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President Mbeki explained … by the US Congress

I don’t know if you saw this recently — but it’s an actual screen capture of President Mbeki’s diary, as published on government’s own website. I wish I was making it up, but I’m not:

Thabo Mbeki’s diary

No, you nerd, the important thing here is not that he only scored a Google pagerank of 4/10 for importance (relative to Jacob Zuma whose Wikipedia page scores 6/10, making him 20% more important). It’s the fact that his official diary is telling us what we’ve all known for years. He’s not doing anything.

This got me to thinking about politicians who have too much time on their hands and the trouble they can cause. The US Congress is a good example (they have, after all, an unpopular lame-duck president from a different party presiding over them, and everyone is more interested in the Obama-Clinton race than in actually getting something done). So the “Joint Economic Committee” had a choice. Either finish off that game of strip poker they began during the Clinton impeachment campaign a few years back (the honourable representative for Wisconsin still regrets how Edna failed to point out the hole in his jockeys before he left for work that morning); or analyse 10-million flight records supplied by their pals over at the Department of Transportation. OK, let’s be honest. Those humourless jobsworths over at DOT didn’t actually send the data over. Someone just found the pages turned upside down in the photocopy machine while they were trying to make copies of the lunch menus.

In any event, data, or so the saying goes, is only data if it is read and a press release is issued. So it had to be analysed. Or at the very least the most junior member of the committee could be persuaded to stop playing Grand Theft Auto on his laptop, and told to cut and paste everything into Excel to see if anything interesting came up. He was, and it did.

Apparently, the committee found, US airlines are responsible for the biggest economic tragedy since, well, Ronald Reagan.

Last year, in America alone, 320 million hours were lost due to flight delays. That, dear voters of Puerto Rico (who everyone now seems to give a damn about), is unacceptable.

Let’s do the sums.

320 000 000 hours = 13 333 333,33 days = 1 904 761,90 weeks = 36 630,04 years

Now the average life expectancy of Americans is 77,9 years.

So the number of lifetimes lost a year through flight delays = 470,22

Or, consider this. What if the amount of time spent waiting around airports or circling overhead was instead focused on a more noble pursuit? The good members of the Joint Economic Committee can think of nothing nobler than the Nobel prize for Economics. (In fact many of them are hoping to be awarded it in a year or two). The average age that people are awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics is 67. And so, without airline delays, we could have found 546,72 more prizewinners.

Or maybe movies are your thing. While waiting for their plane, Americans could watch the new Indiana Jones film 154 838 709 times. I’ve seen it once, and regretted it. Imagine the mass depression the nation would face if every second person had to endure it? (There are 304-million people in America).

You get the picture? Now you know why the committee was so stunned. One of them mentioned it to a mate on the “Committee for the Environment” while they stood next to each other at the congressional urinals during a lunch break (staring fixedly at the wall in front of them, ignoring the foot tapping from Larry Craig in the stall behind them), who rushed off to tell Al Gore. Gore crunched some numbers, projected them onto the cinema-sized computer screen behind his desk, checked his hair and then clambered aboard his forklift ladder to take a closer look. He was amazed. And so, breathlessly, after checking his hair again, he had to tell us just how amazed he was. As a result of flights being delayed, an extra seven million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide was being released into the air. That’s more than the annual emissions of Namibia, Iceland, Fiji, Swaziland, the Falkland Islands and Samoa combined.

And — let us not forget — this data considers only flights from US airlines. Imagine if Nationwide, Aeroflot and Kulula were added to the mix. Al Gore would do himself an injury trying to show how high those graphs go. The study also fails to count hours spent searching for lost luggage (which, as I’ve already demonstrated, logically leads to more lost Nobel Prize winners). British Airways and Terminal 5 have a lot to answer for.

So what does all this have to do with President Mbeki?

Well the answer is fairly obvious. He’s been accused of late of being an absentee president — jetting around the world while his country burns. His diary, meanwhile, appears empty which means he’s either lying next to his pool sipping cocktails, or he’s stuck at an airport somewhere. Based on what the US Congress is telling us, I reckon the latter is more likely. But don’t worry. He’ll be back with us in 470 lifetimes. And not a moment too soon.


  • Tony Lankester

    Tony is a corporate animal but it wasn't always so. He used to work in the media, with a specific interest in technology; travel; music; and getting free stuff. He doesn't consider himself a thought leader, although he does confess to having thoughts. He presents the M&G's weekly podcast.