Boris Johnson’s reopening plan

On Twitter, Ryan Bourne links to a series of tweets by Ben Riley-Smith, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, on Boris Johnson’s reopening plan. Ryan’s comment is: “Why are the UK guidance and laws so much more specific and prescriptive than anywhere else? Absurd level of micromanagement”. If you read Riley-Smith’s tweets (which, if I understand correctly, are based upon political rumor), you will indeed be left with a similar question.

It is notable, and troubling, how much “planning” has been going on in these matters. This is the consequence of an approach of fighting the pandemic in which most governments renounced early on the idea of using rules, as general as possible in these difficult times, and choosing instead a discretionary approach. Discretion has two benefits: on the one hand, it allows for faster adaptation as the pandemic situation evolves. On the other hand, it makes it easier for people in power to claim credit for whatever advancement recorded in the struggle with the virus.

But by using prohibitions and bans, rather than rules, and emphasizing the government’s power to impose and revise plans for the whole of society, we are wasting the opportunity to mobilize knowledge and creativity on a larger scale. Your grocer is not an epidemiologist, and his opinions on the virus’ variants, for example, are unlikely to be particularly well-founded. But if you tell him that he can have a certain number of people per hour / per square meter in his shop, or that he can stay open provided he copes with a certain degree of social distancing, he is likely to busy himself in contriving ways to keep open and complying with the rule at the same time.

Since the virus is a collective problem, governments have all somehow assumed that there can be no bottom up solutions. But the “struggle against the virus”, by any practical purpose, is in fact a series of attempts and actions aiming at keeping our lives together and similar to what they were before, as much as possible despite the pandemic. These attempts and actions could benefit a great deal from bottom-up, trial-and-errors endeavor. Governments have chosen to do without them. This may increase the costs of non pharmacological interventions, but it also means that we won’t benefit from tinkering solutions. It is an old story: the government assumes its experts have superior knowledge. When it comes to the virus, it is likely to be true. When it comes to how to adapt our lives to the fact the virus exists, perhaps no.


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Together Again: Physical Distancing on the Decline

Era Dabla-Norris, Frederico Lima, and Hibah Khan Earlier this year, stringent lockdowns and uncertainty about the severity and transmission of COVID-19 led to the widespread adoption of physical distancing measures across the world. However, as COVID-19 outbreaks began to ebb and lockdowns eased over the summer, measures tracking mobility, such as Google Community Mobility Reports, […]

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Purdue Uses the Spike

As a number of universities have backed away from their initial plans to reopen to face to face classes in the wake of some evidence of COVID outbreaks on campus with the arrival of students, Purdue University president and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has decided to use Tullock’s Spike.

Purdue has, like many other institutions, spent the summer trying to prepare for having students back on campus.  They are requiring all students to submit a negative COVID test from no more than 14 days prior to arrival on campus.  They have set up labs for on campus testing, moved some classes on-line, and increased distancing requirements in dorms and public areas.  All of this has culminated in something that Daniels has required all students to sign – the Protect Purdue Pledge.  As part of that pledge, Purdue is requiring their students to commit to safe behavior or face punishment.  In the wake of actions of other universities, Daniels announced that students would now be prohibited from hosting or attending events- read here parties- that did not have social distancing or mask wearing.  Violations of that policy would be treated like stealing or illegal drug use.  In short, they would expel students who go to parties.


Setting aside for a moment arguments about the relative risks that students that age face from the virus, or the likelihood of them transmitting to others who might be at risk, all I want to say here is that somewhere Gordon Tullock is smiling.


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Tullock’s COVID Spike

There is perhaps no greater goal than promoting safe behavior during a pandemic.  Policy makers need to know the correct proscriptive policy to encourage, or perhaps force, citizens to act in safer ways.  For citizens themselves, the calculus is different.  Safe behavior can fall on a continuum of greater or lesser risk, but that typically corresponds with costs.  Some behavior that is very safe can be costly.  Gordon Tullock famously explored this trade off with his thought experiment “Tullock’s Spike”.


Automobiles have become a lot safer over the past 30 years, and much of that is the result of innovation in safety technology.  One of the biggest advances has been anti-lock brakes.  These prevent cars from skidding during braking and allow for more mistakes by drivers.  In theory, they should make us safer.


