Could the economic shutdown cure for coronavirus be worse than the disease? It appears more likely every day.
As an undergraduate at Texas A&M, I was required to read an essay by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and a bona fide genius. I recall Fuller complaining that we hadn’t built railroad tracks with stainless steel, since it doesn’t rust. In commenting on the piece, I pointed out that stainless steel was costly compared to regular steel and Fuller failed to recognize this. It’s more cost effective to use regular steel tracks, which wear out long before they rust away, than to use stainless, despite the likelihood that stainless would wear longer.
We economists point out the reality that there are always costs when choices are made (i.e., scarcity always exists, thus the “dismal science” moniker). Costs might not always be easy to identify, but one thing is absolutely certain, failure to account for the fact that actions and choices always have consequences, possibly very costly ones, always leads to calamity.
Fuller’s complaint shows that very smart people can make foolish judgements, and allowed to act on them, they would produce calamity. If Fuller had been appointed “Railroad Czar,” he might well have driven the railroad industry out of existence in a quixotic pursuit of rustless railroad tracks.
And that seems to be where we are today with the Wuhan virus (COVID-19). We have very smart health officials trained to save lives no matter the cost looking at pandemic models (yes, models, not actual numbers) and advising skittish politicians to shut down our economy. These health officials, and the politicians they are advising, have no real concept of the costs they are imposing. It’s clear that they cannot even conceive that what they are doing could be more costly, even in human lives, than if nothing were done at all.
Health officials only see the human lives in front of them. The politicians only see themselves getting blamed if someone dies of the virus. Meanwhile, only time and statistics will tell, but people are likely dying in higher numbers from heart attacks and suicides. We have no idea how many years of life are being lost due to life-long physiological effects of the stress from this economic shut-down. None of this accounts for the impact on our standard of living, near and long-term.
Odds are that the costs of shutting down the economy over the Wuhan virus are not worth the benefits. Every year in the United States alone around 37,000 people die in auto accidents. Another 2.35 million are injured. The surest way to stop this death-by-auto pandemic is to shut down the roads, which would shut down the economy. We don’t do this because, obviously, far more people would die from poverty due to such a shutdown than die on our roads, not to mention the drastic reduction in our quality of life.
This most recent flu season, it is estimated that 23,000 have died in the U.S. alone, including 149 children. A website reporting Wuhan virus statistics that is updated multiple times per day has yet to report a single fatality of a child under 10 from the Wuhan virus, worldwide. As of the moment of this writing, worldwide Wuhan virus deaths have yet to exceed the number of U.S. flu deaths this year. Yet, never once has any health official or political leader suggested that we shut down the economy, shelter in place, wear masks, or even socially distance, due to flu.
Fact is, the actual numbers regarding COVID-19 and the predictions for disaster simply don’t square. When China’s lying government was the only source of information, then it was possible to believe things were far worse than was being reported. But given actual numbers of cases, recoveries and deaths, and considering the fact that we simply do not know how many people are walking around with the virus without any ill effects, the Wuhan virus appears nowhere near as contagious or lethal as what it’s been made out to be. That’s not to minimize the suffering of those with severe symptoms, but merely to put things into larger perspective.
Some of us have said this publicly, citing experts out of Yale and Stanford, and pointing out that perhaps there were better reactions to COVID-19 than general shutdowns. And now we find out that our leaders, including in Oklahoma, have been relying on a highly flawed model of pandemic, rather than looking at actual numbers. It’s like the cow spooked by the yellow raincoat hanging in the slaughterhouse while ignoring the guy with the brain gun. What’s more, the model may well be intentionally manipulated!
In the meantime, a different model out of Oxford, one for which the methodology is not hidden but open for the world to see, indicates that in all likelihood, more than a third of Britons have contracted Wuhan virus and most of these are immune after having had no symptoms whatsoever. Regardless of these models, we can say with certainty that far more people have been infected than tests have or can indicate. Thus, reported death and hospitalization rates are exaggerated, likely grossly so.
The most dangerous thing in the world is a really smart person who firmly believes his expertise and intelligence make him right. While specialization is a very good thing when it comes to production and prosperity, it can produce myopia and a lack of humility in decision-making. Between politicians’ fear of blame for deaths we can see from Wuhan virus (versus unseen deaths from stress) and health officials’ narrow perspective (along with a little central planning ideology), we are being made to suffer far more than is necessary.

Byron Schlomach is Director of 1889 Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.