Josef Stalin’s purges might not look so bad

Recession

I haven’t really been taking this dilemma seriously on the assumption that shutdowns to preserve “social distancing” to try to limit the spread of coronavirus would rule the day, but:

“What is clearly not a viable option is to keep the economy shut down for the next seven to 10 weeks,” [Stephen Moore] added. “People will lose their life savings, and the unemployment rate will go to 35 percent.”[1]

This has its own health impacts. We have seen with “deaths of despair”[2] and suicides under austerity[3] what happens when people cannot support themselves and their families.[4] And this isn’t just about capitalists wanting to go on making money. The economic shutdown will devastate the poor.[5] On the other hand,

“Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on social media, and shown all around the world,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, tweeted on Monday. “There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”[6]

Ignore that these are Republicans. This is a real problem (and I’m only looking at the United States here) and neither side is wrong:

As Congress haggles over a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus rescue package, analysts are warning the U.S. could be facing a prolonged depression rather than the kind of short recession and swift bounce back that President Donald Trump and his top aides expect. And they’re raising questions about whether current government efforts to cushion the economy from the damage will be anywhere near enough.[7]

Which means the paradigm—capitalism—is wrong. But the nature of a paradigm is that it is unquestioned and so it is with capitalism: Capitalism is unquestioned.

So within this paradigm, we can only ask how many people will die with either choice. I’ll hazard a guess, however, that against the toll of capitalism, not just in this crisis but in historical aggregate, Josef Stalin’s purges might not look so bad.

All that said, I’ve been wondering whether it’s even reasonable to expect humans to comply with these lockdowns. I can’t help but think that people will go stir-crazy and resist. We’re a social species. “Stay at home” and “shelter in place” orders go against who we are.

Against that, we’re also a fearful species: Social psychologists argue that conservatism likely has at least some roots in that fear and in insecure attachment.[8]

It’s really a bizarre mix of factors and I really can’t tell you how it all plays out.

Adam Cancryn and Nancy Cook, “Health officials want Trump to ‘double down, not lighten up’ restrictions,” Politico, March 23, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/coronavirus-economy-trump-restart-145222

Kim Hart, “The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it,” Axios, March 23, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-economy-layoffs-children-families-bad-d588cc93-ff26-4031-8be8-5654cce05a15.html

Ben White, “Great Depression 2? Worries about a coronavirus-induced calamity pile up,” Politico, March 23, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/great-depression-coronavirus-induced-calamity-145304


  1. [1]Adam Cancryn and Nancy Cook, “Health officials want Trump to ‘double down, not lighten up’ restrictions,” Politico, March 23, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/coronavirus-economy-trump-restart-145222
  2. [2]Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century” [draft], Brookings Institute, March 23, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/
  3. [3]Charles C. Branas et al., “The impact of economic austerity and prosperity events on suicide in Greece: a 30-year interrupted time-series analysis,” British Medical Journal 5, no. 1 (2015): doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005619; Paul Corcoran et al., “Impact of the economic recession and subsequent austerity on suicide and self-harm in Ireland: An interrupted time series analysis,” International Journal of Epidemiology 44, no. 3 (2015): 969–977, doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyv058
  4. [4]John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 20, 2013, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Austerity-Has-Been-Tested-and/139255/
  5. [5]Kim Hart, “The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it,” Axios, March 23, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-economy-layoffs-children-families-bad-d588cc93-ff26-4031-8be8-5654cce05a15.html
  6. [6]Adam Cancryn and Nancy Cook, “Health officials want Trump to ‘double down, not lighten up’ restrictions,” Politico, March 23, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/coronavirus-economy-trump-restart-145222
  7. [7]Ben White, “Great Depression 2? Worries about a coronavirus-induced calamity pile up,” Politico, March 23, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/great-depression-coronavirus-induced-calamity-145304
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).