The heated debate over whether it’s more important to open the economy relatively quickly, or wait until the CCP Virus really is under control slogs on. And I mean slogs on, since once it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to be even close to a Black Death-like catastrophe, everyone with a working brain should have recognized that immense uncertainties are all around, and that both approaches therefore entail terrible risk.
One built-in complication, though, continues to muddy the waters. And even though decisive clarity can’t be gleaned from the available data, it’s worth pointing out: CCP Virus deaths are relatively easy to calculate – even if not perfectly identifiable, because single causes of death tend to be difficult and controversial to pinpoint for victims with important underlying health problems, and therefore different U.S. states have (not surprisingly) come up with different standards for counting them.
Deaths from a prolonged economic slump like the one into which America has been plunged are much harder to determine, and data are therefore more controversial. But no one should doubt that they’re noteworthy, and worth taking into account in any economy restart decisions.
As commonsensical as these observations sound, however, they continue being vigorously disputed, and one of the few such arguments I’ve seen that try to quantify relative rates of loss has come from economics journalist Tim Mullaney. Full disclosure: I’ve criticized Mullaney here before, finding him to be an extreme hater even by Never Trumper standards. But I hope you’ll trust me when I say I’m singling out his latest article simply because it makes the “restart later” argument in such data-dependent terms.
According to Mullaney, President Trump and other prominent conservatives are blowing the most deceitful smoke imaginable by insisting “You have to reopen the economy despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, quickly, lest a wave of suicides, domestic battery and the like overwhelm even the death toll from coronavirus.”
His evidence? The CCP Virus daily U.S. death toll when he wrote his article (2,763) dwarfs the numbers of lives lost each day in the United States to economic-related causes (like many suicides), as well as the numbers lost daily during the nation’s wars. (As of yesterday, daily national CCP Virus deaths hit a much higher 4,591.) * SEE CORRECTION BELOW
The war comparisons are sobering – no doubt about it. But if you look at them realistically, so is what we know of the death toll from various forms of economic privation. For example, it’s true that “only” 132 Americans took their lives each day in 2018 (the last year for which statistics are available, as is the case with all the following numbers). And there’s no way to know how many were due to the victims’ economic circumstances. But it’s also true that, as of 2017, 1.4 million Americans tried and failed to commit suicide. There’s no way to know the reason for each one, but the daily figure comes to 3,865. Surely economics had something to do with many of them.
The clear implication: If not for circumstances unrelated to the economy, the numbers of suicides and of economy-related suicides would be much higher. Therefore, economic-induced extreme despair is undoubtedly much more widespread than the actual suicide rates indicate. And they signal the presence of huge economy-related mental health problems. Further, given the stigma society still attaches to suicide, it’s fair to assume that the attempt numbers in particular are undercounted.
That same year, 192 Americans each day died of drug overdoses. Of these, 130 came from opioids – the category most likely influenced by worsening economic circumstances and prospects. And just as with suicides and attempted suicides, the numbers of overdose deaths are dwarfed by the attempted overdose numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t provide absolute annual figures, but they do note that “For every drug overdose that results in death, there are many more nonfatal overdoses….” Chalk lots of them up to economic despair, too.
You can also learn a lot from estimates of annual lives lost to poverty as such. In 2011, a Columbia University study pegged them at 671 per day in 2000 – not a matter of thousands, but not bupkis, either. And here’s another poverty-related mortality statistic: In 2018, about 59 newborn American babies died each day. Were all due to poverty? Of course not. But they’re most heavily concentrated in racial and ethnic minority groups with the highest poverty rates, so that’s pretty revealing.
Infant mortality, moreover, points to another health and death rate reality that’s strongly affected by the state of a national economy: the state of its healthcare system.
Given America’s vast wealth and annual healthcare expenditures, and its continuing major healthcare problems, there’s no doubt that money is no panacea for better health and lower death rates. Structures of national healthcare systems matter critically. At the same time, does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. healthcare system is going to do a better job on mortality and other fronts the worse the economy fares and the longer the current downturn lasts?
Which brings up a related question: What’s likelier to happen first? Indeed, much likelier to happen first? The kinds of major economic and social policy reforms needed to alleviate American poverty significantly, or to cure what ails the healthcare system? Or finding anti-CCP Virus vaccine or cure? If you’re not sure, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Those wanting a substantial economy restart sooner rather than later can legitimately point out that the above economy-related mortality numbers overlap a great deal. And that’s true. Second and even third waves, as they warn, seem all too likely as well. But it’s also true that, when you add them all up, they’re significant, and at best can’t be too far away from the CCP Virus death figures in which much more confidence is justified.
How far away? Honestly, why should anyone care? They’re clearly close enough to warrant concern that, as Mullaney’s conservative targets contend, a prolonged mandated economic slump will exact terrible human health costs – and that the longer it lasts, the higher it will grow. It’s also crucial to remember that the CCPVirus death toll shows signs of trending down – however horrific it will ultimately be – and that absolutely no one who anyone’s listening to is urging a total national economy restart all at once.
All of which reinforces conclusions I’ve been pushing since the CCP Virus became a genuine crisis: It confronts Americans will trade-offs as tragic as they are difficult to figure out, and that anyone arguing to the contrary is more interested in taking cheap, invariably partisan, shots than in finding solutions.
*CORRECTION. The 4,591 U.S. deaths figure I reported here was not for April 17, but for April 16. The April 17 figure was actually 3,856, and today’s figure is only 1,891. Moreover, as explained here, “The spike in mid-April is due to New York City authorities adding probable cases to the city’s death tally.” So this is the kind of correction that clearly works in favor of my argument, since these numbers indicate even more strongly that this still terrible daily figure is on the way down, and that any gap between it and comparable figures due to economically-induced mortality is even smaller than previously apparent.