Yesterday’s announcement of new unemployment claims puts me in mind of the title of the Jim Morrison bio: No One Here Gets Out Alive. Taking Minnesota as an example, I looked at the deep thought behind our current shutdown in “Coronavirus in one state (3).” I may have read Jeremy Olson’s Star Tribune story more closely than Olson wrote it, but one may reasonably infer from it that that we are at substantial risk of inflicting catastrophic damage on our economy with literally no benefit in lives saved. Even if that is not exactly the case, we have yet to be presented with an assessment of the costs and benefits of the current approach.
One point that Olson’s article makes clear: we have not even been presented with a frank assessment of the alleged benefits of the current approach. Now that is shocking. Forgive the emphasis.
Kevin Roche gleans what he can from the Star Tribune article here. See also Kevin’s “A Weekly Recap on What We Think We Know.” Point 9: “The economic damage from the lockdowns is simply unfathomable. I have run out of words to describe it. Job loss and all the consequent financial and non-financial harms are just beginning to set in. It is like a tsunami that we glimpse far out but you can’t really appreciate the size or the power of the wave until it is upon you. 20 million people out of work already.” Yet the silence is clamorous. Why?
If the virus doesn’t get you first, you may be lost in the murder of the economy. In war, I think they call it collateral damage. If that war is the operative principle here, we should probably talk about it.
The Wall Street Journal is naturally a little more sensitive to the big picture than its mainstream media colleagues. The editors observe in “The Shutdown Crash Arrives”:
Philanthropist Bill Gates now says the entire country should close down for at least 10 weeks with little recognition of the tradeoffs and economic harm. The media elites all nod in agreement from their home offices. How much of an economy will we have left by then?
No one can say, but the White House is courting political trouble if it merely keeps predicting the sharp V-shaped recovery of legend. What the country needs, and jobless Americans will increasingly demand, is thinking about a more sustainable anti-virus strategy—one that saves lives but also includes somehow taking the national economy off the ventilator that government has placed it on.
Journal columnist Holman Jenkins expands on the thought in “Was Dr. Strangelove an Epidemiologist?” He writes:
“There is no price too high to save a life,” says New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
“We will not put a dollar figure on human life,” declares New York’s Andrew Cuomo.
These statements would be insane if anyone considered them seriously. Or take an icon of high-status wisdom, Bill Gates, who calls for a 10-week national shutdown in the Washington Post. He does not offer any cost-benefit analysis but he knows his audience: “Through my work with the Gates Foundation, I’ve spoken with experts and leaders in Washington and across the country”—i.e., people like himself.
The problem here is not an inability to think clearly. It’s an unwillingness to be seen thinking clearly.
Let’s understand something: The point of cost-benefit analysis is not the one that launched a thousand op-eds, to trade human lives for mere dollars. Its purpose is to help us weigh different kinds of harm against each other so we can achieve our goals at the least possible cost.
A voice of realism is UCLA’s Joseph A. Ladapo, perhaps because he’s a medical doctor who has been treating Covid-19 patients and has permission to be realistic. In USA Today, he writes that we missed any chance to corral a virus that will spare most of us but kill thousands. The shutdowns if prolonged will only make our situation worse. They will add mass unemployment, poverty and missed schooling to our problems.
“The epidemiologic models I’ve seen indicate that the shutdowns and school closures will temporarily slow the virus’ spread, but when they’re lifted, we will essentially emerge right back where we started. And, by the way, no matter what, our hospitals will still be overwhelmed.”
Here is the conclusion of Jenkins’s column:
Donald Trump is mocked for invoking the most ancient of medical advice, “do no harm,” i.e., don’t let the cure be worse than the disease. He was right when he called himself a wartime president, and may have taken a turn for the worse when he decided the solution for him politically and personally is to start talking about saving lives without regard for the cost to the 71% who can’t work from home.
Over in the United Kingdom, Peter Hitchens is trying to raise a ruckus. He has a bad, bad attitude. Brendan O’Neill catches up with Hitchens in “The alleged cure is immensely worse than the disease,” excerpted from O’Neill’s interview with Hitchens (podcast posted here and below).
Quotable quote (Hitchens quoting former UK Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption): “The real question is, is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable, and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all?”