Tomorrow’s news, today

Suppose you want a heads up on what the news media will be talking about in a few weeks. Where do you go to find it?

In the blogosphere.

On March 1, I did a post questioning the conventional wisdom on masks. Now the media is full of these stories. I did numerous posts on the mystery of Germany’s low mortality rate. Now the media’s full of them. I did several posts on the relative success of California and Washington. Now check out this news headline from today:

Flattening the curve on coronavirus: What California and Washington can teach the world

And it’s not just me.  Other bloggers (and tweeters) like Scott Alexander and Marginal Revolution are consistently ahead of the curve.  The news media can be viewed as a sort of official acknowledgement that the story has seeped out from the internet into the real world.  It’s like a quarterly profit report from a corporation, producing information that the market already largely understood and discounted.

In monetary policy, we have the recent flurry of stories claiming the Fed has almost infinite ammo.  Hmmm, where did we first hear that?  In the not too distant future, look for stories that this crisis is morphing from an aggregate supply problem to a demand problem.

A bit further out in the future (late 2020?), look for stories of companies being unable to find workers at a time of high unemployment.  I fully support the beefed up UI program.  But let’s not kid ourselves; there are massive work disincentives.  For now that’s not a problem.  But later . . .

I also predict that in a month or two, when we have a good grasp on the likely death totals from this epidemic, or at least this wave of the epidemic, there will be news stories showing how many of those deaths could have been prevented merely by starting the social distancing at the national level at the same time it was done in Washington (which was about 2 weeks earlier).  And the numbers will give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I don’t know the exact numbers, but if there are say 100,000 deaths, it might be the case that on the order of 80% could have been eliminated by starting two weeks earlier.  And no, this is not a dig at Trump (or de Blasio), the country was not mentally prepared for doing something like this two weeks earlier.  But it won’t change the reality of the fact that we as a society made a huge error.  Social distancing may not even be the right answer, as some tough guys claim, but given that we ended up doing it anyway, not doing it two weeks earlier was super costly.  Hiroshima costly.

And let’s not even talk about the tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year from kidney failure.

Time for some soul-searching?

PS.  Check out this twitter thread.



34 Responses to “Tomorrow’s news, today”

  1. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    4. April 2020 at 09:34

    Is it really about the medium (blogs) though, or are Tyler Cowen and Scott Alexander (and maybe you ;)) just unusually smart? I’ve always assumed the latter.

    LessWrong has had an excellent showing it when it comes to taking Coronavirus seriously and giving good practical advice ( And it’s not a blog but similar to slatestarcodex in terms of culture.

  2. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    4. April 2020 at 10:01

    The “work disincentives” with extended unemployment insurance are pretty obvious when one compares Q4 2013 with Q2 2014. So the Republicans finally put an end to extended unemployment insurance in December 2013 and then we had an awful winter in Q1 and then boom! I recall Republicans making fun of Obama blaming Q1 2014 economic performance on the weather.

  3. Gravatar of Tsergo Ri Tsergo Ri
    4. April 2020 at 11:13

    Future research result that you will read in the comments:

    Over a ten-year period, the coronavirus will kill same fraction of people in every country.

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. April 2020 at 11:14


    I don’t get why the US doesn’t have short-time work. It’s ideal for the current situation.

    It’s a temporary reduction of working hours with a corresponding reduction in wages. At the moment it’s often carried out as “short-time work zero” which is the complete cessation of work, but the employee still keeps his job. The government pays about 60% of the previous salary.

    It may have disadvantages, but it is still better than having employees lose their jobs because of a stupid crisis like this. Not to mention that the US pays people unemployment benefits anyway. So why not pay them at their job?

  5. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    4. April 2020 at 11:25

    As sty.silver says, Scott Summer is incredibly smart. Besides the above predictions, I recall he nailed the Swiss franc devaluation years ago, besides numerous other predictions. And Sumner is right about the blogosphere being ahead of the curve, e.g., you’ll read about Covid-19 virus being a chimeric virus in a year, but you read it here first.

    @Christian List- asking off-topic questions to our host is rude. Why you always hijacking the thread?

