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Revisiting the mistake

Summary:
Back on April 4, I made this claim: I also predict that in a month or two, when we have a good grasp on the likely death totals from this epidemic, or at least this wave of the epidemic, there will be news stories showing how many of those deaths could have been prevented merely by starting the social distancing at the national level at the same time it was done in Washington (which was about 2 weeks earlier). And the numbers will give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if there are say 100,000 deaths, it might be the case that on the order of 80% could have been eliminated by starting two weeks earlier. And no, this is not a dig at Trump (or de Blasio), the country was not mentally prepared for doing something like this

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Back on April 4, I made this claim:

I also predict that in a month or two, when we have a good grasp on the likely death totals from this epidemic, or at least this wave of the epidemic, there will be news stories showing how many of those deaths could have been prevented merely by starting the social distancing at the national level at the same time it was done in Washington (which was about 2 weeks earlier). And the numbers will give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if there are say 100,000 deaths, it might be the case that on the order of 80% could have been eliminated by starting two weeks earlier. And no, this is not a dig at Trump (or de Blasio), the country was not mentally prepared for doing something like this two weeks earlier. But it won’t change the reality of the fact that we as a society made a huge error. Social distancing may not even be the right answer, as some tough guys claim, but given that we ended up doing it anyway, not doing it two weeks earlier was super costly. Hiroshima costly.

And let’s not even talk about the tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year from kidney failure.

Time for some soul-searching?

Even as I typed “Hiroshima” I wondered if my claim would eventually look foolish. About 10,000 Americans had died at that point.

Today there are 94,000 official Covid-19 deaths and many additional unofficial deaths. The eventual toll will likely exceed 150,000.

But what about the preventability question. Could 80% of these deaths have been prevented at virtually no extra cost? Quite possibly.

I’m not sure it was accurate to claim that Washington began social distancing about 2 weeks earlier than other states; it’s much more complicated than that. But it did start social distancing somewhat earlier. And Washington has since gone from being by far the worst hit state to well down in the pack. Each week it slips further down the list in terms of deaths per million (right column):

Revisiting the mistake
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There are other pieces of information. The combined population of Denmark and Norway is a bit higher than Sweden, and yet those two countries have barely 20% as many fatalities as Sweden. I don’t cite this figure to take sides on the Swedish policy, rather to indicate that if we were going to do social distancing anyway, then (in retrospect) it would have made more sense to start 2 weeks earlier. Two weeks is a long time when caseloads are exploding upward.

Tyler Cowen linked to another interesting study. Here’s the abstract:

We test whether earlier social distancing affects the progression of a local COVID-19 outbreak. We exploit county-level rainfall on the last weekend before statewide lockdown. After controlling for state fixed-effects, temperature, and historical rainfall, current rainfall is a plausibly exogenous instrument for social distancing. Early distancing causes a reduction in cases and deaths that persists for weeks. The effect is driven by a reduction in the chance of a very large outbreak. The result suggests early distancing may have sizable returns, and that random events early in an outbreak can have persistent effects on its course.

I view all of this as a collective mistake (including myself), which might explain the relative lack of moral indignation, at least given the death total. We prefer to point fingers at specific villains (as with Bush/Iraq, although even in that case Bush’s role is greatly overstated.)

Social distance and trash the economy?

or. .

Allow a huge death toll?

There are good arguments both ways. But for the sake of God don’t do both!

Alas, we did both.

PS. Creating a kidney market is still extremely important. And on that issue I do point fingers (at deontological ethicists.)


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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