Paul Krugman: Republicans keep flunking microbe economics

(Martha Asencio-Rhine | Tampa Bay Times via AP) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis hold a roundtable discussion regarding mental health and COVID-19 at the Tampa Bay Crisis Center on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Tampa.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said something remarkably stupid the other day. I know, I know: It’s probably harder to find a day on which DeSantis didn’t say something stupid than a day on which he did. But this particular piece of thickheadedness, I’d argue, helps us understand why America’s response to the coronavirus has been so disastrous compared with other wealthy nations.

Florida has, of course, become a COVID-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape, you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

Actually, this isn’t true. Even healthy people can suffer terribly from COVID-19. And if you’ve ever actually gone to a gym, you know that not everyone there is young and fit.

But all this is beside the point. The reason we need to close gyms isn’t to protect the people working out; it’s to protect the other people they might infect. Even gym rats have families, friends and co-workers; the guy lifting weights might be OK, but the older adults who get sick because he spent time hanging out in a petri dish might well die.

This should be obvious. Yet five months and almost 140,000 deaths into this pandemic, many Republicans still can’t or won’t grasp the point that choices have consequences beyond those to the individual who makes them.

Take the insane resistance to wearing masks. Some of this is about insecure masculinity — people refusing to take the simplest, cheapest of precautions because they think it will make them look silly. Some of it is about culture wars: Liberals wear masks, so I won’t. But a lot of it is about fetishization of individual choice.

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: It’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

Again, this should be obvious. It’s common sense; it is also, as it happens, basic economics. Econ 101 has lots of good things to say about free markets (probably too many good things, but that’s a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of economics says that free markets, left to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” — costs that individuals or businesses impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but spreading a dangerous virus poses exactly the same issues.

Yet many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point: that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

Some readers may be aware that Sen. Rand Paul — who proclaims himself a libertarian — has been doing a lot of sniping at Dr. Anthony Fauci. Back in May he denounced Fauci for warning that premature reopening might lead to a surge in new COVID-19 cases. More recently, apparently undaunted by the fact that Fauci was right, he demanded that Fauci show “humility” and display some “optimism.”

What struck me, however, was the way Paul justified his attacks on epidemiologists’ recommendations: by invoking the free-market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Whatever you think of Hayek (as you might guess, I’m not a fan), this is bizarre. Decentralized decision-making can do lots of things, but establishing scientific truth isn’t one of those things. And even conservatives used to understand both that expertise matters and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.

But conservatives, and Republicans, have changed. The modern American right is all about denying that people have any responsibility for each other and muzzling experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.

And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a large part of the reason America is failing the COVID-19 test so spectacularly.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.