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  • Nikhil Venkatesh

Should governments prioritise lives, or the economy?

How should governments react to the pandemic? Should they do everything they can to save lives, or should they be concerned about the economic consequences of potentially life-saving policies? On one side, some people say that it is not possible to put a price on life: money is no object when there are people to save, and therefore any amount of economic damage is tolerable, if we can reduce the death toll. On the other side, some people say that the cure may be worse than the disease: the recession likely to be caused by social distancing policies is also a bad thing, and at some additional deaths can be a price worth paying to protect the economy.

Like all diametrically opposed positions, there is a sense in which these two agree. They both see something, ‘the economy’, and imagine that protecting it conflicts with protecting something else, ‘lives’. The first position says that lives should be prioritised in all circumstances, the second that at least sometimes we should choose the economy over lives.

Now, many economists seem to think that as it stands, there we are not forced to choose. The social distancing measures that will reduce the death toll from the virus will also reduce its economic damage. Consider what would happen if the virus were simply allowed to run through the population. Many more people – the workers and consumers of the economy – would die. Businesses would suffer not only deaths of employees, but also large numbers of sick days and a reduction in demand as customers are scared to go out, or are sick themselves.

But things could be different. The economists could be wrong, or the facts might change as the pandemic progresses. And it could be that in general social distancing is better for both lives and GDP, but that there are slightly different social distancing policies, some of which save more lives whilst others do better for the economy. So our question still needs answering: what to do when such trade-offs present themselves?

To answer this question we must ask: what is ‘the economy’? And what does it mean for it to go better or worse? One common answer is that the economy is the sum of goods and services we produce that can be traded for money, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is the sense in which China and the USA are the world’s two ‘biggest economies’, and that the economy ‘shrinks’ in recessions and ‘grows’ at other times. On this definition of the economy, the question of lives versus the economy comes down to this: how much GDP are we willing to lose to save a life?

The answer to this, I think, is that we shouldn’t care about GDP at all. There is nothing necessarily good about GDP going up and bad about it going down. GDP, as Robert F. Kennedy famously put it:[1]

“counts air pollution and cigarette advertising… It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet [GDP] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In less rhetorical but equally compelling fashion, Jonathan Portes has recently pointed out that GDP falls every weekend and every August,[2] as people work less and enjoy themselves more. GDP falling need not be a bad thing. We shouldn’t accept any deaths to avoid it.

But don’t reductions in GDP lead to deaths? It seems intuitive that they should: poorer people face greater risk of death, and falling GDP is something like the average person getting poorer. However, the evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. Certain kinds of death, such as suicides, increase in recessions. But others, such as road traffic accidents, are reduced. Overall, there seem to be more deaths when GDP is growing (‘mortality is procyclical’, in the jargon).[3]

So does this settle the case on the economy versus lives: save lives at all economic costs? I think not. ‘The economy’ need not be thought of as the sum of tradeable goods and services, and GDP is not the only measure of economic health. The economy is, on a broader conception, the vast set of relations in which we interact with others to secure the things we want and need: what they are and how available they are, who has them and who has not; whether we have to work to get them, what work is open to us, how we do it, what we need in order to do it; what things our work produces, how they are bought and sold, and so on. These relations can be better and worse independently of whether more or fewer tradeable goods and services are produced. For instance, we might think that the economy is going better if workers have more control over how they work, or women have more choice about whether to spend their time working inside or outside the home. Using this broader conception, we can say that the production of napalm and rifles is worse than the production of education and poetry. We can also say that it is good, not bad, that people spend their weekends and their summers spending time with their families, playing cricket, and lying on the beach when they could be working.

Now, the economy viewed in this way does matter, in a way that GDP does not. How the economy functions determines, to a large extent, how we relate to one another, and whether our lives contain the things that make them worthwhile. What is less clear is how social distancing affects them. The sharp temporary fall in demand for and production of goods and services that social distancing necessitates will inevitably lead to a drop in GDP. But does it mean that our economic relations, broadly conceived, will get worse?

This, I think, is the question we should be asking when we ask about whether the economic impact of social distancing policies is a price worth paying. Rather than looking at GDP numbers, we should look at the economic relations that truly matter. Does social distancing give workers more independence from their bosses – or does it put them under more stress, with more surveillance and less collegiality? Does it produce intolerable levels of unemployment, and does it exacerbate the isolation and impoverishment that tends to come with unemployment? Does it leave women in a weaker position against exploitative and abusive partners? Does it prevent us from consuming the things that we most need?

Saving people from the worst economic relations does not seem so different from saving them from the virus. We want our lives to go on because of the things we expect to happen in them and accomplish with them, and the state of the economy is crucially important to this. This is not to say that we should abandon social distancing – the economy, even broadly conceived, is not everything; deaths remain bad; there could be some benefits to social distancing (for instance, some workers, especially disabled ones, are finding the normalisation of working from home liberating; many people are reviewing what really matters to them in terms of consumption and social life).

Still less am I saying that we should choose the economy over lives. Rather than making a choice between one valuable thing (‘the economy’) and another (‘lives’), we might adopt just one aim: that people have lives that are well worth living. Alongside medical considerations, the economy – conceived in the broad way I have suggested – will be vital to making sure we secure it.

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