Last week’s non-blizzard, and the precautions taken by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been subjects of much conversation. Even before we were aware of just how lackluster a blizzard it would prove to be, his panicky press conferences and predictions of gloom and doom suggested that perhaps the mayor would do well to listen to “Let It Go” from Frozen a time or two and adopt a small part of the fortitude demonstrated by teenage Elsa’s attitude toward snow and storms.
There is no doubt that his precautions took government nannying to new levels. Streets were closed to non-emergency vehicles, pedestrians were discouraged from walking outside, and for the first time in the 110 years of its existence the subway system was shut down for a snowstorm. Following the anti-climactic snowfall, I noticed a widespread and disturbing viewpoint I believe needs addressing. In conversations among friends, interviews in the media, and no small number of Facebook postings I have seen and heard comments such as these:
Better safe than sorry!
Would you have rather seen people dying if the blizzard had been as predicted?
Or in the words of de Blasio himself, “Would you rather be safe or unsafe?”
I have no doubt their motivations were entirely pure, but statements such as these capture a fundamental problem that lies at the root of many of the poor policies implemented time after time by legislators at both local and federal levels. You may have heard a similar idea expressed with regard to other policies. For example, “Even if the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers decreases to one person per year, that would still be one person too many.” Or, “Of course we should put nets up on the sides of the Golden Gate Bridge! If it stops just one person from committing suicide then it will have been worth it.”
The flaw in these arguments is that they only take into account the benefits and disregard – or worse, don’t even consider – the costs. If one death from drunk driving were really one too many, then there exists a very simple plan that could be implemented to guarantee an end to all motor vehicle related collisions: Ban motor vehicles. Or, if you’d rather, install speed governors on all motor vehicles in the United States limiting drivers to 5 mph. Contemplate the benefits: No deaths from motor vehicle collisions (the leading cause of death in the U.S. for those aged 5-34)! Reduced carbon dioxide production! Restored polar ice caps and a burgeoning polar bear population!
However, no one in his right mind would implement this, because…wait for it…the cost is too high.
All suicides must be prevented? How much are you willing to contribute from your paycheck to erect nets at every elevated point in your city? Ten dollars? One hundred dollars? One thousand dollars? The critical point may be different for each of us, but there is no question that at a certain amount it is no longer worth the cost to you. And viewing this as a question of saving lives versus saving dollars is a fatal mistake. After all, in the real world money translates into lives. This money used to install nets could have been spent on other, perhaps more effective, efforts to prevent suicide. Or for medical research, foreign aid, disaster relief programs, donations to charity, or any other number of life-saving possibilities.
When seatbelts and airbags were made standard equipment, required by federal law, in all cars in the United States, the motivations were pure. After all, no one could possibly be against saving lives. But what about the corresponding price increase of those cars? What about the newly arrived poor immigrant or the young single mother who would be more than happy to drive a car without airbags that fits a tight budget? Or the tax increase to pay for the bureaucrats needed to implement the new airbag policy that subsequently left less money in small business owners’ pockets with which to hire employees? The point is, there is always a cost.
With regard to the blizzard shutdown, there is a point at which the price is too high. Time magazine estimated that, all told, the cost of the shutdown was $500 million to $1 billion, while a Moody’s Analytics preliminary report came in at a conservative $200 million. And the financial costs do not even begin to encompass the myriad of other losses caused by the travel bans. Struggling business owners, hourly employees working to make ends meet, tourists who had saved and scrimped to afford a New York City vacation, brides and grooms whose weddings had to be cancelled last minute all suffered real losses as a result of this policy.
As an emergency room physician in Manhattan, I was directly impacted by the fact that ambulances, instead of standing ready to respond to civilian emergency calls, were diverted to transport me and my colleagues from our residences to the hospital. To my knowledge, this did not result in any direct loss of life, but did it result in longer wait times for ambulances? Could it conceivably have resulted in loss of life or in a decline in the quality of medical care?
These accountings need to be factored against the possible lives saved before one can argue that the shutdown was warranted to prevent loss of life and preserve safety. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about New Yorkers, some of the toughest and most self-reliant citizens in this great country. In the paraphrased words of Elsa, “Let us go, Mayor. The cold never bothered us anyway.”
When all is taken into account – financial costs, quality of life costs, health and wellbeing costs – it seems unlikely the travel bans were justified by the potential upsides. Every decision has a cost, and unless that cost is truly considered and weighed against the benefits, a wise decision cannot possibly be made.
These are calculations we make all of the time in our professional and personal lives, weighing risk and reward, cost and benefit. It is only politicians, playing with our pocketbooks, who are able to promulgate policies without regard to costs. The rest of us, on whom falls the task of paying the costs of their policies, can’t afford that luxury.