Tradeoffs in the Era of Covid-19

Lawmakers Want to Reopen America, But It May Not Be So Easy–Charles Fain Lehman
No One Is In Charge of Reopening the Country–Michael Brendan Dougherty
Curve-flattening a result of behavioral change, not central planning–Jonah  Goldberg
The important question isn’t when the government is going to lift restrictions–Megan McArdle
Experience Counts When It Comes to Preparing a Population for a Viral Threat-Jim Geraghty

(There are many other such pieces on the center and center/right; I just picked a few at random.)

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am deeply skeptical of the totality of the nation’s shutdown. End arena attendance of professional sports, sure. Close Disneyland, yah. Halve occupancy rates of popular bars, require people to spread out when waiting in line, by all means. I’m very much in favor of closing airports, which effectively quarantines a lot of the country geographically. Require schools, gas stations and restaurants to devote considerably more labor to bleaching and cleaning restrooms several times a day, and close public access restrooms in most other retail outlets.

I’m not a “floomer”, although I really despise the smug way that people use that term. I worry a little bit about getting the bad form of the virus, but not as much, say, as I dread takeoffs when flying. My concerns revolve more about my mom and stepdad, less about my dad because he’s in a safe state.

But I firmly believe we should not have closed the schools. We should not have shut down most retail outlets, nor should we have forced restaurants to take out only. Give me back Starbucks!

The casual inequities of the shutdown really piss me off. It’s absurdly unfair that Walmart and Target, by virtue of four or five aisles of groceries, are allowed to sell pillows, picture frames, clothes, and electronics, while Best Buy, Staples, Kohls, and Macys are forced to close for months. It’s ridiculous that Home Depot and Ace can sell plants and seeds, but nurseries have to do online orders and curbside pickups.   I’m just grateful I don’t live in the state where “that woman” doesn’t let you buy mosquito repellant and seeds even from Walmart.

My attitude towards the virus is undoubtedly shaped in part by the same mindset that leads to my confusion that there are people in this world who don’t just get flu shots, but actually schedule them in advance. I worry about plane crashes and electrocution, occasionally fear the idea of getting cancer. But on a personal level, I simply don’t find a brand new virus that probably won’t kill you but might worth the level of reaction we’ve had forced on us by the governors, whipped on by a frantic media who clearly worries a hell of a lot more about germs than I do.

I am also personally outraged by the casual disregard those pushing the shutdown have for the nation at large. Shutting down the economy creates winners and losers, while the media and politicians pretended that business as usual = loser and shutdown = winning.

But such an outlook is manifestly incorrect, and before long people began (very hamhandedly) pointing out that we are bankrupting our future, hurting the children of our society, to save the elderly and the “vulnerable” (as if children aren’t vulnerable). But we aren’t, as all the same people will acknowledge, saving the elderly and the vulnerable, because without a vaccine or a cure the virus is out there and will wreak the same havoc on the elderly and vulnerable if it reaches them in six months instead of today. Thus all we achieved by shutting down, we were told constantly, is “flattening the curve”, saving our hospitals and our ventilators so they could be spread out to serve more covid-19 victims.  Except ventilators turned out to worsen symptoms, or close to it, so doctors aren’t using them as muchand we never had a shortage anyway. Meanwhile, hospitals are laying off staffbecause no covid19 patients, but no elective surgery, so no money.

I am grimly amused by the massive media layoffs which is not fair of me, especially since the layoffs aren’t really hurting the worst culprits. But here is my meanest thought: the media shutdown would have acknowledged considerably more complexity involved in shutting down the economy if the millions of opinion columnists, star reporters, and anchors  screaming for shutdown had realized how completely their industry would be clobbered when they got their wish.

The reaction to Covid-19 has split various communities of like folks. The GOP has certainly been split between those who were aggravated we didn’t shut down in late February to those who think it’s time to get back out there and eat, drink, and drive to work.  There are Dems who are noticing it’s not quite that awful, notably Kevin Drum, although most of them are all blaming Trump for, whatever. The skeptic community has been riven, and I’ve blocked more people on Twitter for their tedious lectures in the past month than in 8 years. I’ve been pretty far out there on the “this is all overkill” path and have received a number of private DMs from people saying they agree with me but are worried they’ll be professionally hurt by saying so.

