Edward Lotterman: Pandemic control measures need clear thinking 

The welding supply store clerk had good advice for elected officials. “What they need to do,” he said, “is strike a balance between stopping COVID and keeping the economy open.” “Yes,” I thought to myself, “but isn’t that precisely what they have been trying to do all along?”

There is the rub for the entire country. Despite much sniping at one another, no one wants to let COVID-19 run wild. Nor is there anyone willing to drive national output down to zero to save only one life. Mayors and governors, together with health professionals advising them, generally are giving it their best shot. Yet their states and cities have adopted sharply varying policies.

Unfortunately, we have not had clear political leadership and it is clear that political attitudes of both officials and the public play a big role in disparate policies.

Some differences may reflect differing subjective estimates of the effectiveness of control measures such as masks, social distancing or closing venues. Or there are different estimates of costs to businesses and increases in unemployment that result.

Some decisions simply stem from erroneous thinking. A few officials, and many in the general public, assert that decisions to wear a mask or worship in large numbers are matters of individual responsibility and not government. Yet, if you examine their reasoning, it’s clear they think a mask is like a bicycle helmet, a rope for mountain climbers or a bat suit for leaping off cliffs. With these, what someone decides doesn’t affect third parties.

Yes, many philosophers, economists and others, argue decisions that affect only the person making it are a not an appropriate matter for government. These have no “external effect” on anyone else. Hence there is no need for a “nanny state” controlling people’s private lives.

However, when a decision does affect others, and masking clearly does, the “it’s-a-matter-of-personal-responsibility” argument is utter bunk. You have a right to choose to drive 50 or 70 miles per hour in a 75-mph zone. You don’t have a right to choose to ignore stoplights. You can choose to replace your knee. But you have no right to infect others with a deadly disease. Yet that is exactly what you do if you refuse to wear a mask or insist on meeting in groups of 300 to sing together forcefully.

No, doing these things does not mean that you immediately infect everyone you meet. But there are higher probabilities that someone will get sick.

Even if everyone agreed on the basic science of transmission and on how to apply critical thinking, would we have exact answers on how to balance costs to output and employment versus saving health and lives? No, we wouldn’t.

Could economists help? After all, some do benefit-cost studies for flood control structures, limits on mercury emissions or requiring rear-facing cameras on all new vehicles. Couldn’t they tell us how much output will drop or unemployment increase if certain classes of businesses are closed?

Yes, they could at least make ballpark estimates, at least of ranges of costs. As a regional economist at the Minneapolis Fed during flooding of the Red River Valley in 1997, I did this. City officials in Grand Forks, N.D., and Fargo, N.D., noted numbers of houses with basements filled or water damage to first floors. Someone in a helicopter counted the number of farmsteads flooded, including those with grain bins and so on.

With a spreadsheet, I got some estimates for replacing furnaces, appliances, sheetrock, cabinets and so forth. How much grain was stored on an average farm? Also, what were the after-the-fact FEMA estimates of damages from similar floods. The result was a “well, it has to be at least this and probably not over that” estimate.

This rough tabulation probably helped planning. But it was for one very localized situation. Moreover, it was costs from physical damage already occurred. There was no thought to benefits, as are needed with measures to reduce COVID-19 illness and death.

What are the values of benefits of avoiding illness and death? Is the cost of an illness just the cost of treatment and, perhaps, lost output because the patient cannot work? Or is there some cost to the suffering of a week spent in an ICU or intubated and agonizing on a ventilator?

What is the value of the life of a 95-year-old with four co-morbidities? If friends and family would not have been surprised by news of this person’s death in normal times, is such a death to COVID-19 really a great cost to society? Is the cost of such a person less than that of a 38-year-old RN with three kids who got the virus working in an ICU?

These are hard questions with no clear answers. Yet implicitly, decisions officials are making right now put a value on human life. The very phrase may offend some people, but it needs to be done. Recognize that the critics of restrictions who argue that the disease largely kills older people are placing values on different lives. So are people who advocate full application of every possible measure everywhere.

The Corps of Engineers can spend years evaluating costs and benefits of a new waterway in great monetary detail. The decisions that federal officials, governors and even city councils must make now may have far greater impact on society, but ultimately must be made on inherently arbitrary estimates rather than objective measures of costs and benefits. Most are making these in good faith, but history will  show that some made tragic errors.


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