How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.

Comments

In my humble opinion, this is the very best thing you have written in 2 months.

I came here with goose bumps to basically say the same thing!

Nice Tyler!

The best thing I've ever seen Tyler write!

+1. Yes, this is far more nuanced and realistic than wondering why epidemiological models are not accurate.

That said, Epidemiologists -- as hard as they try, are even worse than economists at being generalists. Politicians still need to surround themselves with brilliant technical advisors and career public servants. Trump failed at the former and smothered the later.

+1 agreed

Also file under “policy advice that ignores public choice constraints is worse than useless”

+1.

+1

This is a good post Tyler.

The rude questions about epidemiologists were good but this is good without being rude

Agreed. Amazing post, Tyler.

-1. Too many leftists, cargo cults, and r-selectionists.

A generalist is someone who been there, done that.

Generalists of the kind Cowen is talking can be found in spades in finance and tech.

Specifically derivatives traders and tech product managers.

Both kinds have atleast an undergrad/MBA level of understanding of models and software engineering, enough to communicate intelligently with the scientists, do basic sanity checks and have intuitive understanding of strengths and weaknesses of models.

They have good business/market sense, i.e. grounding in the real world, which lets them guide the modellers regarding *what* to model.

They’re also able to distill the math/software to laypeople like non-technical clients, senior management, lawyers etc., have good people skills to persuade and form consensus.

Best example I can think of for this is Michael Bloomberg. He’s done both finance and tech(AND politics). But he’s too old and hated, so maybe a junior version of him, a Mini Mike?

What Trump needed to do was just hire such a technocrat. Who would assemble an interdisciplinary team under them, epidemiologists, economists. Wall Street quants, SV Tech programmers and data scientists, and economists.

US is the world leader by far in all of the above fields. It’s a shame we are not leading from the front, setting an example and helping the rest of the world.

It is a breathtaking skill that can present the novel and the humble and the true in the same passage. The alternate universes sans this particular Cowen are worse off for his absence.

I would be curious to know how you relate this to another complaint that you have made recently - I quote from your review of Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology, where you write that the book is an example of "the growing compartmentalization of academic discourse — good work intermingled with highly questionable partisan material — and how so many academics, if the mood affiliation tilts in the right direction, will tolerate or even encourage that." I share your latter concern, but it also seems that the only honest way for academics to avoid this is to say something like "This is what I have studied professionally and I feel confident about the conclusions, but on the overall policy judgment to be made using the input of my disciplinary expertise I have only my less expert hunches to guide me". Isn't the latter cautious formulation a bit like what is said by the uni-disciplinary advisers you are criticising in today's post?

Hence the division between academic work (uni-disciplinary and Piketty's work) and advice (generalist), at least the way I see it.

Yes, if Pickett simply sends his paper to a purely academic journal. But NO if he attempts to provide advice when interviewed on media. At least he should make very clear the caveats

If I may make a coarse translation - if you are steeped in one discipline and aren't trained in other disciplines, what makes you think your interdisciplinary thinking is good enough to present to a policymaker?

This appears to assume that the writer is attempting to cover every facet of the problem on their own - which, admittedly, newspaper columnists are likely to do. Outside single-author newspaper columns, planning for this sort of problem should be the work of several minds, each with their own areas of expertise, and in this environment it is entirely reasonable for each expert to speak only about things that they are expert on. One way to start this would be for each expert to produce one or more plans, and then to comment on the consequences of each others' plans, speaking within their own area of expertise. Hopefully this will lead to people agreeing on a single plan which is at least not unacceptable from any viewpoint.

Because that is about as realistic as this - "and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time."

If one views one's job as to fit all possible facts together and make a recommendation based on that, why bother with the leader?

I have always presumed that the leader's primary skill is to weigh all the uni-discipline factors and synthesize a position. Having others do this (badly) means simply having a room full of would-be leaders, most of whom are incompetent.

And that rarely ends well.

Of course, a talented amateur may be better than an incompetent leader, but assuming that one knows better than the expert is not an attitude to be encouraged.

Or you could just go to Jared

It would be good if that's a leader's primary skill, but is that in fact the case? Should advisors assume the leader can synthesize appropriately?

Here's another metaphor: a plane develops a problem with its landing gear in mid-flight.

The landing gear experts agree: if we try to land, maybe four or five of the hundreds on board will die and others might be injured. So let's wait. It might take a few days to fix the landing gear. Possibly a week.

You clear your throat and point out that the plane can't possibly stay aloft that long. The landing-gear-ologists shrug, that's not their field. And some of the passengers accuse you of wanting to save fuel at the cost of human lives.

Yes, very good post. The world is not so simple that a narrow expertise can solve a world wide problem by optimizing on one variable. We run the numbers through a graduate student epidemiological model and it spits out the answer: Lock down now and for a long time or millions will die !
The countries that have been successful have considered how best to balance epidemic control with economic damage , clear impartial communication and citizen compliance and good will. I am thinking of Taiwan, Iceland, New Zealand, South Korea which maybe have benefited from natural isolation but also had a rational approach to targeted quarantine contact and trace or implemented an effective but limited in time lockdown.
Deaths matter, the economy matters, the hospital availability matters, how best to treat and quarantine people matters (not send everyone to hospitals like Italy did), the progression of the epidemic towards immunity matters. Sweden is widely criticized for not doing as well as its immediate neighbors, but that’s only one metric. They did better in not stalling the economy, they did better in creating immunity. On that metric, death per M people per % infected, they’re ahead of their neighbors, who might have further epidemic waves to worry about.

