Trump’s Atrocious Trolley Trade-off

Note: This post has been retracted.  See explanation.

Recently, some Republicans have suggested that social distancing measures are not worth the damage they cause to the economy. This was explicitly suggested by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who wanted to sacrifice senior citizen’s lives. But it was also suggested by Trump who said,

We have two very, very powerful alternatives that we have to take into consideration. Life is fragile, and economies are fragile.

So they’re seeing it as a trolley problem: do you save the people on the tracks, or do you maintain the trolley schedule? Oh, won’t somebody please think of the trolley schedule!

I’d like to take this moral dilemma seriously, for the sake of argument. At the end, I will estimate, just how many Hitlers are we talking here?

Is saving lives always more important than the economy?

Most people would say that saving lives is more important than saving the economy. Granted, when the economy is bad enough people can lose their lives, maybe because they starve or because the quality of health and healthcare goes down. But still, the purpose of the economy is to serve our lives, not the other way around.

But we as a society do make a few decisions that suggest that saving lives does not infinitely outweigh saving the economy. Trump offered a couple points of comparison: car accidents, and the flu.

It’s true, we could decrease the number of deaths by car accident or the flu by enforcing shelter-in-place. Indeed, I suspect the number of car accidents and flu infections are dropping precipitously right now. But for some reason, we as a society do not behave as if this is a worthwhile trade-off. We don’t order everyone to shelter in place just to avoid car accidents.

Of course, if society were somehow persuaded to take greater action on car accidents or the flu, there are much better methods available. Like, more advertising and incentives for people to get their annual flu vaccine. Or greater investment in public transit. Plausibly, either of these public expenditures would actually stimulate the economy rather than depress it.

But these are all general remarks. It matters a great deal, how many lives are we talking? How much economy? Well, I have some grim news, and grimmer news…

How much economy?

Some articles are saying that the so-called coronavirus recession will rival the Great Recession of 2008. But from what I can tell, that’s extremely optimistic. Goldman Sachs predicts that the US GDP will decline by 24% in Q2 this year. The peak-to-trough drop during the Great Recession was 5%. This is more comparable to the 27% decrease in US GDP from peak to trough during the Great Depression!

You should be looking at me with some skepticism. There’s a difference between a slow peak-to-trough drop, and a drop that occurs during a single quarter (not sure which one is worse). But also the Great Depression was centered in the US while the coronavirus is worldwide—oh wait, that’s worse! But also, this is just what Goldman Sachs thinks. To avoid cherry-picking, I found an article describing forecasts from seven “financial heavyweights”. The median estimate (among those explicitly listed) is a 12% drop in Q2.

12% is really bad too, the worst since the post-WWII depression. This looks pretty bad no matter how I slice it.

Is the staggering economic cost really worth however many lives we save (to be estimated in the next section)? Well, I doubt it would be worth it just to save the 36k lives lost annually to motor vehicles. To be honest, I think people are gonna die from this economy (have you seen our pathetic welfare system??).

On the other hand, I’m thinking that this strategy where we just do business as usual, and power through the deaths from COVID-19, it’s literally impossible. You can’t make us do it. The federal government can’t stop California from enacting shelter-in-place policies. And California can’t stop individuals from exercising their personal freedom to avoid restaurants and public events.

Governments will not even be able to prevent themselves from taking restrictive measures. Once it becomes clear how many people are dying, political pressure will mount, and not even Trump’s legendary powers of self-delusion will permit staying the course. The economy is going to be throttled, sooner or later. Throttling it sooner will save lives and mitigate the damage to the economy. Not taking action is not rational, whether you measure the outcome in lives or dollars.

How many lives? (Or, How many Hitlers?)

First, let me rattle off some death counts from other causes, to get a sense of perspective.

As I’ve already mentioned, 36k people died from motor vehicles in 2018, in the US. 40k people died from guns in 2017. The median number of flu deaths per year is 38k, and the current season is estimated between 23k and 59k deaths.

Trump himself referred to the flu season, attempting to play up how bad the flu is in order to play down COVID-19. He thought 50k people would die from the flu this season. That’s in the upper range, but we’ll roll with it.

And how many people were killed in the Holocaust? Wikipedia says 11 million, 6 million of whom were Jews. I know I know, comparisons to Hitler. But it’s a useful point of reference as something that most people would consider a completely unacceptable loss of life.

How many people would die of COVID-19, if everyone were to treat it as business as usual? Well according to Trump, who was trying his hardest to downplay the virus, the mortality rate is only 1%, maybe less. The WHO estimates the mortality rate to be around 3.4%.  But there are biases, so sure, let’s go with Trump’s optimistic estimate of 1%.

Washington post pointed out 1% mortality rate is already 10 times greater mortality rate than the flu, so if it has a similar reach to the flu then ten times more people would die. So, 500k. But that seems incredibly optimistic to me. The flu is less infectious and a lot of us have gotten flu vaccines, which don’t exist for COVID-19.

