Monday, May 25, 2020

For Memorial Day: Remembering All the Fallen

by Michael C. Dorf

On this Memorial Day, I think it appropriate to remember not only those who lost their lives defending the United States against human enemies but the roughly one hundred thousand Americans who have thus far perished due to COVID-19. Some of those deaths were probably inevitable, but as the widely varied experiences of different countries show, a great many were not. And a recent study concluded that even short delays in imposing social distancing and quarantine measures resulted in tens of thousands of additional lives lost.

The dithering was bipartisan. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio fatefully delayed closing the city's schools. It was already March when NY Governor Andrew Cuomo said that there was "a level of fear" of the coronavirus among even young healthy people "that is not connected to the facts." That was, as I wrote at the time in what now seems like an understatement, "wrongheaded and arguably callous." But if de Blasio, Cuomo, and other elected leaders of both parties were tragically late to act, they eventually came around and took measures to mitigate the catastrophe. By contrast, Donald Trump has, at every step, done almost the exact opposite of what one would want from a leader.

That fact is hardly surprising. Trump is a corrupt, ignorant, and lazy narcissist. But at least early in his benighted administration, occasionally a very competent high-ranking official with a soul (usually either National Security Adviser McMaster or Defense Secretary Mattis) would be able to steer Trump towards a sensible policy position. With nearly every such individual having left the administration, it ought to have been expected that Trump would find no pushback from his team of sycophants. Yet even I would not have predicted that Trump's advisers would push him towards the worst possible policy.

Nonetheless, at the urging of his economic team, Trump wanted to stop the measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 almost immediately after they went into effect. And that team was in turn influenced by the terribly wrong analysis of one of conservative/libertarian legal academia's leading lights: Richard Epstein--who initially predicted only about 500 US deaths and then corrected that number to a maximum of 5,000.

Note that the link I just provided goes to my initial column explaining what was wrong with Epstein's analysis, but the Epstein column itself temporarily disappeared from the Hoover Institution website where it was published. This is the link to Epstein's initial March 12 column: https://www.hoover.org/research/coronavirus-isnt-pandemic, and this is the link to his still-disastrously-wrong March 23 correction: https://www.hoover.org/research/coronavirus-overreaction. Yesterday, if you followed either link you ended up at a completely unrelated 2012 column by Ben Wittes. Likewise, if you clicked on Epstein's most recent Tweet -- from April 20 -- you would be directed to a Hoover column by Epstein titled "The Governors' Coronavirus Stranglehold," (with the caption "Authoritarian decision-making has catastrophic consequences for the economy") but when I did that yesterday l ended up at the same Wittes column. And yesterday when I searched for "Richard Epstein" on the Hoover Institution website I ended up at Peter Thiel. The links have been corrected now, but it's unclear whether the misdirections were simply malfunctions or part of an effort to hide--but so far as I can tell, not to apologize for--Epstein's dangerous arrogance.

Epstein's even temporary disappearance from the Internet would be a positive development if it heralded the wider discrediting of the awfulness of economists and wannabe economists. Unfortunately, as Prof Buchanan has noted in two recent columns (here and here), the supply of awful economists is robust enough that they can absorb Epstein's loss without substantially diminishing in awfulness.

I hasten to add that--as I acknowledged in my first critique of Epstein's terrible epidemiology--the economic costs of the measures taken to combat the spread of COVID-19 are real and enormous. What has been so galling about the analysis of Epstein and his ilk is not that they have pointed to the costs of social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and other economy-slowing public health measures. It's that they have thought it necessary to gainsay the life-saving benefits that occasion those costs.

Different reasonable adults can sometimes tally up the same list of costs and benefits and reach different conclusion. Only children and those who are either psychologically arrested in early childhood (like Trump) or in the grip of a childish ideology (like Epstein's libertarianism) believe in magic in which there are no tradeoffs.

We can and should grieve along with those who have lost loved ones even as we also care deeply about--and urge Republicans to stop blocking legislation that would provide desperately needed help for--those who have lost income.

N.B. The foregoing column has been updated to reflect the changed status of the links on the Hoover Institution website.