Is Cowen Right about the Great Barrington Declaration? Part 2


Yesterday, I reviewed the first half of Tyler Cowen’s critique of the Great Barrington Declaration. This is the last half. As before, quotes from him are highlighted and my responses are not.

Here are the key words of the Great Barrington Declaration on herd immunity:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

And then:

What exactly does the word “allow” mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature’s will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: “Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.”

It means, as the document says, “allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally.” I’m not sure why Cowen has trouble understanding. Allowing people to live their lives has nothing to do with passivity. It certainly is consistent with the idea of human agency, even if you don’t go all Ayn Rand on it. When people are allowed to do something, that doesn’t mean they have to do it. There’s necessarily human agency.

He’s right about how herd immunity will come about. But then he says, “Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.” The problem here is, as former Obama economist Austan Goolsbee pointed out in a related context, that this is like the old economics joke where the punch line is “assume a can opener.” We don’t yet have a vaccine, so right now maximizing the role of vaccines gets you to a maximum of zero.

In practical terms, the most problematic paragraph in the declaration is this one:

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

In most parts of the Western world, normal openings for restaurants, sporting events and workplaces are likely to lead to spiraling caseloads and overloaded hospitals, as is already a risk in some of the harder-hit parts of Europe. Reopenings, to the extent they work, rely on a government that so scares people that attendance remains low even with reopening.

The middle paragraph is from the Great Barrington Declaration. The paragraphs that bookend it are from Cowen.

I’m not familiar with Europe but Georgia (in the United States) opened without overloaded hospitals. As for spiraling caseloads, that’s part of how you reach herd immunity. And if you follow his link to a Bloomberg article, you’ll see that it says not a word about overloaded hospitals.

Cowen is right that governments have reacted by scaring people. That’s one reason the Great Barrington Declaration is important. It seeks to tell people not to be so afraid unless they’re particularly vulnerable. Notice the statement in the Declaration that “Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home.” The authors are not saying that they should be forced to; they’re saying they should. As I understand the Declaration, they’re trying to talk to young people as well as others and say, in effect, “Come in, the water’s fine.” Does Cowen object? If so, he doesn’t make clear and he doesn’t say why.

Don’t get me wrong: The Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty. And when there is a pandemic, one of the government’s most vital roles is to secure public goods, such as vaccines.

Notice how he jumps from the idea that the message is tempting and seductive (I agree) to government’s role in vaccines. Little problem: WE DON’T HAVE A VACCINE. The Great Barrington Declaration makes clear that it’s addressed to what to do while we’re waiting for a vaccine. Insert can opener joke.

The declaration is disappointing because it is looking for an easy way out — first by taking the best alternatives for fighting Covid off the table, then by pretending a normal state of affairs is also an optimum state of affairs.

Does he care to tell us what “the best alternatives for fighting Covid” are? It strikes me that he has two in mind: (1) vaccines, which haven’t yet been approved, in part thanks to the FDA, which Cowen has earlier said should not approve one from Russia, and (2) lockdowns, which Cowen says aren’t that important and, by the way, we should tighten them.

My worldview is both more hopeful and more tragic. There is no normal here, but we can do better — with vigorous actions to combat Covid-19, including government actions. The conception of human nature evident in the Great Barrington Declaration is so passive, it raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.

I missed the hopeful part. OK, so what are the vigorous actions that include government actions? Blank out, as the aforementioned Ayn Rand loved to say. And how does he know that the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration would not favor those actions? Cowen is fixated on the idea that three non-libertarians produced a libertarian statement. As I mentioned in Part 1, that sends him down a rabbit hole from which he doesn’t emerge.






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Vermont is a safe space

When the pandemic first hit America, the states hardest hit were mostly “blue states” such as Washington, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. With the notable exception of Washington, they remain the hardest hit states in terms of cumulative deaths per capita.

A Yahoo article points out that in recent months the “red states” have been getting hit harder than the blue states. But that could reflect many factors such as behavior, weather, or a lack of previous herd immunity.

