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Tag Archives: Undercover Economist

The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that

The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that It is the end of the beginning: lockdowns after the first wave of coronavirus are being tentatively lifted. It is not a step we are taking with any great confidence of success. Rather, we’re easing the lockdowns because we can’t bear to wait any longer. That will mean some difficult decisions ahead, in particular about how we look out for each other in a world where our experiences and the risks we...

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The statistical detective work required to lift the lockdowns

The statistical detective work required to lift the lockdowns Anyone prone to cynicism about “damned lies and statistics” should be prompted to think again by the pandemic. Admittedly, distorted or fictional statistics have been press-ganged into their familiar roles of spin and propaganda. But the real thing — statistical information, carefully gathered — can save lives. The UK Office for National Statistics has announced a new survey of 25,000 people, designed to test a...

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To combat climate change, release the brake

To combat climate change, release the brake A couple of years ago, the Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman spoke to a distinguished group of social scientists, and shared with them what he regarded as “the best idea I ever heard in psychology”. The idea derived from Kurt Lewin — described by Prof Kahneman as “my intellectual grandfather”. Lewin was a great German-born psychologist who — thankfully, given his Jewish origins — escaped to the US in 1933. Lewin...

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How to stop our economies from falling like Humpty Dumpty

How to stop our economies from falling like Humpty Dumpty The peak of the pandemic is passing in Europe, but at a grievous economic cost. If we reopen, there is every reason to expect coronavirus will come surging back. What then? Another lockdown? The difficulty is that we are looking at two exponential processes pitted against each other. Before social distancing measures, cases were doubling every few days, meaning a week’s difference in the timing of lockdowns in March might...

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We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm

We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm First there was the panic buying. Then came the selfish, reckless refusal to maintain physical distance: the beach parties in Florida and the house parties in Manchester; the 500-mile round trip to admire the Lake District and the mass sun-worshipping in London parks. And there’s worse: the scam artists; the people who use coughing as an assault; the thieves who loot medical supplies from...

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For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists

For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists Nearly a century ago there was a grand café near the University of Berlin. Academic psychologists who took lunch there marvelled at the memory of one of the waiters: no matter how large the group and how complex the order, he could keep it all in his head. Then one day, or so the story goes, someone left a coat behind. He hurried back into the café, only to find that the waiter didn’t remember him. This feat of...

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How do we value a statistical life?

How do we value a statistical life? The coronavirus lockdown is saving lives but destroying livelihoods. Is it worth it? I’ve been accused of ignoring its costs. For an economist, this is fighting talk. Love us or hate us, thinking about uncomfortable trade-offs is what we economists do. Three points should be obvious. First, we need an exit strategy from the lockdowns — a better strategy than President Donald Trump’s, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Expanding...

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Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus?

Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus? Is there anything we can do to contain the spread? I’m not talking about coronavirus. I’m talking about the misinformation. The UK’s Daily Express has suggested that the World Health Organization has long known about the disease known as Covid-19. (It hasn’t: it just talked about a hypothetical pandemic scenario involving an equally hypothetical Disease X.) Other newspapers asked if satellite images showed mass cremations of...

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Why it’s too tempting to believe good news about the coronavirus

Why it’s too tempting to believe good news about the coronavirus Wishful thinking is a powerful thing. When I read about a new disease-modelling study from the University of Oxford, I desperately wanted to believe. It is the most prominent exploration of the “tip-of-the-iceberg hypothesis”, which suggests that the majority of coronavirus infections are so mild as to have passed unrecorded by the authorities and perhaps even un­noticed by the people infected. If true, many of us...

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Why the crisis is a test of our capacity to adapt

Why the crisis is a test of our capacity to adapt “It’s really quiet,” said the proprietor of Oxford’s best falafel stall when I popped over to buy lunch on Monday. It is even quieter now. Meanwhile, my wife emailed friends to ask if we could help: both of them are doctors and they have three children and a parent undergoing treatment for cancer. “Thanks We will be in touch,” came the reply. No time for more. It may be quiet for the falafel man, but not for them. There, in...

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