Same with climate models and environmentalists. They offer strident precepts for action but little cost benefit analysis. They present model results without the necessary humble acknowledgements of limitations. They promote leaders with emotional appeal ( Greta Thurnberg) but little substance, they offer cherry picked vignettes of pseudo climate catastrophe and fearmongering ( polar bears, Antarctica glacier collapse). It’s a one dimensional approach of we care about reducing CO2 , we don’t care about anything else, we care about the planet not people. Anyone contesting the " correct" viewpoint is instantly pilloried as a denier/charlatan/stooge of greedy capitalism effectively shutting down the discussion. I think the intelligent public is not so easily convinced by charades. They want a sober informative assessment of the various trade offs not thinly disguised one dimensional viewpoints.

Except Poland’s economic plan was literally written in a day by a couple economists jumping straight into pure capitalism.

So what does that say about Russia's plan?

I think, if you are going of the assumption that the difference between Poland and Russia is primarily some group of technocrats plan, that's a bad starting point.

It ignores, for example, that Poland has been wealthier than Russia for at least 400 years.

I was responding to TC’s assertion that Poland’s plan was crafted to take into account political realities and sustainability. Economic shock therapy doesn’t sound like such a policy (except if you argue the point is to do everything so fast that there’s no time to stop it).

Do you think Trump really cares about the hyperparameters of your SIR models or the projections of your fancy pants economic analysis? Social science wonks think too highly of themselves.

That viruses don't think at all.

Actually President Trump has done an excellent job of synthesizing the advice he is getting and has moved to sideline Dr. Fear who seems to have no inhibitions about shooting off his mouth. He also realized (as Dr. Birx has also commented) that the CDC was useless and unprepared. He brought private labs into testing and marshalled private resources to build ventilators and protective equipment. But the CDC continues to issue its guidelines.

This is a consistent theme throughout Trump's career as he entered new fields with no experience and succeeded: Manhattan real estate, fixing the Wollman skating rink, producing a hit TV show and of course, becoming President. Of course, most of the nimrods here would never acknowledge that.

Trump also failed in real estate, failed at TV, and is currently failing as President. Of course most Trumpanzees here would never acknowledge that.

He also failed in the airline business and higher education.

Trump Shuttle - The company was never profitable. Passenger traffic on the shuttle began to decline in November 1989. In late 1989 the U.S. Northeast entered an economic recession which depressed demand, while the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait caused jet fuel prices to double. While costs of running the airline rose, many of the corporate customers using the shuttle were cutting travel budgets. Trump's casino business was simultaneously encountering serious difficulties, and Trump was forced to cede control over several business holdings to his bankers in June 1990 in order to avoid personal bankruptcy. The airline ran out of cash and defaulted on its debt in September 1990.

Trump University (also known as the Trump Wealth Institute and Trump Entrepreneur Initiative LLC) - On November 18, 2016, it was reported that Trump had agreed to pay $25 million to settle the two class actions and the New York suit. The settlement was reached ten days before the San Diego class action was scheduled to go to trial. $21 million will go to the participants in the class actions, $3 million will go to New Yorkers not covered by the class actions, and a penalty of up to $1 million will be assessed by the state of New York for running an unlicensed university.

Glad you’re keeping score. It’s no secret that Trump was on the verge of losing it all and came back strongly (as he would say). I doubt that few entrepreneurs have not experienced setbacks, especially if you’ve ventured into many different areas.

His successes have been yuge.

Wasn’t Harry Truman a failure, too, until he wasn’t?

Didn’t Branson go belly-up from time to time? I never followed his story so....

Its unclear to me if Prof. Cowen is slagging off Dr Fauci, Paul Krugman or state Governors. He has been building up a case against epidemiologists for sure (eg 'what are their political leanings, how smart are they...' post) which makes me think he has an issue with Fauci.
Governors are the decision makers here. They are the ones that live or die (reelect or not) based on their handling of the COVID outbreak. So let Fauci specialise in the transmission of infectious diseases and let Governors speak to their economic advisors, of which they have many, about what the consequences of the various grades of shut down will cost. And then roll the dice.
But let Fauci present the facts. The extent you think he is embellishing those facts appears to relate to your political leaning, in any case.

Here is Dr. Fauci 2 months ago saying no one should be wearing masks, and proceeding to argue that people (those dirty non-medically educated proles) might be *worse* off with a mask because they might touch it with their hands (grubby paws). This is so empirically off the mark and cynically Straussian. I say Straussian because his true motive was to conserve masks for doctors. It would have been better if he told the truth so that we at least ramp up mask production as a nation, including at the household level. Dr. Fauci, the White House, CDC, and FDA all get an F on both the healthcare and economy angles of this crisis. What a circus.

Link: https://youtu.be/PRa6t_e7dgI

I think he did tell the truth? His remarks in the video are far more qualified and conditional than how you characterized them. "The people who, when you look at the films of foreign countries and you see 85% of the people wearing masks, that's fine. I'm not against it. If you want to do it that's fine. . .it could lead to a shortage of masks for the people who really need it."

