The Best Argument Against School Closures
People’s behavior shows that they place immense value on convenience. Think about how much you dread calling technical support. Doing your taxes. Filling out medical forms. Yet politicians almost never name “convenience” as an important value. It just doesn’t sound good to say, “Sorry, we could save your life, but that would be awfully inconvenient for the rest of society.” No politician has ever ended a speech with a resounding, “Give me convenience or give me death!”
As a result, politics largely ignores convenience. To repeat one of my favorite slogans: In daily life, actions speak louder than words. But in politics, words speak louder than actions.
The most blatant example in recent politics: school closures. Given how little students actually learn in school, its only clear-cut benefit is daycare. Yet during Covid, many schools across the country were closed for over a year. Extraordinarily inconvenient for parents, especially moms. Yet virtually no one publicly stated the ugly-yet-obvious fact that great convenience for tens of millions of parents vastly outweighs a few extra Covid deaths.
By now, of course, lots of people are arguing for keeping schools open. Yet even today, almost no one argues in the name of massive convenience. Instead, they present arguments that are emotionally strong but intellectually weak. Take a look at Naomi Riley’s piece in the City Journal. Why shouldn’t we close the schools for Omicron? Because there is largely anecdotal evidence that doing so increases child abuse. The only relevant numbers she offers:
And now the results are in. According to “Impact of ‘Stay-at-Home’ Orders on Non-Accidental Trauma: A Multi-Institutional Study,” presented last fall at the virtual American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference, the number of children experiencing severe abuse tripled during lockdowns. The report looked at data from nine pediatric trauma centers from March 2020 to September 2020 and compared it with data from the same span in the three years prior. Among children aged five and older, the number of abuse victims reached 103, up from an average of 36 before the pandemic. These may seem like small numbers, but they represent only the most extreme cases that led to hospital visits.
Why talk about 67 extra cases of severe child abuse, which perhaps have other causes, instead of undeniable inconvenience for tens of millions of parents? Because even a single case of child abuse curdles the blood. And is therefore vastly more persuasive.
David Leonhardt marshals a longer list of arguments against school closures: learning loss, mental health problems, suicide, gun violence, behavior problems. The learning loss evidence is reasonable strong, but it is easy to believe that students will eventually catch-up once they return to school. The rest of his case, however, is anecdotal. And strikingly, Leonhardt never mentions parental inconvenience.
The effect of school closures on convenience is both massive and bulletproof. I’m almost sure that Riley and Leonhardt would strongly agree in person. Yet they also instinctively know that the best argument against school closures will persuade next to no one. In politics, even people with reasonable conclusions have to make unreasonable arguments if they want to win.
Which speaks very poorly of politics. Very poorly indeed.