Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux in FiveThirtyEight –
The staggering economic toll of the new coronavirus is becoming abundantly, unavoidably clear. As economic forecasts grow darker, talk of tradeoffs is getting louder: Is protecting Americans from COVID-19 really worth all this disruption and economic pain?
On March 22, before President Trump floated the idea of reopening the economy by Easter, against the recommendations of his own public health experts, he tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Other politicians, meanwhile, rejected the idea that economic costs should be a factor at all. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed Trump’s push to get the economy moving again, saying, “No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”
Cuomo’s sentiment might be a nice bit of political rhetoric, but it’s not really true. Economists might not be able to say how much an individual person’s existence is worth, but they have figured out a way to calculate how much the average person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death — which allows them to put a price tag on the collective value of saving one life.