I implore anyone who read that quote to actually watch the short video for yourself. He downright lied about the efficacy of masks. It doesn’t help much that he mentioned that they are needed for medical professionals. If he said “masks help a decent amount and I really recommend you get a face covering for now, but leave the masks for medical professionals and we’ll work on getting you some ASAP” that would have been fine, instead he basically said “they barely help at all, we really shouldn’t be going around wearing masks, Asia is doing it wrong, and by the way, leave masks for medical professionals.” Disingenuous and irresponsible.

'He downright lied about the efficacy of masks.'

The very first thing he says is that masks are important for someone who is infected to prevent them from infecting others. He then says, on March 8, that people do not need to be walking around with masks in the U.S.

More than two months later, his advice is exactly the same found in a place like Austria (whose response to the pandemic is considerably better than that of the U.S) - wear a mask to prevent further transmission in case of pre/asymptomatic infection, not because a mask will help you from being infected per se. Someone is being disingenuous, but it is certainly not Dr. Fauci. Who said near the end of that clip, when you think masks, you should think of health care providers needing them and people who are ill.

He concludes that if everyone attempts to wear a mask, it could lead to a shortage of masks. Everyone can judge for themselves how irresponsible he was in pointing that out in early March, considering the experience of the following weeks of mourning in America.

Whoa, you made a big jump there by mentioning his later support for broader mask wearing. That came way after the video. At the time of the video, he lied.

By “infected” at the beginning he basically meant “infected and symptomatic,” which is almost worse because not only did he poo poo masks, he conflated “infected” with “symptomatic” in people’s heads. You cannot pretend otherwise. Here’s why: If he recommended masks for asymptomatic cases, he would not have denigrated the mass wearing of masks in Asia. Heck, he would have at least told us to wear some kind of face covering.

It was a coordinated global thing. The WHO recommended against masks until early April. Canada's equivalent of Dr. Fauci spouted the same party line, despite actually being born in Hong Kong (though educated in the UK). Meanwhile Asia shook its head and facepalmed.

You're absolutely right, they could have nuanced it instead of impairing their credibility by misleading us, supposedly for our own good or the greater good.

You seem profoundly wedded to your narrative, regardless of what that video clearly demonstrates about what he said concerning mask wearing - that it is useful to help stop the spread of disease, and is useful for health care providers. Neither statement was controversial then, nor controversial now.

You are not arguing in good faith. You are repeatedly ignoring how his endorsement of masks was selective and limited to symptomatic people. You are ignoring how he said that we shouldn’t wear masks en masse even though he knew about asymptomatic spread. You are ignoring how he could have presented a middle ground, where he says that every single person should wear a mask outside but that masks are needed for the docs so wear a face covering for now, but he didn’t.

Fauci himself in the 60 Minutes interview on March 8 literally said "People should not be walking around with masks." "There's no reason to be walking around with a mask."

Public health officials did not merely fail to encourage everyone to wear a mask, but actively discouraged it.

Mainstream media widely reported the original anti-mask messaging and also the subsequent change of tune. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnP7v0SsVq8 (Good Morning America, March 30) — "Since this crisis began, US health officials have repeatedly said that healthy people should not wear masks unless they're caring for someone who's sick. But some experts are now saying that wearing masks may be a beneficial way to stop the spread."

Fauci in a February 17 interview with USA Today:

'The only people who need masks are those who are already infected to keep from exposing others. The masks sold at drugstores aren't even good enough to truly protect anyone, Fauci said.
"If you look at the masks that you buy in a drug store, the leakage around that doesn't really do much to protect you," he said. "People start saying, 'Should I start wearing a mask?' Now, in the United States, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to wear a mask."'

“The only people who need masks are those who are already infected.”

- This is a profoundly problematic statement by a public health official when you consider that most of the spread of the disease is by asymptomatic individuals. Everyone should wear a mask because we don’t know who’s infected and who’s not - but this is something that Fauci actively discouraged.

The bit about masks from the drugstore is empirically false. Regular cotton face masks, with all their imperfections, are empirically proven to filter 70% of viral particles. The protection is even better when you consider that there’s a threshold for catching the virus - you don’t get it after exposure to 1 viral particle. If everyone wears a mask that filters at least 70% of viral particles, then even more than 70% of transmission should be stopped (because even when they are exposed, it’s to a lower viral load). However, surgical masks are actually semi-widely available, and have been for a month. Those have 95% viral filtration. Of course, this is filtration of your own breath so that you don’t infect others. That makes it all the more important that everyone wears a mask. I protect you, you protect me.

They are the ones that live or die (reelect or not) based on their handling of the COVID outbreak.

No. It's more likely that their future prospects are determined by the positive or negative response of the media, something that is weighed by them even more than the advice of the "experts".

The issue with Dr. Fauci's input is that it isn't useful.

We have a pandemic virus with 1.5 M infected in our country and 80K deaths. There is discussion about opening the economy. Dr. Fauci: "We need to be cautious because there are risks of another spike".

It is noted that children suffer at a dramatically lower rate. Maybe we should open schools, because education is important and the poor are hurt the most when school is closed. Dr. Fauci: "We need to be cautious because there are some reports of an inflammatory reaction in some children."

As best I can tell, there is about a factor of 10,000 difference in the number of people at risk in the two scenarios. Dr. Fauci gives us no differentiating information to help guide policy decisions.

If there was a person who could do all this then they will be King. There is no human brain that is so capable.

At the end of the day, I still wouldn't trust an economist on anything to do with brain surgery. There are limits to your knowledge. Even a President you look down upon knows this.

