Emily Oster on the Pandemic
Nov 30 2020

COVID-classroom-300x200.jpg Economist and author Emily Oster of Brown University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the challenge of reopening schools in a pandemic. Oster has been collecting data from K-12 schools around the country. Her preliminary analysis finds little evidence that schools are super-spreaders of COVID. She argues that closing schools comes at a high cost for the students with little benefit in reducing the spread of the disease. The conversation ends with a discussion of parenting.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Nov 30 2020 at 10:18am

Great conversation.

One thought:  the increase of cases in the fall may be entirely due to college.  Further, many colleges were requiring and even incentivizing testing (giving gift cards, for example).  (@EthicalSkeptic on twitter has done some work on analyzing… seems plausible).

You and Prof. Oster both expressed surprise at college numbers/cases increasing… but it seems to me, that cases increase when there is more testing… and colleges seem to be testing at a much higher rate than K-12 schools.

Just a thought.

Alan Goldhammer
Nov 30 2020 at 12:16pm

You and Prof. Oster both expressed surprise at college numbers/cases increasing… but it seems to me, that cases increase when there is more testing… and colleges seem to be testing at a much higher rate than K-12 schools.

A lot has already been published on this and it’s pretty clear that the younger the infected person is, the more asymptomatic is the illness. It has nothing to do with testing which is always a trap for the unwary to comment on. Irrespective of testing, someone is either infected or they are not. Universities are testing because it is the only way the can stay open and manage outbreaks as they occur.

Oster’s data set is largely self reporting and incomplete. I’m one of those who thinks that primary grade schools should be kept open but that efforts have to be made at infection control. Teachers are not young kids and may be at risk from infection from an asymptomatic student. We have ample evidence to say that masks work and using universal mask requirements in schools is critical.

Agnes Brande
Dec 1 2020 at 2:59pm

In Norway, we have had schools open this fall at a “yellow level” (meaning not mixing groups, and a lot of hand washing, but no masks), and the result is that teachers are LESS likely to get Covid19 than the average employed population. We have seen a massive increase in cases amongst youngsters through the fall, though, mostly from gathering outside school and from home, and it causes a lot of work, quarantining, testing, tracing, etc., and due to this we increased to “red” in some areas in November, meaning that we have increased the distance between students. Practically, that means that most schools have to combine remote and in place tutoring. Approximately half ‘n half for my 3 teenagers. But it was the last resort – the golden rule after the summer has been that restrictions on kids and school should be avoided.

Nov 30 2020 at 10:25am

Replying to my own comment… i should not have said that the increase may have been “entirely” due to collages.  But my understanding is that during September and October the hotspots were correlated highly with colleges.



Todd Kreider
Nov 30 2020 at 8:30pm

Universities and states in general  have been using PCR testing with cycles way above 30 cycles when even Fauci has said PCR positives are meaningless above 35 cycles. The U of Wisconsin and Virginia have been testing at 40 cycles with Wisconsin not surprisingly finding 10% of their students “positive” in late summer with just RNA remnants that were impossible to transmit since not a virus. I was surprised neither Ostern nor Roberts understood this since reported in the NY Times in summer.


Nov 30 2020 at 11:15am

Emily is wonderful and has acted heroically during this thing to collect, interpret and rationally present the data we have available. I also love, when asked what she learned, she responded with “close to nothing.” I find humility, especially in academics, seemingly rare these days, and any honest person would say that we still know very little at this point.  Thank you for having her on.

To the College vs. High School spreading: my first thought was, yes, high schoolers may have parties with beer when their parents are away, but parents are not away anymore.  College kids generally live on their own and have opportunities to have parties.  It seems to me that High School kids would have much less autonomy and opportunity to have indoor parties due to changes in working and travel.  Difficult story to verify though.

Nov 30 2020 at 11:22am

A bit of context: I am listening from Germany and the school topic is a controversial topic here at the moment. The study cited is pretty much inconclusive and can be interpreted either way. Scientific consensus seems to be that transmission at school is no different than transmission at e.g. the work place if you compare a meeting room with 30 participants and a classroom with 30 kids.

Of course, comparing countries is difficult — currently we have freezing temperatures here while schools have mostly no HVAC systems (air circulation is by manually opening windows…), class sizes are different, kids come to school via public transportation more etc.

We went into a (partial) lockdown while leaving schools open and the lockdown isn’t doing as much as hoped while there are more and more outbreaks among schools with no clear plan w.r.t. what schools should do if there is an outbreak.

Ignoring that schools play a role in virus transmission is not a good position to take. Now there is no plan on how to handle those outbreaks and politicians who took this position look like liars, further feeding into COVID denialism.

I would appreciate an honest discussion acknowledging the trade-offs. Societies can trade-off closing stuff like restaurants, fitness studios, wedding parties, Christmas/New Years parties etc. vs. schools, while taking into account that leaving schools open is going to kill some people and that it is worth it. This does not need to be justified via flawed data caused by children being asymptomatic or western societies not being able to contact-trace stuff like public transportation.

krishnan chittur
Nov 30 2020 at 11:50am

Emily Oster mentioning how she gets hate mail for her analysis seems typical (sorry to have to say).  Watching events unfold since March 2020, I have seen that anyone who dares offer opinions OR analysis that goes against “the virus will kill us all, we are all going to die” and the alarmist projections we heard from ICL/London and other places are considered outcasts and abused and harassed – in many cases “cancelled” on many of the social media.  The vehemence with which dissenting opinions/analysis are dealt with is frightening – it is almost as if good news is not to be spoken or written about even if true.  A recent NBER working paper https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w28110/w28110.pdf reminds us of how uniformly negative the US media have been (unlike some non US media).  Science and the scientific process works best when there is vigorous discussion openly – with challenges about analysis or data or conclusions – and not when people are forced into hiding OR otherwise not allowed to express their ideas, opinions.  What Emily Oster is offering is analysis that suggests that opening schools is not without non-zero risk – but then again nothing is – and that there is no evidence (so far) that schools are the origins of infection to the community.  The narrative that seems to have cemented into some public policies is indeed causing more harm than is warranted by the data.  Evidence is accumulating that people with minimal resources are the ones that are taking the brunt of public policies – and very few seem to be paying attention to them – even as we watch instances when those who create the public policies openly flout them.  I can only hope we wake up from this human caused nightmare that has worsened the damage inflicted by the virus called SarsCov2 that causes covid in some people.

Joseph Coco
Nov 30 2020 at 1:42pm

Russ Roberts: “…six feet, by the way, is a fake magic number…”

I think that’s not entirely true. Between December to maybe Mayish scientific literature was suggesting SARS-CoV-2 was droplet-based spread (similar to the influenza virus). Studies have shown that oral droplets from sneezing / coughing / speaking / yelling can travel 3-6 feet from the source. Thus, 6 feet is safe.

Now everyone seems to have settled on the virus being airborne, which means the viral particles can be suspended in vapor which leaves one’s mouth simply from breathing. I’m not familiar with any dispersion literature on aerosolized particles, but I suspect the guidelines simply weren’t updated after this airborne spread discovery.

I liked the episode. It was very informative, though I can’t say this particular one taught me to think differently 🙂

Nov 30 2020 at 7:00pm

I saw three children in a row last Friday for suicidal thinking in the context of lockdown school, consistent with CDC data that rates of suicidal thinking in young people have doubled in the last year,

Biological insanity.

Solve for equilibrium. Replacement rate fertility, less than 2.1 (currently 1.7?) and an increasingly elderly population with age related decline in IL-1 regulation which will ultimately kill them all from miscellaneous viral infection as they age even if we cured dementia, cancer, and Alzheimers.. In the US, only a small amount of people die from COVID alone….the vast majority are are elderly and with comorbid conditions that would have killed them decades ago. In life years, the amount of babies not being born is a tragedy beyond forgiveness, especially since the young people will have to pay off the debt to keep grandma and grandpa alive for an extra year or two.

Experienced physicians understand they can’t save everyone at a reasonable cost and risk. Economics is not the only dismal profession! So called public health experts unfortunately are hopelessly lost in the world of public choice. Their incentive is to control rather than be honest about the limited tools in their toolbox.   I doubt any of them  has had to tell a patient or family face to face that their condition was terminal…..

For a more positive perspective, check out the Joan Mannick interview on the Drive YouTube channel. She discusses the mechanisms of COVID susceptibility with age and offers solutions that we could be working on now if our conferences weren’t shut down because of the hysteria.




Nov 30 2020 at 7:43pm

It was a good episode, and with two high school students very interested in the topic. I think the most important point Prof. Oster made is that we have not prioritized schools. I think that’s an important distinction.

There is an suggestion throughout the episode that the primary reason schools aren’t open is that we are evaluating risk incorrectly and so opening restaurants before schools.

I don’t think folks are far off on risks. I think they are far off on priorities, due to the costs and revenue to local governments. Local governments have to balance revenues. Bars and restaurants bring revenunue in. Implementing risk mitigation in schools costs money.

You can see this directly in San Francisco. Profs Oster and Roberts suggest that the reason private schools have opened and public schools have not is due to irrational fear. This is not true.

Schools are allowed to open. Parents want them open. Teachers want to teach in person if they are safe. This is true for private and public schools.

Private schools have opened first, not because they are smarter in assessing risks, because (1) they the resources needed to mitigage risk and (2) mitigating risk is much easier in private schools, which are much smaller overall and have much smaller classes than public schools.

The public school mitigations are not as extensive as the private school mitigations. If we want public schools to act like private schools, they need the resources to do so. We gave the shareholders of airlines a $25 billion bailout. We gave ALL schools, private and public, $13.5 billion in mitigation funds. Why on earth are we prioritizing airline shareholders over schools?

Dec 1 2020 at 10:16am

I’ve read in a few places that there is no randomized controlled (keyword) study that has shown the effectiveness of wearing masks (controlled meaning factoring out other measures such as social distancing, washing hands, etc.).

