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Everything comes at a price.

Posted/updated on: March 26, 2020 at 4:38 pm
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AP Photo/Alex Brandon

“Everything comes at a price.”

My wife is sick to death of hearing me say it. I say it whenever either of us is confronted with one of life’s “what to do next” decisions. I have raised two daughters on the phrase. They hate hearing it, too.

The phrase rankles because it flies in the face of our desire for life to be easy. It’s not. Whenever an important decision has to be made, there is seldom a cost-free, risk-free course of action available.

So it is with respect to the administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Appropriate policy occupies some hard-to-determine spot on a continuum between taking no special action whatsoever on one extreme and completely stopping all industry, commerce and interpersonal transactions on the other. Business as usual on the one hand, total stop on the other.

There is still much to be learned about the COVID-19 virus. But one thing has been clearly established. This virus spreads with unusual ease. You can be around someone who has a cold and not catch a cold yourself. But if you’re not vaccinated and have even tangential contact with someone who is infected with the measles, you, too, will soon have the measles. In this regard, COVID-19 is apparently closer to the measles than a cold.

An all-new, highly contagious infectious disease is scary. Doing nothing from a policy standpoint, and simply allowing the disease to run its natural course, would likely come at a terrible price.

But so, too, will draconian measures that have the effect of shutting down the American economy. On Thursday morning, the Labor Department informed us that 3.28 million people filed first-time unemployment claims in the past week. That’s twice what experts predicted and nearly five times the previous record set in March 2009 in the wake of the financial meltdown.

“Shelter in place” orders and the shutting down of movie theaters, restaurants, bars, sporting events and “non-essential” business may slow the spread of COVID-19. But doing so comes at a price – a huge one. COVID-19 has its pathology. But so does unemployment. So does bankruptcy.

I heard one TV talking head say, “We can’t have an economy if we don’t have health care.” True enough. But it is equally true that we can’t have health care if we don’t have an economy.

Donald Trump is being viciously criticized in some quarters for having said he’d like to begin restarting the economy by Easter. Maybe that is ambitious. Maybe not. But I nevertheless like the thinking. He’s right. We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem.

Thousands die every year in auto accidents. If we enacted a national speed limit of 30 mph and then vigorously enforced it, traffic deaths would plummet. But our economy can’t function at 30 mph so we tacitly accept thousands of auto fatalities.

Which leads to two unavoidable conclusions regarding this crisis. There are serious risks attendant to any course of action.

And everything comes at a price.


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