University of Chicago Professor Casey Mulligan, formerly the chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers, has spent the past several years highlighting the predictable damage of COVID-19 lockdowns. He recently participated in a moving Committee to Unleash Prosperity panel discussion on lessons learned from the pandemic and published a Wall Street Journal op-ed detailing the deadly consequences of the “draconian steps taken to mitigate” COVID.
In their early January Journal op-ed, Mulligan and Rob Arnott note that “CDC data show the rate of non-Covid excess deaths in the first half of 2022 was even higher than 2020 or 2021. These deaths therefore likely already exceed 250,000, disproportionately among young adults.”
“Non-Covid excess deaths have shown no signs of diminishing, at least through mid-2022,” Mulligan and Arnott ominously observe.
Months earlier, in late October 2022, Mulligan joined Scott Atlas, a radiologist and former advisor on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, for a Committee to Unleash Prosperity discussion on the long-term impacts of COVID and politicians’ response to the virus.
The Predictable Damage of COVID Lockdowns
According to Dr. Atlas, the panel’s public health expert, U.S. lockdown policy bucked existing pandemic response literature. He highlighted a 2006 paper by epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Inglesby, who evaluated several potential disease mitigation measures in the event of an influenza-like pandemic and concluded that travel restrictions were “historically ineffective” and that communitywide cancelation of public events is “inadvisable.”
Moreover, the Inglesby paper ruled that extended school closures are “not only impracticable but carry the possibility of a serious adverse outcome.”
Inglesby may have been prescient, but in Casey Mulligan’s view, economic analysis was equally effective in forecasting the catastrophic consequences of onerous restrictions on how Americans interacted, traveled, learned, and conducted business. Mulligan put the matter bluntly: “From an economic view, we knew in March 2020 what we would find two years later—that lockdowns did not work.”
Foreshadowing his January 2023 op-ed, Mulligan highlighted the substantial non-COVID excess deaths occasioned by lockdown policies, including deaths due to drinking, drugs, domestic abuse, lost access to preventive medical treatment, and delays in life-saving medical care.
Lockdown proponents might counter that lockdown policies slowed the spread of COVID-19 and minimized virus-related deaths. However, according to a meta-analysis that Mulligan’s fellow panelist, Hanke, co-conducted, “lockdowns had little to no effect on COVID-19 mortality.”
The law of unintended consequences was a recurring theme in Mulligan’s remarks. Tradeoffs exist, no matter how desperately policymakers want to flee them. The collateral damage of our zealous COVID response, however noble its aims, includes years of lost learning, a youth mental health crisis, and tens of thousands of non-COVID excess deaths. The disregard for these less evident but no less real costs in the pandemic response highlights the blind spots of public health bureaucracy and the importance of an economic approach to policymaking.
No Access to Places of Meaning
“Almost everything productive that we do, we leave the house to do,” Mulligan argued in his remarks. Thus, regulators got the response “completely backward” by restricting access to the places where Americans had meaningful interactions with their classmates, coworkers, and partners.
Keenly aware of the impact of lockdowns on students, Mulligan was particularly troubled by the human capital costs of extended school closures. He highlighted the inefficacy of online schooling and students’ diminished access to mentorship opportunities at school and work. Mulligan further portended a “serious productivity problem” in the future because of our “complete neglect for human capital.”
Mulligan’s critique on the human capital point was especially poignant. His home institution, UChicago, prides itself on unconventional and independent thinking (and a world-class economics department). Nevertheless, UChicago acted in lockstep with peer institutions by shutting down our campus in the spring of 2020. Retrospectively, our school’s questionable cost-benefit assessment in its pandemic policy engendered dramatic mental health and learning consequences for students.
In their closing remarks, the panelists considered the curious acquiescence of the American people to top-down COVID policies. For Mulligan, Americans’ response was yet another instance of a recurring historical paradigm: “central planning is seductive.” We tend to “overestimate what central planning can do” and “underestimate what freedom can do,” often with dramatic and dire consequences.
A Lesson for UChicago
Perhaps Mulligan’s closing warning regarding the false allure of central planning is not only a lesson for the American people but also for the University of Chicago.
Instead of allowing teachers and students to mitigate personal risk as they saw fit, the university instituted a heavy-handed, centralized response. The school immediately closed its campus and, upon reopening, controlled personal conduct with mask mandates, testing requirements, and an arbitrary UCAIR enforcement strategy. That centralized response left the university painfully slow to adapt to changing science on COVID transmission and the differential risk to various age cohorts.
Tolerating greater freedom not only gives students access to the spaces where they accomplish wonderful things with their classmates, professors, and mentors but also allows them to adapt instantly to an evolving set of facts according to their own preferences.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Jack Pfefferkorn is a staff writer for the Chicago Thinker. A fourth year at the College, he is majoring in chemistry and economics. He is particularly interested in economic history and Supreme Court jurisprudence. In his free time, Jack enjoys following sports, debating, and reading about American history. Follow him on Twitter @JackPfefferkorn.