How Many Deaths Are Too Many?

Earlier this year, in a blog post on Faster Than 20 about George Floyd, I tried to point out that, as terrible and visceral as his murder was, the overall racial disparity in police killings should feel far more horrifying. But, I explained:

No one has ever looked at a number and taken to the streets. There are lots of mental hoops required to make sense of that number, to trust its implications, and then to get outraged by it.

Later, in an exchange with a colleague in the comments, I wrote:

There’s also a larger question worth asking about whether the 1,000 police killings a year is too high, regardless of what you think of the racial disparity, which gets you into questions about police militarization and policies for community safety in general.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to ask the larger question: Is 1,000 police killings a year too high?

All things being equal, my first guess as to what the “right” number of police killings should be is zero. Hard to argue with that, right?

Well, that depends. Consider a school shooting, for example. If somebody is spraying bullets at a school with the clear intent to kill as many people as possible, I definitely want the police to shoot and kill that person. It’s not hard to think of other situations where a police killing is not only justified, but where it might save many other lives.

So the “right” number of police killings is probably greater than zero. But how much greater?

I might try going down that rabbit hole another day, but I want to pivot to a different question: How many COVID-19 deaths are too high?

As of today, 240,000 people have officially died of COVID-19 in the U.S. (This doesn’t count indirect fatalities, which would put the number well over 300,000.) Over the past week, we’ve averaged 940 deaths a day from COVID-19. On the one hand, it’s less than half of our peak on April 24, when we averaged 2,240 deaths a day. On the other hand, the number is trending in the wrong direction.

Is a thousand deaths a day too much? What would an “acceptable” number of daily deaths be?

Let’s try to think of this question in a different way. How many car deaths per day are too many? How many car deaths per day are “acceptable”? Don’t do any research. Just try to come up with two numbers and some explanation as to how you came up with them. Don’t worry about being “right.” This is simply an experiment.

Got an answer? Okay, suppose that you’re surpassing your “too many” number. What would you do to get those numbers down?

Think about this for a second. Now compare your numbers from the 2016 U.S. numbers listed in this Wikipedia page.

I don’t have good answers to any of these questions. (I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.) I think that a thousand deaths a day is too many, but I really can’t justify the tradeoffs.

I do know two things. First, human intuition is pretty much useless when it comes to these questions. Joseph Stalin supposedly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” It turns out that this is a fact of human nature. It’s known as psychic numbing.

Second, economists estimate that the value of one human life in the U.S. is roughly $10 million. So 240,000 deaths is equivalent to the loss of $2.4 trillion, over 10 percent of our GDP last year. By these admittedly crass and undoubtedly wrong estimates, it seems like a 10 percent drop in GDP is worth the tradeoff of saving 240,000 lives.

One reply to “How Many Deaths Are Too Many?”

Leave a Reply