The influential economist, professor, prolific blogger, and commentator Tyler Cowen now says this:
“[U]nder current circumstances I favor complete ‘Covid laissez-faire’…” (“The new Covid equilibrium,” Marginal Revolution blog, May 18, 2022).
This is of interest in part because Tyler Cowen was long a mainstay of intellectual Corona-Panickers, those in favor of the Panic itself, those favoring and pushing Panic-driven policies like lockdowns and all the rest.
Many of us have long respected Tyler Cowen as either thinker or commentator or general-purpose intellectual, even if he gets some big things wrong (and “Covid” is not his first consistent wrong-call). The man is of interest because he qualifies, if anyone does, as a legitimate “public intellectual” in the United States today. He has a degree of global reach, and he has some degree of agenda-setting power. His direct and indirect influence is considerable. We should pay attention to what he says, for that reason, but in 2020-21 I suspected his respected-public-intellectual position broke down with his failure to recognize the dark and anti-civilizational forces of the Corona-Panic in 2020.
Professor Cowen became one of the many who failed us, so terribly failed us, in that annus horribilis of lockdowns, restrictions and disruptions of all kinds, a bizarre state-backed cult centered around a flu virus, and attendant retreat of the business of civilization. Now, the good professor has begun consistently signaling that he opposes the Corona-Panic, or at least key parts of it. He does NOT, though, claim he was “against it all along.” He lacks the kind of demagogic instinct to claim that….
If he’d emerged in spring 2020 as a hardline Anti-Panicker, rather than embracing the Panic, people would’ve listened. If only he’d called for “Covid laissez-faire” in spring 2020!
Now that we have emerged from the fog somewhat, here in comparatively sunny 2022, it seems too harsh to discard Tyler Cowen entirely for his disgraceful pushing of the Panic back in yesteryear. I would still say Tyler Cowen’s emergence as an powerhouse-blogger, intellectual, commentator beginning in the late 2000s has yielded more good than harm within U.S. discourse. His few notable weaknesses back in his ascent period (mid-2000s to early 2010s or so) made him palatable to the ‘Regime,’ and he is now practically a regime-intellectual-insider.
My enthusiasm for Professor Cowen’s turn towards the light is tempered by reading past the headlines, though. On the other hand, it is still good that he is actively pushing against the Panic, even if it is lightly. The alternative is he could have simply gone silent on the Corona Question, and partook instead in the way U.S. discourse now seems to work, drifting from one moral-panic to the next, like a vessel at sea adrift in heavy surf that gets tossed around by the waves.
Is Tyler Cowen now “Anti”-Corona-Panic?
Two new political coalitions formed in 2020 as people confronted and engaged with the behemoth-social-force of the Corona-Panic in 2020.
The (eventually) dominant coalition, which achieved ‘Regime’ backing most places that matter, was the “Pro-Panic” coalition; an oppositional “Anti-Panic” coalition emerged, and eventually scored some major victories. (It was partly through Anti-Panic side’s sustained energy and efforts that by early spring 2022 the Panic and the Panic-regimes had been defeated on most fronts.) We who lived through the Corona-Panic can remember the two sides.
These coalitions held for two years. But people moved back and forth between them to some extent. Hail To You has been consistently in the Anti-Panic camp from early on. Tyler Cowen and many other others, for reasons we should take interest in figuring out, caved in and joined the Panickers and the Lockdowners, later also becoming a Vaccine promoter.
A closer look at Tyler Cowen’s current views shows that while he was definitely an aggressive Pro-Panic partisan in 2020 and beyond, an while his recent change-of-heart to “Covid laissez-faire” does seem genuine of a sort, the change is not a truly ideological one.
What I mean is, if you read beyond the headlines or slogans (“Covid laissez-faire”), Tyler Cowen is still a believer. He is still rather loyal to key tenets of Corona. He cannot be called an Anti-Panicker, a defector from his original Covid-political coalition to this other one. Some of his rhetoric on vaccines still seems Pro-Panic.
