Who is the “public” in “public choice”?

by Henry on May 5, 2020

Tyler Cowen quotes approvingly from a Robin Hanson post (the URL suggests that the original title of Tyler’s post was “On Reopening, Robin Hanson is Exactly Correct).

While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

… More broadly, this is an example of why we need public choice/political economy in our models of this situation. It is all about the plan you can pull off in the real world of politics, not the best plan you can design. A lot of what I am seeing is a model of “all those bad Fox News viewers out there,” and I do agree those viewers tend to have incorrect views on the biomedical side.

This all begs an obvious question: who exactly is the “public” that they are talking about?

As it happens, there is indeed survey evidence to suggest that the public has strong preferences on re-opening. The problem is that that evidence (or, at least, the evidence that I am aware of), is that large majorities of people don’t want to reopen anytime soon. So the “public” in this argument, whatever it is, does not appear to have much to do with the actual preferences expressed by its members. Put differently, the best empirical evidence I know of as to what individual members of the public want runs exactly contrary to the claims made by public choice scholars (who are presumably methodological individualists) about what the public wants.

There are a number of possible other explanations of what the “public” is in this kind of story, which may perhaps overlap.

One – which seems plausibly compatible with Hanson’s choice of words – is a revealed preferences public. The theory here is that we can tell what the public “wants” from what the public is in fact doing, and that the public is voting with its feet by reopening the economy. The query here, of course, being that the actual private desires of this revealed preferences public may differ sharply from their publicly visible behavior. Timur Kuran, whom I understand to be a tolerably well respected public choice theorist, has made this point at the length of a book in Private Truths, Public Lies. Kuran’s preferred examples were autocratic regimes and the menace of political correctness – but the logic surely travels, pari passu to situations where e.g. workers will be denied unemployment benefits if they decline to work in obviously unsafe working conditions, businesses risk being sued by their landlords for rent if they don’t reopen, or people with guns threaten violence against store owners who insist on masks being worn.

Another possible construction of the “public” here is “the public whose general interests I am capable of inferring because I am a public choice economist and can model them.” The problem here is that my understanding of the public’s interests as a public choice economist may in fact be fundamentally empirically flawed. Of course, public choice scholars have models they can refer to, but as another card-carrying member of the broader intellectual movement, Deirdre McCloskey, has observed, partial equilibrium models are really a form of precision-guided rhetoric. Not only can you make the elephant’s trunk wiggle in a partial equilibrium model; you can persuade her to dance the polka in stilettos on a tightrope.

Third, you can make the claim (which is I suspect not far from Tyler’s underlying assumption – maybe I’m wrong), that they are talking about “what the public will inevitably end up wanting in the long run as the costs of freezing much economic activity become clear.” Here, the problem is that it isn’t clear what the long run in fact is. Nor is it clear that economists’ mental models of the appropriate tradeoffs between damage to the economy and the risks to their own and their loved ones’ lives corresponds sufficiently closely to the actual tradeoffs perceived by members of the public.

Perhaps you can argue that economists, as experts, understand these tradeoffs better and can tell what the public should prefer. This though runs into both the previously mentioned broad problem of whether economists can reliably infer the general interest, and the narrower question of whether economists are specifically well equipped to understand the tradeoffs of the pandemic. Certainly, many economists have suggested that they are so well equipped, and better intellectually equipped than e.g. epidemiologists, but as a prominent incentive theorist once noted, they would say that, wouldn’t they? (nb also how the argument from Kevin Hassett cuts against overly broad claims for the statistical superiority of economists).

Finally, and least charitably, it could be “the definition of the public that is required to make my argument work,” which would of course be quite problematic. Somewhat less uncharitably, all of us tend to be guided by our ideologies towards assumptions that justify our preferred conclusions unless we are very careful (or, more plausibly, we make our arguments sufficiently precisely, and with reference to assessable external evidence, so that others with different priors can help point out flaws that we were initially blinded to).

Less uncharitably again, but still reasonably pungently: the problem with such loosely expressed arguments about what “the public wants” is that they’re likely to blur together ideological priors and empirical claims in a manner that makes them impossible to distinguish, and therefore more likely to add confusion than insight to general debate. I’m on the record as thinking that there’s some real value to public choice theory. But I don’t think that this post does much to establish that claim or make it more convincing.

{ 89 comments }

1

eg 05.05.20 at 8:37 pm

I won’t claim to have understood all of what you have written here, so apologies if this possibility is already inferred somewhere in your post — to what extent is Cowen’s “the public” just a sort of inverted version of the argument from authority?

2

Kenny Easwaran 05.05.20 at 9:29 pm

It would be an interesting irony if “the public” that wants to reopen is actually the media and very visible protest population, who might naturally be called “elites”.

That said, I haven’t seen polling data from within the past week on opening – given how fast things are changing over the past few months, it wouldn’t surprise me if new polls in the current media environment give much more support for reopening than polls from a week or two ago.

3

Hanson, Robin 05.05.20 at 9:36 pm

I didn’t say that the public at the moment says they favor opening. I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening. Watch over the next few months.

4

Alex SL 05.05.20 at 10:10 pm

I am not familiar enough with public choice theory to understand the core question here. But to my recent experience, another enormous problem is that everybody argues “the people” or “the public” are on their side while only 52% or even only 44% expressed themselves as being on that side. It is one thing to say that you have won a vote or election or are ahead in the polls, it is another to lump a deeply divided public into one entity.

5

Dr. Hilarius 05.05.20 at 10:56 pm

“Public” here is just a sockpuppet for actual economic elites. I can’t address the situation in other countries, but in the USA the Trump administration refers to the usual 2nd Amendment cranks protesting with guns as “very fine people” who just happen to want what the administration wants; pretending the covid problem is over and ignoring the inevitable consequences. The Republican party no longer cares about governance in any normal sense of the word. Theories about choice are irrelevant unless they address the reality of current decision makers.

6

mary s 05.05.20 at 11:00 pm

Maybe I’m being too literalminded, but I don’t know what public choice means in an environment like this. You have a lot of factors that could influence public choice — will the virus recede? Will we have adequate testing? Will we have a vaccine? Will there be adequate unemployment, healthcare, and other relief for states, cities, and individuals?

You also have the president and many other Republican leaders, as well as conservative media figures, making a lot of claims that are (a) often completely unfounded and (b) designed to make the public think it’s a good idea to do things like injecting bleach and taking malaria drugs and disregarding what the “elites and experts” are saying.

Of course, the president et al. are elites. But never mind.

7

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.05.20 at 11:45 pm

Let me remind everybody on the proper translation from Wingnut into English. “Elite” means “Jew.” “Public” means “herrenvolk.”

8

bianca steele 05.06.20 at 12:27 am

There is in fact a question about the meaning of “elite.” It’s obviously wrong to equate it with “scientist,” entirely separately from whether science includes in its purview what actions societies should take to achieve ends, or what those ends should be. Go to a science museum (I know from experience) and you will not pass the quizzes in the exhibits if you think “should the government prevent [whatever bad thing]?” is a question for scientists to answer. If scientists are elites, then it must be that politicians and cabinet secretaries are ordinary people, which is absurd.

In the quoted paragraphs, “elites” seems to mean approximately “nanny state.” As Mary says @6, it somewhat begs the question to assume “elites” will always favor the most restrictive possible policies at every turn. (A gradual reopening will not work if too many people assume the government wants the most restrictive policies they can imagine, regardless of stated policy.)

9

anonymous 05.06.20 at 1:02 am

How does it feel to write a reasonably well written blog post, and your commenters-the ones that ideologically agree with you-are obvious lunatics?

anon

10

Kindred Winecoff 05.06.20 at 1:04 am

Huh. I’ve never taken the “public” in “public choice” to mean anything having to do with public opinion among the broad polity. I’ve always taken it to mean “public sector”, as in “public sector actors face incentives that are broadly similar to, or at least analogous to, the incentives that private sector actors face — maximization of personal utility, in the crudest form — and thus tools of economic analysis can/should be used to study them.”

The normative implication being that public sector intervention will often not correct market failures, and may indeed make things worse, exactly because they are incentivized not to regard what the mass public wants. E.g., regulatory capture. In this view, “public choice” is then a set of tools to explore why the public sector often “under-performs” relative to the expectations of functionalist models of democratic responsiveness.

So the “public choice” take on re-opening is less that “everyone in the public will want to re-open too soon so politicians will bow to pressure and do it” and more that “the segments of the public that favor re-opening will show up to elected officials’ offices with semi-automatic weapons, yelling about revolution if they can’t get their nails done, while those opposing re-opening will stay home; since elected officials do not wish to be shot they will choose to re-open even if most people don’t want it.”

Or maybe that “the people who make campaign contributions and provide cushy post-government jobs for elected officials want to re-open, and that is a more compelling incentive for officials than simply tracking polling and making decisions accordingly.”

These are obviously not mutually-exclusive, but the point is that public officials often have personal incentives that are quite different from “maximize aggregate social welfare in all instances”.

In practice many public choice folks — including the ones that motivated this post — sometimes extrapolate fairly wildly from the “set of tools” to “this is the outcome that must happen,” particularly when they have strong normative commitments to libertarianism: libertarians are attracted to cynical views of government for obvious reasons, and that’s what much of public choice amounts to. That inferential leap is what’s happening whenever they say “solve for the equilibrium” as if it is obvious where the equilibrium is. The inferential problem comes from muddling up their normative commitments with their (supposedly) positive methodology, not public choice per se. That’s why Cowen writes that “It is all about the plan you can pull off in the real world of politics, not the best plan you can design” while also suggesting that, biomedically, re-opening is probably the wrong choice. (Hanson’s motivations are somewhat different, from what I can tell.)

Of course this ignores that “what is politically possible” is a variable, not a constant, which is why public choice is frequently wrong about macro even if it can tell a compelling story about some particular micro.

I admit that I could be 100% wrong that this view of public choice is the correct one, but it’s how I’ve always thought about it.

11

notGoodenough 05.06.20 at 1:54 am

Robin Hanson @ 3

“I didn’t say that the public at the moment says they favor opening. I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening.”

Yet your blog post is titled “Why Openers Are Winning” and not “Why Openers Will, At Some Point In The Future, Win”. Curious. Let’s take a look.

“Three main relevant groups have vied lately to influence pandemic policy: public, elites, and experts.”

There are two types of people in the world, those whole like reducing things to an overly-simplistic generalisation, and those who don’t.

“Initially, public health experts dominated, even when they screwed up. But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity.”

This is not a very good start. Flattening the curve has been a major strategy from the start (in most countries) for this type of pandemic. When there is an infectious disease which is hard to track, the point is not to prevent transmission (ideal though that would be), but to slow as much as possible. This also has little to do with “herd immunity”, and a whole lot more to do with not overwhelming health services with large number of sick people at the same time. The fact you are already getting this very wrong, conflating multiple ideas, and attributing this to experts “screwing up” is…not promising. Perhaps try consulting actual experts, rather than constructing your own out of the nearest straw?

“At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.”

Many countries have tried many approaches, and to varying extents. This is hardly an elite worldwide opinion. Indeed, you yourself later complain about the lack of consensus.

Also, those who have engaged in more social distancing, etc. early on typically see fewer cases. Those who have delayed have typically seen more (as far as we can tell, given the lack of testing). This is a tricky thing to estimate, as to begin with COVID-19 was something of a question mark (though some estimations based on previous SARS events have been useful benchmarks), and it is only as we have been able to study that the data is more reliable. The issue being, of course, that the more you wait to see, the more people die. Some might consider that an ethical imperitive would make over-reaction less troubling than under-reaction. Others, such as President Trump, do not appear to share that opinion.

