Can we measure the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead?

President Trump and leading business figures are increasingly questioning the wisdom of a prolonged shutdown of the American economy — already putting millions out of work — to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our people want to return to work,” Mr. Trump declared Tuesday on Twitter, adding, “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!”

In essence, he was raising an issue that economists have long grappled with: How can a society assess the trade-off between economic well-being and health?

“Economists should be doing this cost-benefit analysis,” said Walter Scheidel, an economic historian at Stanford University. “Why is nobody putting some numbers on the economic costs of a monthlong or a yearlong shutdown against

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