In my lifetime, there was another deadly flu epidemic in the United States. The flu spread from Hong Kong to the United States, arriving December 1968 and peaking a year later. It ultimately killed 100,000 people in the U.S., mostly over the age of 65, and one million worldwide.
Lifespan in the US in those days was 70 whereas it is 78 today. Population was 200 million as compared with 328 million today. It was also a healthier population with low obesity. If it would be possible to extrapolate the death data based on population and demographics, we might be looking at a quarter million deaths today from this virus. So in terms of lethality, it was as deadly and scary as COVID-19 if not more so, though we shall have to wait to see.
“In 1968,” says Nathaniel L. Moir in National Interest, “the H3N2 pandemic killed more individuals in the U.S. than the combined total number of American fatalities during both the Vietnam and Korean Wars.”
And this happened in the lifetimes of every American over 52 years of age.
I was 5 years old and have no memory of this at all. My mother vaguely remembers being careful and washing surfaces, and encouraging her mom and dad to be careful. Otherwise, it’s mostly forgotten today. Why is that?
Nothing closed. Schools stayed open. All businesses did too. You could go to the movies. You could go to bars and restaurants. John Fund has a friend who reports having attended a Grateful Dead concert. In fact, people have no memory or awareness that the famous Woodstock concert of August 1969 – planned in January during the worse period of death – actually occurred during a deadly American flu pandemic that only peaked globally six months later. There was no thought given to the virus which, like ours today, was dangerous mainly for a non-concert-going demographic.
Stock markets didn’t crash. Congress passed no legislation. The Federal Reserve did nothing. Not a single governor acted to enforce social distancing, curve flattening (even though hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized), or banning of crowds. No mothers were arrested for taking their kids to other homes. No surfers were arrested. No daycares were shut even though there were more infant deaths with this virus than the one we are experiencing now. There were no suicides, no unemployment, no drug overdoses.
Media covered the pandemic but it never became a big issue.
As Bojan Pancevski in the Wall Street Journal points out, “In 1968-70, news outlets devoted cursory attention to the virus while training their lenses on other events such as the moon landing and the Vietnam War, and the cultural upheaval of the civil-rights movements, student protests and the sexual revolution.”
The only actions governments took was to collect data, watch and wait, encourage testing and vaccines, and so on. The medical community took the primary responsibility for disease mitigation, as one might expect. It was widely assumed that diseases require medical not political responses.
It’s not as if we had governments unwilling to intervene in other matters. We had the Vietnam War, social welfare, public housing, urban renewal, and the rise of Medicare and Medicaid. We had a president swearing to cure all poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Government was as intrusive as it had ever been in history. But for some reason, there was no thought given to shutdowns.
Which raises the question: why was this different? We will be trying to figure this one out for decades.
Was the difference that we have mass media invading our lives with endless notifications blowing up in our pockets? Was there some change in philosophy such that we now think politics is responsible for all existing aspects of life? Was there a political element here in that the media blew this wildly out of proportion as revenge against Trump and his deplorables? Or did our excessive adoration of predictive modeling get out of control to the point that we let a physicist with ridiculous models frighten the world’s governments into violating the human rights of billions of people?
Maybe all of these were factors. Or maybe there is something darker and nefarious at work, as the conspiracy theorists would have it.
Regardless, they all have some explaining to do.
By way of personal recollection, my own mother and father were part of a generation that believed they had developed sophisticated views of viruses. They understood that less vulnerable people getting them not only strengthened immune systems but contributed to disease mitigation by reaching “herd immunity.” They had a whole protocol to make a child feel better about being sick. I got a “sick toy,” unlimited ice cream, Vicks rub on my chest, a humidifier in my room, and so on.
They would constantly congratulate me on building immunity. They did their very best to be happy about my viruses, while doing their best to get me through them.
If we used government lockdowns then like we use them now, Woodstock (which changed music forever and still resonates today) would never have occurred. How much prosperity, culture, tech, etc. are losing in this calamity?
What happened between then and now? Was there some kind of lost knowledge, as happened with scurvy, when we once had sophistication and then the knowledge was lost and had to be re-found? For COVID-19, we reverted to medieval-style understandings and policies, even in the 21st century. It’s all very strange.
The contrast between 1968 and 2020 couldn’t be more striking. They were smart. We are idiots. Or at least our governments are.
[Note an earlier version of this article featured a photo not from Woodstock 1969. This photo from the montage at the Atlantic.]
Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research.
Do quick shutdowns work to fight the spread of Covid-19? Joe Malchow, Yinon Weiss and I wanted to find out. We set out to quantify how many deaths were caused by delayed shutdown orders on a state-by-state basis.
To normalize for an unambiguous comparison of deaths between states at the midpoint of an epidemic, we counted deaths per million population for a fixed 21-day period, measured from when the death rate first hit 1 per million—e.g.,‒three deaths in Iowa or 19 in New York state. A state’s “days to shutdown” was the time after a state crossed the 1 per million threshold until it ordered businesses shut down.
We ran a simple one-variable correlation of deaths per million and days to shutdown, which ranged from minus-10 days (some states shut down before any sign of Covid-19) to 35 days for South Dakota, one of seven states with limited or no shutdown. The correlation coefficient was 5.5%—so low that the engineers I used to employ would have summarized it as “no correlation” and moved on to find the real cause of the problem. (The trendline sloped downward—states that delayed more tended to have lower death rates—but that’s also a meaningless result due to the low correlation coefficient.)
No conclusions can be drawn about the states that sheltered quickly, because their death rates ran the full gamut, from 20 per million in Oregon to 360 in New York. This wide variation means that other variables—like population density or subway use—were more important. Our correlation coefficient for per-capita death rates vs. the population density was 44%. That suggests New York City might have benefited from its shutdown—but blindly copying New York’s policies in places with low Covid-19 death rates, such as my native Wisconsin, doesn’t make sense.