“Everywhere in the world, all at once, strong lockdown polices began, and containment became the official goal.”

Countries which have not instituted a lockdown include Sweden and South Korea. So this is literally wrong.

“But elites did not insist on any particular standard containment policy.”

Gosh, yes. It is almost as if different countries have come to different conclusions, based on different political judgements, and are not a global world order who have a unified strategy. Isn’t that odd? It nearly seems like they are trying to make some sort of…what’s the word…um…political ”compromise”.

“The public is feeling the accumulated pain, and itching to break out.”

I think you mean ca. 32% of the American public is feeling the pain[1], and itching to break out. This sentence does seem to imply you think a) the public as a majority and b)“itching to break out” is now and not some point in the future, which would contradict your comments in your post @ 3, and your later addendum.

“Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain.”

Yes, when there is a consensus of opinion amongst epidemiologists, and current death toll estimated at ca. 257,000 people, for some reason those crazy elites with their wacky notions of “listening to people who study this for a living” have come to the conclusion that opening right now is a bad idea. The majority of Americans happen to agree. Also, epidemiologists are not saying to do this to “contain”, but to slow the spread. Those are not the same thing.

“But, and this is the key point, they mostly point to different explanations and solutions. For example, this polls shows very little agreement on the key problem:”

The poll you cite is from you, on twitter, asking “Which of these factors do you guess best explains which places have been doing better at suppressing Covid10: more testing, more tracing, stronger general lockdown, forced central quarantine of suspected infected?”

Might I posit that: firstly if you want a consensus of opinion from “elites”, twitter is perhaps not the best forum; secondly by making this a “which of these factors” you are making a false dilemma; and thirdly you didn’t ask what is the best course of future action, but which do you think explains the current results (those are different questions, which might have different answers).

Also, I believe you mean COVID19, not COVID10 – unless you are incredibly worried about a different disease, and not the current global pandemic.

“If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.”

Yes, South Korea with its 250 deaths, and agressive testing approach which seems to have passed the peak, make such a hash up of its response. You are quite right to expect them to apologise immediately.

For some strange, no doubt unaccountable reason, you don’t make the rather important point that where “elites” have followed recommendations from experts and implemented strong measures from the start the butchers bill has been much lower and will probably be passed peak soon, while the US – which has repeatedly delayed testing against the majority expert opinion, which has had a president say there will be 0 deaths and has since followed that by suggesting injecting yourself with bleach – has been a somewhat less successful.

It is almost as if there is some sort of correlation there, isn’t it? But hey, making sweeping generalisations unsupported by evidence is much easier, I guess.

“We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain.”

OK – ignoring that diffent countries are opening at different rates (some not having relaxed yet), you say current measures aren’t working. What are your definitions of “working” and “net gain”, and how did you decide we aren’t meeting that? Please give your metrics, your expected outcomes, and show your data.

“Many are reading me as claiming that the public is unified in the sense of agreeing on everything.”

Well, yes. Your previous statement “It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.” does seem to imply you think there is unity on the topic of opening. It would be that bit where you say the public is not failing to produce sufficient unity. Maybe hire an editor?

“Some also read me as claiming that strong majorities of the public support fast opening, but again that’s not what I said.”

Well, yes – your blog post title said “Why Openers Are Winning”, which is a little misleading in that regard. Again, maybe ask someone to read through what you’ve said first, and if they get the wrong idea you can correct your writing. After all, you are posting this in the postion of something of an authoritative public figure – when the topic is as important as a global pandemic, maybe being a bit more careful with your wording would be helpful?

Let’s focus on your post here.

“I didn’t say that the public at the moment says they favor opening. I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening. Watch over the next few months.”

OK, so your thesis, as far as I can tell, is “at some point in the future the majority public opinion will be in favour of opening.”

Fine – that seems reasonable. However, the majority of experts and “elites” also seem to say “at some point in the future, we will have to reopen”.

So far I don’t see an irreconcilable conflict there. The only thing I can think of is that you think public pushing for opening will happen far earlier than experts and elites will favour. How did you come to this conclusion, and based on what evidence?

Also, this would raise considerable confusion as the US President, who might not unreasonably be posited as an “elite”, is pushing to reopen ASAP. Against the majority US opinion. Yet funnily enough I’ve yet to see your blog post “Why Closers Are Winning”, which details why the Trump Administration is wrong to go against majority opinion.

Perhaps you are still drafting it.

[1] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6842659-200203-NBCWSJ-April-Poll-4-19-20-Release.html

12

hix 05.06.20 at 2:30 am

Doing a mandatory public choice economics course right now. Dont like it. I´ll ammend my working theory why that is so based on this post to:
“All public choice economists are right wing trolls hiding a lack of reality basedeness behind equations”. That will be a correction to my previous working theory regarding my course which was so far: “My public choise Prof. got too much money from the Bertelsmann Stiftung and is thus behaving as a right wing troll hiding nonsense behind equations”.

13

faustusnotes 05.06.20 at 2:46 am

When they say the shutdown isn’t working fast enough to “plausibly be a net gain” and then demand public-choice and political economy in the models, I think they should just tell us how many people they want to kill to open the economy.

70,000 people are dead and the current closure will probably not end the virus before 100k or 150k are dead. This is apparently too low for these ghouls, and reopening the economy sooner is worth it. I think they should tell us what it’s worth. Do the calculation and show us.

They should also tell us how many people they think will be infected and die if we fully open. Then we can make some choices. But I somehow doubt the incel dude who wants the government to redistribute women to stop mass shootings is going to be able to do these calculations either correctly, or in a way that other people will be happy with.

14

faustusnotes 05.06.20 at 2:47 am

And also, why is Tyler Cowen treating the women-redistribution incel dude seriously, and by extension, if he is, why is anyone taking Cowen seriously?

(that’s a rhetorical question, obviously)

15

Chetan Murthy 05.06.20 at 3:15 am

Shorter Robin Hanson: “we fired all the policemen, and now that there’s a crime wave, either we all submit to be robbed daily, or start packing and suffer the inevitable gunshot self-injuries, crossfire/friendly-fire, etc, etc that comes with having a bunch of yahoos packing heat”.

notGoodEnough mentioned South Korea: it might be worth adding that SK had to content with an outbreak in Daegu where the victims were actively resisting the state, the second-biggest outbreak in the world at the time, and they succeeded in suppressing it to the point where they could to back to (more-or-less) normal life. No, it’s not perfect. But they’re not in lockdown, even though they had a pretty damn big outbreak they had to deal with.

It’s almost as if what really matters is competent government. But Robin Hanson wouldn’t know anything about that: he’s a GrOPer and a Trumpist, and the only good government is one that cuts taxes and enriches the already-rich.

16

bad Jim 05.06.20 at 3:57 am

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

17

bad Jim 05.06.20 at 4:40 am

On a somewhat more serious note: the public enthusiasm for a return to normal, to the extent that it exists, would likely diminish were the death rate to resume its previous rate of increase. There seems to be a hidden assumption that the problem is not as bad as the experts say, that it’s not actually that much worse than the seasonal flu, and perhaps even that the untimely demise of hundreds of thousands of consumers would have a negligible effect upon demand.

18

J-D 05.06.20 at 5:32 am

How does it feel to write a reasonably well written blog post, and your commenters-the ones that ideologically agree with you-are obvious lunatics?

I have no idea who you’re referring to here, and therefore no reason to agree with your evaluation of them, but the general issue you raise should be a straightforward one.

In any politically or socially significant contest, conflict, or dispute, it is to be expected that both sides (or all sides) will attract some people who have taken their side out of muddle-headedness, and also some with ulterior motives. Therefore, I always expect that on my side there will be some fools and some crooks, and having this confirmed by specific examples, although it’s sometimes emotionally awkward, is not by itself reason to doubt that I’ve taken the right side.

19

J-D 05.06.20 at 6:06 am

I didn’t say that the public at the moment says they favor opening. I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening. Watch over the next few months.

Push? Push how? What is it that we’re supposed to be watching for?

20

J-D 05.06.20 at 7:23 am

A business executive with whom I am associated asked me the other day, ‘What will be the reaction of the public to the new laws for retail price maintenance?’ This was an important question, for as manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of a commodity he had to decide a policy covering costs, prices, possible injunctions, court orders, notification to retailers and so on. Yet my colleague was trying to settle this critical matter with the aid of a ghost. There is no ‘public’ which is a useful concept in the premises. Calling it ‘John Q. Public’ does not help. Between us, we had to break down ‘public’ into a series of interested groups–New York retailers, retailers in the West, jobbing houses, customers of various kinds–before we could knowwhat we were talking about and arrive at a valid decision.

Stuart Chase, The Tyranny Of Words

Other commenters are correct to point out that in this particular instance the question of who is meant by ‘elites’ is at least as important as who is meant by ‘public’. It would be a strange definition of ‘elites’ which would exclude the holder of the most powerful position on the planet.

21

Moz in Oz 05.06.20 at 7:59 am

a revealed preferences public

One thing that struck me again today: my “revealed preference” is to visit at least one supermarket every day, sometimes more than one. So obviously I want more opening, more sooner.

In practice what I want is to have the item purchase limits gone ASAP so I can go back to shopping fortnightly or less, except buying fresh fruit and vegetables (those shops are still open, without item limits). The good news is that long-life milk has had the limit lifted so I bought my usual two-three week supply.

Which is essentially the public behaviour/private preference difference alluded to, with the tweak that the behaviour is coerced by the state.

22

Collin Street 05.06.20 at 12:19 pm

I didn’t say that the public at the moment says they favor opening. I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening. Watch over the next few months.

Nani the actual.

If someone said this in a high-school class discussion I’d expect some of the other students to spot how vacuous it was and to explain it to their classmates in a way that let the entire class understand that it was vacuous.

“Oh, in a few months time people will be pushing to release the lockdowns”. No shit sherlock, that’s the whole point; lock things down now so that…

… at the start of the lockdown I bought a two-litre cask of bad cab merlot, and there’s still about a quarter left. It needs drinking, and I need to be drunker.

In a few months, the plan goes, the virus will be controlled and the lockdowns can be released. The lockdowns are already being released, actually; NZ’s dropped back to the lockdown standard most of australia is on. “In a few months people will want the lockdowns to be released” adds nothing to any conversation anyone is having because it was factored in from the get-go; your contribution is, literally, worthless.

[… that’s some really rough red. Good thing the ‘rona means I don’t have work tomorrow, because noone is buying from our work because most of our customers are retailers and none of their customers want to die. Maybe I will, come morning; the best hangovers come from cheap red]

You’ve made it worthless. “People want to end the lockdown now!” is new, and thus relevant… but it’s not true, and so worthless. And, yes, “People will want to end the lockdown ‘in a few months'” is true, and in that sense it’s a step forward… but it’s not new, and that’s a step back, and that means it, like the predecessor, is still a worthless thing to say.

You need to say things that noone’s said before and that are true. They need to be both. One or the other alone isn’t good enough.

23

oldster 05.06.20 at 1:21 pm

For years now, David Brooks has had a clear role in the world of American politics.

He is paid to take the hardest-right, most fascist-adjacent aspects of the Republican jihad, wrap them in smiley, soothing platitudes, and slip them into the tote-bags of liberal NPR listeners.

He is the vector for infection, the narrow edge of the puke-funnel, the conduit through which policies that should be met with automatic revulsion are instead given a veneer of respectability. His job is to take immoral ideas, and feed them to otherwise moral people in such a misleading way that they pause in confusion and say, “gosh, he seems so nice and reasonable. We ought to give his ideas a fair hearing. Maybe he has a point there.”

