Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Yes, the Democrats can play hardball with McConnell

Voters typically hold the President and his party responsible for the state of the country at the time of elections.  This means that Trump and the Republicans have a strong incentive to support an aggressive federal response to the Covid-19 epidemic and the economic collapse.  Under normal rules of political engagement, this should allow the House Democrats to extract concessions from the Republicans in negotiations over the government’s response to the crisis.

So far, however, this has not happened.  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been a cagey negotiator, pretending to oppose economic relief measures that Republicans clearly need.  This strategy has forced Democrats to negotiate for desperately needed public health policies and economic relief that will improve the political prospects of Republicans in the November election.  McConnell has framed these policies as concessions and secured special benefits for key Republican constituents in exchange, without making concessions to Democrats on their distinctive priorities.

Many observers are worried that the Democrats will get rolled by McConnell again on the next Covid-19 relief package, which will center on desperately needed relief for state and local governments.  McConnell has already expressed opposition to aid, even though congressional Republicans almost certainly need to provide relief to states as much as Democrats.  If McConnell gets his way Democrats will use their negotiating leverage to secure aid to state and local governments, rather than on getting their other priorities written into law.

This would be a disaster.  Democrats have two urgent priorities that Republicans will strenuously oppose.  First, the Democrats need nationwide vote-by-mail to make sure that the 2020 election is as free and fair as possible.  They also need funding for the Post Office to ensure that mailed ballots are delivered and counted.  Second, the Democrats need to create triggers to automatically extend the economic stimulus measures that are already in place.  The CBO now predicts a severe contraction that will last into fiscal year 2021, with a deficit of $5.8 trillion over two years.  Without automatic triggers, it is predictable that the Republicans will cite the deficit to deny further economic stimulus if Biden wins the presidency, and if history is any guide, this effort to destroy Biden’s presidency may well succeed.

How can Democrats maximize their leverage to get their priorities through Congress?  I believe the best approach is for the House to pass its own bill and send it to the Senate for a vote.  In addition to economic relief for states, the bill should include automatic triggers and vote-by-mail, repeal of the tax cut for real estate developers, and other popular provisions that Republicans will oppose.  Democrats may end up making concessions to the Republicans, but they will be in a strong position to preserve their key policy objectives.

Lockdown socialism, the substance

Arnold Kling writes (my bold):

Yesterday’s post on lockdown socialism was unusual for me, in that it was not aimed at persuading someone who might disagree. Let me approach the topic by trying to make the best case for the other side.
If I were a lockdown socialist, I would argue as follows.

  1. We want people to engage in less economic activity, because we believe that will save lives.

[details omitted]

  1. Because we want everyone to comply with lockdowns, we have to make sure that they do not suffer privation. Therefore, we have to send checks to every household so that they can afford necessities, we have to make sure that people are not evicted from their homes for failure to pay rent or mortgages, we have to bail out key industries, we have to protect banks from failure, we have to make sure that hospitals obtain funds, and we have to compensate state and local governments for their expenses and the revenue shortfall that will fall on them from lower tax collections.

Assuming that this is a fair steel-man argument, here are my counter-arguments.

I am more worried about (2) than (1). That is, we might need to continue the lockdowns, but we absolutely have to stop the socialism.

I am going to skip Kling’s argument against the lockdown and focus on his argument against “socialism”.  Here is his brief against socialism:

Conservative rhetoric, COVID-19, and Lockdown Socialism

Arnold Kling has a recent post up on “Lockdown Socialism”:

I’ve seen headlines about polls showing that people are afraid of restrictions being lifted too soon. To me, it sounds as if they prefer what I call Lockdown Socialism.

Under Lockdown Socialism:

–you can stay in your residence, but paying rent or paying your mortgage is optional.

–you can obtain groceries and shop on line, but having a job is optional.

–other people work at farms, factories, and distribution services to make sure that you have food on the table, but you can sit at home waiting for a vaccine.

–people still work in nursing homes that have lost so many patients that they no longer have enough revenue to make payroll.