Sweden is fighting coronavirus with common-sense guidelines that are much less economically destructive than the lockdowns in most U.S. states. Since people over 65 account for about 80% of Covid-19 deaths, Sweden asked only seniors to shelter in place rather than shutting down the rest of the country; and since Sweden had no pediatric deaths, it didn’t shut down elementary and middle schools. Sweden’s containment measures are less onerous than America’s, so it can keep them in place longer to prevent Covid-19 from recurring. Sweden did not shut down stores, restaurants and most businesses, but did shut down the Volvo automotive plant, which has since reopened, while the Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif., was shuttered by police and remains closed.
How did the Swedes do? They suffered 80 deaths per million 21 days after crossing the 1 per million threshold level. With 10 million people, Sweden’s death rate‒without a shutdown and massive unemployment‒is lower than that of the seven hardest-hit U.S. states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey and New York—all of which, except Louisiana, shut down in three days or less. Despite stories about high death rates, Sweden’s is in the middle of the pack in Europe, comparable to France; better than Italy, Spain and the U.K.; and worse than Finland, Denmark and Norway. Older people in care homes accounted for half of Sweden’s deaths.
We should cheer for Sweden to succeed, not ghoulishly bash them. They may prove that many aspects of the U.S. shutdown were mistakes—ineffective but economically devastating—and point the way to correcting them.
Mr. Rodgers was founding CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corp.
Suddenly everyone is an #epidemiology expert, which understandably frustrates ‘real’ experts.
But it is good that people read/share information and form opinions. The problem is the widely shared fantasy about what empirical science does and how it works. Science is not a one-shot game where you design one impeccable study to deliver the knowledge we need, and then a “settled” science based on The Truth™. There is no such thing as an impeccable, truth-generating study. There are always things to critique and that can be done better.
This means two things: that we should not take any one study as gospel, and we should not dismiss every study for having weaknesses. Scientists work in the very opposite way, and slowly build a widely agreed-upon body of theory by incrementally refining methods and adding to the evidence. Even the so-called scientific method itself suggests that we cannot ever get to known and verified truth. We can only approach it by continuously progress, learn, and undermine or falsify prior claims. So it is a serious error to dismiss any findings outright because of imperfections in the study.
When scientists take apart a study, they are doing their jobs: by finding flaws, weaknesses, and expressing doubt about results, they are vetting the research and indicating the need and direction for follow-up research. This is very different from the common claim by ‘new experts’ in social media that a study is “false” because scientists have found that it has weaknesses or flaws. Virtually every study is “false” in this regard. It doesn’t mean that the truth has been uncovered, and it certainly doesn’t mean that one can assume that the opposite is true.
Empirical science is more akin to a discovery process than an uncovering of certainly true pieces of knowledge. All knowledge is interpreted through a lens, which in science is established theory, but it happens that the lens is discarded. This is what Thomas Kuhn referred to as scientific revolutions, which happen as evidence contrary to the commonly used lens amasses and raises doubts about its reliability, causing a ‘crisis’ and a new paradigm.
This does not mean that everything that took place before this shift is without value. The prior findings were not discarded, and physics did not start from scratch with the publication of Newton’s theory. The same with Einstein’s theory of relativity. But prior findings are seen in a new light and their significance might shift as the evidence is reinterpreted using the new lens, creating (usually) new understanding. In science, this is par for the course.
Scientists are and should be skeptical, critical, and even unconvinced. They should disagree. It is how our accumulated knowledge grows and is refined. Unfortunately, society has adopted a form of unreflective and normative scientism in which science is assumed to immediately have all the answers. This is, I think, the reason why it is so common in political debates to use as argument that “scientific studies show that…” It is a meaningless statement, but plays on our unreasonable view of science as the generation of immediate and eternal truth.
If we instead recognize science as a discovery process, it should be obvious that there likely are scientific studies in support of most views. But even if I can cite 1,000 studies in support of my opinion, it means little if they were all conducted using unsupported, unreasonable, or since then rejected assumptions (such as geocentrism). Scientific findings are never adopted because there is one study. Yet, prior findings can, at least in principle, be undermined and challenged by a single study finding contradictory evidence. But such falsification of theory, which is how science progresses, requires that the new study is done well and uses state of the art methods and data.
That’s why scientists immediately jump on and mercilessly critique, if not attempt to shoot down, a new study with results that are surprising or even challenging to what they believe to know. If it withstands the critique, it must be taken seriously. If it does not, it is not automatically rejected but may have provided important clues for how to design future studies, refine methods, etc. But what matters is that the study is overall rather well done and, then, that its weaknesses are uncovered.
This is why scientists go through years of training. The point is not (only) to learn the field’s terminology and memorize theories, but to learn the trade: how to do good research and spot weaknesses. Any good scientist can offer a list of weaknesses in any study, which to a layman likely sounds like an outright rejection of the findings. But that’s a highly simplified interpretation that is easily an error. Many groundbreaking works were ferociously resisted by the scientific community before the ideas were adopted (examples like Semmelweis and Chandrasekhar come to mind). This is not necessarily a flaw. Science “should” resist novelty by demanding convincing evidence before adopting new explanations. (But it should not resist for reasons other than logic and evidence.)
In the current pandemic, studies are still scarce and scientists are working to figure out how to properly measure trends in this changing landscape–and make effective recommendations to policymakers. Studies will only get better as we get a better understanding of the virus, more (and more reliable) data, better interpretations, etc. But this cannot be accomplished if new findings are quickly dismissed outright and scientists shunned for not producing evidence in line with people’s (or policymakers’) preferred imagined reality. Science takes time and must take time. It progresses through scrutiny, skepticism, and critique. But informed such, not mob-like attacks on scientists with the “wrong” results.
The virus will teach us many things, but one lesson has already been relearned by the American people: there are two, quite different, types of wisdom.
