Intro. [Recording date: June 29, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today's June 29th, 2021, and my guest is economist Don Boudreaux of George Mason University. Don blogs at Cafe Hayek. This is his 15th appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in January of 2021 talking about the work of James Buchanan.
Don, welcome back to EconTalk.
Don Boudreaux: Always good to be here, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is the pandemic, and your take is I think quite a bit different from any of the guests we've had before on the program to discuss the pandemic and corona. I hope we'll be able to explore some new issues of policy compared to previous conversations that I've had on the topic.
So, I want to start with our taking a long view of how the world, the United States, other countries have reacted in terms of policy to the pandemic. You argue that we've overreacted and overreacted badly. Make the case.
Don Boudreaux: What we learned early on about SARS-CoV-2 is that it is for people basically 70 and older, more dangerous than the flu. It's not definitely going to kill you, but it's got a higher infection-fatality rate than does ordinary influenza.
For people younger than that, it really doesn't. The--I think the images that came out of Wuhan back in early 2020, where you saw people lying on the streets with shopping bags as if they'd just been walking along and they just dropped dead, that frightened a lot of people. My guess is--I don't know for sure--my guess is that those photographs were staged, because we know now that's not how SARS-CoV-2 kills. It can kill you quickly, but it's not as if you're walking along healthy and the next minute you're dead.
There were some real problems in Italy. So, we saw these horrible images coming out of Northern Italy of people in hospitals. And these images, in part, because of our enormously advanced technology, media technology, to show images from around the world, and I think the psychological biases that we humans have always had--you look at the present and we've never been very good at assessing risks. I believe that this combined in the United States with a historically unpopular president among the media elites and intellectual elites--all this was a perfect storm for causing people to use this virus as an excuse for social control.
I don't think it was a conspiracy. I'm not buying into the whole great reset thing: this is all designed by someone.
But, I think all the incentives were in place such that when people did panic and then the media started playing these images over and over again, almost as if B-roll[?], of old people, of people being wheeled--they were always old--but, people being wheeled on gurneys through crowded hospitals, and we got the constant reports of cases and deaths with COVID.
All of this put this particular pathogen, in my view, and its consequences, its health consequences, vastly out of proportion to its real dangers.
Then famously, of course, the Imperial College model, led by Neil Ferguson which was--
Russ Roberts: the British doctor. British epidemiologist.
Don Boudreaux: The British doctor at Imperial College, London. I think he's actually a physicist. I don't think he's a--don't quote--I mean I wouldn't bet my pension, but I think he's actually trained as a physicist. I do not think he has a medical degree.
And he was predicting these enormous numbers of fatalities.
A lot of people in Britain, in Europe, on the continent, and in the United States, took this as a gospel. They took this as a scientific fact that was going to happen unless we did something extreme.
And so the world start shutting down. And Ferguson later said, if you remember, not long afterward, that he was--I don't remember his exact words, but he thought lockdown to be a good thing, but he didn't think we could do them. And then he saw that the Chinese government did it, so, Wow, it's possible to do!' So, he advises the British government in some capacity to do just that.
And so, starting in mid-March of 2020, it became overnight--literally, almost overnight--the longstanding recommendation of public health officials to not engage in general lockdowns. To engage in what in the Great Barrington Declaration is called focused protection.
All of that was just discarded and immediately treated as unscientific heresy and dogma of the unwashed. And the scientific--what was believed to be, what was taken then to be the scientific approach was to lock everybody down and kind of hope this thing goes away.
And of course, we had the varying excuses for it. First, it was going to be two weeks to flatten the curve. 'We don't want to overwhelm the hospitals.' I think that that by the way is probably the single best argument ever given for the lockdowns. If it was the case that we had limited emergency rooms and--
Russ Roberts: ventilators--
Don Boudreaux: Yeah, exactly.
And at that point, of course, it makes no difference why it would have been limited. It could have been artificially limited because of unwise government policies in the past.
But, given that's the given in March 2020, it may be that the best way to deal with that sad reality is harsh measures.
We know now--and by now, I mean, I'm thinking at least a year ago, as of June of 2020--we knew that the lockdowns were not working.
There are some people who still claim that they do. I've looked at the evidence. I think the best evidence, and I think the overwhelming amount of evidence is that lockdowns have absolutely no effect on the spread of the virus. They may slow it down a tiny, tiny bit, but--
Russ Roberts: Let me push back on that. First, I want to pile on, though, for a minute. When you talk about the media's scare tactics, and obviously they're trying to sell newspapers, and hits, views, etc.
Don Boudreaux: Yep. Clicks--
Russ Roberts: Clicks. One of the things that I've found and still find somewhat disturbing, but natural, of course, is the highlighting of some special case. Some one-in-a-million tragic outcome that gets a lot of attention; and people start to misunderstand what the risks are.
In these cases, I remember vividly images of people's lungs that were being shown online to suggest that--doctors saying--'I've never seen anything like this.' Like a science fiction alien creature had invaded our lungs and scrambled them in ways that were unknown.
I don't think that was a common phenomenon. I think it may have happened.
Similarly, I think some of the heart issues that people worried about, reasonably so in the beginning, I don't know if any of them manifested in any large numbers.
And, so let me--that I agree with you. I think there was an enormous anxiety produced by that across most ages. Certainly for older people. I remember being uneasy touching my mail. I remember being uneasy going grocery shopping, uneasy bringing the groceries into the house, uneasy with the checker--you know--touching my groceries or taking something--
I remember going to the grocery and I couldn't find an item, and the employee took it off the shelf and put it in my cart--to my horror. Because he had touched it. I just wanted him to find it. I could get it myself! I'm wearing plastic. You know, I'm wearing Ziploc bags on my hands, trying to reduce holding my shopping cart.
It was a very scary time. And reasonably so. I think at that point we didn't know much about it.
