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.
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?
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--
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--
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.