Closing down the U.S. economy in response to COVID-19 was probably the worst public policy in at least one-hundred years.
The costs of the lockdowns are sunk, i.e., unrecoverable. Water under the bridge. What happens next is what matters, and it is of crucial importance lest the headline some day soon become an indisputable fact.
America has implemented a lot of really bad policies since the New Deal and fought needless wars and endured long, senseless occupations of places like the Philippines and Afghanistan. But at least all those policies were vaguely constitutional. The economic lockdowns, by contrast, have turned the Constitution into a frail and worthless fabric, to steal a phrase from Alexander Hamilton. The due process and taking clauses are a shambles and even the First and Second Amendments have been de facto suspended in some states. In the immortal words of the judge in the song “The Trial” near the end of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, “This will not do.”
We now know, with as much certainty as one can know such things, that lockdowns are very costly and confer no clear benefits. For starters, like many (especially AIER) have been saying since the start of the pandemic, in terms of mortality COVID-19 is much closer to the flu than to the Black Death. Much closer.
We also know that places that did not lock down and restrict basic civil liberties suffered no worse fates than those that did. The battle against COVID-19 was won or lost with testing, as in South Korea, not with “medieval” remedies that were not even used in medieval times! Quarantines are for sick people or, in extreme cases, small districts overrun with disease, not for everyone.
Economic lockdowns were the fantasies of government officials so out of touch with economic and physical reality that they thought the costs would be fairly low. Money can be printed, bailouts paid, and inflation checked with price controls, they believed, following, it appears, the notions of debunked MMT theorists. Economic illiteracy reared its ignorant head yet again.
My fellow Americans, lend me your ear! Your food does not come from the supermarket. It comes from places like the world’s oceans and the Great Plains, mighty fields of beans, corn, and wheat, orchards, ranches, and the places that process your fish, veggies, and meat. Our cornucopia arises not from your need, but from the incentives of people to sow and reap, collect and harvest. The government destroyed those incentives by locking down and proving itself capable of just about anything at this point.
Crops must be planted now to have a chance to mature before winter returns again. Calves, piglets, and baby chicks must be attended to now, not when some politician thinks we have enough testing kits or (increasingly irrelevant) ventilators or PPE or whatever. And those crucial tasks will take place in sufficient quantity to feed us all only when incentives are restored and farmers and ranchers do not have to worry about political risk on top of all the other weather and market risks inherent in their industry.
Proponents of lockdown also seem oblivious to what economists call deadweight losses. AIER has discussed them before, most recently in the context of unwanted Christmas gifts. They are simply losses that nobody else gains. Deadweight losses refer not to theft but to missed opportunities. You see, as Steve Miller once sang, time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.
Time lost doing nothing, or doing something less efficiently than it otherwise could have been done, is gone forever. A missed trade, likewise, is a deadweight loss, and a key reason why economists continuously remind people of the virtues of voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange, even trades that take place across international boundaries (gasp!).
The clearest example of deadweight losses due to the crisis is the widely reported destruction of milk and eggs, literally thrown down the drain or in the ditch due to a lack of functioning processing capacity, which in turn was caused by confusion over “essential” vs. “nonessential” businesses, price gouging laws, and widespread panic. But each day somebody who wants to work but can’t is essentially throwing their day’s product down the drain, especially in the service industry. It is not like we are all going to get two haircuts or dental cleanings when this is all over. And the backlog of elective surgeries will induce many to forego treatment altogether.
Americans thought “Hey, if the government is willing to destroy the economy, this virus must be real bad.” Reasonable but wrong! Turns out that government is willing to destroy the economy because the key people in it are power hungry economic illiterates unchecked by courts or anything else for that matter.
Most politicians themselves are old (the median age of governors is 63) and hence more vulnerable to COVID-19, so when their elderly constituents, i.e., the bulk of the active electorate in many places, told them “If I can’t live a normal life nobody should be able to,” they listened, even though the policy of imprisoning almost everyone is unprecedented, and smacks of a weird sort of slavery.
Chattel slavery also caused enormous deadweight losses and negative externalities. Instead of forcing people to be idle, or less productive than they could be (say in the office instead of at home with children underfoot), the government policy of allowing some human beings to own other human beings essentially forced people to work. Slaves definitely had it worse than Americans under lockdown do, but already Americans are beginning to protest their confinement and to subtly subvert authorities, just as chattel slaves did.
Consider, for example, the couple who sunbathed in a skate park in California after the local government filled it with sand to prevent those awful teenagers from congregating there, as if a couple of kids hitting the half pipes threatened a grandmother sheltered-in-place down the street.
Slaves also ran away whenever rational to do so, but that seems difficult at present given all the unconstitutional restrictions on travel in place. If the lockdowns continue, look for underground railroads into places like (ironically) Arkansas and Sweden, or New Canada as it will be known, by Americans anyway.
