A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the $38 billion of debt run up by Enron would pay around a-fifth of the capital costs of providing safe drinking water to every human being on earth who currently lacks it. Universally available safe water would avoid some five million deaths a year and countless person-months of debilitating water-borne illness. It would have economic as well as humanitarian benefits, but those benefits would not show up as profit on any of the balance sheets that currently matter.
Enquire into almost any of the numbers that abound in the world of finance, and one discovers that it is the endpoint of an often complex chain of construction. Those chains often also lead deep into people's lives: into what happens to their savings and their pensions, into whether or not they have jobs or homes.
Bill Peterson's wife and children will tell you that. Mr Peterson worked for Enron, and was being treated for cancer when the corporation became bankrupt. He lost his job, and with it his Enron-subsidised health insurance. With expenses mounting, and his wife unable to take up paid work because she needed to look after him, the $800 a month the couple had to pay to keep their insurance going could be met only by selling the house in which they had brought up their children. Mr Peterson died last September, not at home but while staying with relatives 175 miles away from the rest of his family. "He should have been allowed to die in his own bed," his wife told the Financial Times.
What happened to Mr Peterson is one of the casual cruelties of the American system, cruelties that are the other side of its restless, innovative, money-making, winner-takes-all energy. His fate should also remind us that numbers matter. We need to understand how they are constructed, and perhaps to start to imagine ways in which they can be reconstructed to better ends.
The "casual cruelty" of the American system is of course what Bush conservatives mean when they say "compassion."