I think the word 'lockdown' is a bit confusing. I think there are many, many variations on it. So, we have countries like Israel, where I am now, Australia even now very recently, and certainly China, forbidding people from leaving their homes at all, other than to--I think in Israel, I think at the beginning to walk your dog 100 meters. But, you couldn't--you really were supposed to stay in your house. You were really, literally, quarantined as in the old time sense of the word. I guess if you're literally quarantined, it's 40 days. Sorry about that. But, I meant--
Don Boudreaux: I know what you mean. Yeah, quarantine taking on a broader meaning.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--kept from the rest of the world.
At the same time, I think in, I remember that weekend in mid-March, certainly in the Washington, D.C. area, where I was at the time and in New York City, a whole bunch of things were closed. Not quite the same as quarantining. Any place where people gathered in numbers: bars, restaurants, religious institutions, churches, mosques, synagogues, sporting events.
Many of those were done voluntarily by the private enterprises that ran them. They canceled the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Basketball Tournament because they felt it was dangerous for large groups of people to be crowded into an indoor arena.
And I have to say I'm somewhat sympathetic to that, in that we had read--and I think this was true; I'd be curious on your take--of many so-called super-spreader events. Where, one--a choir in a church where people were standing close together for an extended period of time singing--which of course produces a lot of particulates into the air--a lot of people in that church choir got COVID and many of them died.
Now, it's true many of them were older people, but not all of them.
So, it's not obvious--it seems to me that it would be a somewhat good idea to stay out of large, crowded groups when this thing is running wild. Whether you do it voluntarily through the private choices of people while letting others choose to take on more risk and attend those sporting events or go to those bars. That doesn't seem like the worst idea.
Yeah--I think I would make a distinction between that and shutting down the entire economy other than so-called essential workers, food supply people and health workers, where basically you were told to stay in your house for the foreseeable future. Do you think any of those were worth doing? Or do you lump them all together?
Don Boudreaux: I think they're two things to this thing. First of all, you're correct, the term lockdown means different things. In Virginia, where I am, back when Governor Ralph Northam announced his first extreme measure, it was called a Stay at Home order. Now, unlike in Britain, we Virginians weren't really running a risk of being arrested if we technically violated all the details of the stay at home order. But, it was called a stay at home order.
The two things to distinguish is voluntary versus coerced. And, the second is generalized staying at home versus focusing your protection on those who are vulnerable.
So, what I oppose most, was the rejection of, what had been up until 2020, as I understand--I've read about it since, and it seems to be true--what I oppose most is the rejection in 2020 of the standard public health guidelines that when a respiratory pathogen such as this one--and it is especially dangerous for older people--there's no question about it, or people with severe comorbidities.
Russ Roberts: Comorbidities being things like other diseases: obesity. Other things that aren't good for you to interact with this in a particularly bad way.
Don Boudreaux: YeS. There are very few people who die of COVID who have no comorbidities. One reason, it mostly kills old people, because the older you get, the more likely you are to have cancer or [crosstalk 00:14:10]--
Russ Roberts: I know all about it. I don't have cancer, but I've got a lot of things wrong with me.
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Anyway, what I oppose most was this rejection of the standard public health recommendation up until 2020 to focus the protection on the vulnerable groups and let everyone else go about their lives as well as possible.
What happened in early 2020, is we reversed that. Whatever measures were engaged, it wasn't focused on the vulnerable groups. We were just said to stay home. In some cases, obviously the dictates were more harsh and draconian than in other places. But, even in the United States, most of us Americans were told to stay home.
And so, businesses were shuttered, so we couldn't go about our ordinary business of life. Schools were closed. Everybody starts Zooming in to meetings. I like Bryan Caplan's, my colleague, your former colleague Bryan Caplan's early take on this. It's a take he still has and is one I return to frequently. He said, 'Why didn't we have a proportionate response?'
I think a proportionate response would have been in twofold aspects to it.
One, it would have been what the Great Barrington Declaration office[?] called focused protection. We knew in March--we had strong evidence even in March of 2020--that this disease, it focuses most of its damage on very old people. We knew that. And so, let's protect them and let other people go about their business. That's one element of proportion.
Another element of proportion is the degree to which we react at all. And so, as Bryan put it in one of his blog posts--a very scholarly blog post at EconLog--he said--I forget; I'm not quoting him exactly. But, he said: If SARS-CoV-2 is 10 times worse than the flu, then there's no reason that we shouldn't maybe have 10 times the degree of reaction to it. But, the reaction we had worldwide by mid-March of last year was vastly out of proportion to the dangers of this pathogen compared to ordinary pathogens that we human beings live with annually.Live with every day.
So, in my view, the world panicked. And it was a panic set off by a grotesque failure to be able to assess risks properly and to put risks in perspective.
One final thing and then I'll shut up. Part of the benefit of a more proportional and focused approach would be that it allows other important aspects, including narrow health aspects, to be properly considered. It is as if starting 16 or 17 months ago, the only goal that humanity had was to protect people from coming into contact with SARS-CoV-2. Everything else was cast aside or dramatically diminished in importance. It's almost as if we said, 'Well, we don't care if that child dies of cancer or if that person can't get emergency treatment for diabetes. That's okay as long as they're not dying of SARS-CoV-2.'
And so, all of the costs of these lockdowns--again, both the narrow health cost, of the sort that I just gave a hypothetical example, and the larger cost of the narrow economic cost--just the cost of suffering is massive disruption in our social lives.
People not being able to go to funerals. It was just a few weeks ago that the Mayor of Washington, D.C. decided it was legal once again to dance at weddings in Washington, D.C. Just as recently as a few weeks ago, it was illegal to dance at a wedding.
