The horrific consequences of single-issue policies
Gentle reader, step with me awhile as we perform a brief thought experiment: Imagine a corporation run by a Chief Financial Officer who sees the job entirely as saving the company money.
What actions will they recommend?
They’ll begin by cutting back on R&D because it’s clearly a cost to which no offsetting revenues can be attributed. Then they’ll cut back on administration. Marketing will experience very severe budget reductions indeed because in many cases it’s impossible to draw a straight line between marketing expenditure and resulting sales.
As it turns out, a great many companies have gone down this road and while it seems to be very clever for a brief period (because it gives the illusion of boosting margins) it never ends well.
But let’s keep our thought experiment going. Let’s assume our CFO is a dedicated professional whose only concern is to save the corporation’s dollars no matter what it takes.
There are no other voices around the table. The CFO’s view is the only one we hear.
Well, the CFO will want to cut out pretty much everything, because every activity the corporation undertakes costs something. Once we cut all operations, we cut all costs.
The astute reader will notice there is one teeny-tiny, almost-not-worth-mentioning problem: the corporation has just been destroyed.
So much, so obvious. Except strangely enough it’s not at all obvious to most people. Let’s change the actors in our thought experiment just a little and see what happens.
But first, some important context.
In the USA, more than half of total lifetime spending on health care is incurred in the last few month’s of a person’s life. This is because doctors battle tirelessly to extend the lives of the very old and the very sick. It doesn’t matter if this makes the patients miserable, nor does it matter (to the doctors) how much it costs, nor does it matter that the time and money could be spent far better elsewhere. All that matters for the doctors is saving lives. That’s their single goal.
Not surprisingly, this leads to appalling outcomes. Hundreds of thousands suffer needlessly every year because doctors are dedicated to “saving” them. Over seven hundred billion dollars per year is spent on largely pointless activity, depriving tens of millions of less wealthy people access to even rudimentary health care.
Despite the beliefs of manic CFOs and earnest doctors alike, in real life there are no monotonic conditions. Everything we do is a tradeoff.
Often we’re unaware of the tradeoff, so for example we eat McSlop every day and don’t realize our resulting obesity will lead to diabetes which will lead to amputation of our left leg. But the tradeoff was always there: short term gratification imposed a longer-term cost. When we buy a new car we spend money we otherwise could have spent on a vacation. There isn’t a single thing we do, from the smallest decision to the largest, that doesn’t implicitly demand tradeoffs, even if we aren’t aware of the fact at the time.
But unfortunately with our small ape-brains we often don’t understand this, gentle reader, and the consequences are often dire. Like the single-purpose CFO in our thought experiment, well-meaning real-life doctors pursue a single goal without reference to the impacts of their behavior on the rest of the world.
Therefore it’s inevitable that when you ask doctors about something health-related, they will propose policies that conform to their one goal. They won’t consider any other factors and won’t even be able to imagine the impact of their recommendations on the larger world.
Returning to our earlier thought experiment, dear reader, let’s imagine what would happen if the mass media discovered a way to sensationalize costs.
Let’s imagine every screen, at every minute of the day, filled with horror stories about companies going out of business because they failed to control their expenditures. Let’s imagine expert economists being quoted everywhere we look on the importance of cutting costs to stretch out corporations’ capital reserves to flatten the curve of spending. Let’s imagine everyone, everywhere, is whipped into such a frenzy of panic over the notion of spending money that everyone gets solidly behind the expert advice that we should cut costs everywhere right now!
Yes, it sounds silly, but that’s precisely what has happened with the hysteria over covid-19. Populations have been whipped into hysteria by the sensationalist reportage of totally irresponsible mass media and politicians have rushed “to do something” in order not to lose votes.
We’ve shut down the world in order to “save” lives (almost entirely the lives of the very old and the very sick who would have died anyway just a few weeks later regardless of covid-19). But we’ve failed entirely to look at the costs we’ve imposed.
People who are charmingly naïve will scream “you can’t put a price on life!” but this is a very odd thing to shout because we do in fact put a price on life. What we prefer not to notice is that we are valuing pampered spoiled Western lives far above the lives of those living in abject poverty and insecurity elsewhere.
