This question posted recently makes a lot of assumptions, including

the US President is currently making a trade-off of human lives for the economy


Trump's pro-economy death-permissive stance during the COVID-19 crisis

What are the facts backing this claim?


3 Answers 3


I can't speak for Rebecca's judgement in interpreting those words of Trump, but for instance a NYT article says:

“Our people want to return to work,” Mr. Trump declared Tuesday on Twitter, adding, “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!”

In essence, he was raising an issue that economists have long grappled with: How can a society assess the trade-off between economic well-being and health? [...]

We put a lot of weight on saving lives,” said Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist who spent a year as chief economist on Mr. Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. “But it’s not the only consideration. That’s why we don’t shut down the economy every flu season. They’re ignoring the costs of what they’re doing. They also have very little clue how many lives they’re saving.” [...]

“Making people poorer has health consequences as well,” said Kip Viscusi, an economist at Vanderbilt University who has spent his career using economic techniques to assess the costs and benefits of government regulations.

Jobless people sometimes commit suicide. The poor are likelier to die if they get sick. Mr. Viscusi estimates that across the population, every loss of income of $100 million in the economy causes one additional death.

Government agencies calculate these trade-offs regularly. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has established a cost of about $9.5 million per life saved as a benchmark for determining whether to clean up a toxic waste site.

Other agencies use similar values to assess whether to invest in reducing accidents at an intersection or to tighten safety standards in a workplace. The Department of Agriculture has a calculator to estimate the economic costs — medical care, premature deaths, productivity loss from nonfatal cases — of food-borne disease.

So, the argument [in there] is that governments always make such trade-offs/choices, whether they are incredibly open about them or less so.

I should also mention (here, in case comments get purged again) that the NYT article discusses in a bit more depth the finer points of balancing the economic losses from lockdowns with those that would occur in an unchecked epidemic. This topic has been a addressed in some recent economics publications, e.g. Eichenbaum et al. discussed in the NYT article; but see also a simpler "lockdowns 101 economics". For the broader economic aspects of the crisis see also "The Economics of Coronavirus" on Econ SE.

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    @ruakh: your observation is correct; the NYT article is pretty long and also discusses the finer points of balancing using a recent paper of Eichenbaum et al. (which I also find very interesting, but I thought would be too much to include/mention here) . I honestly did not expect this question to get HNQ'd as it seemed rather unremarkable. Also of note: there were a lot of interesting comments under this answer that were recently purged (but you haven't actually repeated one of those earlier points in your comment.) Mar 30, 2020 at 0:47

Trump is weighing the economy vs lives saved. That is his job

No leader wants to be in the position Trump is in. For instance, it has been stated that Winston Churchill knew in advance of a bombing raid on Coventry but chose to take no action. Ignoring the controversy over the assertion, this comment at the end is apropos

"But even if Churchill had known at that short notice (that Coventry was to be targeted) imagine the logistics of evacuating a city the size of Coventry - it would have been enormous."

In other words, even if Churchill knew the target of the raid, it would not have been feasible to evacuate an entire city on short notice.

The problem

COVID-19 is more prone to major medical problems like serious lung damage (among others), especially in elderly people. You can't just treat and release a large number of these sicker people. They need weeks of hospitalization. That contributes to a higher death rate

The death rate from seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S., according to The New York Times.

Though the death rate for COVID-19 is unclear, most research suggests it is higher than that of the seasonal flu.

In the study published Feb. 18 in the China CDC Weekly, researchers found a death rate from COVID-19 to be around 2.3% in mainland China. Another study of about 1,100 hospitalized patients in China, published Feb. 28 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the overall death rate was slightly lower, around 1.4%.

There's two terrible choices before Trump, each with their own consequences

Less quarantine

Now, Trump did say


but ditching the quarantine too early means that everything done up until now has been for naught. People go back to their lives, COVID-19 spreads, and the virus apocalypse for hospitals still comes to pass (plus we all go back to social distancing, whether or not we want to).

What's more, the findings suggest that if these measures — including school and workplace closures — are lifted too soon, a second wave of cases may occur in midsummer. However, keeping these measures in place until early April — which the city plans to do — and gradually resuming activities would likely delay this second wave of cases until the fall; giving the health care system much-need time to expand and respond to the epidemic, the authors said.

If that happens, Trump will be toast in the polls.

Less economy

Trump was going to run on the strong economy

"When you have the best economy probably that we've ever had – I don't know. How the hell do you lose this election, right?" Trump asked a crowd of supporters during a rally in northeastern Pennsylvania last year.

