Are COVID Restrictions the New TSA?

The worrying parallels between the government reactions to 9/11 and COVID-19, and why some children might be permanently masked

The attack of 9/11 was a formative political event for my generation. Over time, I came to have a stronger emotional reaction to the disastrous American response than I did to the event itself.

Consider that 9/11 killed 2,977 people. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars launched in response killed more than twice as many Americans, around 7,000. The total number of civilian deaths in those two countries is difficult to estimate, but it certainly runs into the hundreds of thousands. The financial cost of the conflicts has run into the trillions. These numbers boggle the mind, and absolutely dwarf anything Bin Laden ever did to the United States.

In 2011, John Mueller and Mark Stewart published a book titled Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security. Not even considering the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the book investigated whether we could say the American response to 9/11 in terms of new domestic security spending made any sense. For the extra spending to have been justified using conventional tools of cost-benefit analysis, assuming a 75% reduction in risk, it would have needed to prevent an otherwise successful 9/11-level attack every two years, or a 2005 London bombings-level event every few weeks. The analysis considers both the number of lives lost and the economic damage of each kind of terrorist attack.

9/11 was unlike any terrorist event before or since, so the idea that extra spending prevented us from having a similar event on a regular basis isn’t at all credible. Again, none of this even considers the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, the other countries we’ve been bombing, or the loss of civil liberties.

Is there a way to steelman the arguments of the terror warriors? No, there isn’t. That’s the beauty of cost-benefit analysis; if you do it while granting every assumption to your opponent and you’re still right, then you know you’re right. The more a politician or pundit talks about terrorism as a serious threat, the less respect you should have for their judgment.

The Overreaction to 9/11 is Still with Us

As bad as the response to 9/11 was, it’s not in the past. In addition to the wars that are still going on, border and airline security have never gone back to normal. Among other restrictions, you used to be able to travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean without a passport, and now you can't (UPDATE: Michael Tracey tells me you can travel to Mexico and Canada without a passport by land).

The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to 9/11, as was the TSA under it. Private companies used to handle airline security, and the attacks of that day federalized the process, which involved the hiring of 60,000 employees.

A few months after 9/11, a guy named Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane with a bomb in his shoe. Now, we all take off our shoes when going on planes. According to economist Steven Levitt, writing in 2009,

Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.

Assuming these numbers have held for the last 20 years, that’s about 280 lives that have been lost taking off your shoes in line. So even though he failed, his actions are pretty much the equivalent of bringing down a plane. And it will continue forever. Taking off your shoes is just one small humiliation of many we now endure when we want to travel, for a problem that barely exists at all.

COVID-19 is an Easy Problem

I’m afraid COVID-19 is headed in a similar direction. Here’s a chart that as of this writing shows where we are in terms of deaths per day.

Right now, we’re at about 267. If this pace continues (highly unlikely, due to more and more people getting ill or vaccinated), it’s about 97,000 deaths in a year. For sake of comparison, in 2017-2018, about 61,000 people died of the flu in the United States, though usually the number of deaths is closer to 30,000. So COVID is something like 1.5-3x as bad as the flu now, and the gap between the two is going to be closing for the foreseeable future.

The flu is pretty bad, and stacking COVID on top of it makes things worse. But the burden of COVID-19 falls almost completely on the unvaccinated. The threat to children from the disease is almost 0 regardless of vaccination status, and even closer to literally 0 for those who are vaccinated. It’s also basically 0 for vaccinated adults too. According to an analysis by the AP, in May over 99% of COVID deaths were among the unvaccinated. I’m highly skeptical of long COVID as a serious enough problem to change the cost-benefit analysis, as most of the research on the topic I’ve seen has been extremely flawed, and we should be very doubtful that vaccines that stop almost all hospitalization and death can leave you with a substantial risk of getting a chronic condition that has not been conclusively established as a statistically meaningful problem yet.

Despite all this, the CDC is returning to recommending mask mandates under certain circumstances. Children and vaccinated adults are being asked to take on a large burden on behalf of others who have decided to behave irresponsibly. Often, there are complicated questions about what we owe other people. This is not one of those cases.

To see why, consider how we debate poverty, and the question of whether rich people should be forced to give poor people some of their money. Some will say that poverty is the result of poor life choices, others will say it’s about lack of opportunity, and from the position one takes on the causes of poverty you can predict a person’s views on redistribution pretty well. Same with any other question where you have to balance the freedom and well being of one group versus a less fortunate group, the latter being heterogenous in the extent to which one may feel that they “deserve” their lot.

Another consideration in these kinds of debates is children. Sure, even if poor adults are responsible for their own situation, a liberal might argue, how fair is it that their children must suffer? For some people, the fact that children suffer based on their parent’s choices calls for more redistribution as a form of justice, no matter what you think about adults living in poverty.

