Trump and the burden of choice

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. These memorable Rush lyrics capture an important idea missing in the debate today about COVID-19, experts, and plans to reopen the economy. To whit, medical experts are not economic experts, and any successful plan to reopen the economy will increase COVID-19 deaths in the short run but save lives in the long run by avoiding the fallout of a global depression. “The cure should not be worse than the disease.”

Reasonable people agree that experts should be consulted and that their advice should be heeded, but not always by decree. For example, experts tell us that smoking is bad for our health. However, in the name of liberty, the state does not compel compliance, even though the positive consequences are measurable. The challenge with COVID-19 is that our right to live a normal life and risk infection is offset by the risk of infecting others.

Apart from questions of liberty, this debate is also about the capacity of experts to reach correct conclusions and provide advice to millions of people. Experts are notoriously bad at predicting the future and rarely reach consensus, which should give us pause. However, rather than dismiss experts and leave us to fend for ourselves, we should consider the conditions under which experts excel. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, experts perform best when they satisfy the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

            1. An environment that is sufficiently regular and predictable.

            2. An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.

For the first condition, the spread of infectious diseases is sufficiently regular and predictable, but the strategy for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is based on commonsense measures (social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands) and mastering the relevant data that does not require medical expertise. With the right data, such as how infectious the virus is and how long it survives outside the body, medical laymen with expertise in data and statistics can make policy recommendations to track and mitigate the spread. So far, the computer models have been spectacularly wrong, which means that even the data experts are working from faulty premises.

For the second condition, COVID-19 is a novel strain, which means we should make reasonable mitigation decisions now as we learn the regularities through prolonged practice. For all we know, COVID-19 is widely spread and no more lethal than the common flu, but we should err on the side of caution as we collect data. According to the CDC, the timeline for a vaccine is 12-18 months, which rules out nationwide vaccination as a goal before reopening the economy because such a delay would be far more destructive than the worst-case pandemic scenario.

If we are going to place our trust in experts, it should be experts who understand the relevant data and the predictable consequences of a continued economic shutdown, such as timelines for ending lines of credit, shutting down factories, and laying off employees. We should strive with all our might to avoid the trap of submitting to the cognitive ease and coherence of the known (daily infections and deaths) and focus on the cognitive discomfort and chaos of the unknown (the long-term consequences of an economic shutdown). Like Enders Game, we should not place our trust in experts who lack the courage to make difficult decisions or who fail to understand that every choice places a price on life.

President Trump has the Herculean task of balancing the competing interests of managing the COVID-19 infection curve with reasonable and recoverable restrictions on economic activity, all the while deflecting the irrational demands of an opposition party obsessed with removing him from office. President Trump was right to say that reopening the economy would be the most difficult decision of his presidency, similar to facing the short-term horrors of declaring war on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Given the prevalence of asymptomatic individuals and the delays of showing symptoms, any transition to reopen the economy will increase the risk of exposing individuals to COVID-19. However, if done properly, this decision will save the economy and many more lives in the long run.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird -- School of Global Management.

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