Reply to Paul Romer

Economist Paul Romer tweeted today:

Doesn’t sound like China is going to sign up for the “Great Barrington” plan for surrendering to the virus. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to live in a country where everybody understands that it is the government’s job to do whatever it takes to protect public health?

He was referencing the following Associated Press item:

ASIA TODAY: Chinese health authorities will test all 9 million people in the eastern city of Qingdao for the coronavirus this week after nine cases linked to a hospital were found, the government announces.

I think Paul is correct to say that an authoritarian government such as China’s is unlikely to show as much tolerance for people’s freedom as the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration advocate.

It is disturbing, though, to see Romer write that it is government’s job to do whatever it takes to protect public health. His authoritarianism lives loudly within him.

In an email discussion, George Mason University Jon Murphy made a further relevant point:

Paul Romer is missing the far more obvious question:

Why can China test 9 million people on a whim but the United States does not?

What’s been missing from this whole nonsense is randomized testing so that we can determine the actual spread of the disease (and subsequently how it spreads, how deadly it is, etc). We don’t even know the N in this pandemic because there isn’t the testing going on.

I have an answer to the question (I think).  It has nothing to do with state capacity or political will or anything like that. Simple expert failure (Roger Koppl) and dynamics of interventionism (Sanford Ikeda).

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act with testing kits.  The predictable shortages of testing resulted in more being allocated to higher-valued uses: testing the people who are sick in the hospital.  Thus, we didn’t have enough to do the lower-valued uses: randomly testing the population.

Isn’t it interesting how doing “whatever it takes to protect public health” can sometimes hurt public health. Unintended consequences anyone?