In Search of a Golden Rule

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported on the probable impact of the first TrumpCare bill, I wrote this rant:

“What the CBO measures is dollars. What it doesn’t measure is human misery: The leading cause of bankruptcy in this country is medical debt. The most contentious marital issue is money. Divorces rise in times of financial distress, and divorce, in turn, is the greatest cause of financial distress among women, especially those with children. Suicide rates rise at times of recession and depression, measured all the way back into the 1930’s.

What we’re talking about here is death, illness, divorce, homelessness and suicide. None of that is quantified in the CBO report — even though it probably can be projected and measured.”

When TrumpCare II premiers, we’ll probably be led off track with similar projections.

Years ago, in GE management school, I was taught that “what gets measured gets done.” But what we measure can be misleading, and what we fail to measure can be crucial.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy famously said that the Gross National Product (GNP) “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Kennedy came to that view after a 1967 helicopter ride with economist Hazel Henderson. Years ago, at a Healthy Cities conference, I heard Henderson make a statement I have never forgotten. She said that in terms of GNP or GDP, the most profitable shipping run in history had been the “voyage of the Exxon Valdez.”

The reason: those measures “count ‘bads’ as well as ‘goods.’” As Mark Thomas explained in a January 2016 Moneywatch column, “When an earthquake hits and requires rebuilding, GDP increases. When someone gets sick and money is spent on their care, it’s counted as part of GDP. But nobody would argue that we’re better off because of a destructive earthquake or people getting sick.”

But that’s precisely what many of our elected leaders have been doing. Consider what House Speaker Paul Ryan said about TrumpCare in March: “What I’m encouraged with is… that the CBO is telling us…it’s going to lower premiums 10 percent. It stabilizes the market, it’s a $1.2 trillion spending cut, a $883 billion tax cut and $372 billion in deficit reduction.” By saying virtually not a word about health, wasn’t Ryan arguing that we’re better off with people getting sick?

Recently, James Martin, a Jesuit priest “who considers himself a capitalist” wrote about public reaction to passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged bloodied and screaming from a United Airlines flight. “When we watch the video of the event, something in us says, ‘That’s not right’,” he writes. “Pay attention to that feeling. It is conscience speaking.” What sparked outrage, Martin opined, wasn’t just recalling the frustrations we have all felt in flying, “but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity”.

I don’t know if we can measure human dignity, but there are gauges for measuring human well-being: The triple bottom line used by socially responsible businesses is one; it includes social, environmental and financial outcomes. Another, the World Bank’s Wealth Index, defines 60 percent of a nation’s wealth as “human capital” such as social organization, skills and knowledge; 20 percent as “environmental capital” and 20 percent as “built capital”, such as factories and financial capital. The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life scale, developed in part by Hazel Henderson, includes 12 indicators: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, recreation and shelter.

Unfortunately, in our current political climate, I see little progress on most of these scales. I hear almost no discussion of them. The only rule is financial, and the golden rule is interpreted as “the guy with the gold makes the rule”.

Recently, the words of poet William Wordsworth have been ringing in my head:

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

It seems to me, if we are to have a democracy, if we are to have an environment that supports future generations, we must be about more than “getting and spending”. We must not only recapture our hearts, we must also measure and weigh in our public discourse those things that make life worthwhile.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on April 20, 2017

Fleeing the Surly Skies

Five years ago I elected to stop flying, at least for non-business trips.

I made that decision largely for environmental reasons. A single jet flight can wipe out all the contributions our plug-in/hybrid car and solar panels make toward reducing my annual carbon footprint.

But there were personal reasons, too. My airline experiences pale in comparison to the United Airlines passenger who was “reaccommodated” recently by being bloodied and dragged from a plane. Still, the last two business flights I took turned out to be aversion therapy underscoring my resolution to avoid “pleasure” flights.

It’s a big change for me; I was once a globetrotter. My passport carries stamps from 36 countries, and neither of those recent business flights ranks as my worst. That distinction goes to a 1978 Aeroflot jaunt from Moscow to Kiev: The “decadent” novel I was reading was confiscated. I had to hold myself upright because my seat back collapsed entirely. And for the entire turbulent two-hour flight, a passenger’s vomit remained untouched in the aisle.

But Aeroflot was an anomaly. I flew dozens of different airlines during the 1970s, enjoying nearly all my travels. What’s more, during grad school in Chicago, I earned freelance money by writing travel brochures, ironically enough, for United Airlines. I was treated well, and I was honestly able to extol the virtues of flying to Hawaii to surf or jetting to Colorado for a ski vacation. Back then, I believed in “flying for pleasure.”

But the thrill has gone.

Not coincidentally, my fond memories date from prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Deregulation occurred in stages through 1984, lowering overall fares about 25 percent (adjusted for inflation). As a result, rural areas and small airports suffered high fares and infrequent flights, while large, urban hubs experienced the reverse. Cheaper fares roughly doubled the number of people who could afford to fly.

Deregulation also led to an airline shakeout. Today, four major airlines­ — United, Delta, American and Southwest — account for roughly 80 percent of domestic air travel.

In the ’70s, planes flew about half-full. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airplane “load factor” for 2016 was 82.76 percent. Domestic airlines now enjoy record profits, both because they’re carrying more passengers and because they’ve learned to manage what has become a price-sensitive commodity. Their business tactics include variable fares, charging for everything from extra bags and headphones to bottled water, and overbooking to ensure full planes.

Despite widespread grousing from consumers who dislike nickel-and-diming, bumping and crowding, the industry is sure that these aggravations, like the flurry of bad publicity surrounding musician Dave Carroll’s 2008 YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars,” won’t impact consumer behavior for long.

I won’t easily forget Dr. Dau’s shrieks; I had to turn off the sound to even watch that video. But all the airlines are pretty sure that travelers forget; experience shows that passengers will opt for airline X’s $199 fare over airline Y’s $200 fare in a month or so, despite today’s uncomfortable experiences or negative publicity.

My own airline travails pale in comparison to Dau’s, but they have contributed to me opting out of the surly skies entirely. Next month, my husband and I are making a business trip to San Francisco, and we’re traveling on Amtrak.

Environmentally, that’s a good choice. If we flew the round trip, we’d produce .8 tons of greenhouse emissions. Our plug-in electric/hybrid Chevy Volt, which has achieved a lifetime fuel average of 76 mph over 25,727 miles, would generate .24 tons of carbon. Our train trip will generate about .08 tons of greenhouse emissions.

Of course, the 26-hour rail trip takes longer than flying.

Then again, maybe not so much.

On my last San Francisco trip, I was bumped from seven planes on two airlines and made three trips through security. While American treated me far better than United treated Dr. Dau, my trip did feature a screaming match. After American bumped us from its fourth plane, workers informed us that they had no more flights. We would need to “come back tomorrow.”

I angrily responded that abandoning my 83-year-old husband overnight in the terminal without luggage was not an option. After a heated, hour-long exchange, the gate agent finally walked us to another terminal and onto another airline.

Because that plane was late, we missed connections. All told, it took us 19 hours to get home from San Francisco. (Not counting a drive back to Aspen a couple days later to retrieve our lost luggage, which had taken a trip to Dallas.)

So this time, I will be missing the excitement of air travel. But probably not much.

Guest Column published in the Post Independent on April 16, 2017.