase jobs and prosperity, thus cutting the number needing welfare. It is said that, without welfare's incentive to idleness, fewer will be idle. It is said that many who receive welfare are not entitled to it, that the system is corrupt, that it deprives us of the self-esteem derived from private charity. It is said, in short, that cutting welfare is a win for all, a loss for none.

Perhaps, but as a poet, I want to know whether, even without that fine reasoning, there is no quantity of petty exasperations that can add up to one or 1000 starving children. One starving child is easier to do in a poem, but don't petty exasperations mount up in millions of cancers, murders, suicides, divorces, alcohol addictions, abused and even dead children? Isn't life a wholeness? Whatever subtracts from life - isn't that death, even if broken up into tiny increments of death?

Losses shorten life (for that we have statistics). Politicians and newspapers deal in horror stories, striking examples. No one has yet determined how many lifetimes are lost on smoggy freeways daily for each mile subtracted from the speed limit. Figuring 75 years to a lifetime, if 100 million people lose, on average, five minutes, how many lives have they lost that day? 75 years is nearly 40 million minutes. 500 million minutes lost is 12.5 lifetimes. Perhaps this is an inappropriate measurement, but it is better than no measurement at all.

Perhaps each penny added to the average tax bill equates to 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 people stood against a wall and shot. Perhaps if 100 or 150 million taxpayers could speak as one person, the sound would be an inarticulate heartrending moan.


Last updated: December 13, 2004