June 18, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes
trophy, hands

I don’t mean that Americans are winning the war against COVID-19, although that is true despite the misguided hype to the contrary. (What matters are hospitalizations and deaths and they are both trending down.) What I mean is that AIER is convincing the world that lockdowns were poor policies indeed, never to be repeated for this or any similar threat. We’ve had help from Tucker Carlson, The Lockdown Sceptics, Evidence Not Fear, Reason, and the Wall Street Journal, but surprisingly little from certain other quarters where it might have been expected.

Evidence of this impending victory comes from a number of sources, including the recent easing of private censorship against the COVID-19 videos and books of AIER and several others as the probability of a victorious lawsuit for spreading dangerous misinformation plummets and one for senselessly blocking valuable public health information increases. 

Another piece of evidence takes the form of a recently accepted, peer-reviewed article that calls lockdown skeptics mean psychopaths. 

You might recall seeing an argument among children quickly devolve into name calling. “You’re a poopy-head!” “No, you’re a poopy-head.” The same thing happens in the adult word, though (generally) with more sophisticated epithets. If you don’t believe me, look at Twitter for two minutes and see how many threads become ad hominem attacks on some person instead of critiques of his or her ideas. Scholarly debates, too, sometimes devolve into thinly-veiled name calling.

Rather than update their views as new empirical evidence becomes available, many people seek out confirmation of their existing views by ignoring, distorting, or discounting contrary data, information, and interpretations. When the evidence for a countervailing view becomes too strong, causing what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, many people break from logical analysis and start name-calling. 

Being the victim of an ad hominem attack is not fun, particularly if one is labelled something horrific like “psychopath,” but it is a good sign that the other side cannot, or will not, rationally engage in discussion anymore.

In fact, it is strange to see a study published in a psychology journal use the term “psychopath” at all because the professional phrase is now antisocial personality disorder. It’s akin to calling a mentally challenged person the “r word.” And to imply that an entire group is composed of psychopaths on the basis of a Mechanical Turk survey and some partial correlations done after removing “noncompliant and suspicious responses” (likely outliers that fudged up what the author admits are weak results) is little more scientific than calling them poopy-heads., especially when previous studies have carefully examined personality types and risk taking behaviors using non-derogatory concepts (See, for example, John Adams, “Cars, Cholera, Cows, and Contaminated Land: Virtual Risk and the Management of Uncertainty,” in Roger Bate ed. What Risk? [Oxford, 1997], 285-314.)

Since January 2020, AIER has been right about many aspects of the COVID crisis (the pandemic and the government’s response thereto). Most epidemiological models, by contrast, proved dangerously unrealistic

Here are a few highlights:

27 January: “Must Government Save Us From the Coronavirus?” was called alarmist because it noted, correctly as it turned out, that the government claimed broad powers to quell pandemics. But already it was clear that individual people, not the government, knew what was best. When the author coughed in a line at the airport, he found “a five-foot gap between myself and the people in front of and behind me” developed spontaneously, without any prodding from the CDC or Dr. Fauci.

27 February: “Economic Policy Must Prepare for Pandemic Disease” presciently predicted that the economic impact of a COVID crisis “could be devastating. Supply chains disrupted. Travel truncated and, in some regions, effectively stopped. Shipments of food and medicine sitting on docks. Workers holed up in apartments for months at a time.” That’s almost precisely what happened!

2 March: “The Coronavirus Reveals the Limits of Monetary Policy” predicted that the Federal Reserve could not combat a negative aggregate supply shock with monetary stimulus. Despite an unprecedented increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, the economy experienced its worst performance in history in March and April. On 5 March, “The Fed Cannot Combat Coronavirus” predicted that targeted lending to nonbanks by the Federal Reserve would also fall short if implemented. They were, and they did.

3 March: “Anti-Gouging Laws Can Kill” predicted shortages of PPE and anything else subject to price ceilings. Soon after, Americans were emptying the shelves of toilet paper and HCPs were using makeshift masks.

4 March: “Should Government Go Medieval During Pandemic Disease?” predicted that lockdowns would be found unconstitutional. While that has yet to happen at the federal level, several states, most famously Wisconsin, shot down shelter-in-place orders and business closures on constitutional grounds. Its claim that America possesses a surfeit “of paramilitary police forces that can quell riots but can’t protect momma or pop pop on the street because nobody in the neighborhood trusts police officers to do the right thing” also appears prescient in light of the events of the past few weeks.

12 March: “South Korea Preserved the Open Society and Now Infection Rates Are Falling” predicted that lockdowns would not decrease death tolls but would destroy economies, facts borne out by the relatively low unemployment and per capita COVID death tolls experienced by the five U.S. states that never locked down, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

18 March: “Good Reasons to Doubt the Estimate of COVID-19 Deaths” showed that the now infamous Imperial College model poorly coded by failed physicist turned epidemiologist Neil “Let’s Flout the Rules and Have Sex” Ferguson (yes, ad hominem but true and deserved) that claimed that 2.2 million Americans would die if people did nothing in response to the virus was hopelessly unrealistic and conflated government-imposed lockdowns with individual risk-mitigation responses. Subsequent articles on 21 March, 27 March, 23 April, and 30 April also questioned the validity of various unrealistic epidemiological models and the media hype that accompanied them and all have been vindicated by actual events.

19 March: “Revolution is in the Air” predicted that the longer the lockdowns remained in place, the more likely some spark would initiate nationwide uprisings. While direct protests against lockdowns remained small and peaceful, the George Floyd murder-by-cop video unleashed urban uprisings (and embedded violent rioting) on a scale not seen in this country in half a century and by the very groups (African-Americans, the young, and the unemployed) most hurt and least helped by lockdowns. And they are hardly over.