Is this true, or current? Have there been studies that have shown their effectiveness?

Dec 1 2020 at 12:14pm

Another great podcast, thank you to both Dr. Oster and Dr. Roberts.

My big takeaway from this discussion was how we value education relative to other things in life.  Given the science on the risks, it appears that holding school is a relatively low-risk activity as compared to other events (e.g., bars, churches, social gatherings, etc.)  The decisions to hold or not hold school seem to rely on risk presented to the adults rather than the children.  Ironically though, the children are used to make the argument for not holding in-person instruction.  This seems to be contrary to the current mantra of “follow the science.”

I understand the fear of older staff in holding in-person classes, however, very few people discuss the impact of poor online instruction on the long-term development of children.  There are many benefits to the group exercise of in-person instruction.  Students learn group norms, socially appropriate behavior, competition, etc.  Take those away and the overall development of children is greatly diminished.

Additionally, Dr. Oster hits a major issue directly with her comments on schools and childcare.  Parents employed in retail and service industries don’t have the luxury of working from home and hiring people to watch their children.  They rely on schools to be able to participate in the economy.   When you decide not to follow the science and suspend in-person instruction, you are impacting the entire family.


Dec 1 2020 at 12:21pm

Great discussion!

You ask why teachers do not feel that they are “essential” workers like those in the medical profession.  In recent years, many school districts have been utilizing online education programs, which the students use independently while both students and teachers are in the classroom.  The tech industry has been telling us that these technologies enable even better education than when taught directly by the teacher.  I don’t agree with their arguments, but this is not the place to discuss them. Can you blame the teachers for now asking to teach using technology to reduce the risk to themselves and their families?

In fact, many of the medical professionals do not want to see patients right now and are implementing tele-medicine.   They see the pandemic as an opportunity to promote its acceptance.

Dec 1 2020 at 2:43pm

Thank you for both an informative, polite, fact based and balanced discussion. So rare in the news from your country these days! I just wanted to both correct and also fill in on your observations on the Nordics. I live in Norway, and was hoping as much as anyone that Sweden’s approach, though deadly, would result in some herd immunity and a slower “second wave”. Particularly in Stockholm, where they got the strongest hit in “wave 1”, I really thought they would have some protection. After all, 6000 people had died, many of them without even being seen to by a doctor. Because one believed in herd immunity.

Instead, Sweden is now seeing the worst Wave 2 of all the Scandinavian countries, and in November,  some 1 in 5 of the tested people in Stockholm were testing positive, indicating that there is no herd immunity in place. In Norway, the number is 1 in 40.

Interestingly, their restrictions are currently not very different than Norway’s, and the economy is hit just as bad (down 4% in both countries, I believe). But they started later, slower and weaker, and because they never really got things under control, they do not have the capacity to test and trace that we have in Norway. Norway’s approach was somewhat harsher and broader (not at all targeted) in the beginning. We closed schools for about a months, and opened again only partly until summer; all large gatherings, theaters, gyms, etc, were closed for some time, but shops and restaurants mostly remained open; people met each other, but outdoors.

But by summer we had hardly any cases, and celebrated a “summer of freedom”, until work immigration (which our economy depends on) started and started our second wave. This time, however, we have kept schools open, based on the facts and analysis that show, as you say, that schools are not arenas for Covid19-spread. The measures in place in society have been mostly fact based, targeted, and varies by region, depending on situation. Cities and counties pull levers such as forbidding gatherings over a certain number of people, masks for indoor spaces and public transport, mandating home office, restricting the serving of alcohol in restaurants and bars, quarantining and testing people from abroad before they are allowed into work, etc. Some areas have a lot of restrictions, some don’t need to.

A guiding principle after the summer has been to shield children from the measures as much as possible: Keeping schools open (on “yellow alert”, meaning some restrictions on e.g. mixing between groups, sanitizing, etc. but no masks) and also most sport activities and so on., Unfortunately, “extracurricular activities” (partying and gatherings) caused a lot of spread among young people in some areas, and although not problematic in itself (they don’t get sick, and they don’t infect their teachers), each case cause a lot of disturbance (sending a whole class home, starting home schooling for a week, testing and tracing – these young people meet a LOT of people, so one infection could lead to 200 more that needed to be quarantined), and in November it was decided to raise the alert level for high schools in affected areas (mainly big city areas) to “red”. The schools solve this in different ways: My 3 youngsters have 1) every second week in school, 2) 2-3 days a week in school, and 3) half days. The rest of the time is done remotely. Now the numbers are going down again, and we believe the kids will be back in school full time after Christmas.

Ah, this was a long essay, but short version: Norway has chosen a fact based and targeted approach to restrictions, invested massively in testing and tracing, and we have prioritized keeping kids in schools.  I think you would approve. 🙂 It is a horrific time for many businesses, especially restaurants, events, travel, and culture. But kids are in schools. And the economy is no worse off than Sweden.

If you want to compare the numbers between the countries, this page should be easy to understand, even if it is in Norwegian: https://www.vg.no/spesial/2020/corona/norden/ As you can see: Sweden’s second wave is not looking good at all. Their test capacity is maxed out, so the number of cases tells you very little, but hospitalization rate is interesting and scary. Keep in mind that their policy has been to not send people in nursing homes to hospital, and providing them with very little treatments, so you don’t really see them in the numbers until they die. About 2700 of the 6500 mortalities have been in nursing homes.

Oh, and one more thing on politics: I think you are spot on about how the polarized debated is a enormous part of the problem for USA, and on this particular issue I think both sides are to blame. I have never been more grateful to live in a country with a mostly civilized debate across party lines! There are disagreements on policies, and we even have the anti-restriction protests, but mostly, it has been a very constructive and cooperative atmosphere, and very much “let us roll our sleeves up and get to work on this, together!”.

And on unions: We have strong teachers’ unions in Norway, but again, our tradition on employer/employee organization and negotiation is a cooperative and constructive one. So teachers voice their concerns, as is their right, but have pulled up their sleeves and gone to work. Working their behinds off, I must say. Hats off to them!

Thanks again, I appreciate your podcast!



Dec 5 2020 at 7:20am

I want to emphasise this point. Sweden have had harsher restrictions by the government in place than the other Nordic countries for most of the year.

Sweden was slower to restrict travelling by foreigners than Finland (where I come from). Although, it is mostly about communications. Finnish citizens have a fundamental right to leave and return to their country, whenever they want to. So there are no policies in place to stop the overwhelming majority of people to travell. Of course most people are reasonable and follow recommendations not to travel unecessary.

I think communication is the biggest difference between Sweden and Finland. As an example both of our countries have a state broadcaster that reach out to most people in the country. Finland’s communication was extremely cautious while in Sweden they e.g. had a person prediciting them having “herd immunity in Stockholm by the end of May” several time on the prime news.

Sweden also did not take testing and tracing seriously and the virus was spread into society such that most cases were not traceable. Also, any tracing they do to my knowledge is basically up to the individual to tell other people they have been in contact with. In Finland, we have a system in place that puts this task up to the health care system.

Sweden ran out of basic equipment as masks in elderly care. Finland never had these kind of shortages.

Sweden also have a very interesting system where the government did not take any actions until recently. Instead they have unelected bureaucrats that have been in charge. That is opposed to Finland where the government is much more in charge of the corona strategy

That said, cases are rising rapidly in Helsinki now, so it is possible we might do worse in the future. Although we are still doing at least 10 times better than Sweden.


Anyway, these were just a few factors of many more. I wanted to continue the discussion because the anglosphere media often just talk about lockdown vs no lockdowns. That is hevaily misleading when comparing the Nordic countries because most of us never really had any real lock down and Sweden have overall not been more open.

Agnes Brande
Dec 16 2020 at 5:15am

Thank you, Atte, for your comments on Finland! I don’t know Finland well enough (language barriers, and also I don’t work with anyone there, while talking to Danes and Swedes on a daily basis). But I can see from the Nordic comparison numbers that you have been following Norway in numbers until the last few weeks.

What has Finland done with schools? You have the best educational system in the world, after all, so I am sure you have made it a priority! 🙂 We have kept them partly open or fully open (after the first month of full lock-down in March/April). It is very tailored, so my kids (in hotspot Oslo) har approx 50% of the time in school and 50% at home, while my nieces and nephews elsewhere are on “yellow”, meaning they follow some guidelines that limit large groupings, etc. (but no masks in any schools), and are full time in school. What about restaurants and shops, etc.? Quarantining? Here, you are required to quarantine on a range of criteria, such as close contact with infected people (hospital tracing team will track & tell you), or arriving from abroad. Breaking quarantine rules will be fined, which just happened to our new football national team coach arriving from abroad! He went to see a game (allowed), while in quarantine (not allowed) and was fined 20 000 NOK ($2000).

It makes keeping schools open quite a struggle, because as soon as you have one infected pupil in a class, the rest are quarantined for 10 days, must get tested, etc. Before going to 50% schooling now mid-fall, this was getting very messy, and I am glad I was not responsible for the spreadsheet trying to keep all of that in order…

Shops have been open the whole time. Restaurants in some areas, in some periods, have not been allowed to serve alcohol. (Turns out that people’s good behaviour deteriorates quickly when drinking…)



Dec 21 2020 at 2:43am

Hi, Agnes! Good to hear your kids can go to school.

Quite similar policy for schools here. We first closed down practically all education. Later reopened schools at end of spring term for a short period.

During the fall term they have been mostly open. Works quite well in small towns with temporary closures after a case is found. Our capital region is doing worse, probably mostly due to congestion. Over time we have switched over to a model that relies more on local decision making according to the local conditions.

