The Logic of Deadly Decisions 2 - Desperate Times

Normal rules don't apply in disasters, but how do we know when to switch over?

It is fundamental to human nature for people to try to seek explanations for what they see going on.  Prehistoric savages invented pantheistic gods and angry idols to explain the invisible forces of nature; our far more sophisticated moderns reach for conspiracy theories by angry boogeypersons instead.

At Scragged, we prefer to observe the world and reach rational conclusions from what we see.  Our foundational conclusion, first and foremost, is that human beings are unreliable.  So to reach any sensible answers, we need to carefully consider evidence from as many different sources as possible, weighing them against their past accuracy and truth.

In the first article in this series, we walked through a chain of logic that leads us to believe that, contrary to conspiracy theories, coronavirus is in fact both real and harmful.  That's good to know, but what should we do about it?

Rational human beings learn from experience, so it's understandable to apply previous lessons to new experiences.  We've all been to hospitals and doctor's offices where they wear face masks to prevent infection.  No surprise, then, that there's been a run on face masks the world around.

Unfortunately, in this case past experience steers us wrong: ordinary face masks are no good against airborne viruses, although they do keep sick people from spreading it as far when they cough.  What does work are the much rarer and much more costly respirators, but wearing one makes you look like a super villain.

At least wearing a face mask is logical though mistaken.  There's no such excuse for the massive runs on toilet paper - why would extra stocks be required for fighting a respiratory disease?  But when presented with a threat, people naturally want to Do Something.

The trouble is that, much of the time, just randomly "Doing Something" makes things worse.  Right now, world governments are Doing an awful lot of Something by attempting to make the rest of us sit at home doing nothing at all.

On the face of it, the logic appears sound: if everyone stays home and has no contact with anyone else, it's impossible to transmit diseases, right?

But that forgets the very real costs of doing nothing and the limits to the nothing that can be done.  We still have to eat, after all, and food has to come from somewhere, usually by truck, and then manually put on grocery shelves.  Food ordered through the Internet must be packed, shipped, and delivered by many hands who touch each and every item.

We need heat.  We need urgent plumbing repairs when we run out of toilet paper and misuse something not designed for that purpose.  Many of us need routine medical services on a regular basis.  And, of course, all consumption of goods and services requires action, and potential infection, by other people.

The Risks and Costs Of Everything

Did you get out of bed today?  How unsafe!  450 people die every year falling out of bed - that's more than one a day!

How about driving a car?  Every year, 37,000 people die annually in car wrecks, and that's just in the United States.

So you chose to walk instead?  Nope: 6500 Americans died that way last year.

Of course, if you just stay in bed and never go anywhere at all, you may become one of the 60,000 people every year who die from bedsores.

There are two essential points to grasp: every single thing we do has risk.  Some have higher risks than others - bungee-jumping is obviously more dangerous than pillow fights - but there is nothing in this world that is absolutely safe.

And, no matter how careful we might be or how excellent the medical attention, each and every one of us is going to die eventually.  We can work to push off this inevitable day, but it will catch up to us sometime or other no matter what we do.

For some of us, that day is closer than for others.  One of the notable attributes of the coronavirus is that it seems to be far worse on people who are elderly, particularly those who are already in ill health.  There have been younger people who've succumbed, but it appears that many of them may have previously damaged their bodies through substance abuse or diabetes.  And, there's even the occasional superannuated soul who makes a comeback.

Here we reach a topic that is very difficult for normal people to discuss rationally.  None of us ever want to have to make a choice between two different people's lives - should we save the life of Person A and leave Person B to die, or the other way around?  This is the stuff of nightmares, superhero movies, and lawsuits.

In economic terms, though, we make this decision every day.  If we invest money in schools, we intend to improve the lives of the children we educate, but that money isn't available for, say, paying for dialysis for elderly diabetics or for fixing potholes in roads.

Italian doctors are having to make these decisions on an hourly basis right now: it's being reported that they are no longer allowed to use respirators on patients older than 60.  In effect, they have to just let them die because there aren't enough respirators go around.  From a societal point of view, it makes more sense to save a younger person who may have many remaining years of earning and taxpaying vs a person who's already lived out their life and is now collecting a pension.

Looked at by raw economics, the worst possible time for a person to die is in their early 20s: society has paid for two decades of education and received almost nothing in return.  The best possible time, in contrast, is the day after they retire - we've already taxed them for all they're worth and would soon be paying pensions and increased health care costs.

Does this mean we should just shoot all old folks and save a bundle?  Well, if you were Hitler, sure it does - he killed old people, as well as the handicapped, people with incurable diseases, people of lesser races, people that looked at him the wrong way, and so on.

But we're not Hitler, so under normal circumstances we flatly refuse to operate that way.  So does anyone who's not a psychopath or a politician.

These aren't normal times, though.  In normal times, we take extra care of our elderly.  When the ship is sinking, often the elderly will give their seat on a lifeboat to someone younger, and traditionally, men would give place to women and children.

The question we're presented with today is: when do normal times stop and desperate times begin?  On the Titanic, individuals wrestled with this question, and whether they saved their lives or lost them often depended on when they made the switch.

Italy has clearly switched over into emergency mode.  Our mainstream media is calling for us to do the same.  But is that justified?

The Cost of a Wrong Call

The Titanic did, in fact, sink, and thousands lost their lives.  Many more could have survived had they made the switch from "normal times" to "desperate measures" when lifeboats were still leaving half-empty because nobody thought there was any real need to board them.

We look at those people as fools now, but on the information available to them at the time, it was not an illogical decision to stay on the giant, heated, well-lit, unsinkable ocean liner vs a tiny wooden boat with no radio a thousand miles from shore.  There are countless other examples of ship accidents where people mistakenly thought the ship would sink and abandoned it, only to see it sail on without them leaving them stuck.  The famous Mary Celeste is thought to be such a case, in which the ship survived just fine but the panicky people who abandoned it didn't.

This, then, is the dilemma that everyone in the world, and in particular President Donald J. Trump, is faced with.  That's one reason why being the President has long been believed to age people excessively, even without the massed chorus of the media saying you're a cross between Rainman and Adolf Hitler.

In the next article in this series, we'll look more specifically at the tradeoffs incumbent in the actions our betters are screaming for the world to take.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

Hoarding TP may be wise rather than foolish.
When the stores close, or limited transport is dedicated to more "critical" items, having a large stock on hand may make certain matters more pleasant.

March 26, 2020 10:07 AM

See, that's the thing. Hoarding toilet paper is an irrational response *to this specific virus.* It may turn out to be a very rational response to government malfeasance, incompetence, and destructive misrule.

March 26, 2020 10:14 AM

" governments are Doing an awful lot of Something by attempting to make the rest of us sit at home doing nothing at all." They do, however, appear reasonably content to allow truck drivers, farmers, doctors and any other providers of essential services to "take it for the team", by accepting the truth of this article....selectively.

March 26, 2020 10:23 AM
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