This article has been first published by the WSJ.com on April 10, 2022
“More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s time to draw some conclusions about government policy and results. The most comprehensive comparative study we’ve seen to date was published last week as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and it deserves wide attention.
The authors are University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan and Stephen Moore and Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. They compare Covid outcomes in the 50 states and District of Columbia based on three variables: the economy, education and mortality. It’s a revealing study that belies much of the conventional medical and media wisdom during the pandemic, especially in its first year when severe lockdowns were described as the best, and the only moral, policy.
The nearby table shows the state ranking based on a combined score of the three variables. Utah ranks first by a considerable margin over Nebraska and Vermont. The Beehive State scored well across all three categories: fourth on the economy, fifth in education (as measured by lost days in school), and eighth in Covid mortality adjusted for a state population’s age and the prevalence of obesity and diabetes (leading co-morbidities for Covid deaths). The authors used a regression analysis for the economy that adjusted for state industry composition.
The top 10 in the rankings are smaller states with the notable exception of Florida, which ranks sixth. Recall how the Sunshine State’s decision to open itself relatively soon after the first lockdowns was derided as cruel and destructive. Gov. Ron DeSantis was called “Governor DeathSentence.”
The study ranks Florida 28th in mortality, in the middle off the pack and about the same as California, which ranks 27th despite its far more stringent lockdowns and school closures. But Florida ranks third for the least education loss and 13th in economic performance. California ranks 47th overall because its shutdowns crushed the economy (40th) and in-person school (50th).
In other words, Florida did about average on mortality as other states, but it did far better in protecting its citizens from severe economic harm and its children from lost schooling. “The correlation between health and economy scores is essentially zero,” say the authors, “which suggests that states that withdrew the most from economic activity did not significantly improve health by doing so.”
The NBER working paper presents the data straight without policy conclusions, but here’s one of ours: The severe lockdown states suffered much more on overall social well-being in return for relatively little comparative benefit on health.
The most extreme example of this tradeoff is Hawaii, an isolated island state with an economy heavily dependent on tourism. The state came closest of any to imposing a version of China’s zero-Covid policy as it shut down travel to the islands. The result was a stellar performance on mortality—first by a big margin. But it finished last in economic performance and 46th in education.
The bottom 10 are dominated by states and D.C. that had the most stringent lockdowns and were among the last to reopen schools.
Their economies are for the most part still behind most others in recovering from the pandemic.
New York, whose former Governor Andrew Cuomo was celebrated as a Covid hero, ranks 49th. Albany’s severe and overlong economic shutdown (48th) had no payoff in mortality (47th). New Jersey ranks last with a miserable performance across the board. Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t save lives, but he did savage the economy and punish students as he followed the teachers union demands on school closures to rank 41st on education.
Another lesson we’d draw that the authors don’t in their paper: Thank the U.S. Constitution for our federalist system of government. States were largely able to implement their own policies. The outcomes would have been much worse had Washington imposed a single national policy as dictated by the federal bureaucracy.
Let’s hope we absorb the lessons of these state outcomes for how to respond to the next pandemic—and there will be a next one.”