This is Part 1 in our “Lessons from the Pandemic” video interview series. As we publish more interviews in the coming weeks, you’ll be able to access the full series here.
The first step in responding effectively to the covid-19 pandemic was developing and deploying tests to find out who was infected. Countries that succeeded in suppressing transmission and keeping death totals low did so through a regime of widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation of infected and exposed individuals. In the United States, however, efforts to develop and scale-up tests for the new virus stumbled out of the gate and never really recovered.
In this first of a series of video interviews on lessons from the pandemic, Glen Weyl of Microsoft joins the Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey to discuss this early and decisive failure in the U.S. pandemic response. Weyl was co-chair of a major initiative by the Safra Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School to develop a plan for a nationwide system of mass testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation in the spring of 2020 – a plan actively considered by the Trump administration but then abandoned. Join us for this fascinating discussion of this road not taken.
Brink Lindsey: Hello. My name is Brink Lindsey. I’m a vice president at the Niskanen Center in Washington D.C. where I am helping to direct our new project on state capacity. State capacity refers to the ability of governments to formulate and execute policy. We’ve seen a disastrous evidence of state incapacity in the United States over the past couple of years in our shambolic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And so as part of this state capacity project, we’re doing a series of interviews with various experts covering different angles on what went wrong. A lot went wrong, so there are a lot of different angles. But we’re delighted to kick off this series of interviews with Glen Weyl, who is the Microsoft Office of Chief Technology Officer, Political Economist and Social Technologist, or OCTOPEST. Is that the correct title?
Glen Weyl: Yes. You got it, Brink. It’s a mouthful.
Brink Lindsey: That’s very good. And your background, you’re an economist by training. You got your doctorate at Princeton, right on the heels of your undergraduate degree as I understand. Then you were in academia for a while at Harvard and THE University of Chicago. But then Microsoft plucked you out of academia and you’ve been there ever since.
Glen Weyl: That’s right. Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: Is that basically correct?
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: The two of us met in 2018. We’d both written books. I had co-authored a book. Books about the same basic problems, about the malaise of slow growth and high inequality that is afflicting capitalism around the world. And the crisis of democratic legitimacy that’s growing out of that malaise. Steve Teles and I wrote a more conventionally wonkish book, The Captured Economy, in response to these problems. But you and Eric Posner wrote a book, Radical Markets, where you were proposing radical rethinks of institutions. A reimagining of rights to physical property, a reimagining of voting procedures and other sort of radical institutional redesigns to make capitalism and democracy work better. And then the next time I saw you, you had surfaced at the Safra Center at Harvard University, which was engaged in a major endeavor to push a response to the pandemic. So why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you got from authoring Radical Markets to pandemic planning and how you got connected with the Safra Center at Harvard?
Glen Weyl: Well, Radical Markets wasn’t a great commercial success, but it ended up having a sort of cult following in the blockchain community and the sort of government and technology communities. And that thrust me into activism, engagement with governments, engagement with the blockchain world. And based on that, the CTO at Microsoft brought me over to advise on geopolitical matters for the company, geopolitical macroeconomic matters. And in the process, I got to be quite close with Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan. And we’ve worked on a lot of things. We’re actually working on a book together right now. And when the pandemic started taking off, I noticed that they were doing an exceptional job of addressing it. And I pretty quickly started to think about how to bring it to the attention of relevant authorities the example that they were setting and the things that we might learn from it. And-
Brink Lindsey: So just backing up very quickly. Audrey Tang is now a world famous digital activist who has become digital minister for Taiwan, has helped lead that country in some really exciting experiments in new forms of democracy and citizen involvement. And that was part of the equation for Taiwan’s splendid response to the pandemic.
Glen Weyl: Yes, exactly. And so I first brought her work to the attention of leaders at Microsoft. But when it became clear that they weren’t sort of able to quickly engage on deploying those things, I wrote up a sketch of what I thought would be a thoughtful response for the United States. And I emailed it. Well, actually what happened first was that I just wrote up a case study about Taiwan and I sent it to my friend Danielle Allen, because I thought that she might be thinking about this question. And she helped me get it published in Foreign Affairs. And that was I think one of the first writings about the Taiwanese experience in the English language press. And at the same time, I started formulating a more comprehensive set of thoughts. And Danielle was thinking in the same direction. We joined forces-
Brink Lindsey: And Danielle Allen, she was a professor at Harvard and she was at the time the head of the Safra Center.