Maybe you’re a utilitarian, and aren’t into an analysis based on such considerations. From that perspective, it still matters the extent to which people can change their behavior. When the burden of a problem falls on the irresponsible, people tend to behave more responsibly. Some things are harder to incentivize, some things easier, and whether it makes sense to use incentives depends on the situation. A policy to incentivize people with average SAT scores to become PhDs in math would be pretty wasteful, because it’s not something most of them can do.

COVID-19 as it stands now creates no such ambiguity. It’s like God was designing the easiest moral and utilitarian question possible. Here we have a situation where a disease

1) Spares children

2) Spares those who behave responsibly; and

3) Therefore has a burden that falls almost exclusively on those who behave irresponsibly

Of course, I say “almost” exclusively, because “almost 0” isn’t the same as “literally 0.” More importantly, immunocompromised people can’t get the vaccine, and depending on how you define that category, it looks like that covers maybe around 3% of the population. We may consider such people innocent, so instead of around 100% of the burden falling on the irresponsible, it’s more like 95% or something. Still probably the best you’ll get under real life conditions. It’s also worth mentioning that at least some of the immunocompromised are in fact responsible for their predicament, as the category includes long term drug users and those with sexually transmitted diseases.

There are other complications too; some people are just low IQ, and maybe their dumb beliefs aren’t their fault. But if you believe in personal responsibility at all as a guide to policy, for reasons of utilitarianism or justice, you have to assess blame at some point. Incentivizing people to get free vaccinations is not the same as incentivizing those with IQs of 100 to be astrophysicists, or poor people to buy Teslas; this is clearly in the realm of possible, and mostly involves overcoming motivated reasoning and laziness. COVID-19 rates of infection vary across time, likely because people change their behavior depending on how much spread there is in their community, and there is nothing to indicate that the unvaccinated are incapable of considering costs and benefits at all when it comes to the decision over whether to get vaccinated. This means that private sector mandates are therefore an unalloyed good, as I’ve pointed out before, and Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for standing in their way, as they have in certain states.

Whether you should just mandate vaccinations by government fiat is a slightly more complex question, and one can oppose doing that on liberty grounds. If you’re a utilitarian, and like most people conveniently ignore the Darwinian effects of protecting the stupid from themselves, then I think universal vaccinations are the policy you should be promoting, at least for those middle aged and older.

This is especially true since it looks like COVID-19 is going to become endemic. Your choices now and forever are going to be coercing people to get vaccinated, letting them live with the consequences of their own actions, or restricting everyone’s freedom indefinitely.

I’m sort of in-between utilitarianism and more justice based (“deontological” is the word in philosophy) approaches. When I’m feeling most intellectual, I tilt towards the former, and when I’m feeling more emotional, towards the latter. I like to think that in the long run the two approaches converge, that the best way to get a better world is to make incentives align so that people are responsible for their decisions. That’s not always going to be true, and it’s important of course to guard against wishful thinking here. I’m skeptical when a fundamental conflict seems to be resolved that easily. But I’m pretty confident in incentives being powerful things, and in this case, when the justice argument is clear, and the purely utilitarian benefits of restrictions for society as a whole are questionable at best (see Philippe’s excellent work on this), overall it becomes an easy question. We should encourage vaccination, including maybe government mandates, and continue to develop new vaccines when necessary, but otherwise lift all restrictions and go back to normal.

The New TSA, or Just TSA for Kids?

Unfortunately, we live under a government, and particularly a public health community, that can’t do cost-benefit analysis, and doesn’t have the stomach for personal responsibility either. So we’re going to have an entire generation robbed of a normal childhood, and perhaps other restrictions too that will remain permanent. The question is how we will deal with COVID-19 now that we know it will never go away, as this article explains.

But failure to eradicate the virus does not mean that death, illness or social isolation will continue on the scales seen so far. The future will depend heavily on the type of immunity people acquire through infection or vaccination and how the virus evolves. Influenza and the four human coronaviruses that cause common colds are also endemic: but a combination of annual vaccines and acquired immunity means that societies tolerate the seasonal deaths and illnesses they bring without requiring lockdowns, masks and social distancing.

If COVID is treated like the flu, we will develop new vaccines when we have to, tolerate outbreaks and mostly get on with our lives.

Yet what if it ends up being like terrorism? The threat of terrorism has always been approximately 0 (Mueller and Stewart make the comparison to drowning in bathtubs). The 9/11 attack, from everything we can tell a once in a lifetime (or several lifetimes) event, involved a death count that doesn’t even equal the increase in murders between 2019 and 2020. And yet we still take our shoes off at the airport.

In the years after 9/11, no matter how small the objective threat was, leaders and the public seemed unable to tolerate anything short of complete eradication. In the “war on terror,” there is always a general or think tank pundit telling you “al Qaida is regrouping,” and it looks like there will always be a new COVID variant or outbreak somewhere in the United States, particularly given the fact that there is a substantial portion of Americans that seems adamant about not getting vaccinated, and universal requirements are unlikely given Red State resistance.

