I’m reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and I just read a segment about public policy that I thought was fascinating. Here’s a bit of an excerpt:
Differences between expert and the public are explained in part by biases in lay judgements, but [Paul] Slovic draws attention to situations in which the differences reflect a genuine conflict of values. He points out that experts often measure risks by the number of lives (or life-years) lost, while the public draws finer distinctions, for example between “good deaths” and “bad deaths,” or between random accidental fatalities and deaths that occur in the course of voluntary activities such as skiing. These legitimate distinctions are often ignored in statistics that merely count cases. Slovic argues from such observations that the public has a richer conception of risks than experts do. Consequently, he resists the view that the experts should rule… When experts and the public disagree on their priorities, he says, “Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other.”
Cass Sunstein, disagrees sharply with Slovic’s stance on the different views of experts and citizens, and defends the role of experts as a bulwark against “populist” excesses. Sunstein is one of the foremost legal scholars in the United States, and shares with other leaders of his profession the attribute of intellectual fearlessness. He knows he can master any body of knowledge quickly and thoroughly, and he has mastered many, including both the psychology of judgement of choice and issues of regulation and risk policy. His view is that the existing system of regulation in the United States displays a very poor setting of priorities, which reflect reaction to public pressures more than careful objective analysis. He starts from the position that risk regulation and government intervention to reduce risks should be guided by rational weighing of costs and benefits, and that the natural units for this analysis are the number of lives saved (or perhaps the number of life-years saved, which gives more weight to saving the young) and the dollar cost to the economy. Poor regulation is wasteful of lives and money, both of which can be measured objectively.
After reading this, my immediate thoughts went to COVID. If you really think about it, the debate around Covid has really been centered around this idea, which is that should go full on Sunstein (i.e., let government and policy experts make all the decisions) or go full on Slovic (i.e., when policy experts and citizens disagree, show respect to the people by letting them decide what they think is best given the way they are evaluating risks).
The chapter, which is titled Availability, Emotion, and Risk talk about this concept of availability (from the previous chapter) which is the idea that people have a tendency to think better of something given how easily they are able to recall it (i.e., how available it is to their memory). For instance, if someone has just witnessed a car crash, they are more likely to think that car crashes happen very often. The experiment mentioned in the previous chapter was asking people to define how assertive they were after being tasked to recall 6–12 instances of themselves being assertive. Depending on how easy people were able to recall it, they rated themselves as more or less assertive (more easy to recall = more available = more assertive).
Now, in this chapter, they also talked about the concept of availability cascade, which is the idea that something happens, people make a big deal out of it because they are concerned, then it gets picked up by the media, which talks about it, which makes people more concerned, then more media coverage happens, and then eventually it because a really big deal—in many cases reaching the national or international level. There were two examples of this: The Love Canal affair in the 1980s and the “Alar Scare” of the 1990s. I won’t dive into the details of those as you can easily look them up, but both illustrates how the availability cascades brings up an issue forward, makes it very available, and then forces public resources to be spent to solve those issues—regardless of whether the issue was a big deal or not.
At the end, Daniel Kahneman even shared his own point of view on the debate:
Where do I come down in the debate between my friends? Availability cascades are real and they undoubtedly distort priorities in the allocation of public resources. … I share Sunstein’s discomfort with the influence of irrational fears and availability cascades on public policy in the domain of risk. However, I also share Slovic’s belief that widespread fears , even if they are unreasonable, should not be ignored by policy makers. Rational or not, fear is painful and debilitating, and policy makers must endeavor to protect the public from fear, not only from real danger.
With all that said, this made me think about Covid a lot because it’s so relatable. The initial question about how experts view risks vs. how citizens do made me wonder, what are the risks of covid?
