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What we talk about when we talk about a return to normal
The Biden White House thinks they're doing it, but they're not — yet
Last week Joanne Kenen in Politico ran a hit piece on David Leonhardt on behalf of the public health community. This seems like a good opportunity to address not only the specific controversy around those urging the United States to take a “back to normal” approach to the pandemic but also the larger — and longer-running — tensions between public health Twitter and quantitatively minded generalist political pundits.
Unsurprisingly, my sympathies lie with Leonhardt. But beyond a specific point about Covid-19, I think this dispute illustrates the important social role of smart generalists who deploy an analytic toolkit across issue domains.
It’s important to know things. But particularly as growing education polarization renders every community of subject-matter experts left-leaning, it’s important that progressive politics not become a logroll of deference to subject-matter experts. Because while subject-matter experts often know a lot and it’s important to understand what they are saying, they are also not always great at seeing across the whole field. Management of an endemic virus is necessarily an interdisciplinary problem. The ideal solution, obviously, would be to wave a magic wand and have the pandemic go away, and at one point I think there was hope that mRNA vaccines could be that magic wand. But though they are very good, they turned out to not be good enough to achieve that. I strongly and vocally support much larger investments in our anti-pandemic technical capabilities. But we also need to make policy for the here and now.
And given that a world in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulates is clearly worse than a world in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus never came into existence, we are inherently dealing with tradeoffs.
Vaccines have costs (some public money, noticeable but manageable common side effects, a very small risk of more serious side effects) that are dwarfed by the benefits (reduced odds of infection and transmission, enormously reduced odds of severe outcomes). But some other measures — including informal messaging that responsible and conscientious people should live their lives on war-footing — no longer pass cost-benefit muster.
Things were different in 2020
When I say that, some conservatives who’ve been beating this drum since the spring of 2020 respond, “at last, he sees the light!” The meaner ones say, “why did it take this asshole so long?”
But the situation changed dramatically once vaccines became widely available in the spring of 2021. A lot of people on both sides fail to think this through, but the key concept here is inter-temporal substitution. When the Great Barrington Declaration urging a return to normal behavior came out, we were just months away from vaccines being widely available, and that fact was quite foreseeable. The cost of delaying some things by several months would have been pretty low, and a lot of people died as a result of Thanksgiving and Christmas travel in 2020. In-person schooling was such a tough nut because that’s really not something you can delay. But all the rest of it could have, and should have, been delayed at a low cost.
Today, though, the situation has flipped for two reasons.
Vaccination lowers the risk of doing stuff.
Vaccination reduces the benefit of delaying stuff into the future.
And it’s on the second point where I think a lot of public health analysts have lost the plot. “Don’t do X for some defined period of time after which X will become dramatically safer” is a very different piece of advice than “don’t do X indefinitely.”
And shifting the frame from an individualized risk assessment to a stance of disinterested concern for the most vulnerable doesn’t actually change that reality. There are, after all, a lot of different ways that you could express an abstract sense of benevolence. Send some money to the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund. Seriously. Go do it. You are not living at the edge of subsistence, you have some money to spare. Curtailing your personal consumption and giving instead will help control inflation, too. Be a good person!
I don’t know whether or not that will work. But trying to get people, especially people who think of themselves as conscientious and high-minded, to give a larger share of their income to highly cost-effective charities is a plan for do-gooding that works on a permanent basis. Asking everyone to act like neurotic germaphobes, whether as a matter of formal public policy or of actual government regulations, does not.
Life is not currently normal
Lately I’ve seen a lot of people making the odd argument that the normalizers have won and life is already back to normal, I guess because restaurants are open now.
This is the mirror image of people who spent 2020 referring to a situation where restaurants were closed (or were open but only for outdoor seating) as a “lockdown.” And it makes me think that all-in-all people spend too much time thinking about restaurants.
So as a reminder, here is how life used to work:
Sometimes if you felt sick, you would call in sick and not go to work.
Sometimes if your kid felt sick, you would keep him home from school.
