opinion | Economists and epidemiologists need to come together

Economists and epidemiologists need consensus. to the economists Scrimmage With epidemiologists about the best policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, policymakers are confused, and the public suffers. So it is good that there is a new effort to reconcile them. It takes the form of a statement issued by 11 researchers this month: the National Bureau of Economic Research Worksheet With the subtitle “Combining Epidemiologists and Economists”.

The conventional wisdom is that when it comes to policy prescriptions, economists place more weight on preventing the economy from shutting down, while epidemiologists put more weight on saving lives. This is an oversimplification of course, but there is some truth to it. “It is an article of faith for economists that there is no such thing as an absolute value—not even the value of a human life,” said Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University. books In a Bloomberg opinion column last year.

What is clear is that the two models of disciplines do not line up: each group emphasizes the part you are good at. The new working paper, whose authors are a mix of economists, epidemiologists, and experts in related fields, notes that a “reasonable criticism of most economic models” is that they make “strong and unrealistic assumptions” about disease transmission that neglect the diversity of individuals. cases. But a “reasonable criticism of most epidemiological models,” the paper continues, is that they fail to properly consider the kind of cost-benefit calculations that predictably influence how people act in the face of health risks.

So why not just mix the forms, combining the rich details of each to create something greater than the sum of its parts? It’s a good idea but it’s not easy, in part because it can make the model too complex. Consider this complex loop: Covid-19 results, so people stop working, and therefore spend less. As a result, the demand for labor decreases, and thus wages decreases, so more people stay at home … and thus infection rates decrease. The authors write that individual behavior models that include feedback loops are “sometimes difficult to solve even with massive amounts of computing power”.

This week, I interviewed three of the authors to learn more about where this new effort is coming from and where it’s headed. All three are at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, as are five other contributors. (Three additional authors are at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the University of North Carolina, and Washington University in St. Louis.)

Nicholas Papagorge, an economist, explained that he started this effort last year because he felt that some people were not taking the economic damage caused by the pandemic shutdown seriously enough. “It looks like the conversation was about starting sourdough and keeping up with Netflix,” he said. “I was so frustrated.”

He and Robert Barbera, a former Wall Street economist now at Johns Hopkins, wrote a blog post with Johns Hopkins epidemiologist David Dowdy about how the two groups needed to stop talking to each other. She criticized the “easy story line” that the two groups were necessarily at odds. “Any hope of developing a smart plan for the population of the United States in the coming months will require thoughtful collaboration, not conflict, between public health professionals and economics,” the publication She said.

“No one has ever sat down and said, ‘Why don’t we seem to like each other so much?'” recalls Papagorge. “We just take shelter in our silos and say the other group is stupid.”

He and another economist, Michael Darden at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey School of Business, received a grant from the Hopkins Health Business Initiative to conduct six hours of candid discussions between economists and epidemiologists last summer.

“We wanted to put something in there that would really hit the house,” Dowdy said. “People didn’t want to throw punches just to make a one-size-fits-all document.”

One of the group’s strong conclusions was that there really is a balance to be struck between health and wealth, between life and livelihood. Not everyone agrees with that. Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, books In Economic Perspective last year, “But we don’t need to choose between a healthy audience and a healthy economy!” The authors of the new paper wrote that Murray “underestimates that the pandemic presents policymakers with difficult trade-offs between population health and economic well-being.”

Asked by Murray about the controversy, she said via email, “Authors continue to put economics and epidemiology in opposition. The view that economics and the health of the public are in conflict is detrimental to our ability to improve both.” She added that government support could reduce “contagion and economic damage”. (Papageorge’s email response: government assistance is “not a no-cost offer” and “there is a trade-off”).

The result of the six hours of talking, according to Darden, was that there must eventually be a unified model for combating transmission of disease “that retains the essential elements that both economists and epidemiologists cherish without becoming too large to analyze.” He went on to achieve this. “It requires willingness to compromise.”

Such a unified model is still elusive. The interim step is to get the economists and epidemiologists to at least talk to each other and be more clear about where and why they differ, Papagorge said. This step alone will make the two professions more useful to policy makers and the public.


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Anant Kishore

Columbia, Maryland.


“The idea of ​​the cellular economy was, within current economic and social systems, for groups (or cells) of people linked by geography or shared beliefs and aspirations to unite and launch initiatives aimed at improving life locally or globally, making it more sustainable, peaceful and only.”

– Steve Hamm, “The Hub: Addressing Global Problems through Local Action” (2021)

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