Thank you for the July 22 guest column by Garey Forster (“Did Congress wreck our economy with unemployment benefit?”). It is rare to find so pure a statement of misplaced priorities; it probably comes from thinking that we are in an ordinary recession and not in a public health emergency.
An Oscar Wilde character describes a cynic as someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Forster seems to be under the influence of an economic model that fails to know either of those.
If, like Forster, you perceive enhanced unemployment benefits as an economic “stimulus” you miss the point, which is that you don’t want anyone going back to work at nonessential, high-risk jobs. If an extra $600 per week keeps a bartender at home, that’s a bargain because not spreading the virus is the most valuable economic service such a worker can perform right now.
Let’s pause to appreciate the economic worth of not dying. How can you put a price on a human life? That’s easy in this country, thanks to decades of federal rulemaking plus a rich body of tort law. In reviewing regulations, the White House Office of Management and Budget accepts up to $9 million as the “value of statistical life.” But the virus kills mainly the old and the sick, so let’s just pull the plug on grandma and discount it to $5 million.
One plausible scenario gets us close to 200,000 people dead by year’s end. We may greatly exceed that number, and soon. Preventing 100,000 deaths saves a half-trillion dollars, a number comparable to the main components of relief packages now before Congress.
Next consider the cost of boxes full of extra medical supplies and PPE, the extra hours and days and weeks of hard and dangerous work by hospital staff for a single hospitalized COVID-19 patient. If you think it is not sustainable to subsidize idleness, try this: Find an intensive care nurse and ask how sustainable the last five months at work have felt. (I offer this only as a thought experiment; you might risk getting an earful.)
We don’t balk at spending huge sums on developing vaccines and drugs against the virus. Right now, there is no medicine even half as effective as paying workers to stay home. So that’s the price of everything (your life) and the value of (doing) nothing. It’s worth paying, even if your economic model is too primitive to see it.
There’s no place like home. Stay there.