One of Tyler Cowen’s Points is Right

 

As noted earlier today, Tyler Cowen posted about my critiques of his views on lockdowns.

I don’t have time to answer thoroughly but I do think I did him an injustice on one issue.

Cowen writes:

And my remark about “It just doesn’t seem worth it”, cited by David as me dismissing school reopenings?  Here is what I actually wrote:

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.

I am worried about reopening indoor bars and restaurants because I want to keep schools (and other venues) open.  At my own school, GMU, I very much argued for keeping it open, which indeed we have done with success but also with great effort.  My whole point is one about trade-offs.

The above three paragraphs are from Tyler.

Now the following is David R. Henderson:

I did misinterpret him. I thought he was throwing in schools with bars and restaurants and I see now that he wasn’t.

My apologies to Tyler Cowen and to my readers.

This post is titled “One of Tyler Cowen’s Points is Right.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t others. If I find them, I will post on them. But it won’t be today. I have deadlines.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

Tyler Cowen Doubles Down

 

I criticized (here and here) a recent article that Tyler Cowen wrote in Bloomberg about COVID-19 and lockdowns. Last week he doubled down by raising the issue of the elderly. The title fits his theme, is “Yes, Covid-19 Is More Serious for the Elderly. So What?

Cowen starts with an analogy to 9/11. (Everything in the shaded areas is a quote from his 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.

All true, but I wonder what point he is making. Then he gets to it.

The point is this: Had 3 Americans been killed rather than 3,000 — if, say, 9/11 was a U.S. holiday the hijackers didn’t know about, so fewer people were working — the optimal response would not have been all that different. There were a lot of casualties, but it is also significant that several airplanes were brazenly hijacked and flown into major iconic buildings, the Pentagon was hit, and Congress itself came under threat.

He says that “the optimal response” with 3 deaths plus the iconic destruction would not have been “all that different.” I gather he means that it would not be all that different from what would have been the optimal response with the actual 3,000 deaths. But he does not tell us what the optimal response to that was. Isn’t that the nub of the debate over lockdowns—what is the proper response?

I count Bush’s war on Iraq as one of the most evil government policies of this century. Even if you don’t agree, it was big. So if we got close to the optimal response, then Cowen is saying that the Iraq war was close to optimal. And, by the way, in case he or you need reminding, that war caused many thousands of deaths of young, old, and in-between. Almost all were relatively innocent.

Polities that do not respond to such attacks [as 9/11] soon find themselves out of business. Not only do they invite further intimidations, but their citizens lose faith in the government’s ability to maintain public order or shape the future of the nation. The entire U.S. system of government may well have been at stake in the decision to respond to 9/11 in a significant way.

Even for things like 9/11, we should reject Cowen’s argument. It would have to apply to every government whose country is attacked. Ethical principles generalize, or they are not principles. There’s nothing special about the United States is that respect. So, for instance, when the U.S. government attacked Iraq, Cowen’s recommendation would have had to be for the Iraqi government to attack the United States. That would likely have cost thousands of lives if they could have pulled it off. They probably couldn’t have, but then we’re stuck with the non-principle that might makes right.

But Covid is not like 9/11—unless Cowen wishes to suggest that the virus was biological warfare perpetrated by a foreign power. I don’t think that’s what he’s saying.

To be sure, the number of U.S. victims is high — 220,000 and counting, plus some number of excess deaths from broader causes. But the event itself is so cataclysmic that “downgrading” those deaths by saying many of the victims were elderly doesn’t make a big difference in terms of formulating an optimal response.

Cowen errs again in likening Covid to a military or terrorist attack. Yes, the murder of an ailing 80 year old is basically like the murder of a 20 year old. But succumbing to an illness does not involve the malicious conduct of a malefactors. That takes the moral and legal question of wrongdoing out of the matter. Now we are left with plain hardship: Succumbing to an illness is much more tragic in the case of an otherwise healthy 20 year old than an ailing 80 year old. Any reasonable ethical reckoning would agree.

The focus on protecting the elderly flows simply from two facts: (1) they’re (we’re–I turn 70 next month and my wife is 71) most at risk and (2) they’re often retired and, therefore, are better able to isolate.

So I think it makes a huge difference in an optimal response. Let the people who are lower risk be out in the world. As they spread the virus, we augment immunity. That doesn’t hurt the elderly. It helps us.

Furthermore, it is likely that coronaviruses will return, which is all the more reason to excel in response now. To consider another example, during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS-1, 774 people died worldwide, none of them in America. The countries that took that virus seriously — Korea, Taiwan and Canada, to name a few — have performed much better during the current crisis. And many of the best biomedical responses, including vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, have evolved from very serious responses to previous pandemics.

I agree that we should excel. But how? Do you do it with lockdowns, or do you do it with deregulation, including allowing people to try various vaccines whatever stage they’re at, and allowing self-test kits for the virus to be sold, kits that could be available now for less than $10 a pop, but which the Food and Drug Administration won’t let us have?

And now Cowen’s pièce de résistance.

