Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Life and Death

I take a lot of what any politician says with a huge grain of salt. I know much of what they say is merely for public consumption and is generally heavily laden with political correctness.

I would like to think that much of what they say, they could not possibly believe. For that reason, I ignore most of the pablum, pontifications and platitudes that are uttered by politicians.

However, occasionally I hear something cross the lips of a politician that is just so beyond the pale that I simply can't ignore it.


Such was the case with Governor Andrew Cuomo a few weeks ago when he said this about the actions that he was taking to shutdown almost all business in the state and instituting a "stay-at-home" order for all but essential reasons.

“I want to be able to say to the people of New York — I did everything we could do,” Cuomo told reporters at the state Capitol. “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”


He is saying that all the job losses, economic misery and personal sacrifices being sustained by 19.9 million New Yorkers would be worth it even if it only saved just one life?

What do we know about that cost in New York?

In just three weeks 800,000 workers have filed for unemployment in New York. 17 million have filed for unemployment over the same period nationally.

Those numbers undoubtedly will grow much higher. New York reports that it received 1.7 million calls and had 2.3 million visits to the state's unemployment department in one week's time.

Many more unemployment claims can be expected for the simple reason that many who have lost their jobs cannot get through to even file for their benefits.

As of the end of last week, New York had seen 3,565 deaths from Covid-19 at the same point 800,000 people had lost their jobs. Deaths a week later were approaching 10,000. Unemployment claims will more assuredly go over 1,000,000 when we get the numbers for last week.

1,000,000 lost jobs to save just one life? I am sorry Governor Cuomo, that makes no sense.

1,000,000 lost jobs to save 10,000 lives? Perhaps.

Then again, perhaps not.

Life and death decisions must be balanced every day in our society.

Those decisions often have to factor in economic costs.

One example is the speed limit we establish on various roads. Permitting higher speeds on a roadway allows for more throughput on the road. It makes use of the road more cost effective in economic terms.

However, allowing higher speeds also leads to more deaths.

We could set the speed limit on interstates to 45 mph and reduce auto accidents and deaths. Setting the speed limit at 90 mph would probably result in more deaths. A decision is made to balance life and death in establishing that speed limit.

For example, here is the headline from Consumer Reports that argues that the 55 mph national speed limit should not have been abolished in 1995 because the higher speed limits have led to an additional 37,000 deaths.

Judgments are always being made between acceptable fatalities and economic costs.

Auto vehicles are much safer today than they used to be but they could be made much safer. If the only objective was to save lives you could build each car like a tank. However, it would cost much more, it would get 2 mpg and its weight would destroy our roads in the process.

Airplanes generally have redundant systems on a lot of the key components should there be a mechanical failure. However, we don't engineer three and four back-ups. That may lead to result in more deaths if there is a systems failure but it is not deemed worth the economic cost to do it.

Decisions by leaders balancing life and death are seen most visibly in times of war. These decisions go beyond mere economic trade-offs. They may involve the very future of the society at large.

Over 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War because Abraham Lincoln believed that the United States had to be preserved as a union. That was a great cost to our country that at that time had a population of 31 million---less than one-tenth of our population today. Stop and imagine 6 million deaths today to understand the true nature of that cost.

Dwight Eisenhower was told shortly before the D-Day invasion that casualties among the 18,000 paratroopers that would parachute over Normandy on June 6, 1944 would be as high as 75%. In addition, 90% of glider pilots would be lost before they ever hit the ground. Ike said that making the decision to proceed with the planned invasion after being given that casualty estimate was the most difficult he had to make during the entire war.

However, Eisenhower also knew that if the Allies were not able to successfully invade France, there was little chance that Germany could be defeated. In the end, Eisenhower had to accept the risk of death to his men balanced against the lives of so many, many more.

The projections of the experts proved wrong. Or as Eisenhower later told the story, "the airborne boys did their jobs."

Casualties only ended up being 8% for the paratroopers that day. That was still almost 1,500 men. However, in the three months it took after D-Day to get the Germans to retreat beyond the Seine River, the United States sustained 125,000 casualties with another 83,000 from British, Canadian and Polish ground forces. Total deaths numbered 37,000 Allied for ground forces and another 17,000 among Allied air forces.

President Trump has stated that the timing of the decision to reopen the United States economy will be the toughest decision of his life. That is saying something considering that he already made the decision to shut down the largest economy in the world during a time when it was performing at one of the highest levels in history.

A popular narrative is that Donald Trump became President primarily to enrich himself. The argument is that almost every decision he makes is in order to  benefit himself personally. Step back and consider that in the context of his decision to shut down the economy.

Trump's wealth is almost entirely tied to hotels, hospitality and entertainment. His decision as President probably impacted this sector of the economy more than any other. His decision was completely counter to his personal interests.

Trump also signed the CARES Act into law that provides $500 billion in federal loans and other relief for the airline, hotel, hospitality, entertainment and other industries that have been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 economic shutdown.

However, that law specifically prohibits President Trump and other federal officials from any aid money. Make no mistake, others are mentioned but that provision was specifically targeted at Donald J. Trump.

"The president, vice president, members of the Cabinet and members of Congress are barred from benefiting from the money carved out for corporations. That also extends to the "spouse, child, son-in-law or daughter-in-law."

I personally think this is unfair. Trump and the others should be treated, no better, or worse, than anyone else that is similarly situated. However, that is the reality of the politics. Trump fully understands the game.

Keep all of this in mind as you hear that Trump is in this totally for himself.

Trump is the only President in my lifetime that will undoubtedly have less wealth when he leaves office than when he entered. Contrast that with Obama, Clinton and others who enriched themselves by tens of millions of dollars when they left office. For that matter, compare Trump with Joe Biden after he left the Vice Presidency.

There is no doubt that Obama and Clinton never had to make any decisions balancing life and death anywhere close to what President Trump has been confronted with. In fact, only Lincoln, FDR (and Truman) have faced anything similar.

Is the loss of one life difficult to take?

Yes. However, it is never that simple. Invariably we have to balance life within the context of a society that needs to be preserved and sustained for today and tomorrow.

There are no easy answers involving life and death.

Lincoln understood it. Eisenhower, FDR and Truman did as well.

I hope Andrew Cuomo really doesn't believe that everything being done would be worth it even if it saved just one life. That doesn't give much consideration or respect to a whole bunch of other lives.

May God grant President Trump, our governors and our other leaders the wisdom and discernment at this time in our history to balance life and death in their decisions as well as any human being can be expected to in these trying times.

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