Sometimes due to feeling sick, you would cancel social plans.
Sometimes you would feel fine, but someone else would feel sick so your social plans would be canceled, your kid would have a sub, or something you were planning to do at work wouldn’t come together due to the absence of a colleague.
Here’s some stuff that has happened recently in my life:
I canceled a planned trip to Chicago because the organization that was hosting me decided it wasn’t okay to hold live events because of Omicron.
A friend’s daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated, missed a week of child care because — despite testing negative for SARS-Cov-2 — she was identified as a close contact of a sick person.
A friend of my son missed a week of school despite experiencing no symptoms because he tested positive in an asymptomatic screening program and then continued to test positive at home.
Some of the problems that people experienced in January were the problems of disease. I know plenty of people who got breakthrough Omicron cases that made them feel somewhere between “eh, it’s like a regular cold” to “ugh, I feel pretty awful.” Some of them missed some work because they felt sick. The contractor that’s supposed to pick up garbage from my kid’s school skipped a week because some of their drivers were sick and they didn’t feel like shelling out for overtime. Many schools have struggled with staffing both classrooms and school buses. People getting sick is necessarily disruptive.
But Covid-19 mitigation measures are causing burdens over and above the burden of disease per se. To the extent that disruptions are caused by sickness, we would expect to see more disruptions in conservative parts of the country with low vaccination rates. Instead, we see equal if not greater disruptions in liberal parts of the country, even though the higher vaccination rate reduces the burden of disease. That’s because those jurisdictions are implementing Covid-19 mitigation measures with costs that exceed their benefits. And by making high-vaccination places relatively dysfunctional, these mitigations are sending a negative (and inaccurate) signal about the power of vaccination to let people live their lives with confidence.
Tellingly, it’s not just that more liberal jurisdictions have these measures. The rules are specifically strictest in areas of life where left-wing people have the most political clout — universities and public schools — rather than in places with the highest objective level of vulnerability (nursing homes).
Production matters for everyone
A weird subplot of Trump turning Covid into a highly polarized issue was a confusing ideological merger between left-wing anti-capitalist politics and Covid-19 hawkery.
You’ll hear a lot that a desire to have things open is just about corporate profits or that we can fight the pandemic by “paying people to stay home.”
This just doesn’t totally make sense. It’s true that because we live in a mostly market economy, people mostly work at for-profit businesses and buy things they need from for-profit businesses. So when I wanted to quit Vox and launch Slow Boring, I bought a computer and a microphone and other supplies, and I bought them all from capitalist firms. But if computers were made by worker-owned co-ops or state-owned enterprises, I still would have needed to get a computer from whoever makes computers and someone would have to ship it to me.
Who controls the means of production is an important question in life, but the issue of pandemic cost-benefit analysis is about the value of the production itself.
For a while, restaurants were closed in many places but meatpacking plants and car factories were still open. That was a judgment that the risk/reward function of production was high in the latter cases but low in the former. Restaurants were generally open to takeout, though, on the view that it was still valuable to let people get meals and that cooks (unlike diners) can wear masks.
These kind of judgments are just fundamentally inescapable. We shouldn’t sacrifice public health on the altar of the almighty dollar. But delivering goods and services to people isn’t just about money, it’s about the goods and services themselves. Without them, quality of life suffers.
This applies in the public sector, too. Everyone is sick of arguing about schools, so consider that Social Security Administration offices are now scheduled to reopen on March 30 after two years of closure. Their closure has been extremely inconvenient for elderly and disabled people who have difficulty or discomfort accessing services they need over the internet. If leftists want to understand why a lot of people are suspicious of socialist politics, they should pay attention to this example. Having a service provided by the public rather than private sector doesn’t necessarily make it better.
Now as it happens, some things can only be done by the public sector. But because the public sector isn’t directly accountable to customers in the same way, it’s only through political demand for quality operations that they can occur. And it’s those who most need services who most suffer from mitigation policies that heavily center public sector closures.
