If you’ve been searching for a silver lining behind the COVID-19 cloud, here’s a potential candidate: More people are focusing on trade-offs.
Sure, there are some who believe the whole coronavirus crisis is a hoax. They think government never should have shut down any part of the economy.
Then there are those who are so scared of COVID-19 that watching an unmasked family walking through a neighborhood park generates spasms of apocalyptic anxiety.
But most of us fall between those two opposing positions. We see that COVID-19 presented a serious health threat. It justified government action. But that action created its own set of problems. Too much emphasis on social isolation and inactivity threatens us with significant long-term economic crisis.
A proper response to the pandemic does not ignore public health concerns. Nor does it downplay economic considerations. Instead the best path forward requires a balance. Decisions about the proper balance require considerations of trade-offs.
That’s why it’s helpful to consider advice from economists, the troubadours of trade-offs. While they’re unlikely to unite behind a single answer to COVID-19 shutdown questions, all good economists contemplate trade-offs. They can offer policymakers useful information.
Take a recent column with the headline “North Carolina’s misguided coronavirus policy.” In a state where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his advisers drive the policy, one might expect such a critique from Cooper’s Republican political foes.
Instead the author of that column works in the economics department at Cooper’s alma mater: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Assistant Professor Martin Zelder explains why Cooper’s phased reopening plan for the state’s economy “is profoundly disappointing to people like me — evidence-based social scientists who care about the collective well-being of our society.”
Announced May 5, Cooper’s plan spells out three stages for reopening. The first “continues the lockdown and entails no real change,” in Zelder’s estimation. Even as the state proceeds to later stages, North Carolinians would face government-mandated economic restrictions at least through the end of June and potentially through July 28.
Labeling the plan “extraordinarily cautious,” Zelder contends that Cooper has ignored current evidence. The professor points to “extensive statistical analyses” supporting his argument. In short, the continued lockdown offers “limited social benefit and high social cost.”
The economist’s argument focuses on five key points.
First, North Carolina has a “relatively low” coronavirus infection rate, Zelder argues. When Cooper’s economic lockdown took effect March 31, North Carolina had the nation’s fifth-lowest infection rate. By the time Zelder drafted his column, the Tar Heel State still ranked among the bottom 10 states in per-capita infections.
Second, the severity of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina exhibited a “marked decline over time,” Zelder writes. Focusing particular attention on hospital admissions, he finds a decline in the percentage of new cases involving hospitalization. From April 20 to May 3, most days saw more COVID-19 patients leaving the hospital than arriving.
Zelder’s third and fourth points focus on the impact of stay-at-home orders. The orders themselves have “limited value,” as evidenced by the fact North Carolina’s infection rate differs little from those in Arkansas and Wyoming. Neither of those states ever faced a statewide shutdown.
Even if the initial stay-at-home order made sense, extending that order day after day offers limited benefit. Roughly one month into North Carolina’s shutdown, the impact on reducing daily infection rates proved negligible.
While the first four pieces of Zelder’s analysis emphasized health, the fifth focused on the economy. The professor labels the cost of each lockdown day “enormous.” Using data from a Moody’s Analytics study, he estimates a daily loss of $375 million from North Carolina’s gross domestic product. “And this doesn’t capture costs, as a result of social distancing, from multitudes of lost but valuable human interactions, reflected to some degree in the incidence of mental-health problems,” Zelder adds.
Media outlets continue to report a growing number of total COVID-19 cases in North Carolina. Zelder credits “dramatic increases” in testing for the growing number of confirmed cases. Total testing jumped by 83% from April 20 to May 3 alone. But during the second week of that period, the rate of positive tests stood at less than 2%.
“These seem reasons enough to end our mandated and protracted stay at home,” Zelder concludes.
“I would challenge anybody — if they disagree with a conclusion I’m reaching, then you’re disagreeing with how large a component a benefit or cost is,” Zelder said during an interview for the John Locke Foundation’s “HeadLocke” podcast. “If you’re saying I’m not valuing the benefits of the coronavirus prevention enough, then tell me what the right number is. Then we can reconsider the calculation.”
“I think that’s the kind of discussion we need to have in society.” Zelder added.
It’s not clear whether Cooper and his advisers are considering the same factors Zelder cites. But one suspects that people stuck at home for more than a month are taking time to consider the “limited social benefit and high social cost” of this state’s policies.
Even after COVID-19 has finished inflicting its damage, we can hope that people will remember the importance of trade-offs. The attempt to balance competing priorities helps drive most political debates every day.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.