Back to normal?

A year ago I suggested that we had under-reacted in the early stage of Covid-19 and would overreact at the end of the pandemic. And that seems to be happening.

I recently visited my mother, who lives in an apartment complex that caters to older people. All the people residing there have received both doses of the vaccine, and yet all sorts of restrictions remain in place. People still need to wear masks, and outside visitors are limited to 2 at a time. The front desk kept asking me if I’d recently been out of the country—as if that would have made me more dangerous!

Bryan Caplan is marketing t-shirts to encourage society to get back to normal, once vaccinated:

This story caught my eye:

Biden receives high marks on COVID-19, lags on immigration, guns: POLL . . .

A significant slice of the country also backs how Biden is handling distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, with 3 in 4 Americans approving.

The evidence suggests that the US government is doing a poor job on vaccine distribution, and also that nothing unusual is happening at the border.

So why the poll results? I suspect it’s because the media is telling the public that the vaccine distribution is going great and the border is a disaster. The narrative is that Trump was tough on the border and incompetent on Covid, so reporters simply look for any scrap of information to confirm their priors that Biden will be weak on the border and more competent on Covid.

It’s like back in 2008, when the narrative said it was a housing/banking crisis, and no one in the media bothered to investigate why the Fed was refusing to cut interest rates after Lehman failed. Not part of the pre-determined narrative.

PS. Yes, most countries are doing even worse on vaccines, but that doesn’t mean we are doing a good job.



21 Responses to “Back to normal?”

  1. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    30. March 2021 at 09:59

    “…and also that nothing unusual is happening at the border.”

    I feel like this needs to be explained better.

    “So why the poll results? I suspect it’s because the media is telling the public that the vaccine distribution is going great and the border is a disaster. The narrative is that Trump was tough on the border and incompetent on Covid, so reporters simply look for any scrap of information to confirm their priors that Biden will be weak on the border and more competent on Covid.”

    I’m confused. I thought the narrative was when Biden took over the border crisis got worse because potential migrants were no longer scared of the Trump administration. Biden’s weakness on the border is the cause of the problem. Why is the media supporting Biden on Covid, but not on the border?

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. March 2021 at 11:34

    John, The border crisis is a figment of the media’s imagination. They are being played by opportunistic GOP politicians.

  3. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    30. March 2021 at 13:20

    We are very far from optimal on the vaccine distribution and the border situation, but we’re improving rapidly. Now we’re incompetent “within normal parameters”, to reference the O’Rourke quote.

  4. Gravatar of Mark Barbieri Mark Barbieri
    30. March 2021 at 14:51

    The border stuff reminds me of the unwanted trash barge from New York in the late 80s. Suddenly the news was filled with stories about how we had a landfill shortage crisis and were effectively out of landfill space. But then they got board and the landfill crisis seems to have disappeared and hasn’t resurfaced despite 30 years of more trash being buried.

    Manias still happen. The people that report the news still fall prey to them. Smart, well educated people still fall prey to them. If neither major political party has an interest in opposing them, they can run unchecked.

    I live in Texas. My mother calls me every week fearing for my safety because of the border crisis. She seems dumbfounded when I tell her that nothing significant has changed here and that we like having immigrants here.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. March 2021 at 15:02

    Mark, Yes, and just to be clear I do know that border arrests are up, just as they were in 2019. But the surge started well before Biden took office.

  6. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    30. March 2021 at 18:02

    Revenge for the media’s treatment of trump. They still blame him for anything that’s not perfect now.

    Also in border Biden’s election does seem to have caused a surge as people now thought you were able to get in.

  7. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    30. March 2021 at 18:10

    Scott, I meant more like a “citation needed” than anything else. I’m seeing people talk about the issue from one side, but if there were a link to someone making your point with empirics and in detail, I would appreciate it.

  8. Gravatar of postkey postkey
    31. March 2021 at 00:24

    Look, look, over there, at ‘the border crisis’.

    Don’t look over there at the US plutocrats and the M.I.C., there is nothing to see!

  9. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    31. March 2021 at 03:53

    I don’t have a dog in the immigration fight, but if you look at the Wapo article that this [1] links to, it has 2021 FYTD coming in above 2019 so far. 2019 had a big spike compared to other years, largely due to Central American migrants [2].


