The economists had tried everything. They’d fiddled around with interest rates, raised taxes and then lowered them. But no matter what policy cocktail they served up, their forecasting model regurgitated the same sorry result: The recession would persist.
Their boss wasn’t satisfied. Suspecting that there were policy options his number crunchers had failed to test, he asked them a simple question: “Have you tried ‘kill all the poor’?”
The economists took offense.
“I’m not saying do it,” the boss clarified. “I’m just saying run it through the computer — see if it would work.”
“Of course it wouldn’t help; that’s why we’re not doing it,” one of the economists protested.
“That’s why we’re not doing it?” the boss spat back, eyes widening in horror. “That’s the only reason we’re not doing it? Bloody hell, now I’m offended.”
The animating absurdity of Mitchell and Webb’s “Kill the Poor” sketch lies in the boss character’s obsession with discerning the technocratic viability of a homicidal policy that he himself regards as morally unthinkable.
The American right’s budding consensus on coronavirus policy is absurd in a similar — if more sociopathic — respect: Trumpists are eagerly endorsing the moral permissibility of reviving the economy through mass manslaughter, even as they evince little interest in the question of whether such a policy would even work.
Take the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas. On Monday night, Dan Patrick called for the swift suspension of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, on the grounds that putting senior citizens in mortal peril was a small price to pay for economic revival.
“No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in … I just think there’s lots of grandparents out there in this country like me — I have six grandchildren — that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children. I want to live smart and see through this. But I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed and that’s what I see.”
Patrick’s analysis is morally odious in many respects. To name just one, it is unseemly for the lieutenant governor to frame his policy preference as a heroic sacrifice of his personal security to the common good. An unconstrained COVID-19 outbreak wouldn’t just kill seniors by ravaging their lungs past the point where modern medicine can be of use; it would also kill them by overwhelming hospital capacity, thus forcing health professionals to leave some treatable elderly COVID-19 patients to die. The chances that a Texas hospital would deny Dan Patrick a ventilator in his moment of need are nil. Thus, the suspension of social distancing would pose a far greater threat to the median senior than it would to the lieutenant governor. The life he is volunteering to jeopardize is not his own.
But the more fundamental problem is that Patrick provides no evidence that the grisly trade-off he endorses is even an option. Granted, it is hard to know precisely what he even means by “keeping the America that all America loves.” Presuming he means averting a recession, however, it is unclear what basis he has for believing that relaxing social-distancing protocols — before we’ve expanded the capacity of our hospitals to safely treat large numbers of COVID-19 patients, or the ability of our public health agencies to test and monitor the infected — would redound to the economy’s benefit.
And yet, Patrick is not alone. Many (though, blessedly, not all) conservative commentators, policy wonks, and politicians — including the president himself — have spent the past 48 hours announcing their willingness to trade the lives of their core constituents for green arrows on their stock tickers, despite lacking any coherent argument for why this would work.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” the president tweeted Sunday, before implying that he would end his rhetorical support for social distancing by April 12. Trump tacitly reiterated this position Tuesday, tweeting, “Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” Some Trump supporters are already taking the president’s cue; on Tuesday, Jerry Falwell Jr. announced that Liberty University will be reopening this week.
Now, to give the Trumpists their due: If it were actually the case that the U.S. government faced a choice between saving 1 million (disproportionately elderly) Americans from premature deaths and averting a global depression, then the morally superior option might well be the latter. Although Trump appears principally concerned with the impact a protracted recession will have on his reelection odds and his fellow plutocrats’ portfolios, economic downturns also have dire implications for the meager incomes of the global poor. American consumer demand remains the engine of global economic growth. If U.S. unemployment is indeed headed for 20 percent, this recession is going to indirectly kill a lot of people — both in our country and in developing nations whose economies depend on commodity exports.
But that is not actually the choice we face. After all, Trump did not acquiesce to the recommendations of public health officials this month because he realized the health of the old and infirm was more important than that of the S&P 500. Rather, he adopted Dr. Anthony Fauci’s proposals only after the president’s repeated attempts to bluff his way past the pandemic failed to keep the Dow Jones aloft. Which is to say: He belatedly recognized that prioritizing public health was a precondition for restoring economic growth.
The billionaire’s inveterate impatience (and incompetent economic advisers) are now leading him to abandon that insight.
In truth, there is no reason to believe that Trump would derive any political or economic benefit from disavowing social distancing by Easter. This is true for three distinct (though related) reasons:
1) Suspending efforts to decelerate the spread of coronavirus — before the government has built up the capacities necessary to prevent the outbreak from overwhelming ICUs and killing hundreds of thousands — will not restore the pre-pandemic economy. Consumer demand for restaurants, concerts, and other services that require congregating in crowded public spaces will not return to normal levels while a lethal virus is still spreading exponentially, no matter what message the president preaches from the bully pulpit. People aren’t going to want to go out when their friends are routinely dying as a result of having gone out.
2) Trump does not actually have the authority to suspend the most sweeping and legally binding social-distancing measures, which have been mandated by state and municipal officials.
3) Voters have actually rewarded Trump for acting as though his No. 1 priority is preventing them from dying. According to multiple polls, a majority of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the pandemic thus far, including a significant minority of Democrats. Trump’s overall job approval numbers have also inched up since the onset of the crisis. It is true (and important) that Trump has seen a smaller “rally around the flag” effect than the leaders of other afflicted countries have enjoyed. But he’s on the upswing politically, nevertheless. And there’s reason to believe that this is precisely because he has demonstrated a commitment to taking coronavirus seriously. In a Navigator Research poll released Tuesday, 56 percent of respondents said Trump “did not take coronavirus seriously enough” when the bug first began spreading, but now a majority (52 percent) say he is handling the crisis correctly. The survey also found Americans saying they were more worried about the health of their friends and families than they were about their finances.
None of this means that it would be politically or substantively wise for Trump to keep America on lockdown for the next 18 months (or however long it takes for a vaccine to be approved and distributed). The way for Trump to do “two things together,” in the sense of promoting public health and economic recovery, is to do everything in his power to increase hospital capacity, health-care staffing, testing availability, and medical equipment manufacturing as rapidly as possible. Without taking such actions, there will be no way for the White House to formulate an alternative to mass lockdowns that would actually deliver on even the most myopic and amoral of the president’s priorities. In the meantime, Trump and his allies can keep the U.S. economy on life support through massive, recurring fiscal support to workers, states, cities, and small businesses.
Such an agenda would require Republicans to make an extended break with their plutocratic economic orthodoxies and an extensive demonstration of the state’s capacity to shape economic outcomes. Which might well be what some conservatives fear most. But however much Republicans may wish otherwise, the tree of prosperity cannot be refreshed with the blood of geriatrics.