Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Elephant Rider On Full Display

Jonathan Haidt has an excellent metaphor for how people form their political opinions. (Also their opinions on moral and cultural questions.) People mostly see themselves as introspecting, logical creatures, able to consume information, synthesize, and craft opinions. If I'm telling you something, one might pontificate, it's because I've thought about it at length, and what I'm explaining to you is my well-considered answer. 

Haidt has a different story. His metaphor is the elephant and the elephant rider. The perceiving self is the elephant rider. That is the conscious entity you are interfacing with if you are communicating on social media with an opinionated friend, relative, or stranger. He sees himself a the helm of this mighty beast, steering him this way or that after considering the optimal course of action. In Haidt's story, though, the stubborn elephant is not so easily controlled. The elephant might be nudged this way or that, but the ornery beast basically goes where it wishes. The elephant rider is not deeply introspective after all, but tells himself a little fib. Rather than actually steer the elephant, and rather than admitting he is not in control, the elephant rider tells himself, "This is exactly what I wanted to do." It's not done consciously or cynically. In fact, there doesn't necessarily need to be any Orwellian editing of the past. It's rather that the elephant rider's mental model of what he wants, what he actually wishes to accomplish, is incomplete. It isn't fully articulated ahead of time. He finds himself being dragged in this direction by a power outside his control, so he steers it as best he can and convinces himself that this is where he really wanted to go. 

I see this all the time, but recent events have really brought it into stark relief. Prior to May 26th, the "correct" opinion of all right-thinking people (left-thinking people?) was that protesting was too dangerous at a time like this. (If anyone is reading this in the far-off future, note that I am posting during the coronavirus epidemic of 2020.) There were some people protesting prior to May 26th, but they were mostly protesting the government lockdowns themselves. Opinions neatly fell into the right-left paradigm, and the reaction of outspoken people was predictable based on their politics. The protesters tended to be right-leaning, some of them actually wearing "MAGA" hats holding pro-Trump signs. (David Henderson, a libertarian who organized such a protest, described his annoyance at some of the protesters for wearing MAGA hats. Something to the tune of, "Don't make this about something it's not. You're pushing away potential sympathizers.") Some protesters were openly carrying firearms. The left-leaning viewpoint was that everyone should be strictly observing the lockdown, and that these protests were potential "super-spreader" events for the virus. Then everything flipped. Suddenly it was okay to protest. It was not even okay to question the wisdom of the protest. Public health officials issued statements in support of the BLM protests. I'm just noticing this now, but they were actually still condemning the prior protests in the statement that supported the new ones. This is bizarre. The virus does not care if the thing you're protesting is a worthy cause or not, so the public health recommendation for both should be the same. One possibility is that public health professionals got together and conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis. They determined that precise effect of both kinds of protests on public health, somehow quantifying the likelihood of each protest to affect public policy and also quantifying the effect of those new policies on various morbitities and mortalities. No such study was ever done, of course. If those same public officials had been asked about the wisdom of massive protests before they were actually happening, I'm sure most of them would have advised against it. And of course it's not just public health people, it's everyone. Enormous numbers of people flipped their opinions simultaneously, without much discussion or thought, certainly without any ability to explain the flip after the fact. No, the elephant riders found themselves being suddenly jerked in one direction, opposite the one they intended. Swept away by an overwhelming force beyond their control, they simply rationalized the direction they were being pulled. 

No doubt, this was happening in both directions. I saw a hilarious post on Facebook pointing out the hypocrisy of a right-wing supporter of lockdown protests, who'd Tweeted in support of the first set of protesters but insisted after May 26th that everyone should stay home because "it's not safe yet." The contradictory Tweets by the same person were shown side-by-side. I doubt if the person posting this noticed the irony. They they had flipped too, and they were just as much a hypocrite. 

It seems that you can have one of two opinions: protests are justified or they aren't. If they are, then the early protesters are owed a debt of gratitude. They were fighting for the right to protest before it was cool and trendy. The right to protest during a pandemic is a hard-won right...the result of the prior protests! If protests aren't justified during a pandemic because of public health concerns, then both the first and second set of protests are unjustified. 

There is an attempt to justify the different treatments by appealing to the importance of the things being protested. Read the letter linked to above, which couches justification for the latter protests in the language of public health. Paraphrasing: White supremacy and racism being great evils, protests against them are therefor justified. I'm not buying it. It's not the magnitude of the problem you're protesting that justifies the protest, it's the balance of costs and benefits. If protesting had no effect whatsoever on culture or policy, and we end up back to where we are now in a few months, we would have had a few super-spreader events for no benefit. Some people are claiming to possess an almost god-like command of the relevant social science and epidemiology, most of which is not known. As I alluded to above, justifying or precluding a protest on the basis of public health requires a sort of "bank-shot." One would need to know the effect of protests on policy and then the effect of policy on the health outcomes, and weigh these benefits against the increase in COVID-19 cases. (That's assuming the expected benefits are positive, which might not be the case because of blow-back.) The knowledge required to adjudicate this does not even exist. 

I am not against either set of protests. I think the government was overplaying its hand when it locked down businesses too strictly and for too long. It has also been overplaying its hand with respect to overly aggressive policing, and we are seeing the nation convulse in moral outrage over this going on for far too long. Still, I am disturbed by the ability of people to get so thoroughly swept away that they can completely contradict themselves without even noticing that they're doing it. I see the exact same things happening with respect to the "Abolish the Police" movement. I was told that it means "exactly what it sounds like" and that it means "abolish the police, and then reconstitute the police", by the same person on the same day. (Sorry, that's not what "abolish" means.) 

_______________________________

If you're reading this an think, "Yeah, I hate it when people do this," then you missed the point. We're all doing it. I do it. I'm probably doing it right now. It's something we all have to be extremely vigilant about. If you see the "elephant rider" phenomenon as something that happens to other people, you haven't usefully absorbed the lesson. 

I'm thinking of two recent experiences where I showed people their own printed words that contradicted what they were saying to me at the moment. I have a long, unforgiving memory. People get apoplectic when you do this. It's a disturbing thought to realize you aren't steering the elephant. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Hypothetical Dialogue

Person 1: Social phenomenon X is the cause of social phenomenon Y.

Person 2: Actually, X isn’t the cause of Y.

Person 1: What!? Are you saying X doesn’t exist?

Person 2: No! I’m just saying X isn’t the cause of Y. Do you see how that's a different claim? X can still exist, and it can even be the cause of *other* problems without specifically causing Y.