Glen Weyl: Right. And so based on those two convergent lines, we ended up putting together this task force. I became the technical co-lead and she was the public leader and the writer of most of the documents. And we started bringing together scholars from lots of different fields and trying to synthesize all the thinking to advocate a comprehensive plan. We had a few impacts. But probably the most important memetic impact we had was sort of making a thing out of the discussions around testing, tracing, and supported isolation as key pathways to addressing the pandemic.
Brink Lindsey: My then colleague, Will Wilkinson, was involved a bit in your effort at some point.
Glen Weyl: Yeah, he did. He was. That’s right. Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: So the big showpiece work product of your effort was a report, “A roadmap for pandemic resilience.” Which as I recall, it came out in April 2020.
Glen Weyl: And we had a second one actually.
Brink Lindsey: So the world was already on fire, but it was still relatively early stages.
Glen Weyl: We had a follow up, basically an addendum to that one as well that made some impact that was localizing it to state by state responses.
Brink Lindsey: Okay. So the initial roadmap, the plan was for large scale testing. Millions of tests a day. Which would then be followed up by contact tracing and supported isolation. So why don’t you describe very briefly this road not taken?
Glen Weyl: So what pretty much all the countries that were successful in addressing the pandemic did was build sufficient capacity for contact tracing, which I would introduce. But I think it’s familiar enough to people at this point. But basically, it’s finding the people who might have been infected by someone who tests positive. And sufficient capacity to test those people that they were able to more or less suppress the disease. That was true in Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, China, et cetera. And the US never got to the testing capacity that was even on the right order of magnitude to make that a feasible way to actually suppress the disease.
In order to suppress the disease, you basically need to be able to trace the contacts and test all those people before the next transmission occurs… So that requires a certain rate of testing at a certain speed at which you complete the contact tracing. And we never got to the testing capacity or tracing capacity that would allow us to do that. And the problem is, it’s a little bit like a military conflict, where if you don’t address the problem when it’s small, then you get overwhelmed. And so it pretty quickly got to the point where we were just falling further and further behind over time. So the strategy failed worse and worse. And instead, we tried using lockdowns and so forth. The problem is that those for a variety of reasons weren’t really sustainable strategies to address the problem and cope with it. They were only sort of stop gaps to find a way towards a more sustainable strategy.
Brink Lindsey: So by the time your report had come out, it was relatively late in the day in pandemic terms. That is, in the United States there was already community spread all over the place. So the ambition of your testing and tracing initiative had to be at a much higher scale than the swift response in Taiwan and other countries.
Glen Weyl: Exactly.
Brink Lindsey: Because they were able to nip things in the bud. So the lateness required this big step up in large-scale testing.
Glen Weyl: Exactly.
Brink Lindsey: And you tried your best to sell that to people. And you got meetings and you got interest. So tell a little bit about the insider game and how close you got.
Glen Weyl: I think we came quite close. There was actually one day when President Trump was asked about our report and said that he was going to hit that target, that we were going to get there and that we were going to beat the disease. And then that was disclaimed by the admiral that he had put in charge of doing the procurement. And there was a moment where it hung in the balance whether Trump was really going to bring down the hammer on that or whether he was going to let it slide. And I think the most important thing that tipped it over the balance was that the Biden team then glommed onto it and decided to make it central to their campaign, and to criticize the president for not reaching it, at which point he decided that that was some stupid Democratic thing and he didn’t want to have any part of it. So it was very frustrating.
Brink Lindsey: That’s a very interesting point. When did Biden say nice things about your report?
Glen Weyl: A day or two after Trump had made this apparent embrace of the report. And from that point on, it just got worse and worse for us. And I ended up abandoning the effort basically.
Brink Lindsey: And you had communication with the Biden campaign?
Glen Weyl: Zeke Emanuel had been part of some of our initial work on this and was following what we were doing. And I suspect that he relayed that to them. We tried very, very carefully to avoid direct contacts with….
Brink Lindsey: So he was the front runner at this point. Did he have the nomination sewed up in April? I can’t recall, but maybe not. So I don’t know. Were there-
Glen Weyl: I think, yes. Because remember what-
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. He was the nominee apparent at that point.