Don't forget, brain surgery that avoids public choice constraints is undoubtedly worse than useless.

Lol, the autism level. It’s over 9000.

If the public health advisor guy had said I'm only looking at reducing coronavirus deaths, that's all that's important and lets do my whole plan for just achieving this narrow goal assuming that we can put whatever measures we like in place and people will comply with them and we can ignore any non coronavirus costs..... then it would be like the economic advisers on Easter Europe.

But....

1. If you *say* you're only advising on public health then someone can come along and say to you or the person you're advising, the economic costs are this X, the health costs of the economic costs are Y, the things that are politically possible are Z etc., then you or the person making the decisions can take this into account.

2. This kind of statement can/should actually helps decision makers be free to look into the balance of all costs. They can say Public Health advice is this, economic is this, we think that. What actually happens is politicians hide behind "the science" but not really advisors fault. NOTE: he was pushing back on views directly regarding Public Health - rightly or wrongly, but it's his area.

3. Maybe he is already taking the economic and related health costs into consideration, based on how Public Health folk do this and/or advice from other experts.

4. With Krugman Tyler's arguing about semantics. When he says he's only doing macroeconomics, he doesn't mean the effect of covid19 isn't involved in his models or that there's no implicit epidemiology.

I agree entirely.

Tyler has written a tribute to Edmund Burke.

If only he were in charge of Covid pandemic policymaking. We'd all be Swedish. Or should I say Old Whig?

Making recommendation about political and social policy effects for a society you do not live in is probably a bad ide and foreign economic should just stick to their technical knowledge.

This is a very good point, but where does the responsibility for synthesizing input from different disciplines lie?

If a politician asks an epidemiologist for epidemiology, and they provide this (only), and then the politician makes bad decisions that ignore economics, is that the epidemiologist's fault?

Or, to put it another way, there is a variety of experts pushing a variety of responses. Some are balanced between disciplines, others not. If the prominent experts influencing policy are not those providing interdisciplinary analysis, that's because the politicians have not selected those experts and made them prominent.

Any expert should be held responsible for what they advocate (per this post); however, if unbalanced policies are implemented, the fault lies primarily with politicians. Yeah, the politicians can't do this, but that is a symptom of the general brokenness of politics.

In this case, it's not mainly unbalanced advice that is the problem. It's the general political problem of bias towards addressing visible problems over invisible ones, and needing to be seen as "doing something" to tackle problems. "This policy will increase COVID-19 deaths by X but decrease other deaths by 2X through indirect impacts" is simply not the type of argument that works politically on any issue.

Once you get to the point of public policy, the leaders shouldn't be talking to any uni-disciplinary people on a regular basis.

They should be talking to people who are already multi-disciplinary and know their knowledge needs to be synthesized with those of other experts. They talk to the uni-disciplinary people.

My last "they" is referring to the multi-disciplinary experts.

[Political leaders] listen to [multi-discipline experts]. [Multi-discipline experts] listen to [single-discipline experts].

At least as long as the Trump Administration is in charge. The current decision makers are obviously blameless, they just need to learn to stop listening to people with low GRE scores.

There was a post regarding the POTUS what, 36 hours ago?

Prior_approval, the only thing you’re proving is that you’re weirdly insecure about your GRE scores and obsessed with the politics of a country 3500 miles away.

And of course a former employer, GMU, which fired you for incompetence.

There are always two sides.

It can be the case that both Trump and the permanent bureaucracy are at fault. If something takes a long time to get done for reasons relating to preexisting rules, regulations, and laws, usually the current president is not directly at fault for that particular problem. Was it only Trump’s fault, for instance, that the permits to build a mask factory can take months to acquire? Or that the HHS did not respond to inquiries about gearing up mask production in Texas? Or that a law had to be changed to allow industrial companies to sell quality masks to hospitals? Or that so many a-legal or extra-legal activities (e.g., rich people arranging deliveries by plane, etc.) had to occur to sneak masks into this country? That the trade barriers on masks persisted for so long? (And yes likely the Trump administration is at fault for de facto toughening restrictions on masks from China.)

It is fine to say “the buck stops here,” and to criticize Trump for not having erected processes to be more aware of these problems and to dissolve them more quickly. I would agree with some of those criticisms, while noting the Trump administration also has tried to ease many of the regulations hampering adjustment.

There are always more than 2 sides

You should write a book about this! Perhaps structured as episodes in history followed with the lessons from it. A related problem: with specialists it is easier to tell who the top people in a field are but the best generalist may not even be considered part of the field.

I agree with the sentiment completely. But it is only half the story, and I think the lesser half at that. The need to think about multiple disciplines should not be a free pass to claim that your advice includes everything - particularly disciplines that you do not have expertise in. I notice the comments focus on climate scientists and epidemiologists as culprits practicing advice based on uni-disciplinary perspectives. From my experience, economists are absolutely the worst offenders. Few economists have any knowledge of sociology or political science or even psychology. In fact, most economists pride themselves on being better than those disciplines. The corollary to your post must be that because these issues are multi-disciplinary, people that want to weigh in with policy advice must have sufficient background in these other fields.

To return to a prior post on this blog (which I found to be totally inane), while asking about the GRE scores of epidemiologists vs economists, we should also ask how many epidemiology and public health courses economics graduate students take and how many economics courses epidemiology and public health graduate students take.