But researchers found something odd – a lot of these innovations did not seem to be promoting safer driving.  Instead, empowered by a feeling of safety, individuals decided to drive less safely assured that the advances in auto safety would allow them to travel more quickly (lowering their costs) while not incurring the risks.  Anti-lock brakes, airbags, seat-belt laws, crumple zones, all lower the costs of accidents to individuals.


How then to “encourage” safety?  Tullock said, let’s put a sharp metal spike in the middle of the steering wheel.  That would have the practical effect of keeping the costs directed, literally, at the driver who would adopt safer practices.


Why is this relevant today other than to remember Tullock’s unconventional way of thinking?  Public health officials face the exact same dilemma.  COVID-19 cases are rising, particularly among the young.  Despite shaming, nagging, and pleading, the young are not heeding the pleas of our public officials to act “safely,” and are going to bars, having meals, and otherwise leading relatively normal lives.  They are doing this because there is no spike on the steering wheel.  The young and healthy are largely unaffected by COVID and understand this.  After having been deprived of many things over the past six months, they are, understandably, reluctant to continue to live in semi-isolation.


It seems to me policy makers have a stark choice.  Closing bars and forcing public mask wearing won’t solve the problem.  Young people will move to private homes and parties.  They will continue to meet and talk and flirt and do what young people do.  The only way to change their actions is to force them to pay the costs for the COVID increase.  I would suggest we need to think more in terms of a tax.  Anyone under the age of 30 who tests positive for COVID and through contact tracing can be shown to have engaged in risky behavior should pay a tax or penalty.  It may not be perfect, but it will change the calculus for those who right now are driving very safe Ferraris and putting other members of society in direct risk of infection.


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Herd immunity was never a feasible option

Bryan Caplan has a post on Covid-19 that is full of sensible ideas. But I disagree with one of his claims:

18. Alex Tabarrok is wrong to state, “Social distancing, closing non-essential firms and working from home protect the vulnerable but these same practices protect workers in critical industries. Thus, the debate between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy is moot.” Moot?!  True, there is a mild trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.  But if we didn’t care about the vulnerable at all, the disease would have already run its course and economic life would already have strongly rebounded.  Wouldn’t self-protection have stymied this?  Not if the government hadn’t expanded unemployment coverage and benefits, because most people don’t save enough money to quit their jobs for a couple of months.  With most of the workforce still on the job, fast exponential growth would have given us herd immunity long ago.  The death toll would have been several times higher, but that’s the essence of the trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.

From my vantage point in Orange County, that just doesn’t seem feasible.  People here are taking quite aggressive steps to avoid getting the disease, and I believe that would be true regardless of which public policies were chosen by authorities.  Removing the lockdown will help the economy a bit, as would ending the enhanced unemployment insurance program.  But the previous (less generous) unemployment compensation program combined with voluntary social distancing is enough to explain the vast bulk of the depression we are in.

In many countries, the number of active cases is falling close to zero.  In those places, it will be possible to get people to return to service industries where human interaction is significant.  Speaking for myself, I’m unlikely to get a haircut, go to the dentist, go to a movie, eat in a crowded restaurant, or many other activities until there is a vaccine. (Although if I were single I’d be much more active.) If I were someone inclined to take cruises, I’d also stay away from that industry until there was a vaccine.  I’ll do much less flying, although I’d be willing to fly if highly motivated.  For now, I’ll focus on outdoor restaurants (fortunately quite plentiful in Orange County) and vacations by automobile. Universities are beginning to announce that classes will remain online in the fall.

If you think in terms of “near-zero cases” and “herd immunity” as the two paths to normalcy in the fall of this year, I’d say near-zero cases are much more feasible.  Lots of countries have done the former—as far as I know none have succeeded with the latter approach.  Unfortunately, America has botched this pandemic so badly (partly for reasons described by Bryan) that it will be very difficult to get the active caseload down to a level where consumers feel safe.

Don’t get me wrong, both the lockdown and the change in unemployment compensation create problems for the economy.  But they are not the decisive factor causing the current depression.  If the changes in the unemployment compensation program were made permanent, then at some point this would become the decisive factor causing a high unemployment rate.  But not yet.

BTW, I am not arguing that it wouldn’t be better if people had a more rational view of risks, as Bryan suggested in a more recent post.  This post is discussing the world as it is.

Here’s a selection of countries with 35-76 active cases (right column), followed by a group with less than ten.  Many are tiny countries and some have dubious data, but not all.

. . .



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