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The Laffer Curve of Death

From Michael Dorf

A useful reminder that a crank libertarian law professor with no relevant expertise made insanely wrong predictions about the impact of the COVID pandemic…that directly influenced the president of the United States:

With COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States setting daily records, this seems like an appropriate time to check in on NYU Law Professor and libertarian public intellectual Richard Epstein. Recall that back in March, Epstein wrote a column for the Hoover Institution website condemning what he thought was shaping up to be a governmental overreaction to the pandemic. In that column, Epstein predicted that even without substantial government interventions, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States would be around 500. Shortly thereafter, Epstein acknowledged what he called a “stupid gaffe.” He should have said 5,000 U.S. deaths and 50,000 deaths worldwide. The original column was thus corrected (at least twice).

Yet, as I explained in an essay shortly after Epstein published his analysis, even his “revised estimate [wa]s still probably at least two orders of magnitude too low.” I wish I could say that I was wrong, but it is now clear that I was right. Each power of ten is an order of magnitude. Epstein predicted US deaths in the four figures and global deaths in the five figures. We have already experienced US deaths in the six figures and global deaths in the seven figures. As I predicted, even after correcting for his self-diagnosed stupidity, Epstein remained two orders of magnitude off.

We know from Bob Woodward that as early as February, Donald Trump chose to downplay the COVID-19 risk. But we also know that Trump is mercurial and thus might have been led by advisors to take more aggressive steps if they had persuaded him that controlling the pandemic would actually boost the economy over a several-month period and thus benefit him politically. That didn’t happen, however, in part because, as the Washington Post reported, “[c]onservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials [were] circulating” Epstein’s article playing “down the extent of the spread and the threat.”

Personally, if I made an incredibly egregious mistake that helped lead to disastrous public health outcomes, I would be mortified. But if you had any trace of conscience you wouldn’t be Richard Epstein:

Epstein cannot be blamed for all of the deaths and long-term illnesses that the U.S. has experienced in the last eight months. Even countries like Germany that took more aggressive measures in the spring were hit by a second wave this fall. However, Germany has experienced a per capita death rate of less than a fifth of the rate in the U.S. And some other developed countries–like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan–have done even better. The Trump administration’s insufficiently aggressive policies and Trump’s active undermining of state and local public health measures are surely responsible for countless thousands of excess death and suffering in the U.S. One would think, therefore, that Epstein would regret whatever role his erroneous analysis played in contributing to all that death and suffering.

Yet so far as I have been able to determine, Epstein has made no public expression of remorse, despite continuing to maintain a public profile. Perusing Epstein’s written and audio output over the last several months, one finds him stating views on all manner of questions. He can be seen denying that institutional racism is a problem in the U.S., pronouncing Trump the better choice than Biden, and then, following the election, lamenting the incoming Biden administration’s plans to take climate change seriously. It’s possible that buried within one of Epstein’s columns or podcasts there is a mea culpa for the role he played in killing thousands of his fellow citizens, but if so, I missed it. Epstein certainly has not made any priority of a public expression of remorse.

But one thing that’s critical to understand about the idiot libertarianism that has dominated the minds of Republican policymakers since the mid-70s (Perlstein’s new book, as Paul has observed, is excellent on this point) is that it not only disdains empirical evidence, it treats crude back-of-a-cocktail-napkin bullshit as if it was empirical evidence:

Now note an interesting coincidence. Epstein’s error with respect to COVID-19 deaths is the same error that conservative ideologues make with respect to the Laffer Curve. Just as the right-wing economic ideologues wrongly place T* much too low, so Epstein wrongly places the point at which the COVID-19 death curve will flatten much too low. 

Is that just a coincidence? I think not.

Economists are notorious for building models based on dubious assumptions and then asserting that the models reflect reality, regardless of whatever contradictory real-world evidence exists. Raising the minimum wage, conservative economists say, will simply increase unemployment, even though so many other factors beyond price, supply, and demand for labor make the picture much more complex. Nonetheless, conservative ideologues (like Richard Epstein) continue to insist that higher minimum wages lead to increased unemployment. The fact that this proposition could be true suffices in their minds to make it true.

Likewise for the Laffer Curve. It is conceivable that we could live in a world in which T* is a tax rate of 28%, so conservative ideologues simply assert that tax cuts will not only boost the economy but pay for themselves through increased government revenues.

And so too for COVID-19. It was conceivable that the coronavirus would quickly mutate to become substantially less deadly or that individuals would take so many separate and uncoordinated actions to bring down the rate of spread to the point where the total-death curve would flatten at almost any particular number. Accordingly, conservative ideologues like Epstein and his acolytes in the Trump administration simply assert that this will occur at a level that is way way below the actual figure.

And now we can see how, despite lacking Trump’s character defects, Epstein and other right-wing ideologues have something important in common with him: a commitment to making stuff up. More people could have attended Trump’s inauguration than attended Obama’s. COVID-19 could have gone away like a miracle or in response to sunlight brought into the body or ingested bleach. There is even a conceivableworld in which George Soros and the ghost of Hugo Chavez conspired to create computer software that switched millions of votes from Trump to Biden (while not switching any down-ballot votes). Accordingly, Trump simply asserts that these things that are just barely imaginable actually happened.

Trump is, quite simply, the logical culmination of Reaganism in virtually every respect.

…Denverite reminds us of one the greatest blogs ever, which featured Epstein being attacked by Randy Barnett from the right.

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