Catholic Economists: End the Lockdowns!

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by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 12, 2020   

Concerns mount that common good is not being served

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CHICAGO (ChurchMilitant.com) - The cost of the Wuhan pandemic lockdowns are too high. That's the claim of some Catholic economists. 

The Lumen Christi Society, an organization of Catholic economic scholars, hosted a webinar last week called "The Economic Costs of the Pandemic: Catholic Social Teaching and Economics in Dialogue." In it, three distinguished Catholic economists tell why they are concerned about the extended lockdown and that it may be doing more harm than good.

Poor Hit Hardest

A major theme covered was the impact of the measures on the poor vs. the privileged class. Government regulations generally are developed "with the interests and lifestyles of the upper class in mind," said Casey B. Mulligan, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and former chief economist of the White House Council of Economic Advisers to President Trump. Economic costs to poor people of such regulations, he claims, "are getting neglected, and the benefits, to the extent there are benefits, are going to a very different group."

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Casey Mulligan and Joseph Kaboski

Joseph Kaboski, professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and a consultant to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, provided the introduction to the webinar, suggesting that a response to the pandemic should not be decided on economic grounds alone. 

Laying down Catholic principles on which the other two economists would build upon, Kaboski stated that, "Among these core principles in Catholic social teaching is the dignity of each human person and the value of every human life." 

Along with this comes the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, which define the human person as being made for communion with others — a communion based on justice and charity. In short, Catholic social principles reject the notions of radical collectivism as well as radical individualism. So while human fulfillment coincides with the common good, these Catholic economists say the common good is not being well served.

Mulligan estimated the widespread stay-at-home orders through May 4 (and beyond) have cost around $28 billion per day. Such high costs, he explains, are "not equally shared at all." The burden is borne "mostly among younger people." Many of those unemployed by the pandemic do not have college degrees, he added.

Mental Health Fears

Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, admitted he was "really very worried" about the millions of Americans under 40, whom he described as "the real losers of this situation." Elaborating, he continues, "If you were going to do a breakdown of the costs and benefits of the current policies, there is a very important aspect that is related with age," he said.

"Any type of policy that is trying to save lives, as valuable as those are," must consider harm to education and mental health, Fernández-Villaverde said. Some examples he gave include missed educational and work opportunities, difficulties raising a family and lower wages. These burdens fall disproportionately on younger people.

Any type of policy that is trying to save lives, as valuable as those are, must consider harm to education and mental health.

Extended lockdown can affect mental health, recognizes Nancy Lublin, the CEO and co-founder of Crisis Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

"In the first wave, people were anxious, but now in the second wave people are feeling depressed and isolated, especially very poor people and those in violent situations," she said

Counselors on the crisis text line, a global helpline typically utilized by teens with relationship issues, said they were dealing with a 40% increase in messages in the United States. During the pandemic, the demographics for this hotline changed dramatically: Young adults and those middle-aged are now the most frequent callers, with those on low incomes accounting for 31% of traffic, compared with 19% before the pandemic.

Physical Health Dangers

Along with economic and mental health concerns, physical health for those vulnerable to a sedentary lifestyle also cannot be ignored. This not only includes adults, but children.

"This pandemic will have multiple impacts on childhood health and development, one of them that it places kids at higher risk of experiencing obesity," says Andrew Rundle, head of the childhood obesity research project for the Columbia (University) Center for Children's Environmental Health. "This is likely to have lasting impacts throughout their lives," he claims.

In response to a question about the value of human life and the common good, Fernández-Villaverde stresses this is not about being indifferent or callous to those who are sick and dying from the virus:

This is not just about the economy. It's not just about, "Let's be sure to save the corporations of America." We are facing very serious tradeoffs and just closing our eyes and pretending those tradeoffs are not there because we feel bad about talking about those tradeoffs, I don't think is very responsible.

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Jesus Fernández-Villaverde

Rather than imposing government mandates on all people, Mulligan proposed that government use individual incentives as a principle of regulation. People who are more vulnerable naturally take more protective precautions. He cited studies relating to other diseases such as AIDS to show how human incentives for self-protection work well and do not place undue burdens on all others.

Fernández-Villaverde opined that a targeted policy that would protect citizens older than 60 in the next phase of managing the pandemic would likely be more desirable, even though he said he suspects "it will probably have a close-to-zero effect on total deaths."

Mulligan and Fernández-Villaverde underscored the importance of medical advances in treating and understanding the virus.

"Figuring out ways to eliminate disease and treat disease is actually more valuable than the medical people really understand it to be," Mulligan said, "because its benefits go beyond just reducing the death count."

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