Tuesday, March 17, 2020

34. Lockdown Mania: Is It Making the Epidemic Worse? (Demographic Doom Podcast)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#34) released on 17 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is March 17, 2020, and pretty much the entire world is in full-swing hysteria about coronavirus Covid-19. As of today, about 70 people have died from it in the U.S., but people are responding like death is at their door. This is good in a sense that people are preparing, but they're preparing in stupid ways.

I want to speak today about two aspects of the hysteria, one of them quite trivial and the other completely non-trivial. The trivial hysteria is the great Toilet Paper Mania of 2020, how people are hoarding toilet paper for no good reason. The non-trivial hysteria is the wave of unproductive lockdowns and closings sweeping the planet right now. A lockdown, as I define it, is restricting the movements of healthy people, as opposed to the quarantining of sick people. In these lockdowns, we are restricting people to their homes, telling them not to go to work and not go out for any purpose that isn't absolutely essential, in the vague hope of preventing them from getting the disease.

These lockdowns usually have a stated expiration date. For example, France has ordered its citizens to stay at home for the next 15 days. But really these lockdowns are open-ended, because what is going to change in 15 days? The disease won't have gone away. As soon as people start interacting again, the virus is going to start spreading again, and in the meantime these shutdowns are absolutely killing the French economy. They're not just locking down people over 70 who are at greater risk but schoolkids face very little risk. I think that blanket lockdowns of otherwise healthy people who aren't at great risk are going to be seen by history as one of the greatest follies of our era. It think it will be seen as decimating the economy while doing little to slow the disease. What might end up happening is that more people starve worldwide due to their economies collapsing than die from the virus itself.

But let me set aside the lockdowns for now and talk about the fun stuff: toilet paper. In America, there's none of it to be found anywhere. Right now, if you walk into any Walmart or any other retailer that sells the stuff, the toilet paper aisle has been stripped clean. Absolutely none. There are videos online of people fighting over it. Of all the crazy things to hoard, why toilet paper? This is truly bizarre. Everyone needs to wipe their bum, but how much toilet paper do you need? Diarrhea is not a prominent feature of the disease, so most people will use the same amount of toilet paper as they normally do. How much can that possibly be? One roll per week per person? I don't know.

Furthermore, there are a thousand other things you can wipe your bum with. Virtually any cloth or paper product will do. When you're in the bathroom, you can use the shower. People have been pooping since they beginning of time. What did they use before there was toilet paper?

I wouldn't think even the most Nutso survivalist would think of toilet paper as an essential supply for facing the apocalypse. Stockpiling non-perishable food I understand, and people are doing that too. All the shelves in Walmart look a little depleted, but most aren't wiped out like the toilet paper aisle.

You might think that one party who is winning from this mania is the toilet paper industry. As best I can recall—not having seen a package for a while—most toilet paper purchased in the USA is made in the USA. It's an North American product, because it makes no sense to ship something light and bulky like that across the ocean from China. In America, we've got plenty of trees to make more toilet paper, but in the long run we won't need to. I'm sure Georgia-Pacific will ramp up production to make more toilet paper, but it's a futile exercise, because sales are going to crash in a few months anyway. That's right the Great Toilet Paper Mania of 2020 is going to be followed by at great Toilet Paper Crash.

What happens when people go out and buy a ton of toilet paper? Well, it means they're not going to buy any more of it for a very long time. I mean, the BOTTOM is going to fall out of the toilet paper market, and once stores are fully restocked, they're hardly going to sell any of it.

Now I think all the RUNS on toilet paper are funny, but lockdowns are not funny. All around the world, healthy people are hunkering down at home. Either they've been told to do it by their government, or they are doing it on their own, advised by the media. Schools and universities are closing right and left. Events are being canceled, even when they don't involve crowds. Everyone is being told to work from home if your job is non-essential. So how do you do that if you work at a store or drive cars for a living like I do?

So what we are being advised to do—and in some cases forced to do—is shut down all economic activity.  Not just potentially contagious industries, but all industries short of emergency services or health care. Don't go to work. Don't go to school. Just hunker down until this thing blows over.