Mask are used in schools and each student get a few per day for free. Although, I think we were quite late on taking them widely in usage. During the spring practically no one used them in supermarkets, now the % is quite high I would say. Interestingly to note is that Sweden just started recommending masks last week, and only for rush hours in public transportation. Another way Nordic policy seems to differ.

Schools are an interesting case from a policy point of view as practically all schools are run by the government here. So it is not only a policy question but a question of governance.

Businesses have few restrictions. One exception is that bars have had regulated opening hours. Public institutions as libraries, public swimming pools and so one have recently been closed temporarily. Again more of a governance question due to state ownership.

Although I forgot to mention one very large policy decision that was made during the early stages that is quite an outliner. We practically disallowed all unecessary travell between the capital and other regions when the outbreak started. Currently, it sounds like we have roughly the same system for quarantine. Although, I have no idea if there a fines and if so how much that could cost you.

Take care!

Agnes Brande
Dec 1 2020 at 3:16pm

My comment, long as a book, disappeared, but I still want to correct you on Sweden:

They have a second wave worse than any of the other Scandinavian countries. WAY worse. And their economy has been hit exactly the same as for example Norway. But with a 10 times higher death rate.

Norway now; Schools open (with restrictions, no masks), shops open, restaurants open, some areas have restrictions on alcohol in restaurants, restrictions on gatherings. 300 fatalities. Sweden: Schools open, slower, but similar restrictions: 6700 deaths.


John Alcorn
Dec 1 2020 at 7:37pm

Around minute 41, Russ mentions two major problems besetting efforts to drive pandemic prevalence to zero by strict lockdown in a polity. 1) There are massive trade-offs with other aspects of well-being. 2) And suppression doesn’t achieve eradication; cases arise anew after lockdown.

However, Australia and New Zealand have a distinctive strategy that presents a different ethical issue. Their strategy, it seems, has been to suppress the pandemic to zero, and to hold it at zero through their summer (US winter), until a vaccine will arrive. And they might succeed. A special ethical issue arises because substantial prevalence of cases of COVID-19 is a necessary condition for vaccine testing. If prevalence is zero, then there isn’t a meaningful control group for benchmarking a vaccine’s efficacy. Therefore, Australia and New Zealand have a strategy of free-riding on substantial pandemic prevalence elsewhere. Indefinite lockdown everywhere would be impossible, but suppression for a year in a polity with closed borders (or systematic international quarantine), whilst other countries have the mix of pandemic burn and vaccine testing, is feasible.

What are the ethics of free-riding in this context?

Sky Price Warrior
Dec 3 2020 at 7:14pm

I tutor as a side job, and even before the pandemic, I noticed a lot of schools doing things like having Khan Academy replace math classes and in general there is a push to do things virtually. The pandemic has of course accelerated that.

Its like instead of actually providing homework assignments, the teacher would just say watch these videos and take these online pre-written quizzes in Khan academy or some other software.


I use Khan Academy, it’s an excellent service. But it shouldn’t replace an education right? Like what is going on? Even online you should offer actual services. Its just really frustrating. Why is everyone paying so much just for the school to turn around and say, just consume free content done. This isn’t everyone or even most, but enough to do real damage, and I worry it isnt going to be just a pandemic thing.

I believe those who were pushing MOOCs and programs like that were wrong, that there is value to in-person structured education. But if they are right, why is so much being spent on stuff you can do for free? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Excellent podcast. The frustration of everyone participating in it was very visible and understandable.

Dec 5 2020 at 10:07am

I agree with your comments, except for the comments about MOOCs.  I think these are wonderful for the right audience at the right time.  They are not a substitute for traditional education, but do offer an opportunity for individual enrichment, and for life-long learners.   These are not likely to have been the targets for the creators of MOOCs but the MOOCs serve this audience meaningfully.

I have personally taken numerous MOOCs, learned much, and enjoyed them.

Diana Weatherby
Dec 5 2020 at 2:35am

I have been wishing schools would open in our city. It would keep kids busy in a controlled environment anyway.  Kids will get together anyway and most parents understand the emotional and mental benefits of social interaction and won’t stop them.
It is fascinating to me though that the discussion has turned to saving elderly lives versus other costs. Maybe it is because I live in a strange far away land, Alaska, but I have found most policy to be about keeping our health care system from collapsing, not saving Granny’s life. It doesn’t matter if you are a 20  year old  who needs surgery or a five year old hit by a car, if you need the hospital, it’s nice to have it available and not bursting at the seams and turning people away. It doesn’t make any sense to base public policy on keeping individuals alive. It does make sense though that we all benefit from a functioning health care system. Which is why the true externality of a careless neighbor who may be sharing viral matter with thirty people is that there is a reduction in hospital capacity as the numbers go up and not really that they will give me Covid.
It would make a lot more sense to use this time to lobby and push for increasing health care capacity.  Many young people are ready and willing to head to medical and nursing school and can’t get in. Not because they don’t have good grades but because there aren’t enough slots to go around. CON laws restrict competition too. The truth is, health care has a very choked supply, often including monopolies, and we wonder why health care costs so much.  Really, I feel that we are missing a good opportunity here to push for a less restricted supply of health care but instead we started talking about individual risk (hello that’s part of being alive) instead of community risk.  It is highly unlikely I will die from Covid but it is almost a given that hospitals will be over run.

Pat Kirby
Dec 5 2020 at 1:27pm

It will be interesting to see data on educational outcomes with remote learning. Industry has been moving in that direction in adult populations already. K-12 remote learning was happening already in some school districts pre-pandemic, but the pandemic threw it into high gear, ready or not.

The perspective Russ provided about a lost year of education doesn’t fit my personal experience at all. I have two kids in CA public schools (Middle school and High school). The school district made dramatic improvements to remote learning over the summer. My kids are studying significantly more. Grades are up. It is surely due to less time with friends. Given grades are nearly the only measurement we make of students, the pandemic has provided measurable academic boost for my kids.

I can imagine where that may not be true with younger kids. Its also worth noting that good grades aren’t everything. Nevertheless, like remote shopping, remote learning is not all bad and surely going to have a much bigger role in our future.

Dec 12 2020 at 12:05pm

The assumption made in the beginning of this podcast is that if students can’t go to school then they will suffer a loss of one year/month of learning. This is a common misconception about what teaching and learning is about. Perhaps it comes from a notion of the student as a vessel that is filled with knowledge from the teacher. Or that it is only valid and worthy if the teacher has said it. These antiquated ideas about education are what holding schools back. As John Hattie, a prominent professor and researcher in education, has noted, distance education and home learning due to the pandemic will do very little harm and may actually be beneficial. As a result of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, students actually improved their results despite not being able to go to school for months. They changed their focus and the way they learnt, in the same way you are talking about. The same will be true here.

Adam S
Dec 5 2020 at 11:29pm

Good conversation. Two critiques:

1) I can’t understand the Libertarian viewing of how to handle a pandemic. As Russ frequently mentions, the experts aren’t as expert as we think, and the data is often misleading. So as a libertarian with a young family, I decide the science on mask wearing is inconclusive, I consider it an inconvenience, and even if my family becomes ill, we’re all young and healthy enough to make it through with minimal effect.

Meanwhile, I have the possibility of infecting and killing someone riding the same elevator as me, even if they take extreme precautions. Is this a worthwhile trade, in the name of liberty? The elderly neighbor who gets infected because of my negligence has no say in whether they prefer a liberal approach or a conservative one. I strongly subscribe to libertarian values, but when the negative externalities are as strong as they are during Covid, I am completely supportive of certain mandates to mitigate these possibilities, even if they are remote. Russ, how do you square this circle? People are more selfish than I think you realize, and since it’s nearly impossible to prove I infected my neighbor, the potential for social stigma is nearly non-existent.

2) I think it’s disingenuous to treat the education discussion as “no school” vs “in-school”. There are plenty who genuinely believe remote schooling is effective, and I think it’s a worthy debate as to whether it’s true. Plenty on the left (see Cuomo vs de Blasio) debate the level at which in person or remote schooling should take place. I am less familiar with the right’s arguments, but I’m almost certain it’s not exclusively “stuff kids into crowded rooms with no mitigation strategy”. I know you are chomping at the bit to go after teachers’ unions, but I think a more worthwhile question is to ask whether remote learning is effective, whether teachers genuinely believe they are at risk, and then to look at the numbers as to whether the teacher beliefs are justified. Perhaps what’s happening is a simple lack of information, rather than a concerted union plot to protect teachers from a non-threat.

Dec 12 2020 at 1:02pm

I agree with you completely regarding point 1).
Anecdotally, the cases of COVID in my community seem to be predominantly from situations that I would call negligent. People going to social functions or bars and getting the virus and then spreading it. Luckily, here, these cases are caught by testing and the children of these people (and all of their classmates) are sent into quarantine.
In regard to 2), I find it interesting that the previously discussed ideas relating to probability and pandemics, as I understood them, from Taleb, are not being applied here. We know very little about the virus and should take a precautious approach. As you said, it is not just a choice of no school or in school. There is an alternative, in-between approach, with social interaction and learning that keeps the numbers low and stops the medical system from becoming overburdened.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: October 23rd, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is October 23rd, 2020, and my guest is economist Emily Oster of Brown University. This is Emily's fourth appearance on EconTalk. Her last time here was April of 2019 to talk about her most recent book, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Parenting. Today, we're going to talk about work that she has been doing on the pandemic, particularly what we've learned about the vulnerability of school children, and if we have time, we'll also revisit some of Emily's work on pregnancy and parenting. Emily, welcome back to EconTalk.

Emily Oster: Thank you for having me. I always like to get to chat with you.


Russ Roberts: So, describe the nature of the data that you've been gathering, where it's coming from and what you've learned so far.

Emily Oster: Yeah, so we've been gathering data on schools and the approach that we're taking is to basically start with schools and school districts. We would like to do some sort of--the ultimate goal is to do some tracking of COVID cases in schools, and how outbreaks or cases are affected by mitigation practices.