Person 1: Oh, yeah! It’s obvious now. Thank you for clarifying! (high-fives) But wait a minute, are you saying that Y isn’t a problem?

Person 2: No, certainly not. I’m saying that X doesn’t cause Y. Check the transcript (because this is a hypothetical conversation and exists only in text form). See?

Person 1: Oh, yeah, that’s very different from the thing I was accusing you of saying. I was about to regale you with examples of Y happening and insinuate that you don’t care. Given what you’re *actually* saying, I realize that would have been silly.

Person 2: Of course, I *do* care. Y is a serious problem. And if we misdiagnose the cause, we will apply the wrong solution and leave the problem tragically unsolved. Or, supposing Y is caused only 10% by X and 90% by other factors, addressing only X will leave 90% of the problem in place. We shouldn't fixate on one single cause of a social problem, just because it is the most emotionally salient of several contributing causes. 

Person 1: That is very thoughtful, actually. I *still* think X causes Y, but I see how you aren't the worst kind of person. I won't call you out on social media in a manner that will destroy your career and make you fear for your family's safety.

Person 2: Thanks! (high-fives again)
________________

I woke up in a cold sweat after this terrifying nightmare of an intolerant world, and everything was back to normal. Thank goodness. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Notes on "Abolish the Police"

I found the recent #AbolishthePolice hashtag interesting. Philosophically, I lean toward anarchism. Specifically anarcho-capitalism as described by David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Robert Murphy, Bruce Benson, Michael Huemer, Bryan Caplan, and many others. I think it's possible to do without a state. All functions of the state could ultimately be privatized, and for the most part it would work out better than what we have now. If we gradually privatized our police departments, we could replace them with a more efficient system of criminal justice, night watchmen, private security guards, conflict resolution, and rights enforcement. If you think this sounds totally crazy, I would ask you how many private security personnel there are in the United States. Do you think they're bit players in the overall security game, overshadowed by police? It turns out that private security outnumber police substantially in terms of manpower, with 1.1 million private security guards compared to 660 thousand police offices. One could say that security in America is already 62% privatized. Surely it's more than that when you consider all the things people do for their security that don't involve hiring guards: alarm systems, neighborhood watches, locks on doors, cameras, convex mirrors, observant clerks, guns, gated communities, etc. For a positive vision of private security in America, listen to this interview of Dale Brown of the Detroit Threat Management Center. It's a good example of an institution that libertarians like to theorize about actually being found working "in the wild." It focuses on non-violence and deescalation, and Brown's track record is stellar. I don't think it's crazy to suggest that we could make some incremental steps further in that direction. It might make sense to make businesses and neighborhoods more responsible for the patrolling function of the police, while perhaps leaving the police in charge of investigating crimes that have already happened, collecting evidence and arresting suspects. If it's truly a public good, then sure, leave it in the hands of the state. But some aspects of your security are private goods and are best left to private provision. (Note that we have a substantially private system of apprehending fugitives, with respect to bail bondsmen and bounty hunters.)

I am not all in on this one. When I think about it, it sounds nice. But I hedge that there is some probability, say 25%, maybe higher if I'm having a bad day, that a total abolition of the state would be worse than a minimal state, or even worse than what we currently have. Granting that, I think we could make a significant move in that direction without things going badly. However, I don't think it would be wise to institute this change overnight. That is, "abolish the police, then hope my ideas work out and something better replaces them" is a terrible idea. For massive institutional changes like this one, it is wise to make incremental steps in the right direction. That way, you can tell if you've gone too far, or are going about it the wrong way. (I would say that sufficiently evil institutions, like the drug war, should be abolished immediately. It was right to abolish slavery, rather than incrementally chip away at it. A Burkean conservative could argue that complex structures have been built atop this edifice, and removing it suddenly will cause unpredictable harms. But some things really are sufficiently evil that we should pull off the Band-aid all at once and deal with the pain.)

There really are bad people in the world who will prey on the weak. There are sociopaths who just don't care about the suffering of other human beings, and there are criminal opportunists who can be nudged into committing property and violent crime under the right conditions. There needs to be a policing function, whether it comes from the government or a private entity. People who commit crimes (real crimes, not victimless ones) need to be dealt with somehow. I think that if local governments said, "We're going to cut the budget of our police departments by 5% of this year's budget, each year for 20 years," that would be enough time for institutions of private security to establish themselves. We'd know ahead of time that police will be less available. We'd have some kind of assurance from the government that armed private security would be tolerated. Perhaps a few court cases involving the use of force by private security would get adjudicated by then, so people would be clear about the legal environment they live in. On the other hand, simply abolishing the police, starting right now, with no warning and nothing to fill the gap would likely be disastrous. 

Bret Weinstein put it well, saying (paraphrasing here): No matter how bad your police department is, its sudden and complete absence would be a lot worse. (His podcast where I heard him say this, Dark Horse, is excellent.) He would know. He and his wife Heather essentially had the police abolished on them, as he puts it. When he committed a (perceived) social justice misstep at his former college, Evergreen State College, he was harassed by mobs of students. The president of the university told the local police department to stand down. He received a phone call from the chief of police telling him that he shouldn't return to campus. Student "patrols" were searching for him car-to-car and the police could not ensure his safety. If it were common for people to buy their own security an open market, like signing up with an insurance company, he might have fared better. "Oh, the free government service won't help me today. That's okay, they're only a bit player. (pulls out private security subscription card) Oh, hey, I have platinum coverage anyway! I get one free escort per policy term." I don't know how likely that scenario is to play out, but I'm sure it's not going to emerge overnight to fill a vacuum left by the sudden abolition of a long-standing institution. (I doubt Weinstein shares my vision that a world of mostly private security is viable. He makes it quite clear that he is not a libertarian.)

This will be another post that I'm not sure if I should even bother with, because the people using the #abolishthepolice hashtag are totally unserious. Given the politics of the people using the slogan, I'm quite sure they aren't endorsing anarcho-capitalism. On social media, I raised the question of what exactly they are proposing. I had this feeling of getting six different answer from five different people. There needs to be some kind of conversation, a coordination of messaging. I find it odd (though not unbelievable) that people would congregate around a slogan while supporting very different policies. What exactly do these people mean by "abolish the police"?

It means exactly what it sounds like. 

It means abolish the police, then reconstitute the police. 

It means we'd be left without police protection, but everything would turn out fine.

