Life, In Arbitrage (A Twainiac Quarantine Diary)

Samuel Clemens spent almost the entirety of Secession Winter aboard the Alonzo Child, a steamboat traversing the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans. Reading Benjamin Griffin’s account of this period in Mark Twain’s Civil War (2019), I imagine the pilot feeling trapped inside his vessel, surviving for months in a state of vigilance interrupted by bouts of panic, noticing subtle changes to the traffic on the river and the behavior of port authorities, kept abreast of the unfolding crisis by news and rumor brought aboard just often enough to feed his fear and make those solitary nights in the pilothouse more unbearable. 

Perhaps I’m projecting.

I woke up thinking about the Civil War. I wish I could say this was a side effect of self-quarantining, but it happens often enough under normal circumstances. Specifically, I was thinking about the longterm effects of mass carnage upon the survivors. Ever since reading Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008), I have been persuaded these effects explain more than anything else why the Civil War remains the central event in U.S. history as it is narrated in schools, museums, and popular culture.

The intersectional conflict took more American lives than all other U.S. wars combined: a piece of trivia that fails to become mundane to me no matter how many times I’ve repeated it. No community was unaffected. Nearly everybody endured a grievous loss. If not of an immediate family member, a neighbor, a cousin, or a schoolmate. It’s easy to represent this is a classroom. Just have students look around. Somewhere between 1-in-3 and 1-in-4 men of military age were killed. How many empty seats is that?

How do I make this point in a remote learning environment? I don’t. 

Faust argues that the federal government was permanently changed by mortality and mourning in the 1860s. Just to deal with the overwhelming numbers of dead, the U.S. had to painfully reimagine its infrastructure: healthcare, sanitation, veteran affairs, national cemeteries, social services. It was the initial, insufficient birth of an American welfare state. 

For decades, as Twain occasionally satired, political leaders made a grand show of providing entitlements to the widows and orphans of first Union and then all Civil War veterans. Twain believed these packages were intended to cynically curry partisan favor in advance of elections. Another interpretation is that each wave of relief was always already not enough.    

David Blight and Robert Penn Warren are among the many who make the case that the psychic toll of death on such a scale, though it dims with time, never really goes away. It is a permanent scar on our collective conscience.

There’s ongoing debate about the final fatality and casualty figures, but probably somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000 Americans died as a direct result of the Civil War. The population of the U.S. in 1860 was roughly 31 Million people. 

So, at the extreme end, the mortality rate of the U.S. Civil War was about 2.4%.

How do we make sense of that number? Is it small?

Its consequences were not. 

When the Civil War began, the crude mortality rate in the U.S. (an annual measure of death from all causes) was somewhere around 2.5-3.0%. As of 2017, the last year for which we have complete statistics, it is 0.8%. We are three times less likely to die than the average antebellum American. And three times less familiar with death. For how long?

This week the nation started negotiating the price for life. We got here rather quickly. In six weeks the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped about 38%. On March 23rd we reached a symbolic point. For the first time the index which many, including the President himself, have used as a shorthand for macroeconomic vitality fell to where it was the week of the 2016 election. 

A historic spike in unemployment will follow. On March 16th, one of the worst days in U.S. financial history, 50,000 people filed for unemployment…in Pennsylvania alone. A single day increase of 16% in that state, presumably preceded and followed by many more bad days. By the end of the week 3.3 Million (1% of the U.S. population) had filed for unemployment, almost five times the previous weekly high. We’re about to shatter every unemployment record in our history. 

Those who preside over economic crises rarely get reelected. The Republicans were swept out of office in a wave in 2008. History is likely to repeat itself unless there are strong signs of recovery in the next seven months. That’s as tall order, and only minimal progress can be made towards their goal until the nation is released from quarantine. The President issued his party their marching orders, as usual, via Twitter.

The comical botching of an already tired cliche aside, this is not necessarily faulty reasoning. Among the unintended consequences of social distancing and self-quarantining will be additional deaths. Already gaping holes in our social safety net grow larger with each layoff and each overdrawn account, but also with each hospital filled to capacity and each implicit license to abuse both the homeless and the involuntarily homebound.

Every comparison of disease to cure, of public health to economic stability, is purely speculative. Economists have a famously inconsistent and inaccurate record of prognostication. They may have found their equals amongst epidemiologists. Two hastily-assembled papers have been circulating widely since Black Monday. One predicts that the upper bound for COVID-19 deaths in the United States is 2.2 million people. That would nearly double our crude mortality rate. There is no precedent for that kind of carnage. Not even the Civil War.

Another paper, popular in the White House, put that upper bound at only 500. It’s author has been aggressively walking back that prediction. But many other doctors and scientists have weighed in somewhere between these extremes. Notably, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a popular spokesperson for the White House Coronavirus Task Force closed the week projecting between 100,000 and 200,000 U.S. deaths

With such a wide range of expert opinions, it’s no surprise Trump feels free to pick whichever numbers suit him best, or make them up as he goes. As Twain says of the relative upon whom he based Colonel Sellers in The Gilded Age (1873), “A man who goes around with a prophecy-gun ought never to get discouraged: if he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by.”

Samuel Clemens came to know too well the difficulty and the danger of arbitraging health and wealth. He spent much of the 1890s separated from his wife and daughters, working tirelessly, past his 60th birthday, first to save his publishing company from the Panic of 1893, then to repay his creditors when Charles Webster & Co. went bankrupt, and finally to return his family to prosperity. He and Livy both developed health problems during this period which they would carry with them for the remainder of their lives and, most tragically, their eldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis, alone in Hartford, a grief from which they never really recovered. 

Writing to his best friend Clemens chastises himself by conflating Susy’s life with the financial assets to which he had dedicated so much of his attention in the years before her death.

I did not know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know what she was. To me, she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weight it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to conprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefitted?

Samuel Clemens to Joseph Twichell, January 17, 1897

For me, these have become some of the most powerful lines in Twain’s entire corpus of writings, heavy with emotion and prophetic of the dehumanizing economization – the biopolitics, if you prefer – which grew increasingly socially acceptable over the course of the coming century.

Twain learned the hard way how futile it is to integrate life into economic rationality – into cost-benefit analysis – which, in his ambition as an entrepreneur and business-man, he became temporarily convinced was the only rationality.

He closes his letter with an aphorism which may be wiser than any of his many found in Bartlett’s or on Twitter:

“We pay as we can, in love; and in this coin practicing no economy.”