But put aside what we should have done. We should reopen now. Not entirely. Not without restrictions. But we should reopen schools, stores, restaurants, and coffeeshops. We should reopen parks at all levels of government, let beaches have people, and let gas stations provide restrooms, again with restrictions. We should provide hotel rooms not just to the homeless, but to elderly and vulnerable populations that don’t live alone and might not survive their family returning to normal.

And when there are calls to reopen society, there are responses like those linked above, which fall into two categories.

First: whether or not governments reopen the economy, the public will have the final say. And the public isn’t ready to go back to work, school, and restaurants. Polls support this view. If you believe those polls are representative of actual behavior should the government reopen–well, all I can say is, you underestimate Americans’ capacity to tell pollsters what they want to hear. I think easily 30-40% of any given community will go running right out to shop, eat, drink, and beach/hike within a day of the order. And after a few days, another 40% will be right behind them. I’d guess 20 or maybe 30% of the population will claim they will “socially distance” for a while longer, but when you question them closely it turns out they go to stores early and restaurants late, after the crowds. Business will be down at first, sure. Millions are out of work. But most Americans will get out there. The only thing that’s keeping them from this now is the government fiat.

Suppose, however, that I am wrong and only a few people leave their homes, so restaurants and stores will still go bankrupt. Well, so what? Isn’t that what we’re spending trillions of dollars to help? Isn’t there a case for government support helping those businesses who get out there to help our economy recover, start rebuilding our tax base? Let the people who want to go out and shop, eat, drink, and recreate get started on it–again, with restrictions.

And if the reply is yes, but those people are going to transmit the coronavirus if they go out and about? Well, then, you’ve just shifted the debate again, haven’t you? If you don’t want to reopen the economy, then just say so.

Second: there are those who create these laundry lists of requirements that have to happen to end the shutdown. First, we need more tests. Then we need to use technology to track down infected contacts so we can stick them in hotel rooms. Then we need infrastructure to enforce and track all this and then we need to close everything down again in case we have a recurrence.

Wrong. We don’t need surveillance. We don’t need tests. We don’t need to build out an infrastructure. All of these things are nice. But we can do our best with what we have and move on, continuing to build capabability. Surveillance and tests are what the laundry list writers want, and they’re just continuing to confuse their preferences with what America needs. Generally, these are the writers who say things like: the American people had no idea how much covid19 was going to change their lives. There’s no returning to normal soon.

Well, no. Covid19 didn’t change Americans’ lives. Forced shutdowns did. And the Americans who don’t think these all-encompassing shutdowns were necessary don’t blame covid19. They blame governors. The media. By and large, these people appreciate Trump’s resistance to total shutdown and his enthusiasm for moving back to something approaching normal, whether or not it’s his call.

I don’t want old folks to die. I appreciate the need to protect the elderly and the vulnerable from a new virus that’s cutting a swathe through our population. But make no mistake: we are privileging the security of the vulnerable by purchasing the well-being of the youngest generations not just in terms of immediately lost education but also in the huge budget cuts that schools and other institutions will face because of the forced bankruptcy we’ve just imposed on much of America.  The public discourse is not acknowledging the tradeoffs involved in minimizing covid-19 deaths over the wellbeing of those who face minimal risk. People who argue for balance are ignored or mocked.

Change is coming. I hope it’s soon.



About educationrealist

23 responses to “Tradeoffs in the Era of Covid-19

  • ack-acking

    Well said! This thing has been a rollercoaster in expert opinions from “it’s nothing” in January, to “millions will die” in March. Now we’re starting to get some perspective. It *is* bad, but not worth shutting down everything for, and we can avoid a lot of the spread by just asking people to naturally be cautious, like Sweden.

  • Michael Watts

    we are privileging the security of the vulnerable by purchasing the well-being of the youngest generations not just in terms of immediately lost education but also in the huge budget cuts that schools and other institutions will face because of the forced bankruptcy we’ve just imposed on much of America.

    I see the idea in general, but how is a huge budget cut for schools supposed to hurt students? As far as I was aware, school spending has barely any effect on students.

    • educationrealist

      Spending has no effect on student learning outcomes, in general.

