Rational Policy Debate Among 'Excess Deaths'

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

At City Journal, John Tierney considers the consequences of California Governor Gavin Newsom's Covid response and finds it wanting. Probably the most interesting parts are near the beginning and the end, which respectively discuss the economic consequences of the lockdowns and analyze mortality.

From the latter we have a comparison with Florida:

'Safety' is more dangerous than some might have you believe. (Image by Nick Fewings, via Unsplash, license.)
When Newsom finally ended the nearly three-year-long state of emergency, he claimed that 56,000 more Californians would have died of Covid if he had followed Florida's policies, basing that estimate on Florida's higher rate of Covid mortality. But that's not a valid comparison. When statisticians properly adjust for the age structure in each state -- Florida has a much higher share of vulnerable elderly people -- the rates in both states are below the national average. California's rate is just slightly lower, and that difference is largely due to another confounding factor: the per-capita mortality calculations are based on each state's population in the 2020 Census, but Florida's population has been growing rapidly since then, while California's has been shrinking. If you adjust for the actual population of both states during the pandemic, their per-capita Covid mortality rates are almost identical.

Newsom prefers to avoid discussing a more important difference: the rate of overall excess mortality, the number of deaths above normal from all causes during the pandemic. That rate is higher in California, particularly among younger adults who died from causes other than Covid -- many presumably victims of the lockdown's disruptions. If California's excess-mortality rate over the first two years of the pandemic had equaled Florida's, about 10,000 fewer Californians would have died. And if the state had heeded its own experts instead of its authoritarian leaders, tens of millions of Californians would have enjoyed healthier, wealthier, and happier lives. [links omitted, bold added]
Tellingly absent is outrage about authoritarianism -- be it of the blatant Newsomian variety or DeSantis's disguised kind.

Instead, as we see when conservatives fail to properly debate climate policy, we have a layman attempting to argue the merits of "the science" and siding with authorities he deems congenial -- but failing to ask what the proper role of government might be regarding infectious disease. Much of the piece praises an expert who basically argued that we should have had what I called at the time a "national chickenpox party."

And don't get me started on yet another confused complaint about "censorship" -- which we undoubtedly had to a degree, but which is also something only a government can do.

I am not saying Tierney's work is without value. But getting facts straight absent a proper political philosophy, we are apt to end up with only 1400 words or so that correct the record on excess deaths in one fascist state versus another -- while also unintentionally showing by omission what today's policy "debates" have become: quibbles by conservatives who have walked right into the limits set by the left. To wit: Assume that the government should centrally plan everything, and pick sides in a debate among specialists (who are not and should not be philosopher-kings) whose conclusions should inform any proper response without determining it.

We will learn something, but not how many deaths -- from Covid itself or from improper government responses to it -- that a proper Covid policy implemented in a truly free society might have averted.

-- CAV

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