This madness, I call it COVID derangement syndrome. And what I mean by that is, the focus on the one goal exclusively, at the expense of all others: and that is of avoiding contact with the coronavirus. Everything else is ignored or severely discounted. And that's a derangement. It would be deranged if we had as our one goal protecting people from dying from cancer, or protecting people from dying of ordinary flu, or protecting people from getting seasonal colds, or protecting people from dying in automobile accidents. If you have one goal above all, then you become obsessively deranged.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to focus on the costs of our response, which are often forgotten. It's fascinating to me. I think they'll increasingly be remembered as the months and years pass and we see them more vividly. But, you talked about some of the fact that I think people were very afraid to go to the hospital for health treatment for a while at the beginning of the crisis in particular. Again, some of that would have happened regardless of government policy. I think it would have been a natural response to the media coverage. And then the next--so, you have these direct sort of health-related costs where treatment or availability of treatment, or the willingness of people to get the treatment was reduced.
Then you have the financial--the so-called, I will call monetary cost. People out of work, people losing their businesses, their livelihoods. For me, the most interesting set of these--let me add the children who lose a year or so of schooling. To me, that's the most stunning, inexplicable part of this. Yes, there are older teachers who may have been at risk. A colleague of ours, who I will not name--
Don Boudreaux: Then they should have stayed home--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. A colleague of mine, who I will not name--actually a former colleague--suggested to me very early on in the pandemic that public choice would lead one to conclude from this that the people in power who made the decisions about economic activity are older. And, had we had a measured response of the kind you're talking about, they would have had to stay home and everybody else would have gone about their business. And, those positions of power--CEOs [Chief Executive Officers], government officials--would have been filled by younger people. So, they did have a natural incentive to have a general response to this rather than a focused one on the elderly.
I don't know if that's played a role. It is an interesting hypothesis.
Does any of this--so, you have students, children under the age of 20 who have virtually no risk of dying of COVID; and certainly we don't close down schools, as you say, in the winter because there's a flu risk. Tragically, children do die of flu, young people die of flu.
Don Boudreaux: They are more likely to die of a seasonal flu than they are of COVID-19--
Russ Roberts: And we don't close schools, at least for now. It will be interesting. We'll talk about that in a minute.
So we had that loss--the loss of socialization, the loss of learning. Mostly, tragically I think for poor people in public schools, which were much more likely to shut down than private schools.
And then, the next set of losses and costs of this policy, I think, are the more interesting ones, because they are the hardest to see. It's the inability to dance at the wedding. It's the inability to see someone's smile when you're having a tough day because they're wearing a mask. The inability to be a human being. We basically took 15 months and shoved people into their caves, their homes, on Zoom, and said, 'Stick it out.'
Now, if it had been a real plague, like the Bubonic Plague or the Black Plague, maybe that would have been a good idea. It seems we did kind of overreact.
And, of course, the financial costs that were incurred by the government, we don't know what the full cost of those will be. And, possible inflation, other costs--
Don Boudreaux: I think it's happening already.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, possibly.
Russ Roberts: So, I agree with you. The question is: Could we have done anything differently in the political sense? So, let me try to give the alternative view. And, I give it because I've said on here before, I'm sure, that everybody has their own weird COVID thing. You might look at what somebody does: I have a colleague here in Israel who told me that he wouldn't touch his mail for three days for a while. I don't know how--maybe he still does it. That turned out to be unnecessary. We didn't know it at the time. I remember being uncomfortable picking up my mail. I remember thinking I should wait a while after it's gotten put in the box. So, I understand all that, but so many times you see someone else doing something and you think, 'Well, that's ridiculous.' Then you realize, well, but I do X, which that person thinks is ridiculous. Just that makes me feel good, so I do it: I wash my canned peas or whatever it is.
So, I think when you talk about the media response to this--and it was a tremendous opportunity for the media to get attention. It was unavoidably attractive for them. Once that's out there, I think it's quite difficult for human beings to respond to these kind of situations rationally. It creates an enormous demand for political action.
I'll give you an example here. In Israel--again, we're recording this in late June of 2021; we have a new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett. The early days in Israel with the virus went very badly, but Netanyahu or his ministers--I'm not sure who was responsible, but he's clearly had something to do with it--negotiated a deal with Pfizer where they would get very quick access to large amounts of Pfizer vaccine in return for giving Pfizer data on its impact. As a result, Israel got vaccinated in a very quick rate and very quickly returned to normal life. Really a great thing.
And yet, right now the Delta variant is starting to spread here in Israel. As far as I know, and maybe I don't know the science--don't quote me; no one should live their life according to what I'm about to say. But, as far as I understand it, at least here in Israel, the Delta variant is mostly asymptomatic. I don't think it's led to any hospitalizations or deaths, but people are very nervous. And I think the new politician, the new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, wants to show he's not going to be asleep on the job. He's going to be--so, they've already started talking about mandates of masks in indoor settings. Perhaps--perhaps--they will also start to curtail outdoor gatherings, which of course is the beginning of a return to something more like a lockdown.
Now, I'm not going to criticize Prime Minister Bennett for that. I understand that as a new prime minister, he has to look zealous. I don't expect the Prime Minister of Israel, the President of United States, the Prime Minister of England to say, 'You know, it's a free society. People should make their own decisions, make these decisions for themselves. Of course, if you're older, we advise you to take more precautions.'
That just is so hard to imagine that flying in 2021 in a Western country.
And, in a minute, we'll talk about externalities, and some listeners, especially those trained in economics, are immediately going, 'Of course they can't rely on people's own judgments. They're imposing costs on others if they don't wear a mask.' Et cetera, etc.
But, anyway, I just want to make the point that I think the political response to this is not surprising. It is demanded, I think, by most of the public. They expect their leaders to save them, protect them from the ills of everything, COVID being one of them. And because of that media coverage, it became the ill that we expected everyone to focus on because we were focused on it. I certainly was. I looked at, every single day, looked at the paper for cases and deaths, hoping for a turnaround. Looking at states that I might be visiting soon and whether I'd be able to get there and what I'd be doing.
So, I think when you decry the response, I'm sympathetic, but I'm not sure the politicians, given the culture that we live in, in the United States and elsewhere in the West and elsewhere, I'm not sure it's so surprising that we quote "overreacted." It's almost as if anything less than an overreaction would be intolerable to the body politic.