      Spending certainly affects sports, facilities, all the extras. You don’t think poorer districts aren’t going to have even more trouble hiring any teachers, because of the disparities in pay? What about things like computer labs and occupational technology equipment? How about things like teachers having paper for printouts, or whiteboard markers? From the little to the big, spending’s going to be chopped all because the government shut down the economy.

      • Michael Watts

        So we have larger class sizes, cruddier facilities, cheaper sports, and fewer computers. So what? Did we want small class sizes and lots of computers for their own sake, or did we want them because we hoped they’d cause the students to learn more than otherwise? Where are the students being hurt by the budget cut?

        How about things like teachers having paper for printouts, or whiteboard markers?

        Sure, you still need whiteboard markers. But I feel comfortable assuming that a 40% cut to the school budget isn’t implemented by cutting every expenditure, big or small, by 40%, resulting in 40% fewer whiteboard markers. If it does result in 40% fewer markers, that will be because the school can operate with 40% fewer markers.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, I don’t bother with fucking morons.

  • techanon

    > The reaction to Covid-19 has split various communities of like folks. The GOP has certainly been split between those who were aggravated we didn’t shut down in late February to those who think it’s time to get back out there and eat, drink, and drive to work.

    I’m not GOP, I lean more libertarian than republican, but I am generally called a conservative. I am in both of these groups simultaneously.

    In February, when all of the information available made it clear that this plague was really, really, really, really bad, I was mad that our authorities weren’t taking it seriously and doing the things necessary to cut it off right away.

    And now, that data is coming out all over the place suggesting it’s not nearly as bad as feared, I would like to not be locked down anymore

  • Roger Sweeny

    What is a floomer? I see two definitions when I google, neither of which seems applicable.

  • Chester Draws

    Another libertarian sceptic here.

    We are going to take years to return some of our kids to sanity regarding this. They aren’t media savvy, and tend to believe what they read.

    Many of them think CV19 is massively contagious, massively dangerous and impossible to treat. Their estimation of its danger to them is out by orders of magnitude. They don’t understand that the danger of returning to school is that they will be run over on the way, or hurt playing sport — not a disease that barely affects the young. Some of them will be scared of CV19, but join the army on leaving school!

    The result is that even when schools open, many of the students will return fearfully or not at all.

    Even a danger should not be talked of in a way that the media have talked of CV19. It is a problem, but it is not a crisis. We made it a crisis.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I wonder if the exact opposite will happen. It’s looking like almost nobody under the age of 20 gets sick from the virus, though a substantial number of them have it and are “not symptomatic”. The percentage of dead under 20 is almost infinitesimal. Combine that with the fact that teenagers are notorious for thinking “it can’t happen to me” and I don’t see a lot of fearfulness. (Elementary school kids may react differently.)

      Closing schools is more about the children infecting the adults, who can indeed get sick. Admittedly, most teachers are under 60 and not obese, so at relatively low risk, but still greater than the kids. And they can infect people who are older and have “underlying conditions”.

      Two interesting takes on the “heterogeneity”: the fact that the danger from the virus is so different for different people.

      • educationrealist

        There’s very little evidence of child to adult transmission. And in any event, that’s not a great reason to close schools, rather than minimize transmission.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I think people are spooked and don’t see any way to “minimize transmission.” Or maybe more accurately, they think, “Even if it only stops one death, it’s worth it.” As if closing schools doesn’t also have costs.

      • Chester Draws

        The fact that children don’t seem to get it, or at least get it very asymptomatically is different from how it is perceived.

        Lots of students at my high school are worried sick. In a couple of cases, literally. Many are barely coping.

        It will be even worse for the little ones, who cannot be reassured by sensible people over the panic of stupid ones.

    • Roger Sweeny

      For what it’s worth: the governor of Massachusetts just announced that school would remain closed for the rest of the school year. Ordinarily, they would would have gone till about June 20, two months from now. Also, all non-emergency child care programs will remain closed until June 29.

  • Anne

    First of all, I am SUPER liberal, but I do enjoy your blog. There is a significant portion of left democrats that would like to ignore data and do the “helpful” thing. Never interested in ignoring data.

    Two adults and two early 20’s children in our bunker. No one but me thinks we should start opening. We can’t destroy the world economy for months on end to “flatten the curve,” which means move the date of some deaths further into the future. We are going to have to reverse this. Most of us go out and carry on. Vulnerable populations isolate.

