Who’s right, the public health officials or the economists? That’s the question we are tempted to ask. But in this pandemic, it’s the wrong question. Both sides are right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had his Great Depression.
George W. Bush had his Great Recession.
And Donald J. Trump has his Great Pandemic.

Over the past weeks, Americans have had the chance to see a momentous decision in the making, a case study for the ages. Coronavirus Disease 2019 has forced our decider-in-chief, Donald Trump, to confront the most difficult crossroads of his presidency. Our nation’s 45th President has had to balance the advice of public health officials with that of his economic advisors. It has been a titanic clash between two groups of professionals with starkly different policy recommendations.

As the coronavirus pandemic began infecting people in the U.S. in headline-grabbing numbers, President Trump’s initial decision, after March 9, was to heed the advice of public health professionals to buy time to make an effective vaccine. Buying time meant shutting down much of the economy to reduce face-to-face human encounters. It was seen as the only way to “flatten the curve” of the epidemic. This Rx would make the American people virtual prisoners in their homes, yet give the nation a fighting chance to escape a catastrophic escalation in coronavirus infections that would overwhelm the health care system. Exhibit “A,” for them, was the tragedy that was unfolding in New York City and Italy. Theirs was a responsible, reasonable argument: Save lives now; then save the economy. Life over lucre.

After two weeks of social distancing and stay-in-place orders around the nation, President Trump on March 23 signaled that he was embracing the counsel of his economic advisers. We should not make the cure worse than the disease, which at that point had killed fewer than 700 people in the U.S. If the economy collapsed, they reasoned, then the health care system would also collapse, resulting in even more fatalities in the long run. “Open by Easter,” they urged, and their exhibit “A” was West Virginia and Japan. Theirs was also a responsible, reasonable argument: If you save the economy now, you will save more lives down the road. Advanced health care is not possible without lucre.

Who’s right, the public health officials or the economists? That’s the question we are tempted to ask. But in this pandemic, it’s the wrong question. Both sides are right. Both sides make compelling arguments based on science, evidence, logic, and historic precedence. The best thing a leader can do is cross-examine each side’s best arguments and reconcile them to the extent possible. The prudent, balanced thing to do is to follow a policy that BOTH flattens the spike in COVID-19 cases AND restores the economy.

No one said such a judgment call would be easy. The choice President Trump has faced does not fit the problem-solution template we learned in school. Contrary to the lessons taught in generations of composition and speech classes, most of our nation’s biggest challenges do not present thinking people with a clear problem and an obvious solution, as Pearl Harbor did. The surprise attack did not invite an ambiguous response. It was obvious after Pearl Harbor that the armed might of the U.S. had to hit Japan with everything we had until they unconditionally surrendered. Period. It is a textbook example of a clear problem (war) and a clear solution (defeating the enemy). It helped that the solution also boosted the economy. But unambiguous challenges to our nation are relatively rare. Most public policy debates are not so black and white. Most involve a clash of values and the need to balance risks. These challenges steep us in ambiguity, probability, and operational flexibility. They present, in other words, not a problem to solve but a polarity to manage. Experienced policy makers know this.

Back in the 1930s the nation watched Franklin Roosevelt deal with the Great Depression by trying to balance relief, recovery, and reform. In the 2000s we watched George W. Bush deal with the Great Recession by trying to balance the needs of too-big-to-fail entities with middle-class relief. Both crises presented polarities that, in the end, were impossible to reconcile to anyone’s satisfaction.

COVID-19 presents a similar public policy polarity. That’s because neither side of the debate is one hundred percent right. Or 75 percent right. Or 66 percent right. Each side has merit and argues good points in its favor. In boxing terms, each punches its weight in fairly equal measure. Both sides know that in our democracy there will be a clash of values that has to be navigated. Neither side gets to choose how the other side frames the debate. Neither side gets to dominate the other by fiat. Thoughtful people recognize the complexity of our challenges and avoid “either-or” thinking. As the situation requires, they adopt a “both-and” approach to the extent they can. The search to accommodate competing values is related to something we learned in our youth, in Latin class: the tertium quid—the “third which” or “third something,” i.e., the third alternative, the search for which demands imaginative, socially constructive thinking.

This method is in Americans’ civic DNA. It evolved with our constitutional system. James Madison and the other framers designed our Constitution to accommodate diverse factions that were not expected to agree but would counterbalance each other with arguments of relatively equal merit. This method makes sense in our diverse, multicultural democracy that values open debate, constructive criticism, and consensus building. It recognizes that no one side will get most of what it wants most of the time. At its best, it encourages wise leaders to think not in terms of the next election but in terms of the next generation.

And so, in the coronavirus debate, each side presses its case. Time will tell whether our decider-in-chief has struck a prudent balance.

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The featured image (detail) is courtesy of Pixabay.

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