Do we kill elderly people or do we kill the economy?
That was pretty much what Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was asking when he suggested Monday that he and other older Americans should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy.
Patrick set off a firestorm that created a false ethical dilemma and sent many people down an unproductive path, which made people wanting to reopen businesses look selfish and self-serving in a time of crisis. The business owners we know aren’t selfish or self-serving when they fight to keep their doors open and their employees on the payroll.
Many already have sacrificed and volunteered during this crisis, helping their communities the best way they can, donating services, food, time and skills — things they often do when there isn’t a crisis.
What we should be debating as a nation known for sacrifice and ingenuity is: Where we can find the balance that doesn’t destroy livelihoods or lives? How can we keep people working without increasing infection rates and overburdening an ill-prepared medical system?
How can we stop barreling toward a scenario in which millions of people lose their jobs, their health insurance and their homes? How can we reasonably protect public health without sending us hurtling into another Great Depression?
“Any debate contrasting life vs. dollars is misleading,” William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who has expertise on social philosophy and U.S. domestic policy, told The Washington Post.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, those greedy corporations. They just want people back in airplanes,’” he said. “Almost half of the country is employed in small businesses. It is economic activity that produces the now-famous respirator masks that health care workers need — to work to preserve their lives, in order to preserve other lives.”
What we need to be asking ourselves is how this nation and world can find the balance.
Let’s be honest. Who among us isn’t wondering how long this can go on, how many friends and relatives can lose their jobs or the businesses and careers they’ve toiled years to build? Asking those questions doesn’t make anyone a callous, capitalistic jerk. And espousing economy-be-damned rhetoric doesn’t make someone morally superior, nor will it save any lives.
The real cure here is a rational, reasonable, cautious plan that considers people and economic reality.
Congressional leaders of both parties early Wednesday agreed in principle on unprecedented emergency legislation to rush sweeping aid to businesses, workers and a health care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic. But let’s call it what it is, which isn’t a stimulus package but a temporary survival package.
It’s too early to know what it means for some businesses that have had no or little revenue coming in for weeks.
One of the main things lawmakers are touting about the package is a tax credit for some small businesses for 50 percent of wages paid to employees during the coronavirus crisis. For some small businesses, it will be too little, too late.
The emergency legislation was a start. But what we really need is a plan, hope and a timeline for business owners, many of whom say they won’t last if this goes on for weeks or months more. There are many unknowns about COVID-19. But what we do know is that we can’t do this for long or again.
• Laura Elder