It means we'd be left without police protection, and that would in many senses be horrible, but it's worth doing because things are so bad right now.

If we abolished the police, we'd live in a harmonious utopia, where social problems just get solved because we are all suddenly public-spirited. The incentives to do violence will be removed by a more robust social welfare system.

On Twitter, one could find an almost eye-rolling, exasperated, "Of course we don't literally mean 'abolish the police.' We really mean 'reform the police.' It entails the following slate of policy changes..."

And, of course, some people changed it to "defund the police," which obviously seems like a softening of the original. 

What truly astonishes me about all this is the willingness to ignore a vast literature on the various claims being discussed. You think we can just spend money on social programs and get to the "root causes" of crime? This is a very old idea. People have been discussing it for decades. 

The accepted wisdom has long been that there is a trade-off between levels of policing and levels of incarceration. You can have large numbers of police patrolling neighborhoods to deter crime, or you can have less patrolling but stricter enforcement for those who have been caught. This is the Gary Becker notion that you can have high-likelihood and low-severity punishment, or low-likelihood and high-severity punishment, to achieve a given amount of deterrence. I see no appreciation of this idea in today's conversation about "abolishing" the police. What's more, it seems Gary Becker was quite wrong. He actually preferred low levels of policing with very high penalties, thinking this was more "efficient" in the sense of getting more deterrence for a given public expenditure. Well, you can't just multiply "probability times severity" to get "expected penalty," because the response to severity is non-linear. Criminals don't respond twice as intensely to a 10-year sentence than to a 5-year sentence. You get more crime deterrence by having more boots on the ground, ensuring a higher probability of conviction. By contrast, the "abolish the police" crowd seems to want to eliminate police and prisons at the same time. They are completely ditching a rich thread of thought and research on criminology. 

See also here and here by Alex Tabarrok. Megan McArdles book The Upside of Down also explores the concept of achieving greater deterrence with high-probability punishments.

I'm also reminded of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He points out that most lethal violence stems from "altercations of relatively trivial origin," things like insults or other forms of disrespect, stepping on someone's shoes, and so on. This kind of jockeying for trivial status is built into us. Some of us have better temperaments for it, and some of us have a cultural aversion to violence that stops these from becoming fist-fights. Pinker explains that this kind of violence is a carry-over from "cultures of honor," old societies in which one must develop a reputation for a willingness to use violence. Otherwise you may be seen as weak, and your belongings may be seen as up for grabs. Eschewing violence in such a society can mean you don't survive. The American South still has a culture of honor, and Pinker gives examples of experiments that show Southerners have much more relaxed attitudes about the use of violence than Northerners, even today. 

The point is that much of this violence stems from disputes over status, not stuff. I have serious doubts that we can simply redistribute our way out of violent conflict, as if getting enough social workers and handing out enough government checks will eliminate the motives to commit violence. Most property crimes have a negative expected payoff anyway, so the notion that people are "stealing to live" never made a lot of sense. It makes even less sense to carry on as if this academic thread didn't even exist. It seems people are just making shit up, like we're in a giant dorm-room bull-session. Let's see a little more acknowledgment of the people who have done the hard thinking about this already.

I'd also like to see John Pfaff's work on the nature of mass incarceration taken more seriously. We simply cannot blame drug policing or mandatory minimums for the massive growth in incarceration. To release a large proportion of prisoners, we need to talk seriously about releasing people who committed violent crimes. Are #abolishthepolice folks really okay with this? Do they think these people won't commit violent crimes again? (Are they indulging the Utopian bullshit in the Twitter cartoon I linked to above, where merely showing mercy calms our tendency toward violence?) I quoted his book in a previous post:

The emphasis current reform efforts place on reducing punishments for people convicted of low-level nonviolent crimes is understandable, but it should be clear by now that the impact will be limited. Any significant reduction in the US prison population is going to require states and counties to rethink how they punish people convicted of violent crimes, where “rethink” means “think about how to punish less.”

A simple example makes this clear. Assume that in 2013 we released half of all people convicted of property and public order crimes, 100 percent of those in for drug possession, and 75 percent of those in for drug trafficking. Our prison population would have dropped from 1.3 million to 950,000. That’s no minor decline, but this sort of politically ambitious approach only gets us back to where we were in about 1994, and 950,000 prisoners is still more than three times the prison population we had when the boom began. Or consider that there are almost as many people in prison today just for murder and manslaughter as the total state prison population in 1974: about 188,000 for murder or manslaughter today, versus a total of 196,000 prisoners overall in 1974. If we are serious about wanting to scale back incarceration, we need to start cutting back on locking up people for violent crimes.

Don't get me wrong, I think we should end mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. I think we should end the drug war and release all prisoners who are in for drug charges. That would grant a very large number of people their freedom, even if it's a small fraction of the total prison population. But we should recognize that this would entail releasing some prisoners who are in for drug charges but whose real crime was a violent crime or property crime. Prosecutors and police will often decide who is guilty and target that person with a drug crime, because it's easier to prove. They sometimes entrap their target with a staged drug sale. I had someone from my community, a prosecutor, say that they do this. He said it in an approving tone, calling it a "great tool." This is disgusting, and it muddies the waters regarding who is or isn't a truly "violent criminal." But knowing this does suggest that there are a lot more violent criminals in prison than even Pfaff's numbers imply. Are "reformers" willing to turn loose rapists? Domestic abusers? Murderers? Police officers who used unnecessary violence against suspects? Do they acknowledge that if we're less willing to incarcerate violent criminals, that decreases the disincentive toward violence? The modern US is an outlier, compared to the rest of the world and compared to our own history, because we have had an increased willingness to imprison violent criminals. That needs to be acknowledged. 

If we were to abolish the police, there would be a much higher demand for private security. Are people using the hashtag okay with this? This was my formulation to someone on social media (paraphrasing, not quoting): If you abolish the police, I will hire armed private security to protect my home and escort me when necessary. Without police, you have no means to stop me. Are you okay with that? The people who want to abolish the police may also want to abolish private security for the same reasons, but they have no means of enforcing it. In other contexts, these same people are usually hostile to the notion of privatizing anything that the government is currently doing. 