Don Boudreaux: So, I'm the last person to defend government officials. I think you're correct about the logic of political action. Politicians are not leaders. Politicians are followers. But, this fact is combined with the myth that they are leaders and--
Russ Roberts: Correct. And, are to be praised for their great response to whatever.
Don Boudreaux: So, ironically, the science--the claim was that our leaders are following the science. So, the science, of course, can't tell you what to do. The science tells us, as best as it can, what reality is about. Science cannot make trade-offs for us. Science can't tell me what the appropriate amount of risk is I should take when I decide to drive an automobile when it's snowing outside as opposed to staying home. That's not a scientific question. Science can say: Your risk of driving with this amount of snow, of being in a automobile actually goes up by X percent compared to driving absent snow. Then it's up to me to make the judgment.
And so, if the goal--and this is what is surprising to me--so, I'm not surprised by politicians, of course responding to whatever they think the public wants in order to increase the public's prospects of voting for the politicians in place. What surprised me was not so much the politicians: what surprised me is how easily the general public was spooked by this one disease.
Now, I'm a little less surprised now as I reflect on it, when you reflect on how the media utterly distorted--utterly distored--this disease. I believe utterly distorted it, way out of proportion. I'd like to give you a couple of examples in just a moment. Once the media utterly distorts it--again, seeing pictures of people with shopping bags lying dead on the street in Wuhan, B-roll[?] of people being rolled through hospital emergency rooms, then the public is panicked. The public, yes, wants action. And we have this ideology now that the government somehow contains powers that are almost God-like. And, if only in emergencies we let this God-like institution exercise its powers, then it can save us. Of course people have believed that government has God-like powers long before COVID came along. Government has God-like powers to, in many people's minds, to raise wage rates, to protect people from shortages caused by the natural disasters. On and on and on. Russ, you and I write about this all the time.
But the mediat--so, I don't excuse politicians. But, you and I, I agree with you about their incentive system. Maybe I should say the same thing about the media. They have--
Russ Roberts: You should--
Don Boudreaux: incentives, too.
But, just a couple of examples, and there were many. I could spend the whole rest of our time just giving examples. But, I'll give two examples of how the media, in my view, utterly misinformed people.
Number one, the Wall Street Journal--I don't remember when this was: maybe February or January of this year, 2021. Maybe December. The Wall Street Journal had this headline report of how middle age men are bearing the brunt of COVID. I can't remember exactly the headline. Middle aged men are bearing the brunt of COVID. Implying it's not old people. It's middle-aged men. So, you read the--'bearing the brunt of,' I think that is part of the quotation from the headline--you read the story. You know what the story was? You know what the finding was? That middle-aged men have a slightly higher risk of dying from COVID than do middle-aged women. Well, this is not middle aged men bearing the brunt of COVID. Right?
The second, there's this columnist for The Washington Post, a physician, Leana Wen, who also is a personality on CNN [Cable News Network ].And as recently as this month, June, and last month, May, and again in this month June, she writes these columns in The Washington Post saying, 'It's a myth to think that COVID is not a danger to children. We can't let our guard down until all children are vaccinated.' Then she says, 'The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] reported that 16,000 something children have been hospitalized with COVID in the past 12 months.' Or some time period.
So, when I read this, I went to the CDC. Sure enough, her figure is correct. Then I looked at the hospitalizations of children for other things: falls, influenza. And, the hospitalizations of children, people 18 and younger, or 17 and younger, for COVID was way down in the list. But, she picks out this one number. It sounds huge. And, then she says, 'As a mother of three, I myself keep my children masked.' And she even wrote, and quoting The New York Times, not long ago, 'COVID is a major killer of children.' It is simply not. This is just a false--it's a lie.
Russ Roberts: But, I think it's a great example of what being trained in economics does for you, versus trained in other fields. And, I think how to look at life, it's not easy, but I think it's an extremely important point.
COVID does kill children.
Don Boudreaux: There are a lot of people who are trained in economics though who I think went off the rails [?]--
Russ Roberts: Maybe we'll come back to that. But, my point is that, COVID does kill children. No doubt about it.
Russ Roberts: Not many, relative to other things. I think what's interesting, that we just [crosstalk 00:34:38]--
Don Boudreaux: Not even absolutely. I mean, even absolutely, I think the number of children, I forget the exact age breakdown, but the number of children--the CDC, maybe 14 and younger, 12 and younger--and literally it's in three digits. It's like 324.
Russ Roberts: Right. But, it doesn't matter because that could have been your child, and therefore you as a parent have an obligation to keep your child safe.
Now, when I say it that way, I think a lot of people go, 'Well, that makes sense.' Of course, it means that you should not send your kid to school in the fall when it starts to get cold in the fall. Maybe you should--
Don Boudreaux: You should not let your children ride in automobiles.
Russ Roberts: Never, unless they're wearing a special kind of suit or a helmet of some special kind. It's a very interesting thing that we put our kids in--
Don Boudreaux: You should not let your children leave the house. You should put them in a bubble.
Russ Roberts: Right. Of course. And we all understand: well, that's a mistake. But we can't take that logic--we struggle to take that logic that we see as normal, especially as economists, and bring it to bear on the issue that is front and center in our minds because of media coverage and our own brains, which right now is COVID.
Russ Roberts: Another example of this, which I know bothers you and I'd like you to talk about it for a minute--it bothered me--I'm not going to get it right. It doesn't matter. 'More people have died from COVID now in the United States than World War I and World War II, the Civil War.' It's not the Civil War, I don't think, but a whole bunch of wars combined.
Don Boudreaux: Close to the Civil War, according to the records.
Russ Roberts: I'm thinking: That's not a relevant comparison. You don't want to talk about the tragic deaths in wartime of 18 and 20 year olds in defense of a freedom or your national sovereignty or whatever it happens to be, to people who die of a disease that, if they chose, they could take more or fewer precautions. The people who die tend to be, as you say, 75 and older. It's not the same level: It's not a meaningful comparison. And yet it was invoked often by people. Sometimes economists.
