by Michael C. Dorf
With COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States setting daily records, this seems like an appropriate time to check in on NYU Law Professor and libertarian public intellectual Richard Epstein. Recall that back in March, Epstein wrote a column for the Hoover Institution website condemning what he thought was shaping up to be a governmental overreaction to the pandemic. In that column, Epstein predicted that even without substantial government interventions, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States would be around 500. Shortly thereafter, Epstein acknowledged what he called a "stupid gaffe." He should have said 5,000 U.S. deaths and 50,000 deaths worldwide. The original column was thus corrected (at least twice).
Yet, as I explained in an essay shortly after Epstein published his analysis, even his "revised estimate [wa]s still probably at least two orders of magnitude too low." I wish I could say that I was wrong, but it is now clear that I was right. Each power of ten is an order of magnitude. Epstein predicted US deaths in the four figures and global deaths in the five figures. We have already experienced US deaths in the six figures and global deaths in the seven figures. As I predicted, even after correcting for his self-diagnosed stupidity, Epstein remained two orders of magnitude off.
We know from Bob Woodward that as early as February, Donald Trump chose to downplay the COVID-19 risk. But we also know that Trump is mercurial and thus might have been led by advisors to take more aggressive steps if they had persuaded him that controlling the pandemic would actually boost the economy over a several-month period and thus benefit him politically. That didn't happen, however, in part because, as the Washington Post reported, "[c]onservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials [were] circulating" Epstein's article playing "down the extent of the spread and the threat."
Epstein cannot be blamed for all of the deaths and long-term illnesses that the U.S. has experienced in the last eight months. Even countries like Germany that took more aggressive measures in the spring were hit by a second wave this fall. However, Germany has experienced a per capita death rate of less than a fifth of the rate in the U.S. And some other developed countries--like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan--have done even better. The Trump administration's insufficiently aggressive policies and Trump's active undermining of state and local public health measures are surely responsible for countless thousands of excess death and suffering in the U.S. One would think, therefore, that Epstein would regret whatever role his erroneous analysis played in contributing to all that death and suffering.
Yet so far as I have been able to determine, Epstein has made no public expression of remorse, despite continuing to maintain a public profile. Perusing Epstein's written and audio output over the last several months, one finds him stating views on all manner of questions. He can be seen denying that institutional racism is a problem in the U.S., pronouncing Trump the better choice than Biden, and then, following the election, lamenting the incoming Biden administration's plans to take climate change seriously. It's possible that buried within one of Epstein's columns or podcasts there is a mea culpa for the role he played in killing thousands of his fellow citizens, but if so, I missed it. Epstein certainly has not made any priority of a public expression of remorse.