We all know that hard decisions require hard trade-offs. Believe it or not, I take Trump at his word that he chose to downplay the deadly danger of the coronavirus to the American people because he didn't want to create "a panic" as he told Bob Woodward in taped interviews for Woodward's new book "Rage." So, what were those trade-offs?
10 September 2020
As a philosopher, I might frame the question along these lines: What was the utilitarian calculation that led him to call the virus a Democratic hoax, to claim it was no worse than the flu, to encourage his followers to flout and then protest mask ordinances and business closures, to claim over and over again that the virus would simply disappear on its own as if by magic, to blame the states's governors (who did not have the same information he bragged to Woodward he had) for their failure to handle the pandemic?
Or to put it another way: What countervailing value compelled this administration to try to wait out the ravages of this pandemic in anticipation of a vaccine (and gaslight the American public about when it will be widely available)?
Again: Why, to this day, is there still no national policy to deal with the inevitable second wave that will strike here before a vaccine is widely available?
These are the sorts of hard questions a competent leader and administration is required to make in deciding policy questions. I get it.
So, what was the trade-off that fueled Trump and his administration's decision to downplay the deadly seriousness of the virus to the American public? What was the specific panic they wanted to avoid?
Trump's economic advisors Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow and Steven Mnuchin, among others, made it abundantly clear that the administration's main concern was stock market values. The Trump administration's principal measure of its economic success has been the rising stock market. Trump himself boasted the other day about the record highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as evidence of what a good job he is doing. Understandably, they did not want to see a stock market panic a la 2008.
So, let's look at the numbers on both sides of the trade-off equation. Currently, the U.S. has roughly a quarter of the world's deaths (~195,000) even though we only make up about 4% of the world's population. Worldwide deaths stand at ~905,000. So, doing back-of-the-envelope math, if Trump had acted responsibly and truthfully, not downplayed the severity of the threat, and the U.S. had performed on par with the averages of other countries in the world (not better, just average), we should be at ~36,000 deaths (4% of 905,000). That's ~160,000 additional deaths due to Trump's neglect and public lies about the deadly severity and spread of the virus.
So the question we need to ask is how many points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average were salvaged by this policy? And how many lives were sacrificed in trade-off for each point on the Dow?
Unfortunately, I can't do the second part of the calculation because I don't have access to the numbers Navarro, Kudlow, Mnuchin, Trump, Pence, et al., had. I don't know what their projections of a market "panic" looked like. How many points did they believe it would fall if Trump did not downplay the threat of the pandemic? So, as I write this, I cannot tell you how many American lives per Dow point they gamed out in their scenarios. But I do believe this is the question that needs to be asked. FOIA, e.g., anyone?
One last point. If they did not make the good faith effort to do these utilitarian calculations in determining their policy response to the deadly spread of the virus, then frankly they did not do their job. They are incompetent, and their response has been in bad faith. The total good from the number of Dow points saved should outweigh the total suffering caused by the stack of dead American bodies and shuttered businesses or Trump's policy is an abject failure.
Difficult policy decisions demand tough, realistic calculations. We hired Trump to do the hard work of governing, and we need to be assured he didn't slough off this decision in the false hope the pandemic would simply peter out because he was afraid it would upset his re-election campaign strategy.