And, it's interesting: I found it offensive. I think when I say that, people go like, 'Well, what's wrong with you? They're all deaths.'
But, I think it's important and useful to distinguish between certain kinds of deaths--deaths that you can avoid by your behavior. Going into war, it would be foolish not to wear your helmet. There are certain things you try to do to reduce the risk of death, even in war, which is extremely dangerous when you're on the front lines.
And again, I think in COVID, the right response was for people who are particularly vulnerable, people with comorbidities and the elderly, to stay out of groups. We understand, of course--we should, that that's harder for some people than others. I think a lot of people died in multi-family groups, multi-family households where people had to work, had to go out into the world, and probably infected their elderly relatives living with them. It's an incredible tragedy. I don't want anything you're saying or that I'm saying to suggest that there aren't horrible, tragic aspects to this disease.
Don Boudreaux: Right. No one here is denying COVID. No one hear is denying that COVID for certain groups is much more dangerous than--
Russ Roberts: And it's horrible; and it's been a--and that there were other responses other than even proportionate lockdowns or focused lockdowns that might've been better.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk--
Don Boudreaux: Can I say where you mentioned the comparison that I've seen, you know, 'COVID has killed--the number of people--it's dozens of jumbo jets falling out of the sky loaded with passengers.' I think it was the 2017, 2018, a recent flu season in the United States, one year, flu season, killed roughly 60,000 people. I didn't see anyone back then--I don't recall it; I'm quite sure no one did it: 'Oh, this is terrible. This has killed more Americans than were killed in Vietnam.' But, if someone had said that and if the press had focused on that, they could have whipped this up into a frenzy of whatever variant the flu that was a few years.
Russ Roberts: That's my question. Is it possible that if we treated the flu like this, we could get people to be as worried about their general activities in the winter as they are now about COVID generally?
Don Boudreaux: This is my great fear. This is my great fear. We're all going to die of something. It's unfortunate, I know, but it's true. And so, every day, each of us encounters a range of risks. Part of that's by choice, part of that's just by happenstance, and things suck. And a lot of these risks are shared in the sense of being passed on from one person to another without--
Russ Roberts: Awareness.
Don Boudreaux: contact[?]. Respiratory diseases are not new. They're not going away. They are on a spectrum of--some are more risky than others. SARS-CoV-2 is more risky than the typical respiratory disease.
But, SARS-CoV-2 was treated as a categorically different threat. It was not and is not a categorically different threat. It's higher on the spectrum.
And, again, its targets are, thankfully, very focused and, thankfully, very focused on the part of the population that you would, given that it exists, you want it to be focused on: far better, that it kills mostly old people than kills mostly children. Anyone who disagrees with that, I think they're either inhuman or they don't really believe what they say. You and I, Russ, are both over 60. And if given the choice, if someone says, 'Okay, we've got the disease. It's going to have disproportionate impact. The disproportionate impact is going to be on people 60 and older, or it's going to be on people 30 and younger. What would you choose?' It's not even a choice. Of course, 60 and older. Right?
Russ Roberts: I think every human being--Don, I know you've been engaged in some philosophical debates about this. Of course every life is precious. But every life is finite. I think we're pretty much in agreement on that.
I think most human beings act the way you say. Whether they debate the way you say is a different question. I think most people, certainly parents, feel that way about their children. Whether they feel that way about strangers' children, I guess, is a little more complicated.
Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the 60,000 number on the flu, which is, by the way, an entire football stadium of deaths--
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Can you imagine how horrible that would be?
Russ Roberts: if you could dramatize it. And I think the question is--and I think I'm kind of drilling down here in our thinking about the policy related to this--I think most people would say, 'Well, it's horrible that 60,000 people die of the flu, but what, you're not going to send kids to school in the winter?' And the answer is: No, that would be foolish. Given that 60,000--if it was 600,000, or 6 million, or 60 million, or most children died of the flu, we'd probably shut down school in the winter.
Again, this gets back to the idea of proportionate response. We don't shut down school in the winter. In fact, we generally understand we--there's been a slight change, I'd say, in our culture over the last 20 years. There is a lot of encouragement of hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough in the winter and sneeze. That's probably a good thing. I'm not against--
Don Boudreaux: I've done that all my life. I'm 62 years old. I've done it all my life.
Russ Roberts: But, I think that's a good thing. I think the feeling was that this was different. And, it's not just different because it disproportionally kills older people or affects older people than younger people. I think the idea was: we can stop this without doing anything. It's imaginable. Flu is not imaginable. I think most people would say, 'Well, flu, that's what happens in the winter. But, COVID, we can take these measures.' I think the real question is not--
Don Boudreaux: It's a fatal conceit.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's no answer. There's no answer to the question of whether it's worth it. You've criticized the Neil Ferguson, Imperial College forecast. The defenders of those policies would say, 'Well, if we hadn't done anything, we might've lost 2 or 4 million people in the United States.' Or 40, whatever. I can't remember now the number. And we did lose a much larger number of people than I expected we would lose. I would have lost many bets early on about what the--I thought it would be--it's not worth it, talking about. It's silly.
But, the point is, is that you can--I think most people feel that the measures we took, some draconian and some merely strong--they saved thousands if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. And I think the burden of proof for you and others--and I'm sympathetic to your viewpoint; I'm not 100% convinced--but you've got to show that that isn't the case. That these strong measures that were both mandated by law and urged by our culture were ineffective. And we should have gone about our lives unless we were old and infirm. The old and infirm shouldn't have gone about their lives. We should have done everything to protect them. And I think the great insight of the Great Barrington Declaration and the folks--Jay Bhattacharya, who has been on this program, and the two other epidemiologists who signed it--
Don Boudreaux: Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldorff.
Russ Roberts: Right. Thank you. Since we spent billions--hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, in response to this, much of which was ineffective and theater alone, we could have done glorious things to reduce the risk to the people who were most at risk.
And I think that's the policy failure or the public health failure.
