The Unjoined Debate

As I noted earlier this week, Tyler Cowen wrote a blog post, “David Henderson needs a reboot,” October 27, in which he responded to my three critical pieces on his two Bloomberg articles. My pieces are, from earliest to latest, here, here, and here. Cowen’s articles (gated unless you look at only a few on Bloomberg) are here and here.

Here’s the problem: Other than on one issue where he did point to a serious problem in my argument, as I noted here, Cowen didn’t join the debate about lockdowns.

Instead, he made the following statements:

David is repeatedly writing critiques of my writings on Covid-19.  (Google to them if you wish, they are so off base and misrepresentative I don’t think they deserve a link, and furthermore I find it almost impossible to track down EconLog archives under their new system.)

Making it hard for your readers to even know what the person you’re arguing with is saying is not really a good way to carry on a debate. Fortunately, raja_r, one of Cowen’s commenters, was able, with apparently much less difficulty than Cowen had, to post the links in the comments section on Cowen’s site.

Virtually all of his points revolve around simple or it seems even willful misunderstandings.

Virtually all? Really? If it’s “virtually all,” then surely we’re going to see a few examples, right? I’ll save you the suspense: he names one (other than the Russian vaccine point, which I discuss later.)

Then he goes to the one in which, I did misunderstand him. I’ve noted that already. I have no idea why he thinks it might be willful. I will grant him good faith even though he doesn’t reciprocate.

That’s it. We don’t get more examples.

Later he writes:

I could point to numerous misunderstandings in David’s recent posts, pretty much in every paragraph.

Maybe he could. He’s a smart guy. Here’s the problem. He doesn’t.

He writes:

I also think he is quite wrong on substance, allying himself with a few eccentric thinkers that hardly anyone agrees with, and who have not acquitted themselves well in debate, or made good predictions as of late, but that is another matter for a different time.

He says I’m wrong on substance. Ok. Which substance? He says I’m allying myself with “a few eccentric thinkers that hardly anyone agrees with.” He doesn’t name them. But hardly anyone agrees with them? The horror. Is iconoclast Tyler Cowen really saying we should go with majority opinion? Is that how we get to the truth?

He should pay greater heed to say Scott Gottlieb, who knows what he is talking about.

I’ve read Gottlieb’s stuff. As my Hoover colleague George Shultz once said to me after telling me he had been reading my work (I had criticized him here), “I like some of it.” It would be nice to know which parts Cowen thinks are good. I hope he would agree with me that Gottlieb’s support, while at the Food and Drug Administration, for regulating e-cigarettes, making it harder for people to quit smoking real cigarettes, was a cruel and destructive move. I’m sure his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, could tell him about that.

I will grant him one more point. He writes:

David’s Russian vaccine post does not misunderstand me, but I don’t think it shows a very full grasp of the issue.  I very much favor regulatory reciprocity for pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and more, but I strongly believe adding Russia to the reciprocal list would “poison the well” and doom the whole idea.  In the meantime, they are not nearly as far along for a major vaccine rollout as they claim, so probably we are not missing out on very much, even if the quality were fine.  The slightest problem with the vaccine would be blown out of proportion, most of all with DT as president and Russian conspiracy theories circulating.  If your goal is to nudge and push the FDA to move more quickly across the board, starting them off with the approval of a Russian vaccine is bad tactics and is risking the entire apple cart.  Maybe try for Mother England first?  So I think David here is quite wrong, and applying market liberalization ideas in a knee-jerk rather than a sophisticated fashion.  He called the post “Tyler Cowen’s shocking post on the Russian vaccine,” but I wonder who he thinks is really supposed to be shocked by that one.  If you read David’s comment on his own post you will see he is genuinely unable to imagine that such an argument as I present above might exist.

I didn’t think of that and I do see his point. Score one for Cowen. I do object, though, to the statement, “he is genuinely unable to imagine that such an argument as I present above might exist.” I’m quite able.

By the way, if you want to see an even better argument than Cowen’s, check the numerate discussion of the Russian vaccine that my sometimes co-author Charley Hooper has posted on EconLog.

Back to whether I’m able to understand Cowen’s argument, here’s the problem. Tyler Cowen’s writing style is cryptic. He often writes conclusions without the reasons that lead to them and also writes things that leave readers wondering what he means. Read his post that I linked to in my critique of his view on the Russian vaccine and you will find no statement of the argument he gives above.

Which brings me to my second last point. In the comment section of his post criticizing me, Cowen writes:

David, if you can’t convince a very experienced author that you have come even close to his meaning, probably you haven’t. There has been a lot of other discussion of those pieces, and the other readers do seem to have understood them. You have not.

The test of whether I’ve come close to his meaning is whether I’ve convinced “a very experienced author” that I’ve come close to his meaning? But that depends on two things: (1) how good I am at understanding his meaning and (2) how open he is to being convinced that I understand his meaning. He focuses only on the first.

Then he adds:

I should also note that Bloomberg has a truly crack, first-rate team of editors, making sure that what goes out is clear.

They failed. Take a look at this paragraph from his second Bloomberg article:

Consider 9/11, when some 3,000 Americans died. The U.S. mounted a very activist response that included new security procedures at airports, crackdowns on money laundering, increased surveillance and two wars. Not all of those choices were prudent, but nonetheless they qualify as a very vigorous response.

Any editor worth his salt would have asked “which of those choices were prudent?”

It would actually be nice to have a debate about lockdowns without getting into 9/11 and other tangential issues. The debate should be about the costs and benefits of lockdowns and among the big costs is our huge loss of freedom. That’s a debate worth having. So far, Tyler Cowen has not joined. I wish he would.

 

 

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