  10. Gravatar of J Mann J Mann
    31. March 2021 at 06:17

    My understanding is that border crossings are at all time high, although there was a similar (but lower) surge in 2019, which leads to two thoughts.

    1) How common are the surges? Half of the last 20 years? All of them, just 2019?

    2) Given the answer to 1, I’m not sure if it’s a fake crisis. If someplace gets hit by the worst hurricane ever and I say “see, global warming,” then it’s a pretty good answer to say “no, it wasn’t caused by global warming because xyz,” but not a great answer to say “there was a smaller hurricane a while ago.”

  11. Gravatar of Michael Gondek Michael Gondek
    31. March 2021 at 06:47

    “It’s like back in 2008, when the narrative said it was a housing/banking crisis….”

    No one ever brought up the role of mobile phones in the mortgage melt-down. Unqualified home buyers faced with a financial dilemma had three major expenses: mortgage or rent payments, automobile loans and cell phone contracts. They could usually find another place to live but were completely unwilling to give up personal auto transportation or magic phones. So there was a mortgage crisis.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. March 2021 at 09:37


    J Mann, I don’t believe it’s at an all time high.

  13. Gravatar of bb bb
    1. April 2021 at 13:39

    I disagree with you that the vaccine distribution has been bad. From day one, the public health experts have been saying that consistent messaging is number one. I recall finding that answer unsatisfying. I was much more interested testing and contact tracing. A year later, I can see how important consistent messaging is. We have a chance to crush this virus now, but doing so will require convincing some skeptics to get vaccinated. Bending the rules, either by cutting corners on the approval process or deploying it in a manner that is not consistent with the trials (12 weeks between shots), runs the risk of increasing skepticism. Never mind what would happen if we did encounter some real or perceived negative effects like the AZ vaccine. I’m inclined to trust the experts over Tyler Cowan on this one.
    On the border stuff, the numbers have gone up, and Biden should have seen it coming. That said, I agree with you that it is not a crisis.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. April 2021 at 14:33

    bb, The numbers were rising in the last 9 months of the Trump administration, and there was a big spike in 2018-19. So this is nothing new.

    As for vaccines, here’s Tabarrok:

    “3. One common criticism of delaying the second dose or of using the AstraZeneca vaccine or of making or not making other changes was that this would increase “vaccine hesitancy.” Frankly, in my view this was just an all-purpose rationalization for inaction. I thought that delaying the second dose could just as easily reduce vaccine hesitancy as increase it–not that I knew this would happen, I simply knew what would happen was uncertain. More generally, I thought that we should do the thing designed to save the most lives simpliciter, address vaccine hesitancy directly, and not try to do some complicated bank-shot based on ill-informed psychological speculation. Well Britain did everything that people were worried about–Britain delayed the second dose, used the AstraZeneca vaccine, used the AstraZeneca in the elderly and didn’t halt the use of the AZ vaccine and the result is the least vaccine hesitancy of 26 countries surveyed.”

    So while your theory is plausible, it doesn’t appear to be true. Just tell the public the truth; don’t try to creatively lie in such a way as to instill “confidence”.

  15. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    2. April 2021 at 03:18

    The CIS article I referenced is a refutation of the WaPo article. The LA Times article uses the WaPo one as a starting point and doesn’t add much beyond that except some distinction between apprehensions and encounters.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. April 2021 at 10:43

    John, Do you recall Republicans complaining about Trump’s border policies in 2019?

