COVID-19 and Taboo Tradeoffs

COVID-19 Quarantine

Scott Alexander has written a great “where are we now” primer on COVID-19: When all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a dance.

Apart from his updates on how we’re doing in our battle against the virus, there were two pieces I wanted to call out. One interesting, and one insightful.


Why are some countries containing COVID-19 better than others?

Scott evaluates the different theories for why some countries are doing better than others.

  • Stay at home orders: Don’t seem to have mattered at all.

  • General government policy: Also seem to matter much less than we’d imagine. We thought Korea and Taiwan are doing well because of their brilliant governments. Japan, on the other hand, denied the problem for a long time so they could still stage the Olympics. Yet, they’re not doing too shabbily.

  • Testing policy: Yes, this matters, as I’ve mentioned before in Sunday Reads #85: Black Swans, Honesty, and Dishonest Statistics. But most (developed) countries are now testing properly, so this doesn’t explain the differences either.

Clearly, there’s still a lot to discover about this virus.


Lockdowns and taboo tradeoffs.

Second, and I found this far more insightful: He also talks about the importance of framing.

Coronavirus has killed about 100,000 Americans so far. How bad is that compared to other things?

Well, on the one hand, it’s about 15% as many Americans as die from heart attacks each year. If 15% more people died from heart attacks in the US next year, that would suck, but most people wouldn’t care that much. If some scientist has a plan to make heart attacks 15% less deadly, then sure, fund the scientist, but you probably wouldn’t want to shut down the entire US economy to fund them. It would just be a marginally good thing.

On the other hand, it’s also about the same number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever. How much effort would you exert to prevent the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever? Probably quite a lot!

Sure, you say, “This is a good example. But I already know the importance of framing, and anchoring.”

Great. Then let’s try another one for size.

Suppose you reopened the economy tomorrow. You tried as hard as you could to put profits above people, squeezed every extra dollar out of the world regardless of human cost. And then you put a 1% tax on all that economic activity, and donated it to effective charity. Would that save more people than a strict lockdown?

If a lockdown costs $5 trillion, then the 1% tax would make $50 billion. That’s about how much the Gates Foundation has spent, and they’ve saved about ten million lives.

Ten million is higher than anyone expects US coronavirus deaths to be, so as far as I can tell this is a good deal.

This reminds me of the discussion on Taboo Tradeoffs in the Rationality fan-fic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Won’t share any spoilers, but the gist (I paraphrase from Chapters 78-85):

When you compare the value of sacred vs. secular objects (e.g., paying $5M for a liver replacement so a person can live, vs. for improving medical equipment), you make a taboo tradeoff.

Whenever you refuse to pay a certain amount (“I will not donate $2M for upgrading medical equipment”), you set an upper bound on a life.

Whenever you agree to pay a certain amount (“I will pay $5M to get this poor person a liver”), you set a lower bound on a life.

And if these two bounds are inconsistent, it’s an opportunity to move money to achieve a greater good.