Like revolutionary war hero Nathan Hale, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has only one regret: that he has but one life to give for his country. He also feels compelled to offer up yours, and grandma’s too. You’ve probably heard by now about Patrick’s bravura performance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show last night. Patrick told America he was turning seventy next week, and a member of the “high-risk pool” for the novel coronavirus. But he didn’t want “the whole country to be sacrificed” just to keep him alive:
“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ If that’s the exchange, I’m all in. … Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us that are seventy-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”
He continued: “The mortality rate is so low,” he said, as low as 2 percent. “Do we have to shut down the whole country for this?”
When the Lieutenant Dan Lite Guv Museum opens up a few years down the line, I’m going to make the case to my fellow curators that this exchange should be inscribed on marble in the lobby, so that schoolkids and other visitors can let it roll around in their heads as they check out the rest of the exhibits. It’s quintessential Dan Patrick: on the surface, a bold and dramatic gesture, an earnest offer of self-centering self-sacrifice that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be empty symbolism at best or malignant at worst. Patrick likes to present himself as the man on the wall, a selfless leader separating the people from barbarity, or kids from bathrooms, or nobody from nothing, or whatever. The Thin Dan Line.
Patrick’s whole deal is this: even though he wields tremendous influence over the lives of tens of millions of people, he tends to approach problems in terms of what he, just a regular old citizen, can do in response. In 2018, Patrick blamed the school shooting at Santa Fe High School on the facility’s many doors. Then he threw cold water on any talk of background checks or mandating secure gun storage at home. Instead, the lieutenant governor offered to personally donate “up to ten” metal detectors for Santa Fe’s upcoming school year.
But also, as he so often does, Patrick is articulating an emerging viewpoint on the right, just in a showier, made-for-TV way. From the president on down to local lawmakers, a lot of people, particularly Republicans, are arguing that the economic pain of a protracted virus-related shutdown isn’t worth the additional lives saved.
Congressman Chip Roy wrote in National Review that “just as we defeated Nazism, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and rebuilt Manhattan after 9/11,” the feds needed to provide a coronavirus “D Day,” a specific date when the social distancing and quarantining would recede and the economy could restart, perhaps as early as April 1. State senator Paul Bettencourt quoted Dwight Eisenhower in a letter lambasting Houston and Harris County officials for ordering Houstonians to stay at home, rather than asking for voluntary compliance with public health suggestions “in the spirit of American liberty and Texas friendship.” Congressman Kevin Brady told MSNBC yesterday that America shouldn’t “lock down the entire economy” in pursuit of the virus.
The Discourse, in its infinite wisdom, is solidifying around a debate over a choice: should we take strong steps to contain the virus and save lives, or keep the economy going? Many liberals have portrayed Patrick and Roy and Bettencourt as willing to kill grandma to keep the stock market alive, but it’s worth dwelling for a second on their overarching concern: that the human cost of another bad recession, or depression, will rival that of the virus. That’s not unreasonable to consider. Analysts expect a 10 to 15 percent drop in GDP in the second quarter, and Goldman Sachs estimates that unemployment could reach as much as 30 percent. That’s apocalyptic. At the peak of the Great Depression, in 1933, unemployment only reached about 25 percent, at which point the country was on the brink of total collapse. If you’ve read accounts of life during the Great Depression, you know that the problem wasn’t the valuation of companies but rather a vast and incalculable accumulation of human misery—suicides, starvation, the dissolution of families, violence both domestic and impersonal.
The problem of choosing between the virus and the economy isn’t that one choice is wrong. It’s that there isn’t a choice. It’s a false binary and a distraction. The only way to get the economy going again is to contain the virus. The only way to contain the virus is to pause the economy, and in order to do that as briefly as possible, the economic timeout has to be thorough.
If the coronavirus were partially contained in the U.S., and we had a robust public health infrastructure tracking the virus as it spread, as in South Korea, then people in many parts of the country would be free to inch back into restaurants and stores. The economic bleeding could be limited. But we are decidedly not South Korea. What if we followed the course of action recommended by Dan Patrick and others?
Imagine that the president tells everyone they’re free to go back to the Cheesecake Factory on April 1. Do you think Americans will rush to get their Glamburgers? Some will, certainly, but plenty of us will choose to follow the advice of public health experts—not to mention that many mayors and governors won’t follow the president’s lead. What happens when the sickness inevitably breaks out again? Do we take another two weeks off?
Whether your priority is saving grandma or putting people back to work, there is one and only one path forward: the federal government needs to make up for months of lost time and poor preparation and build a robust infrastructure to test for the virus and track its spread. Every day it continues to fail to do so, people will die and the economy will further crater. While that infrastructure is being built, the government needs to put cash in people’s hands and keep small businesses afloat. In time, people who have recovered from the virus, or have immunity, can filter back to work.
Last, let’s consider for a moment the practical aspects of Patrick’s offer of self-sacrifice. Those who think like him keep pointing out that some 98 percent of those infected survive the virus. But 2 percent of the American population would mean some 6.5 million deaths, which, to put it in perspective, is more than the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, or more than two thousand 9/11s. I suspect that a mass casualty event on par with the Holocaust would be bad for the economy.
But also, if Patrick gets sick and dies, that won’t be the end of the story. He may well infect other people, who will infect other people, and so on. Some of those people could die. He may give it to his wife or his grandkid before he shows symptoms, or to a nurse tending to him after he goes to the hospital. They may give it to their vulnerable friends and relatives. Public health officials in every corner of the globe have tried to hammer this home. You may well be okay in the end. It’s not about you.
And it should also be said that even if America’s elderly were unanimously willing to undergo a culling so that their grandkids can go back to happy hour, they are not the only ones vulnerable to this. It kills perfectly healthy young people. There are also Americans of all ages—people who have many decades of contributions to the national GDP ahead of them—who are immunocompromised, who have asthma or emphysema. Their deaths will not help the recovery proceed faster.
That said, I am relatively young. Perhaps I don’t understand what it means to be Patrick’s age and to know that your time on earth has a limit no matter how well you play your cards, and to be more focused on the lives of others. What did our parents think about Patrick’s vow, I wondered? Was there a secret groundswell of acceptance washing over America?
“Did you hear what dumb**** Dan Patrick said?” asked one friend’s mom. “No lo puedo creer,” said another. “Dan Patrick can go first,” said mine. Awfully selfish, I think.