Reader, he does not have a point there. Instead, he has a message, and a role. His message is whatever his hard-right masters tell him to push, even if it’s the opposite of yesterday’s message. And his role is to infect the body politic with poisonous ideas. His ideas do not deserve a fair hearing. The only reasonable response is to shun him, to exclude him from polite society.

Tyler Cowen is David Brooks for left academics.

24

Robin Hanson 05.06.20 at 2:07 pm

“Push? Push how? What is it that we’re supposed to be watching for?”

Public will be “acting out”, locking down less, regardless of rules.
They will feel increasing pain, financially and psychologically.
Politicians will perceive increasing pressures to open.

25

anonymous 05.06.20 at 2:28 pm

“I have no idea who you’re referring to here,”

JD: If I come here and post that I think you and all your supporters are Nazis: will you leave it up?
If your supporter comes here and posts that he thinks all your political opponents are Nazis: will you leave it up?

anon

26

bianca steele 05.06.20 at 2:56 pm

I suppose the point of the OP, at least the last paragraph, hinges on the fact that “economists hone tools people can use to make better decisions” and “economists are the profession dedicated to making decisions for society” don’t describe the same state of affairs. This crisis has certainly shown society’s fetish for elevating GDP above all else.

faustusnotes

I did not know that. Thanks for pointing it out. I suppose “elites” get taken seriously by other “elites” and don’t have to worry that something nasty like that will show up and embarrass them for having done so,

27

Tm 05.06.20 at 3:22 pm

Poor Henry, going out of his way to find charitable readings of the post he’s criticizing only for the charitably read author (one of them) to show up in the comments and expose himself as a complete nutcase patently contradicting himself.

28

John Jackson 05.06.20 at 4:45 pm

There is no evidence that “the openers are winning” and considerable evidence that they are not:

https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/covid19-50-state-survey-reopen-economy/

” I said that they will over time tend to push in the direction of opening. Watch over the next few months.” A more banal statement is hard to imagine. Will they “tend to push?” Really? “over the next few months?” when conditions have changed, hopefully dramatically? Is there, in fact ANYONE who thinks that the lockdown situation will be the same in August as it is now? Golly gee, sure glad we have Cowen endorsing this vacuous statement with “public choice theory!”

29

asdf 05.06.20 at 5:51 pm

Most people I know who got laid off were told something like “we will pay your health insurance through May and if this ends by then we will hire you back.”

So currently, this is a paid (+$600/week unemployment) holiday with health insurance and you don’t have to pay your rent if you don’t want to.

By June it will be destitution, and it will be warm and sunny out for people cooped up in houses.

30

Lee A. Arnold 05.06.20 at 5:55 pm

The government could simply enact a temporary UBI until there is enough testing & tracing to restart the economy beyond the current necessities. Central banks can monetize the debt and then apply the standard techniques of “financial repression” (such as increasing bank reserve requirements) to prevent inflation. Of course this would not be deemed politically feasible and so it does not meet the requirements of their argument.

And of course one of the reasons it is not feasible is that these selfsame elites called “economists” have been grinding out the old freemarket baloney for 50 years.

Thus our current moral: “You must die” for the economic order, which can think of no other way to organize temporarily to save your life!

Indeed, whence comes the contention that the “elites are failing”? What the elites are doing, at least the Republican elites, is a three-pronged strategy straight out of a campaign strategist’s playbook: 1. “Reopen” the economy, to prevent more relief spending (except bailouts of Senatorial portfolios in big finance, no doubt). 2. Project higher death rates and call the Trump-believers “warriors”, to prompt their weird authoritarian/libertarian* callousness for the possible horrors to come. 3. Hide the real death toll (if the revelatory newspaper reportage from Florida and other states is to be believed) so that its emotional impact will be diffused and lost in the coming welter of competing claims, i.e. disinfo, i.e. “fake news”.

Note that Republican elites have already done the best possible job in blaming Trump’s poor covid-19 response from the beginning of February through the middle of March on China, the WHO, and impeachment. If polls are to be believed, this has retained the 43% of the public who are ensconced in Trump-motivated cognition beyond any appeal to facts or logic, facts such as other countries did better in response, and logic such as the likelihood that an earlier quarantine might have saved 90% of the dead.

It is hard to argue that the “public”, at least a significant slew of them, has any agency, at all.

I resist a diatribe here about the weird authoritarian/libertarian mix which has taken over the GOP since the aftermath of Goldwater.

31

steven t johnson 05.06.20 at 6:41 pm

Jason Brennan, comrade in arms with Tyler Cowen and others against Nancy MacLean, told the world this not too long ago: “On top of this, as economists and other math savvy people look into epidemiology, it’s becoming clear that the models they use are quite poor, because they have difficulty with endogeneity and with variance.” (https://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2020/04/government-authority-incompetence-and-sars-cov-2/) The “variance” referenced above links to Hanson post “Beware RO Variance” at http://www.overcomingbias.com/2020/04/beware-r0-variance.html

The relevance of course is that since epidemiologists are morons or frauds, then it is tyranny to impose lockdowns. And thus this post pretending the popular uprising against the liberal tyranny has begun. It is true the post pretends the mod tactics aren’t partisan cryptofasist Astroturf and the real impetus comes from the suites, not the streets. It is true that lockdowns and quarrantines are actually the same thing…but I see no reason to think Hanson understands that any better than the concept of RO.

Speaking of Cowen, Brennan and the issues of higher education, Brennan’s new book “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” is highly esteemed by Cowen.

32

Wonks Anonymous 05.06.20 at 8:14 pm

Robin’s first addition to his original post really should have been included the first time. “Are winning” makes it sound like one team currently has more points than another. He really should have written “will win” in the title (as he did in the body of his post) to indicate a “win” in the coming months.

For those asking how many people Robin wants dead, his post doesn’t actually argue that opening up is a “good idea”* (something he points out the advocates of lockdown can have while still losing the political struggle). Public choice often highlights scenarios in which sub-optimal choices are made, with Hanson’s colleague Bryan Caplan writing an entire book about how irrational voters are the biggest problem in our political system.
*He does refer to the anti-lockdown argument as being “plausible”, but this is both based on the status quo failing to contain the epidemic and relevant for his argument in terms of members of the public choosing between the status quo and opening rather than what an ideally informed person might think.

33

Moz in Oz 05.06.20 at 8:46 pm

Public will be “acting out”, locking down less

Aha, a testable prediction!

So, in a month if we can find a member of the public who is has failed to “lock down less” Robin Hanson has been proven wrong. To be generous we should exclude people whose behaviour is determined by their local laws (since many lockdown laws are being relaxed) and only count those who have been voluntarily more locked down than their local law requires. Doesn’t matter, I think the disproof will be widespread.

34

notGoodenough 05.06.20 at 11:13 pm

Wonks Anonymous @ 29

If you read my long ramblings, you see that I don’t accuse Hanson of wanting people dead – I don’t particularly care about his desires, only about his arguments and the evidence. If, however, I accept your very generous interpretation[1], I still find many problems with Hanson’s post[2].

He (and now, apparently you) both make very general claims that the “status quo” is “failing”. OK, please elaborate as to in which countries, by what standards, which metrics and models were used, and what is the evidence.

Because if you look at South Korea, I wouldn’t call that a failure. Yet they are using the very approach being railed against. The US, by contrast, has massively delayed its response and is experiencing some of the worst of the outbreak. However, Hanson never addresses the correlation between the actions taken and their relative success or failure. He just makes very strong generalisations (as if every country has had a similar result) and doesn’t ever back it up with anything other than assertion.

Now, while I appreciate correlation does not equal causation, I think if you are arguing that lockdown measures are failing, you need to be very clear about what you think they are for and by what standards you are judging their failure.

If I look Hanson (and, apparently, you), you both make the fundamental mistake of saying these measures are to “contain”. Except, they are not to contain (as in prevent transmission) but primarily to flatten the curve (slow the transmission so that services are not overwhelmed with everyone getting sick at once). Which, when they have been instituted, they do (and, as experts have repeatedly said, the earlier and stronger the measures, the greater the effect).

That has been said from the beginning, and that fact Hanson gets something as basic as what the measures are for wrong does not instil confidence in anything he is saying.

To use a metaphor, if I judge the fire brigade by the quality of the cake-decoration skills rather than their ability to put out fires, I can certainly say they are failing. But that isn’t a problem with the fire brigade – it is a problem with my ignorance.

Hanson also makes many other mistakes, such as saying the flatten the curve approach is to give herd immunity (wrong – it is to prevent services being overwhelmed), that there was an immediate global lockdown (wrong – South Korea and Sweden never instituted a lockdown), etc. etc. I’m sure anyone who takes the time to read the post will find even more problems than I.

So in short, my problem with Hanson is that a lot of what he has said is wrong, he doesn’t support himself with evidence, and he thinks a badly worded twitter poll (which gets the name of the disease wrong) is convincing evidence that “elites are in disarray”. If this is representative of the typical quality of his work, he is not someone who has a particularly sound methodology.

Normally people making such basic errors mildly annoys me. In the middle of a pandemic, someone making such dangerous proclamations as “this current system is failing” and “experts got it all wrong” could – if taken seriously – actually get people killed. Whether that is the intention or not.

It might be worth pondering that.

[1] Firstly, Hanson’s title is not the only time he gives that impression – much of his text (as I’ve previously highlighted) is also worded in such a way as to suggest there is a majority opinion to end lockdown measures. It would seem many other people have also read it in that way. Perhaps, being generous, Hanson is merely a very bad communicator – in which case, publically espousing opinions about a pandemic probably isn’t the best idea.

[2] Reading the latest addendum, Hanson cites (amongst others) a RRG poll as evidence there is a growing movement to reopen. I decided to read it. Here is an example of how a question is phrased:

“Q3 Some people say California businesses should remain closed indefinitely. Others say California has flattened the curve enough that it can now safely reopen now. Which do you identify with more?”
Remain closed indefinitely: Reopen now: Neither: Not sure:

Look at that wording – some say everything should be shut forever, others say things can be safely reopened. That entire survey really is a masterclass in poisoning the well. And this is what Hanson considers evidence.

I try to avoid making judgements about people, but given this level of getting it wrong, it is hard to avoid the conclusion Hanson is either knowingly wrong (in which case he is a hack) or unknowingly wrong (in which case he is a buffoon who is pontificating about something when 5 minutes with google could improve his knowledge significantly).

Either way, I don’t see that he is worth the electronic ink.

35

Wonks Anonymous 05.06.20 at 11:15 pm

Moz in Oz:
He didn’t say “every member of the public”. We can talk about an aggregate like the “public” doing something “less” via averages rather than requiring it of every constituent member. And indeed in his May 6 addendum to his post Hanson links to some evidence on that.

36

notGoodenough 05.06.20 at 11:20 pm

Acutally, my apologies to CT – I made a typo:

I said

“Because if you look at South Korea, I wouldn’t call that a failure. Yet they are using the very approach being railed against.”

That should have read

“Because if you look at New Zealand, I wouldn’t call that a failure. Yet they are using the very approach being railed against.”

South Korea is, of course, not instituing a lockdown (as I note later). It has “merely” a vigerous test and trace response.

37

bianca steele 05.06.20 at 11:33 pm

@28

So, in that post, it appears, Brennan, who is on record advocating only letting properly informed people vote, believes less than certain information about the details of a pandemic makes all action to mitigate it illegitimate. Seems plausible!

38

J-D 05.06.20 at 11:50 pm

“Push? Push how? What is it that we’re supposed to be watching for?”

Public will be “acting out”, locking down less, regardless of rules.
They will feel increasing pain, financially and psychologically.
Politicians will perceive increasing pressures to open.

