Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back Home at the Hive

We humans have made so much progress in so many areas, especially technology, that it can be hard to remember that it’s still just us inside our high-tech skins. We still order our relationships and responsibilities pretty much the way we have since Cleopatra tempted Marc Antony. There is still a lot of lust and conquering, a lot of winners and losers. We like winners and losers. Each of us plans to be the winner. We want our shot.

It’s no big surprise, then, that we don’t like being told what we can and cannot do. We may like Mary Poppins, but we’re not fond the nanny state. We want to be free to strive. If we fail, so be it.

But every failure has a cost. And lately more of those costs are being borne not just by the person who fails but by his neighbors as well. In the not-so-long-ago past, being down on your luck could kill you. Nowadays, the social safety net might well catch you. Federal law prohibits emergency rooms from turning you away if you have a bad accident. Social security will give you enough to hold body and soul together in retirement.

That’s a good thing, right? That we’ve created a safety net. But because it’s woven from tax dollars, suddenly we all have a greater financial interest in the failure of our neighbors. Most of us are willing to help our neighbors, but what about folks we’ve never met, people who might not be doing all they could to take care of themselves? What about welfare queens?

Sometimes bad things just happen to people. You’re riding along on your bicycle and the driver of a car takes his eye off the road and in a heartbeat you’re lying broken on the street. Being born into poverty is kind of like that, except the car hits you while you’re gasping your first breath in your mother’s arms.

Being down on your luck can be expensive. When I did a swan dive off my bike, the paramedic and hospital bills for a scrapped nose and a sore neck totaled $11,000. A few days later, there were two terrible accidents nearby in which bicyclists were hit by cars and suffered more serious injuries: bleeding in the brain, emergency surgery, intensive care. Those medical bills were much, much higher.

What might have been done to have avoided those accidents and their costs in pain and money? The city could have put in more bike paths to physically separate bikes from cars, but bike paths or street barriers are expensive. Even a well-meaning city like ours is not going to spend a lot of extra money to reduce costs for which it is not responsible.

What if it were? What if it had to pay the medical bills for all bike accidents within its borders? It would certainly take that potential liability into account in deciding what more it might do to increase bike safety. Would it be fair to the city to make it responsible in that way? Perhaps not, but since the city is the only one who can put in bike paths, perhaps fairness shouldn’t be the primary concern. Maybe the primary goal should be to identify who can make biking safer and give them a good reason to want to do so.

The notion is similar to the idea behind mitigating the negative effects of certain commercial conduct. Cigarette manufacturers make a product that causes health problems that are enormously costly to the public. In the past, cigarette companies bore none of these costs, but lately, with litigation and taxes, some of the social costs have been shifted to the cigarette makers. Similarly, gasoline taxes have been used to pay for highway maintenance and pollution abatement. Soda taxes are being discussed as a way to reduce consumption of the liquid sugar that has spiked diabetes rates.

The new federal health care law sets up incentives (both carrots and sticks) for hospitals to reduce infections incurred by patients who are there for other reasons. There is every reason to expect they will produce good results. Recently (before the health care law was adopted), the University of Pennsylvania hospital reduced iv line infections from 30-40 per month to one per month, just by trying harder.

Some consumer products companies have been paying more attention to social costs. Starbucks, for instance, is rolling out innovative programs to recycle its used coffee cups. In one pilot, the cups go out the door with a little latte foam in the bottom and come back as napkins.

One group that has not yet volunteered or been forced to pay one penny of the social costs of its products is gun makers. I don’t see why we put up with this. Even if the Supreme Court says we all have a right to pack heat, I doubt the Constitution guarantees that gun makers can’t be forced to pick up the tab for the resulting mayhem. We’re long past letting the Cayuga River burn, so why do we let gun makers pollute our cities with handguns and not ask them to pay for the cleanup? If guns were taxed at a rate sufficient to cover their damage to society, they would be damned expensive, and much less ubiquitous.

Aligning social costs and benefits is tricky, but gradually we are realizing that in today’s world we are less like cowboys in the wild west than honeybees in a busy hive. Ultimately, what is good for the colony is good for the individual.

The next time you see something you think is wasteful, or worse—food being thrown out after a party, a garbage bag of recyclables headed for a landfill, a child requiring urgent medical care for an asthma attack because his parents could not afford an inhaler—think about what might have been done to prevent the problem. Who has the power to change the situation? Why don’t they? What could we do to motivate them to act?

When looking for corruption, the old adage is “Follow the money.” A maxim for helping us all live together in ways that provide an overall economic benefit and improve the quality of life for all might be “Follow the social costs."


  1. I'm looking forward to more thoughtful and articulate essays like this one. Well said.

  2. The "cost" of not allowing failure is more costly in the long run.

  3. What happened to individual responsibility in your scenarios? Is your idea of utopia a world where government and industry act as parent, and the rest of us are mere children to be protected?