  6. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    4. April 2020 at 11:45

    @Ray Lopez
    Chimeric viruses are, by definition, viruses cobbled together from known viruses. SARS-COV2, on the other hand, has many new features.

    It was clear “almost overnight” that the virus wasn’t human-made, Andersen (an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif) says. Anyone hoping to create a virus would need to work with already known viruses and engineer them to have desired properties.

    But the SARS-CoV-2 virus has components that differ from those of previously known viruses, so they had to come from an unknown virus or viruses in nature. “Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone”

    See for more.

  7. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    4. April 2020 at 12:19

    Christian List, is your question informed by Germany’s experience in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Meltdown? My guess is Germany has much greater job security thanks to IG Metall. So America had a dysfunctional economy from 2001-2008 because our energy intensive consumer spending economy could not process high energy costs. Germany did not have a dysfunctional economy because as an export economy it could simply include high energy costs in the finished product and export more to the Middle East that was making huge oil profits. So because America had malinvestment from 2001-2008 we had no choice but to experience “pain” to get to a sound economy. Germany didn’t have a dysfunctional economy from 2001-2008 so it wasn’t necessary for them to experience as much “pain” as America.

  8. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    4. April 2020 at 12:29

    ” I don’t know the exact numbers, but if there are say 100,000 deaths, it might be the case that on the order of 80% could have been eliminated by starting two weeks earlier.”

    Almost certainly not the case that anywhere near 80% of deaths could have been prevented.

    Ten days ago, I projected 35,000 to 50,000 deaths by the end of round 1 that I thought would mostly be over by late April based on what I was keeping track of in Western Europe and the start of the serious spread in the U.S.

    I used the decline in cases and then multiplied a range of mortality rate from 1.2% to 1.7% because it was too soon to see the decline in deaths here. I can see deaths reaching 80,000 as well. (Two days later, the U of Washington predicted 80,000 U.S. deaths with a range of 36,000 to 162,000.)

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. April 2020 at 12:31

    sty.silver, Yes, Less Wrong is excellent.

    Gene, Yes, I often discuss that example.

    Tsergo, Is that a joke?

    Christian, You might be right about this case. I’m not sure it makes sense in general, but have a open mind on the issue.

    Ray, You said:

    “Scott Summer is incredibly smart.”

    I’d like to meet this Summer guy, maybe I could learn something from him.

  10. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    4. April 2020 at 12:32

    And because I mentioned IG Metall I should point out VW and IG Metall and Merkel convinced the EU that diesel passenger cars could help the EU comply with Kyoto Protocol by decreasing carbon emissions. Generally the cheaper the car the worse the diesel emissions which might be part of the reason Italy and Spain have such high rates of death from Coronavirus. So diesel passenger cars hand been an unmitigated public health disaster, although apparently the expensive diesel cars are great on the Autobahn.

  11. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    4. April 2020 at 12:49

    If Sumner is so smart, when he is going tell us if employment will rise rapidly once we have an effective treatment/vaccine/the virus burns through the population? How does this pandemic interact with labor force participation of baby boomers?

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. April 2020 at 13:54

    Todd, What was the likely growth in actual (not measured) cases over that two week period? I assumed about 5-fold.

    Burgos, Yeah, if I were so smart I’d tell you. But as I’m not . . .

  13. Gravatar of Tsergo Ri Tsergo Ri
    4. April 2020 at 14:03

    ssumner: No, it’s not a joke. I don’t think a vaccine for coronavirus is coming anytime soon. I think the virus will infect a certain percent of the world population regardless of what we do. Look at swine flu, it is still raging every year.

    My guess is that the mortality rate controlling for comorbodity and age distrubution will eventually look the same in every country, whether rich or poor, competently or incompetently govern.

    It would have been better to narrow the curve than try to flatten it.

  14. Gravatar of Rick Rick
    4. April 2020 at 14:16

    How many times are you going to pat yourself on the back about the masks? Get a grip.

  15. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. April 2020 at 15:10

    The Fed is not out of ammo…as long as central bank finances federal outlays?

    Helicopter drops on Main Street?

