[Note: if interactive graphics do not cooperate refresh the page]
When my grandfather died 50 years ago it fell to me to settle and distribute his estate. Included in those duties was selling a rental house he had owned 40 years. As part of gathering up documents, I found the deed by which he had acquired the house in 1931. The deed stated that the property, valued at $900 then, was given to my grandfather by a bank which had foreclosed on it. The bank gave it to him instead of the $9,000 he had in the bank when it failed. People who say that can never happen again are dreaming. Panic if you wish about the pandemic. You are missing the point. Panic about the panic. I have used these pages to encourage measurement wherever possible. I am a fan of balancing costs and benefits, especially at the extremes. The coronavirus represents the special case where we should also examine who benefits. The old political saw “Never waste a crisis” provides a clue. An alert public should be paying attention not so much to whether politicians are measuring but how they are taking measurements and releasing those measurements to the public. Here is a good example. Much is made of co-morbidity, where death occurs as a result of more than one cause. Those causes may be physical or mental or a combination. Registering an official cause of death has numerous consequences. Diverse motives can drive reporting one cause as primary over another. The California Globe has an article which reports “Many doctors and coroners say they are told to count every death as coronavirus if the patient tested positive for it as hospitals receive a larger payment from Medicare.” Here we have an interesting intersection between pathology and economics. An article in the Atlantic looks to me like a counter move. Conspiracy theorists claim the Democrats wish to bring down the US economy to get rid of Trump. The Atlantic article has the Republicans threatening to turn NY, CA and IL into red states. Mud wrestling can be fun to watch. A widely known but poorly understood concept in game theory is Nash Equilibrium. In a two-person game (the classic example being the Prisoner's Dilemma) the failure of the players to cooperate always ends up with sub-optimal results (lower right cell below) for both parties.
What can we learn about today’s panic from this? All models of how bad the pandemic is or will be rely on knowing the unknowable, how many are infected. Many of the answers we get from these models depend upon two parameters, IFR, the Infection Fatality Rate; and Ro, the expected total number of infections a person will transmit over time. Neither of these is accurate because without comprehensive global testing we never actually know how many are infected (see Brian Williams' dilemma). It does not matter what your model is. It does not matter what your political party is. What matters is whether or not you are a politician. You can use any model. The denominator being unknown or unknowable allows for any result. Thus, the “game” is to keep testing in doubt (limit test kits, attack the test accuracy, etc.) such that you not only never waste a crisis, but you perpetuate the crisis as long as possible. The result…
…is exactly what politicians of every stripe want, which is to sow discontent and fear for as long as possible so they can broadcast plausible sounding promises which momentarily make them look like a Man on a White Horse. They do this continuously up until the first week in November. The goal is to make as much of that lower right cell their preferred color, never mind that it is the worst outcome for the country. This is just evidence of what we already know: A politician’s primary interest is not to serve the country but to get elected. Politicians want their spin doctors to keep the uncertainty in the air. George Box famously said “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Models most useful to politicians are the ones that are wrong and are kept wrong. Just because you are not paranoid does not mean that someone isn’t following you. Whether the pandemic was invented to get rid of Donald Trump depends on which side of the Great Divide you are on. The collapse of the economy based on something Trump did not cause is one question; orchestrating that collapse is a different question entirely. Granted blue state governors and the media hold sway with a frightened populace. But the problem with conspiracy theories is a practical one. Imagine a bunch of dejected, depressed and demoralized Never-Trumpers sitting in a room during the boom of January 2020 facing the certainty of a 2nd Trump Administration. Suddenly one of them jumps up and says, “I’ve GOT IT!!! When the flu season hits, we fan the flames of a panic and collapse the economy!!!” There are several things wrong with that scenario. One is that with the country about evenly divided an equal amount of economic pain will be meted out to each side with the attendant political damage, thus having a canceling effect. Second, it infers too much wisdom on the conspiring party. Do any of them really look like they could cook that up? The third, and perhaps most telling is that the timing is all wrong. The flu season declines through the summer and is over each year in week number 39. That is the third week of September, about the time people start thinking about election day. I have the same faith in Donald as I do in Bernie. Zero. Likewise, I have no faith in various proclamations of the number infected, therefore I have no reason to have faith in the output of any model. But I have COMPLETE faith in the ability and the desire of politicians to manipulate the public for reasons that benefit politicians. It won’t be long now. The next panic will be over stopping the Engine of Commerce which has provided for us so well for so long. There is a flu season every year. People get sick and die of the flu and other things all the time and it is never good when that happens. History will file away the this flu season with Tulips, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Y2K. But the political machinations which made it so much worse will be remembered for far longer.
A little something extra for those who read this far
In the graphic above with the red and blue bar you have an abstract look at the seediest side of politics. It is the best interest of every politician to keep uncertainty rising right up until the time you walk into the voting booth. The numbers that change in that graphic are based on a compartmental model of disease transmission, a methodology that has been in use since 1927. Below you see graphs which that model produces. Play with the sliders and you will find there is a lot of variation depending on chosen parameter values, but the curve does flatten. Nature does that, not politicians.