Psychology permeates economics, and it always has (although in the past less explicitly). And many economists aren't bothered by the trespass on their territory. Not so with history, which economists treat as a plague. Of course, today's economists, with their mathematical certitude in predicting the future, replaced yesterday's historians, with their focus on the past as a guide to the future, as soothsayers to politicians. Many economists simply dismiss history with the pithy comment that correlation is not causation. Lawyers are the trained generalists, taking on this or that unrelated assignment each requiring a deep dive into new ground. Fed Chair Powell comes to mind. And so do leading diplomats. Lawyers are often criticized as willing to take whatever side pays their fee. It's true: lawyers have a deep appreciation for economics. Sadly, specialization has infected the legal profession, just as it has infected other areas. To the labor lawyer, all roads lead to labor; to the tax lawyer, all roads lead to taxes; to the anti-trust lawyer, all roads lead to monopoly. Counselor may soon be no more if the infection continues to spread. Cowen and Tabarrok have provided a great service during the pandemic, addressing issues across many specialties, and unabashedly. Counselors would be a fitting description.

Yesterday, I referenced David Brooks's commencement address that he did not give (because there was no commencement). What I didn't mention was the question he could not ask the graduates if he actually delivered the address: in what way has your college failed you? His long answer: the absence of a classical education. I know that Cowen has a deep appreciation for classical antiquity. The classically educated is the ultimate generalist. There's a reason why those with a classical education are highly sought after for positions of leadership.

Bunch of dead white guys? what could they possibly teach you?

Excellent post. There is a bit of a middle ground acceptable, where the assumption from outside the expert discipline is made explicit, and if the assumption is unsupportable with the tools of the expert discipline (e.g. political assumptions when making recommendations to newly freed Eastern European countries), then the analysis should show what the expert discipline says if different assumptions hold.

In the extreme, this becomes the agnosticism proposed here, because some assumptions are so important that the analysis changes completely when different assumptions are made. But that is a useful thing to know.

Exactly what straw man are your beating in here, Cowan? What reputable epidemiologist has failed to address the significant costs of lockdown in their discussion?

It's certainly enough to say x will die if we do A, y will die if we do B, and further that B is unprecedented and will wreak significant damage on the economy and cause attendant human suffering, and then leave it to the economy experts (I think there's a word-- economicists? economicals?) to pick up the ball and run.

But instead, you and the other economists have decided to play at being epidemiologists, picking at the unavoidable uncertainties and employing all the motivated reasoning you can muster to substitute your own wishes for what will happen in terms of disease progression and severity in place of the best estimates . That's how we end up with garbage like Hassett's "cubic fit" model from two weeks ago predicting zero deaths by today being the projections relied upon by our administration.

The failure to have a robust understanding of both sides of the coin is entirely at the feet of the second link in the chain. The problem is not that the epidemiologists failed to play amateur economist, it's that your and the other economists have decided to play amateur epidemiologist rather than do your actual job.

+1
This epidemiologist-bashing is completely stupid and uncalled for.

There needs to be a technocrat on top who has an interdisciplinary team of modellers and programmers under them. And this technocrat takes the decisions or advises the decision makers. That’s how it’s done in industries which use advanced models, atleast finance and tech.

Instead of this technocrat saviour we have Creationist Pence? Son-in-Law Kushner? Tucker Carlson? It’s not even clear who’s in charge

...? The technocrats are the governors. you have about 50/50 between folks like Whitemer and folks like Justice.

Poland (and other Eastern European countries that eventually joined the EU) did better than Russia because of greater trading links with the more developed countries in Western Europe, as economic theory would predict, not because of lower corruption. Corruption in the transition from communism to capitalism is not necessarily a bad thing. There were significant amounts of corruption during China's transition from communism to capitalism, yet this corruption did not prevent a successful transition. In some ways, corruption during the transition from communism to capitalism is actually good because the opportunity to earn corrupt profits from privatization gives the government officials who controlled property under communism an incentive to support privatization. Notice that a hard crackdown on corruption by Xi is coinciding with some backsliding on reforms and slower economic growth...

I agree with most of what you say, but this:

"Poland (and other Eastern European countries that eventually joined the EU) did better than Russia because of greater trading links with the more developed countries in Western Europe, as economic theory would predict, not because of lower corruption."

... is factually incorrect (FWIW, I lived in Eastern Europe at the time). Poland and the others had virtually no trading links with the developed world, because they made nothing of good enough quality to export to the West. Almost everything they exported was to other CoMEcon members, and almost everything else to third world countries - the likes of Algeria, Syria, Angola. The much maligned Yugo, was actually one of the better cars made behind the Iron Curtain - don't knock it down until you've seen the inside of an old ZAZ, a Dacia, or a Wartburg. You can also look up Pravetz computers.

Poland and the rest did have more "cultural imports" from the West, however, by virtue of often being close enough to receive TV signal, and by not enforcing the bans on owning and circulating western recorded material nearly as stringently.

Plamus,

I largely agree with you and would emphasize that the EE nations that had botched privatizations had major corruption problems that were responsible for this. Besides Russia, another example was the Czech Republic, the most westward of all of them. Both of them attempted the sort of rapid privatizations that Tyler mentioned and ended up with insiders getting most of the ownership, stripping assets, and selling them off. CR has managed to go back and redo things somewhat better, but Russia still lives with the legacy, which has involved some renationalizing in the oil industry with Putin cronies put in charge.

