The power of a pithy phrase to sway the ignorant is not to be underestimated. This is one of the less-urgent lessons of President Trump’s recent reversal on whether the coronavirus pandemic is really worth fighting if it means continued economic trouble, exemplified by the president’s Sunday night tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” A trenchant point, Sir: What if the cure was—get this—worse than the illness? Now our national conversation can be defined by the stupid parameters of this little bit of rhetoric. No one seriously wants to contend, “Yes! I prefer the cure to be worse than the illness; that is good, to me,” do they? Well then, you must agree that allowing a pandemic to rage unchecked in service of Stocks Go Up Again is good and correct.
This little bit of verbal trickery masks a number of salient facts, such as that it is pretty wild to assert that millions of Americans dying of a painful disease, unable to see their loved ones one last time as their lungs fill with fluid, would be a preferable alternative to anything. It ignores that the downsides of the “cure” could be mitigated with massive government spending, to replace lost demand in the economy. It forgets that it seems unlikely the economy would look so great if the health care system were totally overwhelmed with disease and death, as it would and likely will be if we reverse our late turn toward social distancing. Finally, the contention that the cure is worse than the ailment does not contain a sincere concern for the economy; rather, it is about the rich, some of whom made out suspiciously well before the rest of the country was caught up in the pandemic.
Many of Trump’s most craven allies have embraced the idea of consigning a few million Americans to death in order to rescue the economy. As ever with Trump, it seems likely he picked the idea up from one of his brigade of psychopaths, amplified it, and thus ensured that every other goblin in Trumpworld would toe this line. This is how you get right-wing radio hosts like Jesse Kelly tweeting little bits of meaningless faux-patriotic bravado: “If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die.”
But beyond this grimy passel of hucksters and third-rate Hannity knockoffs, there has been a small number of conservative experts and thinkers—that is, people with graduate degrees—who have dutifully trotted out ersatz intellectual defenses of “reopening America.” The conservative Hoover Institution has been a locus for much of this work. In a post for National Review, Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson lamented that “those who advise caution out of fears of an economic meltdown will never be able to quantify the greater number of fatalities from a depression than from an infection,” and that these poor folks are “more likely to be damned as putting money over lives, even if they are more worried about lives than money in the event that a severe recession follows.”
Hanson described the ideal scenario—the “golden mean” between preserving the economy and saving lives—as “a nearly normal economy as tens of millions are tested and those who test positive and their contacts are quarantined, isolated, or restricted in their activities,” but said that “no one knows when this golden mean should be enacted.” Putting aside how this “nearly normal economy” could be achieved, this implies that there are tens of millions of tests sitting in a warehouse somewhere waiting to be deployed and not that America’s testing infrastructure remains woefully behind those of nations like South Korea, which acted far before it was too late. Perhaps by “should be enacted,” he really meant “when this will be achievable,” in which case it seems obvious that keeping the country locked down as far as possible until we can have some idea who actually has the disease is the only way to avoid spreading it further.
The web platform Medium has been the source of skeptical posts about the pandemic, including one shared by a number of Fox News figures that was taken down by whoever it is that makes the site’s belated editorial decisions. (The blog ZeroHedge reposted it in full, noting that the author, Aaron Ginn, is “a former 2012 Romney digital campaign staffer with no background in medicine or infectious disease.”) Another Hoover thought leader also used the site to make his own “cure is worse than the illness” argument. Timothy Kane, a fellow in Immigration Studies at Hoover, wrote a post on Medium that put the range of policy options from 0 to 10, from doing nothing at zero to an unspecified most severe option at 10, and argued that “zero mitigation is a dangerous policy, and my main argument is that 10 is probably worse. Economic Armageddon will kill more than 1 percent of the population, I promise you.” It’s sure hard to say that it won’t when you don’t say what the most severe option actually is.
Kane also noted that “even the most extreme measures will only slow it down, or flatten the curve,” which has been the heavily stressed argument of epidemiologists all along. The point of flattening the curve is not just to reduce the number of cases overall but to lessen strain on the health care system by reducing the number of simultaneous cases. More people will die, including of diseases other than the coronavirus, if the health care system is heavily overburdened at any one point. Again: Kane is an economist who studies immigration, not an epidemiologist.
This is one of the categorical problems of knowing who to trust in analyzing the pandemic: Economists aren’t epidemiologists, and epidemiologists are not economists. The people most qualified to talk about the virus’s spread and its death rates are not knowledgeable about the economy, and the people most qualified to analyze unemployment rates and fiscal stimulus have no training in analyzing disease vectors. What we know about economics as a profession should give you clues as to which category you would be better off listening to during this crisis. Unfortunately, epidemiologists just aren’t doing enough to reassure conservatives who want to believe that all this will blow over soon (and that the liberals who don’t want you to be able to go to damn Applebee’s with your wife’s large sons are not only wrong, but unpatriotic, for sacrificing liberty on the satanic altar of Not Dying).
Naturally, it is not just economists who find themselves suddenly qualified to weigh in on matters of infectious disease. A senior fellow at Hoover and law professor at NYU, Richard A. Epstein, wrote a post on Monday criticizing Democratic governors for enacting “draconian” measures under a “one-man gubernatorial dictatorship,” with “hysterical and sloppy” projections about the virus’s spread. (He also praised Ginn’s short-lived Medium post for its use of the term “hysteria” to describe such projections.) Instead, Epstein prefers a “Hayekian” framework of measures enacted “at the level of plants, hotels, restaurants, and schools,” and believes “government fiats will probably save very few, if any, lives saved over what we can obtain through more focused voluntary precautions.” Never mind the evidence that even with measures to restrict work, businesses like GameStop and Restoration Hardware are finding ways to declare themselves essential. Ultimately, he posits: “There is only one cure to the current malaise, which is to reverse these self-destructive policies before it is too late.”
According to The New York Times reporter Jim Tankersley, Epstein’s earlier work predicting that the U.S. would only see 500 deaths, a figure we passed this week, was circulated in the Trump administration. Epstein has since edited that figure to 5,000, appending his revision with a claim that he had “erroneously” written 500 the first time around. Epstein nevertheless baselessly hews to the notion that the “adjusted figure, however tweaked, remains both far lower, and I believe far more accurate, than the common claim that there could be a million dead in the U.S. from well over 150 million coronavirus cases before the epidemic runs its course.” (The estimates he’s referring to vary widely depending on what measures are taken. A paper from Imperial College, for example, predicts 2.2 million U.S. deaths if no measures are taken to prevent the virus’s spread at all, and 1.1 million if we enact some measures to slow the spread.) Still, what’s a tenfold cock-up between Hoover fellows and the Trump administration?
Perhaps conservatives, expert or no, are just in denial about the sad situation we find ourselves in and have fallen back on the comfort of blaming liberals and their “science,” the way a toddler might clutch at a security blanket. Perhaps they are doing their bit to support their president, regardless of whether they really believe what they’re saying. Or perhaps they simply care less about mass death, particularly as it’s more likely to affect the most vulnerable, who are the targets of daily attacks from conservative policies anyway. It is nevertheless a form of madness to suggest that “saving the economy” is something that is preferable to, or incompatible with, measures to halt the spread of a deadly disease—whether the person suggesting that has a law degree, a blue checkmark on Twitter, or a round-walled office in the White House.