I was surprised this morning to find Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins citing economist Cass Sunstein favorably I guess that pandemics make strange bedfellows. Here it is:
Mr. Sunstein endorses two studies that see benefits of “aggressive social distancing,” even at the cost of considerable economic destruction, in terms of lives saved. Who doesn’t? But the proposals he cites define aggressive social distancing to mean something less stringent than the sweeping mandatory business shutdowns and shelter-in-place commands already in force around the country.
One study proposes seven-day isolation of those with symptoms, 14-day isolation of exposed households, and “dramatically reduced social contact for all those over 70 years of age.” The other, sterner study proposes closing schools, theaters and sports venues.
Even so, Mr. Sunstein allows that if the economic depression is long-lasting or the recovery slow, the costs “start to explode” and need to be rethought. And nowhere does he suggest costs shouldn’t be considered at all as the Bloomberg headline writers seem to believe: “This Time the Numbers Show We Can’t Be Too Careful: Hard-headed cost-benefit analysis usually confirms that it’s dangerous to be overcautious. The coronavirus is different.”
Huh? That’s exactly not what his column says. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose New York City is America’s worst coronavirus hot spot, was having second thoughts on Thursday about the strenuous social-distancing requirements he has been imposing on the city’s businesses and citizens.
Since I made a joke at CNN’s expense on Wednesday, I have had to explain to a few readers that it wasn’t just a gratuitous sideswipe. For news organizations, misleading the consumer can, at times, be part of the business model. If consumers put up with it or seem to enjoy it, it will continue. Like Hillary Clinton’s tweets, this is the last thing we need right now.
Mr. Sunstein goes to some length to explain why it’s exactly wrong and self-defeating to refuse to weigh the benefit of public goals against the cost of achieving them.
He chooses examples of the sort that excite ridicule when President Trump cites them, such as our tolerance for traffic deaths as the price for being able to move around freely, or acceptance of construction deaths (perhaps an unconscious wink to the real-estate impresario in the White House) so we can have buildings to live in and work in.
“I have long been an enthusiastic defender of quantitative cost-benefit analysis,” Mr. Sunstein begins. In words plain enough that a headline writer can understand them, he acknowledges that in the present situation a significant percentage of the “avoided mortalities involve older people” and this ought to be a factor in our calculations.
“Don’t kill Granny!” makes a good sound bite but poverty will kill her as surely as COVID-19 and her odds are at least 9:1 in her favor even if she contracts it.
While I agree that we shouldn’t minimize the risks of COVID-19, similarly we shouldn’t minimize the risks of a major economic downturn impelled by counter-measures. If enough people default on their home mortgages, it will inevitably bring the banks down. They’re in little better shape than they were 12 years ago. As the banks begin to teeter it will inevitably provoke the same plaints we heard during the financial crisis.
People who are particularly vulnerable are not simply the poor or the homeless but everyone who earns his or her living through personal services. That includes everybody from beauticians and barbers to physicians and dentists. There’s more than one way to overwhelm the health care system. Let’s avoid both of them.