One final (rather outlandish) thought experiment: Imagine that an enemy of the U.S. demanded that 100 90-year-old Americans be handed over each year for execution. Of course America would refuse. The age of the victims would not be a factor in that decision.

Cowen persists in his false analogy of a terrorist or military attack.

As Ryan Sullivan, my co-author on my recent Wall Street Journal op/ed advocating that schools be opened, put it, millions of years of children’s lives are being robbed. Ryan has an autistic son in kindergarten and a daughter in first grade. Both, but especially the son, are losing a lot. Cowen’s policy is more analogous to the terrorist attack on 9/11 than the virus is.

Notice also, what’s missing in Cowen’s paragraph above: the idea of tradeoffs. Of course, we wouldn’t give over 90 to 100 year olds. But he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of 50 million school-age children. Remember his  casual “It just doesn’t seem worth it” remark about allowing kids to go back to school. He handles the tradeoff by not mentioning it.

Both of Cowen’s pieces resemble the work of a mainstream journalist ignorant of market economics. The essence of economics is tradeoffs. Precious little in his two pieces talks seriously about tradeoffs.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

Krastev on Pandemic and Politics

On “Persuasion” (the newsletter-think tank launched by Yascha Mounk after the Harper Letter) there is an excerpt of Ivan Krastev’s forthcoming book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic. Krastev struggles with the impact of the pandemic of different political regimes.

His starting point is that “more than any other crisis, a public-health emergency can induce people voluntarily to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced and accepted around the world with little public pushback.” It seems we should think that these kinds of crises are healthy for authoritarian leaders, who thrive on fear.

Yet Krastev points out that such authoritarian leaders typically are “problem solvers”, but of problems of their making (up).

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the global public, Covid-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a high-profile slew of populists and autocrats have strenuously and ridiculously denied the very existence of the pandemic. …
Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem-solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can-solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to cooperate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes, and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men-of-action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not only that authoritarian leaders despise crises that they do not freely choose and which require them to stake their prestige on cooperatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand. They also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviors such as social distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Another point Krastev makes is that the global nature of the crisis, “the ubiquity of the disease”, “makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with the actions of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting strong pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism. The opening provided by easy government-to-government comparisons gives citizens the capacity to grade their government’s performance. This is a problem for authoritarian regimes and authoritarian-minded leaders, who previously got away with staged “performances” supplemented by the silencing of whistle-blowers and critics.

 

The whole thing is well worth reading, and I look forward to the book. What Krastev writes about authoritarian regimes is, in fact, a problem for political leaders in democracies, too: perhaps spectacular decisions in tackling the epidemic (the kind that politicians tend to favor) are not as effective and important as leaders believe. Perhaps containing the virus is an exercise in self-governance that some people are more adept at conducting than others, because of their history and their institutions. Krastev rightly points out that it is too early to say: success and failure in dealing with Covid-19 will be properly assessed years from now. I look forward to his books to see how he develops these views presented in the “Persuasion” excerpt.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

Costco Joins the COVID Fight

There has been a lot of debate during this pandemic about the effectiveness of mask wearing, the risks involved with social contact and school reopenings, whether or not Vitamin D helps with COVID, and how much of this is all President Trump’s fault.  However, everyone seems to agree that more testing, particularly more available at-home testing, would be a huge step forward.  The problem, of course, is that the government hasn’t been able to provide the necessary testing capacity on a nationwide basis.

 

What the government is unable or unwilling to do, Costco will happily do.  You might remember early on during the pandemic that Costco was one of the first businesses to require indoor mask wearing at its stores.  Now they are taking another bold step – Costco is now offering at home COVID tests on their webpage.  They aren’t cheap – 129.99 – but neither were the first flat screen televisions 20 years ago.  Costco sells more wine than anyone in America, and I wouldn’t be stunned if they became our biggest seller of COVID tests pretty soon.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

How Much Should Young People Be Punished?

Great debate on lockdowns.

I like what retired Professor John A. Lee has to say. Economist Dan O’Brien is also very succinct: How much punishment are we willing to inflict on young people?

The guy who put this together clearly doesn’t like the message of Professor Tomas Ryan, the advocate of lockdowns, as evidenced by the crawls he types on the screen as Ryan talks. I found this alternately amusing and annoying.

Trivia question: What is the number of people under age 25 who have died of COVID-19 in Ireland?

The answer is in the 16-minute video.

HT2 Don Boudreaux.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

Open the Schools and the Playgrounds

A group of researchers, spearheaded by Brown University Professor Emily Oster, have created and made available the most comprehensive databaseon schools and Covid case rates for students and staff since the pandemic started. Her data—covering almost 200,000 kids across 47 states from the last two weeks of September—showed a Covid-19 case rate of 0.13% among students and 0.24% among staff. That’s a shockingly and wonderfully low number. By comparison, the current overall U.S. case rate is 2.6%, an order of magnitude higher.

Other research has shown that hospitalization and fatality rates for school-age children are also extremely low. People 19 and younger account for only 1.2% of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. during the peak of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that of all Covid-19 deaths up to Oct. 10, only 74 were of children under age 15. During the 2019-20 flu season, the CDC estimates, 434 children under 18 died of the flu. Yet we don’t shut down schools over the flu.