The extent to which people feel financial pain is a product not solely of their own preferences, but of a combination of factors; in this context, crucially, one of those factors is the extent and nature of the financial support provided by government. Where governments provide more financial support to the most needy, they will feel less pressure to return to work; where governments provide less financial support to the most needy, they will feel more pressure to return to work; their behaviour will vary accordingly.

A government that desires greater public pressure for removal of restrictions on workplaces will be able to generate that pressure by not providing financial alternatives: not the public driving the government but the government driving the public, although we still haven’t established whether leaders of governments are supposed to be included in the category of ‘elites’, many people who like to use that term being suggestively coy about its definition.

39

J-D 05.06.20 at 11:54 pm

By June … it will be warm and sunny out …

Not around these parts it won’t.

40

Collin Street 05.07.20 at 12:03 am

Aha, a testable prediction!

But it’s not one of any probative value to the issue at hand, is it? It’s surreptitiously changing the topic from “now” to “the future”, and is actually pretty vague in terms of what it commits itself to [… an increasing level of vaguely-described restiveness, more-or-less, degree and impact not stated] and in any case comports with what everyone else is saying anyway.

Testable? Testable against which alternative thesis? None, because there are no alternative theses it stands in opposition to: his big brave prediction is, when you get down to it, something nobody’s actually disagrees with.

Motte and bailey, or more accurately weasel words: the form of authoritativity and decisiveness, but hollowed out behind with only that form remaining. And the kicker is, I don’t even think he realises he’s doing that.

41

Jim Buck 05.07.20 at 7:07 am

@28 “partisan cryptofacist Astroturf” is the manufacturers’ name on the bullets which my Ultramontanist cousin fires at me across the facebook trenches. She fires them serially, straight out of the magazine:

https://ahamay79.tumblr.com

42

Aubergine 05.07.20 at 8:35 am

J-D@20:

Other commenters are correct to point out that in this particular instance the question of who is meant by ‘elites’ is at least as important as who is meant by ‘public’. It would be a strange definition of ‘elites’ which would exclude the holder of the most powerful position on the planet.

Yes, public choice theorists use “elite” in a specific, technical sense, which is how they end up saying apparently silly things like this (from Robin Hanson’s blog post):

But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity. At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.

Experts and the public demurred, and elites got their way.

To which one might ask: what kind of “elite” is it that doesn’t include obvious members of elites like Trump, Murdoch, Johnson or Bolsonaro?

Now, what public choice theory aims to do is to apply microeconomic theory to politics and administration. Which means a lot of game theory. And when you look at the conclusions public choice theorists tend to draw, it becomes clear what they are doing.

First, they see most political questions in terms of prisoner’s-dilemma-style games, where the answers can be broadly understood as involving cooperation or defection. Generally, “cooperation” involves things like systemic solutions to systemic problems, international multilateralism, the precautionary principle, worker organisation, collectively deferred gratification, things like that, while “defection” involves short-term gain for long-term harm, externalisation of costs, free-riding, environmental destruction for private profit and all of those kinds of things. (In the context of coronavirus responses, enduring the lockdown is cooperation, and defection means ending the lockdown in the knowledge that doing so will probably allow the virus to spread.)

Then they define the “elite” as anyone who favours cooperation, while anyone who favours defection is part of the “public”. They are remarkably consistent on this.

(This ties into the version of “revealed preferences” discussed by Henry above: when public choice theorists talk about revealed preferences, they usually mean a preference to defect in a specific situation, revealed by someone who is forced into it by their circumstances. Henry’s examples, such as “workers … denied unemployment benefits if they decline to work in obviously unsafe working conditions” (where declining to work unsafely would represent a choice to cooperate with other workers), are apt.)

If you map the incentive structure of the COVID-19 lockdown, you find an interesting variant of the prisoner’s dilemma: the costs of cooperation (lockdown) are severe and immediate, the costs of mutual defection are probably far more severe but also more distant, while unilateral defection (leaving lockdown while others stay in) offers some immediate benefit for the defector even though it’s likely to end up with everyone suffering in the end. This kind of game lets public choicers and other gadflies whip up resentment against their “elites” in the knowledge that the people who will actually have to take responsibility for the consequences of defection (temporary morgues in football stadiums, etc.) will be very reluctant to accept those consequences. And this is exactly what they are doing.

As for the specifics of Hanson’s post, I think the ball is very firmly in his court after notGoodenough’s controlled demolation @11 above. Will he respond? (lol)

43

faustusnotes 05.07.20 at 12:12 pm

Yes, the economists’ efforts to discuss this epidemiology are laughable. The Tyler Cowen piece Steven T Johnson links to is appallingly bad, and that idiot in turn links to a Robin Hanson post in which Hanson seems to think infectious disease modelers haven’t discovered heterogeneous mixing or variance in infection parameters (he of course phrases it in terms of R0 because he doesn’t understand what R0 is or how it’s calculated). Was it Cowen or Ezra Klein who demanded to know what epidemiologists’ GRE was? The mind boggles.

It would be arrogant and insufferable coming from physicists, but coming from the not-even-wrong libertard wing of a discipline that doesn’t understand dimensional analysis and fundamentally cannot do basic mathematics it is absolutely hilarious. Get back to us when your equations balance, you muppets.

44

bianca steele 05.07.20 at 1:38 pm

Aubergine,

Thanks. That’s very helpful.

45

Cian 05.07.20 at 2:11 pm

For the Tyler Cowen GRE scores. This is hilarious coming from a hack like Cowen.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/04/what-does-this-economist-think-of-epidemiology.html

46

Jake Gibson 05.07.20 at 2:59 pm

The “public” = Tyler Cowen and those who share the libertarian philosophy. The shorter of which is “I want mine, screw you”. The longer of which is “my preferences > your existence.

47

Tm 05.07.20 at 3:57 pm

Re 41, That is an interesting elaboration. I was was under the impression that the “public” must be coextensive with the audience of Fox News and the “elite” has to be defined as everybody else. Or am I overfitting the data ? 😉

Good job, notgoodenough.

48

Barry 05.07.20 at 4:11 pm

49

De. Hilarius 05.07.20 at 7:09 pm

Thank you to notGoodenough for the comments. Much appreciated.

50

J-D 05.08.20 at 12:04 am

“I have no idea who you’re referring to here,”

JD: If I come here and post that I think you and all your supporters are Nazis: will you leave it up?
If your supporter comes here and posts that he thinks all your political opponents are Nazis: will you leave it up?

anon

I don’t understand how this response is supposed to be relevant to what has gone before. If I were to answer that I would allow a (hypothetical) comment like that to be published on my (hypothetical) blog, what would that demonstrate? If I were to answer that I wouldn’t, what would that demonstrate? If somebody were to post a comment here saying ‘I think all my political opponents are Nazis?’, what would that demonstrate? What is supposed to be demonstrated by the actions of the hosts of this blog (of whom I am not one) allowing the publication of those comments which they do allow?

51

bad Jim 05.08.20 at 6:48 am

It seems to be reasonably clear that a small minority of Americans are in favor of lifting restrictions and returning to normal. The polls have restored my faith in the sanity of my fellow citizens. There seems to be a broad consensus that it’s more important to keep as many people alive as we can than it is to get the economy humming again.

“Politicians will perceive increasing pressures to open.”

Yes, but from whom? Not, it would appear so far, from those most at risk in that event.

52

anon/portly 05.08.20 at 5:46 pm

When Hanson says we’re “flattening the curve to get herd immunity,” it’s certainly a curious way to put it, but I think it just reflects his view that herd immunity is the true goal or inevitable in some sense. To suggest as notGoodenough does in 11 that Hanson doesn’t really understand or know about the ” not overwhelming health services with large number of sick people” argument is really pretty silly. This would be true even if Hanson didn’t specifically mention “medical system overload” later in the post.

These are for my money the “tell” quotes in Hanson’s post:

A few months later, those duration periods are expiring.

Months? It’s only been a few weeks, obviously.

Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain. When confronted with the discouraging recent trends, elites respond with a blizzard of explanations for local failures, and point to a cacophony of prophets with plans and white papers declaring obvious solutions.

If “elites” really means “certain – mainly but not entirely Team Blue – media and/or political elites and certain experts,” then I’d say the first statement is true. But is the second statement true? I don’t see any such blizzard or cacophony as described here, not whatsoever as far as the information reaching the broader public.

From those “media and/or political elites mostly what I think the public is really seeing is bad Jim’s (51) “it’s more important to keep as many people alive as we can than it is to get the economy humming again” argument.

Obviously some experts are saying the same thing, and I think essentially Hanson is simply expressing disagreement or annoyance with their view. To the extent “elites and experts push in a dozen different directions,” that’s just the result of unsettled science, obviously – isn’t it unavoidable?

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

What is avoidable is the prediction described here (I’m happy to accept it as predictive). Why would governors, at least the smarter ones, and maybe even most of the dumber ones, not recognize this dynamic themselves? Obviously they understand that public opinion in favor of lockdowns could change, especially if lockdowns come to be seen as counterproductive or capricious.

More importantly I think they understand the extent to which “opening” and “closing” is not in their power – firms and the public are making many or most of the decisions – and they understand very well the importance of health/economic trade-offs. Not just the economists but the “public health” experts will be stressing this to them.

And they’ll have pressure from (or be guided by) the examples of other nations (especially with Europe in a similar boat) and other states, which is something the public will notice. I think Hanson’s prediction is more an expression of his disgruntlement with the current policy equilibrium not reflecting his own view than with a good Public Choice model.

53

AWOL 05.08.20 at 6:26 pm

Hanson, Robin 05.05.20 at 9:36 pm

My local McDonald’s is hiring. I invite your royal white ass to engage in public service by serving us Northern Manhattan Elites. Maybe you can introduce elephant to the menu?

54

SamChevre 05.08.20 at 7:16 pm

I think they should just tell us how many people they want to kill to open the economy.

OK, I’ll take the challenge, because the misunderstanding of this point is really pervasive in these comments.

All the “flatten the curve” models say that if you don’t run out of hospital capacity at any point, you get about the same number of deaths over the next year–but with lockdowns, they happen in October instead of July.

So for my part–so long as the number of deaths between now and December 2021 is the same, I think opening up as soon as possible–even if it does mean 200,000 people die 3 months sooner–is worthwhile.

55

Cranky Observer 05.09.20 at 1:44 am

= = = All the “flatten the curve” models say that if you don’t run out of hospital capacity at any point, you get about the same number of deaths over the next year–but with lockdowns, they happen in October instead of July.

So for my part–so long as the number of deaths between now and December 2021 is the same, I think opening up as soon as possible–even if it does mean 200,000 people die 3 months sooner–is worthwhile. = = =

That’s a mighty big ‘if’ hiding in there pardner. We don’t know, and will probably never know given the nature of that profession, if the reports that EMS workers in New York City and northern Italy actually were told to leave any suspected COVID19 victim over 60 to die in their apartment and not transport to hospital. But even if not – that’s what happens if a region unshelters too early or too rapidly and /does/ run out of hospital capacity.

56

J-D 05.09.20 at 3:08 am

All the “flatten the curve” models say that if you don’t run out of hospital capacity at any point, you get about the same number of deaths over the next year–but with lockdowns, they happen in October instead of July.

… but if hospital capacity does run out, then larger numbers of people will die (and not just of COVID-19); so there is substantial value in guarding against the possibility of hospital capacity running out.

57

faustusnotes 05.09.20 at 3:54 am

Sam, perhaps you don’t realize this but under the current lockdown situation, once all the yet-unrecorded deaths in care homes and at home are recorded, the USA is already on track for 200,000 deaths. So do you mean that you think opening up the economy will kill 200,000 more people and you’re willing to accept that, or do you mean you don’t want to open up?