–professors and teachers are paid even though schools are shut down.

–police protect your property even though they are at risk for catching the virus and criminals are being set free.

–state and local governments will continue paying employees even though sales tax revenue has collapsed.

–if you own a small business, you don’t need revenue, because the government will keep sending checks.

–if you own shares in an airline, a bank, or other fragile corporations, don’t worry, the Treasury will work something out.

This might not be sustainable.

Kling later published a second post acknowledging that the phrase “Lockdown Socialism” is inflammatory and explaining why he opposes the lockdown and the economic relief the government is providing during the crisis.  I will turn to those arguments in a day or two.  But his inflammatory post is worth examining for what it teaches us about the rhetorical strategies of economic conservatives. I will focus on four aspects of his argument.


Kling argues that Americans who worry that restrictions will be lifted too soon support something called “Lockdown Socialism”.  I doubt that a sizable majority of Americans prefer something called “Lockdown Socialism” or indeed any other form of socialism.  Very few Americans identify as socialists, and most of those who do use the term to mean social democratic capitalism, which is not socialism in the standard sense of government ownership of the means of production and central economic planning.  Using the phrase “Lockdown Socialism” seems to be nothing more than an attempt by Kling to tar people he disagrees with the negative connotations that socialism has for many.

Polls are often difficult to interpret, but in this case I suspect that people who worry that restrictions will be lifted too early are worried that . . . restrictions will be lifted too early.

Fostering resentful identity politics:

The most serious problem with Kling’s post is that he frames “lockdown socialism” to encourage his readers 1) to think that many people are violating important social norms, including the norms to have a job and pay your rent, and 2) to focus on horizontal inequities, such as the fact that some people have to work at essential jobs while others stay safe at home (without paying rent). 

Conservative economists often encourage us to focus on norm violations and horizontal inequities caused by government programs because it is the most effective way to get people to support limited government.  Most people are not buying what libertarians have on offer, but resentment sells.  Kling’s post garnered an unusually large number of comments, and it was reposted by Tyler Cowen, and it also got an unusually large number of comments on his blog.  Of course, it is inevitable that some political actors will try to exploit resentments for political gain.  The question is whether responsible public intellectuals should frame issues in a way that foments resentment and distrust by suggesting that policy disagreements are rooted in opportunism and rejection of widely shared values.

I think not.  Resentment is politically toxic but using inequities that are plausibly justified to foster resentment is a choice we do not need to make.  Rather than encouraging essential workers to be resentful of the fact that they are putting themselves at risk while others are safe at home, we can express gratitude to them and encourage them to feel good about the sacrifices they are making on our behalf.  Classical liberals used to warn about the dangers of envy, but too many small-government conservatives today think nothing of deliberately stoking resentment, a far more dangerous emotion.

Disaster innuendo:

Real options and social distancing

I missed this when it first came out:

We think that the debate regarding extreme social distancing has a clear verdict — it is imperative that we should engage in this social distancing (shelter in place for all but essential workers) at least for the foreseeable short-term, but for reasons that both sides have missed.

Our country does not need to decide today whether it is worth shutting down the economy for a prolonged period to protect against coronavirus. Instead, we only need to decide what to do for now. And for now, the health benefits of extreme social distancing clearly exceed the costs to the economy regardless of your chosen economic model. To understand this, it is critical to appreciate the concept of real options.


Quick take on the Payroll Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act

The House yesterday approved the Payroll Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.  The PPP part of the law quite literally just increases the amount of money allocated to the program.  That’s it.  The law does almost nothing to fix the serious defects of the program in the original CARES act.  This is remarkable because the initial law was so poorly drafted:

  • The sign-up process was first come, first served, which favored larger businesses with better access to credit and stronger banking relationships – firms least likely to need assistance to survive.
  • The sign-up process appears to have disfavored areas that and industries that are hardest hit by the economic downturn.
  • The act requires businesses to rehire staff to get loan forgiveness, but many laid-off employees are earning more on the new generous unemployment program than they did at work.  This makes it difficult for some businesses to re-open and qualify for loan forgiveness.
  • Loan forgiveness is limited for businesses with higher non-payroll costs.
  • The money is very poorly targeted.  A business can qualify for PPP money even if it is still profitable.  To get money, a business owner just has to certify that “current economic uncertainty makes the loan necessary to support your ongoing operations”.  Basically, if you can reasonably claim to be worried about the effect of economic conditions on your business, step right up!