One, and the most renowned, is a specialization in education that results in titled degrees and presumed authority. That ensuing prestige, in turn, dictates the decisions of most politicians, the media, and public officials—who for the most part share the values and confidence of the credentialed elite.
The other wisdom is not, as commonly caricatured, know-nothingism. Indeed, Americans have always believed in self-improvement and the advantages of higher education, a trust that explained broad public 19th-century support for mandatory elementary and secondary schooling and, during the postwar era, the G.I. Bill.
But the other wisdom also puts a much higher premium on pragmatism and experience, values instilled by fighting nature daily and mixing it up with those who must master the physical world.
The result is the sort of humility that arises when daily drivers test their skills and cunning in a semi-truck barreling along the freeway to make a delivery deadline with a cylinder misfiring up on the high pass, while plagued by worries whether there will be enough deliveries this month to pay the mortgage.
An appreciation of practical knowledge accrues from watching central-heating mechanics come out in the evening to troubleshoot the unit on the roof, battling the roof grade, the ice, and the dark while pitting their own acquired knowledge in a war with the latest computerized wiring board of the new heating exchange unit that proves far more unreliable than the 20-year-old model it replaced.
Humility is key to learning, but it is found more easily from a wealth of diverse existential experiences on the margins. It is less a dividend of the struggle for great success versus greater success still, but one of survival versus utter failure.
So far in this crisis, our elite have let us down in a manner the muscularly wise have never done.
Botched Models, Bad Advice
Take any contentious issue—travel bans, the advantages of masks, the Chinese compromising of WHO, the entire industry of grievance politics infecting criticism of China’s despicable behavior, delayed testing by the Centers for Disease Control and FDA, modeling, the efficacy of antimalarial drugs—and our elite seem unable to admit they were wrong, and wrong with a great deal of costly arrogance.
It is no exaggeration to say that most models that the best and brightest offered the public, from the imported Imperial College in London to those from the University of Washington and many more besides, were not just inaccurate, but quite mistaken in two tragic ways: First, they were accepted as gospel by governments and thus their flawed assumptions became the basis for policies that in many cases may prove counterproductive. Second, the modelers themselves either did not promptly correct their warped inputs, or were not completely forthcoming about their data and methodologies, or blamed their flawed assumptions on others or circumstances beyond imagination, or claimed that their mistakes were in fact salutary—if not sorta, kinda planned—in galvanizing a presumably infantile public to accept draconian measures that it otherwise would not.
I know a plumber and an electrician, both skilled in the pragmatic engineering of pipes and wires, who would not dare to think they could offer a model of plumbing or electrical prediction if they had no idea of the real size of the denominator and were likewise unsure that the numerator was widely accepted as accurate and clearly defined.
If I called my car mechanic and explained that I had a bad knock in my engine in the middle of night in the middle of nowhere, he likely would tell me ways to risk driving home, even if possibly hurting the engine, given the lose-lose proposition of spending the night in an unsafe area—in a way our media class seemed to have little clue that hydroxychloroquine for those who cannot breathe need not be certified as 100 percent efficacious in their effort to inhale one more day.
On March 12, Governor DeWine of Ohio, flanked by his state health director, told the 11 million residents of Ohio that based on models he knew that 100,000 “had” active cases of the disease. That was a caseload that his experts further warned would double every six days. In other words, at the then roughly 2 percent lethality rate of the known actively infected—his medical team all but frightened the state with the certainty that in 24 days there could be 1.6 million infected Ohioans and an assumed 40,000 dead.
In fact, about a week ago, on April 6, there were fewer than 5,000 known cases and less than 200 Ohioans who had succumbed to COVID-19. Even with far more unknown cases than known and the efficacy of slowing viral transmission via mass sheltering, the data was not just flawed but perhaps even preposterous. State officials could have offered some official explanations for their misinformation other than the subtext that such fright was medicinal in persuading a public to do something they supposed the public did not know was good for it to do.
When California Governor Gavin Newsom warned that 25.5 million Californians “will” get the virus in the eight weeks following March 18, albeit without his shelter-in-place orders, he was also essentially stating that, at a then 2.6 percent lethality rate for Californians known to have the active virus, about 1 million would die. As I write, 24 days out from his prediction and nearing the half-way point to Doomsday, about 23,000 Californians have tested positive, and either are fighting the disease or have recovered. Since late January, about 650 of 40 million Californians have died from the disease, in a state where well over 700 people die from some cause every day.
If 10 times that number of known positive tests are now actively infected, we legitimately could assume at least 222,000 residents are now active or past carriers. Those who advised Newsom to shut down the world’s sixth-largest economy, including universities like Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, and Stanford, Silicon Valley, and the commerce and livelihoods of 40 million residents, apparently did not factor into their models some possible collective immunity among thousands of Californians who, for months, were on the front lines of arriving flights from China.
Nor did modelers seem to factor in the ability of people to social distance even before the shutdown was ordered, or the fact that a virus that does not kill 95.5 percent of those who are infected, but not frontline health workers or over 60 years old, may be deemed by the public manageable in a way that does not require having multigenerational small businesses ruined, or careers destroyed, or retirement savings accounts wrecked, or key appointments with doctors postponed or canceled.
Repeating Past Mistakes
Practical wisdom might warn that one also does not erode the Constitution because of a mysterious virus, in the sense one does not arrest ministers preaching in parking lots, or those walking hand in hand alongside the road.
Given past misadventures in times of crisis from Woodrow Wilson’s wartime de facto suspension of the First Amendment to FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans, one should not advocate instituting a national register of the infected and recovered, as some sort of super citizenry and then entrust such knowledge to what we know of the civil liberty sensitivities of Silicon Valley—all because a Bill Gates or Anthony Fauci believe their expertise leads them to think it may be a good idea.