But, we realized to do that, we kind of needed to understand what the situation is at the school first. So, what we do is we go out to districts or individual schools. We ask them to enroll and give us a bunch of information on how many kids they have in person, are they opening in person, and how many staff do they have? And then, are they masking and distancing at various distances? Then, once we get that, then we come back to them every other week and ask them how many COVID cases they have.

And the data then goes into a public dashboard, which is identified not at the school or district level, but at broader geographic levels, with the idea that people can you look at it, get a general sense of what's going on, get a sense of kind of filtering a little bit by the things people are doing, looking at different age groups. As we get more data, I hope we'll be able to say some more things about what looks like it's working, what are the details of the relationship between the community spread and the school spread. But, that's the basic structure of this data project.

Russ Roberts: And, you say, 'we.' Who's we?

Emily Oster: So, 'we' is me, and then also a team from Qualtrics, which is a technology data survey company and a bunch of school-related people. So, in particular, the Association of School Superintendents, the national one, and then we've gotten help from a bunch of the state associations, the National Association of Principals, elementary and secondary principals--that's two different groups; and then a bunch of private school associations. Basically a bunch of people who have school affiliations, plus the kind of Qualtrics data side.

Russ Roberts: And is this a for-profit venture?

Emily Oster: No. Oh, my goodness. It is not a for-profit venture, no. This is like basically entirely, at the moment, basically almost entirely volunteer effort that has some funding now from Chan Zuckerberg and a few other foundations--Templeton, something called Silver Giving. So, we've gotten a little bit of foundation funding, but it is largely run in a volunteer way.

Russ Roberts: How many schools, districts, students are you capturing right now?

Emily Oster: In the most recent poll of the--in the sort of most recent two-week period that we're looking at, there are about 1300 schools, about 700,000 in total enrolled students, of whom about 280,000 are in-person, about 80,000 in-person staff. So, it's still relatively small, I think, given that like there are 56 million kids in school.

We do have reasonably good geographic coverage in the sense we do have some data from every state. And I think we will, in the next period have much more because states have started doing a better job doing report-outs of some of this information on their own, and we can probably pull that in; and that will increase our sample quite a lot.

Russ Roberts: So, I have no children in K-12 anymore. Our friends who have children in K-12, typically when I ask them, 'How are your kids doing?' They say, 'Oh, they spend 45 minutes a week in face-to-face and then they're not allowed to learn anything.' They're just doing--I don't know what they're doing--and they have to alternate. There's all this crazy stuff going on. How many kids did you say in this? 780,000?

Emily Oster: Yeah, something like 750,000, I think in this [crosstalk 00:05:05].

Russ Roberts: And, 280,000 you said were in-person.

Emily Oster: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Are they in-person 24/7? I mean, not 24-7, but every day?

Emily Oster: I wish. Unfortunately, [crosstalk 00:05:13] people[?] don't offer that.

Russ Roberts: They'd be so smart. Oh, my gosh.

Emily Oster: I know, right?

Russ Roberts: So, when you say they're in-person, are they in-person some time during the week or full-time?

Emily Oster: It varies. In our data about a quarter--so, those numbers are estimated in--that number, 280,000, is like estimated in-person daily attendance. That's actually understating the number of kids who are in-person, because if the school is, like, a hybrid--two people are there half the time--that gets registered as like half the kids.

So, actually, we're seeing, in the data, I think about a quarter of the schools are just fully remote. About a quarter of them are full-time in person for everybody, and the other 50% are some hybrid in which some kids are there at different times.

Russ Roberts: And is that sample going to expand or is this kind of it?

Emily Oster: No, I think the sample will expand. I mean, I think the next big kind of push on this is to try to get states to sort of more broadly partner with us to do this. So, some states are doing quite good report-out. Other states are doing less good report-out. We are planning to work in something where districts that are enrolled can have basically their own district-specific dashboard, which would be private to them, where they could see what's going on with their schools and see some benchmarks. We're kind of hoping to fold that kind of service into this, in the sense that then we'll help places, and then encourage them to be part of it. So, we're trying to grow.

Russ Roberts: And, when did it start--before we get into it? We're about to get into the interesting stuff, folks, listening at home; but I'm going to get these preliminaries otherwise, so we know what we're dealing with. When did it start?

Emily Oster: August.

Russ Roberts: August.

Emily Oster: Basically we started doing this in August and we posted the first kind of round of data which covers basically the first two weeks of September, posted it towards the end of September. And then we've done sort of these biweekly polls. We're about to start--next week we'll pull the fourth round of biweekly data.


Russ Roberts: And, what have you found? So far?

Emily Oster: I think what we found--and, there's sort of a few things to highlight. The first thing, the kind of headline thing, is that we've talked about is that the risks seem to be relatively low. At least in the places that we're seeing, it's about--we're seeing, in this most recent period, about 1.5 cases per a thousand kids per two week period. About twice that in staff. So, higher rates in staff than in students.

That's actually, although our sample is fairly selected so I think it's a little tricky to sort of say, 'Okay, that's the number'--I mean, I would not say that's the number for everybody. It's actually pretty in line with a lot of other numbers that are kind of coming out in various ways. So, relatively limited risks, but more than that, risks that really are in line with what's going on in the community.

And that's probably the most salient feature is that what we're seeing sort of looks like they're spread--if they're spread in the community, you get cases in schools, but we aren't seeing a lot of what looks like big outbreaks in the schools.

And we are seeing these rates scale with the community. And that's true like--so for example, we have a bunch of schools in pretty high-prevalence areas where students are not in person and staff are, so the staff are coming in to work. I don't know why we have that. Actually, there's not a lot of reason to think that would be a great model from a public health standpoint, but at any rate, that's a model places have. In those places, we're seeing rates in staff that are very similar to the rates that we're seeing in places where the students are in-person.

Russ Roberts: So, the worry, when schools went back into session, was two-fold, I'd say maybe threefold: that students aren't going to be good at masks, they're not going to be good at social distance saying. Whether you have rules or not, they're going to get violated either in the classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria. And then staff members, particularly older staff members, will be at risk because they'll have encounters in various, even though they'll be doing their best to socially distance, they'll get in trouble--or parents will--because this gathering of students--and we get this word, this scary word, 'super-spreader.'

Emily Oster: Super-spreader.

Russ Roberts: Which sounds like super soaker to me--which sounds horrible. It's got saliva in it and it's yucky. But, you're not finding that so far.

Emily Oster: No, we're not seeing that so far. And I think that we're not seeing that in our data; we're not seeing the other data either.

I think this came up, this issue of like sort of schools as the origin of outbreaks was something people talked a lot about when the schools first started to open in August. There was this like, 'Okay, Georgia is going to open their high schools and this is going to be--like, the waves are going to follow this.' And we haven't really seen that.

We've seen it for colleges. So, I think, in part, it's not like we don't see that for any educational institutions. There are places where college is open and you can see that the rates in the area are just like skyrocketing as a result of what seems pretty clearly to be college reopenings, but we're just not seeing the same thing for kind of K-12 openings. And again, not in our data and not in other data, either.

Russ Roberts: Let's say you need a dummy variable for beer. There's not so much beer in K-12 as there is in college.

Emily Oster: So, it actually is--I mean, we can talk more about this thing exactly about our data--but there is this sort of interesting question of, like: If you think that the K-12 numbers in particular, the fact that high schools, although the high schools are higher risks than elementary schools, which is something we see very clearly in our data and [inaudible 00:10:57] too, that the elementary schools are particularly low risk; and the high schools are slightly higher risk, but they're not looking anything like the colleges. And I think that is a bit puzzling because my experience is that there are high school parties with beer, as well. The colleges, it may be some combination of the beer and the living together.

Russ Roberts: But, I think, presumably it's also just the biological nature of the virus that we don't fully understand that--people have suggested that, especially younger children--not high school, but K-6--just don't have the susceptibility to it and aren't spreading it, period. That's what has been suggested.

Emily Oster: Yeah. No, and I think that a lot of that is clearly going on for younger kids and for the elementary school kids, the sort of--and high school students are going to be on average a bit less risky than college students, if we think it's sort of scaling with age. But it's still--they're not that different in terms of age. So, I don't think--that's a bit of a puzzling aspect.

Russ Roberts: I think part of the reason people were afraid is that, early on, certain countries became symbolic of some hypothesis. So, Israel had a outbreak early on, and then they had a very serious lockdown where actually it's--I would use the word 'lockdown,' where you had to stay in your--

Emily Oster: Really locked, yes.

Russ Roberts: You're in your space, and there were serious consequences if you were caught violating, literally going outside. So, and they knocked their caseload down to "zero," very close to zero. Then they thought, 'Oh, we won, we did this,' and they reopened. My impression, and I'm curious if you know, my impression was that the--and they've since had a very bad outbreak or so-called second surge--that school openings played a role in that. And I don't know if that's true, if we know that's true; but that was the received wisdom early on.

Emily Oster: Yeah. Yes, that is a received wisdom. And I think what is very interesting about, and sort of unfortunate, is that Israel really--it does seem to be different than elsewhere on this dimension in a way that I think is not that well understood.

So, actually, many countries in Europe--Israel is not really in Europe--but many countries outside the United States opened schools, kept schools open, opened them in the summer, have them open now. And we're seeing the same kinds of evidence out of those places that we're seeing from the United States, that, you know, we're not seeing that they're driving community spread.

It's like a nice paper about Germany, where they use variations in the end-of-the-summer holidays--this just came out last week--to look at whether kids are more likely to be infected after they go back to school. And actually, if anything, the rates in kids go down after school entry, because I think that summer vacation was a high-risk thing.

