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Are COVID-19 deaths “sacrifices”? If so, to what?

Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life

Howard Steven Friedman
University of California Press
232 pp.
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The Economization of Life

Michelle Murphy
Duke University Press
232 pp.
Purchase this item now

In late March of this year, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested in an interview that many people over 70—himself included—would be willing to risk contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) so as not to, in his words, “sacrifice the country.” At the time, his comments were widely reviled. Just over 2 months later, the public appears to have accepted the calculus that lives will in fact have to be sacrificed in the name of the economy.

Emerging reports make clear that the burden of this “sacrifice” is not being borne equally. As of mid-April, in Richmond, Virginia, a city that is 48% Black, every single person who had died from the disease was Black (1). Similarly, the population of Chicago is ~30% Black, but, as of 28 April, Black people made up 54% of the city’s COVID-19 deaths (2). The New York Times roster of COVID-19 “cluster” sites nearly exclusively lists prisons, jails, meat processing plants, and nursing homes (3).

In the United States, the lives of people of color and those of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the incarcerated are heavily discounted in the economic sense, a phenomenon documented in Howard Steven Friedman’s Ultimate Price. Written for a lay audience, Friedman’s book explains how the U.S. government and corporations assign dollar values to human lives. Chapters survey the techniques decision-makers use in leveling penalties for wrongful death, evaluating potential regulations, assessing corporate liability, setting life insurance premiums, providing health care, and choosing to have a child or go to war.

“Price tags” for human beings, Friedman repeatedly shows, reflect existing inequalities in U.S. society. The formula that the government used to compensate the families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, for example, factored in the deceased’s annual salary, which meant that the lives of bond traders were valued many times higher than those of restaurant staff.

Early and often, Friedman argues that we must devise more equitable ways to assign value to human life. He is not wrong. Even so, the book has reformist rather than radical goals: Readers are exhorted to understand how lives are priced so that they might demand better formulas.

As a counterpoint to Friedman’s grim pragmatism, I found it instructive to read Michelle Murphy’s 2017 book The Economization of Life alongside Ultimate Price. Murphy, like Friedman, is intensely interested in how experts have assigned value to human populations. But where Friedman treats economics as a solid basis for rational decision-making, if done right, Murphy explores how the concepts of “economy” and “population” gained their appeal.

Through a series of chapters that explore the history of ideas about population control in the United States and Bangladesh in the mid-to-late 20th century, Murphy persuasively argues that life has come to be valued primarily in terms of its ability to contribute to the macroeconomy of nation-states. This has not come to pass through the action of free markets but rather through social scientific practices, including indexing, surveying, and other forms of counting, that re-create racial hierarchies even while rejecting the language of race.

In this moment when we are being asked to weigh the risks of (some people’s) deaths against the economic costs of stay-at-home orders, Murphy’s notion of the economy as a “phantasmagram” is compelling. She uses the term to capture the emotion and aspiration associated with the disembodied metrics we use to measure and track the economy. As phantasmagrams, Murphy writes, quantitative measures such as gross domestic product “have supernatural effects in surplus of their rational precepts.” They “conjure ineffable realms that can take shape as a collective phantasy in excess of the representational and logical limits of quantification practices themselves.”

On Fridays, the U.S. government releases data on new unemployment insurance claims. Just as Murphy suggests, the weekly release of these numbers stimulates anxiety and prognostication mostly disconnected from the (noneconomic) value of an individual life. The shock value of these numbers pushes the other shocking number, the cumulative number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States—108,194 as of 4 June 2020 (3)—to the side.

References and Notes:
1. A. Rodriguez Espinoza, “African Americans make up all of Richmond Coronavirus deaths,” VPM News (15 April 2020).
2. S. Schering, “Data provides racial demographics of those who died from COVID-19 in Cook County and suburbs,” Chicago Tribune (28 April 2020).
3. Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, The New York Times

About the author

The reviewer is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor and the author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).