Flattened the Curve my foot

The Government and the HSE’s misleading graphs

Since around last week the HSE and the Government started claiming that the lock-down measures were working. Today Minister for Health, Simon Harris tweeted some science with which we can contend with (albeit not much). It’s a graph from the HSE’s modelling group which he upholds as evidence that the lock-down is slowing the growth rate of the virus.


It’s worth noting that at the time of writing the HSE has not published the data behind this curve or any of its underlying assumptions.

This type of graph, known a growth rate curve is supposed to show if the trajectory of infection is getting better or worse. A growth rate of 30% on the graph would mean that the cumulative number of cases is growing by around 30% every day. A 100% would mean the cases were doubling daily.

A flattening of the curve would require a fall in the rates, which, indeed, on this graph they are. This looks like good evidence that the lockdown measures are working right? Wrong.

What Mr Harris’s tweet fails to take into account is the number of undetected cases due to limitations in testing. The Government could be reporting a misleading drop in the growth. As Dr Jack Lambert of the Mater Hospital points out how: “How can you talk about flattening the curve where you’re testing such small numbers of people and people are queuing up to get testing?”

“And then there’s results that are pending for a week, so the numbers represent our lack of supplies for testing rather than flattening the curve.”

On April 13th the HSE’s goal was to carry out 4,500 lab tests per day by last week, and that on Saturday, only 7,900 tests were carried out. Perversely a rapid growth in the number of tests being conducted could lead to a rapid increase in the growth rate.

Unless the HSE could test everyone in the country every day for the next year (a costly and impracticable exercise) we will never know how prevalent the virus is, particularly for a disease in which 80% of cases experience mild or no symptoms. 


The HSE could easily have annotated this chart to note these uncertainties as the US CDC regularly does for their data, but they chose not to. So no Mr Harris, I don’t believe your misleading graph proves lock downs work.





Rent Freeze

Sinn Fein’s Rent Freeze Bill will reduce the quantity and quality of housing further

The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once said: “If all economists were laid end to end, they could not reach a conclusion.” Economists often disagree with each-other but there is a topic that is both well understood and garners a consensus of opinion: Rent freezing.

Sinn Fein’s Rent freeze bill (with support from Fianna Fáil) has reached the committee stage in the Dáil. It contains a proposal to freeze rent on all existing and new tenancies for the next three years. The Bill’s champion, Eoin Ó Broin said “rents are completely out of control” and that “It is time to give renters a break.”

A 2012 survey of American Economists asked whether they agreed that rent freezes had a positive impact on the quantity and quality of housing. 81% of them disagreed.

An MIT Professor added: “Unless all the textbooks are wrong, this is wrong.” a Chicagoan Professor quipped “Next Question: Does the Sun revolve around the Earth?” Even Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, a self described liberal and social democrat agrees that rent freezing is terrible public policy.

But you don’t need to ask a Nobel Prize winner to know this, virtually every textbook pitched at leaving cert level dedicates a special section to rent control and its unwelcome consequences. (usually right after the bit explaining supply and demand.)

Rents are soaring because supply is outstripping demand. There are too few units available in the market and as a consequence potential tenants attempt to outbid each, the landlords selects the highest bidder. Why does the market simply not respond by supplying more rental units?

Over regulation and increased taxation by the government since the crash have disincentivised landlords and investors from supplying new units.The increased costs and dwindling returns don’t justify the risk. Landlords and the investors are leaving the rental business in droves, and they’re taking existing properties with them.

A country wide rent freeze would lower incentives further and increase demand relative to supply. The very situation we’re trying to avoid.

If a nationwide rent freeze does go ahead many more landlords will withdraw existing units from the market. Where will evicted tenants go? Incumbent renters who are lucky to benefit from capped prices have no reason to move out. Also spare a thought for the thousands who were already looking to rent, a rent freeze will leave thousands of people locked out of the rental market and worsen the homeless crisis.

Incumbent renters whom this bill was designed to benefit will face a raft of additional charges. Many landlords will will make it a condition of the lease agreement that tenants have to rent furniture and other household equipment. Accessing the garden may even incur an additional charge. Cumulatively these additional charges could make up the difference between the capped price and the true market value of the property.

Many landlords will also refuse to maintain their properties. Renters could do the repairs themselves but this is just paying rent by other means.

Sinn Féin may argue that these measures are only temporary, but the experience of New York City and Los Angeles show that once a rent freeze is in place it’s rarely reversed. This bill will lead to the creation of a huge (and voting) tenant-advocacy group, a special interest group if you will. Three years from the bills enactment this advocacy group will vociferously demand an extension of the rent freeze (cue emotive news footage of worried tenants.) Fearing being turfed out of their home on Kildare Street, politicians will find it impossible to resist extending the duration of a rent freeze.

We will face decades of nationwide rent freezes and all of dire consequences they entails: poor quality units, reduced supply and an interminably prolonged housing crisis.

This is all entirely predictable, if only our politicians would consult our Leaving Cert Economics Students.