    Furthermore, migration was far higher during the 1990s and early 2000s:

  17. Gravatar of bb bb
    2. April 2021 at 11:55

    I don’t disagree with you about the border. I just think Biden could have foreseen that it would be politicized. I’m splitting hairs.
    The story isn’t over in the UK yet. Vaxing the first 50% is the easy part.
    I’m focused on the long run which means vaccinating enough Americans to thoroughly crush the virus, and then vaccinating enough of the world to crush it globally before we get hit by new strains. So in my view, vaccination delays of a few weeks are immaterial when compared to derailing the overall goals. I don’t think cutting corners to approve the AZ virus would have impacted the timeline that significantly based on the number of doses committed to other countries and production issues.
    The AZ scandal will likely cause major skepticism problems in the EU, which I think will be due to countries like Germany and France failing to coordinate their communications with each other and the EU.
    As for the idea of deploying the vaccines in a manner that was not tested. This is bad crisis management. It’s not the first mistake that kills you, it the mistake you make in response to the first mistake. We are on a path to killing this think in a few months. I just don’t see how improvising at this point is good risk management. We’ll see how the coming months go, but I expect that anti-vac will be a more significant issue in Europe than here. I think following the processes in place, not allowing politicians to interfere with longstanding processes, and maintaining consistent messaging will yield the highest number of people vaccinated which is the goal. And remember, there is a percentage of our population that cannot be vaccinated. As a partial-utilitarian, I want to protect those people too.
    You also mention 2008. I remember you and a handful of economists standing on the table calling for action, some Keynesian like Krugman and other MMers like you. You were both right that action was required, and you proved to be right about what the action should be. Alex and Tyler were not standing on the table. They’ve been standing on the table for months arguing about a subject on which they are not expert. Where was all this confidence in 2008 or 2009, when they topic of the day was actually in their field of expertise? Tyler was writing about the Great Stagnation and low marginal utility workers, and the complacent class. You were saying that full employment would solve more of our problems. I’d like to see Tyler be right about a few more economics things before I take his public health advice.
    I do enjoy your posts about the pandemic to include this one. It’s an interesting question, but my experience is that improvising/playing hot dog during a crisis is usually a bad choice.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. April 2021 at 08:20

    bb, You said:

    “So in my view, vaccination delays of a few weeks are immaterial”

    Not to the thousands of people who die. And there were many vaccine mistakes, not just one. We should have had mass vaccination last fall. That’s hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.

    You talk about “taking chances”. Everything we do is taking chances. The safest option is the one with the lowest expected death toll.

    Tyler advocated NGDP targeting in 2009.

  19. Gravatar of dcpi dcpi
    3. April 2021 at 10:25

    Scott: Isn’t the reason we did not have mass vaccination last fall a supply problem? Moderna and Pfizer have been ramping production and building systems at a miraculous rate. Perhaps we could have done just one dose to stretch supply, but I don’t think the problem is politics, the laws of nature and reality mean you cannot just issue an edict and make vaccine appear unless you are in a Disney cartoon.

    They vaccine rollout has been a miracle. We should be thankful.

  20. Gravatar of dcpi dcpi
    3. April 2021 at 10:27

    Scott: Why don’t you use your celebrity to arrange a tour of Pfizer and Moderna facilities to talk to the sleepless people on the front lines. Then report back.

  21. Gravatar of bb bb
    3. April 2021 at 13:30

    “You talk about “taking chances”. Everything we do is taking chances. The safest option is the one with the lowest expected death toll.”
    That’s not true. Quite often, the safest option is the option that doesn’t preclude the other options. Also, “expected death toll” is a range at best. What was the expected death toll if the Sputnik vaccine wan’t released so early? If we cut corners to fast-track a vaccine that didn’t work or did harm, the trust in institutions could have cost countless lives. Plus, we know ti would have been politicized. You are way too confident on this one. So far it has worked out for the UK, but that could change. And even if the risk pays off, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have gone the other way.
    I recall you were sympathetic to FRB and Bernanke, because you blame macroeconomic consensus. Why are you less generous to the FDA. I don’t see a consensus of public health experts calling for change.

    “Tyler advocated NGDP targeting in 2009.”
    He didn’t stand on the table. He has been much more definitive in his statements on vaccines over the last year than he was during the great recession. I was a regular reader at the time. I was forming still forming my opinion back then. It was very clear that you endorsed. endorsed NGDPLT. It was very clear that Krugman endorsed a combination of expansionary fiscal and monetary actions. It was not at all clear what Tyler endorsed, other than the notion that we had a new class of worker whose marginal utility was so low that they were unemployable. He also talked about the great stagnation. He did not clearly and consistently state that what we were facing was primary the result of monetary policy.

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