Sometime in the late 19th century, the wide-scale growth of graduate education, professional schooling, and the formal granting of a M.D., Ph.D., or J.D. were necessary antidotes to quackery and the dangers of autodidactic expertise masquerading as the product of the scientific method. But in the last two centuries, that notion of argument from authority has metamorphosed into a religion, a faith-based discipline.
No one at Harvard Medical School or the World Health Organization can guarantee exact science in the sense of something completely right and absolutely wrong, any more than stomach ulcers were supposedly only due to stress and aspirin in the 1960s, and then also to H. Pylori and Advil in the 21st century and then also to a mixture of all that and also something no doubt undiscovered today.
The former gold standard of cobalt radiation (“the cobalt bomb”) to treat cancer may soon seem a little barbaric, in the manner that our present chemotherapy regimens likely will appear medieval to doctors a half entry from now. Science is evolutionary. On occasion, yesterday’s certainty is today’s skepticism and tomorrow’s ridiculousness.
In other words, common sense, indeed humility as well, as a corrective to scientific arrogance was often lost in this crisis. One day the Imperial College in London was lauded as Einsteinian, the next it appeared Vegas-like.
Warped Arguments Wrapped in Authority
The result of scientific arrogance, without practical audit, presents as something like the surreal online “world meter” data on the hourly progress of the virus. Such sites offer superficially impressively precise, but ultimately flawed, information on COVID-19 cases, mortality, and lethality and infection—without label warnings that neither the number of actual active or past infectious cases, nor the percentage of those who die from, rather than with, can yet be accurate. Much less are we informed by such electronic meters of the absolute unreliability of statistics from China and other authoritarian countries.
Our modelers constantly downsize their bleak prognostications as “data changes” as if one should ever publish such Armageddon scenarios when they had insufficient information. More worrisome, are post facto claims that such mistakes might have been salutary.
Perhaps a mechanic could rejoin that he warned the driver never to venture 5 miles beyond his home given tiny fissures in the driver’s cylinder block, and when his diagnosis is revealed to be erroneous and quite costly to his client, offered, “Well, at least I saved him gas money, wear and tear on the car, and a possible traffic death.”
Degrees no longer necessarily reflect merit, at least as it once was calibrated by a university’s or a public agency’s own standards. Over 20 years ago, one could read any scholarly journal in the social sciences or humanities—and today even their scientific counterparts—and learn how social justice, identity politics, and political activism had warped science and data-driven analyses. The erosion infected everything from studies of global warming to illegal immigration to the role of the “Other” in ancient societies. It was as if letters behind one’s name allowed authors to massage data and argumentation for the higher purposes of egalitarianism and contemporary social justice.
Every young scholar is now faced with the dilemma of writing the truth as the evidence compels him to do, or venturing into weaponized speculation that is far more likely to win him peer approbation and career enhancement, even as it insidiously bankrupts his discipline.
Elite wisdom, which in its allegiance to the scientific method eventually is likely to find an antidote and vaccination against the virus, still fails us in so many other ways in which it should not, in part also because its high priests rarely face the consequences of their own ideological and scientific pronouncements.
Whatever the end result of this crisis, few at the WHO, CDC or the state health directors are going to lose their jobs in a way the small restaurateurs and Uber drivers most certainly will.
When the corporate lawyer, under 65 and not a health-care worker, rails that the know-nothings wish to endanger him by restarting the economy, despite a 5-in-1,000 chance of dying if infected, his argument is not based on existential need, nor is it part of the lose-lose landscape of his supposed social inferiors who are willing to risk a small chance of severe infection to prevent a very likely chance of going broke and ruining an entire family.
That is, elites who make policy do not necessarily immediately need to plug back into a normal economy to survive. An Ezekiel Emanuel—brother of Rahm (of “never let a crisis go to waste” infamy), advisor to Joe Biden, and of greater infamy for his prior callous pronouncements that those over 75 (e.g., like Joe Biden) more or less are society’s unproductive and enfeebled sponges—claims that we might need to be shut down America for up to another 18 months (but then why not two or three years?).
The subtext of Emanuel’s warning is that even after 72 weeks of such exhausting punditry from a university billet, he will emerge more or less financially secure, maybe our national health czar in a new administration, and without much worry that millions of others will not—or in fact will die or sicken trying to remain solvent.
I have no idea whether Sweden’s more modest approach to the Covid-19 pandemic—keeping schools and restaurants open while restricting visits to retirement homes—will be a success or a colossal and deadly mistake. No one else will know either, probably for months. But while we wait, the most interesting political fact about Sweden has gone largely unremarked: The prime minister resisting an authoritarian national lockdown and appealing instead to individual responsibility, Stefan Löfven, is the leader of the country’s main center-left party.
Surprise, surprise. Those most enthusiastically cheering on Sweden’s experiment from abroad—especially in America—hail from the political right. They believe that if it succeeds, Stockholm’s resistance to draconian measures would constitute a rebuke to the statist instincts of most other world leaders.
The oddity is that the left in most of the world has been so intensely critical of Sweden’s experiment. If this model works, it would hold out some hope that the coronavirus could be managed without putting millions of members of the left’s own blue-collar base out of work. Yet the prevailing attitude is less “let them try” and more “excommunicate the heretics.”
This column has previously argued that “the science” political figures claim to be following actually offers little practical guide to policy makers. In the fast-moving global effort to unlock the secrets of a new disease, competing studies are readily available to justify almost any approach a politician wishes to adopt.
As a consequence, the political and policy responses to this disaster are more revealing than politicians want to admit. They are not hewing to objectively tested theories. They are following their ideological predispositions to whatever science bolsters prior beliefs.
Politicians on the right made a pragmatic political calculation: A media incapable of sophisticated thought would never forgive them if they made a reasonable bet in favor of policy modesty and it backfired.
