CEO Kills 250 Million Americans

My day job, about which I am Not Yet At Liberty To Speak in detail, brings me into contact with people I didn’t expect to meet when I graduated MIT with a physics degree. I could understand rubbing elbows with software developers, but healthcare policy professionals were a whole ‘nother world. I mean, I managed to meet and mingle with a set technician for The Truman Show, not to mention Mary Prankster. (A friend of mine spent a year in Los Angeles, driving around with a Dresden Dolls bumper sticker. One day, a guy stopped her in a parking lot and exclaimed in wonder and joy, “You like the Dresden Dolls?” To which she replied, “I know the Dresden Dolls.” She assures me that I’ve met them too, at a party somewhere in this town, but it must have been an absolutely smashing party because I have no recollection of it whatsoever.) But corporate executives?

So, it is with considerable surprise that I find myself equipped to tell the tale of the CEO who killed 250 million Americans.

The scene is a meeting of about thirty upper-level managers in the world of healthcare, several weeks ago on a rainy Friday morning here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They hailed from places like the CDC, large insurance firms, the clinic divisions of large retail chains and so forth. The crowd contained more CEOs, CTOs and CIOs than my humble academic soul could comfortably process, and as a mere appendage even to the academic side of the gathering, I was quite detectably on the fringe.

So, while discussions went on about topics which either didn’t affect me or were already familiar to me, I felt comfortable lurking in the back, re-deriving the supersymmetric solution of the hydrogen atom’s energy eigenstates in my notebook. At one point, however, I did perk up my ears. A man was speaking about “tobacco cessation counseling,” and by way of comparison he brought up Malaria Awareness Day.

Now, you have to understand that these people peppered their conversations with offhand references to how recently they’d been on “the Hill — Capitol Hill.” They say it much more mellifluously than I say, for example, how I just came from “the Registry — that ruttin’ Registry of Motor Vehicles.” They also wear suits. Now, I’ll wear a suit and perhaps even a tie if the occasion demands, but I do so in much the way that I dressed up as Zeus in the fifth-grade school play. It’s just a costume, not my second skin.

To preserve a specter of confidentiality, I won’t mention the man’s name or affiliation, but let’s say he was the director of Yoyodyne, Inc.’s employee clinic program and a consultant for the CDC, NIH and/or Ministry of Information Retrieval. He said, “I was just on the Hill — Capitol Hill — and everyone there is abuzz about Malaria Awareness Day. They all know that somewhere in the world, a person dies of malaria every thirty seconds. What they don’t know, because no one is making them aware of it, is that in America alone, over 400,000 people die from smoking every year. When I heard my friend Mr. X mention that thirty-second figure in his speech, well, I got out my calculator, ran the numbers and told him, ‘You know, just considering Americans alone, eight Americans die from smoking every second.'”

Hold on, thought I. Leaving aside the flag-waving nationalism, eight people per second times roughly pi times ten to the seventh seconds per year gives, um, 250 million dead every year!

Gee, that sounds like an awfully quick way to run out of Americans.

I did manage to catch the Yoyodyne executive just before the lunch break and say that 400,000 deaths per year is an average of one death every eighty seconds, not eight deaths per second. He laughed, thanked me for the correction and continued on to lunch.

I wonder how many times he had used that figure before someone checked his arithmetic.

4 thoughts on “CEO Kills 250 Million Americans”

  1. Hah!

    When you mentioned that you were spending some time hacking PHP by day, I guessed you were, say, turning MediaWiki into a SkyNet-like beast that would ultimately determine the fate of humanity — either that, or adding LaTeX export. Perhaps they would ultimately amount to the same thing. Anyway, now it sounds like something rather fancier: I’m thinking a quantum self-help website. Gotta be right this time!

  2. Don’t be surprised if you find out he’s been using that story for a while and the error has been pointed out to him before. IME, many high level executives are more concerned with making a political point than being correct on the facts in speeches.
    The WHO says “Every eight seconds, someone dies from tobacco use” that’s less than 4X the rate for malaria that he cited. His calculation gives a much more politically dramatic 240X.

    I may be a bit too cynical from being in industry for over 25 years and spending too much time attempting to correct math and other factual errors spouted by executives. Far too often I’ve been told that stretching the truth is OK as long as it’s not illegal and won’t get them bad PR.

  3. I’m not even going to start on the ridiculous shit my boss (the CEO, because yes, Virginia, I’m the only person in the entire tech support department… until Friday, at which point there will be nobody in the tech support department) says on a regular basis. But he’s never killed 250 million Americans, so there’s that.

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