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Moderate social distancing yields $8 trillion in economic benefits, study finds

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/30/2020 Christopher Ingraham
a large white building: The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City has been turned into a temporary hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News) The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City has been turned into a temporary hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)

When it comes to fighting the coronavirus, three-quarters of Americans say it is more important to save lives, even if the economy suffers, according to a recent YouGov poll.

But in the past week, we’ve heard a lot from others expressing the opposite view — many that are evidently well represented on the nation’s op-ed pages and in its halls of power. The lieutenant governor of Texas set off a firestorm by suggesting that older Americans should be willing to sacrifice their lives to save the economy, which has been devastated as businesses shutter to stem the virus’s spread and people stay home.

But in many respects, the either-or choice is a false one. A new working paper from Michael Greenstone and Vishan Nigam of the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics underscores that the two goals are complementary. A regimen of moderate social distancing, like what many areas of the country are doing now, has the potential to save well over a million lives.

And those saved lives are worth $8 trillion to the U.S. economy.

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The paper takes as its starting point a coronavirus forecast published by Neil Ferguson and others at London’s Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team. The analysis concluded that, left unchecked, the virus would kill 2.2 million people in the United States.

It also found that moderate social distancing measures — including a seven-day isolation for anyone showing symptoms, a 14-day voluntary quarantine for their household, and significantly reduced social contact for those 70 and older — would halve the overall mortality to 1.1 million people.

Greenstone and Nigam extended their calculations to put a dollar value on all those saved lives. It might seem like a callous question, but in policymaking, it’s a necessary one.

“When you have a comparison going between money and something else, money almost always wins in our political debate,” Greenstone said in an interview. Converting lives to dollars puts those lives on equal footing and helps “focus the mind,” he added.

Related video: National social distancing guidelines extended to April 30 (provided by CNBC)

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To do this, they turned to a tool regularly used by policymakers in evaluating the costs and benefits of a given piece of legislation: the value of a statistical life (VSL). Economists typically calculate VSL by asking people how much they would pay for a certain intervention — such as a vaccine or a safety feature on a car — that would reduce their chance of mortality by a certain percentage.

Nigam said this is a useful because it lets people assign a value to their own lives, rather than trying to use an incomplete proxy like wages or productivity. “We’re capturing how much people value living,” he said. And humans are worth a lot more than the sum of their lifetime wages.

Greenstone and Nigam used previously published work to set an average VSL of $11.5 million for American adults, which is in line with the number used by the federal government to assess clean air regulations.

Using this figure, they calculated the number of lives saved through moderate social distancing. They initially calibrated their model to match the Imperial College estimates on which their work is based. They also added a separate category of lives saved due to the avoidance of “overflow deaths” — people who die because hospital facilities become overrun with patients. The original Imperial College estimate didn’t break these deaths out separately, but Greenstone and Nigam estimate that moderate social distancing would reduce those deaths by about 630,000.

They then apply the $11.5 million VSL to the total number of lives saved, which they estimate at 1.76 million, accounting for the age distribution of the lives saved. They arrive at a staggering number: $7.9 trillion, or about $60,000 per American household. And it all happens in the next six months, according to their estimate.

“$8 trillion is over one-third of US GDP and larger than the entire annual federal budget,” they wrote. “Whether in regular times or during a pandemic, it is difficult to think of any intervention with such large potential benefits to American citizens.”

That figure stems, in part, from the high value Americans place on their lives, a value that goes well beyond their lifetime wages, their performance at work or their contributions to the tax system.

Looking at it another way, $8 trillion represents what we stand to lose by ignoring the public health guidelines for mitigating the virus. In recent weeks, many policymakers — chief among them President Trump — have been fretting about the cost of keeping social distancing measures in place.

Those costs are highly salient. You can see the businesses that are shut down, the workers who are laid off and the roads that are emptying out. What’s harder to see, though, is the cost of not implementing those measures and of letting the outbreak tear across the country.

Greenstone and Nigam’s paper shines a light on those hard-to-see costs, converting them to a dollar figure that policymakers can easily understand.

“It makes clear that moving away from social distancing has not only substantial health costs, but also economic costs,” Greenstone said.

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