    That idea, embraced by Stanley Fischer and David Beckworth, also gained currency on the internet before gaining wider acceptance… and becoming de facto policy

  16. Gravatar of agrippa postumus agrippa postumus
    4. April 2020 at 16:10

    tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
    creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    till the last syllable of recorded time….

    here’s the real “news” for tomorrow: when is the next time we see LQD ever be a real indicator of credit risk in high grade credit? ans: never. that market now has a price insensitive buyer at a put price below market. so whither credit? allocated by the fed. go rot small companies.

  17. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    4. April 2020 at 16:16

    Thanks for the input, Scott.

    Today a well-known virologist in the biggest German Saturday evening news: “A vaccine will take too long. We must consider building herd immunity.”

    You can’t make this up anymore: 1) Stock markets aren’t crashing as they were supposed to. 2) Ray makes the biggest transformation since Saul to Paul (or since Bruce to Caitlyn). 3) Virologists changing their mind every week and now some of them even agree with Benjamin Cole (!). At least to some degree, so don’t get too excited about it, Ben.

    By now I would consider the low-dose inoculation according to the idea of Robin Hanson. Why is this not being pursued further? This would be important at least for hospital staff and general practitioners who might come into contact with high virus dosages.

  18. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. April 2020 at 16:27

    International travel bans are an implemented virus-fighter, and they are in effect. No one seems to challenge such bans.

    There were about 1 million people apprehended in 2019 trying to illegally cross the US border from Mexico. No one knows how many succeeded in crossing the border and were not apprehended. My guess is people do run the gauntlet unless the batting average is .500 or better.

    So, about 3,000 people a day enter the US on land, while the airports are closed to international travel.

    Many people are chiding the US government for being unprepared for a pandemic, and clumsy in response.

    Fair enough. But is having a de facto open border part of that woeful lack of preparedness?

    Is Trump’s Wall a necessity in a globalized economy with new cold viruses afoot?

    The next time a duck farmer in India sneezes…do we do this all again?

  19. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. April 2020 at 17:38

    I heard this one today:

    “We must destroy the economy in order to save it.”

  20. Gravatar of art andreassen art andreassen
    4. April 2020 at 17:53

    Scott: No recitation of the time trend of the virus mentions one aspect that had an over riding influence on the appreciation of its importance. All of December and January was consumed by the Democrats and the media with coverage of the impeachment. I am guessing they ignored the virus because they did not want to distract from impeachment.

    You did not mention the virus until February 1, Trump banned flights from China January 31 while Biden and Sanders said the ban was racist on February 2. Aside from your first blog mention on 2/1 you followed up with only 3 more in February. The Times and the Post, among many others, were denigrating the seriousness of the virus well into February. De Blasio, who obviously lives in another world, was forced by Cuomo to close the NYC schools March 16 but still allowed the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

  21. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    4. April 2020 at 19:14

    art, the only reason we had an sham impeachment trial was because Republican senators didn’t force Trump to drop out of the 2020 race in December when it was clear he committed the impeachable offense of abuse of power. So had Republican senators done their job and kept their oath to uphold the Constitution the sham impeachment trial would not have been necessary.

  22. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    4. April 2020 at 19:43


    There is always a cost benefit trade-off. As I have hypothesized before, people are rationale and good at assessing risk. When the risk of death from Covid reached 1 in 3,000 (100k expected fatalities), people changed their behavior. People don’t change their behavior (driving) when the comparable risk of death is 1 in 10,000. These facts seem roughly consistent. When the risk of death from Covid was 1 in 10,000, people did not change their behavior.

    California and Washington both have warmer (or more moderate) climates than NY. WA has much less urban crowding than NY and less international travel. I’m not sure they were any faster or smarter than NY.

    BTW – The per capita case rate in Portugal is 1/3 of Spain. The death rate is 1/10. Portugal has universal TB (BCG) vaccinations. Spain does not.

    PS – We could reduce the deaths from kidney failure if everyone would just stopped wearing seat belts.

  23. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. April 2020 at 20:43


    “PS – We could reduce the deaths from kidney failure if everyone would just stopped wearing seat belts.”

    Extra body parts?