Why should one old person living in a rich country be “saved” (for a few extra weeks) by condemning to starvation four or five people living in very poor countries? Because that’s what we’re doing.
It’s not about a life being “worth” some dollar value. It’s a straight tradeoff between rich people’s lives and poor people’s lives.
Yes, those living in poor nations are also exposed to the virus. But how many more of them will die unnecessarily because we shut down the world’s commerce and thus deprived them of their ability to feed themselves and their families? How many millions will die over the next few weeks because their leaders were stampeded into action by the sight of Western countries panicking at the behest of their ill-informed citizens?
There are two billion people we share this planet with who literally live from day to day, for whom a mere two dollars of lost income means the whole family doesn’t eat. People who otherwise would have easily fought off the virus (like 98% of us will without any problem at all) will now die because their immune systems have collapsed due to starvation.
Starvation we created because we were stampeded into hysteria by sensationalist mass media and demanded that our political “leaders” do something to “save” us. And when the politicians went to talk to the doctors, guess what they heard? A single-issue solution with no thought of the costs being imposed globally on those least able to bear them.
The mass media is heavily invested in promoting a simple narrative in order to maintain audience numbers which directly translate into revenue. “18 year old boy dies of coronavirus!” screams the headline. Except, when we actually look at the facts, it turns out he was a patient with terminal leukemia who died 24 hours after testing positive for covid-19. He’d have died on that day anyway but thanks to the test he got to be a scary headline with which to further terrify the masses. “No one is immune!” is a much better message with which to grab lucrative eyeballs than “we’re basically all panicking for very little reason.”
The media is also very careful not to provide any context. So what if one million people are killed by automobile accidents each year? Fifty thousand have died from covid-19!! And the people screaming about how you “can’t put a dollar value on human life” don’t seem to be terribly worried about the million who die every year in car crashes. Exactly why are these lives not worth saving? Why haven’t we banned all automotive transportation to save a million people a year?
Why is it apparently OK to die in a car crash but not to die of an infection?
It’s no good saying “viral disease is different” because remember: the claim is that “you can’t put a value on human life.” Which means it doesn’t matter what causes the death. Preserving life must be what matters. We don’t see trauma surgeons saying, “I’ll save people who’ve been stabbed, but I don’t bother about about people who’ve been shot.”
If saving lives is what matters, then all lives must be saved. To play pick-and-choose over which lives to save is not only intellectually incoherent but also very dubious from a moral perspective.
The people who frantically scream about how we can’t put a dollar value on life haven’t bothered to think it through, so they don’t even realize they’re putting forward a totally indefensible proposition. They most certainly don’t want to be reminded of the fact that their self-indulgent hysteria and demand to be “saved” is leading inexorably to mass starvation across Africa and Asia. It’s much nicer to sit at home making face-masks than to confront harsh reality.
By “saving” a few hundred thousand Western lives (lives that will end soon, whatever we do, because they are very old and very sick) we’re sacrificing millions of poor people who are conveniently out of sight. No Western TV crew is going to show us the consequences of our selfish and short-sighted behavior because no TV station wants to be on the receiving end of complaints and reduced viewing figures. So the mass media will keep pumping out the same old story (“we have to save lives by staying indoors and wearing face-masks and staying 10 feet away from our reflections in mirrors in case we infect ourselves!”) and will resolutely ignore the catastrophic consequences.
Let’s look at what we currently know.
Around 98% of people infected will be either asymptomatic or have a mild cold. Those who will die would have died anyway, a handful of weeks later. We’ve shut down the world because 2% of people may be vulnerable and by doing so we’ve made somewhere around 15% of people vulnerable worldwide by cutting off their livelihoods in countries where there is no safety-net whatsoever.
We’ve created a humanitarian catastrophe because we’ve once again forgotten that in real life focusing on a single issue always, without exception, leads to terrible outcomes.
We’ve become the CFO who destroys the company in order to save money.
At some point even those of us in the spoiled and pampered West will begin to feel the effects of our folly and politicians will start to back-peddle. But by then we will have caused horrific irrecoverable harm to those too poor and too obscure to protest.
And that is about the least moral and least defensible position I can imagine.