By W. David Montgomery
The big news on May 12, 2020 was
the apparent dissonance between President Trump and his expert on the COVID-19 epidemic,
Dr. Fauci. President Trump has been encouraging the states to let economic
activity resume, stating “We did the right thing…but now we
have to get it back open.” Dr Fauci warned Congress about “the danger of
trying to open the country prematurely” that would “risk needless suffering and
death.” They are both right.
A recent essay asked why it is that economists and public health experts cannot understand each other. Its very valid point was that “(u)nlike epidemiologists, who identify a biological enemy and try to defeat it without thinking much about the costs, economists live on trade-offs (and) embrace the hardheaded reality that helping one person often leaves another less well-off”
Both disciplines train
practitioners to think systematically, to develop mathematical models to
explore how policy interventions might change the future, to rely on data when
possible, and to use their expertise to recommend interventions with the
potential to improve outcomes.
The mission accepted by most public
health experts is to defeat a disease and save as many lives as humanly
possible. This is a grand ambition and a very effective motivator for research
and caregiving. But by its nature, the goal is always out of reach – a little
more precaution, a little more time to develop a cure, less sleep and more
effort – may always save more lives.
Consequently, the ambition to
defeat disease cannot be the single voice that guides policy. It misses
That is where the training and
experience of economists comes in, but not because economists have different
values and advocate for dollars and profits rather than health. Economists
contribute perspective and data on the broader harm that could be done, which
includes not only illness and death caused by COVID19 but also damage done by
policies intended to combat the disease.
Hard economic data, personal
observation and unending news reports reveal the hardship that families are
suffering when the breadwinner is laid off, when learning is slowed, when
necessities become scarce, and when treatment for painful conditions and even
testing for potentially life-threatening illnesses is denied to preserve
supplies for treating potential COVID-19 victims. These stresses also create
threats to life and health.
When a tradeoff like this exists,
experts can help inform, but it takes a broader view and prudence to draw the
line in a reasonable place.
President Trump does not exactly
qualify as an economist, but at times political concerns can motivate politicians
to look at tradeoffs in a balanced way. They cannot afford to let some moral
absolute or professional principle blind them to the fact that their job is to
figure out how to reduce the harm and distribute the burden justly.
This recognition of the central
role of politics in dealing with critical tradeoffs is little more than common
sense, but it runs counter to a strong political demand for deference to the absolute
pronouncements of health and other scientific professionals.
That technical expertise can
provide answers to all matters of national importance has been part of the
progressive faith since the New Deal. FDR exulted that “The day of enlightened
administration has come,” meaning that technicians could determine objectively
what was best for the country – and that the new political order would free
them to get it done.
This point of view implies that
there is a single right answer to each question of public policy, and the usual
criterion for getting the right answer is that it makes some (or all) better
off and no one worse off.
Since common sense suggest that is
a practical impossibility, another principle has been advanced to put decisions
that affect life and health into the hands of technicians. It is called the
precautionary principle, and in the relevant form for COVID19 today, it says
that when the risks of a particular action are unclear or unknown, assume the
worst and avoid the activity. Thus, the decision of when to act can be placed
entirely in the hands of those who assess the risks.
This principle gives philosophical
justification to the demand for continued or even strengthened policies to
maintain the status quo in social distancing and economic lockdown until a cure
is found. As the new research article referenced in the Worth Reading sidebar
points out, there is a great deal we do not know about the transmission of
viruses like COVID19. The risks of reopening the economy too early are clearly
unknown, therefore do not do it.
Unfortunately for the precautionary
principle, it requires knowing with certainty what the consequences of not
acting will be. And that is not the case today. Depending on the source,
predictions of the consequences of continued lockdown range from a quickly
reparable loss of sales and jobs to the catastrophic breakdown of the global
economic system. It is fair to say that we are in uncharted economic territory
in guessing about the consequences of a continued lockdown.
This is especially true when we
take into account not only the loss of a 20 – 30% share of economic output for
several months, but the consequences of adding something like $1 trillion to
national debt each month. There is no getting around the need for political
decisions about how much to risk the future wellbeing of workers and families
in order to reduce the risk of infection by some amount. We have no idea how
bad things could become if we were to stand down until a cure is found, and if
the experts know what they are talking about at all there is certainly a risk
of more cases of COVID19 if everyone goes back to their previous ways of life
The availability of emergency
powers to combat a public health emergency has confronted every state governor
with this decision. The resulting Federalist experiment in independent
decision-making by each state will provide a rich database for seeing the
consequences of different weighing of the two types of risk.
Current statistics suggest that
many are failing and some, perhaps just the lucky ones, are succeeding. The
universal consensus is that Governor Cuomo botched the job, and the governor of
South Dakota looks great. It will take a retrospective review to identify the
effects of different decisions by controlling for the real hazard that each
As he gives guidance to these
governors, President Trump must also steer between the rocks of reopening too
soon and the sandbars of opening too late. We must hope that he is pinning his
hopes of winning in November on taking the advice of Dr. Fauci as well as his
economic advisors to plot a safe – even if not optimal – course. Democrats
should try the same, if they could get over their hatred of the President and
forego their wish to make hay in the crisis by piling on more debt and funding
programs with little or no prospect of mitigating the harm of slowed economic
activity. Their one-sided political concentration on COVID19 as a public health
disaster is not helping to reach a sensible balance.
As the writer who addressed the issue of excessive deference
to technical expertise put it,
“What is required is neither
partisan opportunists nor technical experts but rather prudence that mediates
between politics and science. Prudence—that ability to see, however dimly,
through the fog that necessarily envelops political life—combines the humility
that accepts our limitations with the decisiveness that statesmanship cannot
The other three cardinal virtues
would be very useful as well:
Fortitude – an attitude of taking one’s
lumps for being wrong, avoiding panic, and refusing to hide behind experts
Justice – an ability to balance the
needs of the old, the young, the sick, the well, the unemployed, the bankrupt
Temperance – a willingness to
forego using a crisis as an excuse to spend greedily and wastefully
If only Plato were in charge of the