Opinion:The GOP’s False Choice between Saving Lives and Saving the Economy Is a Failure of the Imagination

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The impatient discussion about when America can “re-open” for business has not only often proceeded, on the Republican side, with willful ignorance of informed medical perspectives, but it has also tended to pose a dangerously ignorant and unimaginative false choice to Americans: either save lives or save our economy and way of life.

Republican Representative from Indiana Trey Hollingsworth has presented the choice in just this either/or way.  Behind door number one we find, in Hollingsworth’s words, “loss of American lives,” or if we open door number two, we find his other option, “loss of our way of life as Americans.”

He has been rather explicit about his view of these limited options and also about his willingness to sacrifice American lives to sustain his vision of the American way of life:

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“Both of these decisions will lead to harm for individuals, whether that’s dramatic economic harm or whether that’s the loss of life. But it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”

Is this really “always the government’s position”? To save a way of life that actually entails Americans’ deaths? That sounds like a contradiction in terms. Can we call a mode of organizing the world “a way of life” when it depends on basically sentencing folks to death?

Shouldn’t “a way of life” actually support life?

Not in the Republican worldview, apparently.

Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, for example, held a similarly narrow view of the options, indicating the country was basically “choosing between cancer and a heart attack.”

He elaborated, “We’ve got to open this economy. If we don’t, it’s going to collapse. And if the U.S. economy collapses, the world economy collapses.”

This haste to sacrifice lives for the sake of restoring the normal routines of our social and economic lives has become quite a trend. Indeed, Dr. Mehmet Oz has come out in favor of sending all of America’s children back to school, calculating that doing so “may only cost us two to three percent in terms of total mortality.”

Of course, these positions echo Donald Trump who has repeatedly expressed an impatience to send Americans back to work and re-open all the businesses currently closed.

“We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem,” he has said repeatedly.

But is there really no way to build, or re-create, our economy so that it can support life?

Is there not a both/and solution here, whereby we can imagine way to re-invigorate and restructure the economy and save human lives?

After all, modern medicine has often proven itself miraculous in treating cancer and repairing damaged hearts.

Surely we can bring the same ingenuity to treating our very sick and clearly ineffective existent economic structures.

And we have models, of course. In the Great Recession, our leaders managed to bail out banks and major industries, as when President Obama bailed out the auto industry. As I’ve pointed out in the pages of PoliticusUsa, had this effort begun with bailing out people to keep them in their homes, it could have been even more successful and most certainly more humane. People would have paid off their toxic mortgages, this saving financial institutions, preventing the drop in home values that was part of the housing crisis fueling the recession, and so forth. People’s lives and the economy could have been saved at once.

And we can, of course, always look back to the Great Depression as well.  Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s care, the nation managed to exercise its ingenuity to undertake innovative ventures, availing itself of all the otherwise sidelined human energies, to move forward in ways that substantially improved and developed the nation’s infrastructure and addressed stubborn conditions of poverty that seemed all but chronic.

Take the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), for example, one of Roosevelt’s New Deal “alphabet agencies,” along with the Works Progress Administration (WPA)  and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Covering the seven states of Alabama, Tenessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia, the TVA built the Wilson Dam that brought hydroelectric power to these regions, engaged in reforestation and flood control efforts, and helped develop agriculture, industry, and commerce to these regions. These initiatives modernized one of the nation’s most impoverished regions, bringing affordable electricity to areas where there had been done, and also bringing jobs and encouraging economic development because this source of energy.

This is just one example of the nation, in a time of severe depression, not choosing between saving the economy as it was, which was clearly not supporting American lives, or saving Americans but choosing door number three, a different route of re-invigorating the economy that not only saved but enhanced the lives of Americans.

Of course, you know who hated it? Private enterprise. This constituency did not like the fact and very idea of public utilities bringing energy to Americans at cheaper rates.

And these days, it is the well-funded lobbyists of private enterprise who fuel the all-too-commonplace mantra that government is the problem—the mantra that enabled Trump’s dismantling of the very agencies that could have helped us address the coronavirus pandemic much earlier and much more adeptly, preventing thousands of deaths and, in fact, going a long way toward minimizing the damage to our economic lives.

The initiatives in this day and age will likely need to be different. I bring up the TVA as one example of responding creatively to severe economic depression in a way that moved the nation forwarded and addressed long-standing and stubborn social problems.

It is an example of choosing a new way of life, as opposed to saving a way of life that entails death.

It is a failure of the imagination—and a failure to draw on abundance of imagination we have in America and indeed around the globe—to choose between saving lives or saving an economy proven to be ineffective at supporting life anyway.