In the end, while adults will sometimes push back on government overreach, I think children are going to suffer the most. Right now, the CDC says that the vaccinated only should wear masks in certain settings, depending on factors like community transmission and whether others around you are vaccinated. They have made an exception for K-12 schools, where everyone should wear masks no matter what.

It’s hard to understand this as not resulting from the malignant influence of the teachers’ unions, who have fought tooth and nail against school reopenings and for masks regardless of vaccination status. For whatever reason, teachers’ unions are at the extreme end of the distribution with regards to “safetyism.” But I don’t think it’s just the unions, because schools seem to go overboard on protecting against other low-risk events that make the news.

Lockdown drills are now employed in 95% of public schools, and apparently since COVID-19 started they’ve continued virtually. Shopping malls have seen a lot of shootings too, but nobody thinks you need training before you can go to one.

I remember reading a remarkable headline on the CNN website in 2018: “School shootings so common Santa Fe student felt ‘eventually it would happen here, too.’”

Instead of pointing out this is a fundamentally irrational fear, the video shows CNN anchor John Berman saying he couldn’t imagine a harsher indictment of our leaders than the fact that a young girl thinks like this. In fact, children are 10 times more likely to die on the way to school, and more kids have died of lightning strikes in the last 20 years than in mass shootings at schools (the analogy to lightning also shows up in Mueller and Stewart’s work on terrorism, and a recent op-ed on the risks of COVID-19 to the vaccinated. Once the thing you’re guarding against is even in the same ballpark as lightning, it’s a clear sign you’re simply wrong to consider it a major problem.) After the January 6 riot at the Capitol, The Washington Post reports that many staffers were part of the “school shooting generation” so they knew what to do, again revealing how a politicized media indulges in statistical illiteracy.

Given how we’ve reacted to school shootings and what has happened to public education since COVID-19 started, it is not difficult to imagine children, who have the least to fear from the novel coronavirus, being the ones that will end up changing their lives the most. We’re going to have large portions of an entire generation who went through at least half of high school now either locked in their homes or without seeing other people’s faces for most of the day. And while the health risk to kids from COVID-19 is practically non-existent, children aren’t the best at understanding cost-benefit analysis (as we’ve seen, even adults are terrible), and I’m imagining most kids think that if you’re making them take extreme precautions for years and rearranging their lives, there’s probably a good reason for it. Between the decline in socialization and the fear created by hygiene theater, it’s little wonder that stress and anxiety are increasing among kids.

If you agree with Lukianoff and Haidt that safetyism has made young people fragile and neurotic, kids who grew up in the era of COVID-19 may as adults make millennials look like the men who stormed the beaches of Omaha.

For a society that focuses so much on “mental health,” particularly when resulting from prejudice or socioeconomic deprivation, there seems to be remarkably little interest in what the overreactions to school shootings and COVID-19 are doing to children.

How much should we fear masking and other forms of hygiene theater becoming the norm in schools going forward?

It seems hard to imagine that we would permanently mask kids. But if you told me a year or two ago parts of the country would still be planning to put kids in masks despite us having an effective vaccine and knowing that the disease poses practically no risk to them, I would not have believed you. What if a new strain of COVID-19 pops up that raises the risk to kids from 0 to something slightly above 0, say about the level of the flu or a little higher? There will always be uncertainty with any new strain of the virus, and given limited information, authorities are going to have to either err on the side of caution or on the side of letting kids live their lives. I wouldn’t bet on the latter in more liberal parts of the country.

All of this is just another reason why, as I’ve argued before, public education is terrible and should be defunded. While Critical Race Theory gets all the attention, the behavior of the teachers' unions during COVID-19 and the existence of school shooting drills indicate that the problem is much deeper than a few ideas related to identity politics. Your tax dollars and kids are in the hands of people who should not have power over anyone.

In addition to permanent restrictions on children, I can imagine mask mandates being normalized in places like LA County, on an irregular or seasonal basis. This is bad for low-income workers, but most of us in offices or able to work from home won’t have to worry about it on the job. Air travel, which is already awful, may become more so, and will always be the first place authorities start when they want to make our lives more miserable. Same is likely to be true with regards to train stations and public transportation.

Nearly everything I’ve said about the possibility of future restrictions applies mostly to the more liberal parts of the country. Red states are not instituting mask mandates, and have in some cases even banned them at the local level. This means that approximately half the country is safe from the overreaction, and gives the rest of us an escape if things get bad enough, which is one redeeming feature of our highly polarized politics.

I’ve been highly critical of the Republican Party. But perhaps having a party that is more skeptical of vaccines is the price you pay for having a party that distrusts experts enough to not mask their children forever for no good reason. Ideally, you’d have a party that was both unambiguously pro-vaccine and anti-restrictions, but that level of intelligence may be too much to ask for in a democracy, and given that many European and East Asian countries have been stricter with lockdowns and masking requirements than even the Democrats, Americans should consider themselves pretty lucky. Denying “science” clearly comes with pluses and minuses, but when the scientists don’t even pretend to do cost-benefit analysis, it’s sometimes the lesser of two evils.