Yes, We Brought this on Ourselves

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By Charles Marohn

I’m a numbers guy, so my inclination months ago when the so-called smart people were telling us we had more to fear from traffic deaths than coronavirus was to run the numbers. The potential for catastrophe from pandemic was very real; too high for my sensibilities.

Now that the so-called smart people have shifted to telling us to stay indoors and social distance and shaming (or worse) those who would suggest otherwise, I’m inclined to review the math once again, this time in light of new knowledge.

If you are suggesting that COVID-19 is no more lethal than the flu, you are likely wrong (most data suggests 10x to 50x times more lethal), but there are some data points to suggest that you could be right. Let’s go with it for the sake of discussion.

Since the coronavirus is “novel” (never experienced before) there is no immunity among humans. That means everyone who is infected will have to fight it off. Apparently most do and experience no symptoms while some experience complications of different degrees and some ultimately die. If we’re going with flu lethality rates, that means 1 out of every 1,000 people infected will die.

With 320 million Americans, if we have flu rates of lethality, that’s a pool of 320,000 people who have the unfortunate combination of factors (yet unknown) that we should expect to die from this. And now is a good time to point out that every study I’ve seen that indicates some correlation with flu also assumes a very slow rate of transmission so that everyone infected gets the very best treatment. In places like Italy, when that didn’t happen, lethality rates were reportedly as high as 17%, not 0.1%, as triage forced many who might have survived to die unassisted by medical care.
What I’ve done here is basic math. It’s not a model—I’m not trying to project an outcome based on transmission rates, lethality, mutations, etc.—but merely as assessment of the size of the pool. My own opinion is that the size of the pool is best estimated with a lethality rate of 1%, which would be 3.2 million dead, but let’s stick with the flu rates for now.
Here’s the question for those of you arguing to open things up because COVID-19 is basically the flu: How quickly do we burn through those 320,000 people with viral death sentences? Are you arguing this attrition rate is a foregone conclusion (it might be) and that we should just get it over with for the good of all?

That might seem cold, but let’s give the argument its fairest hearing. If 320,000 people will die regardless of what we do, and if it won’t be any higher than that, then why not have that happen over the next few months and get it over with so that we don’t also destroy our economy, further empower a police state, wreck institutions and maybe threaten our elections and even America’s system of governance?

There are two groups I experience that are making this argument. The first are my libertarian friends and, as much as I find common ground with them on the federal level, this episode points out the fatal flaw of theirs as a universal philosophy. If 320,000 Americans die from coronavirus in the next few months, nobody is going to support continuing the “open it up” approach. Nobody.

And even if the state and local government did not feel compelled to act, America would shut itself down. Coronavirus outbreaks, especially in suburban and rural areas, remind me of fatalities in World War I. Many English towns would encourage friends to enlist together. You would get entire classes of young men from a single town enlisting and serving together in the same unit. That meant death did not come in the drip, drip, drip variety but all at once in community-wide tragedies, like when an artillery shell lands in the middle of a unit. This magnifies both the threat and the suffering. It makes it vivid and real in a way that never numbs.
As COVID-19 infections and deaths mount, they have tended to come in similar clusters. This church of people. That elder care facility. This meat packaging plant. That office complex. Someone asymptomatic infects a lot of people at once and, boom, just like an artillery shell.

It denies everything we know about human behavior to suggest that people watching this kind of thing happen around them, with millions falling ill and hundreds of thousands dying (in the best-case flu scenario), are going to keep going to restaurants and movie theaters and job sites and clothing stores. Even if the majority of people believed your theory (and to be clear: I don’t), humans don’t live by theory but by emotion. (If they didn’t, nobody would be afraid to fly but we’d all be terrified to drive. Again, it’s the difference between a cluster of death versus drip, drip, drip.)

This brings me to the other group of people who want to “liberate” the economy. I put the word “liberate” in quotes there because there is a perceived correlation between this group and the subset of Americans that are Trump supporters. I’m not going to push back on this caricature even though it is imperfect (just this past weekend, I spoke with some we could call “liberators” who would never vote for Trump). In our politicized, centralized, cultural narrative, President Trump makes a great villain (or hero, depending on your viewpoint). In a binary world where everyone is, without any nuance, either for or against, we seem to have settled that people wanting to end stay at home orders and get the country back to work are Trump supporters. I’m going to call them “liberators” for the rest of this piece.

What everyone needs to know about liberators is what I suggested libertarians need to know about everyone: humans don’t live by theory but by emotion.

The primary emotion driving liberators is fear. Fear of losing their job. Fear of losing their business. Fear of losing all they have worked for. Fear of their very fragile existence—one kept afloat by debt and often lots of side hustles—being radically altered. Fear of being impoverished. Fear of needing to ask for help.

To the extent that we can correlate the liberators with Trump supporters, we can correlate the non-liberators with those who are anti-Trump (again, not a perfect correlation). The latter groups tends to be (by their own volition) more educated, more professional, and thus in the case of the economic impacts from an economic shutdown, somewhat more shielded from economic impact.