Once you open up the economy, you won’t be able to control this disease. It won’t be 200,000 deaths by July instead of October, it’ll be 200,000 deaths every month until December next year. If you doubt this, look to the ONS: every country that has properly counted its deaths and has been fully attacked by this virus has seen the number of monthly deaths double. America has about 3 million deaths a year as an easy rule of thumb, so you have about 200,000 deaths a month. If you let this virus go crazy, expect that number to double for every month that the economy reopens. And expect it to take about 12 months to infect everyone in your country. Is that what you want?

If your idea (and this isn’t just aimed at SamChevre) is that you can open up the economy and control this virus in some way, then you are seriously misguided about the virus. No country has been able to do this. If you act early in its growth stage you can get it under control in two months, but if you let it get a grip you will end up with a million deaths and then a decision to go into a ferocious lockdown that will take 3-4 months to control the disease. And that is assuming that you don’t hit horrific numbers like 50,000 or 100,000 cases a day, which will first overwhelm your medical system and then kill or incapacitate all your medical personnel.

That’s what Robin Hanson doesn’t understand, because like all economists he doesn’t understand numbers. Don’t be like him!

58

faustusnotes 05.09.20 at 3:56 am

And I’ll just add, since SamChevre mentioned it, that no country has flattened the curve while maintaining an open economy and the flatten the curve models are almost certainly wrong because they underestimate the R0 of this disease.

59

Fake Dave 05.09.20 at 4:59 am

So basically we should talk about reopening now because in a couple months the general public will be clamoring for it based on a lower perception of infection risk and a high level of economic insecurity. Except that if we do “open up” early, the infections will spike again and people will go back to being more scared of horrible suffocating death than the Dow dropping.

So the predictions of these libertarians are predicated on us ignoring the predictions of libertarians. At least they got their priors right for once.

Seriously though, y’all non-essentials have way too much time on your hands.

60

Felicia Patch 05.09.20 at 6:15 am

SamChevre, with all due respect, I think you misunderstand the impact of 200,000 people dying 3 months earlier.

I’m a hospitalist in Boston, taking direct care of covid19 patients. My hospital has been almost completely full of covid19 patients for a few weeks. After several weeks of lockdown, we’re starting to see fewer admissions with covid19, and have fewer inpatient beds occupied by covid19. We are slowly converting covid19 teams of doctors to non-covid19 teams (we have released our fantastic Dermatology residents back to telemedicine!). But all the uninfected people who have avoided coming to the hospital for fear of covid19 are beginning to trickle in, for conditions like perforated appendicitis or heart failure exacerbations, and they are waiting hours in our ED for non-covid19 beds. They are sicker because they waited longer than they should have—but had they showed up on time, we wouldn’t have had beds for them anyway. We have been relatively lucky, and proactive with our lockdown.

Boston has had 10,761 cases, and 496 deaths, as of May 8. As i implied above, we just barely avoided overwhelming our hospital capacity—in a city with multiple large world-class academic hospitals. We did not have to institute the “Crisis Standards of Care” to unilaterally withhold ventilators and dispense opiates to air-hungry people who wanted to cling to life more strongly than we calculated their survival odds.

So I do not want 200,000 more deaths across the country three months earlier. No thank you.

Luckily I live in a state where our governor and mayors listen to experts. Boston has just canceled public events through July. Most members of the public, much as they love our Independence Day music and fireworks, are okay with shelter-in-place. We have a generous, mostly-functional unemployment system and health insurance so that they can afford to. Sure, we have a small number of protesters: they can protest all they want. I’ll have room for them & their loved ones should they need me.

source for my numbers, with bonus delineation of Boston policies:
https://www.boston.gov/news/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-boston

61

notGoodenough 05.09.20 at 11:53 am

anon/portly @ 52

In my defence (and this is in no way meant to be argumentative, but merely to give my point of view):

Firstly, I don’t assert that Hanson doesn’t know or understand what flattening the curve is for (I don’t have access to his mind, so I have no idea what he actually does or doesn’t know), I assert that his statement “we’re flattening the curve to get herd immunity” is wrong, as it is written. I don’t believe that that is particularly controversial.

Hanson does indeed mention “not overloading medical systems” 2 paragraphs later, but doesn’t (as far as I can tell) explicitly link it to “flattening the curve” as he does “getting herd immunity”. Again, I don’t assert he doesn’t understand the topic, merely that what he has written is wrong as stated.

Now, if this was only one confusion/error in the blog post, I’d probably be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and not mention it. However, as many of his statements are literally factually wrong (e.g. universal lockdown, etc.), and he spends a fair amount of his post decrying those silly experts who know nothing, I am not particularly inclined to be overly generous in my reading. He could, after all, correct it (and note later where he has), make yet more addenda, or just write a new post on the topic to clarify. As it stands, I am inclined to assume that what he writes is what he intends to write – and that if he makes a statement which is wrong, he has made a statement which is wrong.

You might think this is being unfairly pedantic (I would respectfully disagree), but I am not sure it is silly.

It is certainly possible to play the interpretation game as some people have (e.g. when he says public he doesn’t mean a majority of the public, but some members of the public), but that still leaves some factual inaccuracies (though perhaps you can say it is exaggerating for effect). The thing is, if Hanson wishes to give forth on an particularly important topic, maybe he should make sure what he said is understandable to other people in a way which doesn’t require such interpretation in the first place? As he has now made 3 addenda in 2 days, I would say that that doesn’t appear to have been the case.

It is also notable that he says “current measures are failing” without saying which measures, what counts as failure, and how the assessment is being made. Now, if I were to play the interpretation game (which I do not) I would say this would seem to be, at least in part, indicative of his personal assessment, and he doesn’t believe flattening the curve works (when it has been shown to, in multiple countries which have adopted that approach). In actual fact, I don’t assert that (I try to avoid making assumptions, and let people say what they believe instead), but I hope this makes the point that it is possible to interpret Hanson in multiple ways – and without further clarification from Hanson, I don’t see much point to speculation.

At this point, I am not super-invested in spending much more time on Hanson’s post. I’ve already given a long (no-doubt too long) discussion about why I think his post is riddled with inaccuracies (some of which are rather important). There could be any number of reasons for this (I don’t propose to know which are true, nor do I particularly care).

My position is that if you are taking to a public forum to express an opinion, which is supposed to be superior to those of the experts you are happy to bash as incompetent fools, I expect you to get the majority of what you write correct. Perhaps this is a controversial approach, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to hold Hanson to the same standard as he is holding everyone else.

I hope, at the very least, we can both agree that making statements which are demonstrably wrong during a pandemic, in a public forum and in a position of authority, is not particularly helpful

I believe this offers some insight into what I wrote and why I wrote it – I am, of course, open to being corrected, but I am (respectfully) not convinced I have said anything particularly silly or unfair. If you, Hanson, or indeed anyone else, feel I have – well you know where to find me :-)

With best wishes to CT,

notGoodeneough

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notGoodenough 05.09.20 at 12:08 pm

As a general comment, I think Felicia Patch @ 60 makes an excellent discussion about why flattening the curve does, in fact, “work”.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if we were to assume that hospitals can cope with any demand made on them, but that would rather seem to approach “spherical horse in a vacuum” type reasoning.

For myself, when health service professionals tell me that they are under appreciable strain coping with the current crisis, and that increasing numbers of patients rapidly could overwhelm the system, I am inclined to take them at their word.

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SamChevre 05.09.20 at 8:06 pm

A few replies: I share Felicia Patch’s sense that Massachusetts has had reasonable policies and much acceleration in the death toll would overburden the hospital system. (I’m in western Massachusetts, which has a higher per capita rate of cases than Boston.) Massachusetts has also had fairly sensible restrictions (you can still walk in parks, buy home-repair supplies, and so on.)

But I am analyzing this very differently from faustusnotes: the “double the death toll for a year” was a built in minimum death toll by February 1, regardless of policy; the goal of lockdowns is to spread those deaths over a year so that the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, because if they are, the death toll goes way up (from both COVID-19 and lack of treating other things.) But lockdowns just delay those built-in deaths: they don’t prevent them.

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Wonks Anonymous 05.10.20 at 12:30 am

notGoodenough @ 34:

He (and now, apparently you)

I’ve been trying to present his argument rather than stake out a claim myself. Changing tacks, I will say that it appears the epidemic is growing throughout most of the U.S, so that would constitute a failure to “contain” the virus even if it’s a “success” right now in reducing hospital utilization to the point where they’re not overwhelmed. On the other hand, people are supposedly avoiding hospitals and dying in large numbers at home and the scarce resource of ventilators is now looking less important.

Because if you look at South Korea, I wouldn’t call that a failure.

I wouldn’t either. Hanson’s view is that the epidemic has grown so large that the South Korean approach isn’t in our option set, and what we’ve done isn’t going to get us there anytime soon. The “status quo” he’s referring to is that of the U.S, while SK and Taiwan would be more like the “much different outcomes” of the following quote:

If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.” But they aren’t saying this.

Hanson did actually bring up SK as a comparison in this earlier post where he compared the attempt to achieve similar outcomes to a “monkey trap”, where we are unwilling to give up hope well after it should be clear we have failed. And in the post we’d been discussing he blames elites for failing to specify “the packages of polices that seem to have worked initially in Wuhan or South Korea” as a standard for our containment policy.

However, Hanson never addresses the correlation between the actions taken and their relative success or failure.

I think he would deny that there’s a linear relationship between such actions and outcomes. Stopping a virus very early could completely prevent any deaths, but after a sufficient delay even a vast effort could amount to little.

f I look Hanson (and, apparently, you), you both make the fundamental mistake of saying these measures are to “contain”. Except, they are not to contain (as in prevent transmission) but primarily to flatten the curve (slow the transmission so that services are not overwhelmed with everyone getting sick at once).

He actually distinguished between the two in the post:

Initially, public health experts dominated, even when they screwed up. But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity. At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.

The main example of that happening was in the UK rather than US, but my impression is that people here also found unacceptable the number of deaths expected to be necessary prior to reaching herd immunity even assuming the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

Hanson also makes many other mistakes, such as saying the flatten the curve approach is to give herd immunity (wrong – it is to prevent services being overwhelmed)

Herd immunity is how the epidemic ends if nothing else stops it. And merely flattening the curve would not stop it. If we deliberately infected everyone immediately that could confer herd immunity without saving lives, but Hanson isn’t discussing that as an alternative (he does have a deliberate infection proposal via variolation, but it involves isolating the infected specifically to prevent the infection from spreading). He has also mentioned the hope for a vaccine, but his view is that the amount of time we’d expect for that to be available would be enough for the virus to infect most of the population at its projected growth rate. Others, like Greg Cochran (whom Hanson debated), place more weight on the probability that we will discover something effective soon enough to save many lives. They debated Hanson’s variolation proposal a little while back, so if you want to see how Hanson handles someone who knows a lot about infectious disease and has published on the subject, I highly recommend checking that out.

that there was an immediate global lockdown (wrong – South Korea and Sweden never instituted a lockdown)

Yes, I’d say that’s an excessive generalization.

he thinks a badly worded twitter poll

I don’t put that much stock in any particular poll of his either, but I figure I should discuss why Hanson likes to use them. They are very easy to create and get some data without going through the overhead of an actual academic study cleared by any IRB. Importantly for Hanson, if not for someone reading a random blog post, he doesn’t mind having an unrepresentative sample relative to the rest of the population because he’s interested in comparing many of his polls against each other, on the assumption that similar samples are responding to different versions of his polls (that assumption has turned out to be wrong in certain cases where polls of his got a lot of attention from people who don’t normally read him). This isn’t quite the same as Andrew Gelman’s view on within-person studies, since he’s not actually keeping track of individual respondents (although on many polls he does ask people to answer multiple questions via their choice of response), but it does help show why someone wouldn’t focus on just getting a large representative sample. Both Hanson and Gelman wrote about the late Seth Roberts when he was still around, and Roberts was distinctive for choosing to focus on self-experimentation, which had similar benefits for him as Hanson’s twitter polls while also serving as a true within-subject study.

