Tyler Cowen is one of the most influential thinkers in America — economist, political philosopher and general polymath. Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he’s been paying close attention to the data and how different governments are reacting. I caught up with him to get his assessment of where we are.
One thing we like about Tyler is that he’s not tribal — in less than half an hour, he manages to take a pop at both the herd immunity crowd and the mainstream media that refused to talk about it, Devi Sridhar and Michael Levitt, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Wherever you’re coming from, stand by to get your feathers ruffled!
But through it all you get the impression of a clear mind in pursuit of sensible answers — it’s a rare commodity these days and our thanks to Tyler for sharing his thoughts.
On ‘Phantom Risk’
“We see this happening with terrorist attacks. Before 9/11, clearly people underrated the risk that terrorists would take box-cutters, commandeer airplanes and crash them into buildings. It was a terrible mistake. But even to this day, people overrate that risk because it has become salient to them. One of the biggest problems of recovering from Covid-19 when that point comes around is that people will consider the mere existence of cases to be a reason to panic and that will thwart the resumption of economic activity. To some extent — depending on the region and the times — we should still be taking data and case numbers very seriously, but at some point when fatality rates are lower or there’s a good vaccine, it will be very hard for us to move away from our previous understanding of risk and we will be over-reacting.”
On government mandates
“The way you get people to actually obey mandates is not to scold them, so the Left-wing in my country has been counter-productive in some ways. The way you get people to obey mandates is to firstly be clear, non-threatening and non-panicky. Then express your own vulnerability and present the mandate in the form of a request that you do not wish to be endangered in a gentle way rather than scolding or lecturing. The USA in particular has been a disaster at communicating risk: the president, governors and people running universities and schools have got it completely wrong.”
On Donald Trump
“People confuse opposition with Trump to stances on Covid. We’ve had many failures in my country from say, the CDC or FDA, early on in the pandemic season and we’re now trying to re-write history as if all of those are failures are on President Trump, who has been politicising the agencies. That is a valid complaint, but the early failures on the testing front were not due to President Trump — they were intra-agency failures and there is this revisionist view where everything Trump does must be made to look bad.”
On Herd Immunity
“I’m not sure about herd immunity, but I do feel that in the US in particular it has been under-discussed for a long time for political reasons. Only in August did The New York Times start to seriously consider different notions of herd immunity even though it’s a well-known scientific concept. We do not have many serious people telling us in March ‘well we’re not sure about herd immunity, but there’s a 20 or 30% chance this could happen and this should enter into our calculations’. Public health experts are too risk-averse to speak that way, so what you get from them is more of a status-conscious calculation and not the actual expected value truth.”
On a potential Biden victory
“I don’t think things will change as quickly as people believe and in some ways Biden will become more like Trump — not in terms of style but Biden has contrasted Trump’s willingness to let this rip by saying ‘if it’s necessary we’ll just close the whole country down again’. I understand why he said that, but I’m quite sure he doesn’t mean it and doesn’t have the authority to do it. If you look at the responses of Democratic governors to the Left of Joe Biden, you don’t find them acting the way Biden said he would act. In some regards, they’ve been more like Trump — again, not stylistically, but Americans do not want their businesses closed.”
On his overall philosophy
“Be data-driven, and as epistemologically honest as you can, always be asking questions, don’t get too set in your beliefs, taking in as much quality information as you can and at the end of the day, try to figure out where you’ve ended up but don’t obsess about the labels — it will make you a worse decision-maker.”