Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Why are they so wrong?

I have been struck by the tendency of conservative intellectuals, including some I know (and am too fond of personally to rake over the coals in public) to get the pandemic so wrong. Non-Trumpists are included in this group; it's a more general ideologically driven myopia. They of course are going to want to forget it (and avoid learning from it) later on, but the lessons are worth considering even without any finger-pointing or shaming component.

Hostility to scientific (and all other) expertise, within the adjoining ideological swamp in which they swim, is one factor here, although some of these folks are genuine intellectuals. A second, of course, is reflexive anti-government sentiment, so that any sort of coordinated national response, especially at the expense of economic output of the sort that GDP measures, is immediately suspect. (Quick test: If, pre-Great Recession, you didn't believe in Keynesian policy responses to severe downturns, did you learn from that? Some did, e.g., Richard Posner, but others didn't.)

But another important contributing intellectual fallacy is over-estimating the extent to which relatively benign and sustainable equilibria will rapidly and spontaneously emerge in all "markets," including, say, the interaction between viruses (or other micro-predators - the particular substrate doesn't matter to over-generalizers) and their hosts.

Suppose, for example, that one has in mind the model of economic equilibrium in the market for consumer goods - Econ 101-style - along with the usual raft of assumptions suggesting that it will always spontaneously and instantaneously emerge in the absence of centralized interference, which of course is assumed, for its part, to be certain of miscarrying. (BTW, trained economists who actually understand economic theory in greater-than-Econ-101 depth realize that these models do NOT predict when or how fast equilibrium will emerge in multiply constrained real world conditions.)

Whether and when a relatively benign and sustainable equilibrium might emerge is really a matter of how the numbers play out in very complex and multifaceted settings where we don't know any of the inputs. But benign, sustainable equilibria don't always emerge, even in the very long term if too much gets destroyed along the way.

Consider the Black Death, American chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, and the global overkill by hominins of large landed species that didn't coevolve with them. In each case, one who was sufficiently committed, intellectually and emotionally, to believing in the rapid, inevitable triumph of spontaneous order and the invisible hand would presumably "predict" that the runaway phenomenon will stop itself. And it is indeed true that some of the relevant forces will always be pushing in that direction. But those forces don't necessarily prevail in any particular setting or time frame.

Global warming is of course another example. Many of the same people who are embarrassing themselves with respect to the pandemic have likewise been doing so on climate change, apparently because their ideology demands that they predict that the benign (from our standpoint) feedback effects will overtake the adverse ones - although in fact it is purely a question of how particularized phenomena happen to play out mathematically.

Unfortunately, if the rapid emergence of (at least relatively) benign spontaneous order in all "markets" (defined as broadly as possible) is your religion,  then you are going to be very wrong sometimes.


Unknown said...

Even if I knew how to respond, I'm not sure a response is deserved.

It would help if you would attempt to state what "they" have "wrong". Give some specific examples of what exactly "they" have "wrong". If possible, do not make these straw man examples. Then, if you would, state why you think "it is wrong". (There seems to be some attempt to do this, don't get me "wrong".) As I listen in on your solipsism, it has something to do with "their" belief in markets self correcting. Maybe. It is hard to tell, though.

I wouldn't mind citations to the science and expertise you rely on so you "get it right". I mean, you're a very, very smart guy and all, but as you've stated "they" get it "wrong" because they distrust science and expertise, this request seems fair, for starters.

Why you are right-- if there are reasons you are right-- would be applauded.

I am glad you don't feel a need to wear a mask as you sit alone at your picnic table. Yet I am probably one of those who is "so wrong." Maybe as a precaution, therefore, get that mask on! All times!

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