The world is what it is
By Scott Sumner
Richard Epstein is a highly respected free market economist. He recently caught a lot of grief for predicting that coronavirus deaths in the US would peak at about 500:
While Epstein does not have a medical or epidemiological background, he is a fellow at the Center for Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago and had worked on research about the spread of AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s. Amid what he called a “full state of panic,” his March 16 article boldly declared that the total number of deaths from COVID-19 would top out under 50,000 and that in the United States we would see “about 500 deaths at the end.”
Five days ago, I came across this article in Reason magazine:
Richard Epstein Cops to a ‘Stupid Gaffe’ in Controversial Coronavirus Essay That Caught Trump Administration Attention
But he stands by his reasoning and predicts that global deaths will peak under 50,000.
In that article, the reporter indicates that Epstein revised his estimate of US deaths from 500 to 5000.
Today (March 29), it seems like the 5000 estimate for the US and the 50,000 global estimate are both too low, perhaps far too low.
There’s no shame in making false predictions, I’ve certainly made plenty. But I see a disturbing tendency for predictions to be correlated with ideology. The world is what it is. An epidemic may or may not be a reason for more government involvement in the economy. (I’m not convinced either way.) But that implication has no bearing on the severity of the coronavirus crisis. So why do predictions on this issue so often seem correlated with ideology?
Just to head off any partisan comments, I am not suggesting that liberals have done a better job of addressing the crisis than conservatives, as we can see when looking at New York City. Governments all over the Western world obviously underestimated this problem (as did I.) Rather I’m worried about science becoming politicized by wishful thinking. For instance, I have no idea whether chloroquine is a useful treatment for coronavirus, but I do know that its utility is utterly unrelated to the fact that President Trump rather than Barack Obama happened to mention it in a tweet. The world is what it is.
Before even beginning to think about appropriate policies we need an accurate evaluation of the facts of the matter, as best as they can be ascertained. I don’t know about you, but I have increased respect for pundits who a few weeks ago were saying that America would be an unrecognizable place in the very near future. They may or may not have been right about the appropriate policies, but at least they had a clear-eyed view of what was about to happen. And without that unbiased perspective, there is no hope.
This post is not endorsing any current set of predictions. Indeed I rather doubt some of the most pessimistic predictions will come true. So Epstein may be right that we are too pessimistic. Rather, I’m focused here on process. Why are predictions so often (but not always) correlated with ideology?
PS. Razib Khan and David Siegel are two pundits that have been extremely worried about the coronavirus, and might be viewed as somewhat right-of-center.
PPS. The title of this post was taken from a line in “A Bend in the River”, the first V.S. Naipaul novel I ever read.