Conservatives aren’t wrong about the media’s general inability to process multiple variables, to judge from the way President Trump is scored for a national death toll primarily attributable to New York, whose Democratic governor somehow has managed to emerge from this situation as a hero. Hence the right has uncomfortably embraced draconian interventions, especially in Mr. Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s U.K.
Meanwhile the left in most developed countries has settled on an embrace of progressive authoritarianism over the interests of what used to be its electoral base among normal working people. This manifests itself in three ways.
One is enthusiastic support for mass shutdowns of economic activity that wreck the lives of lower-paid factory, construction and service workers while leaving lefty urban can-work-from-home creatives only moderately inconvenienced.
Left-wing parties that find themselves in opposition, as in the U.S. and U.K., have engaged in a bizarre game of competitive immiseration with their right-leaning governments. Joe Biden called for a national lockdown last month, rather than demanding a more granular deployment of the least intrusive measures possible in each region. Shortly before Mr. Johnson announced Britain’s lockdown on March 23, Keir Starmer, now Labour Party leader, demanded “further compliance measures.”
Another is the prioritization of the needs of public-sector employees over those private-sector workers who still have jobs. Witness how London Mayor and Labour Party star Sadiq Khan demanded that construction workers be put out of their jobs so that the Underground rail network could run less frequently for the benefit of its staff instead of having to carry all those builders to their job sites.
The third is an aggressive expansion of the welfare state as a substitute for productive work. A looming disaster in the U.S., as writers on this page have warned, is that the coronavirus stimulus bill creates incentives to receive unemployment benefits rather than return to work once the lockdowns are lifted. The left used to think of itself as the movement of empowered working people. Now it’s trying to become a movement of the dependent lockdown poor.
The drumbeat has become so insistent it’s easy to forget there was another way. The left could have chosen to be the political side that would rigorously interrogate whether governments have a reasonable base of evidence on which to halt entire economies, and that would demand lighter and shorter interventions.
Instead the virus disaster has crystallized like almost nothing else could the divide that has opened on the left between blue-collar and lower-paid voters on one side and urban progressives on the other. No wonder the urban progressives are rooting, perversely, against Sweden.
he New York Times on Tuesday reported: “The numbers the health officials showed President Trump were overwhelming. With the peak of the coronavirus pandemic still weeks away, he was told, hundreds of thousands of Americans could face death if the country reopened too soon.”
These numbers, many millions of infections, hundreds of thousands of deaths, were ones that “health officials” had been spreading through a sensation-hungry media for some time. Together with a poll question that framed the choice just so, they had already helped produce another set of numbers: “Voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely.”
This, the Times crowed victoriously, had stampeded President Trump to abandon his goal of restoring normal life by Easter.
Trouble is, though, these numbers come from just some doctors—they reflect neither reality nor broad medical opinion. They are synthetic products that hide the (often ignorant) assumptions that they reflect, substitute for reason, foster panic, and ruin the country.
The following shows how “soft” and hence divorced from reality these numbers are, what it would take to produce “hard” numbers—i.e. ones reflective of reality—and the manner consistent with self-government in which such matters should be debated and decided.
All admit that the numbers that are scaring the sense out of the country are mathematical projections. All projections are based on assumptions about the ever-changing numbers of “confirmed cases” of COVID-19, as well as of deaths resulting therefrom. But few—and here it seems we must include many “health officials”—consider that the latter numbers are themselves “soft” and tell us next to nothing about how much, how little, or what kind of dangers the virus poses to us.
Certainly, they give no guidance about what restrictions any of us should apply to ourselves, never mind what the government should do to the country.
How’s that? Because the number of “confirmed cases”—meaning cases that have come to the attention of the medical profession—tells us nothing about the number of people infected. Nor does that number tell us what happens to the gamut of those infected. Nor is the number of deaths “hard,” because it does not distinguish between those who die of the virus and those who die merely with it (that is, they might have died even without it).
To make intelligent decisions about countermeasures, we would need have hard data about all these matters. Yet, for two months, doctors such as Anthony Fauci have messed up millions of lives and commandeered trillions of dollars while scaring the hell out of people and watching curves based on projections based on meaningless numbers. Watching the several curves resulting from the testing that is now ongoing and that is projected to continue as the country suffers will provide only more guesses, that will feed more models and more disputes.
The most important fact about COVID-19, its true mortality rate, is the number who die of the virus divided by the number infected by it. No algorithms. Simple arithmetic.
In short, Fauci, et al., are showing themselves to be typical of our bureaucracy: over-credentialed, entrusted with too much power, and dangerously incompetent.
Learning the true figures about precisely what danger the virus poses to whom must begin by taking into account one thing we know for sure about COVID-19: that many, if not most, of those infected by this unusually contagious virus show few or no symptoms. This suggests eventual near-universal contagion.
But we don’t know how many of these asymptomatic people there are. Hence, meaningful epidemiological testing must include a random representative sample of the population, regardless of whether they are presumed to be infected or not. The numbers resulting from monitoring what happens to the health of individuals in this sample over a few weeks would tell exactly what percentage of people in each category and subcategory suffer what consequences from whatever contact with the virus they happen to have.
As it happens, a sizable chunk of such data is about to come into existence. The virus is rampant among the 5,000 or so personnel aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Everyone aboard is being tested. By the time that is done, as the ship sits off Guam, and it returns to the United States, we will have a good idea about the rate of infection and some factual notion of what happens to those infected—at least among the sailors’ demographic group.
The question of lethality is not resolved by mere counting of individuals who test positive and die. We have some data showing that COVID-19-positive people who suffer from certain diseases are likelier to succumb than others who suffer from other diseases or who are otherwise healthy.
Sorting out causes of death is properly a medical judgment. The doctors who are scaring the hell out of the country in general might better spend their time using their medical skills to sort out the virus’s specific consequences—and recommending what currently available drugs may keep the sick from dying.