We need a plan for normalcy
Joe Biden is very unpopular now, even though most of the individual ideas in Build Back Better poll well, and (more tellingly, in my view) there’s basically no grassroots mobilization against those ideas.
That, in turn, has generated a weird cottage industry of calls for him to do a “Sister Souljah moment” against someone or other, which I think is a very confused idea.
What he should do is forcefully articulate a pathway for re-normalization, and he should do some Biden coalition-building stuff and do it in conjunction with some other key actors. The president can’t order K-12 schools to change their quarantine rules. But the Secretary of Education can make it clear to the NEA and AFT that unless they enthusiastically agree to a return to normal schooling for next year, the White House is going to go nuclear on them. Then there can be a happy joint announcement with the Education Department, the CDC, and a bunch of education leaders that practices will vary district by district for this spring, but by next fall students aren’t wearing masks or doing quarantines.
Then the administration can set a date much earlier than the beginning of the fall school year and make that the day that the mask mandate for airplanes, Amtrak, and federal buildings ends. They can coordinate with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to do the same for Congress.
I know that Covid-19 hawks feel that masks are a no-big-deal low-cost intervention, especially since you can take them off when eating. They feel that anti-mask sentiment is a weird form of identity politics. But that’s exactly the point — the masks are a potent symbol of a crisis situation. Rochelle Walensky telling the vaccinated to take their masks off back in June was an important symbolic moment. But the fairly rapid back-pedal in the face of the Delta variant was also important. There’s nothing wrong with people wearing masks if they want, and the federal government should do everything possible to ensure that high-quality non-fake masks are available. But unless the plan is for the state of emergency to last forever, it needs to end sometime. That means lifting the mask rules, and it means prominent administration figures not wearing their masks.
The White House currently believes that they have taken the pro-normalcy view, and certainly they’ve gotten the hard-core Covid hawks mad at them. But I think their stance on masks is the key sign that they, in fact, have not.
Last but not least, I think it would be smart and helpful for the White House to take the pro-normalcy side in an ongoing cultural argument.
Ever since it started to be legally permitted to do stuff, there’s been a question of who holds the moral high ground — the people who are doing the stuff that’s now legal to do or the people who are abstaining. The kinds of people who are mad at David Leonhardt have propounded a worldview in which the truly virtuous are those who do remote work, Zoom with family in other cities, exercise at home on their Peloton, and maybe engage in a little light socializing with friends outdoors during the nice weather. You may be allowed to do other stuff, but the truly correct, conscientious mode of behavior is to abstain or minimize.
The centerpiece of a pro-normalization initiative would be for political leaders to switch back to something more like the (misguided at the time) February 2020 message of “don’t panic.”
The message should be “get your shots and live your life.” I would pull an old copy of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” off the shelf and talk about how it’s good to attend church or join a bowling league or be part of a book club or a regular poker game. Spending time with family and friends and out in the community is important. Your kid wakes up annoyingly early on a weekend morning and you take him to the local coffee shop for a muffin and you see the other bleary-eyed neighborhood parents there and have a chat. Go to a museum or to see a play or to a movie theater and support the arts. Check out a new restaurant and support small businesses.
The last time Biden went to a restaurant it turned into a gaffe about his compliance with the finicky mask rules. Next time he should go to a jurisdiction that doesn’t have a mask mandate (ideally D.C. will lift its mask mandate) and just have a nice time and talk about how it’s nice to do normal stuff. Kamala Harris should go to the Burr and watch a Howard basketball game.
In my experience, the Biden administration believes that they have taken the pro-normalcy side of the argument. What they’ve actually done is made the most extreme public health people mad at them. Which is actually not the same as aggressively pushing to normalize policy and cheerleading for normal behavior. That’s what they should do. And then at the same time, they should push aggressively to fund their own biodefense proposal to develop the tools we need to prevent the next pandemic from landing us in this same mess.
This pandemic is a disaster, and conservatives discredit themselves when they try to say that it’s no big deal. But you shouldn’t respond to a disaster with mitigations that have high costs and low benefits.