I don't know if that would have been politically possible. I don't know if it will be politically possible if we have another bout of it, a different variant down the road.
But, I think that's what we should have done, if you are an interventionist. If you don't believe in the rights of individuals in a free society to choose their own levels of risk, then please respond proportionately to the people most at risk; spend the funds to help them who are most at risk.
We didn't do that. It's weird what we did. And I think--where I agree with you is, an enormous proportion, the question is whether it's 100%--of what we actually did was theater? And, I don't think it's true in large clusters of groups. I think there probably was a good idea, especially for older people, obviously.
But, it's going to be hard the next time not to do the exact same thing. I think that's what's on the table.
Don Boudreaux: I think, and this is a great fear of mine. I think it's happening as well. A couple of things: In fact, the best data to measure the impact of SARS-CoV-2 and the reaction--well, people's reaction--to it private and mandatory, will be, I think, excess deaths over the course of a few years. And so, I wouldn't bet my pension on this prediction, but I suspect that, I'm quite confident that excess fatalities over the next few years will run lower than average for the next year or two, because COVID has killed it's main victims [crosstalk 00:46:53] vulnerable--
Russ Roberts: Some of the most vulnerable people who would have died shortly thereafter--
Don Boudreaux: in the population. This is why I disagree with those people. There are many, Left, Right, and Center who insist that the age profile of COVID's impact is irrelevant. I alluded to this earlier. I can't get my head around why anyone would think that that fact is irrelevant.
I think it's relevant chiefly or in large part because it's important information for how to react to it. If this disease is killing people randomly, regardless of age, regardless of health, then one kind of reaction--the best kind of reaction--would surely be different than the reaction that we ought to have had knowing early on that SARS-CoV-2 is overwhelmingly dangerous to old people. Because, we can then focus our response. By focusing our response, of course--this is the economic point--and it's no surprise that Jay Bhattacharya himself has a degree in economics as well as a medical degree. But, resources are scarce. This is Econ 101. By focusing response, we can marshal our resources, husband our resources better where they have the best impact rather than just randomly imposing costs on people worldwide.
I forget what my second point was, but--oh, oh, I know what it was. So, I get it. You raise a political point: Yes, politicians cannot be--in a way, of course it's not surprising that politicians screw things up. Politicians screw things up all the time. I mean, it's almost like a profession. They're in the screw-things-up profession, in my view. I'm very cynical--not cynical: I think I'm realistic about politicians. I know not everyone agrees with me on this. You're closer to agreement with me on this.
But, I don't think the incentives that politicians face and respond to--as we predict that they will respond--I don't think that is an excuse to let them off the hook, of course. Every time there's a natural disaster, politicians will complain about, and some of them will take actions against so-called price gouging. Right? It's not the economist's role to say, 'Well, that's the political incentive.' We understand why that's a political incentive, but we don't say, 'Well, therefore, what else can we do? We just have to accept it.'
We understand when a natural disaster comes, prices start to rise. The media is going to complain. Politicians will pontificate against the price increases. It's the economist's job to point out why what's said about the higher prices and about the proposed attempt to keep prices from rising, why all of that is economically mistaken. That's what we do.
Yes: people were thrown into a fright, a huge fright, about COVID. Politicians of course responded in the ways that they did for the reasons that you pointed out, but that is all the more reason why we economists should have kept saying, 'Look, there's an opportunity cost to what you're doing.'
Russ Roberts: Well, I think that's why we have to salute--
Don Boudreaux: A huge opportunity cost--
Russ Roberts: I think that's why we have to salute the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, because--
Don Boudreaux: I salute them every day--
Russ Roberts: because, obviously, public health officials have a choice--just like economists, just like politicians--as to whether to get on the bandwagon of making sure everyone's really scared on the grounds of, 'Well, it's better than not being scared. Better safe than sorry.' I think that ignores the trade-offs that are inevitably involved with being overly cautious. Whether they're losses in the quality of life and so on.
Russ Roberts: I don't want to miss our chance to talk about externalities and Ronald Coase. Because, I think: there was a profound moment--I think I've alluded to this before--but after the tragic death of George Floyd, there were a lot of protests, and many of them were done without masks in the street. People close together for long periods of time. And I believed and I think most people believed what they thought about or not, that there's an issue of justice here. And, it's true, it could be risky to be in a large group of protesters. But, some things are more important than the riskiness of death. And, fighting injustice is surely, I think, I hope, one of those things. And, no one said, 'Well, we have to ban'--excuse me, not no one. But, most people didn't say, 'Well, we have to stop those protests because those people who are protesting are spreading COVID to others against their will.'
There was a negative externality. People understood that a negative externality by itself is not sufficient to invoke a government ban; that that's often a price worth paying.
And, I think people often use a negative externality as, it's an automatic proof that something needs to be done, when, in fact, it's a lot more complicated than that.
And, I think the vaccine opportunity--which has been an incredible tribute to human creativity, unbelievable story, it makes--I remember getting my first shot, it was really an incredibly moving thing for me. It hurt--one reason it was moving[?]--but when I realized how much knowledge was in that syringe that was--right? If you think about how crazy this is: I'm poisoning myself and I'm doing it with joy, because I know that it will make me better, give me more choice, give me more freedom.
And a lot of people have argued: 'Everybody has to be vaccinated, because if you don't vaccinate, you're at risk of spreading the disease asymptomatically to people who are vulnerable.' And, I think that's just a fundamental misunderstanding of externalities. I think you agree with me, so why don't you make the case?
Don Boudreaux: So, before we get to the Coase point, let me just mention Jonathan Haidt and his work. So, during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, summer of 2020, lots of the very same people in the media who were just horrified that college students who would go to the beach and party--'No excuse for congregating'-- somehow they would say things like, 'Well, the importance of protesting against racial injustice is greater than the risk.' Now, I think this is--
Russ Roberts: I think they're right--
Don Boudreaux: a nice recognition of--
Russ Roberts: trade-offs--
Don Boudreaux: trade-offs. Right?