Another nation that privatized more gradually and carefully besides Poland was Hungary, as mentioned below by somebody. The latter basically just did full-value sales to whomever, with a bit of holding back for certain sectors. In Poland the matter was somewhat more politicized, with a fear of foreigners disliked by Poles buying up their firms, especially Germans and Russians. It is not widely known, but Poland actually still has the largest state-owned sector in Eastern Europe at nearly 30% of the capital stock. Outsiders regularlyi criticize them for this, although Poland has had one of the best economic performances of any of them, including being the only nation in all of Europe not to have a recession in 2009. Some of the politics of this is avoiding unemployment in certain failing crucial sectors, notably coal mining and shipbuilding.

BTW, my Russian-born wife and I called this in the mid-90s in the first edition of our widely used comparative economic systems textbook. I would note that China has also followed a more gradual privatization approach and has a much more complicated structure of ownership than other nations.

"your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time..."

I see a fundamental flaw in this hypothetical scenario.

"All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease."

Embedded in, or an input to?

Would the Ferguson model or other epi models be improved in your opinion if they tried to also model macro or micro effects and feed that back into their agent behaviors?

So... epidemiologists not only need to model a novel disease that is behaving erratically, with highly limited data...

They need to model 50 state governors, along with few hundred city mayors and county councils. They need to model the PPE supply, and Jared Kushner's performance as PPE czar. They need to model Boris Johnson's illness. They need to model spring break. They need to model armed wingnuts occupying a state house. They need to model the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And they need to model President Trump's conduct as commander in chief.

Sir, there is no GRE score high enough to model President Trump's conduct.

Your partisan trolling is admirable.

How do we model the most corrupt political party in the OECD occupying the House of Representatives? Wasting months telling people the real danger is racism rather than the virus?

Yes, the all-powerful evil minority party.

True winners always whine about the minority party.

George, I feel for you, I really do. Come to Earth and recognize that you need to broaden your news sources.

Not everything is Trump's fault. Drink some water, breathe, go for a walk, go for a run, go hiking.

You will feel better. This isn't a personal attack, this is a recommendation that you broaden your news input.

There is a lot of misinformation and hatred out there - if you lean left there is a strong chance you're more affected and consuming more than moderates or right-leaning folks.

Tyler thinks he has enough GRE scores to be a multi disciplinary specialists (ja), while being just a shallow generalist, and jealous of all the attention that Krugman gets.

+1 Maybe focus on the stimulus program instead, how England pays workers while we loan businesses, what are recovery rates, etc.

If there is any group of people who are shallow generalists, it is lawyers, a notoriously innumerate group of people who think that law school qualifies them to pontificate on any subject.

Good one.
And next, it would be interesting to hear what an ideal plan would have been for EE in the 90´s which would have taken politics into account.

IMHO the most important would have been to take power relations into account. Basically what happened is there was a fire sale of EE capital to the West, especially because the West had access to capital and the East didn`t.

Say what you want against Organ, but I`m pretty sure if you would have teleported Orban today back to Hungary of the 1990´s, he would have stopped a lot of the looting by sending the IMF et al. packing...

But in general I think the fact that things have been pretty positive for EE, including Hungary, since the 90s should probably be taken into consideration. Maybe it would have been better if leaders had ignored institutions like the IMF more... I dont know. My guess is that remittances probably offset any "raiding". Also its questionable how valuable a lot of fire sale EE capital would be worth now if Westerners hadn't of gotten involved.

There is a subtle form of
Anti-intellectualism
Residing in some of this.

There are people who spend
Far more time studying this (say, epidemiology)
And critiquing each other
In their own field.

People who master both fields
And live in it and associated with others who do likewise
Such as Lawyers who joint author or publish in econ journals
Or economists who publish in Law and Econ journals
Qualify.

The other folks,
Who are there when the sunshines
Or when there is a major storm
Need to be listened to as well,
But also need to
Be more humble and
Say they may not know as much
And
Not bother asking how much
An epidemiologist earns for a living.

The message here seems to be that epidemiologists and public health specialists are making a huge fundamental mistake by not taking public attitude and economics and politics into account in giving their recommendations. Perhaps I am misreading this broad brush criticism of the medical/public health/epidemiology experts, and if so I apologize.

However, if that's what is intended, then I wonder if Cowen can give some tips on how these experts can behave more like savvy "get-stuff-done" generalists? When dealing with a respiratory viral pandemic, and masks have been shown to be instrumental in curbing the spread, these specialists recommend widespread use of masks. In the real world, where government leaders poo-poo the idea of masks, and openly mock their use, and refuse to even pretend that masks might be useful, how should the experts respond?

The epidemiologists and doctors say that widespread testing is crucial. Government leaders brag repeatedly that they will bring large scale testing to their constituents. When they prove themselves ineffective at this, and testing stubbornly remains limited, and governments respond by juking their test statistics while also casting doubt on the very idea of wide-spread testing, how should the doctors and epidemiologists respond?

As other commenters have noted, this bashing of epidemiologists and public health experts as pointy-headed out-of-touch low-GRE-score ivory tower dopes is getting tedious. I can think of few specialties that require more generalist-type skills and knowledge than epidemiology and public health. Dealing with Ebola and TB and influenza and small pox etc. require a broad range of knowledge and skill of not just biology and virology and immunology, but culture and politics and weather and statistics and geography. These people deal with incompetent and corrupt governments every day, along with an ignorant and confused and often frightened public. They send themselves into dangerous situations and try to do good, often in spite of not being appreciated or even welcomed.