Glen Weyl: Well, you remember that Bernie Sanders was way ahead? In January, everyone thought he was going to win. And then there was a very quick process by which it went from that in February to Biden being the presumptive nominee. So I think by the end of February, Sanders had very little to stand on.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah, that’s right. So it was clear that Biden was going to be the nominee. So did you talk to the campaign and tell them to keep their powder dry or…?
Glen Weyl: We did not want to have any communications with people who were not representatives of the US government…
Brink Lindsey: Okay.
Glen Weyl: On the politics of all of this, because we were trying to work with the Trump administration and with select Democratic leaders that the Trump administration felt comfortable with, in Congress. We did not want to be working in a manner that could create the partisan dynamics that ended up sinking our efforts, so…
Brink Lindsey: So, we know how the story went. Trump did not go for mass testing instead, he started just trying to discredit testing and slow it down. He regarded testing, not as a solution, but as a measure of the extent of failure. And so the less testing the better.
Glen Weyl: But that was not at all clear until about the middle of May.
Brink Lindsey: Right.
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: But then, they also put all their eggs in the Operation Warp Speed vaccine basket.
Glen Weyl: Which is a fascinating story because it wasn’t just Trump there, it was an attitude that we have in the United States that, problems to the extent that they’re soluble are viewed as technical problems, not as sociotechnical ones.
Brink Lindsey: Yes.
Glen Weyl: Sociotechnical problems are viewed as insoluble and either inevitable or trivial, either like, “Oh yeah, of course, that’s no problem. We can get that done.” Or they are just, “Well, there’s no, you know, that’s always been that way and it will always be that way.” And…
Brink Lindsey: Yeah, that to me is that’s at the heart of the failure here, the failure to take your advice was just a failure of imagination, right?
Glen Weyl: Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: We fell into this dismal false dichotomy of, open up the economy and let the virus run rampant versus lockdowns forever. We had one camp, let’s ignore the virus and one camp, let’s hide from the virus and nobody, but nobody except a couple of outliers like you guys was saying, let’s go out and beat the virus. Let’s use our technology and organizational skills to do what other countries have done and get life back to something like normal, while we’re waiting for a vaccine and treatments.
Glen Weyl: And Brink, as I’m sure you are going to be covering more broadly in your investigation of state capacity. That’s a broader problem that afflicts American society. We’ve taken a very similar attitude towards the problems of our democracy as well, where some people think everything is fine, some people think we need to just go back to the way that things were. Very few people are saying, “Look, let’s look to the international models. Let’s solve the problems that we have in a consensual manner.” It’s like almost unimaginable that we can have positive progress in our social organizations.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So, when you look at various areas where American policy is really bad. To take another example, infrastructure, there are a lot of other countries that are doing things a lot better than we are. Countries that have social and environmental protections, but nonetheless can build things without exorbitant cost and delay. And it’s just, there is a deep-set parochialism in American policymaking circles that there is nothing to be learned outside our shores. So it wasn’t especially surprising to me that we didn’t pick up on what was going on in Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, etc. But there were other models here at home. As things went on, we saw the NBA create a bubble and held their season. And then even more impressively, the NFL had testing protocols without a bubble and went through their whole season without any deaths and without missing a game.
Glen Weyl: And universities and corporations did similar things in various phases.
Brink Lindsey: Yes, some universities did very well. And then, before the pandemic, we had buildings in pretty much every major city that are filled with people with infectious diseases. They’re called hospitals and people go to work there and they have protocols for staying safe and not getting infected by their patients and not infecting other patients. And…
Glen Weyl: I have to say, all these institutions, it was incredibly dispiriting. Took an attitude of, “Oh, we’re very interested in your advice about how we deal with this and so forth”. But they were unwilling to advocate for things that the public would do. I mean, Danielle faced this at Harvard where she approached leaders at Harvard, to try to get them to take a public stance in favor of TTSI [testing, tracing, and supported isolation], because it was profoundly in the interest of the university to do so. And they said, “Well, we’ll take positions on affirmative action. We’ll take positions on whatever, because those are university matters,”, but this is a public policy matter. So people weren’t willing to stake their reputation.
