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Interview with Joshua Gans on Pandemic Economics

Summary:
Like many of us, Joshua Gans found himself stuck at home in March. Unlike many of us, he decided to write a book about the pandemic. In fact, MIT Press put the first draft of the book up online for comments. David A. Price interviews Gans about lessons he learned in the process of writing the book, as well as about some of his other work on artificial intelligence and how an economist thinks about parenting (Econ Focus: Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, "On managing pandemics, allocating vaccines, and low-cost prediction with AI," Second/Third Quarter 2020, pp. 18-22). Here are some thoughts from Gans on the policy response to the pandemic: What's reflected in the book that's coming out is that I now see these pandemics as manageable things. Policymakers have to react right away and stay

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Like many of us, Joshua Gans found himself stuck at home in March. Unlike many of us, he decided to write a book about the pandemic. In fact, MIT Press put the first draft of the book up online for comments. David A. Price interviews Gans about lessons he learned in the process of writing the book, as well as about some of his other work on artificial intelligence and how an economist thinks about parenting (Econ Focus: Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, "On managing pandemics, allocating vaccines, and low-cost prediction with AI," Second/Third Quarter 2020, pp. 18-22). Here are some thoughts from Gans on the policy response to the pandemic: 

What's reflected in the book that's coming out is that I now see these pandemics as manageable things. Policymakers have to react right away and stay the course, but pandemics can be managed. If I had to guess how history is going to judge this period, the judgment is going to be that this shouldn't have been a two- to three-year calamity, it should have been a three-month calamity.

The need for testing aggressively at the beginning had to be appreciated. You aggressively isolate people you find who are infected, you trace who they had contact with, and you aim for quick, complete suppression. The countries that had had experience with pandemics — Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, most of Africa — got it right away. They knew what the problems would be if they didn't do anything about it. So experience with viruses was definitely a factor. But Canada had that and didn't quite get its act together quickly enough. ...

But once the virus breaks out, then you've got a problem. Then you've got to do the complete lockdown. And we're seeing places that did a complete lockdown — like they did in Italy, France, and Spain — squash it all the way down. Locking down is terribly painful; that's why you don't want to go through it in the first place. But you may have to. ... 

Early in the crisis, people in the United States and Canada were not talking about the virus as something we needed to suppress completely. The discussion was mainly, "We're going to push down the curve, and then we'll wait for a vaccine." But the evidence both historically and now with this virus is that, as I said, you can achieve suppression in months if you act quickly. You have to keep working at it because if you don't have a vaccine, the disease can crop up again, but it's manageable. ...

The issue of treatments is a little bit easier because you don't need enough for everybody. You just need enough to treat the sick. And fortunately, at any given time, there aren't that many people sick. Unless, of course, the virus goes out of control and there are a lot of people sick, with intensive care units filling up — that's going to create scarcity on the treatment side. That was the whole discussion back in March: Let's not let that happen. Let's keep the infection rate low so we can treat everybody. As it turned out, overrunning of hospitals was avoided by the skin of our teeth. If we had waited another week, it would've happened.

The interview also offers an insight from Gans about one way that technology has made it easier for to get children to clean their rooms--at least in the Gans household:
[Y]ou care about the mess in the room and the children do not. It is much easier to negotiate an outcome where you can find things that people care about equally: You care about X as much as I care about Y. So to negotiate with a child to clean up a messy room, you have to be able to find in that negotiation bundle something that the child cares as much about. ...

 I've found the most useful thing that I have that the child cares a lot about is the access to the Wi-Fi. I have a button that I can press to cut my children off from the internet. Suffice it to say, that's all I need. I may encounter resistance; I might encounter a child saying, "Fine! Shut off the internet, I don't need it!" But a few hours later, I'm getting a clean room. So there's new technology that has changed the balance. The iPad and other such devices are a parent's dream. They are reducing the cost of punishment.

The interview also explores some of Gans's insights about economic implications of artificial intelligence. He also wrote about that issue, with a couple of co-authors in the Spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives in "Artificial Intelligence: The Ambiguous Labor Market Impact of Automating Prediction." 

Finally, as a mignardise. I'll point out that back in the Winter 1994 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, when Josh was still a graduate student, he and George Shepherd had the idea of contacting leading economists around the world and asking for their most painful experience in having a paper rejected. They received responses from 60 economists, including 15 Nobel laureates. For anyone interested in back-story economics profession gossip and/or struggling with the vagaries of academic publishing, it may be either refreshing or disheartening to hear that the best-known and most successful have had their tribulations, too. The article is Joshua S., Gans and George B. Shepherd. 1994. "How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading Economists." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 8 (1): 165-179.

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