I’m writing this from Ground Zero in Seattle, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic. With 2,000 confirmed cases and 95 people already dead from the disease, Seattle is being treated as a plague town. So I have time alone to think about the Trolley Problem and how it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. First, some “training” exercises.
The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment proposed by virtue ethicist Philippa Foot in 1967. It weighs deep on philosophers, but it’s also a highly debated question in game theory. I’ll run it down (pun intended) for you.
You are standing at a switch. A runaway train car heads toward a track section containing five people, and will surely kill them all. You can turn the car onto a side track which will save them, but a bystander is on the side track. Do you kill the bystander or let the five on the main track die?
As you can see in the video above, most people kill the hapless innocent. After all, five is more than one.
You can make them change their mind by changing the phrasing. Folks are more likely to save the innocent if it’s a child or cancer researcher, or if they have to push a person off a bridge to stop the train. But these are details. Most people are Mister Spock, who in The Wrath of Khan said:
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
Except maybe … maybe when the one is you. According to Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “trilemma” scenario, when given a suicide option, people were far less likely to kill the innocent—that is, not just they wouldn’t kill themselves, but also they wouldn’t save the people in the car at all.
Though you may believe it’s only a hypothetical experiment reinforced by its memorable appearance on the metaphysical sitcom The Good Place, the Trolley Problem is a real thing. It actually happened in 2003, when 30 unmanned Union Pacific train cars barreled at 50 miles an hour toward Los Angeles.
With only 30 minutes to react, railroad officials switched the train to a siding that sent it crashing into this residential community in Commerce.
Thirteen people were injured. No one died. Thank God.
When you’re at the switch, you have to make hard decisions. You have to take responsibility. You have to triage problems and, if needed, people. You have to be willing to take the consequences, even if saving lives kills you. But not everyone will.
This is why I know that in plague-ridden Washington state, no one is coming to help us.
Mike Pence, the Trump administration’s designated crisis manager on the outbreak of COVID-19, isn’t coming to help us. He came to our state, but didn’t travel further north than Joint Base Lewis-McChord, likely for fear of contamination. He and Governor Jay Inslee made nice as Pence pledged help to the hardest hit state. For one day, Pence didn’t suck. It could almost make you forget the AIDS epidemic he spawned in Indiana. As governor, he put his religious beliefs ahead of people’s lives, and 200 people in rural Indiana—his base—caught the deadly disease.
The CDC isn’t coming to help us. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t held a press conference for 11 days. That’s because CDC Director Robert Redfield, whom CNN called an “abysmal choice,” is one of a long pattern of Trump appointing the worst possible people to high profile jobs. During the AIDS crisis, Redfield promoted a fraudulent drug and ineffectual faith-based treatment. A week ago, he was destroyed by Rep. Katie Porter on Capitol Hill and hasn’t shown up since. He’s useless to us.
The Fed isn’t coming to help us. Chairman Jerome Powell fired every bullet in his gun in one three-day span, throwing $1.5 trillion into the ocean, then dropping federal interest rates to zero and removing banks’ restrictions on having cash on hand. The market responded like it was set ablaze, the Dow Jones plummeting a record 3,000 points the next day. Now he’s dropping a trill a day like he can print money. Which he can. Perhaps these were the only things he could do to forestall a depression. Sure seems like those trillions could come in handy.
They won’t, because the Senate isn’t coming to help us. The House put together a relief package called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was pretty bold when the Democrats wrote it. But House Republicans watered it down to “okay, maybe two weeks paid sick leave, but you can still be fired, and maybe a tax credit in 2021 during which I’m sure you’ll still be alive.” The Senate took a relaxing three-day weekend, then added more awfulness. Now they’re concocting a $1.8 trillion bailout designed to let airline, cruise line, and casino executives line their pockets while they lay off employees, foisting the burden of paying them onto the states. There’s nothing in it about jobs, nothing about student loan debt, nothing about evictions, nothing about elections, nothing about hospitals.