People will do some combination of arming themselves and hiring armed guards to protect their property and their persons. The demand for guns will surely increase. Most of the #abolishthepolice folks seem to be reflexively leftist; presumably many of them favor gun control. But who confiscates the guns or ensures background checks are done properly if there aren't police?  Who arrests the non-compliant gun seller? You can say you want to abolish the police, but you then relinquish any control over what the resulting society looks like. You can say how you wish the world would be, but you have no levers to pull or dials to turn to steer the world in that direction without an enforcement arm. Call yourself whatever you like, and paint whatever ideal picture of the world you want. But in a world without police, we are all anarcho-capitalists. 

Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe the would-be reformers aren't as reflexively leftist as I think they are. Maybe they aren't hemmed in by stereotypes about the left's policy platform. I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Mostly, I think this is another flash in the pan. It's not even registering with people who don't inhabit the Twitter-sphere, and most Americans are shrugging it off as something that's obviously nonsensical. I wanted to put down some thoughts anyway. So here it is, from someone who's done a lot of thinking about what a world without government police would look like. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

On the Recent Disparagement of Property Rights

I am quite pleased to see the recent outpouring of anger at police misconduct after the killing of George Floyd. I've been following police misconduct stories for many years. I used to post outrage stories to social media on an almost daily basis, and nobody seemed to care. I always have a "glad you could make it" reaction when the public finally comes around on an important issue like this. People are suddenly recognizing that a problem exists, and it looks like something good will come of it. 

That being said, I find it disturbing that some people seem to be glorifying the random destruction of property and the outright looting that's taking place alongside legitimate protests. An equally disturbing tendency is when someone points out that destruction and theft of property are wrong, the response is something like "I see that you care more about things than about people." There is this nasty insinuation that people care about property to the exclusion of other people's lives, as if it's an either-or. It's often followed up with a simplistic hashtag-length slogan, like "people over property" or some variant of it. Some of these commentators want to treat property rights as a "second class" set of civil rights, categorically less important than the right to bodily integrity or the right to choose your companion. "Property" is just "stuff", in this view. And what kind of crass materialist would place a higher value on mere stuff than on a human life? Or even a human's well-being? 

I want to state very clearly that there is no way to actually make this "people over property" formulation work. Property rights do not stem from an obsession with stuff. Property rights are a means of avoiding conflict between human beings. As long as there is uncertainty in how a piece of property can rightfully be used, there will be conflict between the competing claims for that property. Given enough of these conflicts, some of the disputants will inevitably turn to violence, and some of that violence will turn lethal. (I made a detailed version of this argument in this post. Please read it, too.) That consideration aside, bear in mind that you can't secure any of your other civil rights without property rights. Your political party wants a place to congregate? Too bad. The commissar will not grant you a building in which you can conduct party business. Not even a conference room. (Or, assuming anarcho-syndicalism in which there's no central commissar, perhaps your party manages to acquire an office. But without property rights you have no means of excluding disruptive rabble-rousers or other interlopers.)  You want a printing press, paper, and ink to spread the word? Nope, the central planner cannot justify using scarce resources on such a frivolous purpose. Or, again, assuming no central planner, you have no way of stopping someone from intercepting your paper and ink or smashing your printing press. (Of course, this argument about using state control over the means of production to shut down unfriendly publications is entirely theoretical.) Even your private life is not safe. In what sense can you "choose your partner" if you lack the right to exclude rude interlopers from your home? Without property rights, none of your other civil rights are secure. Property rights are part and parcel of your rights to assemble, speak, worship, and petition for a redress of grievances.  

If you want a stark but familiar example of how uncertain property rights lead to conflict, here's one. Imagine a department store during normal times. Basically no fist fights, basically peaceful commerce. Shoppers have no beef with each other. Shelves are fully stocked, and there is no sense that "If I don't grab it now, somebody else will." Now imagine a department store during a "Black Friday" sale. Suddenly, two shoppers eyeing the last Tickle Me Elmo doll might come to blows over who gets it. A shopping cart containing the latest-model XBox, left momentarily unattended, is now considered "fair game." The people are mostly the same. Their nature is no different than it was the week before, when the same people shopped peacefully at the same store. What has changed is the nature of property rights. They have become less secure. It is suddenly unclear that removing a coveted item from a stranger's shopping cart is against the rules. After all, if you nab it, you get it. A stranger who covets the same item is grinding through the same calculation, thinking, "If I nab it back, I will get it back." This is the recipe for an "I-had-it-first" shoving match, then a fist-fight. (Someone who I know personally admitted to coming to blows over such a dispute. And, given the press coverage of such incidents, it can't be all that uncommon.) I don't know if such fist-fights were common among looters, but surely there were some disputes about who got what loot. And surely these disputes would happen more frequently if we somehow made "tolerate looting" an official policy. (I'll go ahead and state the obvious: stores will cease to exist if looting is officially tolerated by the legal system. No one will bother to refurbish a store and stock its shelves if anyone can just walk in and steal the merchandise whenever they like.)

Try an even more trivial example. Anyone who has young children will understand this one. (For that matter, anyone who has seen young children interact for any amount of time, or anyone who remembers being a young child, will understand.) Which situation will cause more conflict? You hand two siblings a very desirable toy, literally placing both of their hands on it at the same time, and say "Now, share nicely." Or, you simply give the toy to one child and give the other a close substitute. If you are very lucky, if the children are particularly well behaved and harmonious, they might play nicely and share the toy equally in the first case. But any perceived inequity, any hint that "my sibling is hogging the toy", will likely lead to conflict. In the case where you gave both children separate toys, even if it seemed unfair, even if one got a much nicer toy, the play-time is likely to be more harmonious. The child who received the inferior toy might resent his allotment, and he may still try to steal the nicer toy from his sibling. But you've set expectations. You've made conflict less likely. It's less likely still if you make it very clear that stealing toys from siblings will not be tolerated.

Imagine for a moment that property rights aren't secure enough for you to exclude outsiders from your home. Someone "lets himself" inside. How does it feel to suddenly have a stranger in your home or apartment? Does it feel like there's "only stuff" at stake here? Or are you worried for your safety from this unpredictable person? If you're a male, perhaps a burly fellow capable of handling himself in a fight, imagine that you're not. Or imagine you're not home, and this stranger lets himself inside when your wife or children are around. There is a good reason why most states permit you to kill an intruder who breaks into your home. (States vary in whether you can use lethal force against intruders at your business or your vehicle.) An intruder is a threat, an unknown quantity. They may have the intent to harm you, to incapacitate you before taking your stuff. Or they may do god-knows-what to your wife or children. That's not to say you should shoot a scared 20-year-old junkie or mentally ill person if you get the drop on them pilfering in your kitchen drawers. There is room for compassion in some of these encounters. But you can easily imagine a situation where a large, scary burglar, or possibly a team of them, breaks into your home with unknown intent. Many people responded to the killing of Breonna Taylor saying that her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired at the police because he thought they were intruders. I don't think they are merely noting that this is why he fired, but (crucially) that he was justified in doing so. In some sense, this acknowledges the importance of having property rights. We all are entitled to some kind of defensible space, one that we can exclude others from entering and defend with lethal force if necessary. And many people have acknowledged that the police are wrong to violate this right, for example when they execute a no-knock raid. They are at least implicitly acknowledging property rights, even if they wouldn't describe it in those terms. (Even if they wouldn't be caught dead arguing explicitly in favor of 'property rights'.) 