But, protesting--fighting racial injustice--is not the only alternative that human beings have.
There are many, many things that are lost if we are prevented by law or by fear from congregating with others. The protest against race--but Jonathan Haidt's idea about how if you want to believe something, the mind can construct a justification for cognitive dissonance and all--
Russ Roberts: I think he got it from David Hume, but--
Don Boudreaux: He did. Well, and by--
Russ Roberts: you can give Jonathan Haidt credit.
Don Boudreaux: By his own admission, he got it from David Hume.
Russ Roberts: I think so. And it's probably in the Bible. Confirmation bias, I'm sure--I can't remember where [crosstalk 00:54:40]--
Don Boudreaux: I'm sure--
Russ Roberts: Confirmation bias is a well-[understood]--
Don Boudreaux: I'm sure--
Russ Roberts: People have understood it for a while.
Russ Roberts: But, I love Jonathan, by the way. God bless him.
Don Boudreaux: The Righteous Mind is--
Russ Roberts: past EconTalk guest, yes. No problems with him. But, go ahead.
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I was praising him.
Anyway, so, I don't think that the very distinct age profile of COVID's impact is necessary to justify what I'm about to say. But, it only makes what I'm about to say, I think, stronger.
As Ronald Coase pointed out--so, let's define externality. And negative externalities. One person acts and has a negative impact on someone who didn't agree to be--
Russ Roberts: Against their will. Yeah.
Don Boudreaux: negatively.
So, the first thing to note is, we are a gregarious, herd-like species. We are constantly acting in ways that have, quote, "negative impacts" on other people. Only a small handful of which are legally classified or even ethically classified as a negative externality.
But so, pollution is the classic. That's what we students of economics learn about as 18-year olds: Well, pollution is a classic externality: smoke stacks spewing out soot, and it's harming the residents or the other businesses nearby.
And, the standard view that most people have is, 'Well, the pollution is caused by the factory. And so, we've got to impose the cost on the factory and make the factory stop imposing externality.'
And so, Ronald Coase's brilliant and yet simple insight--it's amazing, Russ, how much of good economics come from very simple insights--it was that, 'Well, it's not just the factory that's causing the pollution. It's also the people who are living near the factory that's causing the pollution.' It takes two to tango. It takes two to externalize.
If no one lived next to the factory, then the factory particulate solutions that fall to the ground would be an externality to no one.
And so, the question is: Which is the lowest cost means of avoiding the problem? Do we move the factory? Do we impose a tax on the factory? Do we compel the factory to reduce the amount of particulate solution? Or do we put the responsibility on the homeowners to move away from the factory's airflow or to--
Russ Roberts: Or to wear masks--
Don Boudreaux: endure or to wear masks? Right?
And so what this insight immediately points out is: It's a mistake to look at the physical emitter of something and then conclude that, 'Well, that physical emitter should the party that bears the cost of avoiding the problem.'
Russ Roberts: Before you go on, Don, I'm going to interrupt for a sec. Sorry. I apologize. But, I think the average listener is going, 'Are you out of your mind? I mean, come on, who else is at fault if it's not the person emitting the poison?' And, I think the way to think about it, if you want to try to open your mind to this Coasean idea, is that, really it's wrong to even think about the factory. The factory is making some product that is enjoyed by hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people. Let's suppose that the people near the factory are uncomfortable. They could be uncomfortable from the pollution. They could be harmed. They could be killed. We could think of a whole range. And, similarly, we could think of the fact that the people who enjoy the product that the factory makes should pay a little bit more or maybe they shouldn't be allowed to have the product at all. We could have an enormous range of responses.
And, I think what people often forget in these situations--and we may be able to bring it back to COVID I hope and illustrate it--is that, once you say, it's only the so-called polluter, the emitter, who is at fault, and it's not a joint problem, you're giving license to the people who live nearby to impose costs on others.
You may decide, 'Well, that seems fair,' in this situation. But, when you start to think about it, there will be other cases where it won't seem so fair.
The example I just gave: If the factory makes the people living near the--let's say it's a noise pollution. It's unpleasant. It's not murderous. It doesn't kill the people. It just makes a certain time of day less pleasant. Should they have the right, therefore, then to not allow the--do they have the right to stop the people who enjoy this product that is made with the noisy mechanism, the opportunity to enjoy it? What if it's a life-saving product? Right? If you start to think about it in the different range of costs and benefits, you start to realize that it's more complicated than you thought. And I think that's really Coase's great insight.
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Coase's great insight was not what we economists call the Coase Theorem. Coase's great insight was the bilateral nature, the mutual causality of so-called externalities.
The second place I lived in Northern Virginia was in Old Town, Alexandria. So, in December of 1985, I moved into a high-rise at a condo. I rented a condo in a high-rise that was right by the flight path of planes coming into what's now Reagan National. I knew that when I moved there, and sure enough--
Russ Roberts: The rent was less as a result, almost certainly.
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I knew that as well. I knew that as well. I would have liked to have gotten the lower rent and not had plane noises.
But, so Coase's point is: Who's causing my harm? I chose to move there. I contributed to me suffering this negative impact. But, truly no one would say I'm a victim. And so, that's what Coase means.
To put this into the COVID context: Let's grant that shutting everyone in their homes or doing whatever was the range of the various lockdowns that different governments did, had a positive impact on COVID cases, and COVID hospitalizations, and COVID fatalities: it actually reduced those. That, of course, is a good thing. But, that fact is not sufficient to then conclude that therefore these measures were justified.
What did we get, what did we--so, this kind of subtle. What did we give up? What did we lose? Even if we discover, you know, God comes down and does a cost-benefit and says, 'Well, the cost of what you lost as a result of these actions are greater than the benefits of the lives saved.' Assuming even--because, the benefits of the lives saved are greater than the costs of the actions--it still doesn't prove that the actions that we took were appropriate. Because, there might have been a better set of actions that we could have taken--
Russ Roberts: Cheaper--
Don Boudreaux: Yes--so, that the benefit--
Russ Roberts: Less oppressive, less destructive of the human experience--
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. A pedantic economist, as you and I know, will nitpick at what I just said about how we reckon cost and benefits.