The humbleness and dedication that many of the best in the field have shown during this pandemic is inspiring. And in stark contrast to a few economists, who can't stop their yammering long enough to realize how much they're embarrassing themselves. I don't include you, Tyler, in that group of yapping fools, but you have given them more oxygen and consideration than they deserve, while also going out of your way to throw shade on the actual experts who are frankly in a no-win situation. You can do better.

This is the best comment I have ever read on this site.

Stand up and take a bow.

+1. This is a fantastic response.

"The message here seems to be that epidemiologists and public health specialists are making a huge fundamental mistake "

Tyler didn't say that.

You did read the word "seems" in that sentence, didn't you? Along with my advance apology if I misread the post. One issue with this site is that Tyler likes to play at being "Straussian" (though I could be wrong about that, too). I find his actual thought to often be unnecessarily obscure. In any event, the goal here seems to be to say a lot of stuff, stuff that sounds profound, without coming right out and saying anything direct.

Thank you for calling Tyler on his BS. One of the weird things about being a prolific blogger is that you can construct really elaborate and subtle straw men to rail against within your own echo chamber. In this case, the straw man is the supposedly unrealistic advice that public health experts are giving to the government, when really the issue is that the federal government is spending much more to bail out airlines etc than it is spending on PPE, testing scale-up, etc. And this is because we've unfortunately reached a point where the knee jerk reaction in a crisis is for federal legislators to hand out arbitrary sums of money to the big companies that are most well-connected, instead of handing out money where it's needed (PPE, testing, contact tracing) to get the economy going again.

> "When dealing with a respiratory viral pandemic, and masks have been shown to be instrumental in curbing the spread, these specialists recommend widespread use of masks."

Six weeks ago they were publicly recommending the exact opposite, even though they knew better.

Six weeks ago most experts didn't know better. The emphasis outside of Asia was still on hand washing, avoiding coughing into your hands, staying home if you had a cough or temperature, and the usual stuff we do to minimize the risk of the flu. There were a few people suggesting that merely breathing around people could spread the virus, but that was speculative at the time.

Moreover, six weeks ago it was not clear that there are a substantial number of people who are infectious without symptoms. The early data was that symptom onset was correlated with maximum virus production, without the knowledge that there is an average of 5 days from infection to symptoms, with virus being shed after about 24 hours. And no one had the idea that there were a LOT of people spreading the virus who would never show significant symptoms.

The epidemiologists and public health experts are almost universally recommending masks be worn in public, and have been for at least a few weeks. Meanwhile, government leaders (and definitely not just in the US) continue to minimize and downplay this simple and clearly effective measure. And some of those government leaders have gone so far as to shut down those health experts. We are in a situation where probably about half of all virus spreading is happening by people who are unaware they are infected. If you want to minimize spread while opening things up, universal mask wearing in public might be the more powerful thing politicians could endorse. But instead they are more interested in appearances, while people like you are more interested in pointing fingers for things that were happening at the beginning of the pandemic.

I'm curious, do you wear a mask now when you're out? If not, why not?

> "Six weeks ago most experts didn't know better."

Either your timeline is off by a few weeks, or this is revisionism.

Seven weeks ago, on March 27, Science magazine published an interview with Dr. George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The money quote:

“The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”

So all of the things you say weren't known six weeks ago were in fact known even to the general public seven weeks ago. And surely they were known to public health officials some time sooner, unless they were deliberately ignoring the advice of their Chinese counterparts, who had vastly more experience at that point.

Remember, by March 27, China's pandemic was almost over. The worst-hit place, Wuhan, emerged from lockdown on April 7 because they weren't getting new cases. So what China learned regarding asymptomatic spread and droplets, they had probably already learned and shared some weeks earlier, because surely the last handful of straggler cases didn't bring any extra insights.

> "The epidemiologists and public health experts are almost universally recommending masks be worn in public, and have been for at least a few weeks."

But before that they were not merely saying that masks are unnecessary, they were actively discouraging people from wearing them.

Fauci on 60 Minutes on March 8 literally said "People should not be walking around with masks." and "There's no reason to be walking around with a mask." That was not a one-time thing either, it was consistent messaging from him and his counterparts in other Western countries. When officials abruptly changed their tune, mainstream media took note and reported it as such.

> "I'm curious, do you wear a mask now when you're out? If not, why not?"

Yes anytime I go out when I might end up anywhere near other people. No if I'm just out for a walk, because it's not an urban setting and other pedestrians are few and far between, and I just cross to the opposite side of the street as necessary.

Here's an example from Australia for instance, from as late as April 7 (just five and a half weeks ago):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqRL1GXu5DE — Nine News Perth
(0:00) “Healthy West Australians are being warned against using face masks to protect themselves against coronavirus.”
(0:45) “The state government's advice in line with the World Health Organization: unless you have symptoms of Covid-19, don't wear one.”

They were still focusing exclusively on masks as protection for the wearer, even though Asia was banging the drum about their role in protecting others from the wearer, at the very least 10 full days earlier (the Science article, written for a lay audience), and surely well before that in communications between the public health authorities and their counterparts in China.

In fact, Asians had already been wearing masks for many years. Did Western experts really think it was just some foolish superstition? They were well aware of the reasoning behind it. They deliberately chose misleading messaging "for the greater good" because they feared shortages for health care workers. But even simple homemade cloth masks could have mitigated some of the devastation in New York City, during the crucial weeks when no testing was being done and the pandemic, as it turned out, was spreading rapidly.