Well, this thing this isn't going to blow over anytime soon. It's going to go on and on for months.

So France is shutting down for 15 days. At the end of that time, I don't think conditions are going to be any better. The death toll will have risen, and many more cases will have been confirmed. What is the French government going to do then? Tell people to go back to work? Are they going to tell them it's okay to go to work now after telling them to not go to work under better conditions?

Once you start a lockdown, how do you end it? It's going to go on and on. Once you close schools for three weeks, how do you open them again?  You know the epidemic is going to be worse in three weeks than it is today, so reopening becomes difficult. How long are you going to keep people away from school and work? Six months? A year? When the all-clear is given and people come out of their bunkers, there won't be any economy left.

Italy had already shut its whole country down the week before, and I regard this as national suicide. The Italians are essentially blowing up their economy, absolutely devastating it, when it was in pretty frail condition to begin with. Pretty soon you're going to be real economic desperation in Italy, maybe even a famine. There may be food, but if people can't work, they can't afford to buy it, and if no one works, no one is producing any food, so eventually it will run out completely.

And I don't think it is proven that lockdowns help improve the medical situation. That is, I don't think that lockdowns of healthy people are going to result in fewer deaths in the long run. The quarantining of sick people makes more sense. If you're sick, you should hunker down and stay away from others, but at any particular time, this is a small portion of the population. The economy can get by without them. The economy can't get by if its entire workforce goes home.

One of the rationales for lockdowns of young and healthy people is the perception that anyone can be a carrier. There may be some evidence that the virus can be spread asymptomatically, but as yet we don't have any reading on how big an issue it is. In the meantime, by treating everyone as suspected carrier, you're destroying the economy. In the long run, you're assuring that society becomes so economically weak and dysfunctional that can't respond to any kind of threat.

No country can just make money out of thin air. They can continue to print it, like the US and many other countries are doing, but eventually this catches up with you. There's going to be hyperinflation or some other debasement of the currency. To make an economy work, people have to work. Stuff has to be produced; services have to be provided, so taxes can be collected and the government can continue to function. No taxes, and eventually the government collapses, and it wouldn't be able to provide any kind of services, let alone fight a virus.

Let's look at school closings. Entirely insane. Kick kids out of school, and where are they going to go? Now parents have to scramble for daycare, and the lack of it may force them to leave work. By necesssity, they may ask other parents to care for their kids, so now you've got kids congregating again but without the structure and control of school. So you've got the possibility of schools closing, with no net change to the number of kids being infected.

And of course, it already seems evident that kids are hardly in danger by Covid-19, at least not much beyond the colds they normally get. Worldwide, very few have died or suffered serious complications. The only real rationale for closing schools is to protect older people, because infected kids could bring it to them, but this whole rationale collapses if the kids go home and play with other kids anyway. You can't just order kids not to the play with each other for the next six months. It is both traumatizing and unenforceable.

So what would a sensible solution be? Just keep schools open. At least they are a place where you can keep kids under control. It's a structured place where you can manage hygiene. School gives you a chance to teach kids how to avoid that disease, rather than just cutting them loose to fend for themselves. I think most goverments are going to come to this conclusion eventually. In the meantime, you've got kids running around loose with no controls whatsoever.

One unique problem in America is our liability culture. Americans love to sue big institutions, like schools. If even one student catches the virus from school, the family is going to hire a lawyer from one of those highway billboards and try to sue the school. I think that's the main reason schools are closing in America, and it is not easily solved. If a kid gets the disease from playing with his friends, no one gets sued, but if it happens at school, the school's liability is unlimited. It might be that the only way to solve it is changes in law, which takes time. This may mean that America restarts its educational system a lot later than other countries.

I think that's the real cause of these government lockdown orders, even outside US. Politically, governments aren't allowed to put anyone at risk. Everybody has to be 100% protected from the slightest risk of getting the disease, and this means in effect that no one is protected, because the government can't protect anyone if society itself collapses.

