Let me start this essay with an important caveat: I, for one, wish this question would not be raised. I find it morally reprehensible to even entertain the idea that sacrificing the lives of the elderly and vulnerable is necessary for the perseverance of any economic system.
The whole notion that death for the economy could be in any way worthy is beyond sadistic and bizarre. I know I am not alone in feeling this way. In ordinary times, one could end the discussion at this point of moral objection. But as we know, these are all but ordinary times, so here I am penning down a column responding to the cruel idea that sacrificing the lives of the elderly would be necessary in the name of economic progress. It’s hard to believe, but in the midst of a pandemic, public discourse has reached this most morbid point.
Though one feels dirty even writing about the topic, last week Dan Patrick, 69 years of age and lieutenant governor of Texas, insinuated his willingness to commit suicide as the Coronavirus pandemic began to ravage in the US. Though the US has been more piecemeal compared to China or Italy, 24 states have directed residents to shelter in place to protect the elderly and vulnerable, such as people with severe asthma, from contracting the virus and falling ill with COVID-19, a disease whose trajectory can end fatal. These measures, designed to avoid mass casualties, contribute to slowing the economy.
In Patrick’s mind, these measures – which, for example, prevent people from congregating in bars and restaurants and compel employees to work from home – are an overreach. In his own words, “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it.” He added, “And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” Such views gained traction last week, with Glen Beck becoming more explicit by stating, “I’d rather die” from coronavirus “than kill the country” because of the lockdown. Trump suggested he’d shorten the lock-down to protect the economy, though he fortunately backtracked from this idea as the predictions on the mortality of the Coronavirus grew more and more dire.
There are – according to David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center – “more surgical” strategies to protect the elderly and the economy, but let us stick with the extreme preposition that it might take death to protect the economy, since Glen Beck and Dan Patrick insinuated this would be a prize worth paying, and since their insinuations say much about how economic power has become fetishized. To be clear: I doubt that Glen Beck would die for any cause. But there are older people who hear these kinds of arguments. I cannot imagine how such talk would not spread fear, terror and guilt in the midst of an already tragic and scary situation. That’s one reasons why we have to engage with, and refute, these arguments about the early departure of the elderly and vulnerable to maintain economic prowess.
There is also the quote of the infamous Milton Friedman, a radical free-market thinker, which also epitomizes the need to engage with the odious suggestion that the elderly should depart to save the economy. It goes,
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
If the ideas and arguments of sacrificing the elderly and others are lying around and could be picked up by some free market fanatics, we better pick them up ourselves with one goal only: to deconstruct them.
An Altruistic Suicide?
One of the founding fathers of the modern social science, French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote pioneering work about suicide in his book Le suicide in 1897. He distinguished several types of suicide, for example by contrasting egoistic suicide with altruistic suicide. The latter occurs when people completely identify with the goals and values of a group, and killing herself would be necessary to maintain the survival of the group or serve its aims. Note that the values and goals of such a group, for which one of its members is willing to die, must not agree with what we ourselves consider altruistic or an advancement to humanity – the altruism lies in paying the ultimate price for the group.
Now imagine, for the sake of the argument, a scenario in which the lockdown is dismantled before the Coronavirus has peaked. One justification for putting the lives of the elderly and vulnerable on the line is that the economic slowdown caused by a tanking economy (which would be caused by a lockdown) would kill more people that the virus itself. This highly utilitarian line of argument follows the Trump logic, “We can’t have the cure to be worse than the disease.” If this scenario were true, and the elderly would accept death to prevent more deaths and suffering, then we could perhaps talk of an altruistic suicide. Fortunately, it is not true at all, but a reflection of how much some commentators have fatalistically succumbed to the notion that growth becomes a tyrannical death spiral if it is not constantly fed.
Can Growth Save Human Lives?
The whole line of reasoning that underlies the emergence of the current altruistic suicide madness – that a slowing economy would cause mass death – is empirically dubious. In public debates in contemporary capitalism, whether does or doesn’t experience strong growth serves as a litmus test of whether it is healthy. As Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has shown in his sweeping review “Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding – and How We Can Improve the World Even More” that establishing any relationship between growth and well-being (which, if it becomes extremely low can cause death either through illness or suicide) is always tricky. However, his in-depth exploration of the different facets of growth statistics allows him to postulate some “good news”: “large incomes are less and less requisite to ensuring a good quality of life.”
Kenny is extremely careful in avoiding any hasty conclusion, given the difficulty of obtaining good data on the subject and statistically analyzing it, though trying to correlate economic growth with other variables (such as specific economic policies) has become “a large industry”. As he points out, “Google Scholar points to 14,600 papers referring to the analysis of cross-country growth experiences placed online between 2001 and 2007 alone.”
How Public Action Utilized the Economic Create Advances in Human Well-Being
The relationship between economic activities on the one hand and well-being and human survival on the other hand is hardly straightforward. It is true that people live longer lives in rich countries. It is also true that the last centuries have seen the expansion of industrial capitalism, and along with it also the reduction of various fatal diseases and the rise of life-expectancy.
It must be pointed out, though, that this type of growth has not only occurred in conditions of free-for-all capitalism, but predominantly in situations that allowed for a symbiosis between forces unleashed by free market activities and the salutary effects of public policy – that latter coming in the form of, for instance, strong regulatory institutions in the post-World War II era, welfare states in Europe, massive public investment in the US (for example to expand the digital infrastructure and electrify the West) and central planning in China and other Asian economies such as Singapore.
More often than not the reductions of diseases and improvement of healthcare required deliberate public action. For example, when the second Cholera Epidemic, beginning in 1829, spread throughout Europe, Britain put in place several measures to curb the spread, for example by putting in place quarantines and local boards of health. Such actions by the public sector occurred during the late stages of the British Industrial Revolution, one of history’s most dramatic expansions of economic activities and wealth.
