The Impact of the Pandemic on US States: GDP and Deaths

Following up on my recent post on country GDP growth rates and mortality in 2020, we now have the first look at state GDP growth rates for 2020 from the BEA.

As with the national data, I would look to caution against over-interpreting this data. I’m presenting it here to give a picture of how 2020 went for states (including a few months of 2021 for morality data). One thing you will notice is that there appears to be little correlation with the raw data between GDP declines and mortality. Lots of important factors (policy, behavior, demographics, weather, luck) aren’t controlled for here. Still, I think it’s useful to see all the data in one picture, given how much many of us have been following the daily, weekly, and monthly releases.

Here is the data. Below I’ll explain more how I created this chart, especially the excess mortality data.

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Working Hard for the Money

40 hours. That’s what we think of as a typical workweek. 8 hours per day. 5 days per week. Perhaps the widespread practice of working from home during the pandemic (as well as the abnormal schedule changes for those unable to work from home), has led some to rethink the nature of the workweek. But the truth is that the workweek has always been evolving.

Take this chart, for example. It comes from Our World in Data (be sure to read their excellent related essay as well), and the historical data comes from a paper by Huberman and Minns. I’ve singled out 4 countries, but you can add others at the OWiD link.

The historical declines are dramatic. This is especially true in Sweden. The average Swedish worker labored for over 3,400 hours per year in 1870. Today, that’s down to 1,600 hours. In other words, the typical Swede works less than half as many hours as her historical counterpart. Wow! The decline for the US is not quite as dramatic, but still astonishing: a US worker today labors for only about 57% of the hours of his 1870 predecessor.

It’s tempting to focus on the differences across countries today: the average worker in the US works about 250 hours more than the average French worker. That’s 6 weeks of vacation! And as recently as 1980, the US and France were roughly equal on this measure. We might also wonder why these historical changes happened. For a very brief introduction to the research, I recommend the last section of this essay by Robert Whaples.

But still, the historical declines are dramatic, even if we in the US haven’t seen much improvement in the past generation (and those poor Swedes, working 100 hours per year more than 40 years ago).

I think another natural question to ask is whether GDP data is distorted, at least as a measure of well being, given these differences in working hours. The answer is partially. Let’s look at the data!

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The Luck (?) of the Irish

Poor Ireland. Long oppressed by the Brits. Losing 25% of their population in the Great Famine due to both deaths and emigration. Today, there are possibly 10 times as many Irish Americans as there are residents of Ireland. There are as many Irish Canadians as there are residents of Ireland.

Poor Ireland.

And indeed, Ireland used to be literally very poor, at least in an economic sense. In 1960, their GDP per capita was about half of the United Kingdom. As recently as 1990, they were still only at about 70% of the United Kingdom and the rest of Western Europe. That’s all according to the latest Maddison database figures, which are probably as close to accurate as we can find. But after 1990, we probably shouldn’t use those figures, for reasons peculiar to Ireland.

Today? Ireland is much wealthier. But how much wealthier? It’s tricky. Ireland’s GDP is inflated significantly due to a lot of foreign investment. And possibly some tax evasion/avoidance. You see, Ireland is a tax haven. It has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world. That means we have to interpret the data with care, but only because it is such a great place to invest.

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GDP Growth in 2020

Last year was a historically bad year for many reasons, but to economists that badness is most visible in our widest measure of the economy: Gross Domestic Product. All issues with GDP aside, especially as a perfect measure of relative living standards, the annual real (inflation-adjusted) growth rate of GDP gives us a good picture of how much national economies were harmed by the pandemic, private behavior changes, and government restrictions (disentangling these three effects is hard — I will leave that to the academic journals rather than a blog post).

While GDP is reported with a lag of several months and is subject to revision, many countries have now reported full GDP data for 2020. For those that don’t follow GDP very closely, for a developed country an annual rate of growth of about 2% is pretty normal and respectable. For further context, in the US recent recessions had declines of -2.5% in 2009, -0.1% 1991, and -1.8% in 1982 (the 2001 recession never had an annual decline, only a few quarterly declines). While it is unusual for countries to go more than 10 years without a decline, it does happen. For example, Australia’s last annual decline was in 1991, when it declined -1.3%. But that’s unusual.

