COVID19 and the price of human life

Last week Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas – one of the few US states that has not yet issued a stay-at-home order – suggested that older people should be willing to die for the US economy.

His statement delighted Trump supporters while shocking the rest of humankind to the extent our ability to be shocked by gaslighting statements has not been fully eradicated by the current administration.

As someone who believes in the value of our elders’ experience, that comes from a community whose previous generation was wiped out by the HIV epidemic and is witnessing the sorrow of people losing their loved ones from COVID-19, I remain baffled by his statement a week later.

I spent the first fourteen years of my career in a Bretton Woods Institution, so I know firsthand about the temptation in a capitalistic society to put a price tag on everything including human life.

Michel Camdessus, a devout catholic, enormously privileged, self-righteous but rather mediocre economist was once the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. He is remembered for justifying harsh economic policies on developing countries, which caused intense human suffering particularly in Indonesia, by claiming that “to develop, you must suffer”. In retrospect his policies did not generate much development, but they certainly indirectly killed many.

The World Bank too has become addicted to the process of justifying any of its actions by its impact on GDP. Here a few examples out of many many more:

I am personally guilty of having led the first study in the cost of homophobia ever carried out by the World Bank in 2014.

I made the case for it starting in 2012 claiming that: “There is a bit of a Catch-22 here because the World Bank economists and gender specialists will remain skeptical until they see numbers showing the economic cost of homophobia — but until they allocate resources to research on LGBT population, nothing will happen.”

Since then, the Business and Economic Case for including LGBTI people has become more sophisticated and well-articulated.

  • On the macro-side of things, inclusive economies fare better. UNAIDS released a study estimating the global cost of homophobia and discrimination against LGBT and intersex people at $100 billion per year. The 2014 study I led estimated these losses for the Indian economy at 0.1 percent to 1.4 percent of GDP per year. I am pleased to see that the World Bank continues to study the economic, health and social costs of LGBTI exclusion. The few studies there show there are considerable costs associated with LGBT exclusion.
  • On the micro-side of things, companies and individuals fare better in an LGBT-inclusive environment. Kenji Yoshino at NYU or Lee Badgett at the Williams Institute have quantified the corporate costs of discrimination: in recruitment, retention, job performance and the overall success of companies. Credit Suisse did a study showing that companies with LGBTI policies outperformed the market by 3% per year.
  • Finally, LGBTI consumers and their allies patronize companies and brands they perceive as inclusive. The annual buying power of the global LGBT+ market is now estimated at US $3.7 trillion.

Despite the fact that this economic argument is now widely accepted, I have become increasingly conscious of its limits.

Every transgender person I meet in the corporate world at one point or another mentions “it was either transitioning or killing myself”. But it is difficult to argue that including trans people, given the current size of this population, in the corporate world will generate immediate economic growth or won’t come at a cost to companies. Yet, it is clear that giving our trans brothers and sisters a fair share of the corporate and economic pie is only fair but perhaps, more importantly, we must do everything in our power to avoid placing them at risk of committing suicide.

Maybe the insensitive remark of Dan Patrick is a wake-up call to start looking beyond GDP as the motivation for human endeavors and inclusion. Bhutan made headlines by creating a Gross National Happiness Index, the world’s first Well-being Indicator. Michael Porter has championed an alternative to GDP he named “The Social Progress Index” (SPI).

This might be the main lesson from the Coronavirus – our primary purpose is not economic growth – it never was. What if Gender Equality, LGBT+ equality, greater air quality, the inclusion of Roma, Batwa or Lalit people, and responding adequately to pandemics were worthy in themselves because every human life is valuable and a miracle?

Bretton Woods Institutions are not only made of heartless economists and I will end this post with a quote from Kaushik Basu, the former Indian Chief Economist of the World Bank and a staunch ally to LGBT+ equality cause, which he made at the launch I organized for our study on the Cost of Homophobia once told me:

If removing discrimination against a minority group increases GDP that is good news. If enhancing justice and equality across human beings promotes GDP that is a reason for celebration. But we must not argue that removing discrimination against minorities is good because it promotes GDP growth, that justice and equality are important because they lead to a higher GDP. Removing discrimination and promoting greater equality and justice are good in themselves.”

Shutting down the economy to save millions of human lives from an undiscriminating pandemic is the right thing to do. Time will remember our sacrifices and generosity and hopefully send Dan Patrick where he belongs: the dungeons of history.