President Trump, as well as the governors of some states, have been stampeded out of their common sense into shutting down the country until further notice. The bureaucratic-media complex has done this on the supposed basis of medical authority. But the doctors have not been speaking as doctors on the basis of knowledge of the human body while offering cures or even palliatives. No. Their judgments are based on speculation about the meaning of mathematical models.
They are not acting like good doctors but rather like bad politicians.
Fauci showed how thoroughly he and his cohorts have subordinated common sense to bureaucratic authority. Having strenuously campaigned to deny the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine, having been confronted by the fact that physicians on the front lines of the battle against the virus are using it themselves, and having been asked whether he—were he to come down with illness from the virus—would use it, he weakly conceded that he would but only as part of an approved study. He cared less about describing what the drug can do and can not do than about affirming his agency’s and the FDA’s prerogatives.
Backed by the media, Fauci and company have contended that actions by anybody, ordinary citizens, elected officials, or physicians that do not follow proper bureaucratic procedures are illegitimate. Who the hell do they think they are? We belong to ourselves. Not to them.
Decisions affecting each and all of us rightly belong to ourselves directly and indirectly through elected representatives. Congress and the legislatures should be making decisions on the basis of open debate and recorded roll call votes.
Surely, President Trump’s low point came when he supported bypassing roll call votes in the passage of a $2.2 trillion bill as part of his and other executive officials’ decisions to shut down the country. Making decisions on the basis of meaningless curves and bureaucratic authority rather than through open debate about hard facts followed by roll call votes is not just undemocratic. It’s stupid.
The shutdown of the American economy by government decree should end. The lasting and far-reaching harms caused by this authoritarian precedent far outweigh those caused by the COVID-19 virus. The American people—individuals, families, businesses—must decide for themselves how and when to reopen society and return to their daily lives.
Neither the Trump administration nor Congress has the legal authority to shut down American life absent at least baseline due process. As Judge Andrew Napolitano recently wrote, business closures, restrictions on assembly and movement, and quarantines are not constitutionally permissible under some magic “emergency” doctrine. At a minimum, the federal government must show potential imminent harm by specific infected individuals at some form of hearing or trial.
These due process requirements are not suspended.
State and local officials may claim, or even possess, lawful police powers to shut down their communities. We offer no analysis of such powers or claims under the myriad of state constitutions and authorizing legislation. But they should resist exercising these powers. The governor of Virginia, in particular, deserves admonition for unilaterally imposing a lengthy period of virtual house arrest.
We do not know, and cannot yet know, how many Americans will become sick or die from the virus. We do know that predictions regarding infection and death rates are highly unreliable. Even actual deaths attributable to COVID-19 are not so easy to count, as Italy has discovered. Age, general health, and comorbidity are difficult variables to assess, and people may die “with” the virus but not “from” it. It is also very difficult to assess the lethality of the virus relative to previously known types of flu and colds.
To date, COVID-19 deaths in the US are far fewer than deaths in ordinary flu seasons or from past pandemics such as the H1N1 virus. This understanding is critically important to put the virus, and the government response to it, in perspective. Even during past pandemics, depressions, and world wars, Americans went to work.
In 1850, French economist Frédéric Bastiat helped the world understand the “seen and unseen costs” of state policies. It is simple to see how quarantines and lockdowns will slow the spread of COVID-19. It is critical, but not so simple, to see the costs and harms caused by the economic shutdown.
Only then can we rationally understand the tradeoffs involved.
How many Americans suffering from other illnesses cannot see a doctor now? How many Americans will lose their jobs, their life savings, their retirement prospects, and their incalculable feeling of self-worth? How many will succumb to depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicide? How many will lose their homes, divorce their spouses, or suffer abuse? How many will never recover in their careers? How many small businesses, including the vital ones of doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, will vanish from your community? How many young people will “fail to launch”?
Worse still, will grocery stores and gas stations remain open and stocked? Will crime spike? Will the American social fabric, already thin from politics, tear apart?
These questions are not rhetorical. All of these things happened, to a degree, following the Great Recession of 2008. They will happen again—very soon—if we fail to act immediately. Tomorrow, on April 1, millions of Americans will not pay rent or mortgages. Millions of small businesses will shutter, just as many large employers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, airlines, and hotels already have. Millions of service workers are unemployed already, but many more jobs will be lost. The effects will cascade.
There is no conflict between humanitarian and economic concerns; in fact they are flipsides of the same coin. A poorer America will be a much less healthy America, one more vulnerable to future illness and disease. Technology, modern medicine, and market actors can address a virus; already we see entrepreneurs producing cheaper ventilators and doctors using cheap generic drugs with very promising results.
This local, bottom-up approach is the only effective way to confront the virus. The federal government, as we see now and have in the past, is comically incapable of competence in times of crisis.
On a fundamental level, freedom really is more important than security—or, in this case, an illusion of security. We all demonstrate this in our personal lives every day, from flying to driving to riding bicycles, to consuming unhealthy food and drink simply because we like it. Security has never been the sole or even primary goal for a country born in rebellion.
Government cannot decide what aspects of our lives are essential or nonessential. The American people cannot simply sit at home and wait for government checks written on funds that government does not have.
End the shutdown.
No-one can predict the future, other than to be sure things will change. Here are 4 developments we anticipate will occur following the disturbing government suppression to which we have been subjected during the coronavirus panic.
The majority will completely stop listening to and believing in government.
In the coronavirus pandemic crisis, we have been ill-advised and misled, and confined and suppressed and coerced and controlled. By the time the virus panic is over, millions of economic lives will have been destroyed, with collateral damage to mental and physical health, friendships, families and other relationships, institutions, and business loyalties. Our faith in many things will have been damaged. One of those things is government.
