- - Thursday, June 11, 2020

For almost a dozen weeks the American people were subjected to a barrage of information leading them to believe the novel coronavirus was the contemporary equivalent of the “black death” that killed millions in Europe during the so-called Dark Ages.

If folks were scared, it was with good reason. The models on which public health officials and politicians relied forecast devastation from coast to coast, leading many of the nation’s governors to issue orders locking down the U.S. economy, throwing nearly 20 million people out of work.

The emerging crisis led to many bad decisions, including several pieces of legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president that, among other problematic things, disincentivized work by adding a $600 per week bonus payment to anyone drawing unemployment assistance.

They called it emergency relief and “stimulus” but it was really just more spending — almost $3 trillion worth so far with calls for much more — that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used to get a significant part of her party’s agenda through. As they say, never let a crisis go to waste.

Was it all for naught? We don’t yet know — the numbers are only starting to come in and are not necessarily reliable — but a case is starting to build that at least some of it may have been. Especially the lockdowns.

The highly regarded National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a study earlier this week showing the court-ordered ending of the lockdown imposed on Wisconsin by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers (over his voluble objections) did not cause an appreciable increase in the spread of the disease. “Using a synthetic control design, we find no evidence that the repeal of the state (Shelter in Place Orders) impacted social distancing, COVID-19 cases, or COVID-19-related mortality during the fortnight following enactment,” the NBER said.

Until we get a better handle on how many people had the virus, and that won’t be for a while, we won’t know what percentage of cases ended up needing acute care in a hospital setting. It is starting to look, however, like those who predicted it would be roughly equivalent to what happens during a typical flu season, with similar effects on certain high-risk populations versus the public at large may have been more right than wrong. If that’s the case, then the general lockdowns were a tremendous overreaction to a problem that could have been managed easily if the political leadership in states like New York and New Jersey had been smart rather than rushing to the barricades.

As the number of fatalities comes down — even as the number of reported exposures to the virus seems to be rising as testing increases and states reopen — ham-handed efforts to keep economies shuttered after the curve started to flatten need to be examined carefully. As do the decisions by governors like Andrew Cuomo to send infected patients to nursing homes full of people who weren’t sick with COVID-19 but were at high risk to die from it if they caught it.

In the meantime, it’s important to make sure things do not get any worse. That could easily happen if governors keep in place bad policies enforcing lockdowns or if Congress decides in earnest to produce another big spending bill. It’s not as though another $3 trillion in payments to left-wing special interests disguised as stimulus will help keep a $20 trillion economy afloat better than allowing people to go back to work will.

What Congress can do, instead of further subsidizing not working, is provide incentives for people to go back to work. Some Republicans want to transform the unemployment bonus into some kind of “back to work” bonus, but that’s just more spending. Better to adopt President Trump’s idea, which has been endorsed by economic luminaries like Arthur Laffer, Steve Forbes and Stephen Moore, for a payroll tax holiday that would boost worker pay by 7.5 percent through the end of the year.

A pay increase like that, even if it were temporary, is a strong incentive for people to get back to work. The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May and the unemployment rate dropped to 13.3 percent with, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, employment rising “sharply in leisure and hospitality, construction, education and health services, and retail trade.” So we urge the nation’s governors — especially those in nearby states like Virginia and Maryland, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser — to remember that jobs matter and let people get back to work.

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