If people treated it as business as usual, I’d have to guess that approximately everyone will be infected, and 1% of the US population will die. That’s 3 million people. A quarter-Hitler. In the US. (Worldwide, that’s maybe 7 Hitlers.) And maybe I’m making too many assumptions, but it’s actually not far off from this epidemiological study which estimates 2.2 million in the US without action.

But that’s only direct deaths. You see, once hospitals are overflowing, the mortality rate will go up, and not just for COVID-19. Basically for anything that requires hospitalization.

You could say that many of those people will eventually get infected anyway, and die anyway. It’s beyond my powers of research to make an estimate. But I don’t know, we’re talking a quarter of a Hitler here, by Trump’s own optimistic numbers. If we can avoid even a fraction of that, it’s worth throttling the economy sooner, instead of being forced to do it even more so later.

In all seriousness, wherever you live, please demand that your government take action now, if they haven’t already. Studies estimate that the median incubation period is 5 days so any action that appears appropriate right now is at least 5 days too late.


  1. says

    The worst killing period of the Holocaust was only about 3 years long, but it was three YEARS long.

    A quarter-Hitler over a period of less than a year, would still be just a quarter-Hitler, but it would literally cause deaths at a rate equal to the rate from Jan 1, 1944 to Jan 1, 1945.

    Think of all those trains of people as if they were bodies. During the holocaust, the people on the trains were not yet dead, but we would have to be shuttling just as many people to their mass graves over the course of a year, the difference being that Hitler shipped people still alive to be killed adjacent to the mass graves. We would be carrying the bodies of people already killed by COVID-19 out of homes and hospitals to put them on trains to be buried in rural areas. Our capacity to bury them, to place them in coffins, to cremate them, to honor them, to remember them as human beings that breathed life into those bodies for decades would be taxed every bit as surely in 2019 North America as Europeans were taxed by the tragedy of 1944.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Part of the problem here requires looking at this from Trump’s point of view.

    The trade-off – the “deal” – involves not just some stack of bodies, but the priceless advantage of getting at least one more term of TRUMP™ as our irreplaceable President.

    Doesn’t that make the choice so clear it settles itself?

  3. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    You’re right, I should amend my argument to make it more persuasive to Trump supporters:
    “Not taking action is not rational, whether you measure the outcome in lives or dollars or Trump’s reelection chances.”

  4. anothersara says

    You say “I know I know, comparisons to Hitler” yet you go ahead and do it anyway? Seriously?

    Isn’t simply giving numbers along the lines of ‘millions of people may die’ sufficient? What do you gain by invoking Hitler and the Shoah that justifies trivializing those crimes? It wasn’t just the number of deaths that mattered, it was also the fact that it was premeditated murder. If those millions of people (including some of my ancestors) had died because Hitler mismanaged a disease epidemic, they would have been just as dead, yet it would have been less traumatic.

    @ CripDyke

    Are you suggesting that COVID would be even worse than the Shoah because during the Shoah the dead bodies were already near their graves whereas COVID bodies would need to be transported over longer distances. Really? You have a moral system where transporting and handling dead bodies is a bigger deal than the difference between manslaughter and premeditated murder?

  5. says

    I just don’t share this precept that comparisons to Hitler are automatically out of bounds. If the comparison bothers you, well I didn’t put that in to please you. I put it in because what is a million anyway? I’m a math person so I know I don’t know and I know you don’t know. The Holocaust is something people know, and which they know was unacceptable.

    Another more direct comparison is the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 17-50 million people worldwide. Given that most people hadn’t even heard of that pandemic until recently, we can guess that it wasn’t as traumatic as Holocaust. These two events may provide upper and lower estimates for how “bad” a few million deaths is. But what good is this lower estimate? I don’t know how bad the 1918 pandemic was. Presumably it was quite traumatic at the time, even if we don’t have the cultural memory.

    I just came up with another potentially better comparison. In the US, there are about 2.8 million deaths a year. You can do your figuring from there.

  6. anothersara says

    I don’t think comparisons are ‘automatically’ out of bounds, but the way you phrase it implies that it was unacceptable because of the numbers. If Hitler and his accomplices had only killed a thousand people or [insert number] people by premeditated murder, it still would have been unacceptable, because it is premeditated murder.

    Look, I know that trivialization of the Shoah is common throughout our culture. I’m mostly numb to it because I don’t have a choice. Is it too much to hope that you could be a little better than average?

    And comparing it to the Shoah doesn’t help me understand the numbers. Even if only 1,000 people had died, as long as people from my family had been among those 1,000, it still would have been traumatizing.

  7. says

    I definitely think the numbers matter a great deal. I have too much EA influence, I have the “shut up and multiply” principle rattling in the back of my head. But I accept that some sources of death are worse than others, all numbers being equal.


  1. […] for a blog post I published on my blog A Trivial Knot in March of 2020. That post is “Trump’s Atrocious Trolley Tradeoff“. The essay contained a political discussion of the pandemic, and speculation on possible […]

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