David Leonhardt on the Error of "Trying to Solve For COVID Above All Else"
I interviewed David about how he helps the public do cost-benefit analysis
Today I’m excited to share a new episode of the Very Serious podcast with you. It’s my interview with David Leonhardt, the author of The Morning newsletter from the New York Times.
David has become a highly influential and sometimes controversial commentator on COVID. He also used to be my manager when I worked on The Upshot at the Times, and he’s influenced the way I think about how to synthesize information and weigh options on behalf of an audience long before he was doing it for so many Americans.
I invited him on the Very Serious podcast to talk with him about the somewhat surprising role he’s taken on as one of America’s top COVID influencers. Of course, that he is “surprising” is exactly what his detractors would complain about — he’s not a doctor, he’s not an epidemiologist, who is he to advise people that it’s about time for states to roll off their school mask mandates?
Like the economist Emily Oster, David has taken on the role of synthesizing expert information, helping people understand the balance of expert views, and how those expert analyses interface with their values as they seek to — in David’s words — “solve for the total well-being of society.” Cost-benefit analysis can be hard, and it makes sense people would turn to trusted analysts to help them do it, even when those analysts are necessarily not experts in the many specific domains the expertise is coming from.
One of David’s big criticisms of many policymakers and public health experts is they don’t attempt to do this critical balancing of values and expertise: they are “trying to solve for COVID above all else,” failing to properly weight other important aspects of well-being besides COVID illness and death.(In fact, some of the underweighted factors are themselves illness and death factors, like the sharp rise in drug overdose deaths we’ve experienced in the abnormal social conditions of pandemic disruption.)
Still, one big problem with “solving for the total well-being of society” is that you need to develop a view of which things matter and how much. Saving lives and educating children are both important — but how do we weigh that trade-off?
“Some people would say, well, it’s never worth it to lose a life,” David said to me in our conversation. “But as you know well, that’s not actually true… to save a single life, we would not deprive of all American children of the school year.”
That’s obviously correct, but not all the trade-offs are so easy. I asked David about some of the harder ones: How do you figure out how much loss of in-person instruction is worth preventing how many deaths? Which interventions are effective enough to merit imposing rules (like vaccine mandates) that many people chafe against? And when writing for a big national audience, how do you assess what values to even apply when figuring out what actions pass cost-benefit analysis?
Figuring out what the public wants and values is always hard — this is another previous podcast theme — and one of the biggest questions I had for David is how he assesses public preferences when they need to be an input before you can find the right output of policy or personal behavior. And he had some interesting thoughts on that, too.
Take a listen. And please email if you have any questions or feedback.
There will be another regular edition for the Very Serious newsletter coming to you tomorrow, but I hope you enjoy this Thursday podcast release in the meantime.
With great seriousness,
I think my conversation with David dovetails with the episode I recorded with Tom Nichols and Lanhee Chen a few weeks ago about the proper use of experts and expertise. Epidemiologists may be able to tell you how school masking will affect COVID transmission. But they’re not experts on how face coverings affect speech development or the development of social bonds. No one person is an expert on all the relevant matters that drive whether a mask policy is good. And it’s not up to those experts at all to decide the relative importance of goals that must be traded off against each other — that depends on the values of the laypeople affected.
It’s no surprise we see this error so much, given that COVID policy has often been treated as the domain of people whose specific job is to worry about infectious disease, rather than simply something those people are supposed to advise on.
Loved this episode! One thing David didn't really account for in the vaccine mandates for kids is that those are generally for diseases that have major effects in children (like polio). The difference with COVID is that it has little to no effect on kids.
Very good discussion with someone I disagree with so sharply. We knew very early, well before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, that transmission in schools and among children was amazingly low. The idea that it would be a hard call on what to do about schools but for the existence of vaccines is astounding from the expert synthesizer.
I would also like to hear a more detailed discussion regarding your thought process for determining what impositions on others bodily integrity by the government are good and which are not. From my perspective, Massachusetts v. Jacobsen is an anachronism in the same vein as Buck v. Bell (forced sterilization of the feeble minded). I thought we were well past the idea that rational basis is the correct standard for allowing the government to interfere with our bodies (Roe v. Wade; Cruzan by Cruzan; Skinner v Oklahoma, etc). The fact that the government happens to be right about this vaccine (and most if not all other vaccines) is incidental. Allowing the government to stick a needle in your arm because they say it’s good puts way, way, way too much trust in the government. I certainly believe that there could be a vaccination mandate that passed a higher level of scrutiny (more deadly disease; substantial risk to the voluntarily vaccinated, etc), but COVID, especially at this point, isn’t it. As Mr Leonhardt aptly noted, the risks of being unvaccinated almost exclusively fall on the voluntarily unvaccinated.
It you were looking for a different perspective on the same topic, you might want to consider Matt Welch of Reason Magazine as a guest.
Great episode. This was probably my second favorite after the opinion pollsters.