I also notice that both within the US and around the world it’s often the case that more densely populated areas have a higher rate of fatalities. This isn’t universally true (Germany has a low fatality rate) but it seems to be a strong tendency. Look at the states with the lowest rates of death per capita—most have relatively low populations:

I’d like to throw out a hypothesis.  Perhaps both politics and density matter.  Perhaps the safest places are low-density states full of earnest do-gooders who follow public health rules.  So I’m going to look at recent Covid deaths in states with fewer than 1.1 million people.  Because I’m lazy I’ll take a few shortcuts, such as looking at total deaths, not per capita deaths, but that won’t affect my principle finding to any significant degree.  The differences in fatalities are vast, and all these states have between a 550,000 and 1.1 million people.

I’ll first list deaths since the beginning of June, and then deaths over the past two months.  States will be listed from most populous to least populous:

Montana:  213/153

Delaware:  153/69

South Dakota:  245/154

North Dakota:   327/263

Alaska:  56/38

Vermont  3/0

Wyoming:  41/27

I use recent data because the initial outbreak caught many places unaware, so cultural/policy differences would have had less impact in March and April.

Vermont really jumps out, and even in per capita terms it would be an extreme outlier.  This may be random, but it also might reflect the combination of really low density and “liberal” attitudes.  Most low-density areas in America are red states, and Vermont might be the only strongly blue state that’s most rural.  (Even Delaware is pretty urban by comparison.)

If you want to be safe, rent a cabin in Vermont.

This is not necessarily about politics in the normal American sense of the term.  New York is left wing, but isn’t full of earnest people who always follow rules.  Utah is right wing, but has a high level of civic cooperation.  Utah also has a lower than average fatality rate, even relative to states with similar populations.

Germans and East Asians are known for following rules.  Latin American are not.  Notice a pattern?

PS.  Let me apologize in advance for the Sumner curse, the tendency for patterns I notice to break down immediately after I post on them.  Sorry Vermonters.

PPS.  I was originally going to draw the line at 1 million, but Montana seems like a low-density state, despite just over a million people.  On the other hand, while places like Nevada have large low-density areas, they also have major cities.



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Saturday assorted links

1. Second wave coming to Belgium.  And “The ratings decline in sports confuse us only if we fail to see connections between liturgical worship and sports.” 2. Partial protection from MMR? 3. “The primary impacts of reading rationalist blogs are that 1) I have been frequently distracted at work, and 2) my conversations have gotten […]

The post Saturday assorted links appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

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Finding the Third Thing

What does “learning” mean to you? Where and when does it occur? What are its outcomes? How does it affect your status in the world, and do we accord status in the right way? These questions and more are at the heart of this provocative conversation. EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes Zena Hitz of St. John’s College to discuss her new book, Lost in Thought.

Hitz is engaged in what Roberts calls a “quixotic quest” to restore a love of great books and contemplative and communal learning. A tutror- not a professor- at St John’s, Hitz is well-suited to make such an argument. But if the sort of learning Hitz recommends is indeed “hidden,” how can we power ourselves past the distractions of the modern world well enough to achieve it?

We hope you’ll find the prompts below thought-provoking, and that you’ll let us know your response to them. We’d also love to know how you approach this sort of learning. What books do you love that you return to time and again. What books would you like to explore, but for whatever reason have yet to do so? As always, we love to hear from you.



1- What does Hitz mean by learning? What’s the point in teaching young people how to think about big ideas and read old books, as Roberts asks her? How does she expect her students to cultivate the resources for reflection, retreat, and contemplation? How might you cultivate the same sort of resources in your life?


2- Rather than turn to political activism in an effort to repair the brokenness of our world today, Hitz suggests a more inward approach. What would this like, and to what extent do you believe this approach to be effective?


3- How does your work/occupation identify you? What role has the sort of learning Hitz describes played in your work? Are you guilty of judging others on the basis of their occupation? As Roberts asks, “How we might humanize ourselves through learning to be more appreciative of people who are not like us, educationally?”


4- Hitz asserts, “…if you want to connect with someone from a different social class, you need a third topic to unite you. This is how human bonding, how human community works is: you unite around some third thing.” What sort of community organizations do you think might serve both to democratize learning and unite people of different social classes?


5- What’s the difference between spectacle and distraction, according to Hitz? Conversation and debate? How might a due consideration of these differences affect learning, both formally and informally?



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