There is a good chance that we will discover that much of the money given away under this act was given to businesses that did not need it.  Since the current cost of almost $700 billion is only supposed to cover two months, and will probably be insufficient to do that, and there is no end in sight to the current economic freeze, this is inexcusable.  It would have been easy for the Senate to fix some of these problems.

The bill also provides $75 billion for health care providers and $25 billion for testing.  The testing provisions were controversial, with Republicans trying to put responsibility on states and Democrats wanting a more aggressive federal response led by President Trump.  There are a few restrictions on how the testing money will be spent (mostly related to how the money is allocated between the feds, states and localities, tribes).  States are required to develop testing plans and the feds are required to distribute some of the funds within 30 days.  The Trump administration is supposed to develop a strategic testing plan that will “address how the Secretary will increase domestic testing capacity”, and the plan is supposed to be updated every 90 days.  I’m sure that will be helpful.  (In fact, I don’t see anything in the bill that would prevent Trump from giving all the money to the states and washing his hands of responsibility entirely, but I may be missing something.)

My overall take is that the provisions related to testing are not nearly aggressive enough, and they are extremely vagueVague delegations won’t work in our current era of divided and highly polarized government, and it certainly won’t work with Trump running the executive branch.  Democrats need a new legislative playbook that avoids just tossing problems over to the executive branch to solve.  This is hard but can be done.  (See here and here for previous discussions.)

Despite my criticisms of the bill, it is arguably better than nothing, and I might well have supported the bill if I were a rank and file House member.  (In fact, the only House Democrat to vote against the bill was Ocasio-Cortez.)  The big question is what Democrats could have done to achieve a better outcome.  It is hard to tell from outside, but figuring out how to do better is critical.

Why a failed opening today may lead to a slower recovery when the epidemic has faded

Matt Yglesias has a good piece up explaining why “opening” the economy now won’t save the economy.  The reason is that people will continue to avoid contact with others until the epidemic is brought under control.  Simply allowing restaurants, theaters, and workplaces to open will not change this basic fact.  Indeed, airlines are still open for business, but the demand for air travel has nosedived as people (understandably) avoid being sealed in a poorly ventilated metal tube for several hours with dozens or hundreds of potentially infected fellow travelers.

In fact, a failed opening now may make it harder for the economy to recover after the epidemic is under control.  Right now, many people probably expect a V-shaped recovery, with rapid growth when the virus is contained.  All else equal, this belief will tend to produce a quicker recovery when social distancing ends by giving consumers confidence to spend and businesses confidence to gear up production.  By making people doubt that the economy will rebound sharply when the virus is contained, failed attempts to open the economy now may lead to self-fulfilling expectations of a prolonged depression.

The Stanford / Santa Clara county study

A bit of a post-mortem on my last post.  Andrew Gelman discusses the Santa Clara county study here.  He focuses on sample imbalances, selection bias, and especially the way the authors deal with the specificity of the test.  See his post for the gory details, but he is quite critical of the study, to the point of asking for an apology from the authors for wasting our time:

I think the authors of the above-linked paper owe us all an apology. We wasted time and effort discussing this paper whose main selling point was some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.

I’m serious about the apology. Everyone makes mistakes. I don’t think they authors need to apologize just because they screwed up. I think they need to apologize because these were avoidable screw-ups. They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.

How should we update our priors on COVID-10?

I want to think about how two pieces of news should change my thinking about COVID-19.  (Warning:  I have no expertise in medicine or public health, and you have no reason to take my thoughts seriously – but you knew that already.)