Faith is an irrational belief in the truth of a proposition irrespective of evidence to the contrary. It is not boundless or endless. The more the believer’s faith is contradicted by reality, the greater the test. Government – using the term to mean the institution, irrespective of which political party is at the helm at any point in time – has asked us to believe that they are justified in shutting down the economy on the basis of a wildly erratic interpretation of wildly erratic data. It has asked us to pledge obedience to mad scientists posing as experts. It has asked us to accept draconian limitations on our movement, our socializing, our working and earning a living and our freedoms in general. It has threatened military action and legal action.
It’s hard to discern a motive for this destruction. Probably, governments prefer greater control over a diminished system than less control over a thriving population.
But it seems rational that intelligent people will now cease to believe a single utterance that comes from government, whether the executive, legislative or judicial branch. That they could mislead so deliberately as to drive a highly productive and highly civilized populace into depression and dysfunction must be viewed as shocking. Evil is a word that’s hard to use with accuracy, but it may fit.
The consequences of a loss of faith are impossible to predict. But change in the arrangements of the society and the polity are inevitable. Loss of faith in the dominant and hegemonic Catholic Papacy centuries ago led to the Reformation and a cascade of positive, civilization-advancing changes. Perhaps we can anticipate similar breakout progress when the people sever the cord of faith binding them to government.
We’ll all stop believing in data and models.
A central feature of the pandemic phenomenon has been the prominent role of data, models, and modelers. There is an increasing modern pretense that there is no limit to the amount and type of data that can be collected to shed light on wicked problems. Once collected, the data can be processed to identify patterns and trends. Once processed, it can be plugged into so-called models, riddled with assumptions about the unknown and the unknowable, and these models then claim to predict the future.
Our faith in these models knows no bounds. We believe we can predict how many coronavirus deaths there will be 10 days from now. We believe we can predict the warming of the planet’s atmosphere 10 years from now. We believe we can predict the extinction of species and the rate of growth of the economy.
But, of course, we can’t. And the reason is well-known, albeit ignored or suppressed. The quantification principle of modeling does not apply in human behavior. Every human is different, every individual reacts differently to changes in the environment and context, everyone makes their own arrangements, every value judgment is subjective, emotional, idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Value judgments precede behavior, and so behavior is equally unpredictable. Human populations are not subject to modeling.
Exacerbating the problem, the models are voracious for data – “big data” is preferred, but not necessarily good data or relevant data or accurate data. In the coronavirus panic, we do not know how many people are infected with the disease, or how communicable it is. We do not even know the death statistics, since identifying COVID-19 as a notifiable disease results in people who died with conditions that included COVID-19 being recorded as dying of COVID-19. In every single instance, that piece of data may or may not be accurate. Or, as we used to say, truthful. The projections of the models are worthless at best, misleading at worst, and provide the fuel for government misbehavior.
The credibility of models and modelers has taken a fatal blow.
We will start to press harder for the dismantling of regulation, and reverse its hitherto unstoppable growth.
A telling observation about government behavior in the Coronavirus crisis is that, at the same time as imposing their draconian new restrictions, they are finding the need to rescind their previous draconian restrictions, those given the name of regulation. For example, it is regulation that limits the number of firms that can produce masks and ventilators. But the government’s panic pronouncements increase the demand for masks and ventilators. Government belatedly recognizes that it is its own regulatory restrictions that are causing the bottleneck, and increasing anxiety among the populace. Since the last thing they can accept is social disruption and disobedience, they quickly relax the regulations to open the bottleneck again.
This realization that regulation is anti-productive, restrictive and damaging may be enlightening, at least to the governed if not to the government bureaucrats and regulators. We can expect a surge of anti-regulation sentiment and protests, and a welling up of support for anti-regulation activists.
We’ll abandon cities.
Governments and politicians love cities: concentrated locations of regulation, control and surveillance. Housing control, wage control, zoning control, educational control, health control, and mobility control are all concentrated and exaggerated in cities.
But cities have turned out to be critical culprits in the pandemic. Close living quarters, cramped mass transit, teeming office buildings and apartment buildings, crowded sports and concert venues, and poor sanitation combine to create virological time bombs that are now exploding.
Smart people will start making better trade-offs. Perhaps more will move to the greater separation afforded by suburbs, working from home or commuting solo despite the urging of urban planners to crowd into mass transit. Perhaps apartment buildings and their crowded, virologically suspect elevators will no longer be so attractive. Perhaps more people will seek jobs – or start companies – that don’t require an urban anchor. Perhaps many will permanently abandon live sports and concerts in favor of digital remote participation that, quite possibly, will enhance the experience rather than diminish it.
Happily, we can expect the decline of the city as a prerequisite for social and economic interaction.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, is moving up in the betting odds for getting the Democratic presidential nomination, even though he is not running. The reason is that binge-watching newshounds have noticed something about his comportment during this crisis. He seems just slightly struggling to know what’s true. Sometimes he is even honest.
Consider this. On Thursday March 26, Cuomo dared question the orthodoxy that has wrecked countless businesses and lives. He revealed what actual experts are saying quietly all over the world but had yet not been discussed openly in the endless public-relations spin broadcast all day and night.
He said the following:
“If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don’t know that you would say quarantine everyone. I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people was probably not the best public health strategy because the younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection. “
“What we did was we closed everything down. That was our public health strategy. Just close everything, all businesses, old workers, young people, old people, short people, tall people. Every school closed, everything.”
It’s true that anyone following the unfolding fiasco and the gradually emerging data behind it knows that Cuomo is right. The response has not been modern and scientific. It has been medieval and mystical. The theory behind the policy has been nothing but a panicked cry of run and hide before the noxious gas gets you. Lacking reliable data – which is the fault of the CDC and FDA – we replaced knowledge with power.
In the end, this fiasco is an epistemic crisis. As Ed Yong has written in a beautifully detailed article for The Atlantic, “The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure.” Even the wide acceptance of social distancing as a norm, however much it helps curb the spread, presumes this absence of knowledge. Stay away from everyone as much as possible: a slogan that reveals how little we know.