Most people won't quibble too much with the notion that you should have the right to a home, and that you furthermore have a right to defend it. But I have seen attempts to distinguish between residential and commercial property, holding the second as less worthy. Once again, this doesn't really work. For one thing, all the things I said above still apply with respect to conflicts arising from the unclear delineation of property. Say I'm camping out in my store to make sure nothing happens, because the police are preoccupied and property rights are not as secure as they once were. If someone starts breaking down the door to get inside, I'm in the same situation as I am if there's a burglar in my home. I can't be certain about the intent of the intruders. They might just want stuff. It could be the case that "Take what you want and just leave" works here, whereas at home the same line might mean handing your wife or daughter over to some kind of sexual predator. Granting that, this still doesn't work. A store might be the owner's sole source of income. It might be the only thing that enables them to own their home. (Think about someone mortgaging their home to finance a business.) Taking it away might mean taking away someone's livelihood, which ultimately means removing from them the residential property that most would agree he has the right to own. Most small business owners aren't exactly rich. Looting their property hurts them basically as much as looting their homes. I insist that you have the same right to armed defense of your commercial property as you do of your personal property, because they are ultimately inseparable. The one becomes the other. The sale of goods at a private business becomes the owner's personal income and the patron's personal property. We're supposed to imagine that there is this moment before the transaction where the property is hanging in some kind of limbo, living on a lower plane of existence where it is not given the same regard. Obviously this is silly. 

See here for footage of violence actually breaking out. A man is brutally beaten by a mob for defending his commercial property (contra the description, this man survived). You can blame him, or you can blame the mob, as I do. But you can't deny my point that unclear property rights lead to violent conflict. You simply cannot treat property rights as something than can be dispensed with to the benefit of  other "higher" rights, because they aren't separable from those other rights. 

I want to tell some commentators to stop pretending they can read minds. Here is an example of what I'm getting at, an atrociously bad-faith article in Vice about talking to your "unenlightened" relatives. (Try reading it and see if you think most readers will come away looking to have an enlightened conversation or will come away looking to pick a fight.) The title is "How To Talk To Relatives Who Care More About Looting Than Black Lives." Now maybe some people are literally claiming this as their position. Perhaps some Fox News viewer stood up and proclaimed that he is deeply worried about the former but doesn't care at all about the latter. More likely, observers are inferring how much other commentators value certain things based on how much they talk about them, or they are inferring values from sharing patterns on social media. Please don't do this. It looks really foolish. Seeing someone's social media posting behavior tells you nothing about the relative importance they place on various social issues. I probably have more posts on this blog that address drug policy than any other topic. It's certainly something I consider very important. I have far fewer posts on immigration policy, even though as a policy matter fixing immigration would probably do a lot more good than fixing drug policy. It's just that I have more to say, and I have some novel things to say, on drug policy. There is a writer at Reason who covers, broadly speaking, campus politics and cancel culture. That is his beat as a reporter. I doubt if he would say that it's categorically more important than other topics or policy questions, it's just that someone has to cover it and he's really good at it. Someone quite cluelessly criticized him on Twitter for "being outraged about the wrong things," and I thought this just gloriously missed the point.  If you see someone condemn looting and fail to condemn some other injustice, it doesn't mean you can rank order their values based on your sampling of their conversations with you or their social media posts. I think the correct take, certainly the one that I subscribe to, is that looting and random property destruction are wrong, but peacefully (even loudly and forcefully) protesting a perceived injustice is good. If someone condemns something evil, it's not the time to berate them for failing to condemn some other evil. In fact, demanding someone recite your sacred catechisms is likely to push them away. They may harden, deciding they won't give you the satisfaction of a concession. They might resent the implication that they are a horrible person. The correct response is, "Yes, it's wrong to destroy the property of innocent people. I wish they would stop." If you want to open someone's heart, start there. Don't start with "You're a bad person. Really the worst kind of person in today's society. Your values are wrong and your priorities are wrong." 

Of course, there are some people who will not say "looting and destroying property are wrong" because they don't believe it. There are left-anarchists who are re-appropriating the passion and energy of the BLM protests to do things they already wanted to do for other reasons. In protest videos, I see a lot of young white people wearing masks and black hoods, the uniform of left-anarchist agitators, smashing windows and spray-painting graffiti on businesses. I wish there was more careful attention paid to the distinction between these groups. One is an outpouring of righteous anger at an unaccountable system of policing, the other is a group of opportunistic agitators looting businesses and destroying property, because "fuck corporations." I saw a video clip (which I can't seem to find right now) that showed some black women scolding some white "Antifa" women who had just spray-painted some graffiti on a Starbucks. The black women said something to the tune of, "We didn't ask you to do this." They recognized that these white protesters were harming their community or hurting their cause, probably both. I'm sure there are also examples of initially peaceful protests getting too heated and resorting to property destruction, even erupting into violence. I think that should be condemned, too. But keep in mind that there is a faction among the protesters that always had the goal of abolishing private property and smashing corporate businesses. It's sleazy of them to jump on the coat-tails of an un-related protest, and it's equally sleazy to fail to call them on their bullshit. (See around 43:40 in this video. A young man very suddenly realizes the importance of property rights. A masked man, apparently wielding some kind of weapon, knocks the camera out of his hand and runs off with it, while the camera's owner shouts "Thief! Thief! Thief!")

And looting is looting. It's not a righteous act of protest. It's an opportunistic act of predation. Police resources are drawn thin, and there is a crowd that a thief can simply dissolve into. Everyone is wearing masks, anyway. Some are using this opportunity to gain, personally and materially, at the expense of the community. I think it's only a small fringe group who are actively defending the "right" to loot, so I won't waste too much time belaboring the point. But it does sadden me that a lot of seemingly normal people (e.g. people I know on Facebook or follow on Twitter) can't simply condemn this as a crime without contextualizing it. I have had to down-rate my respect for a lot of people on this count. 