We talked to many nonprofit organizations and we tried to get them, including civil rights organizations or civil liberties organizations to say, “Okay, don’t just critique possible, digital tracing systems, participate in doing it the right way and get the public support for them.” They were unwilling to do that. They said, “Look, our support will come in the form of us not suing you in a couple of years.” So there was a broad unwillingness of organizations to step outside of their lane in the public interest when a crisis came.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So interestingly, one institutional part of your proposal was to create a pandemic testing board. So to set up an institutional mechanism, to coordinate all the supply chain problems and incentivize production of everything in the testing supply chain, and to make advance purchase commitments and so forth, right? So, explain how that would’ve worked because that sounds, and we’ll get to it, but that sounds similar to how Operation Warp Speed worked.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I think it’s not very different from Operation Warp Speed. It just was focused on a known problem in logistics rather than an unknown possible technical solution. And the thing that’s so sad about the vaccine outcomes is, someone else will have to calculate this, but I wonder how many more lives we would’ve lost without the vaccine. I’m not sure that many, I think the disease more or less did its damage. That’s not completely true, I think the vaccine has saved a number of lives for sure. But I think it probably, it’s certainly not an order of magnitude different, let’s put it that way. Whereas there are countries that are three or four of its magnitude separated from us in terms number of lives they lost.
And I think the vaccine might have made 20% difference, 30% difference in the number of lives lost, but it didn’t make several orders of magnitude difference.
Brink Lindsey: So, I said the failure on testing is a failure of imagination and yet it took real imagination to think up Operation Warp Speed because… So your pandemic testing board is producing tests and we know how to produce diagnostic tests, we’ve done that for a long time. Of course the CDC botched the initial covid test, but there were lots of tests that worked. So the technical challenge wasn’t there at all, it was just an organizational coordinating challenge to incentivize production at scale. Whereas, there had never been a vaccine created in less than a year before ever, so…
Glen Weyl: There’s a profound difference, which is that the vaccine had this silver bullet like quality where, if you just produce enough and you just get them in the arms, everything’s fine. The testing and tracing required you to understand a series of social relationships, that would exist. Whether it would be these contact tracers and they would be doing something that had conceptually the possibility of being invasive in some ways — even though I think, everyone’s decided that was a red hearing afterwards. I heard almost no complaints about privacy violations for tracing but there was at least a conceptual issue there. There was a conceptual issue about whether testing was invasive. There were all these thorny systems that had to be put together. It was much simpler to just say, “You get a bunch of vaccines and you put him in a bunch of people’s arms, that stuff we do all the time”. So there were these organizational challenges that were conceptually different than the organizational challenges of the vaccine.
Brink Lindsey: Although somewhat less radically different than people thought. So I think it’s a really good insight that vaccines were privileged in the American imagination because they were seen as a silver bullet, moonshot, technical, purely technical exercise. But of course… So inventing and manufacturing the vaccines is a purely technical exercise, but getting them into people’s arms is a sociotechnical exercise.
Glen Weyl: And I think we largely failed at that.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. And so the socio side, we…
Glen Weyl: Exactly, so we were extremely good at the technical elements of the problem, but because we thought the whole problem was a technical problem, we completely ignored the other things. And we didn’t even learn the lesson from the first time around about the sociotechnical problems. And then we botched the messaging and community participation and inclusion that would’ve been needed in order to get much more widespread vaccine adoption.
Brink Lindsey: So tell me, how the story ended, at least as far as your involvement? By May 2020, at the federal level, it was clear that Trump was against ramping up testing and that wasn’t going to happen. And so you try to take…
Glen Weyl: I ticked around things for another month and we did some things at the state level and for localities. But at some point we basically had this analysis of, there was a certain point beyond which testing and tracing were no longer useful because the disease was so prevalent that there was no plausible case in which we were going to catch up with the disease before it sort of burned out on its own. And so, at that point, once enough places tipped over into that zone, I just decided I couldn’t do much good. So I moved on to other things.
It’s a sad story, yeah.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah, it is a sad story. So you’ve mentioned the role of politics, the inadvertent bad consequences of the Biden campaign praising your idea, which meant that the purely political prism through which Trump saw the matter, how does this work for reelection? But, what were the political incentives to do the right thing? One might think that stopping a disease from killing nearly a million people now, as we’re approaching the million mark in the United States, you might think that there would be huge incentives to save a million lives.
Glen Weyl: I don’t judge Trump nearly as harshly as some do. I think there were some real limits on the information that he was both personally capable of processing and had created incentives around him to receive, and that was very problematic. But I don’t think it’s the case that I think he would’ve, if he had understood a pathway to solve the problem and heard it from people he trusted at the right moment, I think he would’ve adopted it.
