If All Lives Have Equal Value, why does Bill Gates support shutting down the U.S. economy?

The Gates Foundation‘s main message is “All Lives Have Equal Value” (secondary message: send $billions in Microsoft profits over to Africa without it ever being taxed!).

Bill Gates is a righteous opponent of Donald Trump’s hopes to reopen the U.S. economy. From The Hill:

Asked about suggestions being floated in the U.S. about relaxing social distancing measures to avoid severe economic damage, Gates said there is “no middle ground” between the virus and the cost to businesses.

Gates, who did not mention Trump in the interview, said that “it’s very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds.”

Are these positions consistent? If some of the most pessimistic epidemiologists are correct, shutting down the U.S. economy might save a few hundred thousand American lives. For this to be true, the virus has to thrive in hot/humid weather, the Army Corps of Engineers has to be incompetent at setting up field hospitals, all drug therapy attempts have to fail, etc. But maybe all of those worst-case assumptions will be correct.

For every saved American, though, aren’t we guaranteed to cause more than one death in a poor country? The U.S. is 15 percent of the world economy. Our shutdown is going to make us poorer so we’ll buy less from the world’s poorest countries. People in those poorest of countries who were at a subsistence standard of living in 2019 are going to be without sufficient funds for food, shelter, and medicine in 2020. Even citizens of medium-income countries, e.g., those who work in industries that are tied to trade with the U.S., might be unable to afford previously affordable life-saving medical interventions.

So if Bill Gates actually believes that All Lives Have Equal Value, shouldn’t he be saying “keep the the U.S. economy open, sweep up any dead bodies, and keep buying stuff from countries where they desperately need the cash”?

[Update, 4/9: I have supplied this post to friends on Facebook who are most zealous regarding “savings lives” via a U.S. economic shutdown. Although in pre-plague times these same people were generally huge advocates for “thinking globally” and advocating for the vulnerable anywhere on Earth, they are hostile and confused when told that their shutdown might be an inconvenience or worse for someone in another country. It has proven to be an interesting window into the logic of the American Righteous. Planet Earth is exquisitely interconnected such that bringing a reusable shopping bag to the Columbus Circle Whole Foods will stop global warming and thus keep the seas from inundating Jakarta. On the other hand, we can stop trading with a country where people are living on $2/day and there will be no adverse consequences for those people.]

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12 thoughts on “If All Lives Have Equal Value, why does Bill Gates support shutting down the U.S. economy?

  1. There is a material input difference: millions of lives saved. This accounting for direct covid victims as well as secondary (lack of availability of health care)

    • Philip is extremely smart. He’s also extraordinarily generous in sharing his thinking with everyone. Philip, please continue to share freely your thinking with everyone around the world, include the poor in Africa, slum-dwellers in India, migrants living in hovels in Mexico City, and Americans barricaded in their mansions, SUVs parked and slowly crushing their five-car eco-sustainable driveways paved with green power.

    • Philip: my apologies! That was more like audience feedback (what happened to the self-deprecating humor and humanism of your early works like “Narcissism Today” and “Travels with Samantha”?!) than an attempt to construct an argument.

      To answer your question, I think it’s based on incorrect premises. What we’re facing is a “pay me now or pay me later” situation. We can shut down the economy now and take the economic hit (“suppression”); or we can try to keep going (“mitigation”), a lot more people get really sick, the health-care system is overwhelmed (as in Italy), a lot of health-care workers die – and the economy shuts down anyway because people are too afraid to go to work.

      Of course, we disagree on this question. Let’s suppose that your premises are correct.

      Then what you’re describing is a version of the well-known trolley problem. The trolley problem doesn’t demonstrate that the life of the one is more valuable than the life of the five, only that there’s a deontological obligation not to kill people.

      The ethical universalism expressed in the Gates Foundation slogan which you’re trying to disprove isn’t something that was invented recently. There’s a class of arguments against foreign aid which are based on a fallacy, the fallacy of the excluded middle: either you give everything away except for bare subsistence, or you don’t really care about poor people. As Michael Ignatieff points out, in fact we have a range of moral obligations, which are strongest towards those closest to us. Our moral obligations towards strangers are weaker, but that doesn’t mean they’re non-existent.

      In practice, the claims of ethical universalism came to be strongly limited in Christian teaching and then in European natural law by the injunction that a rich man had a merely voluntary [and thus weaker] charitable obligation to strangers in need. In more general terms, a descending order of moral impingement came into place: the claims of kith and kin first, then neighbors, co-religionists, co-citizens, and only at the very end, the indeterminate stranger. To this day, the claim of the stranger – the victim on the TV screen – is the furthest planet in the solar system of our moral obligations.

      A shorter version: Put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.

  2. This is very simple, Bill Gates wealth and standard of living is not going to be noticeably effected by a prolonged shutdown. This is why Jeff Bezos will also support the shutdown, his wealth will only increase as Amazon greatly benefits in the shutdown, the factories in China are up and running producing goods for Amazon, so it is all good. There will only be three stores left in the future Amazon, Walmart and IKEA. Since Trump’s revenue from his golf courses and hotels depends on the shutdown ending he would of course seek to open up the economy as soon as possible. Elon Musk would also like to open up the economy because it greatly effects Tesla, which has been taken of the essential list. Although Tesla may offer to make a few token ventilators so that they can open up their car production lines. Boeing would prefer to open the economy again. Airlines would prefer to open the economy again.

