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The Villainous Economist Problem


Economists have a special power to cause problems if they choose to be villains. This is because of our twin obsessions with money and data. They are seen to have special tools to understand society and since we fetishize “data,” they have access to big media. By no means do all economists act this way, but the potential is there that is very much not there in other fields, not even political scientists really. We’ve seen this in all sorts of ways over the decades. The most recent villainous economist is Emily Oster, the Brown University economist who has really leaned into the villany, combining her desire for terrible policy outcomes with the “DATA!!!!” fetish that allows her to cherrypick information and cause great damage to this society. She’s been bad on a lot of issues, but her going all-in on school reopening despite the pandemic was really, really, really bad. Loving publicity for her bad ideas, she agreed to a Times profile. It’s worth some quoting.

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, has a lot to say.

In July 2020, in the middle of the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion essay suggesting that schools and child care centers might be able to reopen safely, noting that working parents “can’t wait around forever.” In her popular parenting books, she tossed away longstanding medical guidelines, arguing that an occasional sushi roll and glass of wine are safe during pregnancy and that breastfeeding is overrated. More recently, she has cast doubt on whether students need to wear masks or remain physically distanced at school.

This steady stream of counterintuitive advice has made Dr. Oster a lodestar for a certain set of parents, generally college-educated, liberal and affluent. Many had first latched onto her data-driven child-rearing books. Her popularity grew during the pandemic, as she collected case counts of Covid-19 in schools and advanced her own strongly held views on the importance of returning to in-person learning.

Some parents said, half-seriously, “Emily Oster is my C.D.C.”

Some parents being wealthy white conservatives. I will note right now that the only places I’ve been in the last month that still require masks are places owned by people of color–the John Ross Museum in the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma, the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mexican markets in Rhode Island. The people most affected by the pandemic were also the people most reticent to go back in person and for good reason. Moreover, it wasn’t going to be Oster affected if she was wrong, it was going to be the Black and Brown families of Rhode Island. More on this in a minute.

Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, has been critical of some of Dr. Oster’s writing. But she credits the economist with helping a relatively privileged set of parents, including herself, make practical decisions during the pandemic.

“That really is her gift,” she said. “Synthesizing quantitative studies and spitting out rough guidelines or ways of thinking that can guide choices for upper-middle class, urban, suburban, sort of coastal people.”

Ah yes, a JD Vance for the wealthy people in Westchester County. After all, DATA!!!!

Indeed, the lack of great choices is one reason the school reopening debate has often been toxic, pitting parents and teachers against each other and one another. White and college-educated parents were more likely to want in-person schooling than working-class parents of color whose families were more likely to contract the virus or die from it, and who had more distrust of schools. Some teachers were eager to stay safe at home, teaching remotely, while others desperately wanted to return to their classrooms.

Amid all this, Dr. Oster stepped in to collect national data on Covid-19 cases in schools because, she said, the federal government had failed to do so. By last fall, the database she set up, seeded with information voluntarily submitted by school administrators, suggested that with simple precautions, schools could be operated without significant on-site transmission.

Her data work was discounted by some teachers’ union activists because it was funded, in part, by philanthropies that support nonunion charter schools. And it didn’t adhere to traditional research norms; the data collection wasn’t randomized, and initially it skewed toward private and suburban schools. But eventually, the database grew to include schools serving more than 12 million of the nation’s 56 million K-12 students, including all of the public schools in New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts. And despite its limitations, Dr. Oster’s conclusions were eventually echoed by research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Union and many independent scholars.

So her DATA!!! was charter-funded bullshit that used information from elite schools to create policy for poor schools that happened to fit right in with the desires of rich whites. Wow, that’s some objective DATA!!!!!!! I can see why we’d better listen to this economist with her DATA!!!!!!

With a growing stash of evidence under her belt, Dr. Oster acknowledged that she became “more extreme” in her conviction that schools should be open, and wrote ever more prescriptively on the subject.

Through her free Substack newsletter and a series of opinion essays, she repeatedly summarized new research, reiterated that children were generally not at high risk to either catch or transmit Covid-19, and offered struggling parents the permission so many of them craved: to go forth carefully with summer camp, day care, in-person school and vacations.

Only people with Shake Shack’s should be creating policy, evidently the mantra of 2021.

Meanwhile, Oster lives in Providence. This is a school system with a lot of people of color. It’s a very poor school system. And it is in a state where until recently, we had a governor who was absolutely open to listening to people such as Oster create policy because she very much fetishizes DATA!!!! So the Providence Teachers Union acted and tried to push back.

Maya Chavez, a high school social studies teacher in Providence, worked in-person the majority of this school year. Rhode Island was one of the few liberal states to push schools to reopen last fall, in part because of the influence of Dr. Oster and other Brown University experts; Dr. Oster spoke regularly to state officials.

“There is a serious disconnect between her idea of what school looks like and the reality,” Ms. Chavez said. At least 30 students learning in-person at her predominantly low-income school tested positive for Covid-19, among more than 8,000 such student cases statewide. That does not mean students caught the virus in school or spread it there, but it does illustrate the reality that people came into close contact with the virus within classrooms. Several of her students, many of whom live in intergenerational homes, had family members who were hospitalized or died.

This Times piece doesn’t do a very good job of getting at Chavez’s activism, so let me link to something else here about how the PTU fought back against Oster’s pernicious actions.

More than 100 teachers turned out in front of the Rhode Island Department of Education on Tuesday to air a litany of grievances about the reopening of schools.

Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, called out Gov. Gina Raimondo.

“I don’t trust you,” she said. “You lie.”

To a wildly applauding crowd, Calabro said, “Thank God she’s not running for reelection.”

Teachers at the gathering said the state-led inspections of school buildings were a farce, that the Department of Education and Raimondo refused to collaborate with them on the reopening of schools and that classrooms were unsuited for instruction during a pandemic.

They described desks with crumbs from March, when schools in Rhode Island closed; fans that do little but blow in dirt from the outside; mouse droppings on the floor that were waxed over; and a breakdown in communication with parents.

Calabro said students who were supposed to be in school Monday never showed up, while those who were supposed to be learning from home did walk in the door.

“The walkthroughs were a joke,” said high school teacher Maya Chavez. “Outright lies are being told.”

Then, she said: “I have 100% no confidence in [Providence] Superintendent [Harrison] Peters. I am done!”

This is the reopening Oster fought for. I’ll also note that the “kids don’t get sick from COVID” is an incredibly stupid part of this entire debate because even if true, they give it to older people who do get sick! How this was allowed to be part of the school reopening debate is completely beyond me.

Anyway, back to Oster for the chef’s kiss:

But others — teachers, epidemiologists and labor activists — criticized her, pointing out that she was not an infectious disease expert, nor did she have any deep personal or professional experience with public education. (Her two children attend private school, as did she.) On social media, the reaction could be brutal, with people calling her a “charlatan” and “monster” pushing “morally reprehensible” positions that “endangered many lives needlessly.”

Oster’s little Maddie and Connor need not be worried by mom’s evil. They are well-protected in the cocoon of private schools that is the constant choice for rich Rhode Island whites, especially anyone associated with Brown. So sure, Oster isn’t willing to subject her kids to her research findings. But DATA!!!!!!! Debate over, I guess!

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