Why Proving A Negative Is So Difficult.

In the months following passage of the 2009 stimulus bill, as the markets began to finally stabilize and the slow recovery from the worst economic recession in almost a quarter century started to take root, Republicans in both the House and Senate openly criticized President Barack Obama for overreacting. The stimulus, they said, was a waste of money because the recession wasn’t all that bad and would’ve eventually resolved itself without adding almost a trillion dollars to the debt.

That assessment, however, was not shared by the vast majority of respected economists. They argued that without a massive stimulus, we would’ve entered into a depression. If anything, some of them urged the Administration to go larger, warning that the risk of doing too little was greater than the risk of doing too much. Of course, Obama’s dilemma was that the only way he could’ve been proven right would’ve been to do nothing and let the economy crater. And naturally, had he done that, he would’ve gone down in history as the second coming of Herbert Hoover. Obama rightly figured that it was better to be damned for doing something than for doing nothing. In the end, it was the only decision he could’ve made. Only a lunatic would’ve taken that kind of gamble with so much at stake. The results – ten plus years of sustained economic growth – speak for themselves.

Fast forward eleven years and another crisis is threatening the United States. This one in the form of the worst global pandemic since 1918. The shelter-in-place orders that many states have implemented have been effective in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases, but they’ve also had the unintended consequence of reeking havoc on the American economy. With everything but essential services basically shut down, millions of people are out of work and businesses – small and large – are suffering tremendous hardship.

Already the Monday-morning quarterback contingent is in mid-season form. They are questioning the wisdom of shutting down the economy when the experts are now predicting we may have less than one hundred thousand fatalities. Of course, the only reason those estimates are as low as they are is because the shelter-in-place orders have worked. Absent those drastic measures, scientists insist we’d be looking at the prospect of well over a million deaths.

Funny how the more things change the more they remain the same. The scientific community is now being subjected to the same revisionist history that dogged Obama during his first year in office. But while the circumstances may be different, the question ostensibly remains the same. How do you prove a negative? How do governors, who are doing their best to safeguard the lives of their constituents, convince the skeptics that if they had done nothing, if they had let this virus burn through their states, more of them would’ve died and still more would be dying as we speak? How do you have that discussion without sounding self-serving and callous?

I sometimes imagine what I would do if I were one of those governors who’ve been besieged by protesters during the lockdowns. How would I have responded to their rants? Knowing me, I think the conversation might go something like this.

Protesters: You’re destroying our economy and for what?
Me: We’re trying to keep you alive, schmuck!
Protesters: Only sixty thousand people have died. You’re overreacting. Give us back our freedom.
Me: Okay, dickhead, we’ll try it your way. I’m lifting the restrictions. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Three months later…
Protesters: Hey, we’re dying! Don’t you care what happens to us?
Me: Talk to the hand, asshole!

Naturally, we all know that exchange would never happen, and not just because no one would be dumb enough to vote for a “schmuck” / “dickhead” / “asshole” like me, but because I can’t think of a single responsible official who would ever let such a “what if” scenario play out. The fact is Obama would never have allowed the economy to go into a depression and governors like Andrew Cuomo and Larry Hogan would never permit tens of thousands of their fellow citizens to die needlessly just to prove how shortsighted some of them were. It’s not something a sane person would do.

Yet here we stand: at a crossroads. It’s clear that the stay-at-home orders have worked. Lifting them now would only reignite the spread of the virus. Yet that is precisely what governors in states like Texas, Georgia and Florida are now poised to do. By ignoring the science and opening up their economies this early, they are literally playing with fire and jeopardizing innocent lives. They’re no better than the athlete who comes back too soon from his surgery only to reinjure himself in the process. Except in this instance, the consequences will be far more severe than merely reinjuring an old wound.

Because we are still in the middle of this crisis, there is no way of knowing how this will end up. But based on the exponential growth rates we saw in March, if enough governors succumb to the pressure that is mounting from within their states, we could be looking at a very long and deadly summer and fall. Not to mention a shattered economy that could take years to recover.

And that would be the cruelest of all ironies. The one thing the protesters claim they are fighting to preserve – apart from some absurd interpretation of what the word liberty means – is the very thing they’ll end up sacrificing, along with their lives.

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.

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