(I would, on the other hand, defend the "looting" that happened post Katrina, insofar as desperate people were getting desperately needed food or water. I have zero sympathy for someone who uses the distraction of a massive protest as an opportunity to score a new smartphone.)

There is an argument that goes, "The only way to get serious attention is to cause real damage." We need to make the police fear us, the thinking goes. A few peaceful marches in the street? The police, politicians, and other policy-makers can simply wait it out. Once the outrage passes, people will simply move on to being outraged about the next thing. To get lasting change, we need angry mobs making a show of force. There might be something to this, but the willingness to throw innocent people under the bus is disturbing. I'm not saying this argument is totally wrong, but I do wonder how much the people making this argument really believe it. In what other contexts would you tolerate, say, burning down someone's business or stealing their property "for the greater good?" There's also the question of "blow-back." People who might have been sympathetic to your cause might abandon you if you insist on using unscrupulous methods or engage in "the ends justify the means" thinking. If you're not restrained by principle, after all, then how much can you be trusted to do the right thing in the future? 

The above paragraph treats property destruction and looting as "regrettable but necessary."  There is another sort of argument that goes something like, "The looting is a righteous redistribution from rich to poor." Some see "property rights" as a mere obstacle in the way of this glorious redistribution, which will set right ancient wrong-doings. The business owners who get looted in some sense have it coming. I don't understand how anyone can have confidence in this argument. (It is not a straw-man. I have seen versions of it on Twitter and on Facebook.) I can understand why someone might want the government to flatten incomes or "correct" wealth differences by taxing the population and redistributing income more equally. (I think they are profoundly wrong about the nature of economic reality and in their basic values. But I understand the visceral appeal of such a policy.) In that scenario, at least there is a formal process for redistributing, ratified by public opinion and carried out by official institutions. In the case of looting, people who happen to be near a loot-able store at the right place and time will get the most stuff. It will tend to be the most vicious individuals, with the least concern for breaking and entering, plowing down a store owner, and carrying off the most goods, who will have the most property "redistributed" to them. There is no guarantee that, for example, black people will benefit at the expense of white people, or that poor people will benefit at the expense of rich people. Assuming that most of the activity is in predominantly black communities, there are surely a lot of black-owned businesses being looted. Moreover, the total value of goods looted by any individual is almost never a life-changing sum. I saw news footage of a local clothing store being looted. (It was not my city, but one nearby. I think it was a Macy's. The goods being looted were mostly handfuls of clothing. The looters' faces were quite visible on camera, and I really hope they are all prosecuted for their crimes.) The "redistribution" taking place here is almost totally random and in quantities too small to flatten the rich-poor differential at all. And it entails obnoxious property damage not necessary to accomplish the redistribution, assuming other means were used. It's hard for me to see this as anything other than an ad hoc rationalization for terrible behavior. 

I'm not sure I should even respond to these crack-pot notions of abolishing property rights and officially tolerating looting. I think it's mostly "a few angry people on twitter." (In contrast to the very real and serious issues about unaccountable policing, which most of the country is engaging with in some way.) It doesn't represent the opinions of most of the public or even of most protesters. This "conversation" doesn't even register with most people, because they don't inhabit social media the way intellectuals and young radicals do. Even the people who would scold me for "Talking about property, mere stuff, at a time like this!", mostly are just expressing frustration at an unaccountable justice system. They don't really want to legalize theft or abolish property rights. Most people simply haven't thought very hard about their beliefs. The adopt and discard them all the time when the political winds change, often back-fitting a rationale on the fly. On the other hand, there are the left anarchists who really do want to abolish private property. I mostly think they are not worth responding to. Their ideas are half-baked and totally unserious. It may be a mistake for me to take them seriously, as I am doing now by writing a long blog post about them. I've seen a few people who know better flirt a little too closely with their ideas without recognizing the obvious absurdity. I consider them "temporarily lost but reachable."  I hope this post reaches them, and that they find some value in it.

Friday, May 29, 2020

How the Lockdown Ends

In his book Hitch -22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens describes Salman Rushdie's experience living under a fatwa against him. Rushdie had to live in hiding, though he eventually re-emerged.

Salman began making ventures in travel, testing the walls of the prison that he had to cart, almost tortoise-like, around with him. Vaclav Havel agreed to receive him in Prague. President Mary Robinson of Ireland had him to Dublin. He continued pushing at the bars and restrictions, refusing to allow himself to be immured or obliterated. 

This describes a man who initially hides himself away from a very real threat, but who eventually grows weary of this life and tests the boundaries. Each venture further emboldens him, and he eventually emerges again as a public figure. 

I suspect something like this will happen with the coronavirus lockdown. There won't be an official "all-clear", just as there was no official end to the fatwa against Rushdie. People will simply tire of it. They will gradually become less observant of safety protocols. The "scolds" will be in the minority and they'll know it, so moral suasion will no longer be an effective way of getting compliance. More and more businesses will open, despite not having the official go-ahead from their state government. ("So sue me. See how that worked out in Ohio.") I think sheer laziness and inertia will eventually steer us back to normal. At-risk individuals will still wisely maintain a safe distance, but the majority of the population will gradually lose their fear of the virus after the novelty has worn off. 

All bets are off here if the virus really comes roaring back. If easing the lockdowns leads to a huge spike in active cases or deaths, I think people really will re-learn their fear and return to their sanctuaries. The coming weeks will tell, but so far this doesn't seem to be happening. 

Nobody will eat crow. Everybody will think that they were "right all along." Coronavirus "minimizers" will compare the projected deaths to the realized total and say, "See, this was just a bad flu season. No big deal." Coronavirus "alarmists" will say, "It would have been much worse if not for the lockdown." Neither is being serious about counterfactual thinking. The minimizers aren't acknowledging that the virus would probably have spread farther without any kind of lockdown, and the alarmists aren't acknowledging that individuals and businesses would have taken precautions regardless of what their state governments told them to do. Anyway, most people don't have well-defined opinions. Alarmists who were insisting that we absolutely needed the lockdown won't be embarrassed if we ease lockdowns and nothing terrible happens. They'll reason something like, "I always thought we should trust the experts to decide when it's time to reopen. We began a gradual reopening at the appropriate time, with politicians following expert advice about the timing." (Reopening due to judicial decisions, like in Ohio and Wisconsin, are pseudo-random policy changes that mess with the "just following expert judgment" story, but that point will be easily dismissed.)  Not having made any definite prediction, nobody will feel compelled to reevaluate their worldview. We will ease into a post-lockdown world and people will simply ease into their new talking points, as if acclimating to a slightly too-warm bath. People mostly sleep-walk into their opinions. Few will stand athwart history yelling "Stop!" They will mostly continue to follow Jonathan Haidt's "elephant rider" model, whereby the elephant goes wherever it wants to go and the rider, while managing to steer the beast very slightly, convinces himself that "This is what I wanted him to do." This is an almost perfect analogy for how people change their minds in practice.

