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US has 22% of coronavirus deaths and only 4% of the Spaceship Earth's Population: Really?

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Making Metaeconomic sense of it all: The following selects some of the more salient statements, quotes from Leonhardt (2020), for the purpose of a teachable moment: Metaeconomic analysis follows each statement.

With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States has accounted for 22 percent of coronavirus deaths. Canada, a rich country that neighbors the United States, has a per capita death rate about half as large.

It appears Canada must be using something more akin to Meteconomics framing and theory, which sees Economy&PublicHealth as joint, interdependent, and non-separable. The fact that Canada ensures health care for everyone at an affordable cost suggests as much. Metaeconomics makes clear that a healthy population is an economically productive population: Productive&Healthy. The same frame is used in the Nordic Economies: Invest in the Health of the most important resource in the Country, the People. The “&” points to it, whereas in the US, it is Economy VS Public Health, Economy OR Public Health. Even Economy AND Public Health misses the point.

“As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition,” Dr. Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist and vice dean at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said. “But this is the consequence — we don’t succeed as well as a collective.”

Metaeconomics uses the metaphor of a balance scale in order to point to the essential need to see balance in the joint Ego&Empathy, joint Self&Other-interest, joint Individual&Collective, and, writ large, joint Market&Government. In the US, on the economic front, we instead use a kind of Chicago School of Economics, Libertarian branch of framing and theory: Ego-only, Self-interest only, Individual-only, Market-only. There is no We; no Other (nothing shared with others; Robinson Crusoe does not acknowledge Friday, who just by chance happens to be a black man in the story); no Collective; no Government (and, in current times, there is one exception: the Authoritarian version of it, selectively applied to suppress the democracy, which Metaeconomics rejects, in that it sees the need for a humane liberalism).

Metaeconomics makes it clear that we succeed only by seeing Individualism&Collectivism as joint, and needing each other to be successful: “the Me needs a We to Be, but without a Me there is no We”. Mainstream economic framing sees only Individualism, the Me and no We: Robinson Crusoe, alone, on the Spaceship. Again, really? So, each person is on the Spaceship by self? It seems, rather, that we overlap, we are joint, interdependent, non-separable? Just asking.

In no other high-income country — and in only a few countries, period — have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly…

Metaeconomics is based in empirical reality, both experiential and science based. Reason is: Humane liberalism is the driver, the character of a truly viable economy. Humane liberalism sees and acknowledges the essential role of diversity --- racial, political, moral --- and as a result, acknowledges the real complexity of the people on the Spaceship. It also sees the diversity and complexity of every Spaceship Earth System, within which a complex economy is embedded.

Science acknowledges and deals with the complexity: Metaeconomics, based in empirical science, does, too. Metaeconomics moves away from the myriad of Zombie (Krugman, 2020) ideas that have been killed off by science, but keep coming back. In particular, Behavioral Economic science has effectively killed-off many (actually, most) main contentions in Mainstream Economic “science.” Unfortunately, said ideas keep coming back from the dead, coming out of ideology that does not work: Science does work. One of the most damaging Zombies: Self-interest only drives a viable economy.

Adam Smith knew that was not the case, speaking to balance in self&other-interest --- the sentiments, empathy at work tempering the self-interest --- it was about what everyone could go along with, which is on path 0Z. Metaeconomics points to being pragmatic: Do what works, on path 0Z. Behavioral Economic science (it is based in empirical testing, not ideology) confirms the Adam Smith contention that far more than self-interest is at work in a truly viable capitalism&democracy, humane liberalism style. People have to go along with it: The arrogance of self-love, the arrogance of self-interest only, must be tempered with the sentiments, the empathy-sympathy-compassion, and, no, it is not a sign of weakness to do so (Adam Smith was not weak: He was very forceful in his writing; economists just need to read his other book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments).

By the time the virus became a problem in Germany, labs around the country had thousands of test kits ready to use. From the beginning, the government covered the cost of the tests. American laboratories often charge patients about $100 for a test... Without free tests, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital Bonn, said at the time, “a young person with no health insurance and an itchy throat is unlikely to go to the doctor and therefore risks infecting more people.”

As the Figure shows, investing in public health is essential to, and joint with, investing in the economy. The payoff is higher in economic output because of a more productive, healthier population. And, the overlapping curves --- the joint product isoquants --- cannot be separated, somehow made independent.

