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Analytical sins have occurred with great regularity in popular discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and even in more scholarly quarters. Among my pet peeves are cavalier statements about the number of cases or deaths in one country or state versus another without adjusting for population. Some of this week’s foibles also deal comparisons of the pandemic and public policy across jurisdictions, but they ignore important distinctions.

No matter how you weigh the benefits and costs of lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, there is no question that maximizing social distance can reduce the spread of the virus. But stories like this one from Kansas dispute even that straightforward conclusion. As evidence, the author presents the following table:

Now, I fully support the authority of states or local areas to make their own decisions, but this table does not constitute valid evidence that stay-at-home orders don’t reduce transmission. There are at least three reasons why the comparisons made in the table are invalid:

  1. The onset of coronavirus in these states lagged the coastal states, primarily because…
  2. These are all interior states with few direct arrivals of international travelers;
  3. These states are all more or less rural with relatively low population densities, ranking 40, 41, 42, 46, 48, 49, 52, 53, and 55 in density among all states and territories.

All of these factors lead to lower concentrations of confirmed cases and Covid deaths (though the first applies only on the front-end of the epidemic). The last two points provide strong rationale for less restrictive measures to control the spread of the virus. In fact, population density bears a close association with the incidence of Covid-19, as the table at the top of this post shows. Even within low-density states, residents of urban areas are at greater risk. That also weighs heavily against one-size-fits-all approaches to enforced distancing. But instead, the authors fall over themselves in a clumsy attempt to prove a falsehood.

Even highly-educated researchers can race to wholly unjustified conclusions, sometimes fooled by their own clever devices and personal mood affiliation. This recent study directly controls for the timing of stay-at-home orders at the county level. The researchers attempt to control for inherent differences in county transmission and other factors via “fixed effects” on case growth (which are not reported). This is an excuse for “assuming away” important marginal effects that local features and conditions might play in driving the contagion. The authors conclude that stay-at-home orders are effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus, which is fine as far as it goes. But they also leap to the conclusion that a uniform, mandatory, nationwide lockdown is the wisest course. Not only does this neglect to measure the differential impact of lockdowns by easily measured differences across counties, it also assumes that the benefits of lockdowns always exceed costs, regardless of density, demographics, and industrial composition; and that a central authority is always the best judge as to the timing and severity of a mandate.

The national crisis engendered by the coronavirus pandemic required action at all levels of government and by private institutions, not a uniform set of rules enforced by federal police power. State and local police power is dangerous enough, but better to have decisions made by local authorities who are more immediately accountable to citizens. Government certainly has a legitimate role to play in mitigating behaviors that might impose external costs on others. Providing good information about the risks of a virus might be a pivotal role for government, though governments have not acquitted themselves well in this regard during the Covid crisis.

It’s also important for federal, state and local authorities to remember that private governance is often more powerful in achieving social goals than public rule-making. People make innumerable decisions every day that weigh benefits against risks, but public authorities are prone to nudging or pushing private agents into over-precautionary states of being. It’s about time to start easing up.