And yet lacking that knowledge, the politicians, cheered on by the media, acted in ways that have fundamentally wrecked life as we knew it, all in the course of a couple of weeks.
The massive knowledge gap was filled by a cascade of predictive models made possible by modern statistical packages readily available by subscription to any member of the clerisy. If this, and this, and this, and if this and this and this, then ENTER. Out pops what appears to be a precise presentation of our future under the following conditions, along with an overlay of embedded cause-and-effect assumptions about certain policies followed or not followed. Day after day we were bombarded with such predictions, and we paid close attention because we had little in the way of actual on-the-ground facts that have been available to us in previous disease panics.
It then became the perfect storm. Risk-averse politicians deciding to do something, anything, to avoid blame. Bureaucrats doing what they do best, which is telling people no, you cannot innovate, you cannot produce, you cannot distribute. Local tyrants stopping price gouging and therefore preventing the price system from working. A howling media famished for eyeballs, ears, and clicks. A public panicked about disease and death. An egregious dividing of people into essential and nonessential. Policy snares, tangles, missed opportunities all around.
The cacophony of information chaos has been palpable, unbearable.
All the while, a few knowledgeable experts have been trying their best to weigh in and get some slight attention for rationality. My heart, in particular, goes out to the esteemed Professor John Ioannidis who has been exposing fake science based on bad data his entire life and has been previously celebrated for doing so. He writes as often as he can, while still trying to be as precise and accurate as he can. Apparently such high-end people have a private email list in which they share observations and data, while doing their best to bring calm while civilization is falling apart.
At the moment, we are enacting extremely severe measures in an effort to do something. However, we have very little evidence-based data on how to guide our next steps. We really don’t know where we are, where we are heading, whether our measures are effective, or if we need to modify them. There is a possibility that many of our aggressive measures could be doing more harm than good, especially if they are to be maintained in the long term. There will be major consequences in terms of lives lost, major disruptions to the economy, to the society, and to our civilization.
At this juncture we need to act swiftly. At the same time, we need to act equally swiftly to collect unbiased data that will tell us how many people are infected, the chances that someone who is infected will have a serious outcome and die, how the epidemic is evolving in different settings and places around the world, and what difference we are making with the measures that we’re taking. This information can make a huge difference and there is a lot that can go wrong if we don’t have the right data.
This has been an acute situation. At the same time, collecting reliable data should not take time and should not halt our decision-making process. Getting information on representative samples of the population is very easy. It has been done in Iceland, where they have a cohort covering most of the national population looking at samples that have been provided. They see that they have an infection rate of 1.0 per cent, and up until now only two people have died. So, out of the 3,500 infected people in Iceland there have been two deaths, which corresponds to an infection fatality rate lower than the common flu. Of course, some people may be infected later, but nevertheless, these estimates would be very different compared with the original claims of case fatality rates of 3.4 per cent that were circulated.
At the same time, we have other pieces of evidence that the number of people who are infected is much larger compared with the number of cases we have documented. In most places, with few exceptions around the world, we are just testing people who have substantial symptoms who have come to seek health care or even to be hospitalized. These are just the tip of the iceberg. The Iceland experience and other data from Rome and Italy where entire city populations were tested shows that the vast majority of people are either completely asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic in ways that you would not be able to differentiate from the common cold or common flu. This information makes a huge difference while we are proceeding with aggressive measures of social distancing and lockdowns that may have tremendous repercussions, especially in the long term.
As the song says, stop making sense.
I write on Saturday morning March 28, and right now there are two contrary strains about to collide. On the one hand, you have scientists reducing their death-rate predictions further and further, lopping off zeros by the day. On the other hand, this is accompanied by appalling levels of despotism, even to the point of National Guard checkpoints at state borders and restrictionson what you can buy even at “essential” stores. This gigantic gap between emerging professional medical consensus and appalling policy ignorance is revealing as never before the practical impossibility of scientific public policy.
Then you have the cascade of unintentional and unexpected outcomes of the rush to coerce. It began with Trump’s disastrous block on flights from Europe that sent millions scrambling for tickets and led to an unspeakable crush of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder at our nations’ airports, contradicting the demand that people social distance just when the virus was revealing itself as highly contagious. The very opposite of intended results!
That’s just the beginning. I doubt seriously that the political class in this country, as low a regard I have it, set out to destroy all that we call civilized life, instantly generating millions of unemployed workers and bankrupt businesses all around, not to mention a pandemic of utter hopelessness on the part of vast swaths of the world’s population. Still, this is what they have managed to achieve. This is what their pretense of knowledge – as opposed to actual wisdom – has unleashed on the world, with incalculable human cost.
As for economics, are we talking recession? Depression? Those words indicate cyclical changes in business conditions. My friend Gene Epstein suggests another term for what we are going through. The Great Suppression. There will be months, years, and decades in which to more clearly observe the countless ways in which the supressors piled error upon error, blockage upon blockage, to add to the grotesquery.
What truly should inspire us all right now are the grocers, pharmacists, truck drivers, manufacturers, doctors and nurses, construction workers, restaurant workers, service station attendants, webmasters, volunteers of all sorts, philanthropists, and specialists in a huge variety of essential professions who keep life functioning more or less. And let us not forget the “unessential” people (it’s an incorrect and vicious term) who have innovated ways around the Great Suppression to continue to serve others, keep the rent being paid, and food on their tables. They are the means of salvation out of this mess.
The market, hobbled and bludgeoned, still loves you.
As for the politicians, Andrew Cuomo has admitted some of the error. In a much-welcome change, he has even deregulated medical services. There’s just a hint of humility and humanity embedded in these statements and actions. We need more of that, vastly more, if only to contribute to calming things down long enough to gain some perspective, and, hopefully, some eventual realization that in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” a virus should be regarded as a disease to mitigate and cure, not an excuse to bludgeon life on earth as we know it.
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