The story represented in the MetaEcon 101 figure is simple: It is not the economy on path 0G OR the public health on path 0M. It is not even the economy AND public health, and, it certainly is not the economy VS public health. Rather, the overlapping curves clarify it is the economy&publichealth (not typo!), jointly realized, totally dependent upon each other. If careful and adequate investment is made in both realms, the sum-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts on the economically efficient path 0Z.

So, by not investing in testing, ensuring that “a young person with no health insurance” likely will not be tested, we force the system to be at an inefficient point on path 0G: Excessive greed on path 0G (not willing to pay taxes to ensure public health) results in a loss in efficiency, which can only be achieved on path 0Z. Economic efficiency (sorry, Mainstream Economic thinkers, it is about far more than self-interest, as Adam Smith made clear) can only be achieved with a public health investment (pay taxes to facilitate a free test, actually paid in part of this person if they can work and pay taxes) for this young person. Pay for both economic product and public health in order to achieve economic efficiency on path 0Z.

A March survey found that partisanship was the biggest predictor of whether Americans regularly wore masks — bigger than their age or whether they lived in a region with a high number of virus cases. In many of the places where people adopted a hostile view of masks, including Texas and the Southeast, the number of virus cases began to soar this spring.

The partisanship being referred to here is that which leads to path 0G choices: Individualism trumping (no pun intended, but you catch the flavor) collectivism, when a bit of collectivism is essential to serve the self-interest of the individual. Ignoring the other (shared with others, yet internalized within own-self)-interest on path 0M, which if paid attention to, would temper choices on path 0G, results in missing the best path 0Z. Far too many people are infected, and way too many perish, while the economy crashes: Partisanship gone awry on path 0G. It can also go awry on the other side, on path 0M: Need balance, joint conservative&progressive balance, on path 0Z.

Early in the pandemic, Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist and former Obama administration official, proposed what he called the first rule of virus economics: “The best way to fix the economy is to get control of the virus,” he said. Until the virus was under control, many people would be afraid to resume normal life and the economy would not function normally.

Goolsbee (from the Chicago School of Economics, but apparently not of the dominant group of Libertarians) is talking about what Metaeconomics clarifies is path 0Z. Seeing the need to do something that the people can go along with requires ethical reflection, which is missing in the Chicago School, Libertarian branch. With ethical reflection (along with scientific and empirical reality), the best way to fix the economy is to get onto path 0Z. On that path one avoids the extreme shut downs on path 0M and the extreme “give me liberty to give you death,” “open everything up,” “economy is far more valuable than human life (like old people need to sacrifice life to keep the stores and clubs fully open to appease the freedom and liberty for me, at your cost, group, sometimes with military grade weapons in hand: Seriously?)" on path 0G.

“It doesn’t seem we have had the same unity of purpose that I would have expected,” Ms. Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said. “You need everyone to come together to accomplish something big.”

The unity of purpose is on path 0Z, represented in a bit of sacrifice in the payoff in regular economic goods (fewer said goods on path 0Z) and a bit of sacrifice in the payoff in public health --- some people are going to become infected, and some are going die --- less public health payoff on path 0Z as compared to path 0M. Unity of purpose is also economically efficient, with balance in self&other-interest on path 0Z.

For all of the continuing uncertainty about how this new coronavirus is transmitted and how it affects the human body, much has become clear. It often spreads indoors, with close human contact. Talking, singing, sneezing and coughing play a major role in transmission. Masks reduce the risk. Restarting normal activity almost always leads to new cases that require quick action — testing, tracing of patients and quarantining — to keep the virus in check...“This isn’t actually rocket science,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who ran the New York City health department and the C.D.C. for a combined 15 years. “We know what to do, and we’re not doing it.”

Medical science and common sense, "we know what to do" ---empirical reality --- is the hallmark of a Metaeconomics framing and theory about what to do. Keep the virus in check: Epidemiological reality points to the fact it could get completely out of hand, losing control. Also, empathy based other (the ethical system at work, shared widely)-interest is the other hallmark. So, science&ethics are at work in Metaeconomics, with the interplay driving the location of path 0Z.

The death rate on path 0Z would be more like in Canada, or even less. In fact, it could be like in the Nordic Economies with enough attention to the most important resource, a healthy population. Public health is a key feature of a healthy economy.

What think? Alternative insights coming out of Metaeconomics helpful to you? Please comment, give a better version of it all, if you believe you have it.

Krugman, P. Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and Fighting for a Better Future. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.

Leonhardt, D. The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Coronavirus. New York: The New York Times, Digital edition, August 6, 2020.

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