A new serological study in Santa Clara county (discussed by Kevin Drum here) suggests that far more people have been infected with COVID-19 than researchers had previously believed.  This is only one study and full of uncertainties, but it suggests that the infection fatality rate of COVID-19 (the chance that you die if you get the virus) may be much lower than was previously believed.  The authors suggest an IFR of .12% to .2%.  The Imperial College study, in comparison, used a rate of .9%.

It is tempting to say that a lower infection fatality rate is a good thing:  COVID-19 is less deadly than we thought.  I’m not sure this is right.  The fact that many more people have had the disease than we previously believed will not only affect our estimate of the infection fatality rate, it will also lead us to revise our estimates of other critical parameters.  For example, it suggests that COVID-19 is much more contagious than we previously thought and that the rate of asymptomatic infections is higher than we believed.

Higher rates of contagion and asymptomatic infection are both troubling.  Think about it this way.  Your chance of dying from COVID-19 depends on the probability that you die if you get infected times the probability that you get infected.  The new study suggests that the first number is lower than we thought, but the second number is higher.  I don’t know enough about the dynamics of the SIR model to know if this is a good tradeoff, but it’s not clear that it is:  Ebola had a very high fatality rate but a very low transmission rate, and we would clearly be better off with an easily contained Ebola epidemic than with COVID-19.  Higher asymptomatic transmission will make it much more difficult to control the spread of the disease without prolonged social distancing or massive testing.

Second, a piece by Matt Stieb in New York Magazine reminds us that death is not the only way COVID-19 harms us.  Serious long-term health impacts from COVID-19 infection – kidney and liver disease, heart and lung disease – may turn out to be relatively common among those who develop serious illness.  In addition to the life long suffering this will cause, it is conceivable that the long-term loss of life-years among people who survive initial infection with COVID-19 will exceed the loss of life-years due to immediate fatalities.  There may also turn out to be negative health consequences for people with less severe illness.  And the immediate suffering caused by the disease is often severe as well.

I don’t have a lot of confidence in this analysis, but overall, I’d say the news of the day raises my estimate of the likely health impact of the epidemic.  Of course, your mileage could easily vary.  What this means for policy is a separate question.

Epidemiologists, government failure, and COVID-19

Jason Brennan has a new post up doubling down on his earlier criticism of epidemiologists and government policy in response to the COVID crisis.  I responded to his earlier blog posts here.  I am still not convinced, but there are useful lessons to be learned from going through his argument.

Brennan continues to claim that epidemiologists produced bad statistical analysis, and that we should not take their advice seriously (all bolding is mine):

I’ve been criticizing epidemiologists–including the ones publishing in JAMA, the Lancet, NEJM, etc., and the famous ones who were making apocalyptic predictions on TV last month–for doing what is clearly bad work. My main complaint is, again, that their estimates about the danger of the virus are based on the wrong data (current infections) collected the wrong way (non-random testing of people who present themselves as sick). We all know better than that. You don’t sample on the dependent variable. You don’t sample in ways that suffer from severe selection bias. If you mostly test people who show up saying they are sick, and 3.4% of them die, it doesn’t tell you how many people have the infection, nor does it tell you what percent of people who have the infection will die.
Now, while many economists and others trained in stats have been saying the same thing, it’s surprising how many untrained people say we should instead defer to epidemiologists. You can see some of their arguments on Facebook and others in the comments to previous posts.

He does not repeat the suggestion in his earlier post that decisions based on analysis from epidemiologists “presumptively lack authority and legitimacy”, but he doesn’t withdraw it either.

Here is one way to think about the claims Brennan is making.  Suppose the following statements are true:

  • Epidemiologists overestimated the risk of COVID-19 by applying bad statistical methods to poor data
  • Politicians adopted costly lockdown policies based on flawed risk estimates produced by epidemiologists
  • Lockdown policies were unjustified at the time they were adopted, and this could have been known if better statistical analysis had been undertaken
  • Lockdown policies are unjustified now, given currently available information, and should be replaced by a different policy

What does the COVID-19 epidemic teach us about the role of government?