But, the Coasean point is: If there is a lower-cost way of dealing with the problem, that's the way we should go.
And so, because--particularly because of the differential age impact of COVID, focused protection was especially easy, or easier, compared to what would have been had the disease stricken--struck--randomly.
So, let's have older people and people who are at unusually high risk of suffering from COVID, let them take steps to protect them and let the rest of us go about our business. This is the focused protection point.
Russ Roberts: But, I think it's especially important when we think about vaccination and the vaccination of children, especially as we get to younger and younger ages. A lot of people have said, 'We need to start vaccinating all the children.'
The children--of course, there are side effects of vaccination. I think they're quite small. I want to be clear about that. That's not, again, irrelevant, but it's quite small.
But, the real argument is: When we put restrictions of various kinds on young people on the grounds that they could interact with older people, that's the real argument. Most people concede, as you have pointed out, that the risk to younger people is quite small. But, the externality is what's relevant. They'll then say, 'They might go out and associate with an older person.' And the older person, unknowing, because of the asymptomatic, say, nature of the disease that the young person has, they'll pass COVID on.
The real question then is: Should the older person have the right to mandate X? X could be a vaccine. It could be a lockdown. For their freedom to be able to go outside.
The great insight of Coase is that, those two sides are really hard to judge, even forget his--his main point is you do the one that's cheapest.
But, there's also an ethical point there that I think is often lost. People often criticize Coase on ethical grounds saying, 'Well, he treats everything like it's a cost-benefit analysis.'
But, I think there's a deeper point here, which is that: if we say to young people, 'You don't have right to be free because you might put older people at risk,' you are essentially empowering older people to say, 'I have decided you cannot enjoy life because I'm at risk. And, I don't want to bear the cost of having to stay inside. I want to be free to go out.'
And it's really kind of hard to argue ethically which one of those is better.
There are other costs, though, you'd want to bring into the question. But, I think most people just kind of go, 'Well, the younger person is putting the older person at risk.'
There's an inexpensive way most of the time for the older person to reduce that risk. And that's, tragically, unfortunately, this, we'll all just have to stay home.
Instead, we've told the young people to stay home. I don't see that as a great moral achievement. I think the invoking of externalities there is a misunderstanding of the ethical situation.
Don Boudreaux: So, everyone knows--I don't think it's doubted--that teenagers, particularly teenage men, teenage boys of 16, 17, 18, 19, they are much more dangerous drivers than are older people. So, whenever a teenage male gets on the road, there is an increased risk of death or injury to everyone else on the road. So, do we say, 'Teenage boys, you can't drive.' I mean, that would in fact reduce the risk. It is a fact that when teenage boys get on the road--
Russ Roberts: you'd save lives.
Don Boudreaux: It saves lives. But, we [crosstalk 01:06:13]--
Russ Roberts: If they don't go. If we stopped them.
Don Boudreaux: We don't do that, because we recognize sort of, if you are especially fearful of being killed by a teenager on the road, don't drive. You have that freedom.
But, you know, Russ--you and I are both in our 1960s--we know this about teenagers. I drive all the time knowing in the back of my head, that whenever I get into an automobile, my chances of being horribly killed go up slightly. You know that, too.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's also the case of course that it's a U-shaped curve.
Don Boudreaux: Well, yes.
Russ Roberts: As you get older, we're both heading toward that territory where--
Don Boudreaux: Not there yet, but well you--
Russ Roberts: But, we're both heading towards the territory. I want to just say for the record, Don is recording this with very little sleep. So, don't get behind the wheel of a car, Don. I don't mandate it tonight, but I would request it as your friend.
Don Boudreaux: I have to drive to Arlington to teach later on, but I'm going to take a nap. I'm going to take a nap.
And so, I think the point here is: Merely pointing out that person A's actions has a potential negative impact on person B is not sufficient to--
Russ Roberts: It's not a proof--
Don Boudreaux: classify that as a negative externality that requires government intervention.
Particularly when--particularly when--each individual party or the party negatively impacted has a great deal of scope to protect himself or herself against the matter.
You know, I don't want to talk about global warming, but that's sort of the ultimate global phenomenon. Very few of us have the--in some sense, we can buy better air conditioners or something, I suppose. But, in the case of COVID, because we know, if I'm 85 and I have diabetes or some other ailment, I'm still going to wear a mask if I'm going outside. I'm going to stay away from public gatherings. But, I am not, if I'm that age--and I really believe this--I am not going to demand that other people restrict their lives in the way that I restrict my life just on the grounds that by them staying at home, that adds a further minuscule reduction to the risk that I undertake, or that I am subjected to.
Russ Roberts: I just want to add, I have no problem with a society that views its elderly with reverence and thinks that--
Russ Roberts: people who are 75 or 80, or even 66, hypothetically, that their lives might be worth more than we might think, even though their remaining life spans might be short. And we might choose--not as a society; that doesn't have any meaning--but we might choose as individuals to behave in a certain way out of respect for the elderly.
But, to ensconce that as government policy, doesn't automatically follow, I would argue. But,--
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. And what happened with COVID is, it is almost as if the goal was to, that adding a few months or years to the lives of very old people was worth whatever costs the rest of society had to bear in order to do that.
I think that was a horrible mistake. I believe that if human beings remain rational, that history will look back upon the past two years as probably the single greatest self-inflicted damage to humanity short of shooting wars.
Russ Roberts: And while I just spoke a minute ago of the reverence we could have for the elderly, I think most of us, especially the way we feel, those of us who have children, I have plenty of reverence for my children. I do not want them to have restricted lives in order to make my life better. I find that rather appalling, actually.
Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I fully agree.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Don Boudreaux. Don, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Don Boudreaux: Thanks, Russ.