As much as I prefer the strategy of simply becoming inured to the risk, I do wish there was more introspection about where we went wrong (oh, there is plenty of extrospection!). But the combination of shallow opinion-holding, exhaustion, and sheer inertia will lead us more quickly to a post-lockdown world. Even though nobody will have learned anything about anything. 

I am noticing examples of this in my personal life. I have a healthcare worker in my home. For a while she was showering each day after returning from work. That has stopped, and without any commentary or without anyone batting an eye. (She of course follows other safety protocols, like wearing a mask and gloves at work and changing out of work clothes. This is just one extra above-and-beyond level of hygiene that's being discarded.) My in-laws stayed home for two months without venturing out for anything. My wife brought them groceries, but physically kept her distance. Then three weeks ago, we all met up for a family gathering. It included my wife and kids, my wife's parents, her brother, and her aunt and uncle. It was a foregone conclusion that they would not "social distance" from their adorable grandchildren. There was lots of hugging. We met up again two weeks later, and we were even more lax about "distancing" protocols. On the first meetup, we were very careful about who touched which utensils to serve themselves various dishes. On the second, we were all reaching into open bags of chips and serving ourselves dip from the same spoon. (Everyone was careful to wash their hands, I should add.) There was no discussion of relaxing safety protocols, no meeting where we analysed the virus' prevalence in our community and thus downgraded our assessment of the risk level. It just kind of happened. And I suspect my personal experience isn't unusual. None of this is to say "This is how it should be." This is more of an observation and prediction than a prescription. 

Returning to the passage above. Rushdie could have been gunned down the second he gained enough confidence to step out into the light. Under that counterfactual the reference would take on a very different meaning. Sometimes a fatalistically acclimating to a risk is the wrong strategy after all.  
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Back to "nobody will have learned anything about anything" for a moment. I feel like I've been doing an adequate job of updating as new information came in. Someone had asked me my opinion of the coronavirus in early March. My now slightly embarrassing answer was: 

Just a vague sense of “I've heard all this before.”

Which was a reference to scare-stories about the "avian flu" and "swine flu." And I shared this link of an early and too-optimistic take by Ron Bailey. I'm not too embarrassed. I always entertained the possibility that this could be really bad (and still do), though it's possible I rated the probability too low. It's clearly turning out to be milder than the most dire predictions. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

For Whom Are We Preserving the Commons?

The "tragedy of the commons" is a classic collective action problem. Really, it's a short-hand term for all collective action problems. A "commons" or common-pool resource is something that is collectively owned, like a wide open range for grazing sheep or cattle. Because there is no single owner, the resource will tend to be overused. Suppose a single farmer owned the range and all the cattle grazing on it. That farmer would not overgraze. He would limit the cattle he owned to a number that the grazing land could sustain. Too many and the grass doesn't grow back fast enough and his herd begins to starve. If he is instead letting his herd graze on a communal property owned by many cattle farmers, he will tend to overgraze. "If I add a few more head of cattle" he says, "I get the benefit, but the cost is borne by many other people." Every individual farmer hits on the same solution, where the individually rational choice is irrational from the point of view of the whole group. Either the land gets overgrazed to the point where it only supports a small number of cattle (compared to the optimum), or the farmers come to some kind of agreement and enforcement mechanism to prevent overgrazing*.

There are other examples of this. The air is a commons into which we dump pollution; it can be over-polluted. The ocean is a commons from which we extract fish; it can be over-fished. As I write this, person-to-person contact is a kind of commons. Doing too much of it tends to spread infectious disease. The individually rational choice might be to socialize with abandon. But we'd all like everyone else to socialize at least a bit less than they normally would. You might be an asymptomatic spreader of covid-19, so every contact you have with other people is a tiny externality (a cost imposed on other people). If you are actively infectious, you might be tempted to take a trip to the store rather than self-quarantine. After all, you're already sick. You incur no cost by going out, assuming you're physically well enough to manage an outing. If you don't care about the costs imposed on others, your personal cost-benefit computation might lead you to spread the disease, even though the social cost-benefit analysis would have you stay at home. That's the logic stated in simple terms, anyway. And that's the basic rationale for a state-imposed "lock-down."

But wait a minute. Say everyone's basically staying at home. Can I go out? Why have all these empty streets if nobody can travel them? Why not go to the totally empty store, where the chance of contracting covid-19 is now negligible? It's like saying, "We're overgrazing the land, so everybody has to stop grazing completely." Once the grass grows back, you might as well let someone graze. A more useful way of thinking about this is that there is an optimal level of usage for any commons. There is an optimum amount of lock-down, where people are allowed to do activities provided there is enough room to avoid other people. I'm thinking specifically of the guy who was arrested for surfing. Now, maybe the police had to set an example in this case. If one person gets to flout the law, then others will start to follow. But it would have made more sense to keep the beaches open so long as they didn't get too crowded. (Or to not shut them down at all. You can maintain your distance on a beach, for crying out loud.) Likewise, stores can be opened with the condition that they follow reasonable protocols. Say you allow in one patron at a time, the risk to other patrons is minimal. (The CDC has recently downgraded its estimate of the risk of transmission on surfaces. Direct person-to-person contact seems to be the dominant means of spreading.)