In placing where the former Corona-Panicker professor-blogger stands today, he may fit in a “Non-Panic” camp. To his credit, he still addresses the Corona problem relatively regularly, but his “Non-Panic” position (against Pro-Panic and against Anti-Panic) stands on moral soft ground. A nation of people holding such ground can see that ground washed away if Lockdown-maniacs take up their torches again and form a mob and take action.
Soon after reiterating his commitment to “Covid laissez-faire,” in a column that may reach millions of pairs of eyes, Professor Cowen called for getting rid of “Covid”-testing for international airport arrivals (“Let’s eliminate the Covid test entry requirement for the U.S.” [May 18, 2022, published at Bloomberg]).
Cowen calls entry-testing “hygiene theater.” Of course he’s right. It imposes a deadweight loss on travelers in time, stress, and money, and likely prevents a lot of normal activity due to an arbitrary regulation, all textbook examples of what economists should oppose. Pointless costs in time, stress, and money for no gain. Why is this ridiculous policy still in place?
I don’t think Cowen even makes the best possible arguments in his Bloomberg column, but at least his voice is on the correct side. (Often at high cost or difficult-to-obtain, these pre-departure tests are perhaps more understandable to a martian anthropologist as religious in nature, ritual-offerings to the Corona-Moloch god; some who lose this Corona-lottery can end up personally sacrificed and stranded at their own expense, disfavored by the Corona-Moloch.)
Corona-Panic-loyalism is a funny thing. Professor Cowen’s lingering sympathies with the Panic are clear in that Bloomberg column, as he laces most of what he says with standard Corona-Panic talking-points, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth when consumed with the main dish here. I quote from the (half?-)reformed-Panicker Tyler Cowen on the flight testing requirement that stupidly still exists:
“I am not arguing for passivity in the face of danger. It is distressing that US policymakers do not seem interested in spending big for pandemic preparedness. America needs a new Operation Warp Speed for pan-coronavirus vaccines and nasal spray vaccines. It should be gathering more data on Covid and improving its system of clinical trials for anti-Covid remedies, among other measures.”
Some of this sounds reasonable, but it is so mixed up with, or laced with, Corona-Panic poison-pills that I have to be optimistic but cautious, or skeptical.
Also this: When Tyler Cowen last week told his blog-readers that he was for “Covid laissez-faire,” he immediately qualified it by saying he any laissez-faire Covid policy should include “subsidies for new and better vaccines” (!).
It does not, alas, seem that Professor Cowen has really appreciated the degree to which he and his fellow Panic-pushers of 2020 were simply wrong on the facts. As for vaccines, they were a long-extension of the Corona-Panic standard-fare by which everyone abandoned risk-benefit and cost-benefit. I don’t know why Tyler Cowen himself fell in with the Panic crowd, but many of them latched onto an apocalyptic and false vision of reality, embracing delusional thinking common to people with psychiatric disorders, and for some reason were unable to let it go, and got it reinforced from above daily.
The semi-reformed-Panicker Professor Cowen also expresses unironic fear over the horrifying specter he has dreamed up of repeated “re-infections,” even several reinfections every year by the Wuhan Apocalypse Virus and its descendants. This paranoid view dismisses or ignores generations’ worth of accumulated virology and epidemiology, so loyalty-inducing the Panic seems to have been to many.
Tyler Cowen’s own blog-comment-section “commentariat” seems around half firmly Anti-Panic. The Marginal Revolution blog commentariat is usually reasonable, generally high IQ, ideologically mixed, but over the past two years showed itself more committedly against the Corona-Panic (Anti-Panic, in my terms) than the general population, if not overwhelmingly so.
In response to his (many) critics, Tyler Cowen says this:
“I know many of you like to say “No worse than the common cold!” Well, the thing is…the common cold imposes considerable costs on the world. Imagine a new common cold, which you catch a few times a year, with some sliver of the population getting some form of Long Covid [i.e., Long Common Cold?].”
