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.

Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons