More bad academic thinking about lockdown

Someone has made good spot with this paper, and has let me know. It’s called ‘When to release the lockdown: A wellbeing framework for analysing costs and benefits‘, and the lead author is Professor Richard Layard, an extremely distinguished economist at the LSE. It was published in April 2020 by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.

On p. 7 we get this:

If the lockdown ends on 1 May in the manner described earlier, the UK would experience some 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, mostly in a second wave occurring before a regime of testing and tracing can be put in place.

Where do they get this extreme number from? Why, from the Delphic Oracle himself, Professor Neil Ferguson. The footnote for that claim says ‘Based on advice from Professor Neil Ferguson.’ So, Neil told them it would be 150 000 deaths, and that’s gospel.

The paper itself is quite shocking. Consider the very first page. When comparing the positives and negatives of lifting lockdown, the authors first of all provide this list of things that would be positive about lifting the lockdown:

On the positive side, releasing the lockdown

(1) increases people’s incomes now and in the future.

(2) reduces unemployment now and in the future.

(3) improves mental health, suicide, domestic violence, addiction, and loneliness.

(4) maintains confidence in the government.

(5) restores schooling.

They have, as one of their five important things about lifting the lockdown, that it would ‘increase confidence in the government’, but NOTHING ABOUT AT ALL ABOUT RESTORING BASIC FREEDOMS. Are you kidding me?

Then, in their list of negative things about lifting lockdown, they have this (this is all they had, there wasn’t a (3)):

On the negative side, releasing the lockdown

(1) increases the final number of deaths from the virus (as well as from other conditions which may get undertreated if health services become overstretched with COVID-19 patients).

(2) increases road-deaths, commuting, CO2 emissions, and air pollution.

This is head-shaking stuff. First of all, they think an increase in commuting, ie. people travelling to work, is worth putting on this list. Secondly, they put CO2 emission fantasy in there as well? And air pollution? Yes, air pollution is real, and no-one likes it, but how can you seriously consider this as something worth keeping lockdown in place for?

In fact, (2) is completely extraordinary when you think about it. These scientists consider that ordinary stuff like road deaths and air pollution and commuting (as well as made-up problems like CO2 emissions), things which we consider to be an undesirable but normal part of a free life, are part of the calculation of whether to imprison the populace or not? That is outrageous.

Then they have a table trying to put some numbers to these things.

You have to look closely at this, not everything means what it may seem to mean at first – bear in mind that they not putting it in terms of the costs of keeping the lockdown, they’re framing it in terms of the benefits of lifting it – but there are some extraordinary claims in there.

First of all, they seem to think the deaths will be the same whether we release the lockdown on May 1 or Aug 1, because we have a badness of -158 for every all four lockdown release dates. If so, that entails that three extra months of lockdown (ie. keeping it going to Aug 1) will have no effect on the eventual deaths (a very dubious claim, it has to be said, plus their figure of 158 000 deaths now looks like modelling bollocks).

If true, that makes the lockdown in general pointless. If you get those deaths anyway, regardless of lockdown, then in what way can they be said to be an effect of lifting lockdown? And if they aren’t an effect of lifting lockdown, the -158 score shouldn’t be in there at all. (The only way this makes sense is if you have in mind an even longer lockdown, which Ferguson did in his original Imperial paper, but this isn’t discussed as a possibility here.)

It’s also worth a gasp at the fact that these idiots have given a total score of -30 to the increase in commuting, road deaths, air pollution and CO2 emissions that will result from lifting lockdown. To put this in context, this is six times as bad as sending kids back to school on May 1 is good. And apparently keeping kids off school for a further two months, and sending them back on July 1, is only two points less good than sending them back on May 1. The increase in commuting that will result from a lift in lockdown is, they think, five times worse than keeping kids off school for an extra two months, and the increase in CO2 emissions from a lifting of lockdown is 3.5 times worse than this.

It could be that the ‘benefit’ score of 3 for a school start of July 1 is just supposed to reflect the amount of time left before the summer holidays; the score of 0 for an August 1 start suggests this. But then that means that the downside of missing school for those extra months has not been included in the ledger at all.

What’s even more outrageous is that nowhere in this table is any consideration given to the fact that we are being imprisoned in our homes by the government. Their way of framing this makes that easier to leave out, but we can’t leave it out. We’re being subject to martial law, which everyone agrees is bad, but what score is given to the clear benefit of being free again? Nothing. It’s not even mentioned. Of course this is an extremely difficult thing to give a score to, even a comparative one, but not even including it all is scandalous. Apparently an increase in confidence in the government is worth something. But being let out of your house again is not even worthy of a mention.

Now, perhaps this study is of no consequence in the policy world, and doesn’t reflect government thinking. But I suspect this is very much the sort of thing that is getting bandied around government circles. My source says this is government-funded (based on money from this UCL-based study, resulting papers here). Richard Layard is a big name for this sort of thing. The dates tally up with what the government has been talking about. You’d hope that some better work than this has been to the fore, but the government’s continued preference for martial law, when Europe is opening up, suggests to me that what they’ve been looking at may in fact be even worse than this.

Update: As commentator Dene Bebbington has pointed out, this table also takes no account of public finances. But of course you would have to put into the positive side of lifting lockdown the fact that the government could then stop having to borrow such gargantuan amounts of money, and add in the fact that the economic disaster is going to be not as bad as it would be if the lockdown was kept in place.

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19 thoughts on “More bad academic thinking about lockdown

  1. Plagiarism alert.

    I’ve noticed that the academic paper referred contains wording extremely similar to a policy paper submitted in 1324 to Edward 11 concerning the standardisation of weights and measures.

    “To compare different lengths requires a common metric. We propose as a metric the number of Inches. An inch shall be equal to three grains of barley, dry and round, laid end to end lengthwise. It should now be extended to all fields of public policy. Analysis requires making many assumptions that are subject to great uncertainty – what is the size of a barley grain? If round, how is it to be laid lengthwise. The figures that we present in the following table are purely illustrative based on the assumption that a barleycorn measures one third of an inch. Each tradesman is free to make other assumptions.”

  2. The negative side doesn’t include extra public borrowing each month which will have a long term impact on public finances, hence the likelihood of increased taxes and reduced public spending. It took me a few seconds to think of that. If that paper is what passes muster in academia then gawd help us.

  3. Whenever a minister is moved into a department whose workings he had not personally and previously studied he gets captured by the civil service.
    When a government is faced with a situation that the members had not prepared for themselves they get captured by the civil service.
    That is what has happened.
    Don’t expect the civil service to end their power a moment sooner than they have to.

  4. “It’s also worth a gasp at the fact that these idiots have given a total score of -30 to the increase in commuting, road deaths, air pollution and CO2 emissions that will result from lifting lockdown…”

    What I find truly gaspworthy is the authors’ presumption in writing down any of the numbers in their table. Not one single number is anything more than bare, undisguised opinion. Making a table with numbers in the cells makes it look respectably “scientific” – but it isn’t, not in the least.

    It all suffers from the same fatal objection as Ferguson’s model. Not that the software is bad (although it is); not that the model itself is fundamentally simplistic and omits all sorts of important factors (although it does); but that the whole thing is nothing more than a monument to Ferguson’s personal assumptions.

  5. “We’re being subject to martial law, which everyone agrees is bad”

    Not everyone – a significant number (excepting the more enlightened of us following sites such as yours) DO seem to prefer the present situation. I think we’ve known this for many weeks, but a Daily Mail survey by JL Partners shows that 46% of the public sector think they’re better off, and as long as the ruinous furlough scheme continues, this won’t change. Then add the millions who have been taken in by the constant media scaremongering, and are now terrified to leave their homes, and the term “Coronaphobia” is entirely appropriate. There appear to be signs of government splintering, and we must hope this quickly leads to BoJo reconsidering his “Cautious” thinking…

  6. “Professor Richard Layard, an extremely distinguished economist at the LSE” is in fact a tiresome old lefty who could perhaps be improved by receiving a brisk kick up the arse every morning. Or perhaps not, but no harm in trying.

  7. >The negative side doesn’t include extra public borrowing each month which will have a long term impact on public finances, hence the likelihood of increased taxes and reduced public spending.

    Absolutely right Dene (although note that because of the way they’ve framed it, in terms of lifting lockdown, you’d have to put that on the positive side of lifting lockdown: a large positive score for the tens of billions of debt saved by lifting now rather than later.

    > is in fact a tiresome old lefty

    In academia: extremely distinguished. In reality: what dearieme said.

  8. Total LSE left wing garbage. The reason they keep the deaths cost at -158 is because although Covid deaths would go down (because of better contact tracing) they are “offset by other deaths”. Since the whole point of lockdown is now to save lives and the point of this paper of to try and quantify various impacts … is really the best they could do ??? Total garbage. FFS.

  9. @ Tom Welsh
    “Not one single number is anything more than bare, undisguised opinion.”
    Or, in other words, fundamentally extracted…

  10. While the government pay people to sit on the arses doing nothing ( and incidentally getting paid by the Gilt market to do so, with -ve rates) nothing is going to change. People don’t care about ‘the economy’ if someone pays them to not have to go that boring job; and the governmemt is now getting paid for borrowing to pay them.
    We have just gone ‘through the looking glass’.

  11. Is the Gus O’Donnell listed as one of the paper’s authors the same one who used to be in government or the civil service?

  12. Some insight on the LSE Prof

    “How would society be transformed if creating as much happiness as possible was our goal? Lord Richard Layard, one of the leading figures in the world happiness movement, proposes putting happiness at the centre of our societal goals and taking a more people-focussed approach”

    In other words, enact 1984 and Brave New World

  13. “Professor Richard Layard, an extremely distinguished economist at the LSE”

    Is this code for complete and utter nob who produces bullshit completely disconnected from the real world?

    Just another IYI

  14. PLEASE tell me they’re not basing unlock policy on this rubbish!
    If the purpose of the lockup was to save lives, they’ve failed dismally. (Actually the purpose of the lockup was to “protect the NHS” and evidently to introduce a form of martial law.)
    The death rate is currently falling rapidly, the virus has about run its course, just like every self-respecting flu virus does.
    The purpose of the lockup is now unclear and the reason for continuing is unjustifiable – unless the conspiracy theories are correct of course.

  15. After pulling all those figures out of his arse, I trust Leyland cleaned under his nails thoroughly and washed his hands for the mandated 20 seconds.

  16. they have included deaths from untreated patients if NHS becomes overwhelmed in a second wave so surely deaths from people who aren’t getting treatment in the lockdown should be used on the positive side. They have taken account of mental health issues (which I think will turn out to be staggering) but not physical health.

  17. I have a question about increased road deaths and Covid deaths.

    Surely these should be put on the positive side? After all, the entire Green philosophy states that ‘;humans are the problem’, and that overpopulation needs to be curtailed….

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