Flattening the Curve and Moving the Goalposts
By David Henderson
My friend and fellow economist Ben Powell, head of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, wrote on Facebook this morning:
Like many people, I’ve been following the various COVID numbers with interest and have become aware of the various data problems with many of them. However, it is becoming obvious to me that as talk turns to “re-opening” the economy most of these numbers aren’t relevant, yet people are selectively using them to support their arguments. The reason for the shutdown was not simply to “flatten the curve” for its own sake but to flatten it so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. It was not to decrease the total number of people who get the disease. It was to spread out the cases to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed so that there would not be deaths from COVID because of lack of available medical care (regardless of what the death rate from COVID is otherwise). It was a particular cause of death (lack of hospital capacity) that the shutdown was to avoid. So, the relevant data for re-opening is hospital capacity. That’s it. And we can get reliable data for that in the US and it varies by region. But most of the country has plenty of hospital capacity and in fact, due to bans on non-essential medical proceedures, some hospitals have so much excess capacity that they are hurting financially and laying off workers. Other data like cases and case fatality are interesting and (poorly) inform other decisions such as whether and how much I choose to social distance. But it’s not relevant for the re-opening debate.
This is a case where, within a month, the goalposts have been moved and not just on a small issue but on what will likely be the biggest economic/regulatory issue of the decade and could be the biggest economic/regulatory issue in the lives of many of our readers.
I wish I had made Ben’s point in my recent article on liberating the economy.
Now that the curve seems at or close to flattening in the relevant sense, that is, cases that require hospitalization relative to hospital capacity, I would hope that those whose rationale was to “flatten the curve” would call for ending the lockdowns, certainly in much of the country. I haven’t seen it yet.