23 March: “Coronavirus Lockdowns: When Will They End?” predicted “widespread suffering” would soon “overwhelm many in the United States” because policymakers did not foresee the many costs of their lockdown policies. We are still learning about all of those costs but they now clearly outweigh any possible benefits. 

24 March: “It’s the Poor Who Are Suffering the Most” predicted, well before the mass media caught on or reports of COVID-19 ripping through meat packing plants were widespread, that lockdown policies helped to keep relatively affluent white-collar workers safe at home by exposing low-income, often minority workers to the novel coronavirus. 

29 March: “Coronavirus as Ideology” predicted, well before it became apparent to most people, that mask-wearing and social distancing and even scholarship about the costs and benefits of lockdowns, would soon be infected by politics. 

1 April: “We Don’t Live in a Police State. Or Perhaps We Do” showed that people in Britain were already chafing at police lockdown enforcement tactics, rendering it unsurprising that many joined the George Floyd protest movement when previous U.S. police shootings barely registered a ripple across the pond.

That record is so prescient that one might suspect the AIER, which is skeptical of even its own powers of prediction, has gotten lucky. Certainly not all of its prognostications have come true, at least not yet (there are, for example, early signs that the economy might roar back), but the main reason for its success is that its scholars are political economists, students of governance and politics as well as economics. They are empiricists oriented toward the real-world effects of policies, not modellers. They exercise discernment rather than flout fake mathematical precision. In fact, many of its scholars repeatedly have seen how mere models have led to outrageously wrong predictions in many areas of life. Once a scholar sees a few of these mathematical gaffes, regardless of their exact subject matter, it becomes easier for him or her to spot new ones.

Because 2020 has also been the year of the Murder Hornet (which so far as I can tell has killed precisely zero Americans so far, but probably plenty of bees), let’s take a quick look at CCD, or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony collapse disorder. (For numerous similar examples, see Ben Bloch and Harold Lyons, Apocalypse Not: Science, Economics, and Environmentalism [CATO, 1993].) In case you do not recall, CCD began in 2006 when news hit that worker bees in some hives were leaving their queens for reasons unknown. (Probably discontent at class disparities because for bees it isn’t all about the one percent, it is all about the one, the queen bee.) CCD was allegedly “novel,” so modelers had a field day, predicting $15 billion in direct damages and another $75 billion in indirect losses.

Then the media jumped in and suggested apocalypse awaited. Without bees, crops would go unpollinated, yields would plummet, and food prices would skyrocket. “The agricultural industry’s overreliance on this vanishing resource,” wrote one author in 2016, “means that the full impact of this pandemic will be realized not only by industry participants such as beekeepers, farmers, and members of secondary markets such as honey and wax, but also by final product consumers.” And, of course, “the magnitude of the threat posed by colony collapse disorder and the unprecedented decline in bee populations should not be understated [ironic emphasis added].”

The mistakes bee reporters made were similar to the ones that COVID reporters are making. For example, one took as evidence of impending collapse the fact that the number of bee colonies in the U.S. had declined to 2.5 million from 6 million 60 years ago. It apparently did not dawn on him or his editors that the emergence of a new mortality factor emerging in 2006 could not readily explain a steady decline in the number of beehives over the previous six decades! Turns out beekeepers simply made more efficient use of bees by transporting them from region to region as needed so they needed fewer of them. 

And of course government experts played a role. One USDA report, for example, claimed that “the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops.” In 2014, President Obama formed a Pollinator Health Task Force, which eventually produced a 64-page policy document of, let’s say highly dubious, value. (You can’t make this stuff up! For the details, see Randal R. Rucker, Walter N. Thurman, and Michael Burgett, “Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change,” Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists [Sept. 2019]: 927-60, summarized here.)

There is no vaccine or treatment for CCD, so it still exists. But so do honeybees and in greater numbers than before CCD appeared. (CCD has decreased the number of wild honeybees, but of course they are an invasive, introduced species.) CCD no longer makes headlines, though, because there was no bee lockdown. Beekeepers, i.e., people who make a living essentially ranching bees for the pollination services, honey, and wax they produce, figured out what to do well before Obama’s task force formed — raise more bees. Due to CCD, overwinter mortality rates doubled from roughly 15 to 30 percent. 

So keepers who want 100 hives next year start the winter with 144 hives (144 * .3 = 43.2) instead of 118 (118 * .15 = 17.7). Their costs are higher and in a competitive market that means that prices are higher but crops still get pollinated and my tea still gets a heap o’ honey when I feel like being “bad.”

But do not take my word for it. In 2015, even the Washington Post admitted that the “beepocalypse” had been “called off.” 

I’m not suggesting that the proper reaction to the COVID pandemic is to have more babies because, unlike beekeepers, the goal of policymakers is not (well, should not be) to achieve some population number, it is to help individual people to stay alive for as long as they would like to, and are able to. The point is to show that modelers and the media often err on the side of catastrophe rather than truth. 

Just watch weather forecasts, which combine modeling with media in one entity. The hype there is so palpable that most of us discount the snowpocalypses, storms of the century, perfect storms, and such, perhaps, in fact, more than we should. It’s the little boy who cried wolf syndrome — predict the End of Days too often and nobody will listen when the Four Horsemen do appear.

So the next time you hear the end is nigh, please do your own research, think for yourself, and react accordingly. Don’t assume a wolf is at your door because of an official warning but also don’t walk outside without taking a good look around and maybe carrying a wolf deterrent. I recommend a 9mm one.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

He is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019).

Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997.

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