    Unfortunately this has been sold as saving everyone’s life, when in fact is was most of us sacrificing to help older people and other vulnerable populations. We have parents and teenagers so scared they think they will die if schools open. BTW, I haven’t really talked to my students about this, but teens on my street tell me they just go see friends. 100% predictable. As if most teens were going to lock down.

    • educationrealist

      My students are often holding down jobs. Some of them went out and GOT jobs because school is closed!

      As you point out, kids *say* they’re scared, but their behavior shows otherwise. Many of my kids say their parents are scared and they’re fed up. A lot of skepticism in my area at every level of income and age.

      Thanks for the kind words! Glad you like my blog!

  • edlharris

    A lot of words to be wishy washy.

  • psansonetti79

    Excuse me Ms Education Realist, I realize this is not relevant , but I have looked and looked for one of your posts, but can’t seem to find it.

    I believe it was about no child left behind ( I could be wrong) basically being conservatives calling liberals bluff on school funding, saying effectively we will give you the funding, but youd better produce the results, to which leftists have clawed back, which goes to show they don’t believe what they are saying.
    I really can’t find it, but I thought it had lots of explanatory power..

    When I searched no child left behind absolutely nothing came up , how can that be ?

    Am I just stupid? Don’t answer that .

    What is your opinion of phonics vs whole word?

    The book “why Johnny can’t read ” by rudolf flesch was an eye opener for me( made me understand why my Catholic school was better for one, we had phonics,public schools didn’t)
    I do believe that there are borderline profound cognitive differences between the races. But possible aggravating factors I see are , that if blacks and whites don’t get phonetic instruction in school, the white child is more likely to get it at home. I also wonder if large scale implementation of the ” tools of the mind” curriculum or Montessori could mitigate things somewhat, I’m also betting that the average black kid has a higher toxic burden( the amount of chemical toxins in the average human). Are you aware that America has 3800+ areas with worse water than Flint( at least 2x)
    If blacks have less executive function it might stand to reason they are harmed more by toxic lead levels damaging executive function.

    Barbara Demeneix
    Toxic Cocktail: How Chemical Pollution Is Poisoning Our Brains

    Per Dr Stephanie seneff at MIT if autism rates keep going up at current rates, by 2032 50% of all kids and 80% of all boys will be effected.

    “Our stolen future” is worth a read on this , foreword by Al Gore.

    Why your brain needs meat on YouTube by Dr Georgia ede might be relevant also.

    Any idea if black kids are any more likely to be medicated than white kids?
    Johnathan haidt talked about how when he went in Prozac, he felt better but it ruined his memory, this is because when you elevate serotonin to very high levels it crowds out dopamine and the 4 other monoamines( acetylcholine,gaba, epinephrine, norepinephrine) but the crowding out of dopamine is where the well known sides come from.
    Weight gain, lack of libido, lack of memory, no real feelings of joy.
    nurture shock by po Bronson, which is where I first heard of the” tools of the mind” curriculum is a very good book.

    Also willpower by baumeister is a great read.
    Are you a fan of JT Gatto?

    Ever read ” left back” by Diane ravitch , she is s card carrying leftist but admits that you can’t blame the state of schools on right wingers because they never really controlled them.

    Leftists don’t emphasize the 3R’s and kids get worse at the 3 R’s, is this surprising?

    Where Is the achievement gap highest? Left wing cities and it’s smallest in Frisco Texas ( see crevasses in the classroom or Frisco vs San Francisco by sailer)

    Also conservatives fought taking latin out of schools, liberals didn’t.

    We used to teach Latin in high school,now we teach remedial English in college.

    Have you read smart and sexy by Roderick Kaine? If so any thoughts?

    How about the deliberate dumbing down of America by Charlotte iserbyt?

    Crimes of the educators by blumenfeld?

    You can pretty much get all the books ive mentioned in this comment for free at, or ,with possibly one or two exceptions.

    Thanks for all the great posts.

    Be well.

    Thanks in advance if you can find the post I’m referencing from my horrible description.

    You had the great article about why charter schools exist vs the stated reasons, and explained no child left behind as a calling of the bluff, which post has your best explanation of common cores failings?

    Are there any other major policy ideas that aren’t as famous that you have similarly explained their stated goals vs what’s really going on?

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