Right or wrong, the affluent, non-liberators have the luxury of being able to fear the virus, fear becoming infected themselves or having someone they love become infected. It is easier for them to hear the math, hear the numbers, and understand what it means. Their emotions are reinforced by reality, not challenged by it.

For the liberators, their emotion is driving their reality. So, if 20 studies suggest a lethality rate for COVID-19 of 2.5% but one sampling from one group suggests it might be closer to flu, it is easy to want to believe in that one study. That doesn’t make them dumb or irrational. It just makes them human. If you doubt me, just ask anyone with a loved one that has a serious cancer diagnosis. Our emotions create our reality.

Here’s why this is all important: We did bring this on ourselves. If we could go back, the answer for the liberators is not better education to get their mind right or to be disempowered politically so they can be safely ignored. If we could go back, we would want an economic system that didn’t leave them so fragile. We would want all those liberators to actually feel secure so their fear could be directed at the abstract notion of public health, not at the very real notion of their own family’s future.

Let me give you an example of how we’ve messed this up: If you are an American and I told you that State A was far poorer than State B, what would you assume about the savings in State A? You would assume that, because they are poor, they have less savings. That’s how it works in America, but America is the anomaly.

The U.S. savings rate is around 7.5%, which is heavily weighted by savings of the wealthiest Americans. China is a far poorer country per capita than the United States, but the savings rate there is 46%. In India, it is 32%. In a country like Italy, the savings rate is 23%.  

We’ve all been amazed at how Italians responded to quarantine orders, and we’ve heard the good and bad about how the Chinese government has forced people into lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. For families that save 20%, 30%, 40% or more of their income, how much less fearful is such a lockdown than it is for a family with no savings, huge debts, and an insecure job? How much more assistance could a destitute family be offered by a community where most of their neighbors had access to many years’ worth of savings?

And by extension, how ludicrous was it for the United States to address the 2008 debt problem by engineering a recovery predicated on everyone taking on higher levels of debt?

This is just one of the many ways our top-down, centralized economic approach has cost us our stability. I point it out because we can’t go back and make ourselves less fragile. We’ve created this monstrous stack of dry kindling and now it’s going to burn. We’re getting protests after four or five weeks of shutdown, but wait until—government mandated or not—we’re at four or five months. We will be there soon.

Everything is about to change. For years we have pointed to the things that are fragile, the essential support structures in our communities that are most prone to break. They are now likely to break. Beyond understanding where the fragile parts are, it is not at all clear what is going to happen next. I have no clue how this ends.

One of the only things I do know right now is that, when I look at those people out protesting, I see fear. That is overwhelmingly what I see. And they are right to feel fear because their entire world is about to be upended.

For them, everything is about to change.

At this point in the game, there is only one way to calm fear and that is with empathy. Whether it pains us or not, whether you think it is morally right or not, we must find a way to express empathy to those experiencing fear. Fear is a powerful emotion easily weaponized by tyrants. We all need to work to diffuse it, starting with those around us. (And if you haven’t already, it will help you a lot to shut off the media outlets that are working to weaponize you.)

I wrote this in Chapter 10 in my book in a section titled “Talking to Each Other”. I’m going to emphasize that we’ve reached the time of urgency:
It’s my contention that cities need both mind-sets to solve problems and thrive. Hierarchy without compassion for individual suffering quickly becomes tyranny. The liberal framework is critical to helping us understand where existing social structures create harm, and pushing society to update, sometimes even completely reimagine, those structures.

Yet, a society without a certain level of structure becomes chaotic, the destabilization creating deep psychological anxiety and tension. When conservatives advocate for certain institutions and traditions, they are—as [Jonathan] Haidt has suggested—rightly pointing out that “you don’t help the bees by destroying the hive.”

The deep irony of the post-war development experiment is that it was largely a liberal-initiated destruction of the hive, wrapped in the language of both nationalism and justice, that has now grown to be sacred to conservatives. Untangling that Gordian knot of culture is going to require deep intention, and huge doses of empathy, by those who grasp the urgency of the situation.

As a final thought, it needs to be noted that there is another group outside the binary liberators and non-liberators, and that is the very poor. For somewhat different reasons, this group largely aligns with the liberators in their support of opening the economy to work, regardless of the health consequences. As a sad irony, there is a lot we can learn from the poor about living with fear and instability. There is even more we can learn from them about empathy.

Charles Marohn – known as “Chuck” to friends and colleagues – is the Founder and President of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota.

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  1. Merrilyn Jovin on May 1, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Thank you! As a small business owner here in Southern Oregon I agree with your assessment that this is being driven by fear. We practice a Live not Fear motto in our business and it’s culture for the simple reason of shaping ones emotions for positive results. Since uncertainty is life, at this point to embrace emotions that build and can provide a foundation for strength and empathy as we move forward and rebuild.

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