Last month, I conceded defeat in my bet (with Robin Hanson) that US COVID-19 deaths would be less than 250,000.
My biggest mistake was thinking voters would care about results, and unite against a common enemy as they did in WWII. I should have been more aware of the tendency to treat natural deaths as more acceptable than deaths due to a hostile agent. Robin clearly did better at evaluating this.
A smaller mistake was to expect that summer weather would reduce the spread enough for suppression to be relatively easy. That was mostly true in Europe and northern US, but fairly far from the true in the sunbelt. I don’t know how I could have done better here – there seemed to be many models for why weather affected pandemics, with no clear way to distinguish them. I guessed that widespread air conditioning would have little effect, and I was apparently wrong.
I was maybe a bit too willing to treat evidence that the stock market had reacted too pessimistically as a sign that other pandemic-related forecasts were too pessimistic.
I still think that a fair amount of Robin’s reasoning was mistaken. This quote illustrates where I disagree:
Imagine that you were driving from A to B, and your first instinct was to take a simple route via two interstate freeways, both in big valleys. Your friend instead suggests that you take a backroad mountain short cut, using eight different road segments, many of them with only one lane, and some very wiggly. (Assume no phone or GPS.) That plan might look like it would take less total time, but you should worry about your competence to follow it. … Like the wiggly backroad short cut, containment is a more fragile plan, more sensitive to details; it has to be done more exactly right to work. To contain well, we need the right combination of the right rules about who can work and shop, and with what masks, gloves, and distance, tests going to the right people run by the right testing orgs, the right tracing done the right way by the right orgs with the right supporting apps, and the right rules requiring who gets isolated where upon what indications of possible infection.
I see containment as being much less fragile than Robin does (did?). The main obstacle to containment was multiple factions, with incompatible plans, fighting over the steering wheel.
The average mask wearer was likely getting less than half the protection that a wise mask wearer got, but that was likely good enough that the only important mask problem was that many people thought they were a bad idea.
Rules about who can work and shop made some sense in early spring, due to the massive uncertainty. Most of them should have been discarded by summer.
Competent tracing would have been a great way to reduce the burdens of the other components of containment, but I expect we could have managed containment without any tracing.
Social distancing is the only area where I see important uncertainty. Even there, we mostly knew how to imitate Wuhan, and decided (probably wisely) to aim for something nicer, and failed partly because many people refused to take even weak precautions.
The US burdened itself with maybe twice the cost of suppression, to achieve less than half the benefits. It presumably chose that course because it looked like a fair compromise between suppression and herd immunity to the voters who were in charge. It’s frustrating how the country has been rejecting the goal of compromise on many political issues, yet somehow needed to compromise on one of the few issues where competent experts could see that compromise sucks. (See also this comment about sacrificing to the gods and the harm from having choices).
It seems like US (and European?) culture is fragmenting (polarizing) more than I realized, and is no longer capable of an important class of achievements that were possible around WWII.
Where Is My Flying Car? had some hints that I could have learned more from, but even in hindsight it’s hard to get from those hints to a clear model. WEIRDest People has a partly clear model, but it would have been hard for me to figure out that model before the book was published.
How hard would it have been to generate better information about how to combat the pandemic?
It didn’t require rocket science to generate better knowledge than what we actually got. Mostly it took a focus on results, an understanding of incentives that’s only a wee bit better than common sense, and a modest willingness to try new approaches.
For example, Bill Gates or Donald Trump could have offered a $1+billion set of prizes for COVID treatments, presumably disbursing them near the end of the pandemic in proportion to the lives / suffering that those treatments prevented.
There are plenty of ideas that are pretty safe to try, but which didn’t get fast, high quality research, presumably because there was little money in it. E.g. vitamin D, zinc, selenium, elderberry, and foods with anti ACE activity.
Prizes are one simple way to generate such research. There are likely other approaches, both to improving treatment knowledge and to avoiding infections, that would have been similarly good and would have been easier to generate expert support for – I just picked one that is neglected and easy to describe.
Trump more or less knew that his job and reputation depended on having the economy opened up in November. Yet somehow that didn’t translate into a desire to adopt policies which would produce that result.
I gather he was too focused on day-to-day changes in his popularity to notice what effect his policies (or lack thereof) were accomplishing. That failing may be more conspicuous for Trump than for most politicians, but that shouldn’t reassure us that other politicians are much better on this axis.
E.g. it seems likely that politicians were pretty thoughtless or myopic when they focused more on closing beaches and playgrounds than on improving ventilation.
Outdoor schooling is a good example of a policy that would likely have hurt politicians’ immediate popularity, while producing a modest longer-term benefit. Although it’s unclear whether any of that longer-term benefit would go to politicians.
In sum, the US put lots of effort into pandemic-related behavior, but it went mostly into activity such as signaling tribal affiliation. Little of it focused on containment or mitigation outcomes.
I said, in the post where I mentioned the bet, “I expect this to be humanity’s last major natural pandemic”. I have significantly increased my confidence that we have the technical knowledge to accomplish that. Yet I now think there’s a 50% chance of another big natural pandemic, due to declining social abilities.