Covid and intertemporal substitution

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Before the vaccines came along, it made great sense to enforce masking norms. If infections could be shifted into the future, an eventually vaccinated citizenry would be much better protected.

There is a less obvious corollary: Those same mask norms make less sense when large numbers of people are vaccinated. Masking still will push infections further into the future, but if the vaccines become marginally less effective over time, as some data suggest, people may be slightly worse off later on (they’ll also be a bit older). The upshot is that the case for masking is less strong, even if you still think it is a good idea overall.

Still, many people prefer to abide by fixed rules and principles. Once they learn them and lecture others about them, they are unlikely to change their minds. “Masking is good!” is a simple precept. “Exactly how good masking is depends on how much safer the near future will be!” is not. Yet the latter statement is how the economist is trained to think.

And this:

Some of the consequences of intertemporal substitution are a bit ghastly, and you won’t find many people willing to even talk about them.

For example: Say you are immunocompromised, and you either can’t or won’t get vaccinated. You might be justly mad about all the unvaccinated knuckleheads running around, getting Covid, and possibly infecting you. At the same time, you wish to minimize your required degree of intertemporal substitution.

So if you are (perhaps correctly) afraid to go out very much, you are better off if those same knuckleheads acquire natural immunity more quickly. Yes, it would be better if they got vaccinated. But barring that, a quick pandemic may be easier for you to manage than a long, drawn-out pandemic, which would require heroic amounts of intertemporal substitution.

Recommended.  And yes there is a “don’t overload your health system” qualifier (most of the U.S. is OK on this front right now), which I’ve written about multiple times including as early as January 2020.



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