On ‘The Cure Is Worse Than the Disease’

The Wall St. Bull on a nearly empty Broadway in the New York financial district as the coronavirus outbreak continues, March 23, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
In the face of the coronavirus crisis, our leaders are trying to answer unanswerable questions.

Jonah Goldberg wrote a book arguing that we live in part under a “tyranny of clichés,” and one of the most shopworn of clichés — “The cure is worse than the disease” — is at the moment at the forefront of our public discourse. Millions of lives and untold trillions in wealth and income may be saved — or lost — as the result of public policies shaped by that cliché.

In the matter of the coronavirus epidemic and our response to it, the question “Is the cure worse than the disease?” is almost useless, because it asks us to judge one discrete thing we know against a half-dozen critical things we do not know.

What we know right now is that the U.S. economy (and the world economy — which, nationalists note, matters quite a bit to our own national prosperity) is cratering while the coronavirus still is spreading. This seems, from the point of view of right this moment, intolerable — or “unsustainable,” in the antiseptic language of American journalism.

But is it intolerable? It seems intolerable because it is very painful and because it is very painful right now. As individuals — and, more important, as a polity — we suffer from what is sometimes known as “present bias,” meaning that we assign more weight and relevance to things we are experiencing right now. If you were in possession of a crystal ball that could tell you the future with absolute reliability, and you learned that departing from our current course of action would produce both public-health and economic effects that would be much, much worse than what we are experiencing right this moment, then the conditions prevailing at right this moment would not be judged intolerable at all. They would be considered relatively desirable — relative not to the recent past or to our best hopes for the future, but relative to a much worse outcome.

In the same way, we go to doctors and pay them great sums of money to do things to us that would seem intolerable if not for our knowledge that these horrifying experiences — chemotherapy, for example — prevent something far worse. If you were just being forced to undergo chemotherapy with no context, you would believe that you were being tortured by evil men, not treated by men who wish you well. If you were subjected to the rigors of military training and military life with no explanation, you would think you were being abused — not that your apparent tormentors were trying to save your life.

What we know is that there is economic pain in the present, and that this is associated with what is at best an imperfect prophylactic strategy against the coronavirus.

What we do not know makes for a longer list:

  1. We do not know how effective our current practices are going to be at mitigating the effects of the epidemic. It is even possible that our current practices will leave us worse off than some other strategy would have. That is a possibility as a matter of logic; that does not make it likely, nor does that constitute a case for ignoring the advice of the relevant experts. If we could know with absolute certainty (or even believe with overwhelming confidence) that the current course of action is the best one available to us, then there would be no debate about altering the current course of action. It may be that we have a high degree of confidence that we are doing the right thing, but our confidence is not unqualified.
  2. We do not know how deep or long-lasting the economic damage will be. It may be that the economy is able to come back like gangbusters once the public-health crisis is under control, that growth will recover quickly, and that the many Americans who are out of work or who soon will be out of work are able to return to work at similar wages very quickly. It may be that the disruption leaves growth stunted for an extended period of time and that many Americans are unable to find suitable work.
  3. And while we do not know how our current course of action will work out, we also do not know how any other possible course of action will work out. And if we choose some other course of action, we will then be in a position of never being able to know what would have happened if we had stayed the course.
  4. We do not know what the economic consequences of a worsening epidemic would be. The measures we are taking right now impose terrible economic costs, but a catastrophic epidemic — one that is orders of magnitude worse than what we are experiencing right now — would impose terrible economic costs, too, on top of an unthinkable amount of death and suffering.

These problems are present in most political decision-making, albeit usually with lower stakes. We generally misunderstand the relevant questions — or, as often, we misrepresent the question. For example, advocates of higher minimum wages will sometimes point to a time and a place in which a higher minimum wage has been imposed and unemployment either decreased or at least failed to increase. And then they will say, “This shows that increasing the minimum wage does not increase unemployment.” But the relevant comparison is not between the labor market before the minimum-wage increase and the labor market after the minimum-wage increase — it is between the labor market before the minimum-wage increase and the future labor market that would have existed without the minimum-wage increase. It may be that a market with 4 percent unemployment before the minimum-wage increase held steady after a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage; it also may be the case that without that hike in the minimum wage, the unemployment rate would have dropped to 3 percent or to 2 percent. This is the right question, but it is a question that is of no political value, because it cannot be answered with any confidence.

People in politics are people in the business of pretending that they have simple answers to complex questions; they are not in the business of frankly admitting that they do not know what the actual results of their policies are — or even what they were — and that they have no way of knowing.

And so we must approach the cliché of the moment — “Is the cure worse than the disease?” — with a degree of humility. And with a high degree of caution about the incentives that shape the decisions of political actors: The authorities in Beijing tried to cover up the facts of the coronavirus epidemic for reasons of narrow political self-interest — they did not wish to create a crisis that would undermine the economy. President Trump made rosy pronouncements about the epidemic in its early days, contradicting some of his most intelligent advisers, for precisely the same reason. It is worth keeping in mind that the administration’s efforts to prevent a stock-market selloff were entirely unsuccessful and that the president’s optimistic public-health pronouncements did not come to pass. Which is to say, the effort to stave off present economic pain in the face of some notional future public-health crisis prevented neither the economic pain nor the public-health crisis. It would be a bitter thing to repeat such a mistake in such a short period of time.

When Adolf Hitler was making war on the United Kingdom and Europe, the question that commanded the attention of the American people was whether they could trust President Franklin Roosevelt to make the right decision for the right reason. And the conclusion a great many of them reached was — “No.” Antiwar sentiment was by no means restricted to cranks and anti-Semites such as Charles Lindbergh. So intense and widespread was hostility to entering the war that the Republican nominee, interventionist Wendell Willkie, felt the need to court (if only halfheartedly) the isolationists, while President Roosevelt himself was obliged, on the eve of the 1940 election, to declare: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars. We will not send our Army, Navy, or air forces to fight in foreign lands, except in case of attack.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor rendered that promise moot. Things might have gone differently: Patrick J. Buchanan has one vision of what might have been, and Philip Roth had another.

The problem for the United States is that there is unlikely to be a coronavirus Pearl Harbor, a dramatic clarifying event that points clearly toward the necessary course of action. What we have is Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell meditating upon a half-understood cliché and trying to answer unanswerable questions, and trying to do so with one eye on the ICU and the other on the unemployment office.

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