Of the news stories and opinion pieces recently carried by print and electronic media with regard to reopening businesses, a couple of things have caught my attention.
First, the insistence that in any weighing of health versus the economy, it must be our elected political officials, not scientists or medical professionals that execute the balancing.
And second, that the balancing must not elevate health above all else.
These are truisms with which only the most narrowly focused scientific or medical professional might disagree. Nonetheless, I would like to flag two concerns that should temper our confidence that in embracing these truisms we will be assured of the best outcome.
Before doing so, a reality check on the notion that, without a vaccine or therapeutics, by just flipping the business-as-usual switch, the economy will roar back.
For starters, a March analysis by two Federal Reserve Bank officials and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist indicates that in the 1918 pandemic, locales aggressive in their closure and distancing measures had equivalent or more robust economic recoveries than those that were more lax. Also, a May 2017 study of the Great Recession by the St. Louis Fed indicates that, between December 2008 and December 2010, when strains on the economy were far less pronounced than faced now, and no stay-at-home orders existed, between 16% and 22% of businesses with more than five employees failed, and of those with less than five employees, more than 28% failed. Sobering food for thought.
Now my two concerns. First, there is an assumption in many of the referenced news stories and opinion pieces. Specifically, that elected political officials can be expected actually to engage in an unbiased, authentic and relevantly weighted balancing of the considerations inherent in the health versus economy calculation.
Admittedly, such officials risk paying the ultimate political price for ideologically skewed or self-serving balancing. Yet it strikes me that, by their very nature, elected politicians labor under both the huge weight of an inclination to tell constituents what they want — and not what they ought — to hear, and an equally compelling drive to resist imposing measures that require constituents to alter conduct in ways that are painful.
Except in rare instances where we are blessed with politicians willing to take the proverbial political bullet for acting in fully principled and non-ideological or self-serving ways, expecting elected leaders always to strike the best balance between health and the economy, and thereby save us from the presumed foibles of the scientific and medical community, seems overly optimistic, at best, and potentially devastating, at worst.
My second concern revolves around how we message that elected politicians, and not the scientific or medical community, are to be the ones with the final say on balancing health against the economy.
It is imperative that journalists and commentators weighing in on this matter tread with utmost care. To be religiously avoided is language or assertions that risk the general public interpreting what is said as both good reason to question the veracity of the scientific or medical community, and to view those communities as the obstruction to getting the economy back on track. Yes, advice about things like masks has changed. However, to trumpet such changes in ways that ignore legitimate explanation can sow incredibly counterproductive seeds of skepticism.
At its core, science is about probability. And its assessment of probabilities evolves with added knowledge. Without care given to how we message to the public that it is political officials who have the final voice in striking the balance between health and the economy, we risk undermining the importance of science and creating a void that tempts entry of partisan politics.
This latter risk reminds me of an exchange occurring between Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, when, in the midst of the Kosovo crisis, Cook informed Albright his legal staff had grave reservations about the lawfulness of certain actions the U.S. was asking coalition forces to take. Albright quipped: “Get new lawyers.”
If, for the sake of partisan loyalty we seek only the answers we wish to hear, and subjugate science and medicine to ideology, then we are all doomed.
Rex Zedalis, professor emeritus, University of Tulsa Law School, resides in Placitas, New Mexico.