Perhaps, being generous, Hanson is merely a very bad communicator

I think he often is. He’s excessive in his preference for terseness, which can make him harder to understand if you haven’t already been reading him for a while. Simplistic generalizations can result from that, while also conflicting with the value he places on literalism. Most of what he writes is of little interest beyond his niche, but periodically there will be a large group of people on the internet offended by something he wrote and while some of that is just the nature of a large internet full of people who will misread and miscontrue things, I think his own failures to clarify (I don’t think he normally expects a wide audience of people who might misread him) contribute.

in which case, publically espousing opinions about a pandemic probably isn’t the best idea.

Normally Hanson would actually agree that people should have fewer opinions (for example, he claims to have no opinion on abortion or gun control). However, in this case he thinks he has a contribution to make since he has studied things like public choice and views his variolation proposal as something that could potentially save many lives.

Look at that wording – some say everything should be shut forever

“Indefinitely” is not the same as “forever”. If the virus kept spreading, it would eventually infect enough people to achieve herd immunity, at which point we could presumably come out of lockdown.

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bad Jim 05.10.20 at 3:41 am

Some seem to think that “flattening the curve” means merely that the inevitable death toll is spread thinly enough that health care systems are not overwhelmed, but that the plague will continue to spread until herd immunity is attained.

This is not at all the intent, which is why “crushing the curve” has never lost its salience, nor the emphasis on testing and tracing. Think of a forest fire; we don’t merely try to limit its spread, sadly acknowledging that eventually all of the trees will be burned. We establish a perimeter and do everything we can to keep it contained therein, and it works reasonably well.

It’s an unstable equilibrium, to be sure, but one which has been sustained, with variable results, for millennia.

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oldster 05.10.20 at 1:27 pm

“Herd immunity” has two very different sets of implications and consequences, depending on how it’s acquired

Herd immunity can be acquired by vaccinating a large enough percentage of the population. That’s how civilized countries have developed herd immunity to chicken pox, mumps, and other diseases. The process kills no one, and costs little.

Herd immunity can also be acquired without a vaccine by allowing the virus to kill everyone it can, and then seeing who survived. That’s how populations in the middle ages acquired herd immunity to the black plague. It kills millions and millions, and disrupts economies more than a drop in the stock market does.

Anyone who uses the phrase “herd immunity” without specifying how the herd acquires the immunity should be dismissed immediately as an ignoramus or a barbarian.

An ignoramus if they do not realize the difference between acquiring it naturally and acquiring it via vaccination.

And a barbarian if they do know, but talk about the second process in the breezy, trivializing ways appropriate to the first.

In the absence of a vaccine, advocating for “herd immunity” means advocating for millions and millions of deaths. And advocating for it without admitting that means you are a dishonest barbarian.

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Aubergine 05.10.20 at 1:47 pm

Wonks Anonymous @ 64:

Herd immunity is how the epidemic ends if nothing else stops it.

If the virus kept spreading, it would eventually infect enough people to achieve herd immunity, at which point we could presumably come out of lockdown.

Last I heard, nobody actually knows whether “herd immunity” is possible with this particular virus. It might be, but we don’t know, and one of the benefits of flattening the curve – in addition to reducing the pressure on medical facilities – is that it gives more time to find out how the virus works and how to fight it. It’s quite possible that in a few months’ time doctors will have learned enough so that flattening the curve will be preventing deaths, not just delaying them. Or maybe they won’t – but considering how much harder it is to go from herd immunity to curve-flattening than the other way around, and how little we know about the long-term effects of the virus, it seems worth trying for a while, at least.

But really this is beside the point, which is that Hanson’s post is rubbish. Let’s take another look at it:

Three main relevant groups have vied lately to influence pandemic policy: public, elites, and experts. Initially, public health experts dominated, even when they screwed up. But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity. At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.

Experts and the public demurred, and elites got their way.

Which group of public health experts dominated, screwed up and then said that “the only viable option” was ““flattening the curve” to get herd immunity”? Was there really a substantial enough group of people who did all of these things, in order, to make this a reasonable generalisation?

When Hanson asserts that “elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy”, who is he talking about? Were there any “elites” whose opinions didn’t “object loudly”? What about the many politicians and other leaders around the world who preferred either “herd immunity” or “flattening the curve”, or just not doing anything – are they part of this “elite”? If not, why not?

Everywhere in the world, all at once, strong lockdown polices began, and containment became the official goal.

“Everywhere in the world”? Really?

Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain. When confronted with the discouraging recent trends, elites respond with a blizzard of explanations for local failures, and point to a cacophony of prophets with plans and white papers declaring obvious solutions.

“Consistently”? What is the “blizzard of explanations”? Who are these “prophets”? Are they part of the expert group or the public group, or some sub-compartment of the elite? Where are their cacophonous white papers full of obvious solutions?

So while the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions.

… So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does.

What would it take for the public to “uniformly push for more opening” in Hanson’s estimation – 51% for, 49% against? 123 vs 94 on a poll of Hanson’s twitter followers? Maybe 70% against, but the remaining 30% behaving in such a way as to make continuing efforts to flatten the curve pointless? Or does “unified” actually mean “unified”? Oh wait:

Added 3p: Many are reading me as claiming that the public is unified in the sense of agreeing on everything. But I only said that the public pushes will will tend to be correlated in a particular direction, in contrast with the elite pushes which are much more diverse.

All right then. Although I thought elites were being “loud” and “consistent” and “worldwide” – now they’re pushing in all kinds of different directions?

But we’re still beside the point, because none of these details matter. What does matter is pushing a narrative in which politics is always a conflict between unspecified “elites” (always written as if with a sneer of contempt) and the public. There’s no need to explain who these “elites” are, or how they could be at once so globally consistent and yet so diverse – so able to get their way, yet doomed to failure as soon as the unified will of the people awakens to its own power. It’s all about the feel. And it’s nonsense.

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Wonks Anonymous 05.10.20 at 4:06 pm

Last I heard, nobody actually knows whether “herd immunity” is possible with this particular virus.

It’s possible with most infections, and the studies done on this shows that immunity persists for a while.

one of the benefits of flattening the curve – in addition to reducing the pressure on medical facilities – is that it gives more time to find out how the virus works and how to fight it. It’s quite possible that in a few months’ time doctors will have learned enough so that flattening the curve will be preventing deaths, not just delaying them.

Reducing pressure on medical facilities is supposed to “prevent deaths, not just delay them”.

Or maybe they won’t – but considering how much harder it is to go from herd immunity to curve-flattening

Do you mean “squashing” or “nuking” the curve, as in reducing it well below even our medical capacity to basically nothing (as Greg Cochran advocates)? Because a long period of a flattened but not squashed curve can get you to herd immunity.

Which group of public health experts dominated, screwed up and then said that “the only viable option” was ““flattening the curve” to get herd immunity”?

I think it was in the UK that there was a big backlash to an initial plan with herd immunity as its endpoint. But if that’s specifically what he’s thinking of, Hanson didn’t mention that the plan had been formulated years ago in the expectation of an epidemic less deadly than this.

What would it take for the public to “uniformly push for more opening” in Hanson’s estimation

Maybe a monotonic trend away from social distancing? However, it could be possible for both elites and the public to settle on a compromise like “Outdoor transmission is far less likely, particularly with masks, while indoor aggregations of people still need to be restricted”. That distinction wouldn’t show up in the geolocation data Hanson has cited.

123 vs 94 on a poll of Hanson’s twitter followers

The twitter poll he originally cited in that post wasn’t a binary one. It was one with multiple options and the lack of any having a clear majority is why he argued that people don’t see a single reliable means of obtaining better results. If most people had picked one of those options, then the government could pursue that and perhaps the public would expect that to work. Later he added another poll on how many months people would be willing to give lockdown, but he’d already linked to professional pollsters by then.

All right then. Although I thought elites were being “loud” and “consistent” and “worldwide” – now they’re pushing in all kinds of different directions?

This sounds inconsistent from fragments, but I don’t think he’s that hard to understand if you read the whole post. Here’s a relevant quote on how elites aren’t unified even if they’re still publicly favoring lockdown:

If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.” But they aren’t saying this.

There is no specific policy package coordinated on, so the public just expects continued results like the status quo (meaning the epidemic continues to spread), and thus will have limited patience for a situation with obvious costs and less benefits than they had expected earlier. Hanson’s post is less of an argument that we SHOULD re-open and more of a klaxon that we WILL do so over the objections of experts unless there’s coordination around a viable alternative package of policies.

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anon/portly 05.10.20 at 7:56 pm

61

You might think this is being unfairly pedantic (I would respectfully disagree), but I am not sure it is silly.

The thing is, if Hanson wishes to give forth on an particularly important topic, maybe he should make sure what he said is understandable to other people in a way which doesn’t require such interpretation in the first place?

…his post is riddled with inaccuracies (some of which are rather important).

I don’t think it’s being unfairly pedantic, it’s being pointlessly pedantic. It’s an obscure post on an obscure econblog. The point of the post was to make a certain argument, not to give a potted summary of the coronavirus situation.

I agree with Wonks Anonymous that Hanson can be terse and hard to follow. And obviously it’s difficult to tell (or he’s simply being fudgy about) whether and to what extent he’s talking about “now” or “the near future.” But I assume Hanson is smart and has been following the coronavirus situation closely, and I assume Hanson assumes his readers are smart and have been following the coronavirus situation closely. To the extent his “inaccuracies” are inaccuracies, I don’t think it’s of much import.

Anyway, I don’t see his post as being “riddled with inaccuracies.” What it’s riddled with, to me, is Hanson’s interpretation of certain aspects of the coronavirus situation, and this underlies the argument he’s making.

Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain.

I don’t think this is inaccurate – obviously at least some “elites” are making this argument. For example the recent post here on CT criticizing Sweden – I view much of the ongoing criticism of them as an element of this argument. (Maybe that is wrong).

When confronted with the discouraging recent trends….the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected….

I don’t think this is inaccurate – it just reflects Hanson’s view. He’s not the only person with this view, so it’s certainly accurate for some “we.”

So while the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions. If elites would all back the same story and solution … [i]f they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months [then the public would still defer to them, as before, but]” ….deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open….

(Note: I assumed the “it” in one paragraph was specifically the “deference” mentioned in the next paragraph).

If you share Hanson’s view of reality, his negative view of the policies favored by other experts and elites, obviously this argument makes a lot of sense. Maybe he’ll turn out to be right and things will play out along these lines. Or, maybe not. Maybe things will push against Hanson’s view; for example science could start to settle and in some instances the public could lag behind the elites and experts on reopening.

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faustusnotes 05.11.20 at 12:29 am

SamChevre, flattening the curve won’t save the health system if it isn’t done with the intention of stopping the epidemic. Flattening the curve to delay the deaths over a year instead of 3 months (as you imagine) won’t work because we can’t contain this virus. Consider the case in NY now, where it is down to about 2000 cases a day now and 10,000 at its peak. If we don’t get those 2000 cases down to 0 or near 0 then eventually there will be another outbreak and it will start rising again. You cannot test and trace those thousands of cases with 100% effectiveness for months on end. There are two trajectories for this epidemic: Either you kill it, or it kills you. There are many states in the USA that are seeing daily increases of 3% of the current case load. That seems fine, but that means that every day the number of new cases grows, and the chance that a super-spreader slipst through the net and gets you an outbreak grows. Sure, states with 5% daily growth will take 15-20 days to see a doubling of cases, but you can bet that eventually the number of cases will become uncontrollable.