President Trump? Not only is he not coming to help us, he is killing us. Instead of taking hard measures to slow the virus or instilling a national spirit, his incompetent, self-serving, and dishonest response to the crisis has been to tamp it down, restrict our ability to tackle it, and claim credit for things that haven’t happened. Timeline:
- Throughout January, he did nothing at all. He denied the virus was a problem, praised himself, stalled all relief, and blamed the Chinese.
- He did that in February too.
- This month, he seemed to have realized he was being blamed for a serious crisis. So he lied that the disease was under control, lied that he hadn’t been warned about the disease, lied about when the outbreak started in the U.S., lied that anyone who wanted a test could get one, lied that cargo and trade were banned from Europe, lied that things were getting better in Italy, lied that he didn’t shake hands in India, lied about Obama’s response to H1N1, lied that he reversed an Obama administration rule that he said slowed his response, lied that Google was working on a diagnostic database, lied about closing borders with Iran and China, lied that travelers from abroad were being tested, lied that a malarial cure had been approved by the FDA, lied that he hadn’t torpedoed the Global Pandemic Task Force, lied about carmakers making ventilators, and, most tellingly, lied that his approval rating on his handling of the crisis was 78%. It’s not 78%.
The stock market let him know that, dropping in real time every time he spoke. It erased his entire presidency in about 30 seconds. Trump now owns the sixteen worst point drops in Dow Jones history, including eleven since February 24. He has the second and fifth worst one-day percentage drops in history, joining 1987’s Black Monday and the first two days of the Crash of 1929.
Crashes happen when you can’t control the train.
Suddenly, deep within his dim, dark mind, he’s realized he might not only go down as America’s worst president, but also the person who killed the most Americans. That’s not good for the brand. He’s running this from a point of fear, giving himself a 10 out of 10, like someone who suspects he deserves maybe a 3.5. This spilled over into a briefing in which he could not do the simple task of reassuring a scared public. Instead, this happened.
Our most important person is in a tailspin. Caught in a trap of his own making, Trump has bowed to authority figures, notably strong governors like Inslee, Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York. He has begrudgingly deployed the Army Corps of Engineers in hard-hit states and promised to fund the National Guard where governors have activated it. This doesn’t help states with spineless governors, like Republican Ron “Slayer of the Healthcare Industrial Complex” DeSantis of Florida and Republican/Democrat/Republican Jim “Go to Bob Evans” Justice of West Virginia. Those places—where Trump’s base lives—are on their own. Where you don’t have good governors, you’re going to see a lot more dead.
Trump has also bowed to one authority figure we didn’t know a month ago: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who seems to be president now. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a doctor on the Coronavirus Task Force. He has bravely corrected the president’s lies, in real time, onstage next to him. Fauci had to say this: “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.” When he wasn’t on a briefing last night, #WhereIsFauci trended on a panicky Twitter. If the 78-year-old doctor caught this thing, Americans would be more scared than if Trump did.
The quote that will define his presidency came on the White House lawn on March 13. Asked about catastrophic failures in testing, Trump declared:
“I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Here lies the problem. We desperately need someone to take responsibility. It’s never going to be him. Of all the people in the world to be tested by the Trolley Problem, Trump might be the worst since Neville Chamberlain. Instead of nationalizing the country’s medical supply chain, calling for a moratorium on rents and student debt, or demanding industries make masks and ventilators, Trump has done only one clear thing on his own: send villainous Attorney General William Barr to get the power to jail his political enemies indefinitely. This inspired an “Oh, hell no” response from liberals and conservatives alike.
Yesterday, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker lit into the president after Trump attacked him on Twitter.
Trump should pay attention to the governor of Illinois, because Illinois politicians know the effects of the Trolley Problem first hand. In 1979, the nation’s worst blizzard paralyzed Chicago for weeks. Mayor Michael Bilandic made a fascinating decision: he diverted the snowplows to clear roads and bus lines that, according to many at the time, favored white neighborhoods over African American ones. He made the CTA trains skip over stations in black neighborhoods, leaving thousands in the cold. He failed a literal Trolley Problem—with actual trains—and was booted out of office a month later in favor of reformer Jane Byrne.
