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People are strange

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Stanford 1979. The little girl is Gili Bar-Hillel

If somebody had presented the American public with the following dilemma nine months ago, what would have happened?

A deadly virus is circulating. Over the next few months we can take sort of take some minimal precautions — asking people to wear masks, shutting down some large public gatherings — or we can aggressively lock down much of normal social and economic life.

Here’s the good news about the latter option: We have two safe and highly effective vaccines for the virus, and we’re likely to soon have more. So if we go with the latter option we’ll save several hundred thousand lives — conservatively, about the equivalent of avoiding about 100 9/11s. Things will be uncomfortable and difficult for three or four months, but we’ll make sure everybody gets fed and doesn’t get kicked out of their residence and has their job to go back to when this is over.

Or we can kill 300,000 to 500,000 Americans because that would be the easier thing to do in the extremely short term, like this week.

I mean that’s the situation right now. The medical scientific community has pulled off a quasi-miracle (I remember the endless scoffing of the Savvy nine months ago at the idea that effective vaccines might be developed by the end of the year, so many sage observers observed that we were just going to have to learn to live with this, and if a few hundred thousand mostly old and disproportionately poor and non-white Americans die that’s just The Price of Freedom), but apparently we’re tired and bored, so we’re just going to let 3,000-4,000 people a day die for the next three or four months instead of doing almost literally anything to stop that from happening.

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