If capitalism reaped health and well-being benefits for the people, this was often the result of organized labor and activists demanding that resources be made available for public policy. But this relationship does not only work in one way: a healthy population makes any economic progress more sustainable.
Maintaining growth of economic activity does not automatically translates into higher odds for human survival or even a higher quality of life, yet that’s what advocates for suicide for the economy seem to propose. Institutions and rights that were born out of struggle and compromise are much more urgent in a face of a pandemic compared growth. The absence of a robust welfare sector in the US currently undermines efforts to curb the Coronavirus pandemic in the most tragic ways.
There are other ways that deliberate policies rather than growth can save lives. In the Global South, aid organizations – working in close coordination with governments – enabled dramatic reductions of diseases by making new technologies widely available. For example, in large parts because of an ambitious international campaign, the direst prognoses on the mortality caused by HIV/Aids would cause in Southern Africa – for example, as the BBC predicted in 2000, that HIV/Aids would kill half of all the young adults in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe – did not come true. The tide was turned in dramatic ways on other diseases, too: Polio – a condition that has historically resulted in disability around the world – has been reduced by 99,99 per cent.
These advances do not suspend the need for structural changes on the national level of poor countries and how these countries are treated in the global system, nor are they sufficient in themselves, but they belie arguments that aid does not work and therefore should not be funded. No matter where one stands on aid, it is clear that we need vast increases of aid to protect societies in the Global South from the worst effects of the Corona pandemic. Given that the world spends exceedingly more on tanks, bombs and stock-options, it is worth keeping in mind that spending more on aid, rather than single-mindedly pursuing growth, actually saves lives.
Another way that societies can guarantee more well-being is by decreasing inequalities: As the Herculean research efforts by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, the one factor that predicts human misery – for example in the form of depression and anxiety as well as criminal pathologies in rich countries – are levels of economic inequality. The more inequality surges, the more mentally and physically sick the population becomes. This trend is not entirely surprising, if one seriously takes into account that primates – our closest relatives with whom we share much of our DNA, and whose behavior allows for some conclusions about our human preferences – lose their temper when they receive unequal rewards for the same task. Who could blame them?
Could Too Much Growth Even Kill Us?
In 2016 the World Economic Forum, not exactly a bona fide leftist platform, rather exasperatedly reported that “accumulating evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being” are not linked, and that “it seems that economic growth actually kills people.” The Forum cited two papers, one of them analyzing the relationship between mortality and economic growth among 100 birth-cohorts in 32 countries over a time-span of 200 years. The conclusion: when a country’s GDP — which is how one measures economic output – is higher than anticipated, mortality also increases beyond what one might expect.
The reason is that in times of booms, the air pollution and alcohol consumption increase. Especially infants are very sensitive to air-pollution, even in richer countries. For example, the effects of the 1981-82 oil shock in the United States may have saved 2,500 infant lives because of minor reductions in air-pollution because of the reduction in economic activity. It turns out Trump’s decision to relax EPA rules in the midst of this pandemic might be more harmful than slow growth.
Economic growth is not all bad, though. In agrarian societies, it still increases health in the economy becomes more industrial. But there appears to be a tipping-point, after which the pollution caused by further growth is more harmful. An intriguing case-in-point would be Sweden: In the 1800s, as Sweden was industrializing, economic growth contributed to longer lives, yet in the 1900s growth contributed to mortality.
Deaths of Despair and Economic Stagnation
There are, however, deaths of despair that result from economic recessions. Depression and suicide spiked during the Greece death crisis of the last decade. This crisis was also accompanied by severe austerity policies imposed by the German government. In the US Rustbelt, citizens who have seen their economic opportunities diminish in the past decades are increasingly dying “deaths of despair” caused by opioid overdoses, suicide and illnesses related with alcohol abuse.
But here again, public action and safety-nets are key to key to reverse the trendline: This is, at least, suggested by the research of Thor Norström and Hans Grönqvist, both from the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University, who interrogated the relationship between suicide and unemployment between 1960 and 2012. Generally, unemployment contributes to more suicide in a society. The effect is not as significant as one might expect, though: A 1% increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a growth of 0.06% in male suicides. But, as the Swedish researchers have also found, this effect is decreased when a country has a more expansive and generous welfare system. Though it would make sense to strengthen welfare institutions as crisis looms, Donald Trump’s instinct is the opposite, as this week’s irresponsible decision to not reopen Obamacare marketplace shows.
An Agenda for Survival
A sober reflection on the scientific consensus on the effects of global warming alone should make it obvious that our obsession with economic growth has long courted disaster. It has now reared its head in a particular ugly form, and tapped into the tense intergenerational relationships in the US. But as the recent morbid altruistic suicide insinuations should male clear, intergenerational war is a diversion at best and a threat to the elderly and vulnerable at worst.
All ages are better off joining forces to protect the public from the worst effects of the spread of COVID-19 by taking socially distancing very seriously. It is the only path forward after the Trump administration’s dysfunctions and criminal neglect made the COVID-19 crisis worse than could have been. After we will have beaten back COVID-19 – which will hopefully happen sooner rather than later –, we have to honor those who passed from the pandemic by getting to work building an economic system and society that is resilient and allows all of us to live in dignity. Doing so will require ditching our economic growth fetish and to no longer pit one group against the other, be this group based on age, race, gender, nationality or class. Getting rid of all this old baggage and instead spinning security nets within and beyond US borders will be the best investment and insurance against future misery caused by pandemics, or any other contingency that might come our way.
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