We shouldn’t even be debating this. This disease kills 20% of people over 70, 1% of people over 50, and probably .2% of everyone it touches. It spreads at three times the rate of flu. You just cannot let it get out of control.

If you want a short lockdown with minimal economic disruption you need to do what China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam did: put hte lockdown early, when the case numbers are low, isolate every infected person, and keep it in place until the cases are gone. We have gone from 1000 cases a day in Japan to 100 in a month, with a very loose lockdown. The US has gone from 30,000 cases a day to 25,000 in the same time, with a tight lockdown. That’s why you have such a big economic problem: because you messed everything up at every turn.

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J-D 05.11.20 at 1:46 am

But we’re still beside the point, because none of these details matter. What does matter is pushing a narrative in which politics is always a conflict between unspecified “elites” (always written as if with a sneer of contempt) and the public. There’s no need to explain who these “elites” are, or how they could be at once so globally consistent and yet so diverse – so able to get their way, yet doomed to failure as soon as the unified will of the people awakens to its own power. It’s all about the feel. And it’s nonsense.

I want this not to be true. I want the people who seem to be talking about ‘elites’ in this way to explain what they meany be ‘elites’ in some other way, so that this interpretation is not true.

I have never yet known that to happen. Each failure diminishes my hopes, pushing me a little closer towards the dull grim certainty that this kind of criticism of ‘elites’ is just the pernicious nonsense that I’d really rather it weren’t.

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Collin Street 05.11.20 at 5:18 am

Is it that the people who are arguing that a 0.5% death toll is fine are literally the same people arguing that 0.5% failure rate of electricity from unreliable renewables is an intolerable economic burden, or is it just my cynical imagination?

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Tm 05.11.20 at 8:41 am

“But I assume Hanson is smart and has been following the coronavirus situation closely”

I don’t think we can tell whether Hanson is smart or how closely he has been following the Coronavirus situation but we do know, with certainty, that he is spreading dangerous falsehoods and reckless propaganda.

Strange to observe several people show up and write very long comments arguing that his demonstrated inaccuracies don’t matter. What is the purpose of these rather incoherent postings?

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notGoodenough 05.11.20 at 9:14 am

anon/portly 69

“It’s an obscure post on an obscure econblog.”

Hanson is a published health policy expert, who has been quoted approvingly in national newspapers, with 3 published books and multiple articles in globally-recognised newspapers. I would posit that that is slightly less obscure than most people.

It is interesting that Hanson is apparently so little-known as to be beyond criticism, but I (an anonymous commentator on a relatively obscure blog) am apparently so important as to need correction. My ego positively soars from such a compliment.

“The point of the post was to make a certain argument, not to give a potted summary of the coronavirus situation.”

I didn’t ask for a potted summary of the coronavirus situation – I asked for Hanson not to say “measures are failing” without giving some slight indication as to what he means by “measures” and “failing”. I don’t ask for a full length socioeconomic treatise, but to give some indication as to what he means by “elites” and “experts” and “public”. Given that a lot of his argument hinges on what you mean by those terms, I don’t think that is unreasonable to expect them to either be used in a normative sense or to have some degree of clarification.

“I agree with Wonks Anonymous that Hanson can be terse and hard to follow.”

As far as I can tell, it takes Hanson three paragraphs of bashing “elites” and “experts” to even get around to beginning to make his point. Most of which is, apparently, only contained in his final paragraph. I don’t find that terse – I find it verbose and incoherent (which is coming from me).

”To the extent his “inaccuracies” are inaccuracies, I don’t think it’s of much import.”

I think saying “measures aren’t working” when they demonstrably can and do is a pretty important inaccuracy. I think saying “elites are pushing to remain closed” when the POUTS and Republican Party are pushing to reopen is a pretty important inaccuracy. I think saying “the public is unified” when (as I am being informed) what is meant is a minority of the public agree on something but the rest of the public do not is a pretty big inaccuracy. Etc., etc.

Of course, you are free to continue thinking these are negligible points unworthy of attention. Fair enough – perhaps we can agree to disagree on our assessments.

”obviously at least some “elites” are making this argument. For example the recent post here on CT criticizing Sweden”

So “elites” are a group of people which includes the CT commentators, but not the POTUS and the majority of the Republican Party. Good to know.

It is a pity there isn’t much beyond that to give us a clue as to who these mysterous elites are, but apparently expecting greater detail is unnecessarily pedantic.

“the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected….”

“I don’t think this is inaccurate – it just reflects Hanson’s view. He’s not the only person with this view, so it’s certainly accurate for some “we.””

It certainly is accurate for some value of “we”, “fast”, “working”, and “status quo”. And I am an inspiring genius superhero, for some value of “inspiring”, “genius”, and “superhero”.

It would, perhaps, be mildly interesting to know what those values of “working” and “status quo” are, given that evaluation of Hanson’s points (and, you know, the actions of countries and resulting avoidance of unnecessary deaths) hinges on that. But I’ve only made this point something like 3 times now, so clearly it doesn’t matter that much.

“If you share Hanson’s view of reality, his negative view of the policies favored by other experts and elites, obviously this argument makes a lot of sense.”

Unfortunately, I have no idea as to whether or not I share Hanson’s view of reality, because I have no idea what is meant by “policies”, “experts” and “elites”. Given that what is meant by those terms could would dramatically whether or not I agree or disagree (and to what extent), it would be useful if they weren’t used in such a way as to make them placeholders for “undefined groups which are flexible depending on your interpretation and when you are using them”.

Which is rather my point.

Concluding remarks

I am not trying to pick on Hanson merely to satisfy my pedantry – I just happen to think that making vague and ambiguous statements regarding the success of policies during the middle of a pandemic is not the best thing to do. You and Wonks Anonymous do not share those concerns – which is, of course, your prerogatives.

I, and others, would find it useful to know what Hanson means when he says words. For example, what is meant by “elites”? But aparantly we are not worthy of that knowledge and so must glean from the context like some laborous game of guess who (Does it include the US president? No. Does it include comentators on CT? Yes. Are they people who just disagree with Hanson? Maybe.).

All I have done is made some relatively mild criticism of someone for getting things wrong, or communicating so poorly that coherency and meaning has been left as an exercise to the reader. This is apparently silly and pointlessly pedantic – fair enough; I clearly have no place in this discussion and so recuse myself.

Un salud,

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reason 05.11.20 at 3:14 pm

Just so that everybody is clear, there are quite a few countries that have in fact got the epidemic under control. From my point of view the most impressive effort is Austria (directly next to the most badly affected area in Italy) with now is seeing much less than 100 new cases a day. Switzerland, Australia and the Czech Republic are some other examples. How they will keep things under control in a world that is not under control is a difficult problem (trade links are particularly difficult – goods have to be delivered, presumably by people who are potentially exposed), but from within their own borders they should be able to trace and isolate any new cases.

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Wonks Anonymous 05.11.20 at 3:46 pm

notGoodenough @74:

Hanson is a published health policy expert, who has been quoted approvingly in national newspapers, with 3 published books and multiple articles in globally-recognised newspapers.

You are arguing that Hanson is not an obscure person because of his more formal publications. portly was arguing that his blog post was obscure. I would prefer if Hanson wrote such posts with more clarity, but I don’t expect the same standard for his blog posts vs articles or books.

I (an anonymous commentator on a relatively obscure blog) am apparently so important as to need correction. My ego positively soars from such a compliment.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about one anonymous commenter responding to another.

I didn’t ask for a potted summary of the coronavirus situation – I asked for Hanson not to say “measures are failing” without giving some slight indication as to what he means by “measures” and “failing”.

He gave more than a “slight” indication. Quotes like “official public messages suggesting that relatively short durations would be sufficient” and “In some places, infections are low or declining, while in others they are flat or increasing […] If these flat or increasing trends continue, containment will fail, and lockdown harms will soon exceed plausible future gains from preventing medical system overload.” He’s less specific about measures because one of his complaints is the failure to coordinate around a reliable package of policies as instead “politicians and experts in each jurisdiction craft their own policy packages, as long as they seemed “strong”, involving much public sacrifice”.

I think saying “measures aren’t working” when they demonstrably can and do is a pretty important inaccuracy

He didn’t say “no measures work anywhere”, he has complained that the specific policy packages from more successful countries were not adopted and instead we got measures with obvious costs and more dubious benefits. I have even pointed that out above, so at best you’re absent-minded and forgetful in discussing this which makes it annoying to converse with you.

the majority of the Republican Party

Mere membership in a party would be insufficient to qualify for elite status in a relatively open system like the U.S, but it should be pointed out that polls show most Republicans do not want to end lockdowns now. Hanson is predicting, however, that the ranks of openers will grow as patience runs out. As for the president, he endorsed lockdowns but said they would be limited (even bizarrely claimed he would decide when they would end, despite being a state/local issue), which is one of the things Hanson complains about.

I have no idea what is meant by “policies”, “experts” and “elites”

I would think those are rather standard terms, even if their boundaries can be vague. You might want to click on his first link for “public” discussing Martin Gurri’s “The Revolt of the Public” for more background on the issue. Hanson doesn’t agree with Gurri’s explanation for why the public is increasingly revolting, but that premise is part of why he expects openers to win.

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J-D 05.12.20 at 12:56 am

I have no idea what is meant by “policies”, “experts” and “elites”

I would think those are rather standard terms, even if their boundaries can be vague.

A number of commenters here, of whom I am one, have indicated reasonably clearly that we do not understand which people Robin Hanson is referring to when using the term ‘elites’.

Of course it’s possible for me to look up ‘elite’ in a dictionary and find a standard definition, but I’ve done that and it’s still not clear to me which people Robin Hanson is referring to when using the term ‘elites’.

Perhaps you think I’m lying, that I do understand the meaning and am only feigning incomprehension, but what would lead you to that supposition and what motive do you think I could possibly have for such fakery?

On the other hand, if you accept that I’m telling the truth and that I genuinely do not understand who Robin Hanson’s ‘elites’ are, why do you shy away from explaining the reference, if it is in fact clear to you? What’s your problem with that?

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notGoodenough 05.12.20 at 2:30 am

Wonks Anonymous @ 76

I believe I made myself fairly clear when I stated I’m not too interested in continuing this discussion, so I am uncertain as to why you feel necessary to continue addressing me (particularly as my comments were directed to anon/portly) rather than the many other commentators who are similarly concerned.

I am personally very uncomfortable discussing people’s interpretation of what Hanson means, because I feel it is unproductive given that Hanson himself could clarify if he wished to (I don’t say this as a demand, but merely to point out that I feel as though we are rapidly approaching the point of now talking behind his back about what we think he is saying which would seem to be as rude as it is unhelpful).

I will reply to you this one last time, and then I am, frankly, done – I see no point to continuing the discussion, and suspect that even our fairly tolerant OP must be rapidly losing patience.

”You are arguing that Hanson is not an obscure person because of his more formal publications”

No. I am arguing that a proclaimed health policy expert who has been quoted repeated in newspapers (newspapers are not, by the way, typically considered formal publications) is not exceptionally obscure. You can tell that, because I repeatedly used the word “newspaper” in the sentence. Because that was what I was talking about.

The fact you stated that I am arguing “he is not obscure because of his formal publications” suggests to me you are either incapable of reading what I actually wrote, or are being a bit dishonest. Frankly that makes it annoying to converse with you.

”He gave more than a “slight” indication”

“In some places, infections are low or declining, while in others they are flat or increasing”

To the best of my knowledge, in Singapore infections were not particularly “low” nor were they “declining” (as of 5th May, when Hanson wrote his post). The rate of infection appears to be stabilising, i.e. “flat”.

