My Old Man Rant

As a 62 year old man, I think I’m entitled to rant once in a while. But instead of “you kids get off my lawn!”, this is my rant:

In principle, economics can help advise most any decisions, like when to wake up, or whether to own a second car. But there are fixed costs to doing explicit econ analysis, and also persuasion costs when you try to influence the decisions of some audience. Thus econ analysis seems most valuable for the biggest decisions whose the audience respects economists for those decisions. Or perhaps many similar but smaller decisions which can all be analyzed at once in the same framework. As we economists are most known for our work evaluating institutions, and as our institutional choices are some of the biggest ones we have, this all suggests our biggest wins come there.

I was first exposed to economics and libertarianism at the same time, and what most excited me about both were similarities to science fiction: they let me imagine very different social worlds. One could see how we could have very different institutions from our current versions, ones that would also plausibly be better. Yes, one couldn’t be very sure that those worlds would be better. But they gave us new things to try, to test and see if they might be better.

When I was young, theory was king, and I tried to master theory. But since then data has come to be king (and queen), even in econ and libertarian circles. Yet I hadn’t realized just how far that trend had gone until this pandemic. To me the obvious theory question a pandemic raises is: what are good general institutions for dealing with pandemics? I wrote a bit on that early on, but was told then that we instead needed immediate help in a crisis. Which I also tried to offer, but which many hated.

Yet it is now two years into what is looking more and more like an eternal pandemic, and I still haven’t see economists or libertarians talking about better pandemic institutions. While this pandemic has done great damage to libertarian sympathies, I’ve only seen libertarians argue that in this particular pandemic, doing nothing officially would have been better than doing what we did. And I’ve seen economists argue about particular parameter settings of the usual government-run system: rules, subsidies and direct government management of masks, lockdowns, tests, and vaccines. Mostly via data, not theory, analysis.

But I’ve not seen work on if there are better institutional alternatives to these two categories, if not for this pandemic then for future ones. Which to me feels like a deep betrayal of what I most value in econ: our ability to imagine, test, and argue for big institutional changes. Even my immediate (and beloved) colleagues haven’t been interested.

To me, the obvious other category is: law. We are better off having law to deal with many harms we can each do to each other, such as assault, slander, and reneging on contracts. Better than ignoring them, and better than having government agencies more directly manage such behaviors. Yes, our society runs law centrally, and likely law would be better if offered privately. But even so, for many harms we are better off because we now apply law over the other two main solutions of doing nothing officially or direct government management.

For law to work for assault, slander, theft, or car accidents, we need it to be often feasible to bring sufficient evidence to convince a court that a particular person harmed a particular other person to a particular degree at a particular event. If so, we can then sufficiently discourage such harms merely via the threat of such legal penalties. At least if we can sufficiently punish those we find guilty, and if we make it easy enough for complainants to subpoena the evidence they need to make their case.

Law today often ensures sufficient punishment via jail and criminal law, which works even if not as well as would vouchers. Law usually allows parties to subpoena any info relevant to a live case, and it so happens that evidence needed to prove assaults and car accidents lasts long enough to let them be so subpoenaed. With vouchers and the level of surveillance likely soon, I don’t actually think we’d need most of our traffic laws; the threat of lawsuits would be enough.

The main policy problem with pandemics is that some people hurt other people by infecting them. Just like they do in assault, slander, theft, and auto accidents. So law could deal fine with pandemics if we could meet the same two conditions: (1) sufficiently able to punish those who found guilty, e.g. via jail or vouchers, and (2) often enough able to easily-enough subpoena sufficient info to show who did what to whom. It is on that last point that economists, and lawyers, have traditionally thrown up their hands and concluded that law can’t deal with pandemics.

That is, people have just assumed that it is not possible to tell who infected who in a pandemic. At least not often enough for law to be our main way to deal with severe pandemics. So for something like the flu we subsidize vaccines and little else, while for covid we go crazy with government managing many related details.

But today with smartphone tracking we can actually see who was close enough to whom when to have infected them. And if we have spit samples from two people infected with covid, we can compare the DNA in their viruses to see if they match. By combining these two pieces of information, one could make a sufficiently strong case that a particular person infected another particular person with the virus at a particular time and place.

So the question that remains is: should we actually induce sufficient information collection and subpoena power, and sufficient punishment ability, to let law deal with pandemics? That is, on the one hand we might make infecting others a punishable crime, require everyone to have their phone track their locations, to report their infections, and to save regular spit samples. And then let government police pour over these details. Which does sound like a pretty intrusive police state, though perhaps still better than the actual police state we’ve had during this last pandemic.

Or, only during an officially declared severe pandemic we could tell everyone that they must either strictly isolate, or, they can get a “pandemic passport” by agreeing to get a voucher, have their phone track their locations, and regularly save spit samples, all available only to be subpoenaed in case of lawsuits by people who claim to be harmed, but not for general browsing by a police state.

Yes, once a pandemic becomes nearly endemic, frequent infection events could clog up courts. But at such scale vouchers would streamline their processes and settle almost all cases out of court. I also know of ways to greatly cut court costs. And damages awarded might greatly fall once one could credibly argue that the victim would likely have caught it soon from someone else.

This idea of legally requiring people to save info so that it can be available to be subpoenaed for future lawsuits is not a particularly new idea. It is just the application to the case of pandemics that would be new. But in our new world of greatly increased surveillance and info of various sorts, we should in fact be thinking about how all that new info might help us solve problems. Like pandemics. Via new institutional changes

Come on, don’t any economists or libertarians out there want to think about new pandemic institutions?

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