Richard Epstein: Peak Dishonesty
Richard Epstein: Peak Dishonesty, Econospeak
Epstein is the doyen of libertarian legal theorists. Larry Tisch Professor of law at NYU and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, he has vast influence throughout the conservative world, including the White House.
His latest jag is calling for an early end to isolation policies to contain the coronavirus. In a nutshell, his argument is that the virus responsible for this pandemic exhibits a range of toxicities, and that evolutionary forces will naturally and fairly quickly shift this distribution toward milder strains. He claims that happened earlier with HIV, which is now (in his view) no longer much of a threat. He thinks epidemiologists are essentially charlatans, promulgating an approach to modeling viral transmission and severity that ignores his superior understanding.
He was interviewed by Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker (hat tip: David Dayen), who gave him a hard time about his self-certainty that he is right and all the health professionals are wrong. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Here is an excerpt from the transcript as published by the New Yorker:
Epstein: ….I do think that the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it, in the sense that I think that this is right. And I think that the standard models that are put forward by the epidemiologists that have no built-in behavioral response to it—
Chotiner: And you’re not an epidemiologist, correct?
Epstein: No, I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas. And one of the things that is most annoying about this debate is you see all sorts of people putting up expertise on these subjects, but they won’t let anybody question their particular judgment. One of the things you get as a lawyer is a skill of cross-examination. I spent an enormous amount of time over my career teaching medical people about some of this stuff, and their great strengths are procedures and diagnoses in the cases. Their great weakness is understanding general-equilibrium theory.
That last sentence brought back memories.
I was in a small conference with Epstein in Prague back in 1996. We were sitting next to each other on a bus that was taking us from one venue to another. I was interested in how a libertarian like Epstein would react to developments in economics that undermined faith in an invisible hand, so I asked him about two findings in modern general equilibrium theory, the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu analysis of path dependence in out-of-equilibrium adjustment and the complexity-related work on multiple equilibria, basins of attraction, etc. Both essentially say that, even if you accept the efficiency-equals-optimality framework and assume no market failure of any sort, general equilibrium is arbitrary with respect to global efficiency criteria. In other words, the drift of economic theory since the 1970s is: don’t depend on an invisible hand.
So I briefly referenced these developments and asked him how they affected the libertarian argument. His reply was brief: “Who cares about general equilibrium theory any more?”
That’s a direct quote. I didn’t have a recorder handy, but the words were blunt and memorable. Whatever else it communicated, it quickly shut down our conversation.
So now Epstein claims his superior understanding of general equilibrium theory is what elevates him over the public health establishment—as if the public health schools in major universities weren’t packed with economics PhDs. And as if he weren’t willing to dismiss the entire field when confronted with evidence that it doesn’t back him up.
Epstein’s lack of integrity is so manifest that it boggles the mind. On March 18th he was arguing that the deaths in the US due to COVID19 would not exceed 500. 5 days later he amended his estimate to 2,500.
One would expect that someone who has been so wrong so quickly would seek to reevaluate their understanding of the issue. instead, Epstein keeps pushing the same message.
To ascribe to him a logical process of reasoning is overly generous. As an ideologue, he always knows the answer. The question is how to assemble a cherry-picked collection of data points, strawmen, or heuristic to argue for the answer he espouses.
Perhaps he is a member of the Trump family?
Michael Levitt, who won a Nobel prize in chemistry, is another arrogant guy completely out of his depth when talking about COVID-19 (what is it about this disease that brings out the stupids in people?). On 20 March, he said he’d be surprised if there were more then 10 deaths from COVID-19 in Israel. One week later, the number of deaths in Israel was 12 and as of today, is 26, with 95 in serious condition and 81 on ventilators.
A minor anecdote about Epstein, that I think shows a bit of what he is like.
Back in the early 1990s when Epstein was on the Law faculty of the University of Chicago, the UofC was planning to tear down a historic building in order to erect something for their Medical Center. Neighbors protested the proposed demolition of this Pond & Pond building (Irving Pond, the design partner of the firm, though not well known today was one of the very few architects of the time respected by Frank Lloyd Wright). The neighbors campaigned to have the building designated a Chicago Landmark. Epstein attacked the campaign, saying that the building was unimportant, and claiming authority on architecture since he had recently had a house built and during that process had discussed his house’s design with the architect.
The City of Chicago apparently wasn’t all that impressed with Epstein’s architectural credentials, and landmarked the building in 1995 https://webapps1.chicago.gov/landmarksweb/web/landmarkdetails.htm?lanId=1240
These guys remind me of people who will support each other .
Not to be too flippant, but honestly, how is libertarian theory different than the proposition “I’ve got mine so f- you”?
The difference is that it is fuck you, not F you.
Anybody can drive by Tyler Cowen’s blog and see this written a hundred times a day.
Out of concern for our mental health, I suggest you make it a quick drive by.
The main thing about the Novel Corona virus is the Novel bit. There is a lot more we don’t know than about its behavior in humans than we do. One simultaneously hopeful and terrifying characteristic that is coming into view is the number of asymptomatic people who are infected with the disease as well as those with very mild symptoms. This opens up the possibility that the outbreak in Wuhan was by no means the first outbreak just the first time that severe symptoms were noticed and finally attributed to this source. This is why we desperately need an antibody test. We need to know who is walking around with the antibodies. How prevalent is this thing really? This is critical because you simply can’t model it without this information. It is really nasty right now. It is killing a lot of people. But dependent upon this information, there is a glimmer of hope that it could burn itself out rather quickly. Or not. We just don’t fucking know and testing and knowledge is the only we to figure it out.
I was looking for an article(s) on whether it is mutating and ran across one which basically said their are two strains, one weaker than the other.
Coronavirus: Are there two strains and is one more deadly?
This opinion article in the NYT by 2 genomic experts notes the issue of dose as it relates to the severity of the infection on the person. This may be explaining some of the current spread regarding density of population.
It certainly does not bode well for our workers who are emerced in the exposure do to their work (medical, EMS, police, grocery store employees, etc).