That’s what happens when you’re at the controls and you flinch. The Trolley Problem has a simple answer: Given a choice to save lives, you save lives. Trump put his reelection campaign, his properties, and his public appearance before the lives of the American people. He failed the test.
But he can still pass it.
I mentioned that the Trolley Problem is of interest to both ethicists and game theorists. Ethicists say there are two sides to the problem; that’s what makes it a problem. The deontologist’s viewpoint is that actions should be taken based on the morality of the rules, not the consequences of the actions; since diverting the train is an act of murder, and murder is not permissible, it should not be a permissible harm. The consequentialist’s viewpoint is that is that outcomes matter more than rules; since not diverting the train kills more people, it is a permissible harm. Game theorists tend to take the side of maximizing utility, and are more likely to support the consequentialist approach. For a game theorist, the Trolley Problem isn’t really a problem; more people saved is better.
Right now, the debate is over whether to let older people die to keep the economy going; that’s the deontological approach. I associate this cold and moralistic approach with Republicans, who seem ready to loot the Treasury and let the rest of us fend for ourselves. Don’t let the trolley go off the rails, they think, or it might crash into even rich people’s yards.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the Senate GOP put a proposal on the table to give $1,200 to families via a means-tested payment. The means-tested part is important. It’s not Andrew Yang’s universal basic income in that (a) you can only get it if you make less than $75,000 a year, or somewhat less if you make less than $99,000 a year, so it’s not universal. and (b) it happens only once, so it’s only going to be a speedbump for the crash. But it’s a surprising start down the consequentialist path. This is triage, Trolley Problem-style, and we’ll see where it goes.
Here in Seattle, the city hardest hit by the virus so far, we looked forward to the arrival of a ship called the USNS Mercy. That’s one of the two big 1,000-bed hospital ships the Navy runs, the other being the Comfort, which is off to New York City. Governor Inslee wrote in a letter to the president:
I can think of no better way to signal to the residents of Washington that their Federal government is fully committed to their health and survival than the sight of a large U.S. Navy hospital ship dropping anchor in the harbor at Seattle. The psychological value to our citizens, not only in Washington but also across the nation, would be of major importance. Thank you for your support of this request.
A U.S. official told ABC News that the Mercy was headed to Seattle. Here’s an image from our local indie paper, The Stranger.
At the last minute, the Defense Department pulled the plug on that idea. The Mercy will head straight from San Diego to Los Angeles and stay there. Even though we have twice as many COVID-19 deaths as California, Seattle won’t get relief. No one, not even Mercy incarnate, is coming to help us.
But we’re a much smaller city than Los Angeles. If a major breakout occurs there, the Mercy can offload many of the city’s medical emergencies while local hospitals focus on the virus. That could be a far greater need than ours. It could be. It isn’t yet. But if you expect the worst, you must put your resources where you think they’ll help the most. You’d better be right.
Sometimes you have to make hard decisions when you’re at the lever and a trolley is rumbling down the track. I sure hope our president figures out how. I hope the rest of us do too.
When this ends, whether you make it or not, you’ll be judged by your actions. Did you stay home or ignore the warnings? Did you help your neighbor or did you hoard vital supplies? Did you pay your workers or just kick them into the cold? Did you lead your citizens or did you put yourself ahead of them? Did you fight to end Trump’s presidency before this happens again or did you rationalize his shameless and harmful actions? When we emerge, did you pass or fail the Trolley Problem?
I’m counting on you. Godspeed from Seattle, everyone.
Special thanks to fellow Seattleite Josh Fischer for his valued help on this piece.
UPDATE: The day after I published this, as Republicans trial-ballooned the proposal of letting millions of seniors die so we can go back to work early, Twitterer Juhana Leinonen went viral (we still using that term?) with this cartoon, which he has graciously let me reproduce here.
This is the 55th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, and the Democratic nominee. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.