Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
We who only bet occasionally on a horse race are fascinated by true gamblers: those who frequent not only casinos and stock markets, but also the pages of history. We normal folk tend to think of two types of gambler. There is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambler, who cannot resist the lure of the roulette wheel – who ruins himself by betting and betting.
Then there is the gambler as master speculator: Charles Dickens’s Merdle, Anthony Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte – both loosely based on Nathan Rothschild – or our own age’s George Soros. This kind of gambler calculates the odds of each bet carefully.
Yet there is a third kind of gambler, who lies between these extremes. He wins some; he loses some. He does not gamble to become a billionaire. He gambles for the sheer love of gambling. The risk-lover bets every day on the basis of his intuition – his gut. To him, the bet is an act of will, intended as much to dominate the counterparty as to make money. The bravado is the point.
Donald Trump, as you will have guessed, is a type three gambler. He did not blow the money he inherited from his father; nor did he turn it into a mega-fortune. He has made many a disastrous business bet, as his creditors have learnt the hard way. Yet Mr. Trump has gambled his way from real estate to reality television to real power. And now he is making the biggest bet of his entire life.
He is betting that the number of Americans who die of COVID-19 will be about 40,000 – in other words, approximately the number who die of influenza each winter.
Obviously, Mr. Trump’s chances of re-election now hinge on how severely the pandemic hits America.
The United States is now in a pandemic-induced recession. The stock market, despite last week’s remarkable rally, is still more than 20 per cent below its February high, effacing most of the gains investors have made since Mr. Trump’s election. The combination of public panic, rational social distancing and state-level orders to “rest in place” has thrown the U.S. economy off a cliff. Initial jobless claims soared last week to nearly 3.3 million, the biggest jump – by a factor of almost five – since records began.
The President’s bet is not as crazy as you might think. It is, as I said last week, unlikely that the United States as a whole will have as disastrous an encounter with COVID-19 as Italy. Americans are less crowded together, use less public transport and kiss one another less than Italians.
It is also possible that the virus will claim many more victims in the big Democratic-voting states of the American coasts – New York and California – than in the smaller Republican-voting states of the heartland. Thus far, only 19 per cent of COVID-19 deaths are in counties Mr. Trump won in 2016.
Those writing the obituaries of this presidency have written them many times before and been wrong. They must have read with incredulity the results of last week’s Gallup poll, which showed that a majority of voters, and in particular a majority (60 per cent) of registered independents, approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
The problem is that, this time Mr. Trump is gambling with people’s lives on the basis not of calculated risk but of complete uncertainty. We simply do not know enough about the virus to have any conviction about how many Americans it will kill. COVID-19 could kill 40,000 Americans. But if the virus spreads as far as H1N1 – swine flu – did in 2009, so that 20 per cent of us get it, and we have the (very low) German case fatality rate of 0.6 per cent, we could have 400,000 dead.
All we can say with any certainty is that most of east Asia and most of Europe have taken much more drastic steps to contain COVID-19 than America has yet taken. And the President wants to see even those restrictions lifted in a mere two weeks’ time.
Such is Mr. Trump’s gamble with American lives. The one thing to be said in his defense is that, like his British counterpart U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who very nearly gambled on a strategy of herd immunity and has now tested positive – he has skin in the game. The President too will be at risk if this gamble goes wrong.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London.
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