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Ed Lotterman: COVID-19 response ignores economics

Ed Lotterman: COVID-19 response ignores economics

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After the election, North Dakota again leads the nation. Its numbers of positive COVID-19 tests and deaths continue burgeoning. Eighteen more deaths were reported on Nov. 6. That’s identical to New York state, with a population 25 times larger.

Gov. Doug Burgum acknowledged that last Thursday’s numbers reporting 29 deaths represented the worst day so far. Yet he clings to his mantra that masks are “a matter of personal responsibility.” Requiring them “is not a function of government.” He also has said masking “is not a magic bullet to make this virus go away."

This all is a tragic blunder in basic critical thinking skills. It is tragic because it causes North Dakotans to die.

It is a blunder because it ignores scads of contrary evidence, and errs in basic logic, history, law and economics.

Start with “all-or-nothing thinking” in the “no magic bullet” argument. If Burgum’s child had cancer and the oncologist said that with treatment there still would be a 15% chance of death, would he say, “that’s no magic bullet, so forget it?” All-or-nothing flunks freshman logic’s quiz one. Twelve Step groups call it “stinkin thinkin,” leading to relapse.

Now history and law. Protecting public health has been a core government function for thousands of years. 

A century ago, during the Spanish Flu of 1918, governments in our country imposed stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, and closed churches, schools, bars and other venues. There were court challenges, especially to masks, but these never succeeded.

The governor’s failure to understand the economic principle that refutes his “not a function of government” line may be rooted in failing to understand a key fact. He sees masking like wearing a bike helmet or life jacket, something to protect the wearer and not affecting others. Government should not be a “nanny state,” telling you to put on your mittens.

But doctors have been telling us for months that masks’ importance lies in limiting the spread from asymptomatic carriers to others. To economists, such transmission of the virus is an “external cost” of not masking. When external costs exist, a free market without government makes society worse off.

Yes, it’s personal responsibility whether you drive 60 mph or 70 mph on Interstate 94. It is not for you to decide whether to stop at stoplights or to drive with a 0.20% blood alcohol concentration. You can do tai chi in the park but cannot zero in your rifle scope by the slides and swings.

This difference between acts affecting only one’s self versus harming others is not rocket science. It’s the core of law, philosophy and theology. It is a key element in every microeconomics textbook, whether for freshmen at the University of North Dakota or MBA students at Stanford.

Yes, masks and other measures are no magic bullet. However, if the rates of increase of the last 14 days continue, North Dakota will enter 2021 with some 170,000 more cases than now and over 1,600 more deaths. Cutting those rates by even a fifth, which still would leave them above those in Minnesota for the same 14 days, would cut additional cases to 116,000 and additional deaths to 1,200. Those lives and that reduction in illness should matter much to North Dakotans.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at bismarck@edlotterman.com.

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