Opinion | Finance

Bad economies do not threaten lives

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Many of those who call for a widespread reopening of the economy with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the nation have presented a false dichotomous choice to Americans. They say you can die from the disease or you can die from the effects of a crushed economy. Death is death. Why not return to normal and restore business and livelihoods?

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, "We have learned that if you shut down the economy, you are going to create more damage" with "medical problems and everything else that gets put on hold." President Trump had echoed this message when he said, "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself." White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has explained "if you lock people down, you may save lives directly" from the spread of the coronavirus but indirectly "you are going to kill a lot more people."

As plausible as these claims might appear, they are demonstrably false. History shows that it is pandemics, not economic crises, that reduce life expectancy in the United States. Americans are remarkably resilient and resourceful. They have found ways to survive even in the worst of times. But these admirable qualities of character are simply no defense against pathogens that can kill humans swiftly and efficiently across the world. 

Since the early 20th century, like most other developed countries today, life expectancy has increased exponentially in the United States. In 1900, according to the data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the life expectancy of Americans was just 47 years. By 2017, life expectancy in the United States had soared up to 78 years. Greater control over infectious diseases and important medical advances, not economic success, accounted for most of this rising life expectancy.

According to a study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, "At the start of the 20th century, infectious diseases were the leading cause of mortality, accounting for nearly a third of all deaths." Improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical breakthroughs such as the development of antibiotics reduced deaths due to infectious diseases by 90 percent from 1900 to 1950. This had accounted for a majority of the total reduction in mortality over that period. New advances and changes in lifestyles later in the 20th century dramatically cut deaths from heart disease and cancer, leading to another sharp uptick in life expectancy.

This largely linear pattern of positive increases in the United States has one exception, during the period of the Spanish flu that claimed the lives of at least 675,000 Americans, mostly in 1918, followed by a much smaller number of deaths in the wave the next year. In 1915, the life expectancy of Americans was 54 years. But by 1918, life expectancy in the United States declined to 39 years. From 1900 to 2017, no other dip in life expectancy, from a peak to a valley on the graph of this, has exceeded even 5 years.

The economic devastation of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939 led to no such decline. In 1929, the life expectancy of Americans was 57 years. In 1933, at the lowest point of the downturn, life expectancy in the United States actually rose to 63 years. It then fell for the next few years during a period of recovery when the economy grew and the unemployment rate fell. By 1939, when preparations for World War Two had finally ended the Great Depression, life expectancy had reached almost 64 years, which is higher than it was when the economic downturn began a decade earlier.

Until the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the worst collapse of the economy occurred during the financial crisis and Great Recession that started in 2008. Although unemployment reached double digits in this period and growth in the economy declined, life expectancy remained unchanged at 78 years. So unlike the pandemic of 1918, no economic crisis in the last century decreased the life expectancy of Americans.

Advocates for reopening the economy have presented the false choice between death from disease and financial hardships. It is the pandemic, not the downturn, that threatens our lives, as most Americans recognize. A recent Morning Consult survey found that by a margin of 63 percent to 29 percent, registered voters in the United States believe that it is more important for the government to address the spread of coronavirus than the economy. The data on it is clear, and our leaders should consider it.

Allan Lichtman is a professor of history at American University based in Washington. Sam Lichtman is a freelance journalist based in Maryland.