The ‘Fundamental Problem’ of the ‘2.5% of the Population Which is Generally Expensive to Maintain and Not Productive’ Tweet Controversy

Viral comments and debates in mid-March 2020 included direct arguments in favor of leveraging COVID-19 deaths as an economic bulwark, often punctuated by screenshots of a purported tweet by San Diego, California lawyer Scott McMillan in which he proposed a secondary “benefit” to increased mortality in at-risk groups due to coronavirus:

The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.

Images of that comment spread virally on Facebook and Twitter, attributed to McMillan (@scott4670) on March 23 2020. The comment attributed to McMillan was not an outlier; we noted on our general strike page that Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) came under fire for similar remarks during a Fox News appearance that same day.

Patrick effectively brought up a question that no one was asking: Whether older Americans were “willing to take a chance on [their] survival in exchange” for bypassing COVID-19 mitigation strategies to minimize a risk of short-term economic damage. Advocating for prioritizing economic gains over public health strategies to reduce transmission, Patrick spoke indirectly but clearly about what he described as a binary choice:

“No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in … I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me — I have six grandchildren — that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children, and I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed. And that’s what I see.

“So, my message is that, let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves but don’t sacrifice the country.”

(Patrick is not yet 70 as of March 24 2020.)

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News talk show host conducting the interview, asked Patrick if he feared economic damage more than excess mortality; Patrick reiterated his stance when Carlson asked if there was something “worse than dying”:

Carlson then asked the Texas Republican, “You’re basically saying that this disease could take your life but that’s not the scariest thing to you. There’s something that would be worse than dying.”

“If I get sick, I’ll go and try to get better, but if I don’t, I don’t, and I’m not trying to think of any kind of morbid way, Tucker, I’m just saying that we’ve got a choice here and we’re going to be in a total collapse, recession, depression, collapse in our society if this goes on another several months, there won’t be any jobs to come back to for many people …  I’m going to be smart, I think all of my fellow grandparents out there are going to be smart. We all wanna live, we wanna live with our grandchildren for as long as we can … But the point is, our biggest gift we give to our country and our children and our grandchildren is the legacy of our country.”

Director of United States National Economic Council Larry Kudlow spoke in a similar fashion but was slightly more oblique, alluding to “difficult trade-offs” in COVID-19 mitigation strategy:

Patrick’s interview prompted significant backlash, and existed in video form (as did Kudlow’s remarks). By contrast, exposure to McMillan’s tweet seemed to primarily occur via circulating screenshots — often (and unsurprisingly) evoking comparisons to the policies of Nazi Germany:

In other response tweets, McMillan asked if the term “passive genocide” was a Twitter neologism in response to accusations he advocated for it:

Weighing the economy against avoidable deaths of “not productive” Americans was probably best described as “passive eugenics,” not “passive genocide.” The phrase has existed for more than a century, but “passive eugenics” as describes a strategy was coined no later than 1975, by white nationalist and “population control” activist John Tanton in his paper “The Case for Passive Eugenics.”

(Tanton rebranded his population control concerns and eugenicist aims as anti-immigrant some years later over concerns of “Euro-Americans” being “replaced” by immigrants from Latin America; the “think tanks” that he created still exist today — the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Centers for Immigration Studies chief among them — and are often quoted uncritically in the mainstream press; they also have an outsized influence on the Trump administration.)

Retweets of McMillan’s “fundamental problem” tweet in the above screenshot remained, evidencing the deletion of the original tweet versus its fabrication and providing a link to the original:

We were able to archive McMillan’s tweet before he deleted it. Replies to McMillan, typically disapproving ones, were also archived. Once again, comparisons to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were rife. The population of the United States as of March 2020 was 327 million — and 2.5 percent of 327 million works out to roughly 8.2 million deaths:

@destroyed4com4t: That’s 8 million people. You stupid fuck … Motherfucker shrugging off literal Holocaust-range numbers of preventable death to protect his tax returns. I hope you are never capable of a good night’s sleep for the rest of your life.

@guillotineshout: This reminds me of some similar rhetoric from 20th century history, though those guys called people “useless eaters”

@King23Redlight: In my best Jeff Foxworthy voice – If you have to ponder between the choice of a healthy economy, and 2.5% of all people dying, you just might be a sociopath.

@Blunter_: I didn’t realise the corona virus was checking tax receipts

@toorsdenote: My octogenarian parents are spending the lockdown teaching their grandkids Latin, meteorology and music. To me, that sounds a hell of a lot more productive than *checks notes* practicing ‘advertising law’.

On March 23 2020, Scott McMillan tweeted: “The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.” Although he later deleted the tweet, it continued to spread as a screenshot — and he continued arguing in favor of intentional excess mortality due to COVID-19, in what he (and many, many others) claimed was a binary choice between “the economy” and the survival of fragile Americans.