We see sort of a similar thing in Spain. We see this stuff in the United Kingdom. It's like, all of that stuff is pretty reassuring. But Israel is definitely more of an outlier. And, there was this initial art[?] thing about, like basically there was a bunch of spread in--I think there was a super-spreader event in a high school. And then they have sort of subsequently, even like today something came out suggesting that they had actually relatively high share of cases in kids, very different than what we're seeing in a lot of other places.

So, I don't think we understand that well. It definitely seems like their experience with school and with kids in general has been quite different. And it's hard to separate, because of course, when they opened, when they kind of released their lockdown a little bit and opened schools, they also allowed 400-person weddings; and when they opened the schools, they were just totally open. No de-densification--like, 40 kids in a classroom, no masks, or at least there was a period of mask, but then it got really hot so they stopped having masks. So, it wasn't exactly best practices, but it is definitely outside of what we have seen elsewhere.

Russ Roberts: That's why it's good to remember: there's more than one variable. Hard to remember sometimes, particularly in this conversation about the pandemic we're having in the country. People tend to pick their favorite variable and then explain why it's the only variable. And they're wrong, usually.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about why this is important. One of the things that's deeply--there's a number of things that are deeply disturbing to me about where we are with our knowledge of the pandemic. This issue of saving lives, which we're all in favor of--we seem to have neglected the non-life-saving costs of any kind of intervention.

So, one of the costs, obviously of out-of-person school, or you're in a hybrid model, is, there seems to be a lot less learning going on. Particularly for poorer children in poorer neighborhoods. A lot of wealthier people and more comfortable, economically comfortable, people are doing pod-sharing and creating little mini-schools and doing in-person tutoring and teaching. And we're just kind of like hoping it'll go away soon so that we can get back to normal. But in the meanwhile, there's millions of kids who are going to have a wasted year. Is it? Am I overreacting?

Emily Oster: No. I don't think you're overreacting. I found--I sort of oscillate between like frustration and being tired and then just being really angry that we've somehow gotten to a place where, even though it seems like schools are a fairly low-risk thing, and in my mind, these schools--like, school is really beneficial. Maybe other people don't think that. But I think in-person schooling is really important. And somehow we've gotten to a place where we're kind of putting that last.

So, you know, the other day, like, Massachusetts is having more cases. Still in pretty good shape, but they're having more cases. And the one--and they have, Boston has very little in-person schooling. They had, like, younger kids with special needs were the only group that was back. And, in response to a rising caseload, effectively, the only change that they made was to tell those kids that they can no longer come to school. Even though there was no evidence of any spread in having anything to do with this.

And, restaurants are open, and bars are open, and gyms are open. And, like, the idea that somehow, like, that's the first thing to go. Like, if you think you're having some cases, let's just shut down the schools because, like-- that's not--

Russ Roberts: Just in case.

Emily Oster: Just in case. Even though we didn't see any cases there, let's just shut them down in case.

I think it's really bad, and I think it totally misses, exactly as you say, that there are these very large costs we will be experiencing in the long-term.

And some very large costs in the short term, in terms of mental health and food insecurity, and, you know, kids who are in kind of not great environments. And even for kids who are in better environments, like the relationship with their parents, and this is really hard on families, even families with resources. And, there's a lot of inequities. There's a lot of socioeconomic inequities.

So, in places like in San Francisco, they've said, basically, no public schools will be open until at a minimum January, which doesn't make any sense because they have no, basically almost all cases. But the private schools are all open. So, all the kids who are in private school are going in full-time, full day, and then the kids lower and people with fewer resources are not going to school at all.

And, there's geographic inequity. I mean, it's just like--and geographic inequity makes no sense. Like, there are all these kids in North Dakota. North Dakota, a lot of places still full-time, five days a week, everybody at school, even though they have like really a very significant outbreak while at the same time, you know, San Francisco, LA [Los Angeles], Boston are totally closed.

Russ Roberts: Well, it's good for you. You get some good data from that kind of behavior, but--

Emily Oster: It's interesting. As an economist, generally, you would expect that when you try to do this kind of data collection, the obvious bias would be the only places that would open would be places where the virus is under control. So you'd be like, well, how can I learn about--you know? But actually it's the opposite. The places that are open are the places with a tremendous amount of virus. So, those, yeah.


Russ Roberts: I talked to a friend yesterday. He's a freelancer. And I asked him how his work was going. He said, 'Well, I work about seven seconds a day.' I said, 'What are you doing the rest of the time?' He goes. 'I'm trying to keep my kids safe, happy, doing something mildly productive, shuttling them somewhere that's helpful.'

So, it's taken a toll on parents, obviously.

But let me give you--I want to give you the other side and let you react to it. So, I'm on your side, but that's easy for me to say. I don't have any kids. So, it's easy for me to opine on this. So, for people who are--let me take the more cautious side. The more cautious sides goes something like this: You're talking about how great it would be. We should reopen schools.

Well, first of all, we don't know anything about the long-term impact of this. So it's true that it's really rare that young kids get this. But, if they do get it, it could impair them for a long time going forward.

Second thing is, they could get their grandparents sick and kill them, even though they're not symptomatic themselves, or have a bad case themselves. They could get through it quickly, but in families that have multi-generational living situations, these kids are literally dangerous to their loved ones.

And so, this is totally rational. It's crucial that we save these lives. And, what's the big deal? They're learning online. It's not that big a deal. What's your response? Do you agree with that?

Emily Oster: I don't.

But, what I do agree with is, because I think that sort of inherent in what you say, is the idea that people are going to make different choices about this. And so a policy which said: All children must be in school no matter what, and families will have no choice about whether their kids go to school--I think that's probably not, in this sort of--I think that may not be a policy we want to have right now. There are actually places in Europe that do have that policy; but I think we may--almost, like, basically every school district that's open in person and in the current environment in the United States has offered choice for people who want to do some kind of distance learning.

And so, and I actually spent a lot of the first part of the pandemic, before I started doing the school stuff, talking to people about how they could make, like, think through those choices for themselves, and, you know, how you would trade off exactly this kind of grandparents versus schools.

And I think that trade-off, that has been the hardest trade-off for parents in my, kind of, like, age bracket, where it's sort of like, 'When I choose to send my kids to school that has pretty significant implications for my ability to see their grandparents.' Because that means they're higher risk, and then the grandparents are at higher risk; and that--I think people are going to differ in how they evaluate that trade-off.

What I thought you were going to say, and I think the argument I see much more, is: we're sort of forcing teachers into this. That this is not--because I think it's one thing--it's easy to say, let's give parents a choice, but it's harder to give teachers a choice. That's their job. And, you know, you can not work or so on. But, just sort of say, you have to--it's hard. I think that that's a harder--I think the best thing we can say there is really that, when schools choose to open, they should be providing teachers with masks--like, they should provide kids with masks. They should provide teachers with masks. There should be, like, to the extent possible, they should put in these kinds of these kinds of protections.

But I think the other thing to say is that, you know, what we're seeing in the data does suggest that, for the most part, when teachers are getting sick, they're getting sick outside of school and not in school. And so it's not clear that--it doesn't seem obvious that school is an especially high risk location.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to--I have to say this carefully. I don't know if it's easy. I don't know how to say it a carefully. I'm just going to say it. So, I had a toothache back in April. I just hoped it would go away. It didn't go away. The reason I hoped it would go away is I didn't want to go to my dentist to look at it. The idea of going out and being in close proximity as someone who was seeing other people numerous times a day didn't seem very fun. But about a week and a half ago, I went in and had my tooth pulled, which is--by the way, anyone listening at home, it's--

Emily Oster: Oh. my God. This is months and months and months of this that you omitted[?].

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm against it. Try to keep your teeth. I'm a big fan of keeping my teeth. But. I'm glad it's gone. It was not really pleasant. But, I thanked all the people in the office. My dentist said to me, 'This is the least COVID-risk place in the world.' He's got a mask and then he's got a plastic face shield, and you get your temperature taken when you walk in. But, the truth is you're not spitting in a cup for a test when you get there. They don't know who you've been seeing and where you've been, and you can be very asymptomatic and still be troublesome. But, the truth is, I'm violating all the things I try to avoid. I'm a foot and a half away from somebody for 20 minutes or half an hour.

So, it's really unpleasant. But he's doing that every day with every person who comes in there. And I thanked him, and I said, 'I really appreciate it.'

I think a lot of people in the medical professions, and dentists and others, all kinds of people up and down the line, grocery stores and so on, yes, they like money. Yes, they feel that it's good for them to work. But I think they also feel like they're supposed to be there. That's the feeling I get from the doctors I've seen in the last six months and the dentist, and all the people do it. And it's sort of like--I mean, it's again easy for me to say, my job involves sitting at my home and recording podcasts and other solitary things.

But, it's interesting to me that teachers--who work with children--do not either feel that obligation, or we do not encourage them to feel that obligation. Do you think that's a fair assessment of this issue?

Emily Oster: I think there are pieces that are fair and then pieces where it's more complicated. So, you know, when we--people have drawn this parallel with nurses and doctors, said, 'Well, look, we require them to come back to go to work during the pandemic because that was their job.'

Russ Roberts: Some of them died, too, by the way. Pretty harsh.

Emily Oster: And, some of them died. Yes, they're actually quite high risk. But, of course, then people pointed out that they're provided with more PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] than we're providing teachers with, although it is a much higher-risk environment to be in a medical office, treating people with COVID than to be in a school.

But, one of the things I think is going on in a lot of these cases, and I think we could learn something from the sort of experience of this medical space, is that the sort of ripping off the bandaid of going back, is: that step is hard. And I think it's really scary. And actually, when I talkedd to my one of my friends--one of my friends is an ed, like a pediatric ed doc. And she said she was on vacation when the pandemic started, and then she had to come back. And she said the first few days were really scary, because it was like, 'I was like walking around all the time, thinking like at any moment I could get COVID.' And of course at that point, it was like really unclear exactly what was going on. But, she said, 'Then kind of, like, I got used to it and we figured out the procedures and we figured out new--even though it looks a little different, it was, like, okay.'