This chart shows the 2020 GDP growth rates (mostly negative, with one exception — Taiwan) for 2020 for most countries were I could find data. What this number shows us is the total amount of economic activity in 2020 compared with the total amount of economic activity in 2019 (adjusted for inflation, of course). I believe this is a better measure than others you might see, such as data that compares the level in the 4th quarters of 2020 and 2019 (a country could have had a terrible 2nd quarter but still gotten back close to the prior year level, and a simple Q-over-Q measure would miss that decline). As I did for the 3rd quarter data, this chart also plots the cumulative COVID-19 death rates on the vertical axis.

GDP data comes from government statistical agencies and media reports. COVID-19 death data is from Our World in Data.

What can we learn from this data?

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Third Quarter Check-In: COVID and GDP

How have countries around the world fared so far in the COVID-19 pandemic? There are many ways to measure this, but two important measures are the number of deaths from the disease and economic growth.

Over the past few weeks, major economies have started releasing data for GDP in the third quarter of 2020, which gives us the opportunity to “check in” on how everyone is doing.

Here is one chart I created to try to visualize these two measures. For GDP, I calculated how much GDP was “lost” in 2020, compared with maintaining the level from the fourth quarter of 2019 (what we might call the pre-COVID times). For COVID deaths, I use officially coded deaths by each country through Nov. 15 (I know that’s not the end of Q3, but I think it’s better than using Sept. 30, as deaths have a fairly long lag from infections).

One major caution: don’t interpret this chart as one variable causing the other. It’s just a way to visualize the data (notice I didn’t try to fit a line). Also, neither measure is perfect. GDP is always imperfect, and may be especially so during these strange times. Officially coded COVID deaths aren’t perfect, though in most countries measures such as excess deaths indicate these probably understate the real death toll.

You can draw your own conclusions from this data, and also bear in mind that right now many countries in Europe and the US are seeing a major surge in deaths. We don’t know how bad it will be.

Here’s what I observe from the data. The countries that have performed the worst are the major European countries, with the very notable exception of Germany. I won’t attribute this all to policy; let’s call it a mix of policy and bad luck. Germany sits in a rough grouping with many Asian developed countries and Scandinavia (with the notable exception of Sweden, more on this later) among the countries that have weathered the crisis the best (relatively low death rates, though GDP performance varies a lot).

And then we have the United States. Oddly, the country we seem to fit closest with is… Sweden. Death rates similar to most of Western Europe, but GDP losses similar to Germany, Japan, Denmark, and even close to South Korea. (My groupings are a bit imperfect. For example, Japan and South Korea have had much lower death tolls than Germany or Denmark, but I think it is still useful.)

To many observers, this may seem strange. Sweden followed a mostly laissez-faire approach, while most US states imposed restrictions on movement and business that mirrored Western Europe. Some in the US have advocated that the US copy the approach of Sweden, even though Sweden seems to be moving away from that approach in their second wave.

Counterfactuals are hard in the social sciences. They are even harder during a public health crisis. It’s really hard to say what would have happened if the US followed the approach of Sweden, or if Sweden followed the approach of Taiwan. So I’m trying hard not to reach any firm conclusions. To me, it seems safe to say that in the US, public policy has been largely bad and ineffective (fairly harsh restrictions that didn’t do much good in the end), yet the US has (so far) fared better than much of Europe.

All of this could change. But let’s be cautious about declaring victory or defeat at this point.

Coda on Sweden Deaths

Are the officially coded COVID deaths in Sweden an accurate count? One thing we can look to is excess deaths, such as those reported by the Human Mortality Database. What we see is that Swedish COVID deaths do almost perfectly match the excess deaths (the excess over historical averages): around 6,000 deaths more than expected.

Some have suggested that the high COVID deaths for Sweden are overstated because Sweden had lower than normal deaths in recent years, particularly 2019. This has become known as the “dry tinder” theory, for example as stated in a working paper by Klein, Book, and Bjornskov (disclosure: Dan Klein was one of my professors in grad school, and is also the editor of the excellent Econ Journal Watch, where I have been published twice).

But even the Klein et al. paper only claims that “dry tinder” factor can account for 25-50% of the deaths (I have casually looked at the data, and these seems about right to me). Thus, perhaps in the chart above, we can move Sweden down a bit, bringing them closer to the Germany-Asia-Scandinavia group. Still, even with this correction, Sweden has 2.5x the death rate of Denmark (rather than 5x) and 5x the death rate of Finland (rather than 10x, as with officially coded deaths).

As with all things right now, we should reserve judgement until the pandemic is over (Sweden’s second wave looks like it could be pretty bad). The “dry tinder” factor (a term I personally dislike) is worth considering, as we all try to better understand the data on how countries have performed in this crisis.