AJ Kay, Andrew Cuomo, CDC, Contact Tracing, Covid-19, David Kay, Do-Somethingism, Eric Garcetti, Essential Businesses, Fairfax County Schools, Federalism, Friedrich Hayek, Human Rights Watch, J.D. Tucille, Justin Hart, Kelsey Munro, Knowledge Problem, Lemoine, Life Value, Nature, Non-Prescriptive Interventions, Philippe Lemoine, Public Health, Scott Sumner, Seth Flaxman, Stringency Index, University of Oxford, World Health Organization
What does it take to shake people out of their statist stupor? Evidently, the sweet “logic” of universal confinement is very appealing to the prescriptive mindset of busybodies everywhere, who anxiously wag their fingers at those whom they view as insufficiently frightened. As difficult as it is for these shrieking, authoritarian curs to fathom, measures like lockdowns, restrictions on business activity, school closures, and mandates on behavior have at best a limited impact on the spread of the coronavirus, and they are enormously costly in terms of economic well-being and many dimensions of public health. Yet the storm of propaganda to the contrary continues. Media outlets routinely run scare stories, dwelling on rising case numbers but ignoring them when they fall; they emphasize inflated measures of pandemic severity; certain researchers and so-called health experts can’t learn the lessons that are plain in the data; and too many public officials feel compelled to assert presumed but unconstitutional powers. At least the World Health Organization has managed to see things clearly, but many don’t want to listen.
I’ll be the first to say I thought the federalist approach to COVID policy was commendable: allow states and local governments to craft policies appropriate to local conditions and political preferences, rather than have the federal government dictate a one-size-fits-all policy. I haven’t wavered in that assessment, but let’s just say I expected more variety. What I failed to appreciate was the extent to which state and local leaders are captive to provincial busybodies, mavens of precautionary excess, and fraudulent claims to scientific wisdom.
Of course, it should be obvious that the “knowledge problem” articulated by Friedrich Hayek is just as dangerous at low-levels of government as it is in a central Leviathan. And it’s not just a knowledge problem, but a political problem: officials become panicked because they fear bad outcomes will spell doom for their careers. Politicians are particularly prone to the hazards of “do-somethingism”, especially if they have willing, status-seeking “experts” to back them up. But as Scott Sumner says:
“When issues strongly impact society, the science no longer ‘speaks for itself’.
Well, the science is not quite as clear as the “follow-the-science” crowd would have you believe. And unfortunately, public officials have little interest in sober assessments of the unintended effects of lockdown policy.
In my last post, I presented a simple framework for thinking about the benefits and costs of lockdown measures, or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). I also emphasized the knowledge problem: even if there is some point at which NPI stringencies are “optimized”, government does not possess the knowledge to find that point. It lacks detailed information on both the costs and benefits of NPIs, but individual actors know their own tolerance for risk, and they surely have some sense of the risks they pose to others in their normal course of affairs. While voluntary precautions might be imperfect, they accomplish much of what interventionists hope will be gained via coercion. But, in an effort to “sell” NPIs to constituents and assert their authority, officials vastly over-estimate benefits of NPIs and under-estimate the costs.
NPI Stringency and COVID Outcomes
Let’s take a look at a measure of the strength of NPIs by state — the University of Oxford Stringency Index — and compare those to CDC all-cause excess deaths in each state. If it’s hard to read, try clicking on the image or turn your phone sideways. This plot covers outcomes through mid-November:
The chart doesn’t suggest any benefit to the imposition of greater restrictions, or more stringent NPIs. In fact, the truth is that people will do most of the work on their own based on perceptions of risk. That’s partly because government restrictions add little risk mitigation to what can be accomplished by voluntary social distancing and other precautions.
Here’s a similar chart with cross-country comparisons, though the data here ended in early October (I apologize for the fuzzy image):
But what about reverse causality? Maybe the imposition of stringency was a response to more severe contagions. Now that the virus has swept most of the U.S and Europe in three distinct waves, and given the variety and timing of NPIs that have been tried, it’s harder to make that argument. States like South Dakota have done fairly well with low stringency, while states like New Jersey with high stringency have fared poorly. The charts above provide multiple pair-wise examples and counter-examples of states or countries having faced hard waves with different results.
But let’s look at a few specific situations.
The countries shown above have converged somewhat over the past month: Sweden’s daily deaths have risen while the others have declined to greater or lesser degrees, but the implications for mask usage are unaltered.
And of course we have this gem, predicated on the mental gymnastics lockdown enthusiasts are fond of performing:
But seriously, it’s been a typical pattern: cases rise to a point at which officials muster the political will to impose restrictions, often well after the “exponential” phase of the wave or even the peak has passed. For the sake of argument, if we were to stipulate that lockdowns save lives, it would take time for these measures to mitigate new infections, time for some of the infected individuals to become symptomatic, and more time for diagnosis. For the lockdown arguments to be persuasive, the implementation of NPIs would have to precede the point at which the growth of cases begins to decline by a few weeks. That’s something we’ve seldom observed, but officials always seem to take credit for the inevitable decline in cases.