And I think that when schools have gone back that many teachers have had that experience. My kids are back in school, and their teachers have been--they were like, 'I don't know, how is it going to be?' And now they're like, 'Oh yeah, it's actually a great. It's so great to be with the kids.' They're sort of--you're experiencing the good pieces of it.

But, I do think we didn't --even putting aside the approach of individual teachers or of the unions, we kind of haven't--we didn't think about this as essential, in a way that I think we--we said, okay, grocery stores are essential, but somehow we never said schools are essential, and that I think has shaped the discussion a lot.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think the tearing off the bandaid thing and then getting used to it, there's a little bit of an illusion there. I've noticed among some of my friends, that--my analogy is the guy, he's given 120 $1 bills in a payment or something, and he starts counting them: 'One, two, three, four.' And after he gets to 46, 47, he goes, 'Yeah, I don't know. If it's right this far, it's probably right the rest of the way,' and he stops counting. A lot of people, I feel like have said like, 'Well, I haven't gotten it yet so I think I'm safe--

Emily Oster: [crosstalk 00:28:26].

Russ Roberts: So, it's not true. And you see them change their behavior.

Emily Oster: Pandemic fatigue. I believe that's [crosstalk 00:28:32]--

Russ Roberts: Exactly. And they start doing riskier things.

But, I guess the other way to look at this--let's put on our political economy hats. My free-market-oriented friends say, 'This school problem is exactly what's wrong with the teachers' unions. They don't want it to go back and they they're protecting their employees.' Others would say, 'Well, that's their job. That's exactly why we need unions, is to protect them from this.'

I guess the other thing to think about is: it does kind of suggest that maybe we don't value our schools so much. It's like--I tell the joke; I've told this on EconTalk before, of the teacher I was talking to on the airplane about what she--she was a math teacher. I said, 'What's fourth grade like, or sixth grade, whatever it was at your school?' She said, 'Well, it's kind of a review year.' I thought, 'A review year?' That seems like a strange, low set of expectations. So, maybe we just don't expect much from the school part of our lives, and maybe we're going to learn something from this. And maybe we'll learn that it isn't so bad.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure. Yeah, I think we are not, as a society, we do not prioritize schools in general and we certainly have not prioritized them here.

And, you know, the other thing people keep saying is like, 'Well, parents are out there expecting schools to be childcare, and schools are not childcare. That's not a reasonable expectation." But of course, we've set up a society in which school is your childcare. The state literally requires you to send your children to this childcare, so it's a little bit funny to say that somehow families should be able to just replace that with something else, given that we've sort of set up the society with that in mind.


Russ Roberts: So, let's look at the bigger picture. I've been deeply disturbed in the last month as we get closer to the election [recorded October 23, 2020.--Econlib Ed.] at how difficult it is to have a thoughtful conversation about COVID generally, and what we might learn from this. I feel that anything you say about COVID--and I'm curious if this has been your experience, because you've been out--I'm on Twitter--

Emily Oster: Talking about it. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: You're actually writing articles in The Atlantic saying, that we'll link to, saying, 'I think we should go back to school. This isn't so bad.' Which means obviously you're on a certain team with a certain color, partisan flavor, and shame on you. Anytime you say anything, it's taken as you're either pro- or anti- a particular political position. I find that horrifying for so many reasons; but one of them is, if you can't share opinions about this, and then you can't discuss it because you can't share an opinion, it's really hard to learn stuff. And all the people that I've noticed who are somewhat contrarian, who aren't political, but have been accused of being political pawns, they're being silenced, literally, because they're obviously wrong.

That really bothers me. Would you react to that? Essentially[?] as actually somebody who works in this space of using data to try to figure out risk and safety, what we can learn from it.

Emily Oster: Yeah. It has been very difficult to have these conversations and try to make them be about data, when as soon as you say, like, 'Okay, more schools should be open,' it's like, 'Oh, you're like Donald Trump? Are you on Donald Trump's team? No; and in fact, like, I actually think that the cause of school reopening was tremendously damaged by the President's comments in the summer, because they were not based on science: they were based on some other thing. But, they kind of bifurcated this into something where instead of saying, 'What's safe to do, let's try to make this work,' it was sort of like, 'Well, which team are you on? Are you on the team'--

Russ Roberts: Put your hat on.

Emily Oster: Yeah, put your hat on. If you have a blue hat on, you better say that nothing is going to open; and if you have a red hat on, you say everything is going to open; and we ended up in a weird situation where, in this particular dimension, everything has become sort of very politicized. But we've seen it in all of the pieces of COVID. The idea that somehow there would be a political feeling about wearing a mask.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Extraordinary.

Emily Oster: Insane. Right? It's like--I mean, you could have like a nuanced--and I understand part of this was at the beginning, it was sort of unclear whether masks were good, whatever. Okay, so we, like, learned more about it. Yes, masks are good. But, then, to somehow be like 'You're impinging on my freedom by asking me to wear a mask in the grocery store,'--like, how do we get to that point? And, the other side, the other side is true.

Russ Roberts: Well, you know how we did it; but it's a rhetorical question.

Emily Oster: Yeah. No, exactly. But, the other side is true, too: that people who, like, when you're on the other side of the street running and they're like, 'Where's your mask?' It's just like, 'It's five o'clock in the morning and I'm outside alone. How can you even see me? It's so dark.' You know? So, there's a sort of the, like, mask shaming. Somehow we can't just come to a thing, which is like when you're inside or you're around other people, like you should be wearing a mask and that's just like the thing we should be doing and get a mask; and if you're outside running far away from other people, maybe you don't need a mask then, and that's okay.


Russ Roberts: So, let's make a list of what you've learned. And it's a short list, because there's so much uncertainty around us--which is fascinating.

But, one of the things I've learned is that it's probably not a bad idea to wear a mask when inside, near other people. When we have friends over on our back porch, they sit six to 10 feet away from us--six feet, by the way, is a fake magic number, but it's not a bad number. They sit 6 to 10 feet away from us. We then remove our masks, we sip drinks or eat food together. And it's normal and human, and we like it. And I think the risk is quite, quite low.

And, wearing a mask when you're closer than that is such a low-cost experience. Not zero. It does interfere with the human experience a little bit, and I really dislike that. But it seems like a relatively wise thing to do. Voluntarily. I don't think we should mandate it as law, and I think private businesses should be allowed to decide what happens within their spaces like we do with many other aspects of their lives. So, this has become political. It's just an incredible barometer of what's wrong with our society right now. But, anyway--

Emily Oster: Yeah, I agree.

Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the list of things we've learned. So, masks are one. There's so many conflicting signals in the data about the pandemic. I'm curious what you feel you've learned so far that might possibly be useful the next time besides that--I think you and I are on the same page with masks.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I mean, I think that we're increasingly learning. There's a huge indoor/outdoor transmission distinction. We kind of saw that early on from some of the contact tracing stuff. And my guess is we're seeing that now in these sort of surges as things get colder, that, you know, transmission inside is much more efficient in transmission outside.

Russ Roberts: From the virus's perspective.

Emily Oster: Exactly, from the virus's perspective.

I think we're learning that we've learned sort of some things about the age gradient that it's riskier for older people. And, you know, we've--but like, we've--there's a lot of things that are really unclear about the virus. There's this aspect of it that most people don't transmit at all, and a small number of people transmit a tremendous amount. Right? Like there was this other thing: So, everyone was talking a lot about R_0--R-nought--at the beginning, but this other thing is, like, K, which I think is another epidemiological parameter about how dispersed the amount of spread is per infected person. I think that this virus has, like, I don't know if it's a big K or a small K.

Russ Roberts: A different K.

Emily Oster: It's a different K than some other things. And we're sort of seeing that in these kind of like small numbers of people responsible for large numbers of infections.

But, there's just like a lot of things we don't understand.

Russ Roberts: For me, the most important thing for going ahead: the age gradient thing is obviously true. It was true--I think we knew that from the first cruise ship.

It hasn't changed much, and the age distribution of death has not changed, I think a whit. It's incredibly stable.

Emily Oster: Although the rates have gone down a lot, so we've clearly done much now. We've clearly done--

Russ Roberts: Of course, all ages.

Emily Oster: And, at all ages, we've gotten much better at treating the virus . Which you would expect to be true. Like, they figured out some things: how to do some things better.


Russ Roberts: But, it's still the case that it's more dangerous for older people. Other than nursing homes, where people are extra cautious, which is a good thing, it has not changed the way we've approached the virus. The school is a perfect example of this, that has not said, 'Well, okay, then we can be more relaxed about'--no, we didn't. Ror better, for worse, for whatever social, political, psychological reasons, we've had trouble using that information, I think, effectively.

But, the other question, which I think going forward is the central question, is this question of so-called lockdown--which is a bad word. It's a bad word because it's ambiguous. It's not precise.

Lockdown doesn't mean taking precautions. It could. It could mean that. In some states it meant: Be a little more careful. Other states it meant we closed all bars, all restaurants, all gyms, all movie theaters. And countries went from, 'Yeah, just be a little more careful,' like Sweden, to places where they put the army out in the street to make sure that you didn't leave your apartment for a certain length of time.

So, I think the biggest question going forward is: How much does that matter? And I don't think we know the answer to that. And the people who point to data and say, 'Oh, well, China locked down and they didn't have any cases after whatever' are missing the complexity of the problem. Do you agree with that, or am I being too agnostic there?

