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Material Benefits Aren’t Necessarily ‘Materialistic’

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In my latest column for AIER I argue that the non-material benefits made possible by material goods and services are underestimated by Oren Cass [2]. A slice:

A noteworthy instance of this blindness is Cass’s description of the Covid pandemic as causing us Americans to die “in unprecedented numbers.” His claim is untrue. To see why, start by taking the upper end of Virginia Tech professor Ronald Fricker’s unusually high estimate [3] of the number of excess deaths caused through July 2020 by Covid – specifically, an estimate that Covid has caused the total death rate in the U.S. to be as much as 12 percent higher than otherwise.

Pre-Covid, the United Nations predicted [4] that in 2020 0.888 percent of Americans would die – approximately 2,914,000 persons. Therefore, if Prof. Fricker’s most pessimistic estimate is correct – and if (as almost certainly will not be the case) this estimate holds through January 2021 – Covid will, on an annual basis, raise the number of American deaths by almost 350,000, to a total of roughly 3,264,000. That’s 995 Americans dying per every 100,000. Put differently, on extremely pessimistic assumptions, Covid is on track to raise America’s annual death rate to just shy of 1.0 percent.

While unquestionably lamentable, this rate of death is hardly unprecedented. The annual rate of death in America did not fall to this level until the late 1940s. One hundred years ago (1920), for example, roughly 1,300 out of every 100,000 Americans died. That’s a death rate of 1.3 percent. (See the graph on page 67 of this study [5] found at the Centers for Disease Control website.)

Americans’ rate of death fell as we became materially wealthier – as we gained more access not only to medicines such as antibiotics, but also to the detergents, the garbage disposals, the latex gloves, the laptops, and the many other seemingly frivolous goods that global markets routinely pack into the warehouses of Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Safeway, Amazon, and other retailers. We also became better educated and better able to stay connected to family and friends.

Had this material wealth been produced in less abundance, the range of higher goals that ordinary Americans would today be able to pursue would be narrower. And this material wealth would indeed have been produced in less abundance had Americans been saddled with more of the tariffs, subsidies, and other government interventions for which Oren Cass tirelessly pleads.