Believe it or not, this is normal. We do it all the time.
Death is part of life — you know the cliché. What you may not know, is that death fuels the engine of our economy.
Using the example of COVID-19: As we lower social restrictions, our economy will grow. As a result, more people will die from the virus. On the flip side, maintaining social restrictions will save lives, but further damage our economy. A simple tradeoff — lives for economic gain.
In other words: Death equals money.
It’s a stark tradeoff but it’s true. It’s unavoidable, and surprisingly common.
Death equals money. Say it out loud.
The science of preventable deaths
In the US, 40,000 people are killed and 4.4 million are hospitalized annually from motor vehicle accidents.
We could prevent that. It’s simple.
Society (you and I) could require carmakers to limit speeds to 15 miles an hour and build in all kinds of pads and bumpers and elaborate automatic safety features. Automotive death rates and injuries would plummet. Millions would be spared from life-changing injuries. 40,000 souls would remain blissfully alive, never knowing that they otherwise would have expired. Countless family members, friends, and co-workers would be spared the horrific gut-wrenching paroxysms of loss.
We could lock out deaths from cigarettes, boats, alcohol, guns, ice cream, cleaning fluids, and sunshine. And we could hermetically seal everyone in their shelter bubbles to eliminate COVID-19 deaths.
But that would never fly.
Why? Because it’s expensive and inconvenient. Sometimes it’s better for the economy to let a few ‘other’ people die.
My friend Larry’s dad, Ray, died from the virus in April. He gasped in terror, struggling to breathe, until he died two weeks later in a medically induced coma on a ventilator. A nurse he never met was by his side when he passed. Larry and his family Zoomed with the hospital during the final hours.
Larry, his family, and dozens of close friends are devastated beyond words. They’re angry, resentful, and now zealously following their state’s safety mandates, hoping it will prevent this from happening to anyone else.
Across the country, another man I know, Tony, bides his time in his apartment prison posting hyperbolic memes on Facebook calling for a nationwide uprising against the deep state hoax. He plans to pack up his rifle and fight with the militia to help rural businesses reclaim constitutional righteousness in the face of illegal demands from the overreaching state.
I know Tony doesn’t have the balls to follow through. He knows the militia is at risk of infection and death. Some will certainly die but he doesn’t care because to him they’re just social avatars, not real people. The cause is virtuous, and death is just a video game construct.
Truth is that the life of a beloved friend or family member is of incalculable value. The life of a statistical avatar, however, is nothing more than economic currency.
How much are you worth?
According to the EPA, your statistical life value is $10 million. Other departments — the FDA, transportation, and agriculture say you’re only worth only about $9 million.
“Value of life” estimates are used in economics, housing, health care, food labeling, highway design, insurance, and workplace safety to name a few. They solve a variety of statistical risk/reward puzzles and cost/benefit analyses.
For example, if we lower automotive fuel efficiency limits, cars will cost less and consumers will buy more of them. Consumers and the economy win!
But there’s no free lunch, and the increase in resulting air pollution will hurt people, raising disability, lawsuits, death rates, and the associated costs of their suffering. We may not know who will be injured but we know with certainty that some people will.
If the expected economic gain is greater than the death, suffering, and disability costs it creates, then it makes sense (statistically speaking) to eliminate that regulation.
And let people die.
This tradeoff works with COVID-19 as well.
The ultimate tradeoff
The United States GDP is losing over a trillion dollars a month.
To reverse that trend, we need commerce, we need business, we need workers. We need consumers to conspicuously consume. 70% of our economy (GDP) rests on the powerful shoulders of consumer spending, and we know that unemployed, sheltered, and frightened consumers don’t spend.
Giving people money is great — the government is helping with that. Giving them jobs is better — but those won’t come until consumer spending increases. Still, regardless of how much money people have, it won’t multiply its way into the economy if people stay home.
If the fuel of our economic recovery is the literal death of hundreds of thousands of people, are we willing to accept that tradeoff? How many is okay? We allow death to fuel the automotive industry, shouldn’t we allow it to fuel the economy?
“How many workers should give their lives to increase the GDP or the Dow by 1,000 points?” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown recently asked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Mnuchin replied “No workers should give their lives to do that, senator…”
But they will. It’s a statistical certainty.
If the fuel of our economic recovery is the literal death of a scant hundreds of thousands of people, are we willing to accept that tradeoff?
You accept death in exchange for money. We all do. But in most cases, we don’t know who unwittingly donated their lives to air pollution and pesticides. We can’t (or don’t want to) link Aunt Bessie’s cancer to her tanning obsession. Cousin Calvin’s death could have been the McNuggets or the Marlboros — who knows?
Rest assured though, that if you don’t already, one day soon you will personally know someone who died from COVID-19. Will it be your mom? Your brother? Yourself?
So sure, let’s go out and consume. We need to.
But let’s be smart about it. While the statistical calculations of the actuaries and statisticians make sense in the world of phantom strangers, they crumble to dust when it’s personal.
And for me? I don’t want to fall on my sword for the noble cause of economic revitalization. Do you?
So please, let’s follow this simple recipe for safe economic success:
1. Wash your hands.
2. Put on a mask.
3. Keep your distance.
4. Go out and goose the economy with reckless abandon.
I, society, and all statistical avatar people — who are just mothers, brothers, and friends you don’t know — say “Thank you.” From a distance.