Emily Oster: No, I think I do agree with that. I think that part of what has been hard about evaluating this is exactly as you say--the sort of like differences in what people meant by lockdown, and also the kind of like sort of--there's a sort of time-horizon question. So, I think this is going to come up more. When we look at like Sweden--we sort of look back on this, hopefully from the standpoint of being over-ish[?]. I think that there would be questions--there have been questions raised about Sweden's approach throughout; and I think that Sweden's approach of sort of like, 'Don't really lock down, let people keep doing kind of more or less doing their stuff,' initially looked really bad. So, their death rates were much higher than comparable Nordic countries, although not higher relative to some other places in Europe, but certainly relative to like Norway.

Russ Roberts: Norway, Denmark, yeah.

Emily Oster: Norway, Denmark, they looked really bad. That was like a particularly--it seemed particularly bad if any moment in May we were going to have a vaccine. But once we got to the point where it was like, 'Well, actually, we're not going to have a vaccine,' then in the sort of current period, they're seeing much less of a second wave than elsewhere. I don't know how much of that is herd immunity and how much of it is people learned other ways to prevent it, how much of it is lack of testing. There's a bunch of things going on.

But I think that, unfortunately, learning about which of these things mattered is going to require a longer timeframe, because it's one thing to lock down--and you saw this in Israel, you totally locked down; you drive the cases to zero, but then as soon as you open back up, it's very hard to keep the virus out, unless you're like New Zealand. And even there they couldn't do it.

Russ Roberts: No, I think the other thing to remark about Sweden that is often forgotten is that they have a different age distribution in their population than some other places; they have different density of their cities.

But the appeal to me of treating this like a grownup might, rather than a panicked child, is really appealing. That's fantastic saying, 'Well, we're not going to ruin the lives of everyone to reduce the death rate to zero. Because, we can't reduce it to zero. And we realize that these non-health-related costs destroying the businesses and employers of our people and the education of our children is enormous.' I guess my hope is, is that we're going to find out whether I'm right about the enormous non-health part of this, and maybe that will help us be more balanced in the future on the health side.

Emily Oster: Yeah. I think for me, a more recent, like in the last couple of weeks, I've been sort of reflecting on the takeaway that, if we think about doing more lockdowns or having more restrictions, we cannot--like, the hammer approach of just shut everything. Just, like, sledgehammer approach to this I think is probably pretty--it has some very significant downsides, let's put it that way. And I think we need a little bit more of a scalpel approach. The thing that that requires is contact tracing, and basically understanding where is the spread happening.

Now, we're seeing of course, part of the--Rhode Island is actually doing a pretty good job of contact tracing. And what they're seeing is--and were also having a lot more cases--and what they're seeing is the cases are from social gatherings: like, people's houses, parties.

But, unfortunately, that's not something the Governor has a lot of control over. Right? So, she doesn't want to close school. She hasn't closed school. She said, 'She's not going to close school. She hasn't closed restaurants and bars. I think part of it is she's just like, 'Look: we are not seeing spread in those places, so closing them is not going to help,' or 'I don't think--it's not likely to help because what we're seeing is spread at these parties and gatherings.' But it's hard to tell people you can't have your friends over, although maybe we'll start sending the National Guard around to your house to find out if you have 23 people in your backyard, or in your house. But that's hard; that has some other issues.

Russ Roberts: Well, they do that in some countries. They have, and they've been more effective. I think the fundamental question for a free society--which is, again, a conversation we can't have anymore in America for a hundred reasons--but a free society says: We don't want to mitigate risk to zero because that also has very large costs; and we don't want the government telling people when they can have people over. And, we understand that when you, my neighbor, has a bunch of people over, you do impose an externality on me, and we ask you culturally to try to keep that in mind. If you can't, I guess I'm going to try to be more careful when I deal with you, and that's not pleasant. But, I want to live in something like a free society. I don't want the government deciding all the risks and having the goal of having zero deaths, or zero transmission, because that's not a country I want to live in, either.

Emily Oster: Yeah. As you say, I think these are very hard conversations to have because the sort of other side is, like, 'Well, are you just trying to kill old people?'

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly.

Emily Oster: And now, 'You're a COVID-denier who wants to kill old people.'

Russ Roberts: I am an old person. I'm 66. I'm in the risk group. I'm in the--

Emily Oster: You're in a higher risk category than I am. But, yeah, you're not an old person.

Russ Roberts: You're very kind.

Emily Oster: You're not an old person.

Russ Roberts: I appreciate that.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's shift gears. I want to radically shift gears. I want to talk about your other work. I want to talk about parenting. You wrote two very successful and thought-provoking and sane books about risk.

And, one last thing about COVID, just to lead us into this, is that, you'll look at someone, either wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, washing their hands, whatever it is, wearing their mask in their own car, and you go like, 'Oh, that person is ridiculous.' Now, and then you look at your own life and you realize, 'I have a bunch of those, too.' I have these things where, what I'm doing isn't rational, but it makes me feel good. Like, I go to my synagogue, we meet in our parking lot and we're eight, 10 feet away from each other when the weather is decent outside. And if somebody sits within 10 feet of me, I move it to 12 feet. It's like, 'Oh, come on. I'm outside, we're all wearing masks. I don't really need to do this.' But it makes me feel good. Even though I know it's not rational, it's just a little comforting.

And I think a lot of us have those weird, anxious, stress-related behaviors that we understand are not necessarily supported by data.

So, you wrote two books that tried to bring data to bear on an area that people have a lot of emotional issues like we're talking about--parenting and pregnancy. And, having written those books and come on to EconTalk to talk about both of them--and I encourage listeners to go back and listen to those, especially if you're pregnant or a parent--I'm curious what having--time has passed: Are there things in those books you've learned that aren't true anymore, or are there things you'd wish you'd changed? Reflect on that experience.

Emily Oster: So, yeah: I mean, writing the books was--the first book came out in 2013, which now is--it just feels like a very long time.

Russ Roberts: That's the 19th century, wasn't it?

Emily Oster: Right. Exactly. In COVID-time, it's actually around the Big Bang.

And, it has been a long journey, and the book has actually gotten more popular over time, and so it's sort of become a bigger part of sort of who I am and what I think about. So, actually, in the last--I just did quite a large revision. I've sort of revised it a few times, but this fall, one of the pandemic projects was to do a pretty big revision in which they let me revisit things and add a bunch of stuff.

And part of what was interesting for me there was just sort of step back into what it was like to be pregnant for the first time, now from the standpoint of someone who has like a nine-year-old who is, like, a real person, who I go to for advice. And then, but just to sort of like--she's really good with people. I'm not that good with people, so usually if I have like a problem, she sort of solves it for me.

There were a bunch of things in there that I kind of changed because some new study came out. And they're mostly pretty mild. Like: Can you sleep on your back versus your side? There's been like some new research around that. There was a bunch of new research around labor induction. So I sort of made a bunch of changes like that.

But, then, I also--the other thing I did a lot of was softening my tone a little bit. I think this is something I learned sort of when I wrote the second book, Cribsheet. The message is much more like, 'Look, you got to figure out what works for you.' It's like a less confrontational book in some ways; and Expecting Better is--confrontational maybe is a wrong word--

Russ Roberts: Your first book.

Emily Oster: Yeah, so the first book is like a little bit more, I was like having a lot of conflict with my OB [obstetrician] and that comes out a little bit in the book. And I kind of softened, not so much the stuff with the doctors, but just other--I don't know. I softened a little bit, I think. Maybe I've softened a little as a person. So, it was interesting to go back to that and think, 'Huh. I could have used a different tone,' in some of these things.

Russ Roberts: So, you did, you changed some of that. You softened.

Emily Oster: Yeah, I did. I changed some of it.

And I guess the other thing that has happened is that I've become much closer with many doctors. So, there actually are a lot of doctors who liked the pregnancy book, even though it can be a little negative on medicine. And so, I have more like perspective on how they're thinking about some of these choices, which helped me--I think both write, like, improve the writing so people can have a better interaction with their doctors, but also just made me reflect on, 'Okay, maybe I was just like a little bit--maybe I'm actually, like, the difficult one.' I mean, that's definitely true.

Russ Roberts: Well, after you had that sensitive nine-year-old, that's part of your transformation, right?

Emily Oster: I know. She's so sensitive. Man, like, socio-emotional learning in the 2020 fourth grade is really different than in the 1990 fourth grade, that's for sure.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I know. Your example of confrontational tone versus softer--it is interesting to me that many doctors--they are not good at trade-offs. It's just not their thing. And you and I are trained to focus on trade-offs. So, those conversations can be difficult. A friend of mine, I may have mentioned this before on the program, broke his leg in a motorcycle accident, and the doctor who fixed his leg said, 'So, I hope you've learned your lesson.' He said, 'What's that?' 'Don't ever get on a motorcycle again.' And my friend said, 'As soon as I get out of here, I'm getting back on my motorcycle.'

He was an economist. The doctor was a doctor.

But, I think that's an issue. And, for those of us who are more aware of the opportunity costs, as well as the, say, the downside of over-diagnosis, which is not always easily seen by doctors, you can find doctors who share that view and then you can be softer with them because you can get along with them better, I think.

Emily Oster: Yeah; no, that's--I think that is certainly a piece of it.


Russ Roberts: So, you're something, I assume, of a guru to would-be, especially mothers, and fathers as well--people who are planning or have a child. What's that been like for you? Do you get a lot of thank-you notes? And, do you get a lot of emails like, 'I'm thinking of having a second glass of wine once a week. Is that pushing it?' Do people treat you like their doctor in that way?

Emily Oster: I get a lot of emails. I get many more emails now that I write this newsletter. So, at some point before the pandemic, I started this newsletter and I write a lot about COVID. It was not the initial intention, but anyway--so I got a lot of email. I get a lot more email than I used to from that. And yeah, I get sort of like--sometimes people will say thank you; sometimes people write to complain; and then I get a lot of these very specific like, 'I have following condition, this is how pregnant I am, this is how much dilated I am, what do you think of like, when's the baby going to come?'

