Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
My older brother became a computer guru almost before there were computers or gurus. Through an odd string of circumstances, he was trained in computer science by the Navy, years before any colleges even used computers, much less taught anyone about them. How that happened is a story unto itself, that we might visit at another time. This is the 1960s, and he is one of only a few people with his level of knowledge about these huge machines—they literally filled large rooms, not something you hold in your hand.
After the Navy, he worked for several industries, oil and gas, nuclear and insurance. Some of the first to use computer technology to define their businesses. He had specialized knowledge and always made large sums for the times. I was seven years younger than my brother, and for me the evidence of his earning power was his cars. Wow, did he ever have great cars. What he didn’t have was a college degree—this seemed to bother him; even though he was making more money than most college presidents. His desire was an economics degree.
Economists were just becoming accepted within the halls of government. Before, they had been mostly those strange people mumbling about things that seemed to be based on "theory" not fact---most people thought they should just be ignored. Government started spending more and more time listening to these human barometers of behaviors that were hard to measure; mostly it was because they could predict outcomes based on certain theories. And those predictions could be bent, twisted and stretched to reach just about any outcome your heart desired. Politicians loved that--give me a scientific theory that supports my dumb-as-dirt idea and you are my hero. Economic theory at the time would be what common folk would call “wild ass guesses.”
But all economic theories had one thing in common, they had to quantify everything. You can’t measure, model, twist and turn human activity unless you can quantify it. This fit my big brother. Computers do not analyze thoughts or ideas, business transactions, or rocket trajectories—they analyze numbers. It intrigued him how you could use computing machines to understand everyday human interactions.
I admired my brother; although there were some days we probably didn’t like each other much, I always appreciated his intelligence. I took a different path to a career. Spent my twenties working for myself at many different types of endeavors—all the while going to school pursuing one degree after another. I was curious about a lot of things, but not focused on much of anything. After much longer than anyone should attend college, I selected a degree and graduated; as an accountant.
One of my first jobs was with a large retailer. This was a time when department stores were the pinnacle of retail service. This predates the boom of no-service discount stores. Retail at all levels still valued good service, as did the employees who provided that service. The company I worked for had thousands of attractively dressed, mostly older women who provided a level of service that would be considered intrusive today. It worked. Customers felt "taken care of" and appreciated with all of the attention; and it was expected.
Generally speaking, the economy was good. The country was just starting to falter some, after years of economic growth following the end of WWII. There was a lot of social unrest about race and war—the optimism of the 50s and early 60s was beginning to slip. But customers were still demanding good service and spending money in expensive department stores.
Accountants are not economists. Accountants count things—they are bookkeepers. Seldom do they analyze the behavior of people in relationship to their economic activity. Seldom, but not never. After a very short time, my new employer asked me to do an analysis of the overall business—using numbers, what would I suggest they do to improve (maximize profits) the business. They said hey wanted a "critical" overview of the business and their particular operation--I should have know they wanted praise. This was my first corporate job and I had not learned, yet, how to suck-up.
Some of that was easy. I was new and didn’t have a bias about certain functions and therefore saw things others overlooked, due to their acceptance of the status quo. I looked at their warehousing operations and saw great opportunity for improvement. That was only one of many things that could be improved based on some of my recommendations. These findings were based on my observations and conversations with people who actually ran the day-to-day operations.
I also looked at the company’s biggest asset, their employees, and saw great risk. If service was how they distinguished themselves in the market place, they were treating the providers of that service like crap. These thousands of mostly women were taken for granted. They were under paid and supervised by men. The whole environment was more 1920s than 1970s. The company thought of it as "tradition."
I suggested several solutions. One in particular seemed to annoy everyone involved. A business measures it’s value with a Balance Sheet. This is an accounting document that lists all of the company’s assets, subtracts all its liabilities and the difference is Net Worth. That is the accounting value of a business. Of course everyone knows that’s not the real value, because of intangibles and other factors. I suggested that their largest asset was not on their books and therefore, they treated it with less concern than panty hose inventory—that asset was people. So the solution was to capitalize people.
This suggestion was met with some less than positive comments; and suffice it to say I was not nominated for employee of the month. Most people thought I was a wiseass who didn’t understand the seriousness of selling perfume, appliances and towels to the semi-rich. It is very possible that was an accurate assessment. A lot of my other ideas, which were more conventional, were not implemented because of the uproar over the capitalizing people idea. Even the hint of humor in accountants is not appreciated.
Economists eventually became some of the most respected and important people in making decisions about taxes and government responsibility. They soon began to analyze government programs using a cost vs. benefit analysis. This was to assist politicians in making the smartest decisions on how to spend money and on whom to spend it. Of course politicians already knew what they wanted they just needed someone to agree to their boondoggles.
Economists no doubt knew the politicians were just using them to hide their true intentions; but they did not care, because they had gained respect. One of the things that the economists needed to know to be able to do their analysis of cost benefits was to measure the value of a human life. X dollars equals one dead human. With that data they can decide if this program, or that one, has any merit. My idea of placing a value of each human employee on a business’ Balance Sheet may have been flawed, but at least it established a “value” not a cost.
With this new found cost of human beings; economists now could establish the overall costs verses benefits of everything. In many ways this was a necessary part of depersonalizing value analysis of human activity and government responsibility for such activity. Necessary, maybe; but still troubling.
My brother, so many years ago, wanted to use technology and economics to make life better for everyone; today some economists seem to want to help government maximize net worth. Good government should not be swayed by economic theory that at one time resembled nothing more than a “wild ass guess.” There are a lot of other factors, besides economic, to consider in the "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" goals that were established in the United States Declaration of Independence. That “pursuit of Happiness” phrase has yet to be well defined, but it would seem to be obvious it is more than just sound economic policy.
Many of my books focus on “the pursuit of Happiness.” Tommy Jacks in the Muckraker series is pursuing his happiness when he follows up on political corruption and exposes it in the newspaper. He is driven to make life better for the most people—an idealist. Why do people do that? They do it, because it makes them happy!
Vincent Malone had fallen as far as a person could fall but still managed to find his “happiness” in Santa Fe across a bar in the person of the lovely Nancy. Love is happiness—pretty sure hate isn’t. Vincent had spent a lot of time hating, now he was changing and feeling happy.
Ray Pacheco retired to wait for death but also found a new love—no not the dog Happy—it was Sue. Maybe happiness is not being alone, or maybe it is?
I write books and while I’m in the process, I bitch and moan about every little blip. I battle a new book every day for months, always sure it will turn out to be a disaster. I’m not happy. But then I finish; and its good. Now I’m happy. It could be my pursuit of happiness is the journey to a completed book; even if the trip is not so happy.
I think one thing we can agree on; happiness is personal and unique to each person. Economics may be a portion of happy but it’s not all. Maybe we should be equally concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to only material or physical needs. How about a new cabinet position: Secretary of Happiness?