Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Waits & Measures

Another year over, another year deeper in debt.
Our lives are a constant stream of measurements, of statistics.
How much do you make? Were you on time? You weigh what? Did you get enough? Twelve inches in a foot. 100 pennies in a dollar. 60 seconds in a minute. Four cups to a quart.
It's funny how we've allowed our world, our culture, to be defined by one measurement after another. It's all weights and measures. We've trivialized measurement so much that, when we really need it, we can't have it.
"Give me the odds, doc? Fifty-fifty? Worse?"
You'll never get a straight answer to that from any doctor who cares about his malpractice insurance premium (yet another measurement derived from the measurement of his vulnerability to a lawsuit). Some court will decide-- will measure-- his judgement and hold him accountable if things don't go the way you want them to.
Our world has become a yardstick. We even measure the unmeasurable: The Beatles are better than Led Zeppellin, but "Stairway To Heaven" is the greatest rock song ever written.
Who the hell decided that? Why was it even necessary? Both bands make great music, and you could stack "Hey Jude" up against "Stairway" anyday and derive enormous pleasure from either or both.
Worse yet is how we measure each other. It's one thing to hold yourself up to a standard of your choosing. That's how we grow and pursue happiness, that delectable intangible that the American Founders thought so important as to enumerate it amongst our God-given rights.
For example, I write better today than I did when I started this blog more than six years ago (!!!) I take better photographs for taking a course, and just shooting photos. These are demonstrable facts in my view. This is growth. I know these are facts because I like my writing and photos better today than I ever have.
It's when we apply these measurements to other people that trouble begins.
Exhibit A -- "You're just like my ex!"
That's your basic unfavorable expression, no matter the context, and serves as a warning.
Exhibit B -- "You should do this."
Friends of mine who've spent any time talking to me will tell you, I think "should" is the most dangerous word in the English language. It's so loaded with value measurements and personal opinion that it ought to be banned, except for parents talking to young children and priests talking to novitiates.
You can try this exercise on your own, I won't bore you with myriad examples.
We hold people up to a light, and look thru them as if they lived in a tiny glass orb and examine them. Instead of accepting them for who they are, we pull out a clipboard and a checklist and begin to tick off measurements: She's hot, he's getting C's, she's Jewish, he's an only child, she has money, he's a gambler. All these are added together and some arbitrary denominator is applied to adjudge good or bad.
None of this is about who that person or those people are, but about how those values fit in with ours.
How they add to our lives.
These can be applied situationally: "I need to get laid," means that "she's hot" can override the fact that she's only sixteen or a crack addict. That one measure derives the most immediate reward.
But in exploiting her, you exploit yourself.
"He's getting C's" means an Ivy League school is probably out of the question, so you lower your sights and adjust your parenting.
Our world isn't full of men and women, our brothers and sisters. It's filled with competitors, all of whom we gauge on a scale, on a ruler, to assess how we're doing. For some weird reason, it matters to us where we are on the ruler, without any consideration given at all to the possibility that maybe we shouldn't even be on the ruler!
Are we happier for this ruler? I think not.
How can you measure the value of a sister or brother? Of the homeless guy down the street? Of the undocumented worker selling portraits in Times Square? All contribute to our lives each day, some in directly noticeable ways, others in ways that filter through to us from a maze of convolutions and twists: six degrees of separation, and all that.
What numerical analysis leads us to the inescapable conclusion that Bill Gates made billions of dollars using the sweat and labor of hundreds of millions of people, who developed and used his products and gave him feedback, thus improving computers? Similarly, what is his responsibility back to society? According to the measurerists, there ought to be some way for him to pay us back beyond the distinctly unmeasurable "he sells us software." And yet, these measurerists are the same folks who bridle at the "death tax", which is really just a way for society to extract from a person's body of work that portion of which can be attributed to the advantages of living in that society.
We can't measure the important things in our lives. What is love? How much did my mother love me? How much do I love my lover? How much do I love ice cream? How happy am I? How happy can I be? How afraid am I? How healthy am I?
We can tally nearly everything in our lives, and still not discover our place on the ruler.
Some would choose to ignore the unmeasurable (helloooooooooooo, conservatives!) If it can't be measured, it doesn't matter. There is no meaning unless we can study, allocate and quantify precisely the effort we need to expend in order to feel comfortable with that unmeasurable. I'd bet that many marriages and relationships fail under the delusion that somehow a husband or wife need only put in de minimis effort and get a satisfactory return.
It is this same pointed choice to ignore the unmeasurable that we fail to act in a timely fashion on a whole raft of problems, from global climate change to foreign relations to the decline of the electric grid, and we chastise those who can logically put two diverse facts together to come to a conclusion that is not readily apparent or immediately measurable.
Jimmy Carter, for example, is reviled by the right as the worst president of the 20th century (on a technicality, it's possible: George Bush the Junior did not serve until the 21st). Yet the man had vision. As an example, he foresaw out of the OPEC crises that America would need a more permanent solution to its energy problems and tried to shift the focus from cheaper oil to learning to live with more expensive oil while working on the technology necessary to solve a vexing problem. He created the Departments of Education and Energy (funny how conservatives howl about the one but embrace the latter). He gave the Panama Canal back to Panama, thus stifling American imperialism in Latin and Central America, and opened the door for democracy in South America.
And now, South America is emerging as a world power in its own right.
All of these looked at the time like bad decisions made by a weak President, but how much would you give to go back to 1977 armed with video of $3 a gallon gasoline, at a time when it retailed for 35 cents a gallon?
We only act when there is demonstrable damage to be done to an objective measurement. This is why so often the arguments for a policy come down to the economic cost/benefit analysis. Those arguments get your attention, when you can show that investing a dollar now can save you a buck three-eighty next year. This is why it took a blackout in 2003 to even start a dailogue about the electric grid. and why it took an attack on the World Trade Center to get us to pay real attention as a people to the plight of the Muslim world and our role in it.
Ironically, that economic argument may get your attention but it never wins the argument. Usually, the unmeasurables win the argument.
Think about it: healthcare ought to be an inalienable right for every American. It's part of that whole delectable intangible in the Declaration I alluded to earlier, the inalienable right of life. Yet the arguments now and have for a while focused on the cost of the program.
Can you measure a life's value? Can you measure the value of good health in leading a productive, happy life? How much freer are we for having good health? I'd argue a lot. Does society have a duty to look after all its people? Does your health affect mine?
Those are winning arguments in any civilized society, it seems to me. Right now, we're not at that stage, but once we get there, we will have healthcare for Americans, of Americans, and by Americans.
We just have to wait.
How long?
How are you measuring time?