    Some people say the selling of kidneys is a good idea. Maybe so. Are kidneys from people who OD on drugs any good? In the US, such deaths top car accidents.

    Should we pay people to be naturally inoculated against COVID-19?

    This strikes me as an excellent idea…but all of yesterday’s “libertarians” have turned in statist martinets….(not at Reason magazine…they seem to be holding out a little).

  24. Gravatar of Jg Jg
    4. April 2020 at 20:51

    There is confusion about lockdown dates . Governor Washington state signed lockdown on 3/24. CA governor on 3/19 and NY gov on 3/20

  25. Gravatar of Dwight Monson Dwight Monson
    4. April 2020 at 22:58

    Your call on the benefits of wearing masks as apparent from the experience of Asian countries was much appreciated when made, and gave me and my family an opportunity to prepare for the CDC’s and Trump Administration’s eventual coming around. Thank you!

  26. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. April 2020 at 23:26

    A call for helicopter money… From the American Enterprise Institute.

  27. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    5. April 2020 at 01:11

    @Ssumner- you’re too modest

    @Carl – Endless September theme, I don’t have time to educate you, but see below. (the chimeric virus predecessor to today’s virus, SARS-CoV; note two of these Wuhan researchers are still prominent in Covid-19 research today) (note Gain of Function of 4, unusual with natural viruses) (note the two defenses they raise are wrong: the pangolin intermediate host theory was disproved a week after this paper was published, and the ‘SARS-CoV-2 is not as efficient at infecting people as the chimeric virus SARS-CoV is laughable, as bioweapons labs will cover their tracks)

  28. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    5. April 2020 at 01:24

    @ Ben Cole – quit spamming us every single post with your helicopter drop posts. Go to the post “it’s my luck” and post whether you think hyperinflation is bad or not. I want to see how bat crazy you are, tin foil hat.

  29. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    5. April 2020 at 01:52

    It turns out that everyone’s reaction to this crisis is to say that it proves the correctness of their political ideology. Economists did pretty much the same thing with the 2008 Financial Crisis.–Arnold S. Kling.

    Worth a grim chuckle.

  30. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    5. April 2020 at 06:20

    @Ray Lopez
    Your first citation states that chimera viruses are made from known viruses and doesn’t even make any claims about SARS-COV-2 since it was written years ago. Your second relies on the retracted theory that traces of HIV were found in SARS-COV-2. And your third citation concludes with:

    Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.

    I don’t get the “Endless September” reference.

  31. Gravatar of Elizabeth Harris Elizabeth Harris
    5. April 2020 at 06:58

    I heard this one today:

    “We must destroy the economy in order to save it.”

    Because dead people don’t work or spend money.

  32. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    5. April 2020 at 08:16

    @Christian List
    It sounds like Robin Hanson’s variolation scheme could go badly wrong:

  33. Gravatar of bill bill
    5. April 2020 at 08:27

    Scott, I thought you’d find this interesting. From the same Tweeter you linked to:
    “when we include both masks and an Asia dummy in the regression, the effects of masks becomes more significant. Asian countries that don’t have mask norms have, if anything, slightly higher growth rates on average.”

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. April 2020 at 09:29

    Tsergo, I think that’s very unlikely.

    Rick, Three more times? OK, fair point. Mea culpa.

    Art, Not sure what point you are making. When I say “we” did not fully anticipate the seriousness of the problem I include me, Trump, the Democrats, everyone. So what’s your point?

    dtoh, I agree that people do a substantial amount of social distancing on their own. I’ve done several posts arguing that it’s not obvious that the government needs to force social distancing. The Swedes do it to some extent w/o a government mandate.

    The TB angle is very interesting, I hope it’s true. But how does Portugal compare to Spain outside of Madrid and Barcelona? Does Greece inoculate for TB?

    It’s not just compared to New York; Washington has been doing far better than many states in recent weeks. And it’s not much warmer that much of the US during March. It’s been a very mild winter in the East.

    Jg, I relied on the article I linked to. Was the Seattle area sooner?

    Ray, You said:

    “Ssumner- you’re too modest”

    Really? Rick is probably more accurate.

    Thanks Dwight!

    Bill, Interesting.

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