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Puerto Rico Austerity-Induced Excess Mortality Exceeds That of Hurricane Maria?

Summary:
A commentator [1] has recently concluded that excess mortality due to austerity in Puerto Rico exceeds that attributable to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I take issue with that conclusion. First, consider mortality data through February. Figure 1: Mortality per month (blue). Gray denotes in-sample period; orange shading denotes Hurricane Maria and post-hurricane period; dashed line at PROMESA legislation. Source: Santos-Lozada and Howard, 2017, June release of Vital Statistics data. Second, now consider constructing the counterfactual not incorporating austerity measures both before and after PROMESA implementation (legislation passed as of in July 2016, control in effect as of October 2016). I accomplish this by estimating two equations: (1) a simple averaging over the 2010-2015

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A commentator [1] has recently concluded that excess mortality due to austerity in Puerto Rico exceeds that attributable to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. I take issue with that conclusion.

First, consider mortality data through February.

Puerto Rico Austerity-Induced Excess Mortality Exceeds That of Hurricane Maria?
Figure 1: Mortality per month (blue). Gray denotes in-sample period; orange shading denotes Hurricane Maria and post-hurricane period; dashed line at PROMESA legislation. Source: Santos-Lozada and Howard, 2017, June release of Vital Statistics data.

Second, now consider constructing the counterfactual not incorporating austerity measures both before and after PROMESA implementation (legislation passed as of in July 2016, control in effect as of October 2016). I accomplish this by estimating two equations: (1) a simple averaging over the 2010-2015 period, and (2) a log-log OLS regression specification incorporating population estimates (as well as a dummy for October 2014). 2016 seems an appropriate break point for austerity given Brad Setser’s discussion of Puerto Rican finances. These specifications are discussed in this post. I show in Figure 2 the implied excess mortality figures.

Puerto Rico Austerity-Induced Excess Mortality Exceeds That of Hurricane Maria?
Figure 2: Excess mortality per month calculated using averages 2010-15 (blue), and population adjusted using 2010-15 sample (red), population is cubic interpolation from IMF World Economic Outlook database data. Gray denotes in-sample period; orange shading denotes Hurricane Maria and post-hurricane period; dashed line at PROMESA legislation. Source: Santos-Lozada and Howard, 2017, June release of Vital Statistics data, IMF WEO April 2018 database, and author’s calculations.

Notice in neither case are most of the pre-Maria deviations statistically significant at the 10% msl. In other words, one could not typically reject the null hypothesis of no austerity-induced excess mortality, pre-Maria.

Third, it’s instructive to consider excess mortality from 2016M01-2018M08 2017M08, and how it compares to excess mortality to that 2017M09-2018M02. If one assumes zero population change from 2016-17, then one gets the estimate of cumulative deaths (“avg. ’10-’16”) in red line, which indicates minimal impact of austerity.

Puerto Rico Austerity-Induced Excess Mortality Exceeds That of Hurricane Maria?
Figure 3: Cumulative excess mortality per month using population adjustment specification (blue) using cubic interpolation of IMF World Economic Outlook database data, and using 2010-15 average (red). Orange shading denotes Hurricane Maria and post-hurricane period; dashed line at PROMESA legislation. Source: Santos-Lozada and Howard, 2017, June release of Vital Statistics data, IMF WEO April 2018 database, and author’s calculations.

However, the more realistic assessment relies upon adjusting the counterfactual for population. This leads to the blue line, labeled “log-log”), seemingly verifying the proposition that excess deaths began before the hurricane made landfall. However, interestingly, neither approach directly contradicts the point that most of the excess mortality since 2016M01 is due to the impact of Hurricane Maria.

Conclusion: Using statistical analysis, I find the inference that excess deaths due to pre- and post-Maria austerity exceed that of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is extremely fragile.

Buttressing this view, I also find that, using electricity grid outage data reported in Shermeyer (2018), excess mortality as calculated using a population adjustment matches very closely outage data, derived either from PERPA (the public utility) or from Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (NPP VIIRS).

Puerto Rico Austerity-Induced Excess Mortality Exceeds That of Hurricane Maria?
Figure 4: Excess mortality per month using population adjustment specification (black) using cubic interpolation of IMF World Economic Outlook database data, and electricity outages as proportion of total, from PREPA (pink) and from VIIRS as reported in Shermeyer (2018). Orange shading denotes Hurricane Maria and post-hurricane period; dashed line at PROMESA legislation. Source: Santos-Lozada and Howard, 2017, June release of Vital Statistics data, IMF WEO April 2018 database, personal communication from Jacob Shermeyer, and author’s calculations.

A regression over the 2007M04-2018M02 period, the slope coefficient on outage is 826 using Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) data, and 950 using VIIRS data, both statistically significant using HAC robust errors, with adjusted R2 = 0.83 and 0.72, respectively. That means 639-690 excess mortality attributable to power outages (and correlates) in October, for instance. (The excess mortality could be due directly to electricity outages, or due to communication outages and water service breakdowns correlated with the electricity outages.)

Mr. Trump has asserted that government ‘did a fantastic job’ with Puerto Rico hurricane response.

Update, 9/11 1:15PM: Mr. Trump has repeated the claim that the electric power system was “dead” prior to Hurricane Maria made landfall. Several accounts document he is lying, including Shoot/Forbes.

Mortality data here [XLSX], and electricity outage data here [CSV].

Menzie Chinn
He is Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

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