The “cull the herd” strategy for addressing the corona virus epidemic in the United States has emerged in public discourse this week, touted by Donald Trump, some minor politicians from southern states and a few Fox News pundits. Essentially the “cull the herd” strategy revitalizes the specious economic argument against environmental regulation—that doing something to protect the health and well-being of people will destroy the economy. The argument is completely fallacious when it comes to transitioning to a green economy, but does have an element of truth when applied to the corona virus pandemic: fighting it will hurt the economy, even if only in the short term.
These protectors of the American way of life believe that the cure for the pandemic—social distancing and shutting down the economy for a few months—is worse than the disease itself. They wonder whether more people will die because of the temporary economic decline than would if we just let the epidemic play itself out. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed that Americans over the age of 70 are willing to sacrifice their lives so that the American economy can thrive. Speak for yourself, John Alden!
Note that behind Patrick’s comments is the idea—still not completely proven—that the disease kills primarily the elderly and the infirm. Together with the poor, those two groups are the primary targets for the long-term Republican program to line the pockets of the wealthy by cutting taxes for themselves while gutting social programs. Beyond that, labelling a group for sacrifice always makes it for easier for Americans to approve of inhumane actions, e.g., discrimination, racial profiling or our several wars against Islamic countries.
What the promoters of returning to economic normalcy and letting the virus run its course are not telling us—perhaps because they themselves are ignorant of the facts—is that letting Covid-19 run rampant in the population could lead to as many as 3 million people dying, plus a whole lot of unnecessary suffering among those who can’t get medical attention because the disease overwhelms our healthcare capabilities.
But as despicable a solution as it is to let millions of people die years if not decades before their time, it nonetheless is keeping with the capitalist traditions.
See, behind the idea of returning to normal is the basic capitalist strategy of risk analysis. Here’s a simple example: Do we add a safety feature that will cost another 50 cents a car, or do we risk a 180 people being burned up every year in rear end collisions? The actuaries and lawyers get together to estimate how much the company will pay out to the families of the dead people and when it turns out to be a few bucks less than putting in the part, they decide to do the right thing…for the business, which means keeping the part out. This scenario describes exactly the Ford decision-making process in the 1960’s and early 1970’s regarding the death trap named the Ford Pinto. Highly immoral, but good business.
The dirty secret behind the free market is that every week companies make decisions such as the Ford decision not to fix the Pinto’s safety problem. Many of these decisions involve transferring the hidden costs of making something to the public at large. That’s what pollution of all kinds does. Instead of paying to keep pollution out of the environment, companies pass the cost on to consumers in terms of higher medical costs, lost and shortened lives, and a degraded environment.
The Trump Administration is not the first government to make cold-blooded calculations that value money over human life. The same calculation has driven most of our wars of imperialism, i.e., the Mexican, Spanish-American, Vietnam, Cambodian, Grenada, Iraq and Afghan wars. Is it worth X number of dead on our side to topple a regime that dissed the father of the president and help our Saudi ally? Is it worth Y dead to hold up a corrupt, repressive regime in a southeastern Asian country with no strategic value but lots of contracts with American manufacturers?
Reading Thomas Piketty’s recent Capitalism and Ideology this week reminded me of two well-known examples of governments acting in full knowledge that their actions would lead to the death of millions. The British authorities consciously did nothing during the Irish famine of 1845-1848, leading to the deaths of 1 million and the emigration of 1.5 million, for a total loss of more than 30% of the population of Ireland. The British essentially sat on their hands and watched it happen, some articulating the advantage of reducing the population of the poor and potential rebels. The British repeated this atrocity at the end of World War II, letting 4 million out of a population of 50 million Bengalis die of starvation rather than release stores of rice. To quote Piketty, “…while adequate food stores existed in both cases, authorities refused to arrange for immediate transfers to the distressed areas, in part on the grounds that prices should be allowed to rise in order to signal to sellers that the time had come to respond to market demand.”
In other words, let’s value the marketplace over people. That decision always conceals the naked truth: let’s value the interests of a small number of wealthy people over the good of everyone else.
The Bengalis and the Irish were considered by the British to be lesser people. That won’t work with the American economy. We won’t sacrifice parents, grandparents and those with diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and cancer so that the stock market recovers in time for the election.
At least I hope that’s true. A good 25-35% of the population seems to support Trump, no matter what atrocities or stupidities he proposes. A good number of people may believe that the death of Uncle Hiram was god’s will. Let’s hope that the overwhelming number of our elected officials in Washington, in State houses and locally value the lives of all our Uncle Hiram’s and Aunt Mathilda’s.