Oh, dear professor. Do you realize what you are saying? By the implication of your words, a permanent respiratory-virus-panic regime is in order. This undermines the position you wish to project in 2022 as a reformed-Panicker. Your own implicit promise to us, perhaps to yourself, perhaps to God, that no more shall you shove slimy buckets of Corona-Panic sludge on the reading public. Stay on the wagon, Professor Cowen!
The endorsement of “Long Covid” is troublesome. We have considerable evidence that “Long Covid” does not exist (i.e., is psychosomatic in most cases, and the remainder is not statistically different from influenzas). Not only is this suspicious condition very real in Professor Cowen’s world, the costs thereof “will run into the trillions over the next ten years.” Sharp commenters savaged him for this, especially the “Long Covid” thing.
Addressing his commetariat critics, he says:
“I will read many of [your comments] as not much better than ‘I just don’t want to think about this, I am still in denial’…”
How do we interpret this? It does seem like Tyler Cowen is still a Corona-believer. I’ve become interested in what motivated the man to become a Panic-partisan, Panic-pusher, Panic-apologist, Panic-defender in the first place.
Why did Tyler Cowen embrace the Corona-Panic?
What made Tyler Cowen embrace the Corona-Panic in 2020, hold to it in 2021, continue to show obvious emotional loyalty to it in 2022? This despite now actively calling for “Covid laissez-faire.” The latter is part a recognition of facts on the ground and partly, I suppose, a rational approach, while the Panic-loyalty is an emotional commitment, which one would not have guessed Tyler Cowen would have gone for, but so it is.
Tyler Cowen’s (and others’) refusal to make a reasonable statistical assessment, refusal to admit error and reassess when the data become overwhelming, are more puzzling than his refusal to stand on principle that the western tradition over many centuries has refused doing things like “we” did in 2020 (which in important ways was am embrace of medieval superstition). Of all sorts of people, one would think an economist would not fall into these traps. He did. He is willing now to lukewarmly snipe at the weakened Corona-Moloch, but he was not willing when it mattered.
This is an editorial cartoon that accompanied one of Tyler Cowen’s Panic-pushing Bloomberg columns in April 2020:
I have been a little harsh on Tyler Cowen here. I should end by saying I have a considerable degree of respect for the man, and what he has done with his popular and long-running blog, Marginal Revolution. I regret that in 2020 the man disgraced himself by embracing the Corona-Panic, agitating for lockdowns, belittling opponents of the Panic, and all the rest. His Marginal Revolution blog is one of the places I stopped reading. Consuming Corona-Panic-gruel prole-feed is bad for body and mind, but at some point even engaging with it to oppose it was unpleasant.
Tyler Cowen could regain a healthy portion of dignity, and do a great deed for us all, by continuing to follow the better angels of his nature (moral inner voice) which seem to be urging him to keep sniping at the guardians of the Panic and their holdover pet policies like the idiotic and wasteful international travel testing requirement.
Sometimes public-personalities might present their curated public-facing personas or views in ways not totally aligned to their actual thinking. This may hold here. Some of Tyler Cowen’s CoronaPanic-loyal rhetoric in spring 2022 must simply be the continuation of the emotional commitment he made in 2020 but which he no longer believes. If this be the case, keep struggling to get onto the side of truth, beauty, and light, Professor Cowen, and against the darkness. We need people like you to slay the Corona-Panic beast now in its highly weakened condition, make sure that it does not revive itself again to torment the people, which I fear it will. I gear the Corona-Panic beast will haunt the land for years to come.
I am left with the question of “why?” Why did someone as smart as Tyler Cowen “fall for it”? Why does he still feel the need to signal Panic-loyalty even when he is arguing against specific of general Panic-policies? This is all part of the ongoing mystery of what the heck happened to us in annus horribilis 2020.