The economy v our lives? It's a false choice – and a deeply stupid one.
Author: Siva Vaidhyanathan
Source:The Guardian News
Date: 26 Mar 2020
Ancient Hebrew texts are peppered with references to and prohibitions against pre-Judaic practices associated with Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were sacrificed for the greater good.
Now, millennia later, there are prominent voices among us who propose sacrificing the old and weak among us at the altar of another false god – the global economy.
Suddenly, the ghosts of Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham have become priests for the 21st-century Moloch, and have haunted American public conversation about coronavirus.
Republican officials, conservative economists, unqualified pundits, and even the 73-year-old president of the United States have suggested that the short-term economic pain we have just begun inflicting on ourselves to slow the spread of coronavirus might cost too much, just to save the lives of a few million of our most vulnerable neighbors.
The University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, who served on President Trump’s council of economic advisers, told the New York Times that shutting down economic activity to slow the virus would be more damaging than doing nothing at all. He prefers some sort of weighing of the costs and benefits of saving lives.
“It’s a little bit like, when you discover sex can be dangerous, you don’t come out and say: there should be no more sex,” Mulligan said. “You should give people guidance on how to have sex less dangerously.”
And on Tuesday Trump announced that he wanted all US business back to normal levels of function by Easter, 12 April. “This cure is worse than the problem,” Trump said.
This is beyond immoral. It’s profoundly stupid. But this mode of thought is all too common
This is beyond immoral. It’s profoundly stupid. But this mode of thought is all too common among those who can’t see beyond their economic textbooks or their stock portfolios. And it has troubling intellectual roots.
In the late 18th century, Malthus warned that the poor would breed at a rate that would outpace the resources necessary to sustain a growing population, resulting in famine and misery. His predictions failed but were still deployed for decades to limit public amelioration of poverty.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bentham promoted the idea that public moral decisions should be made to foster the greatest good for the greatest number, forging the calculus that has pushed policymakers and economists to invoke simplified “cost-benefit analyses” to decide if a measure is worthy of consideration.
Overall, this approach is a stark example of a troubling ideology that grips too many of those with power and influence in the world. Economism is a belief system that leads people to believe that everything can be simplified to models and curves, and that it’s possible to count and maximize utility in every circumstance. What economism misses includes complexity, historical contingency and the profound, uncountable power of human emotion.
To set up a false choice between driving the economy into the ground while saving millions of lives or reviving the economy while sacrificing millions of lives ignores a core fact: the global economic depression unleashed by the deaths of millions in the United States, millions in Europe, millions in Asia, millions in India, millions in Mexico and millions in Brazil would be beyond our experience or imagination.
No one would trade with anyone for years. Trade would grind to a halt because of mourning, fear of infection, society-wide trauma and social unrest. Let’s note that despite the late and insufficient responses by North American and European leaders, those leading Mexico and Brazil have yet to take the threat seriously at all. They keep denying the gravity of our situation.
India only this week took measures that it should have taken in January prohibiting most people from leaving home and grounding flights for a month. But millions of Indians have no door to close, no place to store food, and no way to distance themselves from those infected. Corpses will soon pile up, waiting for cremation or burial, reinfecting communities weakened by this disease. No one is ready for the social, spiritual and economic devastation that is sure to come by June.
Anywhere in the world, positing this problem as a tradeoff between the economic interests of the young and the lifespan of the old is a terrible error. As the US Centers for Disease Control explains, those vulnerable to serious or fatal cases of the infection include not just the elderly, but anyone who is obese, diabetic, has high blood pressure, is HIV-positive, has undergone cancer treatment, suffers from asthma or smokes. Those factors are more common among poorer Americans as well as older Americans. And poor Americans occupy all age ranges.
Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be
Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.
So this is not a matter of young v old, or even rich v poor (although that would be more accurate and a more classic story of political conflict in America). Even those with none of the most dangerous conditions, who are as young as 12, could succumb to this powerful virus. It’s all of us v all of us. Or, if we choose, all of us for all of us.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a regular columnist for Guardian US and a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects us and Undermines Democracy
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