My great frustration with the government response to covid-19 is that it doesn't seem to have any clear goal or any end-game in mind. State governments aren't doing the basic cost-benefit analysis that they needs to be doing. (If they are doing this behind closed doors, they're not showing their work.) Keyboard warriors and Facebook-scolds are piling on in obnoxious ways. "Why can't we go out, since we're at such low risk of being harmed by the virus?" young people quite reasonably ask. They usually get some version of this totally inadequate answer: "Because if you go out, you could get sick and infect someone else." That is technically true, but completely useless as a framework for crafting policy. That answer has no sense of numeracy or magnitudes or relative costs. It shows no comprehension of what people actually want or how much they're willing to pay to get it. Maybe terms like "cost-benefit analysis" and "optimum rate of viral spreading" sound bloodless, like we're tolerating preventable deaths based on the outcome of a spreadsheet calculation. But what's truly inhuman is declining to inform policy with this kind of consideration. You can't avoid placing a dollar value on a human life, not if you're actually serious about treating people with the respect they deserve.

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*In practice, these kinds of coordination problems get solved. See Elinor Ostrom's excellent book Governing the Commons. It has many examples of these kinds of common-pool resource problems getting solved. It turns out that people are capable of talking to each other. They don't just suffer in silence, they come up with mutually agreeable rules that fix the problem. We also all observe basic norms of fairness. Even if we are sociopaths who don't personally get the "warm fuzzies" when we think about fairness, the fair solution is a kind of focal point that can solve the coordination problem. ("Equal sharing" of a commons is a more obvious solution than "Jimmy gets first dibs on everything," even though everyone would like to impose the second rule and be Jimmy. It might also be the solution that generates optimal enforcement, with users of the commons reporting cheaters and adjudicating disputes because they all have buy-in.) Ostrom slays some left-wing tropes by showing that we don't need government to solve all externality problems. It's also fair to say she slays some right-wing tropes by showing "privatize everything" isn't always the best option. Some communal properties are best left communal, but the best solution to some particular problem might come from the individuals participating, not far-off bureaucrats or capitalist "owners".

Monday, May 25, 2020

Quarantine Policy and the Veil of Ignorance

Young person: "I want to live my life! Open the economy, let me work, let me socialize as I please. I'm young enough that the risk to me is negligible. It's comparable to the other risks that are just part of normal life."

Scold: "You're killing grandma!"

People are not thinking very clearly about this problem. There is a population that is relatively immune to the virus. The young and healthy have a very low risk of death or serious complications. Older people and people with risk factors are many times more likely to die. What's good for one group's interests is bad for the other group's interests. But society as a whole can only really have one policy with respect to quarantining the young and healthy.

It turns out there is a useful tool for thinking about this kind of problem. Obviously we shouldn't be picking whatever policy happens to favor ourselves, just because I'm me and I like things that benefit me. We need to pick the policy that's optimal from the point of view of society as a whole. You should answer the question about quarantining young people as if you didn't know whether you were young or old. You should try to disregard any knowledge of who you actually are. Imagine a cosmic roll of the dice will randomly reassign your identity after the policy decision has been made. This is a powerful tool to discipline your thinking. You can use it to actively root out any self-serving bias, whereby you back-fit an argument to the conclusion that suits you.  This is the Rawlsian veil of ignorance.

I presented this as if it's a conflict between young people who want to be free, damn the consequences, and old people who are worried that crowds of mingling young people might spread the disease to them. But actually people are pretty altruistic. Young people are very much worried about their grandparents. I have personally heard many young and healthy people express concern for their elderly relatives. Some of them described to me their personal efforts to avoid contact with them, and some voice these concerns in defense of government imposed lock-downs. On the other side, I have heard older people saying essentially, "We don't want this from you, and we'd never ask it of you." Some of them would not have their children or grandchildren give up their livelihoods.

The veil of ignorance should lead you to think about what it is you actually want at various stages of your life. On the one hand, we do have our selfish wants and desires. I want to socialize. I want to attend public events and eat at restaurants and take my small children to filthy indoor play-places, which are surely hotbeds of transmissible pathogens. But we also want things for our loved ones. I certainly don't want my parents to get this virus. That's a selfish desire, too. But we can take that a step further and think about what we will want at later stages of our lives. I hope my kids grow up to be successful adults. That's a selfish desire, not an altruistic one. Everyone wants that for their own children, and they want it like they want a satisfying meal, not in the sense that they want to solve world hunger. They don't think of resources spent in pursuit of their children's well-being as charity. It's consumption. Money spent on your child's tuition is money spent trying to get something that you want. Most of us don't wouldn't selfishly sabotage our adult children's careers in return for trivial benefits to ourselves. The health benefits would have to be quite large before a typical parent would say, "Yes, I'll take that from the younger generation." Young people should be contemplating not just how much they want their older relatives to survive the pandemic, but what they would want for their adult children at a later stage of their life.

Imagine your elderly self sitting at the kitchen table, contemplating your adult children and perhaps young grandchildren losing their social lives and perhaps being unable to work (as many adults aren't). Another hundred-year pandemic has hit. There is some benefit to you of locking down the young, in that there are fewer people milling about and spreading the virus. Even though your relatives may be making heroic efforts to avoid getting you sick, more sick young people means a greater chance of any given elderly person getting sick. That's true because we can't create perfect separation between vulnerable and low-risk populations. But the benefit to you comes with a cost, and it's one you might not be willing to pay as a parent and grandparent. If this hypothetical makes you feel guilty, you should probably reassess the wisdom of locking down young people. "I don't want my elderly relatives to get sick" isn't much of an answer here. They might want something different for you, if it were up to them. You should be able to viscerally understand this with a little bit of introspection.

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This whole post is side-stepping the possibility that it might be better for the elderly if the young simply get the pandemic "over with" from their point of view. I think there is some wisdom to this idea. I actually think these past two and a half months have been an enormous wasted opportunity. We could have been allowing children to go to school. They have a negligible rate of fatalities or serious complications. Immune-compromised children or children who live with elderly or sick parents could remain home if they don't feel safe, and we wouldn't demand that elderly teachers or support staff mix with them. We'd have had more covid outbreaks by now, but a large fraction of the population would come out of it with immunity. We wouldn't necessarily have "herd immunity", but we'd have these epidemiological fire-breaks interspersed through the population. Suppose the virus flares up again with things as they are now. If the virus gets into a school, a lot of people will get it, probably long before anyone realizes there's a problem if there is asymptomatic spread. One might then reasonably ask, "Why were schools shut down for so long, just for it to happen again? What was accomplished other than moving the inevitable forward in time?"

Robin Hanson has run some simulations that suggest exposing the young is a good idea. I don't know enough to certify that he's right, I just wanted to point to a more rigorous version of the "expose the young" argument. If quarantining the young is counter-productive from the point of view of the elderly, then obviously that changes the cost-benefit considerations I try to outline above.