More informed lockdown proponents have been hanging their hats on this paper in Nature by Seth Flaxman, et al, published in July. As Philippe LeMoine has shown, however, Flaxman and his coauthors essentially assumed their result. After a fairly exhaustive analysis, Lemoine, a man who understands sophisticated mathematics, offers these damning comments:
“Their paper is a prime example of propaganda masquerading as science that weaponizes complicated mathematics to promote questionable policies. Complicated mathematics always impresses people because they don’t understand it and it makes the analysis look scientific, but often it’s used to launder totally implausible assumptions, which anyone could recognize as such if they were stated in plain language. I think it’s exactly what happened with Flaxman et al.’s paper, which has been used as a cudgel to defend lockdowns, even though it has no practical relevance whatsoever.”
The Economic Costs of Stringency
So the benefits of stringent lockdowns in terms of averting sickness and death from COVID are speculative at best. What about the costs of lockdowns? We can start with their negative impact on economic activity:
That’s a pretty bad reflection on NPI stringency. In the U.S, a 10% decline in GDP in 2020 amounts to about $2.1 trillion in lost goods and services. That’s just for starters. The many destroyed businesses and livelihoods carry an ongoing cost that could take years to fade, as this graphic on permanent business closures shows:
If you’re wondering about the distributional effects of lockdowns, here’s more bad news:
It’s possible to do many high-paying jobs from home. Not so for blue-collar workers. And distributional effects by size of enterprise are also heavily-skewed in favor of big companies. Within the retail industry, big-box stores are often designated as “essential”, while small shops and restaurants are not. The restaurant industry has been destroyed in many areas, inflicting a huge blow to owners and workers. This despite evidence from contact tracing showing that restaurants and bars account for a very small share of transmission. To add insult to injury, many restaurants invested heavily in safety measures and equipment to facilitate new, safer ways of doing business, only to be double-crossed by officials like Andrew Cuomo and Eric Garcetti, who later shut them down.
Public Health Costs of Stringency
Lives are lost due to lockdowns, but here’s a little exercise for the sake of argument: The life value implied by individual willingness-to-pay for risk reduction comes in at less than $4 million. Even if the supposed 300,000 COVID deaths had all been saved by lockdowns, that would have amounted to a value of $1.2 trillion, about half of the GDP loss indicated above. Of course, it would be outrageously generous to concede that lives saved by NPI’s have approached 300,000, so lockdowns fall far short at the very outset of any cost-benefit comparison, even if we value individual lives at far more than $4 million.
As AJ Kay says, the social and human costs go far beyond economic losses:
I cited specific examples of losses in many of these categories in an earlier post. But for the moment, instead of focusing on causes of death, take a look at this table provided by Justin Hart showing a measure of non-COVID excess deaths by age group in the far right-hand column:
The numbers here are derived by averaging deaths by age group over the previous five years and subtracting COVID deaths in each group. I believe Hart’s numbers go through November. Of greatest interest here is the fact that younger age groups, having far less risk of death from COVID than older age groups, have suffered large numbers of excess deaths NOT attributed to COVID. As Hart notes later in his thread:
These deaths are a tragic consequence of lockdowns.
Educational Costs of Stringency
Many schools have been closed to in-person instruction during the pandemic, leading to severe disruptions to the education f children. This report from the Fairfax County, VA School District is indicative, and it is extremely disheartening. The report includes the following table:
Note the deterioration for disabled students, English learners, and the economically disadvantaged. The surfeit of failing grades is especially damaging to groups already struggling in school relative to their peers, such as blacks and Hispanics. Not only has the disruption to in-person instruction been disastrous to many students and their futures; it has also yielded little benefit in mitigating the contagion. A recent study in The Lancet confirms once again that transmission is low in educational settings. Also see here and here for more evidence on that point.
It’s clear that the “follow-the-science” mantra as a rationale for stringent NPIs was always a fraud, as was the knee-jerk response from those who conflated lockdowns with “leadership”. Such was the wrongheaded and ultimately deadly pressure to “do something”. We can be thankful that pressure was resisted at the federal level by President Trump. The extraordinary damage inflicted by ongoing NPIs was quite foreseeable, but there is one more very ominous implication. I’ll allow J.D. Tucille to sum that up with some of the pointed quotes he provides:
“‘The first global pandemic of the digital age has accelerated the international adoption of surveillance and public security technologies, normalising new forms of widespread, overt state surveillance,’ warned Kelsey Munro and Danielle Cave of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre last month.
‘Numerous governments have used the COVID-pandemic to repress expression in violation of their obligations under human rights law,’ United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted in July.
‘For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power,’ Human Rights Watch warned back in April.
There’s widespread agreement, then, that government officials around the world are exploiting the pandemic to expand their power and to suppress opposition. That’s the case not only among the usual suspects where authorities don’t pretend to take elections and civil liberties seriously, but also in countries that are traditionally considered ‘free.’ … It’s wildly optimistic to expect that newly acquired surveillance tools and enforcement powers will simply evaporate once COVID-19 is sent on its way. The post-pandemic new normal is almost certain to be more authoritarian than what went before.”