Arnold Kling introduced me to a useful concept in a recent post: naive realism:
[Ross Douthat] is responding to the views of his newspaper’s writers and readers that the United States suffered many more COVID deaths because Donald Trump was President. I think that this view is very widespread and very wrong.
A lot of research suggests that non-pharmaceutical interventions made little or no difference in cross-regional and cross-country comparisons. Statistical comparisons aside, tell me what policies the President could have put in place that would have made a large difference. Show your work, keeping in mind how many deaths seemed to stem from New York subways and nursing homes.
Jeffrey Friedman introduced me to the term naive realism, which is an important concept with a misleading name. I would explain naive realism as follows.
A first-order naive realist believes that he knows enough to solve a problem if he were in charge.
A second-order naive realist admits that he does not know the solution, but he is sure that someone could solve the problem if that person were put in charge.
It seems to me that there are a lot of naive realists about the pandemic.
Multiple times in just the past week, I have heard people criticize Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic by citing the full death toll. (It is all over my Facebook feed, and it always seems to come up in phone calls with my parents.) It's fine to suggest that the death toll is higher than it would be under an optimal policy regime (maybe one that Hilary Clinton would have put in place, if that's what people are suggesting?). Or maybe people are implicitly conceding that, yes, we'd have a comparably large death toll under any regime (my view), but even if the president is only responsible for a small percentage of what happens in the world (also my view), a small percentage of hundreds of thousands of death is still thousands of deaths. That would be perfectly reasonable, too. But it is slightly sloppy to say "Two-hundred thousand people have died!" in the middle of an anti-Trump screed, as if there is any reasonable counterfactual where that number is near zero.
I second Kling's observation that there seems to be little correlation between policy response and death toll if you look world wide. I also second his observation that there has been a wide range of state and local policy responses. A switch flipped right around March 15th, when the world suddenly decided to stop dismissing the virus and started implementing extreme policy responses. As buffoonish as Trump is, it's hard for me to see him as uniquely responsible for our problems.
I have my own list of desired policy responses. Call it "naive realism" if you want. Don't get me wrong, I certainly blame Trump for failing to implement these. (Fast track FDA approval for viral tests, mask production, and new treatments; suspend the price controls known as "anti-gouging laws" at least insofar as these affect interstate commerce; set a better example regarding personal safety and hygiene protocols; allow the non-vulnerable to acquire some kind of herd immunity.) All that said, I don't think it's obvious that some counterfactual president would have implemented these, or some other slate of good policy responses that don't occur to me.
The exchange between Peter Suderman and Nick Gillespie in this Monday's Reason podcast echoes my own inner dialogue about Trump's responsibility for the pandemic. (It is only an inner dialogue, because TDS has made an outer dialogue on "the performance of the Trump administration" all but impossible.) Suderman is, in my opinion, sloppy about placing too much of the blame on Trump, and Gillespie calls him out for it. I say this all as someone who does not like Trump. It feels awkward to be "defending" a president whose platform and style I completely despise. (Scare quotes because I'm really not defending him, just pushing back against sloppy arguments.) But it's important that we not pretend that our problems will be solved the day Trump leaves office. Misdiagnosing the problem leads to fixating on the wrong solution and can lead to false optimism when that "solution" is implemented. I am seeing a lot of first and second-order naive realism right now. At this point, I'm hoping Trump goes away just so some semblance of rational policy discussion can resume.