Not A President For When A Crisis Hits

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March 24, 2020 12:59 p.m.

We’re back to that familiar place: President Trump introduces a claim or argument or policy so absurd it risks crowding out an actual critical question. Here that question is how to balance the public health crisis and our efforts to contain it with damage to the economy over time. The simple reality is that the cost in human lives and the economic damage will both be vast. Nor are they a zero sum. The economy wouldn’t keep humming along amidst a public health catastrophe even if we all managed to be totally indifferent – individually and collectively – to the threat we faced by going about business as usual. It is also true that economic privation has predictable costs in human lives – unemployment, stress-driven ailments, family breakdown, suicide.

The simple truth is that early mistakes placed us in a situation in which we must in the short term use heavy-handed and economy-crushing methods to get control of the epidemic (a further discussion of this here). Once we’ve done that and can begin the kind of surveillance testing at scale required to keep it under control we will be able to incrementally restart much of the economy. That will be a new normal until vaccines or treatments are ready, hopefully early next year.

The one key point to realize is that it’s not just lives versus economy, damage to the economy also has a measurable cost in lives. There will need to be balancing. But I don’t think any serious person doesn’t get that.

Yet here we are even having a discussion of “getting back to work” because the President is antsy after about a week of lockdowns in some parts of the country and is hearing from friends that the economic downturn could cost him reelection and (though we haven’t talked much about this) could drive him into personal bankruptcy. What I am sure is obvious to everyone reading this is that this is not like we’re not through this yet, not like we’re almost there but need to persevere. The President is whipping this up when, frankly, we’ve hardly started. New York State is on track for a catastrophic public health crisis which now looks set to peak in about three weeks. Other states and regions will follow. If they’re lucky relative lack of population density and seeing us go first will buy time to avoid the worst.

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