Serendipity: California, the NBA, and the benefits of overreaction
By Scott Sumner
I recently did a post arguing that the case for government coercion was weaker than it looked (although not necessarily incorrect.) Today I’d like to illustrate the ideas in that post with a couple of examples.
A few weeks ago, the NBA began considering the option of playing its games in empty arenas to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Then when a player became infected the entire league shut down. Why is that?
While it is not correct to say the coronavirus is no worse than the flu for young healthy people such as NBA players, it is relatively low risk. The NFL exposes players to some pretty significant brain injury risks, and we don’t shut down the NFL.
There are presumably a number of reasons for the NBA shutdown. Perhaps they were worried that more players and staff would catch the virus, and spread it to their family members. Or they worried about bad public relations if play continued. But I also suspect that part of the concern was the health of the NBA players themselves. Coronavirus seems like a mysterious hard to understand illness, whereas concussions in football are easier to understand.
It’s well known that many people fear vague, hard to understand risks like flying, nuclear waste sites, chemicals in food, vaccines, child kidnapping, etc., more than they should, and more than they fear much bigger risks like dying because they use the cell phone while driving, or because they eat too much fat and sugar. I suspect that NBA players are no different.
And this is really good news! If people didn’t overreact to the coronavirus from a self-interest perspective, they’d be underreacting from a social welfare perspective. That’s because social contact during an epidemic creates negative externalities.
In the early days of the crisis, the outbreaks in the US were mostly confined to Seattle and the San Francisco Bay areas. It wasn’t surprising that California had a lot of cases, as it has by far the largest community of Asian-Americans, with lots of travel back and forth with China. (My wife and I were in Wuhan last August.) What is surprising is that today California has only 5.1% of US cases [update: 4.5%], despite having nearly 12% of the US population. Some of that underrepresentation is caused by the huge spike in New York cases, but not all of it.
Back when California had just a handful of cases, I gently mocked people who were afraid to go to “Chinese” restaurants like PF Changs. (The actual joke revolved around the fact that in California their workers are mostly Mexican-American.) Well the joke’s on me, as it now looks like the “over-reacters” were doing the right thing. My wife is well connected with the Asian community out here, and told me of numerous events being cancelled back when the total case numbers were still tiny. I thought the actions were excessive, but now those cancellations now look much more sensible. Despite my joke (which seems tasteless today), I was not one of those who didn’t understand that coronavirus was potentially a big problem—we stocked up on canned goods and masks in January—I just didn’t see any need for people being so frightened when the caseloads were still so low.
It seems to me that the Asian community in California was especially aware of the severity of coronavirus, and that may explain why it spread much less rapidly here, after presumably entering California via travelers from China. After all, the previous SARS epidemic made a much greater impression on the psyche of Asian people than on Westerners. East Asian countries also seemed better prepared than Western countries.
This graph shows the growth in the caseload for New York (grey) and California (orange), with day zero being the point the total caseload hit 10. Note the log scale, as New York’s caseload is now more than 9 times larger than California’s.
PS. I wonder if New York is now being hurt by its greater proximity to Europe. For Californians, vacations in Italy require a long and tiring flight, and a lot of jet lag.
PPS. Younger readers might not know that Sri Lanka was once called Ceylon. Older readers might not know that Ceylon was once called Serendip—the fortunate island.