Risks of Covid
The questions I’m asking here is not necessarily what the actual, real life consequences and risks of Covid are, but more like, what risks should be looked at when looking at Covid. The following are the ones I came up with (and this is assuming nothing is done by the government to mitigate it):
- Cost of Covid to the economy
- Number of Covid cases
- Number of Covid deaths (i.e., covid as the sole of death)
- Number of Covid related deaths (i.e., covid as one of the comorbidity)
- Number of people with long term, negatively life altering consequences (let’s just say, affecting them for at least 3+ months)—this would include deaths and those directly affected by deaths like family or friends
- Worst case outcome of any of the above if Covid is left on its own (think, mutations like the Delta variant)
As you can imagine, whichever risk measurement you choose in the above, it changes the dynamic—from slightly to very drastically. I think the last one is the one that makes the outcomes of Covid the worst.
Benefits of Covid
There is not much to be said here: there are clearly not many benefits if any at all. The only one I could think of is one having a stronger immune system for someone who gets Covid and recovers.
With all that said, there’s two points I want to make here.
The first one is that it does NOT make sense to look at any of the risk factors of Covid (any of the above or any that you could think of) without comparing it to other diseases or other things that could have similar risk factors, and The reason why is quite simple. We pick a (or many) risk factor in order to evaluate what our response to Covid should be. That response ultimately involves using public resources and measures to mitigate the risk factor. However, public resources are (1) scares and (2) shared among all the issues that public resources could be spent on. Scares, meaning that what we can do with this resources adds up to more than there is of this resources—and here I’m making use of a definition of scarcity by Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics, which I’ve talked about in a previous blog. Shared, meaning that if we use public resources on any given issue, we have less to use it on other remaining issues. Therefore, looking at any risk factor without looking at how this risk factor is affected by different diseases or events is like claiming that our public resources are neither scares nor shared, which is not true. For that reason, we have to look at how Covid compares to other diseases and other things.
The second point I want to make is that just how we looked at the risk factors and benefits of Covid, we have to also look at the risk factor and benefits of Covid responses. The reason we have to do this is for the same reasons as above. The Covid response is a tax on public resources and therefore, the cost-benefit analysis must be done here.
Effective Covid Response
I see two key conclusions from the above two points (although there are many).
- For covid, we must pick the public response that minimizes the risk factor chosen as much as possible! In this case, if we picked deaths, the covid response must be one that reduces deaths by covid as much as possible.
- For covid, we also must pick solutions that have the least amount of risk associated with them as much as possible.
That means that vaccines are a good covid response because they effectively reduces hospital admissions, see this study. At the same time, governments must continue to monitor the monetary cost of these vaccine. Personally, I don’t think it matters too much, but if the cost was prohibitively expensive, that would bring to question whether it’s a good solution or not.
The above also means that lockdowns are probably not a good covid response because their effectiveness is at best somewhat effective as this one study shows (while another study had a mixed effectiveness conclusion) and at the same time expensive to the economy (using up a large amount of the public resources).
I believe the same can be said about masks mandates, which I think is totally different from people voluntarily wearing masks. The latter is a good covid response because there’s a very low cost to just wearing your mask while it can offer benefits (less contamination), whereas mask mandates may be a bad covid response because they have the risk of increasing government power—which has its own many risks (to note: I’m a libertarian so I’m naturally against more government power, but that’s a whole other topic for another day).
Finally, this also means that if there exists any medication out there that shows some level of effectiveness for reducing covid’s risks without showing any alternative risks, then that medication is a good covid response. It doesn’t make sense to keep an open mind to any such medication because doing that increases the cost to the scarce, public resources.
These are just my quick thoughts! I honestly don’t feel super hard or passionate about any of these, but I do enjoy when a difficult question—such as “how do we tackle Covid?”—can be made easier to answer through logical frameworks such as this. I am an over-thinker, so for every little decision I make, it’s easy for me to be stuck in a forever loop of whether it was a good decision or not. That is why I seek these thinking frameworks that help make decisions easier to evaluate. So, the knowledge I’m gaining from this book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is definitely worthwhile for me because I’m learning what all the different biases are and how I can mitigate them and make better decisions. Anyways, I hope you found this reading useful.