The YouTube video linked above includes a brief soundbite from Roger Cook, health minister of Western Australia, at a press conference on April 5, see https://www.facebook.com/9NewsPerth/videos/wa-covid-19-update/498752164336078/

He goes on to say (at -10:42 from the end): “... but there's no reason why you should be walking around the streets of Perth wearing a mask.”

He said that in the context of wanting to preserve clinical-grade PPE for health care workers, but doesn't nuance it at all, or consider homemade masks. Australia has very few cases, but that was also true of New York City at one time.

"Don't wear a mask, because there are hardly any known cases out there currently" is just objectively bad advice, regardless of whether you later have a fortunate outcome.

I wasn't kidding in that last paragraph.

Here is a video from February 5 (very early days), featuring the Health editor of The Guardian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gASCBhA2bE4

(0:15) “So the advice of the public health authorities in most places is that masks are really not necessary, and they may actually be unhelpful.”

(0:55) “The advice is different in different countries, and because we have so few infections in a country like the UK or in the United States, on the whole, it's not really a sensible precaution to wear a mask.”

Now, she herself is not a public health official, but surely was simply reporting and echoing what public health officials were saying at the time. As a senior reporter for a reputable newspaper, assuming even a minimal level of journalistic integrity, she did not take it upon herself to invent any of that on her own.

So there you have it: don't wear masks until the pandemic is raging all around you, even though wearing masks could have mitigated that outcome. Sheer idiocy.

Cap'n, you seem to have made my points for me.

As I said, outside of Asia, where masks have long been embraced, there was a lack of evidence that asymptomatic people were spreading the illness simply by breathing and talking. Yes, people were discouraged from wearing them, which was stupid. Yes, your examples are virtually all from more than 6 weeks ago, and few of the examples actually are from infectious disease experts.

Much of the mask discouragement was motivated specifically to keep the limited supply of masks from being grabbed up by profiteers and sold off to the public. You note that yourself. That second part of the message ("... and leave the mask supply for doctors and nurses...") was a part of virtually all of those messages you've tracked down. Frankly, until very recently, most people didn't believe masks did much for the general public walking around the streets. And in that situation they may not. Where masks are needed are where people congregate inside.

Realize also that health ministers are quasi-governmental officials, who serve at the pleasure of whomever appointed them. If you talked to doctors, early on many were advocating masks. I'm sure you recall Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) expressing confusion about the anti-mask sentiments and reasons why he thought it was idiotic.

There's also the phenomenon that people don't want to appear to contradict themselves. People, even health ministers, have a hard time saying "I was wrong." One thing I've noted is that even now, today, in places where mask wearing was denigrated (the US administration, some European countries, etc) there is still a stigma about masks, and they are still not encouraged. Meanwhile, most of the doctors and epidemiologists I follow on twitter for example switched their photos to ones of themselves wearing masks some weeks ago, as the data is now clear. There are some public health experts who have some egg on their faces, but it's nothing compared to political leaders and politically orientated health ministers who are perpetuating this dangerous nonsense.

I'd say the uni-disciplinary approach has in general worked very well for urban transportation engineering, where a single-minded focus on making driving and parking easier has shaped layer upon layer of binding standards and untold numbers of capital plans and investments, in the process, removing economics from consideration almost entirely. Try to Tiebout sort yourself into a local government that offers the ability to opt-out from the design standards and typical investments in easy driving, it's hard to find an option!

Amen. Real leadership gets disparate viewpoints and weighs them accordingly. Optimization is hard; we all do this every day.

No argument that "We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge." But the advice to policymakers should come from a mix of disciplines, not from specialists trying to operate outside their lane. That was the criticism Rand Paul levied against Dr Fauci, and he was right to repudiate it. For this 'panel of experts' approach to work, of course, requires mature judgment and a willingness to understand what is being presented - conspicuously lacking in this White House.

Jeffrey Sachs is a total failure. It is the worst economist in the world.

"Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but..."

That's called engineering.

So let's run with this all-things-considered notion.

We told a world that it was imperative to flatten the curve. That our hospitals see a human flood 7 times higher than they'd ever seen if we don't lock down.

Then the sacrifice we required was given.

We have flattened the curve. Rare hotspots aside, our hospitals are way below normal activity. We accomplished the given mission. We did it.

We tread on thin ice if we do not soon meaningfully scale back the sacrificing we've asked for, given the published goals have been achieved. We've got to move into a different phase.

Yes we will likely see illnesses increase. Yes there are some labors we must undertake (strong focus on nursing homes).

But costs of ongoing lockdown are too many to list. But I'll note only one: I'd expect a generation-scale loss of confidence in so-called experts and intellectuals.

One of the only moral truths I learned past age 30 is this: life will sometimes throw you into no-win scenarios. When there, you must choose the least-evil option. In so doing, you have chosen good.

A policy equilibrium is shaped by the interaction of various disciplines and sociopolitical constraints, so policy proposals should consider them. General equilibrium thinking > partial equilibrium thinking.

But just because the optimal output is multi-disciplinary filtered through public choice doesn't mean the optimal inputs should be. Maybe it's better to let uni-disciplinary experts do what they do best, have polymaths transform these separate proposals into something interdisciplinary and politically feasible & sustainable, and then show the decision-maker the final consilience.

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