No matter what kind of lockdown you propose, it's going to be imperfect, and the virus is still going to spread. You might slow it down a bit, giving a bit of relief to overburdened emergency rooms, but at huge economic cost. For the past two weeks, the news has been all about the virus. I think in coming weeks, the news is going to be all about the economic collapse, which I think is going to be far more devastating to society than the virus itself.

The virus is the pin that pricked the bubble, but the bubble was already there, ready to pop. It was a bubble of debt and runaway government spending, and these lockdowns are guaranteeing that both are going to explode even further. It's a perfect storm of everything going wrong at once, which I'm sure I'm going to talk about in future podcasts.

So if locking down the healthy population isn't the solution to the epidemic, what is? How about hygiene and behavior modification? People should go about their daily business as they normally would while taking reasonable precautions that are continuously revised with experience. That's what I'm doing. I've got a hygeine plan and I'm constantly fine-tuning it, but I'm continuing to live my life pretty much as normal.

The key is sustainability. Closing schooling and businesses and ordering people to hunker down at home are not sustainable solutions. Good hygiene practices are sustainable. Sensible changes of behavior are sustainable. No more big crowds—I totally understand that—but shutting down all businesses even if they don't involve crowds makes no sense. There is a balance here between protecting the public and sustaining the economy that ultimately feeds the public. If you go too far in the direction of eliminating all risk, then you end up not being able to feed people.

I think the Lockdown Mania of 2020 will be seen by history as being just as crazy as the Toilet Paper Mania of 2020 but much more destructive. This is on a par with the Stock Buying Mania of the past couple of years for its pernitiousness and, well, its bubbliciousness. Like bank bailouts and quantitative easing, you shouldn't enter into a lockdown without a clear plan for how to get out. Once you shut down the economy, how are you ever going to get it started again?

There was no fundamental logic or sensible analysis behind the debt and asset mania that inflated the bubble that's now popping, and there is none behind most lockdowns. It's just doing what feels right without regard to long-term consequences.


For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.


The following sections were edited out of the video in the final version:

A funny thing in the stores I've been to is that they still seem to have paper towels in stock. Not a lot, but these shelves aren't completely bare like the toilet paper section is. What are paper towels but big rolls of toilet paper? One explanation I've heard online is that you can't flush paper towels without clogging your toilet. So don't flush it! Throw it away instead. Having traveled the world, I know that many countries don't flush their toilet paper at all due to their fragile sewer systems. There's a bin beside the toilet for that.


I went to a Walmart in Iowa last night, and the only other sections that were stripped bare were ramen noodles and bulk packaged breakfast cereal. Ramen noodles I kind of understand. It's cheap and it's sort of like food. All the Cup o' Noodles type things were almost completely sold out. I wouldn't really regard it as survival food, though. Eating it once a week would be about as much as my own body could take. There's virtually no nutrition in those things. Just empty calories. You might as well eat bulk sugar or flour. If you're only eating ramen, maybe you're going to need all that toilet paper to deal with the aftermath. It's a vicious cycle: The more ramen you buy, the more toilet paper you need.

The packaged cereals is even less sane. What I'm talking about is generic Fruit Loops-type cereal sold in a bag instead of a box for a very low price. That section was completely sold out. The branded cereals in a box, like your Honey Bunches of Oats were depleted but still in stock. This is also empty calories, and how are you going to eat it? Most Americans eat their cereal with milk, so when you're hunkered down for the apocalypse, where are you going to get it? I suppose I would buy powdered milk, canned evaporated milk or those non-perishable boxes of milk, but this is sacrilidge for most Americans. It's fresh milk or none at all. So even though they've stockpiled a year's supply of breakfast cereal, there was never much non-perishable milk in the store, so they are still going to have to venture out for fresh milk.

Wandering through the Walmart aisles last night, looking at what was sold out and what remained in stock, I came to appreciate the stupidity of my fellow Americans, not to mention their poor dietary habits. They're in a panic, and they're going directly for their comfort items. They need toilet paper because—I don't know. You tell me. I don't think it's worth my time to psychoanalyse this.