By Abram Brown with Chris Helman
In his corner of the Texas oil patch, Bud Brigham has kept things going as much as he can in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the employees at Brigham Minerals, which he founded and currently chairs, are working from home. Brigham is also the chairman of Atlas Sand, whose plants are still going full throttle, he says, processing the sand that gets sold to frackers.
As the name of that company hints, Brigham is a libertarian, and he once financed a movie trilogy of Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged. I do wonder, are we overreacting? he says, doing his best Dagny Taggart imitation. Is the cure worse than the ailment?
That sentiment has spread widely in the last 48 hours. Tweets and email chains, many penned by desperate small-business owners, found their way to the Fox News punditry set. Just as the spread of coronavirus creates a curve of the number of people infected, this economic shutdown is creating a curve of the number of people affectedlosing their jobs, their homes, their businesses, Fox host Steve Hilton said Sunday night, asking viewers if they were familiar with that famous phrase: The cure is worse than the disease. It was then only a matter of time before the Tweeter-in-Chief weighed in. WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM, President Trump, caps lock emphatically on, wrote shortly before midnight Sunday. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO. He doubled down yesterday morning, retweeting those who agreed with himand finished by retweeting his own late-night tweet.
By yesterday, Trumps notion had become a mainstream talking point, as prominent observers including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Fox News Laura Ingraham and Brit Hume and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis all insisted that an economic crash will kill more people than the virus, and we should therefore let those who are purportedly less at riskthe young and middle-agedgo back to producing and consuming.
All of which has scientists, doctors and other health-care professionals aghast. Their consensus: Stay home and dont go within six feet of anyone. We have to hunker down, says Vincent Racaniello, who teaches microbiology and immunology at Columbia University. He doesnt think its safe to resume normal life until the country reports no more than 10 new cases in a day. (The U.S. is currently reporting thousands per day.) Look at all the people dying in huge numbers on a daily basis in Italy, he adds. We need to prevent that. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, the governments leading expert on infectious diseases, didnt appear at yesterdays circus-like press briefing, Trump was asked if Fauci agreed with him on the need to ease social distancing to speed the reopening of the economy. No, he doesnt not agree, the president responded, his use of a double negative only muddying the waters further.
Does this standoff represent yet another culture war, this one with hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars on the line? This is probably unprecedented, says Greg Wawro, chair of Columbias political science department. It is bleak. Its bleak.
Both sides come armed with statistics. The science-first side argues in terms of sickness and mortality, citing a worst-case scenario that projects 160 million to 214 million Americans infected with COVID-19 and a death toll of 200,000 to 1.7 million. These models factor in the past few weeks in Europemodels that in fact seem optimistic given the pathetic state of testing in the U.S. so far, as well as government mandates far less draconian, even in New York and California, than in Italy and Spain.
The business-first side, meanwhile, cites lost dollars. On the positive end of things, Bank of America thinks the economy will slide 12% in the second quarter; Deutsche Bank predicts 12.9%. This would represent collapse, BofA economists wrote in a recent research report. Goldman Sachs forecasts a 24% drop. Global recession in 2020 is now our base case, Morgan Stanleys chief economist, Chetan Ahya, concluded in a recent report. Those estimates would likely translate to between 5 million and 8 million vaporized jobs. One Federal Reserve official, Mercer Bullard, said yesterday that unemployment could reach 30%, the highest in American history. (During the Great Depression, joblessness peaked at 24.9% in 1933.) These numbers feel like an almost self-inflicted wound given that just four weeks ago, the economy seemed headed to another year of healthy growth amid the longest expansion in American history.
I would love to see life going back to normal, says Luciana Borio, a physician who served on Trumps National Security Council. However, I do not think thats going to be by the end of this week.
To the science side, economic speculation is irrelevant. The most important thing here is to save peoples lives, and there is no value you can put on a persons life, right? says Columbias Racaniello. Especially if its someone who means something to you. Recognizing the potency of this argument, the business-first types have cobbled together dubious estimates of the lives taken by recession and poverty.
Theyre also trying to compare potential coronavirus deaths to those from heart disease (650,000 deaths annually), cancer (600,000) or automobile crashes (1.3 million), knowing that no one would advocate shutting the economy to stop such losses. Negative effects on the economy create lots of misery for people, says Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron, a former fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Adds David Friedman, a retired Santa Clara University professor and son of free-market apostle Milton Friedman: The government shutting down the economy or freezing the economy or printing $2 trillion to give to people doesnt make a whole lot of sense.
But the winning argument, on economic terms, belongs to the scientists. The idea that economy versus lives is a zero-sum game is false. The most vexing potential problem with COVID-19 isnt the death rate. Its the risk of a surge that collapses the U.S. health-care system, with most cities already preparing for triage and carnage on a scale never seen in peacetime America. That alone would cripple both the biggest player in the American economy and undermine whatever consumer and corporate confidence could be imbued with a business-as-usual attitude. Its why even President Trump was imploring everyone to flatten the curveat least until this weekend.
I would love to see life going back to normal, says Luciana Borio, a physician and the former chief scientist at the FDA, who served on Trumps National Security Council, planning for worst-case scenarios like these until she left when the president dismantled the groups team of health experts. I think we should try to do everything we can to bring it back to normal as soon as is feasible and responsible to do so. We shouldnt sit and wait a second longer than its needed. However, I do not think thats going to be by the end of this week.
Or next Monday. March 30 looms large, as Trump began urging distancing on March 15, for a suggested 15 days. Despite all the friendly PSAs, though, only a handful of states have imposed the kind of stay-at-home mandates that could actually stem this scourge. Most of the country is still congregating, which means most of the country will start getting sick only on or around March 30when the death counts in places like New York, judging by the experience of Europe, will start to become staggering.
Its all a false dichotomy. Business and science arent zero-sum, the same way that solving climate change should be viewed as an extraordinary investment opportunity rather than a cost. Great science blossoms under entrepreneurial capitalism. Great business is based on reason and data.
Data, or lack thereof, is the biggest culprit behind this catastrophe. Americas inability to amass enough test kitsmuch less masks and ventilators to protect health-care workersmeans were flying blind. Thats the biggest difference between the United States and a coronavirus role model like South Korea, which opened 600 testing centers and is now producing 100,000 testing kits per day.
It might be reasonable to gambleand try to restart thingsif you actually understand [the scope of the problem], says Borio. We dont.
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