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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Is Cowen Right about the Great Barrington Declaration? Part 1

 

In an article yesterday, “A Dangerous Libertarian Strategy for Herd Immunity,” Bloomberg, October 15, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen criticizes the now-famous Great Barrington Declaration.

This response is in two parts. Part 2 will follow tomorrow.

I’ll consider Cowen’s arguments one by one. The highlighted sections are his and the non-highlighted sections are mine.

But first I’ll point out two things.

First, Cowen starts with a category error. He seems to think that when three non-libertarian medical professionals write a statement at a facility staff largely by libertarians, the result must be libertarian. It isn’t. Many libertarians will like it; some will not. But it’s not libertarian. In our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, Charley Hooper and I point that in any project, the biggest mistakes are made the first day. That’s because everything follows from decisions made that day. Similarly, by misidentifying the strategy as libertarian, he goes down a rabbit hole from which he doesn’t emerge. (Note: I know that editors often assign titles and Cowen might not have chosen this one. If he disagrees with the title, then ignore this criticism.)

Second, Cowen’s big-picture criticism of freedom is less like Strauss (one of his favorite words) and more like Schrodinger’s Cat. He claims, in the last few paragraphs of his article, that the declaration “tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life” and that its conception of human nature “raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.”

Which is it? Is it trying to procure maximum liberty, which, in this context, certainly seems like defending it, or is not a defense? I’m not asking whether it’s a good defense. I’m simply pointing out that Cowen seems to want to have it both ways.

Now to the other specifics.

Debate over the declaration has centered on the concept of “herd immunity,” but that discussion has become so emotional that it is better to focus first on the concrete. The declaration stresses the notion of protecting the vulnerable, such as the elderly, and giving everyone else maximum possible freedom. That sounds good, but the declaration fails to deliver on the details.

True. It doesn’t deliver on details. I don’t think that was the intent. It’s 514 words long, only slightly longer than those short USA Today op/eds. Cowen’s piece, by contrast, is 1,399 words long, almost 3 times as long. And yet in some places, the Great Barrington Declaration gives more details than his.

First and foremost, the declaration does not present the most important point right now, which is to say October 2020: By the middle of next year, and quite possibly sooner, the world will be in a much better position to combat Covid-19.

Probably right, but it’s a guess. Moreover the middle of next year is 8 to 9 months from now.

The arrival of some mix of vaccines and therapeutics will improve the situation, so it makes sense to shift cases and infection risks into the future while being somewhat protective now.

The first clause is probably right, but the conclusion doesn’t follow. What is the cost of shifting cases into the future? Cowen doesn’t say.

To allow large numbers of people today to die of Covid, in wealthy countries, is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I.

What does he mean by “allow?” Is he saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to take those risks? I don’t know.

Notice also how he biases the discussion with “two days.” I would bet that the authors wouldn’t have bothered with the statement if they thought we would have a vaccine in 2 days, 4 days, or even 14 days.

Not only does the declaration fail to make that point, but if anything the rhetoric conveys a sense of “letting things take their course” — after the most vulnerable are segregated from society, of course. It strikes exactly the wrong tone and stresses exactly the wrong points.

Either he thinks this is self-evident or this is a lead-in to the next few paragraphs. If the former, he’s wrong; if the latter, let’s look at the next few paragraphs.

The declaration also sets up a false dichotomy by comparing its policy proposals to lockdowns. The claim is this: “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” The health problems are very real, but in most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe. In my home state of Virginia, there are relatively few commercial activities I cannot partake in, were I so inclined. I even can go see a live bluegrass concert in a nightclub (I won’t, not yet).

It’s not a false dichotomy. There are real lockdowns in place. And notice that he uses the word “commercial.” K-12 schools, even ones that charge tuition, are typically not lumped under “commercial.” This doesn’t affect Cowen. It does affect a number of my neighbors’ and friends’ kids, devastatingly so. And while Cowen can go to a bluegrass concert, I bet he can’t go to a gym. In most of California, we can’t yet go to gyms. My wife’s and my Pilates instructor is facing economic devastation.

The problem is that most people don’t want to go out to such concerts, and indeed probably should not. It is this self-enforced isolation, not a government order, which screws us up, sometimes creating mental and other health problems.

Why is it a problem if people don’t want to go out to such events? And if that’s the main reason they don’t, why are governments around the country, certainly in large states like California, New York, and Illinois, banning such events?

He does get it right, though, about mental and other health problems. But some of these are due to lockdowns.

Whatever you think of the stricter policies of last spring, they are now behind us, and the emphasis on “lockdowns” is not helpful. The more useful question is whether the list of prohibited activities should be expanded or contracted. In some cases, surely, it should be expanded. Indoor restaurant dining and drinking, for example, is probably not a good idea in most parts of the U.S. right now.

Yes, many of the Covid cases spread by such activity would be among the lower-risk young, rather than the higher-risk elderly. Still, practically speaking, given America’s current response capabilities, those cases will further paralyze schools and workplaces and entertainment venues. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

The first sentence of the second paragraph is key. Finally, he’s getting to details. He doesn’t make a case, though, that those cases will further paralyze schools and workplaces. What’s his evidence? Emily Oster at Brown University differs with Cowen on this. And unlike Cowen, she actually has evidence. Moreover, to whom does it not seem worth it? Not to the people who want to do it. Cowen seems to be substituting his own values for those of others.

Even if you disagree with that judgment, the critics who emphasize lockdowns are setting up a straw man. What they’re trying to do is talk us into something more dangerous than what we ought to accept. The truth is that lockdowns are extremely unpopular, and while they may have to be reimposed in extreme circumstances, they are not the main alternative on the table in the U.S. right now.

Wait a minute. We have lockdowns. Some of them are severe. Cowen has just told us that he wants to make them more severe. But arguing against lockdowns is arguing against a straw man? Huh?

The declaration also notes the value of reopening schools. It is an inarguable point, and Sweden seems to have made it work. But schools cannot and should not be reopened unconditionally. Amid high levels of Covid-19, a successful reopening very often will require social distancing, masks and a good system for testing and tracing. It would be better to focus on what needs to be done to make school reopenings work. Reopened schools in Israel, for instance, seem to have contributed to a significant second wave of Covid-19.

Actually, I think every point is arguable. What he really means is that he comes down on the side of reopening schools. Good. On that we agree. But for someone who thinks we should look at data, Cowen really should look at Oster’s data. And notice how close Cowen comes to the Great Barrington view on this. I don’t know what the three authors would say about what needs to be done to make school reopenings work. Neither does Cowen.

A broader worry about the declaration is that, for all the talk of science, it fails to emphasize data. The declaration is a series of static recommendations, yet the situation on the ground is evolving all the time. The best policies today are not the same as the best policies two months ago, and won’t necessarily be the best policies two months from now. This reader is also struck by the document’s frequent use of the passive voice — as if there is no choice but to let a series of inevitable events slowly unfold, albeit in a minimally painless way, and to allow the pandemic to finish its work.

Cowen accuses the authors of failing to emphasize data? That’s rich. He has hardly any data. Here’s a statement from the Declaration:

We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young.

That’s data, and pretty relevant data.

Cowen points out correctly that the best policies of today are [probably] not the best policies two months from now. But the big advantage of the focus the Declaration proposes is that it allows for that.

What about the passive voice? I think Cowen needs to consult a grammar textbook. There’s not a whole lot of passive voice in the Declaration. It’s mainly active. And letting people do things has nothing to do with the passive voice.

Part 2 will be tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 

 

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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?

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