Russ Roberts: Is it a boy or a girl? They want to know.

Emily Oster: Yeah, exactly. 'What can you tell me about this?' I've tried to write back to people, but I'm not--I get more email than I can reply to, which is a new thing, and actually makes me feel bad because I just want to write back to everybody and be like, 'Okay, let me help you with your exact problem.' But, I can't do that.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm curious of your feelings of riskiness of the pandemic, the kind of things we talked about earlier with that pulling-off-the-bandaid anxiety. Has it affected the way you think about parenting and the way you talk about risk in your books?

Emily Oster: I think it's affected how I think about uncertainty, which is a little bit different than thinking about risk. I think, for me, the most salient and the most scary piece of the pandemic has been the fact that we are--that there is so much uncertainty about the risks. Right? Or, there is sort of, like, this sort of, like, unknown and unknown, known--I don't remember which thing it is. Unknown, unknowns. That piece, something like that. I don't know which one it is.

When I write about things with risks in the book, like, even things with where the risk is something very bad--where it's important to be really careful about it like co-sleeping or not that the risks there are so bad, but that the downsides, the things people are worried about are so bad. It's like, we know a lot.

It's sort of, I see, I find comfort in the idea that, like, 'Okay, we can really dig into what we know.' And then you're going to have to make the choice. But, you know, the choice you are going to make kind of knowing, at least having some numbers to base this on. And the pandemic, especially early on, even around kids, was just so uncertain, that it was very, very difficult to think about how those choices would go, and it made me think a lot more about the ways in which we have to sometimes move forward and make choices even with uncertainty.

And I think it's been a place where we have to make a lot of important decisions, both personal decisions and policy decisions, without being sure. And I think that has led to a lot of decisions, which feel cautious; but I think when we may reflect on them later, we may find that they were not as cautious as we thought that they were.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, they were imprudent despite their seeming prudence.

Emily Oster: But, they may have been [crosstalk 00:53:43].

Russ Roberts: I think the phrase is 'Unknown, unknowns.' There's the 'known-knowns. There's the things we know about--and we know a lot about them--but there are the things that we don't know about them. Then there are things that we know. Something like that.

But, anyway: We don't know them, then there are the things we don't know about that we don't know. Something like that. But, anyway --

Emily Oster: Okay. Yeah, something like that.


Russ Roberts: I'm writing a book about decision-making and the role of data in that and how hard it is for our minds to consume data.

And one of the issues I'm writing about is parenting. And I make the argument that there's really no data of the kind that we normally call data about what it's like to be a parent. There is information. You can read literature, you can watch movies, you can talk to your friends, you can watch your friends, you can babysit: but until you've had a baby or become a parent, it's uncharted territory.

We had L. A. Paul talking about this during--I've read her book, Transformative Experiences. Agnes Callard talking about aspiration, and that's another way we deal with this kind of uncertainty. I'm curious what your thoughts are on that. You are a data person. You are also a parent. Have you been surprised at what parenting--you mentioned your daughter--are you surprised at how parenting has changed you in ways that no data--or maybe there is data for you--that could help you understand that?

Emily Oster: No, I mean, I think I am surprised by being a parent all the time. And, particularly as my kids get older, I am surprised at how little I am able to rely on data to--and how frequently I am surprised at just like, what is going on? What my kids are like.

The parts of parenting that I find the most difficult and where I am the most unhappy with what I'm doing are the parts where I am, like, imposing my own stuff on my kids. You know. And, I find that really hard. That like, you sort of have some vision, which is kind of maybe based on the things that you wish that you did and sort of trying to separate out, like, 'Okay, I need to be supportive of the things, my kids like.' And of course, I'm going to suggest things that I think would be good for them to do, but sort of, how do you learn to recognize, like, 'My kid is not exactly like me,' and I can't make them excel at things, or just make them do things, or make them like things that I like. I find that really hard.

Russ Roberts: This program is G-rated, but I'll just make a reference to Philip Larkin's poem: It's called, "This Be The Verse." You can Google it and you can rate it at--it's related to this. I encourage listeners to check that out.

Agnes, speaking of Agnes Callard, she wrote a very thoughtful piece recently about the challenges in our current culture, which encourage parents to let children become whatever is best for them. That appeals to me deeply, now as an older parent. I wish I'd thought more along those lines, and been more--it's very hard. I think we naturally want our children to come out, quote, "like us," and I think we probably subconsciously want our children to fix some things that our parents did incorrectly to us or that--and that's the Larkin poem--and they also--we have a natural urge to extend ourselves into the future through our children. And it's a beautiful thing in many ways.

I think there's this tension between--and the Callard essay grapples a little with this--between saying, 'My children are not me. They have to find their own space, their own love, their own desires, their own passions.' And at the same time, a family is not just, 'Oh, I raised you, like a boarding house. Good luck. Bye. Have a good life.' So, it's kind of tricky.

And these times, until about 50 years ago, it was understood, as Agnes points out, that parents were supposed to make their kids turn out like them--religiously, culturally, behaviorally. And now it's like, it's not just, 'Yeah, maybe we should do that. It's like, that's wrong. You have to let your kids find their--they're just blank slates. Let them explore the world.

But that's not what all kids need either, and not all families need.

Emily Oster: I think there's a sort of piece of this, which is like, there are, there's helping your kid push through things that are hard because you know that they will like what comes out on the other end. And I think that sometimes, maybe well, it's just like, if they're not enjoying it, they should just quit.

But, actually, like, a lot of things as an adult, you learn to let--and you look back and say, 'Well, I'm really glad I pushed through the hardest parts of that,' because then there was, like, a lot of reward. And I think we sometimes--but then there's this piece where it's like, well, actually you don't have to push through. Some things, they're just not for you. And, you know, we shouldn't kind of make them. And I also feel like there's--yeah, there are a lot of really good ways in which--there are a lot of really good ways in which we're kind of encouraging kids to be who they are.

I think back to when people were left-handed and then they made them write with their right hand. Or, you know, like a lot of kids, a lot of boys wear a lot of dresses now. And like people are just like, 'Yeah, that's the thing. That's fine.' That's very different from when I was a kid even, and which was a long time ago, not that long ago. And so those kinds of things seem--that seems great. That seems like really good progress. But, then, there's also a piece where you want to help them learn to, to grow into adults. Like, we want to be raising adults. And that doesn't always mean just doing whatever.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, no--it's such an art and--

Emily Oster: It's hard.

Russ Roberts: There are no rules. Each one is different. It really makes it tricky.

Emily Oster: Yes. It's why it's good I only have two. I feel like I'm already struggling to manage the two. That's overdone.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. When you get to a three, as a friend of mine said, you're playing shorthanded. It's the equivalent of having one--

Emily Oster: Yes, you have to move from man-to-man to zone-to-zone.

Russ Roberts: Exactly. Somebody's in the penalty box.


Russ Roberts: Let's close with--it must have been an interesting experience for you. I was watching a cooking show sometime over the summer with my family, and I said, 'That's Emily Oster!' You were on David Chang's show. How did that come about? Why were you there, you, rockstar, you?'

Emily Oster: Right. At some point, somebody wrote to me and was like, 'Hey, I work for David Chang's Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. David's wife, whose name is Grace, is pregnant.' And, like, 'How about if we have you on and you can go eat sushi with her and you can talk about what it's like to be pregnant and also that it's okay to eat sushi,' which is something I talk about in the book. I was like, 'All right. Yeah.' Of course, I know who David Chang is, and his wife is very nice. But, I just showed up at this--they're like, 'Okay, come to this fancy sushi restaurant at this time,' and then you just, like, show up there. And then we ate the sushi, and that was it. It was like a really weird--I don't know. I occasionally have these--

Russ Roberts: Out of body.

Emily Oster: Yeah, I'll have these little--so there was a sort of--the other thing like this was, at some point, shortly before Cribsheet came out, Amy Schumer tweeted out my Instagram, the Expecting Better, the pregnancy book, and said that she really liked it, and then I got to be on her podcast. So I got to go to Amy Schumer's apartment, and like, you know, meet her and record her podcast, which was a totally weird--just like that was a really crazy experience.

Russ Roberts: Was it as much fun as being on EconTalk, though?

Emily Oster: It was very similar. Her podcast has--let's say it's like a little more R-rated than EconTalk.

Russ Roberts: Just a little. Yeah.

Emily Oster: Just a little bit. I'm not going to share with your listeners the kind of question game they play on that, but let's just say it's not that similar.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I guess not. That's pretty fun. Did that generate any--you ever get any hate mail about, like, how dare you encourage pregnant women to eat sushi?

Emily Oster: Oh, sure. Yeah, definitely. I will say nothing--it pales in comparison to the hate mail I get when I say that you should open schools in the face of COVID, but yes, I do get some hate mail about that kind of stuff.

Russ Roberts: Are you getting a lot of hate mail for the COVID school thing?

Emily Oster: Absolutely. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Sorry about that. How do you deal with that? Does that bother you?

Emily Oster: It does. It really bothers me. Yes, it really bothers me. I try to just--my nine-year-old was like, 'Do you have to look at it?' And I was like, 'Well, no, I guess not really.' And she was like, 'Why don't you just delete it?'

Russ Roberts: She is so wise. She is growing wiser by the moment.

Emily Oster: She is. She is a very, very wise person. She thought about it, and then she was like, 'Do you have to look at that?' She's like, 'When people tweet mean things at you, why don't you just not look at them?'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It took me a long time to--

Emily Oster: Okay. Fine.

Russ Roberts: It took me a while to realize that you can block people on Twitter who are mean to you, and it's like, you don't invite them into your house, why would you let them send you email like that and tweet on you?

Emily Oster: I try to just delete it and move on.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, good for you. My guest today has been Emily Oster. Emily, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Emily Oster: Always a pleasure. Nice to see you.

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