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Balancing Public Safety And Reopening Economies

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program today by considering the difficult if unspoken calculations being made as the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise here and around the world. Here in the United States, that number is already well past the number of people killed in the Vietnam War, for example. Experts tell us that number could be much higher if it were not for the social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders in effect throughout much of the country.

And yet, with more than 30 million Americans becoming unemployed in just the past six weeks, and with businesses of all types and sizes uncertain if they will survive this pandemic, the economic pain is impossible to ignore. So that's what we want to explore this hour - the many trade-offs and difficult decisions facing leaders, small businesses, workers and even new college graduates in a post-pandemic economy.

And we're going to start with the dilemma that governors have been grappling with - continue in lockdown mode to save lives or reopen for business to save jobs? Several states have opted to reopen starting this weekend, but some in their own states furiously object, saying people will die unnecessarily. In others, armed protesters have been demanding a reopening. They are being criticized as being indifferent to the lives of others.

Is that really the trade-off here - saving jobs versus saving lives? We're going to consider that now with our first two guests. Teresa Ghilarducci is professor of economics at The New School in New York.

Professor Ghilarducci, thanks so much for joining us.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: Glad to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: And James Broughel is a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, which is in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Broughel, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

JAMES BROUGHEL: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So, professor Broughel, I'll start with you. Is there an actual trade-off in your view between saving lives and saving jobs?

BROUGHEL: A pandemic is somewhat different than a typical situation the government might deal with. If you looked at, like, for example, the 1918 Spanish flu, that pandemic hit working-age people very hard. And so those cities that shut down earlier tended to have faster economic recoveries in the longer run.

The current situation is a little bit different because it's primarily the elderly who are most at risk from the virus, so not necessarily young, healthy workers. So there is clearly some trade-off going on right now between the economy and lives, but it's not really black and white.

MARTIN: OK. Professor Ghilarducci, how do you answer that question? Do you think this is a trade-off between jobs and lives?

GHILDARDUCCI: No, not at all, actually. The shutdown has saved lives. And it also has caused unemployment. But the unemployment itself is not a problem. It's the income lost from unemployment. So as long as the Fed and Congress replaces that income from unemployment, then the loss to the economy will look a lot less than right now, when we have 30 million unemployed. Thirty million unemployed is very different when there's no income replacement, but now there is.

I totally reject the idea that we should count the value of lives of the elderly as somehow much less than the lives of healthy workers. I mean, I see where he's going there. But that's not the calculation that most countries or most governors are even making.

MARTIN: Mr. Broughel, why do you think there is so much difference of opinion among these governors about when to reopen? I mean, is this motivated by - I'm asking you to speculate to a degree, but is this motivated by different calculations about what the cost-benefit analysis is? Or is it more deeply value-driven or driven by more sort of local political considerations in your view? Because everybody seems to - everybody's describing this in terms of what is best. And I'm just trying to figure out, why is there so much disagreement about what is best, in your view?

BROUGHEL: It's certainly the case that different regions in the country are impacted to different extents by this virus. New York state is being heavily impacted, obviously, so - but much more than, say, some rural states like South Dakota. So it wouldn't be surprising necessarily to see some of the more rural states open up sooner. I think it's value-driven to some extent. It could be that there's - there are partisan differences of opinion on this issue. I think that's part of it.

But it's also probably disagreement about the costs and benefits of these government measures. There's considerable uncertainty surrounding how costly these government stay-at-home orders are. There are a variety of different forecasts out there as to the costs of social distancing in general. Some are as high as a trillion dollars a month.

It's not clear how much of that is due to the virus itself and natural social distancing that the public would engage in even in absence of stay-at-home orders. But probably some of that cost is due to these government directives. And not surprisingly, there's just difference in opinion as to whether it's worth it or not to continue that.

MARTIN: Professor Ghilarducci, do you - I don't know how one would measure this, but do you have a sense among your peers in economics - is there some consensus around - among economists about whether this is worth it or not or what the right way is to proceed? Do you see what I'm asking here?

GHILDARDUCCI: Among professional economists, the majority opinion is to follow the epidemiologists. All of our models about when it would make sense to restart the economy gradually are following the epidemiologists' curves about when it could be flattened. And that's because we know going back to work too early and in the wrong places could cause a second wave and could cause costs to workers, the productive part of the economy.

So we are finding a consensus among economists to take a back seat to the virologists and really spend our time figuring out what sectors should go back to - go back first. One is to open up the public schools so that we can have adult workers go back to work in the way that their employers and their unions feel is safe. So among my profession, we are looking at where to open the economy safely. We're not making those cost-benefit analysis about lives.

MARTIN: That was Teresa Ghilarducci, who's a professor of economics at The New School in New York. She's with the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. We also heard from James Broughel, who is a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

Thank you both so much for talking with us today.

GHILDARDUCCI: Thank you, Michel.

BROUGHEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.