The non-linearity of Covid-19 response

By Tyler Cowen

My colleague Bryan Caplan has some comments on the topic, here is also Robin Hanson here and here.  I think both are trying to fit the Covid battle too much into a framework of equating marginal benefit and marginal cost.  While that MB = MC condition is true tautologically for my views as well, I see it as a less useful framing given the non-linearities involved.  It is only a modest oversimplification to assert that either we are beating back Covid or it is beating back us, and we can’t just choose a point along a smooth curve.  You end up on one side of the distribution or another, if you are losing you are not really in control.

Here is a manipulative partisan tweet, but it still gets at a true point:

Since America is not a small, isolated island we don’t have the Kiwi option, but you can nonetheless see the two “winning” and “losing” options embedded in that comparison.

I think back to when I was 12 or 13, and asked to play the Avalon Hill board game Blitzkrieg.  Now, as the name might indicate, you win Blitzkrieg by being very aggressive.  My first real game was with a guy named Tim Rice, at the Westwood Chess Club, and he just crushed me, literally blitzing me off the board.  I had made the mistake of approaching Blitzkrieg like chess, setting up my forces for various future careful maneuvers.  I was back on my heels before I knew what had happened.

Due to its potential for exponential growth, Covid-19 is more like Blitzkrieg than it is like chess.  You are either winning or losing (badly), and you would prefer to be winning.  A good response is about trying to leap over into that winning space, and then staying there.  If you find that current prevention is failing a cost-benefit test, that doesn’t mean the answer is less prevention, which might fail a cost-benefit test all the more, due to the power of the non-local virus multiplication properties to shut down your economy and also take lives and instill fear.

You still need to come up with a way of beating Covid back.