This is from David R. Henderson and Ryan Sullivan, “End the School Shutdown,” Wall Street Journal, October 20 (print edition: October 21).

30 days from now, which is November 20 (the day before my 70th birthday),  I’ll post the whole thing.

A friend on Facebook asked me about the issue of compulsory schooling. He knows I oppose compulsion. I don’t know my co-author’s view on that and I wanted to stick with issues we agree on. So I didn’t raise it. But my view is that any parents who want to keep their children out of school should be able to do so. I predict that this will be under 10 percent of parents.

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

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.

 

 

 

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

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.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

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.

 

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More

The FDA’s Differing Approval Standards For Sleeping Pills and Covid Vaccines

Sam Peltzman, a University of Chicago emeritus professor, could easily win this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work on the economics of regulations. Peltzman’s odds of winning have probably improved because of his work nearly a half century ago on the impact of the FDA’s efficacy requirement for drug approval, which was imposed in 1962. Before that year, drugs only had to pass the FDA’s safety standards.

Peltzman found that the added approval standard substantially increased drug development costs, which caused a serious drop-off in new drugs developed and multiyear delays in the introduction of approved drugs. Peltzman and other economists following his lead have found that the added development costs caused hundreds of thousands of deaths from drugs never making it to market or being introduced after long delays. A Nobel for Peltzman is long overdue.

Peltzman’s impact can be heard today from a variety of sources, including the Trump Administration, calling for a speed-up in the FDA’s approval of Covid-19 vaccines. Delays in approval can only increase Covid cases and deaths. Peltzman’s findings remain applicable, critics insist.

The rigor of approval standards for sleeping pills (or beta-blockers and many other drugs) need not, and cannot, be the same as those for Covid vaccines, a point Peltzman would likely accept. Sleeping pills are largely for the users’ benefit—more sleep—with the effects on others nil or inconsequential. The death-reduction case for reducing such drugs’ development costs remains as strong as ever.

However, vaccines are different in one critical respect: Vaccines benefits those vaccinated and many others through the development of “herd immunity” (the point at which the spread of a disease is throttled by the prevalence of inoculation).

Herd immunity can reduce cases and deaths of those vaccinated as well as others not vaccinated. However, herd immunity depends on a substantial portion of the population (many epidemiologists say 60 or more percent, while one recent study from two European universities has found 43 percent is adequate) willingly getting vaccinated (with a working rule, the greater the spread in immunity, up to a point, the greater the decline in disease spread). This means that, barring forced vaccinations, herd immunity is not only dependent upon the science of testing, but also on people’s perception of the safety and efficacy of the testing processes.

Cutbacks in testing rigor (or just the amount of time devoted to testing) can have a two-pronged effect: They can reduce earlier than otherwise Covid deaths among early vaccinated people, but the cuts in rigor can also cause many people to resist vaccination (or even join the ranks of “anti-vaxxers”), delaying the development of herd immunity and extending spread of the disease, which, in turn, can cause more Covid deaths in the long run than are saved in the short run.

Ironically, the greater people’s resistance to vaccination, the more rigorous the testing may have to be just to assuage their safety and efficacy fears and induce them to get vaccinated, so that they contribute to the spread of herd immunity and add to derivative economic gains (more jobs and incomes).

By seeking to speed up the FDA approval process, Republican officials could have sewn doubts on the net value of vaccines and slowed the development of herd immunity. Similarly, many Democrats could have compounded the problem by suggesting that Trump has pressed the FDA to compromise its testing rigor for his reelection ends. Media hostility toward Trump, including emphasis on his efforts to press for vaccine development at “warp speed,” has probably compounded political pressures for vaccine resistance.

Peltzman’s line of argument suggests that greater resistance to vaccination can increase the needed payments to spread vaccinations and, again, to achieve herd immunity. The testing rigor for vaccines may also need to be greater than for sleeping pills because the last thing wanted during a pandemic is a vaccine-prescription requirement, which can slow the development of herd immunity by raising the costs of vaccinations.

The politics of vaccines could be having the unintended effect of elevating resistance to Covid vaccinations. In May, the Pew Research Center reported that 72 percent of polled Americans said that they would “definitely” or “probably” be vaccinated for Covid, while 27 percent said they would not. Earlier this month, the percentage of Americans willing to get vaccinated was down by almost a third, to 51 percent. Those unwilling to get vaccinated was up by more than two-thirds, to 49 percent.

These findings portend a new form of the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” a wider and longer spread of Covid and more unintended deaths, given that a check on vaccine politics will unlikely be driven by concern for the common good. Now, as reported by Wall Street Journal editors, officials from the CDC, FDA, NIH, and drug companies are having to work overtime to assure Americans that drug-testing protocols continue to be follow with the upmost rigor.

 

 

 

 

 

Richard McKenzie is an emeritus professor of economics in the Merage Business School at the University of California, Irvine. His latest book under development is The Human Brain on Economics.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

Read More