Slaves also rose up in bloody rebellion and more often than most people realize. Many died in their desperate fight for freedom, but some managed to form autonomous maroon communities and in some cases, most (in)famously Haiti, their own nation state.
A month ago, when I suggested that lockdowns could lead to revolution, I was thinking of scenarios where the grid, Internet, or water/sanitization system went down. That still might happen, if food riots don’t start first. But given how long it is taking to “flatten the curve and raise the line” (which has actually been accomplished already in most places), other risks also loom. Enemies foreign and domestic could try to take advantage of our weak, divided selves.
African-Americans, American Indians, Appalachians, and Hispanics harbor plenty of grievances for their treatment both before and during the coronavirus crisis. They could lash out, especially if triggered by police brutally suppressing people simply exercising their Constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. While scenes like those in Nigeria, where police have literally killed more people than the virus, will hopefully not be repeated here, the stress of policing lockdowns is taking its toll on our men and women in blue.
In sum, it is clear that our state and federal governments have failed us yet again (9/11, Iraq, hurricanes in Louisiana and Puerto Rico, the Panic of 2008). Politicians without the courage to end lockdowns immediately should not seek re-election so that new ideas and voices can be heard. Newbies surely can’t do much worse than the incumbents. If the lockdowns persist and some major terrorist attack hits its mark, or urban uprisings flare, or food riots strike, politicians on both sides of the aisle may find themselves in much more dire straits than having to return to their law practices.
The policy mistakes of March can be forgiven but never forgotten. Those of April could end like Haiti, and nobody wants that. To that end, I proffer the following speech, which any leader anywhere may freely adopt to their particular circumstances and give immediately:
When I ordered the closure of “nonessential” businesses on [INSERT DATE HERE], I had only the best interests of the people of the great [STATE, COUNTY, CITY, TOWN] of [INSERT JURISDICTION NAME HERE] in mind. Like a test subject in an experiment by Asche or Milgram, I blindly followed the lead of others, urged on by scientists who we mistakenly believed were authorities and hence infallible.
We know now that due to fear and political stratagem, we acted too quickly, without a sufficient understanding of epidemiology, economics, history, or, most importantly, the novel coronavirus itself. A battery of non-government scientists checking each other’s work have since discovered that it spreads too easily to be contained but, like most highly contagious diseases, it is not very deadly for most. In fact, many infected people exhibit no symptoms whatsoever and most remain subclinical. Many fewer people, almost all within known risk categories, will require hospitalization and only a minority of those will die.
In other words, we have successfully flattened the curve and raised the line, helped by the fact that many doctors are now saying they were wrong about the importance of ventilators.
Make no mistake, COVID-19 is a serious disease, just not as serious as one might think given the massive government response to its spread. It is, we now know, nothing like the Black Plague. Chances are by taking simple precautions you will not receive a massive dose of the virus and remain safe even if infected. Those at higher levels of risk will need to take more precautions, including staying safe at home and relying on the wonderful people of the great [STATE, COUNTY, CITY, TOWN] of [INSERT JURISDICTION NAME HERE] to safely deliver the goods they need. I know that may seem unfair to those at risk but the clear culprit is the disease, not the government and not those simply living their lives.
[INSERT HERE A TOUCHING LOCAL HUMAN INTEREST STORY ABOUT HELPING THE ELDERLY, BEING CERTAIN TO NAME AS MANY CONSTITUENTS AS POSSIBLE BECAUSE THERE WILL BE NO BABY KISSING THIS ELECTION CYCLE.]
The rest of us, which includes most people under age 60, should continue to wash our hands frequently and stay away from others, especially inside. But we can, and should, resume our normal lives immediately.
To that end, I hereby immediately rescind all restrictions on social and economic activity put in place in response to the coronavirus threat and urge those who lost jobs they enjoyed to contact their former employers forthwith. Those who will not return to their previous place of employment should consult private job listing sites or [INSERT NAME OF YOUR UNNECESSARY GOVERNMENT JOB PLACEMENT SERVICE HERE].
If you are uncomfortable with the response of any business to COVID-19, simply avoid it and allow natural market forces to decide which businesses are necessary and which are not. I know, we should have thought of that already and followed the courageous policy of doing nothing like South Dakota did. That state actually has a lot of non-policies we would do well to consider in the coming weeks and months.
Finally, please allow me to offer my sincerest apologies to all for needlessly restricting your civil liberties during this crisis. If you believe it is better to be safe than sorry, consider voting for me for [INSERT OFFICE HERE] on [INSERT ELECTION DATE HERE]. If not, please note that I moved to restore your rights as soon as it became clear that economic lockdown was the worst public policy since slavery.
Thank you and God Bless America and the citizens of [INSERT JURISDICTION NAME HERE]. Stay as safe as you can, and want!