Last week I wrote a post regarding the dangers of allowing experts with narrow perspectives to dictate public policy. Others, including futurist George Gilder, have written on the same theme. (Gilder Post) There are many reasons to be cautious in relying on experts. One is that they often aren’t so expert, especially when it comes to areas with great uncertainty. Projecting the course of an epidemic certainly falls into that category. Another is that they are after all human beings and human beings all have their cognitive biases and blind spots. In the earlier post I used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate what happens when only one perspective is used in decision making. Another useful reference might be tunnel vision. Our public health experts in particular, appear to only be able to see one part of a problem and even that very narrowly. They seem to view their task as solely “I must prevent as many deaths as possible from coronavirus.” If that is your concern, you have every incentive to recommend the most extreme actions that will achieve that goal. That is exactly what we are seeing. And you then have every incentive to claim that in the absence of those extreme actions, very large numbers of lives will be lost, which is also what we see. In fact, the more deaths that you project will occur if you don’t take extreme actions, the better you look when the number comes in below that projection. It is kind of a no-lose proposition for the experts, and the politicians who follow their advice. For the public, right now, it is not so much a no-lose proposition, as a can’t win. The public is being told either you have a really high chance of dying or you can lose your jobs and live in a ruined economy.
What is somewhat surprising is that these public health experts must be fully aware of all the health harms that flow from economic recessions and depressions, yet they don’t appear to be weighting those harms at all in their recommendations. And it is also surprising that the views of economists aren’t being given equal weight in making decisions. Why at every press conference do we see the public health experts, but not a word from the economists to explain all the damage being done in terms of jobs being lost? The number of deaths from coronavirus is a guess at best, and no one can tell us how many of those deaths are actually saved by the extreme economic shutdown, but we know with certainty the enormous toll of job loss and financial harm. As Gilder suggests, true political leadership would encompass the ability to synthesize all viewpoints, those of a variety of experts in different fields but also those of the public, who of course are ultimately the most affected by decisions made. And a leader has to have some over-arching principles to guide their decision-making. For public policy, that principle would appear to be to do the most good for the most people, or to do the least harm. That almost certainly is not occurring in regard to the coronavirus epidemic. Instead of reasoned, balanced responses we see panicked enactment of the most extreme measures, made by politicians who then hide behind the recommendations of a limited set of the “experts”.
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It’s easy to measure deaths, more difficult to measure economic damage, although job losses, unemployment, and closed businesses would be ample evidence for most. But writing stories about economic damage is hard, as you have to have to ascribe a dollar value to the lives lost vs. the economic damage incurred and make a judgment about which way the scale is leaning. That analysis is hard, makes people feel uncomfortable, so you write about something else.