In what will almost surely be the nastiest campaign ad of the political season, a pro-Obama super PAC basically accuses Mitt Romney and Bain Capital of causing a woman’s death.
Viewers are supposed to hold Romney responsible because the woman’s husband lost his job, and the resulting lack of insurance prevented her from getting health care in time to stop her cancer.
The ad has been debunked for several reasons, including the fact that the woman apparently had her own job with her own insurance for two years after her husband lost his job and her cancer wasn’t even discovered until seven years after Romney left Bain, but let’s set those issues aside, assume all the facts are true, and contemplate what it means if we apply the same standard of accountability to the Obama Administration.
Here’s a simple chain of reasoning.
1. There’s a well-established relationship between a nation’s prosperity and the lifespan of its people (see Figures 1 and 2 in my 1992 article in the Journal of Regulation and Social Cost).
2. Obama’s policies have dampened growth in the United States (according to data from the Congressional Budget Office and the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, actual GDP (in today’s dollars) is $836.6 billion below potential GDP).
3. Based on these two simple facts, we can conclude that the foregone growth is causing needless premature deaths.
But how many deaths are being caused? Do we have to make a wild guess?
It turns out that there’s a considerable amount of academic research on this topic. It doesn’t make for exciting reading, unless you like learning about concepts such as “usable income” and “value of a statistical life.” Or how about “valuation of statistical mortality risk” and “implicit income gains.”
But the academics find ways of measuring the relationship between economic performance and mortality.
To make sure we’re being fair, we’ll first look at the research compiled by Cass Sunstein, who served as President Obama’s Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Writing back in 1997, he compiled 11 studies from the late 1980s and early 1990s that estimated that a premature death was caused when income fell by some amount between $1.8 million and $12.4 million (roughly between $3.3 million and $22.9 million in today’s dollars).
There’s also a very thorough study by Ralph Keeney of the University of Southern California. He found that an additional fatality was linked to income losses (adjusted to today’s dollars) of between $8.42 million and $23.59 million.
Looking over much of this research, it appears that $14 million is a reasonable middle-ground estimate of how much foregone income is associated with a needless death.
Now let’s do some simple math to get an estimate of the total number of preventable deaths caused by the economy’s sub-par performance during Obama’s reign. Going by the lofty standards of Priorities USA super PAC, we’ll call this number the “Obamanomics Death Toll.”
So let’s divide $836.6 billion (our earlier estimate of foregone growth) by $14 million and we get an estimate that Obama’s policies have caused 59,757 deaths.
I wouldn’t put much faith in my back-of-the-envelope calculations. Experts in the field doubtlessly could point out several methodological mistakes, so I have no idea if the weak economy has caused 10,000 premature deaths or ten times that amount.
But I can say with complete certainty that if you took all the experts and gave them a month to work on the answer, the final number would be far higher than Romney’s supposed death toll.
And I’m also quite confident that my analysis – however inadequate – is far more defensible than the garbage from the pro-Obama super PAC.
Now let’s be serious. It’s ridiculous to hold Romney personally responsible for the unfortunate death of the woman mentioned in the super PAC commercial. And it’s also absurd to hold Obama personally responsible for the 59,757 people who may have prematurely died because of the weak economy.
P.S. If you want to heap scorn on people who genuinely are responsible for deaths, think of the 62 million butchered by the dictators of the Soviet Union and the 76 million killed by the communist tyrants in China.