So, using your interpretation, Hanson thinks the measures instituted in Singapore are not working. If you think that that is in keeping with Hanson’s perspective, I disagree with Hanson and think he is inaccurate[1]. If you don’t think that that is in keeping with Hanson’s perspective, then you should perhaps consider that when I argue that greater clarity would be useful I might actually have a point.

”He’s less specific about measures”

I realise that, which I’ve now highlighted multiple times. If I accept what appears to be your interpretation – that what Hanson means is “measures are failing where they are failing” – then I have no problem, as I am fine with tautologies. I don’t think you need several hundred words to say that when you could use 7, but won’t disagree with it.

“his complaints is the failure to coordinate around a reliable package of policies as instead “politicians and experts in each jurisdiction craft their own policy packages, as long as they seemed “strong”, involving much public sacrifice”.”

Yet many successful measures also are “strong” and involve much public sacrifice. Moreover, SK has instituted no lockdown and seems to be doing OK (one of the difficult things is that while there is some correlation between measures and results, it is not linear). Moreover, as the pandemic has spread, countries have been infected at different rates. Expecting countries which were infected during the early days of the pandemic to have the same knowledge as those infected later would seem a little unreasonable. Thus one not only wouldn’t expect global coordination around a reliable set of policies, one shouldn’t – it wouldn’t be practical for all countries. Perhaps you could argue that blocks (e.g. the EU, the US) should (I would agree), but again Hanson didn’t actually say that. And so, while this complaint may be reasonably directed to certain specific groups of countries, it may not be fairly applied universally. Again, I wouldn’t have a problem if his complaints weren’t quite so generalised.

”He didn’t say “no measures work anywhere”, he has complained that the specific policy packages from more successful countries were not adopted and instead we got measures with obvious costs and more dubious benefits.”

And I did not say that Hanson said “no measures work anywhere”. What I said, if you bothered to actually read it, was “saying “measures aren’t working” when they demonstrably can”. And saying “measures aren’t working” does not have to mean “no measures are working anywhere”, because it could also mean “I don’t believe the measures typically adopted in Country X is working”. The problem, as I have repeatedly communicated to you, is that because Hanson does not specify which measures or which countries we are left to interpret it. As I have previously pointed out, it would be perfectly in keeping with Hanson’s words to interpret it as “Singapore measures are failing”. Arguably they have not[2].

You and anon/portly don’t seem to think this is an issue – which is your prerogative – but I would appreciate it if you didn’t misrepresent what I said.

“Mere membership in a party would be insufficient to qualify for elite status”

Quite true. I acknowledge I am wrong to say that, and will correct my statement to say “republican politicians, such as the Jody Hice, Andy Harris, etc.”. I remain confused as to why CT comentators are elites but congresmen and senators are not.

(see how easy it was for me to clarify my statement, and I didn’t even need two people arguing that you just need to interpret my statement properly to do it).

“I would think those are rather standard terms, even if their boundaries can be vague.”

Except, as I have tried to make clear, the boundaries are too vague as to be useful. Most countries have policies which have been proposed by, what would be, a normative definition of elites and experts. That is as reasonable to say for Singapore and South Korea as it is UK, US, Spain, and Italy. I know what I would mean by using the term “expert”, which (loosely speaking) would be someone who is experienced and skilled with respect to the specific topic (and recognised as such by their peers). However, it is very unclear as to what Hanson means. Moreover, elites can apparently mean relatively obscure commentators on CT, but not (arguably) powerful politicians – which to ne would seem to be a slightly idiosyncratic use.

I’d also point out that other commentators seem to have struggled with this ambiguity as well – were I the only one I’d assume it was a failure of my understanding. As it is, it would seem to be a failure of Hanson’s communication. Which, as I have now said what feels like 50 billion times, is one of the main issues I have.

Summary:

I’ve attempted to understand your interpretation of what Hanson is saying. As far as I can tell, this boils down to “Measures don’t work, except where they do. Elites and experts are at fault, except where they aren’t. People are unified when they are unified. At some point more people will want to reopen then not. Elites may or may not agree with that at that point.” I have, as far as I can tell, summarised (your interpretation) of Hanson’s entire post in 4 sentences. What did you say about being terse again?

I would also reiterate, I am not trying to pick on Hanson merely to satisfy my pedantry – I just happen to think that making vague and ambiguous statements regarding the success of policies during the middle of a pandemic is not the best thing to do. If you really feel that this unreasonable, you are free to do so. I disagree.

Given that it would appear we are not going to reach an agreement, I would suggest you redirect your discussion to others. I refer you to my final remarks to anon / portly, and would gently remind you that I am ready to move on from this topic even if you are not:

All I have done is made some relatively mild criticism of someone for getting things wrong, or communicating them so poorly that coherency and meaning has been left as an exercise to the reader. This is apparently silly and pointlessly pedantic – fair enough; I clearly have no place in this discussion and so recuse myself.

As I have no wish to continue rehashing the same points over and over, if you really feel like responding to me I would respectfully request – in the interests of saving us both time – you confine it to “I think you are wrong”. We can then both agree to disagree, and save the electronic ink.

Mit besten Grüßen,

[1] One reason I would disagree is that if the goal is to slow transmission, it is possible to have succeeded at this even if there are increasing cases (it is perfectly possible, for example, that without measures there would be even greater and longer periods of increased infection – we are attempting to flatten the curve not eliminate the curve).

[2] Whilst migrant workers have still been suffering (which is pretty horrific), it may well be because they are not afforded the measures which others have (i.e. the measures may be working, but are being unevenly applied). Another potential subtlety we are not supposed to consider.

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Dave Heasman 05.12.20 at 8:07 am

America’s a wonderful country – 80% of the people are elite – https://xkcd.com/2305/

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anon/portly 05.12.20 at 7:02 pm

74

I think saying “measures aren’t working” when they demonstrably can and do is a pretty important inaccuracy. I think saying “elites are pushing to remain closed” when the POUTS and Republican Party are pushing to reopen is a pretty important inaccuracy. I think saying “the public is unified” when (as I am being informed) what is meant is a minority of the public agree on something but the rest of the public do not is a pretty big inaccuracy. Etc., etc.

But this paragraph is itself riddled with inaccuracies, not just Hansonian “it’s hard to be sure exactly what he means by this, really” inaccuracies, like his use of the term “elites,” but straightforward inaccuracies. Where does Hanson say “measures aren’t working?” He does say this:

And in the different jurisdictions, the diverse policies now sit next to quite diverse outcomes. In some places, infections are low or declining, while in others they are flat or increasing.

This is an accurate characterization. Then on top of that he offers an opinion or assessment of our policy response that is negative. Something like “measures aren’t working well enough.” You (or I) can disagree with it, certainly.

“Elites are pushing to remain closed” obviously is referring to the elites who are pushing to remain closed. Why is this inaccurate? We all get what he means. Meanwhile “POUTS and the Republican Party are pushing to reopen” is inaccurate, in my view. I think Trump and the Republicans, taken as a whole, are pushing in both directions. They (or some of them) don’t want to reopen too quickly, for obvious reasons, yet they (or some of them) want to appeal to those who do.

And in the last sentence, I don’t think you’re being fair to Hanson. Here’s what he really says about the public being unified:

So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does. And that’s why the public will win. While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening.

When you say “what is meant is a minority of the public agree on something” that is clearly false. That is not at all what Hanson means, as we can see. His point is that the majority agree on something, but that what that “something” is, is evolving or going to evolve in a certain direction.

It is interesting that Hanson is apparently so little-known as to be beyond criticism, but I (an anonymous commentator on a relatively obscure blog) am apparently so important as to need correction.

Well, sorry. I still think Hanson is a fairly obscure figure. But I obviously don’t think Hanson is “beyond criticism” – read 52 again, maybe. To me, Hanson is offering up an idea, and I don’t think it’s fair or correct to say that his idea is bad because it rests on a set of false facts about the Coronavirus situation. I think it is fair to criticize his idea because of flaws in his underlying analysis and interpretation of those facts.

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J-D 05.12.20 at 10:17 pm

“Elites are pushing to remain closed” obviously is referring to the elites who are pushing to remain closed. Why is this inaccurate? We all get what he means.

A number of commenters here, of whom I am one, have indicated reasonably clearly that we do not understand which people Robin Hanson is referring to when using the term ‘elites’.

Perhaps you think I’m lying, that I do understand the meaning and am only feigning incomprehension, but what would lead you to that supposition and what motive do you think I could possibly have for such fakery?

On the other hand, if you accept that I’m telling the truth and that I genuinely do not understand who Robin Hanson’s ‘elites’ are, why do you shy away from explaining the reference, if it is in fact clear to you? What’s your problem with that?

‘Some people are pushing to remain closed’ is clear enough and true enough, but if what you mean is ‘some people’ there is no reason to write ‘elites’.

‘The people who are pushing to remain closed are more elite than other people’, on the other hand, is probably a lie.

82

anon/portly 05.13.20 at 4:16 pm

81

A number of commenters here, of whom I am one, have indicated reasonably clearly that we do not understand which people Robin Hanson is referring to when using the term ‘elites’.

And if you had read the second paragraph of 80, where I specifically described Hanson’s use of the term “elites” as a “hard to be sure what he really means by this” form of inaccuracy, you would have seen that I am at least somewhat sympathetic with that view, and that your “[p]erhaps you think I’m lying” bit was rather pointless.

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J-D 05.13.20 at 11:56 pm

anon/portly

You wrote ‘We all get what he means’.

I do not get what he means.

Why did you write ‘We all get what he means’ when it’s not true?

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anon/portly 05.14.20 at 6:22 pm

83

Why did you write ‘We all get what he means’ when it’s not true?

I should have written something more like “We all get roughly what he means, I think.” I thought his gist was reasonably apparent. It seems that was a mistake.

Why did you include the “Perhaps you think I’m think I’m lying” bit in 81?

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Tm 05.14.20 at 9:51 pm

anon/portly: multiple commenters have already pointed out that Hanson’s claims are unclear if not outright incoherent. You yourself just wrote exactly that, see 82. At 84 you say the opposite. If you think you understand how Hanson defines the terms “elite” and “public”, why don’t you just tell us? And if you don’t, why don’t you just admit that we are right to say that Hanson’s claims are unclear if not incoherent?

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Collin Street 05.14.20 at 10:12 pm

I thought his gist was reasonably apparent.

Connotative content, sure. Implication. However, on the denotative meaning side, when you try and reduce it to actual-people, “is this person elite or not?”, it all turns to air and ashes.

I mean, seriously, have you tried? Pick some people, tell us whether they count as “elite” under the definition here.

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J-D 05.15.20 at 2:12 am

Why did you include the “Perhaps you think I’m think I’m lying” bit in 81?

Because I have had the experience, on multiple occasions, of being falsely accused of feigning incomprehension of something I was alleged to have understood perfectly well.

If you understand the intent which underlay the writing of ‘Elites are pushing to remain closed’, why can’t you explain it?

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faustusnotes 05.15.20 at 5:38 am

Anon/portly, you’re engaging in a good faith reading of a man who thinks the government should allocate women to sexually deprived men as sex slaves. Maybe you should reconsider your approach here.

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tm 05.15.20 at 10:01 am

Another data point re “elites vs the public”: the right wing extremists on the Wisconsin Supreme Court are consciously risking thousands of lives to make the point that the government must not interfere with capitalism for the sake of merely protecting lives, even when the law explicitly says otherwise.

https://www.vox.com/2020/5/13/21258007/wisconsins-republican-supreme-court-stay-at-home-legislature-palm-roggensack

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