Post #571: Course correction, Part 2

Posted on March 25, 2020

Source: Let’s Make A

Continuing the thread from Post #570, I’d like to say that I’m doing this immediate follow-up because I need to set the stage for the analysis yet to come.  But that would be a lie.  I just need to get this off my chest.

But this post does serve to introduce one of the key concepts needed:  The value of a human life.  Of course human lives have value, you may respond.  Really?  Aside from practical and moral issues, this is exactly the point that the “Just let them die” strategy typically brushes off.

But when I ask you, OK, what is a human life worth, in dollars and cents?  That’s when this discussion starts to get tough.  And our inability to deal with that is precisely what allows the “let them die” crowd to brush that off.

So let me start with the basics:  It’s more than zero.  And zero is what those focused solely on GDP effectively assume as the value of a human life.

What will it be like to die from COVID-19?

Short answer is:  It’ll take a while, you’ll be alone, you’ll be on a ventilator for some time and so will be confused, unable to move and likely delirious when you are conscious.  And that’s the best-case scenario, assuming you get into a hospital and the drug stocks hold out.

First, it will take a while.  Data from the Chinese experience suggests that, among decedents, it typically takes two to eight weeks from diagnosis to death, for decedents.  Given that this type of data typically has a “long right tail”, a good guess for the median would be about three-and-a-half weeks.  But that’s awkward to say, so let me just say “about a month”.

Second, you’ll be alone:  You’ll never see your family again.  Hospitals are no longer allowing visitors, almost without exception.  Looking at Inova as an example, they say they make an exception for (e.g.) some end-of-life situations.  But not in the case of COVID-19.

"Visitation will not be allowed for suspected or confirmed patients with COVID-19."

The upshot of that is that once you get hospitalized, from that time forward, you (or your loved one) will never see family or friends again.  You won’t have any way to know that, ahead of time.  But that will be the outcome.  You’ll never see your family again.

Third, you’ll be on a ventilator for some time, with all that entails.  In most if not all cases, they have to dope you up, eventually, so you don’t “fight the ventilator”.  So, you’ll be not-quite-unconscious, and not-quite totally unable to move.  And being in that ICU environment for any length of time makes many people literally go crazy, as in, experience delirium (as in ICU psychosis).

What will you trade me for what’s behind door number three?

So, in a very limited sense, one way to get at the value of a human life is to ask, what would you trade me for that experience described above?  I mean, the mere act of dying is only one tiny piece of the value of a life, but that’s enough to get started.

So let me make you an offer.

If you let your child (or, possibly, grandchild) die as described above, in the next couple of months, I’ll give you a brand new luxury SUV.  

Do we have a deal? 

No?  Well, suppose I make it a nice new house instead?  Do we have a deal yet?

If not, you’re beginning to understand what’s missing in a strategy that focuses solely on lost GDP, and ignores the value of a human life.  Because a government that undertook the “let them die” strategy would, in fact, be making some less-starkly-defined version of that deal, on your behalf.  When you wouldn’t do that on your own.

Economists have a word for that:  Inefficient.  That would be an economically inefficient decision.  In a nutshell, an economically inefficient transaction is one that leaves you worse off.  It’s one where you trade a higher-valued object in return for a lower-valued one.  (In this example trade a kid for a car.)  It would be economically inefficient for the government to put all our lives at risk, for some amount of financial gain, if we would not make that deal individually, if offered that choice.

We can add some nuances here, but it doesn’t change the basic point.  Suppose it’s not your kid, but it’s your neighbor’s kid?  How about, we’ll only kill one in twenty of all the kids in your neighborhood?  Maybe we’ll substitute your father or mother for your kid.  And so on.

And at some level, you might even get some people to say, heck yeah, I’ll take the SUV.  But most of us can’t even get beyond the repugnance of the offer, no matter how you soften or sweeten it.

To most, the very idea that someone would think to offer you a deal like this is horrifying.  But, to the economist, that’s precisely what the “let them die” advocates are doing.  Don’t lose sight of that.

What I’ll have to ask you to do, if you want to continue to follow this thread, is to suppress that repugnance.  Take the idea out, walk it around, examine it rationally, not emotionally.

My guess is, I’ll lose 95% of potential readers right there. Which, really, truly, tells you all you really ought to have to know about how wise the “let them die” approach really is.

I need to go do something else for a while.