Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Life-Saving Strategies

On Friday I attended Eugene's Xth Annual Dress-as-a-Movie party. I wore a parchment-colored shirt on which I'd written (in puffy black fabric paint) a whole bunch of Jewish names. You guessed it - I was Schindler's List. And the names I wrote were actual names of people saved by Oskar Schindler.

The shirt provoked a couple of interesting conversations about whether Schindler had actually saved anyone *on net*. Or was there instead a substitution effect, meaning that saving one person merely resulted in a different person going to the concentration camps in his place? If so, then Schindler only affected the names, not the numbers.

After some consideration, I concluded that Schindler probably did save people on net, although perhaps fewer than the total number of Jews he had working in his factories. I'm not a WWII scholar, but it's my understanding that Hitler's "final solution" didn't really kick into overdrive until his imminent defeat was clear - sometime in late '43 or early '44. They were killing Jews (and others) in the concentration camps before then, but the killing machine wasn't really working at full capacity. Only in the very late stages of the war was the machine working at full speed. Schindler's plan effectively moved some Jews from the below-capacity period, when they could easily have been killed, to the full-capacity period, when they just added to the length of the queue - a queue that had not been exhausted by the war's end.

Another argument for why Schindler's plan actually saved people on net is that he presumably picked the most able and healthy people to work in his factory. Even if there were a one-for-one substitution effect, the substitution would have put relatively more unhealthy people - i.e., people more likely to have died in the meantime - in the concentration camps. In other words, having a healthy person work in the factory and an unhealthy person die leads to a higher expected number of life-years lived than the reverse. On the other hand, maybe healthy individuals would have lasted longer in the camps.

It should probably go without saying that I think Schindler's actions were still laudable and courageous. That's clearly the case if we judge by mere intentions. But I also suspect that his actions at least created a positive *expected* effect on the number of lives spared. Regardless of what happened ex post, his strategy made sense ex ante.

One person at the party told me a story - of Jewish origin, incidentally - about a man whom the king had condemned to death. The condemned man promised the king that, if he were spared, he would teach the king's horse to sing. The king agreed. Once they were in private, the condemned man's wife asked, "What are you thinking? You can't teach a horse to sing, and you'll just be executed a year from now!" The man replied, "A lot of things can happen in a year. I might die, the king might die, the horse might die!" That, I think, was the simple essence of Schindler's plan.

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