What lessons should we draw about the role of government from the COVID-19 epidemic?  I want to address this question in a few posts.  I’m going to start by examining a blog post by the libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan.  Brennan makes the following claims:

  1. Many medical journals published misleading papers based on bad statistical analysis and incomplete data; in particular the case fatality rate may have been overestimated because the total number of people infected was not (and still is not) known
  2. Many of the models used by researchers are “quite poor”
  3. Intellectual standards are low in medical research, the flawed papers accepted by medical journals would have been immediately rejected at economics journals
  4. Government has acted on this bad research and closed down the economy, inflicting severe harm on many people for unclear gains
  5. Government is responsible for the fact that better data was not available, because government failed to increase testing capacity and failed to undertake the types of studies that would have enabled researchers to estimate the key parameters needed for rational policymaking (such as the case fatality rate)
  6. Government decisions that are not made competently and in good faith are “presumed to lack authority (there is no obligation to obey it) and legitimacy (there is no moral permission to enforce it).”
  7. Because governments have acted on bad data and bad models in implementing the shutdown, government actions lack authority and legitimacy.
  8. The fact that government had to act quickly on the basis of bad information is irrelevant, or at least not dispostive.

I want to respond to these claims, especially his normative claims (6, 7, and 8), but I start with his criticism of medical researchers.

First, I believe it has been well known since early in the epidemic that crude case fatality rates are biased up because we do not know the true prevalence of the disease due to inadequate testing.  It was also known that crude case fatality rates early in the epidemic are biased down because there are people who are currently infected but have yet not died.  I believe that many researchers tried to deal with these statistical issues as well as many, many others.  I believe I have seen papers that published a range of estimates for the number of deaths based on different assumptions about these biases, although I am not going to go back and look for them.  Of course, I am sure that some bad papers were published.  This happens even when researchers are not facing a public health emergency.  But Brennan does not show that most papers published were bad.  In fact, he does not cite a single paper that used naive statistical methods.

Second, his claim that many of the models used are “quite poor” is unsubstantiated.  Again, I am sure that people made debatable modeling choices, and some people no doubt made errors in their analysis or misleading claims about their results.  Brennan does not provide any evidence that this was common, or that government policy depended on this.

Brennan apparently believes that intellectual standards are low in medical journals, at least relative to economics journals.  Again, he offers no evidence.  Of course, no doubt there are problems in some fields of medical research and epidemiology (nutrition studies are arguably pretty close to worthless, for example).  Many medical researchers understand this and are trying to correct it.  And it is also true that there are problems with empirical work in economics.  See Gelman here; many, many other citations could be given.  I note that the IHME model, which has been criticized for its methods and seems to be highly inaccurate in its predictions, was apparently developed by economists.  The only specific methodological flaw that Brennan points to is a failure to account for heterogeneity in R0.  But economists estimate models without heterogeneity in R0.  See here.  The use of simplifying assumptions and imperfect statistical tools is inevitable, especially under the severe time constrains imposed by a looming epidemic.  Empirical work is hard, researchers aren’t super human.

As an economist, I would love to believe that economists are geniuses with high intellectual standards, perfect models, and excellent statistical techniques.  I think we do have our professional strengths.  Nonetheless, Brennan’s attack on medical/epidemiological research and glorification of economics seems to me to be unwarranted and unhelpful.

Moving on . . .

Brennan seems to believe that bad research exaggerating the danger from COVID-19 led governments to overreact and implement excessively restrictive policies.  Again, he presents no evidence for this.  Many people believe that governments under-reacted, at least in the sense that they took too long to respond to the epidemic, and that this allowed the disease to spread to the point that standard test/trace/isolate methods were ineffective.  

What about Brennan’s moral claims?  He acknowledges that “in principle, governments can restrict our freedom to stop the spread of disease.”  But then he adds that “appealing to abstract principles is not enough to justify their actions. We need to know whether they made these particular decisions competently and in good faith, on the basis of good information.”

Here is an alternative view (one that, incidentally, I believe most economists would subscribe to):