Obviously, that is out now. But Trump isn't wrong to worry about the economy. A ridiculously large portion of the US economy is entirely shut down, and some people are confined solely within their homes, save some limited activity. When the quarantine is over, a significant portion of people may find their former employers are no longer in business. Understand, this event is wholly unprecedented

The mammoth $2 trillion rescue package on the brink of heading to President Donald Trump’s desk would plug some of the massive holes coronavirus is ripping through the American economy.

But the massive effort — the largest single injection of federal cash into the economy in U.S. history — will do nothing to flip the switch back on for an economy enduring the swiftest paralyzation any major developed nation has ever seen.

To be certain, the longer the shutdown goes on, the further we sail into uncharted waters. Congress cannot continue to pass stimulus bills to keep the economy afloat forever, and we have no idea what a 3 month partial economic shutdown will do, let alone double that. And that assumes a lot of things like trade go back to normal quickly.

There is no easy answer here

Regardless of who is in the White House, you're going to have to decide which side you err on. Good and honest people can disagree about which side they would err on, but this decision rests solely with Trump. Only time will tell if his decisions will save lives at the cost of economy or vice versa. Regardless, some people may die or wind up unemployed, and they will blame the President. That is the cost of being President in such a time as this.

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    The speculations about polls and blame seem irrelevant. The question is about the economy, not popularity.
    – agc
    Mar 30, 2020 at 14:23
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    "Congress cannot continue to pass stimulus bills... forever" -- indeed it can, that's within its Constitutional power. At some point there may no longer be any underutilized resources to requisition, but taking a huge amount of labor and material goods out of the real economy and literally blowing them up was done from 1942-1945 with no ill economic effects. There's nothing stopping Congress from buying food for, paying all debts of, etc. people who've lost their jobs or taken pay cuts or... so long as there's food being grown.
    – Tiercelet
    Mar 31, 2020 at 20:28
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    I find this comparison really unfair to Churchill. First, Churchill didn't hold rallies in Coventry and didn't promise that Luftwaffe will miraculously go away. He also didn't brag that he did "A+ job" with bombings. Second, the BBC article you linked to explains in no uncertain terms that the "Coventry Blitz" is a baseless conspiracy theory that has little support among historians. Apr 1, 2020 at 14:34

To delve a bit into philosophy here, Trump demonstrates a distorted form of what Nietzsche called 'master morality,' which might seem alien to most people. Nietzsche's master morality values strength, power, beauty, victory, wealth: all the material/physical symbols of practical success are interpreted as moral goods, and all their opposites or lacks are interpreted as moral weakness. I say that Trump's version of it is distorted because Nietzsche's master class also prizes intellectual and emotional qualities like compassion, grace, artistry, wisdom and knowledge... Nietzsche's master class aims to be noble in both thought and action, whereas Trump tends to top out at vainglorious.

There's nothing particularly special in this, mind you: most every political and economic leader will show elements of this master morality, some with more nobility than others. I suppose it is a human norm for successful people to interpret their success as a moral virtue, not mere happenstance.

One of the darker aspects of master morality within capitalist societies, however, is that it implicitly presumes that human life — at least the human lives of non-masters: the weak, the poor, the ugly, or in Trump's jargon the nasty fake losers — has a variable but quantifiable economic value. This is why, before OSHA guidelines were established in the US, industrialists would skimp on safety equipment and fire exits, mine owners rejected air-filtration masks and cave-in escape routes, and no one gave a thought to working hours or the dangerous effects of exhaustion. Workplace accidents were viewed in terms of their impact on production schedules, not their impact on human life, because workers were replaceable in the same way that broken machinery was. Sometimes it's efficient to repair a machine or a man; other times it's better to toss them out and get another. Workers were expected to accept the risk to life and limb as a condition of being employed — something that it would be immoral to ask a master to do, but which is perfectly moral (in master morality) when asked of a non-master — because the human life of workers has a limited value to the master.

This is the moral frame that Trump is operating under. To him, most of the people in the nation — laborers, white-collar employees, service workers, and particularly elderly retirees or other people who do not contribute to economic production — are non-masters, and ought to accept a certain risk to life and limb in order to keep production moving. Any of the productive ones who die are replaceable; any of the non-productive ones who die are dismissible. It's tragic and sad (in some abstract sense), sure, but these people are (after all) losers at the game of life, living off the generosity of those in the master class (such as himself) who deign to pay them.

For master morality, the difference between "You're fired" and "You're dead" is negligible: they both mean that a new worker needs to be found, hired, and trained, and not much more. It's the worker's fault that he accepted the risk and rolled bad dice; what's a master to do?

N.B. Nietzsche opposed the master morality with what he called the slave morality, typical of people at the lower end of the spectrum. I've avoided the term 'slave' and any detailed description of that moral worldview because 'slave' is a hot-button word and that discussion is somewhat off topic. Please don't complain about that in the comments.


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