Leonhardt Is Still Stuck on Stupid

So David Leonhardt has another stupid column decrying COVID protections, this time about the increase in traffic fatalities (boldface mine):

At first, researchers thought that emptier roads might be the main answer. Open roads can encourage speeding, and speeding can be fatal. But even as traffic returned to near-normal levels last year, traffic deaths remained high. That combination weakens the empty-road theory, as Robert Schneider, an urban-planning expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said.

The most plausible remaining theories tend to involve the mental health problems caused by Covid’s isolation and disruption. Alcohol and drug abuse have increased. Impulsive behavior, like running red lights and failing to wear seatbelts, also seems to have risen (as my colleague Simon Romero has reported). Many Americans have felt frustrated or unhappy, and it seems to have affected their driving.

At first, researchers thought that emptier roads might be the main answer. Open roads can encourage speeding, and speeding can be fatal. But even as traffic returned to near-normal levels last year, traffic deaths remained high. That combination weakens the empty-road theory, as Robert Schneider, an urban-planning expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said.

The most plausible remaining theories tend to involve the mental health problems caused by Covid’s isolation and disruption. Alcohol and drug abuse have increased. Impulsive behavior, like running red lights and failing to wear seatbelts, also seems to have risen (as my colleague Simon Romero has reported). Many Americans have felt frustrated or unhappy, and it seems to have affected their driving…

“Making streets safer doesn’t require designing new solutions in laboratories,” John Rennie Short, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has written. Jeffrey Michael, another expert, told The Washington Post, “This is an issue for which answers are known.”

Those answers include: stricter enforcement of speed limits, seatbelt mandates and drunken-driving laws; better designed roads, especially in poorer neighborhoods; more public transit; and further spread of safety features like automated braking.

Continuing to leave behind the disruptions of Covid — and the loneliness and stress they have caused — seems likely to help, too.

Of course, Leonhardt doesn’t break the data down by state, which given state-level COVID policies, is what you need to do–states didn’t loosen policies at the same time–meanwhile, deaths didn’t decline in 2022, despite most places throwing caution to the wind.

If you do subscribe to the COVID Makes Ya Crazy hypothesis, then there’s an argument to be made that loosening COVID protections–and the needless deaths that ensued also led to elevated COVID Makes Ya Crazy. Leonhardt’s argument is that protections mess people up, but the absence of protections, and the disruption, to use Leonhardt’s phrase, that entails such as increased COVID infections, increased concern over contracting long COVID, more dead people, somehow those don’t affect people. Obviously, the absence of protections doesn’t affect Leonhardt psychologically–but he’s an asshole. But maybe some people are stressed because they correctly don’t feel safe as they should.

Ultimately, this gets to one problem with his style of opinion making (boldface mine):

And they follow a strong ideological line. Leonhardt’s writing for The Morning represents the dominant elite consensus that Covid will soon be endemic and that the supposed social costs of collective mitigation are too high—read: too annoying and inconvenient—to bear any longer. In this account, it is inevitable that everyone will get infected sooner or later but emphatically not because all of our wrong decisions and terrible failures of public policy made it so; masking had a time, but it is over for most of us because of its nebulous psychological and emotional effects on children; vulnerable people and populations, like people with disabilities, should be accommodated where possible, if it is not too expensive and unwieldy, but their individual needs should not compel changes or alterations to “normal” life—never mind that more than a quarter of U.S. adults are disabled. In Morning-land, the far right is a problem, but it is the left that risks going too far, alienating Democratic constituencies by causing the party to “lurch” to the left, even though the most powerful and influential people in the party—Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Manchin, Chuck Schumer—are profoundly centrist, even conservative, in their views. Social interventions at scale, whether to address health crises, economic inequality, racial injustice, or climate, are impractical and impossible in a divided polity, and smart or “targeted” solutions and interventions represent the best—the only—public policy.

The other thing Leonhardt commonly does is perform a shoddy, half-ass analysis, and then claims ‘the science’ backs him up. Throwing up a histogram is sciencey, so he must be correct. While this was written about Emily Oster, it applies to Leonhardt too (boldface mine):

This brings us to the cornerstone of the economic style of reasoning: the data. The evangelists for the economic style of reasoning exhort their audience to “follow the data”—the alternative being, it is implied, to capitulate to the irrational demons of fear and anxiety…

Such claims to superior logic and reason can be a convenient mask for ideological assumptions. Appeals to “following the data” do not always reflect a scientific consensus; rather, “the data” is a rhetorical device used to grant narrative authority to certain quantitative analyses—those that confirm preconceived ideas. Meanwhile, those analyses can (and often do) have important limitations like weak study designs, arbitrary assumptions, or erroneous math that should alert readers to interpret the findings cautiously. The intent is to shame people for straying from the experts’ superior rationality, and ultimately to portray any demand for change to the status quo as fringe, conspiratorial, and anti-scientific.

In short, friends don’t let friends read Leonhardt.

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2 Responses to Leonhardt Is Still Stuck on Stupid

  1. johnkrehbiel says:

    IMHO, running red lights, right turn on red after hardly slowing down, right turns on red from the left lane because the guy in front at the red light isn’t turning right (HOW DARE HE!!!)…

    These are likely caused by the pseudo libertarian “I can do whatever I want no matter what” mentality.
    I live in Southern Maryland, and Gods forbid you tell a confederate flag wearing Uber-Patriot that he has to wait in line or some other abridgement of his Cunstutooshunal Rights…

  2. becca says:

    The driving is worse.
    It’s not (just) the stress.
    It’s the Covid impacting spatial planning https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34316551/

    The fact it’s not plausible to Lavid Deonhardt probably means his cognitive capacity is impaired by
    1) having a paycheck that depends on denying Covid
    2) poor cognition due to too much Covid

    (given that there is no justice in the world, probably mostly 1, but you never know)

    Technically, it’s also caused by lack of unions. We’ve destroyed trucking jobs and right now there is like 90+% turnover in that industry. It seemed like amateur hour for trucks because the vast majority of the trucks are driven by people who have only driven cars, and it really shows when it comes to how much distance they think they need to pass.

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