Poor planning for COVID-19 rings economic warning bell for climate: Don Pittis

Our failure to prepare for an outbreak that epidemiologists have repeatedly warned was coming is a reminder that humans are not very good at thinking themselves into the future, including on the issue of climate, writes Don Pittis.

Question for governments is how much to spend now to avert potential disaster later

A volunteer for an election in Bavaria, Germany, in mid-March wears a mask in the style of those used during the Black Death, a time of medical and economic innovation. (Andreas Gebert/Reuters)

Now that the COVID-19 threat is upon us, scientists and innovators are pulling out the stops to find ways of coping. That rush of invention is no surprise to historians — not just of science, but economics, too.

In the 1620s, living through the plague inspired economist and polymath William Petty to devise a system to count the cost of future calamity.

Part of the "political arithmetic" he invented includes concepts we use today to try to imagine how much it's worth spending now to prevent something worse from happening several years down the road, said Canadian economist Aidan Vining.

Unfortunately, our failure to prepare for an outbreak that epidemiologists have repeatedly warned was coming is a reminder that humans are not very good at thinking themselves into the future.

The climate lesson

Economists I spoke to said that society's blinkered approach to the future risk of disease provides a lesson for our failure to address the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. In fact, history shows that the people who do think ahead are often ridiculed.

Vining said that in the 1840s, one follower of Petty's cost-benefit analysis, Edwin Chadwick, was known as "the most hated man in England," for promoting public health spending that Chadwick insisted would save lives and improve living conditions for millions.

"Why? Because he wanted to build sewer systems, and the elite were so opposed because of the public spending it would involve," said Vining, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University.

Biohazard warning signs are placed on the coffins of people who died of COVID-19 at a mortuary near the city of Charleroi, Belgium, on April 7. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

As it turns out, Chadwick lived to see his plans put in place, helping to lead the way in a global public health movement that ultimately saved uncounted lives and money.

But apart from people like Chadwick, behavioural economists have shown that even when we know we would benefit from worrying a bit more about our long-term future, humans are hard-wired for short-term thinking.

Brain scans show how deeply ingrained short-termism is, demonstrating that when we think about ourselves in the more distant future, our sense of self fades. There are various theories why, including the idea that as we evolved, immediate survival became the priority.

The price of preparedness

Long before brain scans, economists noted our preference to have something now rather than later, which is one of the justifications for interest rates. You can have that car or house today, but it will cost you — in large monthly interest payments.

In economics, a calculation of something called the social discount rate, an outgrowth of Petty's political arithmetic, is an attempt to apply interest rates to show how much it is worth spending today to prevent something horrible from happening in the future.

Currently self-isolated in his Huntsville, Ont., home, economist David Burgess said it is pretty clear that no government in the world had invested enough in preparations for the current pandemic.

Despite the lessons of SARS, we did not have stockpiles of essential equipment. Many governments had made tax-saving cuts to medical services and the U.S. was already planning spending reductions at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

'Big bag of uncertainty'

Burgess said that while social discount rate analysis works for deciding how much governments should spend on things like roads or bridges, it may not be appropriate for problems like epidemics and climate change. That's because the future costs are so difficult to measure in dollar terms.

"It's just a big bag of uncertainty," said Burgess.

That hasn't stopped some economists from trying — in the case of climate change, estimating various amounts for how much is worth spending now to prevent future economic fallout.

Abandoned fishing boats on a dried lake bed in Bolivia stand as a warning of how climate change will lead to mass migration and a devastating loss of food production. (David Mercado/Reuters)

One point of disagreement — including between Burgess and Vining — is the interest rate at which governments should calculate that spending.

But according to economist Carolyn Fischer, who among many other things works with the University of Ottawa's pro-business Smart Prosperity Institute, another difficulty is calculating the present value of what the World Economic Forum has called the risk of planetary devastation.

In what you might call the asteroid-strike argument, if a potential future plague could lead to complete societal and economic breakdown similar to what happened during the Black Death, it is worth spending a lot to prevent it from happening, even if we cannot be sure if or when it will occur.

Averting a 'tipping point'

Fischer said the same thing applies to climate change, where temperatures we have never experienced before would cause mass human migration that could overwhelm existing economies. A changing climate could also lead to the loss of food-growing capacity.

"A lot of people worry about us reaching a tipping point," said Fischer.

Whether due to pandemic disease or climate change, if science tells us that economic ruin is the eventual result, it may be the job of governments to compensate for our natural tendency to worry about the short term and ignore the future.

"I don't want to lose the message that, yeah, we have a crisis now, but there's another crisis looming on the horizon," said Fischer.

"Maybe we can draw some lessons from this one for what happens when you react too late."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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