    In conclusion, the talking head on TV or internet will support either shutting down or opening up the US Economy depending on if they increase or decrease their revenue and profit. Money talks.

    • Note to readers… Pavel is a foreigner who has admitted to trying to meddle in our election. This may be a crime.

  3. I think you are presuming that either:
    (a) Bill doesn’t understand the effects of the pandemic upon the economy
    or
    (b) Bill doesn’t care about the costs to the US or the world of a US shutdown.

    I am willing to presume that Bill has access to the best modelling and advice possible, he is one of the few people that can get their voice heard against Trump, that he is trying to making sensible engineering compromises, and that he has some skill at dealing at correctly making effective decisions with imperfect information for a large system.

    Your article disappoints me because it is attacking some philosophical issue about whether he does or doesn’t believe “All Lives Have Equal Value”.

    He has been spending his *time* and money fighting disease and poverty, a clear sign he gives a shit about everyone. He’s not trying to get to mars.

    • I think on this one, Bill Gates and Donald Trump (“America First!”) are in agreement. Both advocate a U.S. shutdown that they hope will save some American lives. Neither have offered an analysis of the effect of this shutdown on mortality in poor countries with which we trade. (Or even on the mortality that we might expect from the U.S. becoming poorer and less educated.)

  4. The reason for extreme reactions by leaderships the world over is more prosaic: Most senior politicians, officials and business magnates are over 60, with many being over 70. They are therefore personally at risk. After working/swindling so hard all their lives, they want to keep on enjoying the fruits of their efforts!

  5. I wouldn’t say the Trump and Gates “Both advocate a U.S. shutdown that they hope will save some American lives.” I would say that Trump didn’t have that view until very recently, and even before yesterday, his advocacy of the shutdown has been lukewarm at best. I think he has finally been convinced of the need, but his heart isn’t even in it. He’s still closely reading what has been written for him rather than relying on his oratorical style to persuade people. He would be exaggerating the negative expectations.

    “Neither have offered an analysis of the effect of this shutdown on mortality in poor countries with which we trade.”

    Also not true. You know that one of the two is totally incapable of making such an analysis, that if any of his advisers has done such an analysis, they would have no hope of making him understand it, and that even if they could make him understand it, it would make no difference. It wouldn’t gain him any more votes to keep the economy open for the benefit of the rest of the world.

    Bill & Melinda Gates have been very active in the underdeveloped world as their foundation “focuses on improving health and alleviating extreme poverty.” They not only fund health initiatives, but they’re also big on developing the infrastructure that is needed to improve lives. If there are no paved roads, no flowing water, no sanitation system, then focusing directly on health needs and poverty doesn’t go very far.

    Their plans are to give away more than 90% of their wealth and to have their foundation finish its distribution within 20 years of their deaths. They’re not planning on leaving their children destitute, but it appears that their charitable intent is real. It may be misguided at times (such as his standardized testing, statistically driven plans to improve schools), but their efforts are logically driven. If anyone could figure out a way to calculate the likely effects on the world of an economic intervention in the US, it would probably be Gates. Not personally, but he could pay for it.

    However, I don’t think such a calculation is possible. So nobody is going to be offering such an analysis.

    We could retrospectively attempt to calculate the costs to people in other countries from our mortgage crash, but that would be entirely different. In the case of Covid-19, you’re positing that if the US slows down its economy or this will be detrimental to other countries, primarily our suppliers.

    However, if we don’t slow down our economy, we’re going to have a health disaster. Not only will more Americans be dying, but we will exert a greater strain on the world’s health care infrastructure. We will outbid most other countries for equipment and health care workers. Americans who think they are healthy will flee highly contagious states for those with lower contagion, and may even flee to other countries, bringing the virus with them. We will have a higher death toll, which as others have pointed out, will impair our economy. Children will be left without parents. Many people will die in their homes with no one to pick up the bodies, as in Italy. Mortality for health care workers will be high, much higher than now. Fear, xenophobia, racism, crime, suicides, and domestic violence will get out of control. Americans will become totally intolerant of foreign aid.

    Rather than a rational allocation of essential workers whose risk of contagion is minimized by having the public stay at home, more contagious people will be coming into contact with those essential workers. Employees will be dropping out of enterprises at random (or rather, haphazardly). You will have managers at banks who are short on tellers, or vice versa. You will have cooks, but be short on dishwashers and servers. First responders – police, firefighters, and EMTs will also fall victim to Covid-19 taking them off the front lines for weeks, months, or permanently. The death rate will increase. Eventually, most enterprises (private and public) will be hamstrung by the haphazard employee shortages. Even for those employees who survive, there will not be a quick return for most. Many will still have to undergo rehab and the jobs will not be waiting for them. New people will have to be trained to fill those roles.

    After all is said and done, we might even have a higher need for immigrants.

    More families will be bankrupted by health care and rehab bills. This will eventually lead to an economic Depression that will be harder to recover from and that will have dire effects for the rest of the world. The country will also be in shock – emotionally as well as financially. The country is unlikely to respond to exhortations to go out there and spend money.

    It’s likely that keeping America from going down the tubes is going to be better than trying to keep it running.

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