Brink Lindsey: So the point I wanted to make is, so he made a political decision, he was so extravagantly non-mainstream in his handling of the virus of regularly downplaying it and his crazy talk about ingesting bleach and so forth. But he may have paid a price at the polls of a few percentage points that he lost because of his cartoonish mishandling. But it’s difficult to look around the world and see any politicians who paid a price for failure to protect their publics. So the governments that did a good job did a good job because they were dutiful and conscientious and had the right idea and knew what to do, but nowhere it seems to me were people pushed into doing the right thing by public demand.
Glen Weyl: I think one could argue that Boris Johnson was temporarily hard hit by his poor handling initially of the disease. Now, that was partly compensated by the fact that he then fell victim and got a lot of sympathy out of that.
Brink Lindsey: No, that’s fair.
Glen Weyl: But I think that there were some amount there. I’m trying to think if there’s any other examples. I think there may be some examples in Southeast Asia that are a bit like that, but I would agree it’s not. Like for example, it’s shocking how little of a price Moreno Modi has paid.
Brink Lindsey: Yes. And any speculations why that is? In New York State, Andrew Cuomo, he had great press for a while and was lionized simply because he held daily press conferences and was mediagenic and played the part of a concerned, empathetic, decisive leader while he was sending infectious senior citizens back into nursing homes.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. I have to say throughout that whole process, everyone was talking about how great Cuomo was and we were interacting with those people and I was not in the same camp as the public was.
Brink Lindsey: So the problem in the United States is the responsibility is all at the state level, but we’re a national market and we don’t have internal travel restrictions. And so it’s difficult for one state to do the right thing for that to matter.
Glen Weyl: Yes.
Brink Lindsey: If contact tracing was a bridge too far for American society, interstate travel shut down, surely would’ve been even more unthinkable. But in 2020, were you imagining a role for travel restrictions, or did you think that was always impractical at least domestically within the United States?
Glen Weyl: Well, it was something we went back and forth on a lot. I think I ultimately thought it was going to be very hard to pull off what we were looking at without at least some temporary travel restrictions, at least for areas that were doing better to show the value of doing that for a time before it spread to others. Because I thought if somewhere does better and they don’t have travel restrictions, they’re not going to get much of a bang out of that. And without that, giving them a chance to at least demonstrate those benefits. Now, of course, Hawaii was a special case, but even there, there were all these people from California, rich people coming and bringing the disease. So I worried that it was going to be quite difficult without be some temporary travel restrictions.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. I don’t know anywhere that, except China, that imposed really draconian restrictions on movement. Here in Thailand, they shut down domestic flights for a while.
Glen Weyl: Canada did. Canada had interprovincial travel restrictions, they were pretty strong
Brink Lindsey: Okay.
Glen Weyl: And by the way, that’s another example of it, someone who I think benefited. People have seen what a tough time Trudeau had politically, and they assume that means that he didn’t benefit, but I think that’s a mistake. I think Trudeau was like on the verge of complete collapse and I think the only thing that has kept him kicking the lawn is the fact that he performed pretty well on COVID.
Brink Lindsey: So we talked a lot about testing, but that’s just the first part of the proposal you made. It was TTSI, testing, tracing and supported isolation. If testing, which is the purely technical part of it, just ramping up the manufacture of tests at scale, well the United States failed to handle that, but we didn’t even come close to getting things off the ground on tracing or isolation. Was it simply that by the time, it was relatively late in the day, by the time your report was out, in a lot of places it was very widespread, the contact tracing would be a logistically pretty challenging effort? But even if things had started earlier, it didn’t seem like there was ever any… There was a kind of a fatalism that we just can’t do that kind of thing, Americans will never go for that right out of the box, seem to me.
Glen Weyl: Well, so a few things happened. One is in Australia, they recruited something like 10,000 contact tracers that were laid off airline employees, or furloughed airline employees, in like two days. It’s a tricky job, but it’s not one that requires an immense amount of ex-ante training to do. And it’s a trivial expense, but we were never willing to repurpose the furloughed workforce in the United States in that way. We were never willing to think about a thoughtful balance we could strike between not meaningful, personal invasions of privacy, but just like any disturbance of some very extreme paranoid set of concerns about how this could be misused, which again, I literally wish someone would hold to account all the people who were making those noises because I don’t think I haven’t heard, seen a single story anywhere. Maybe I’m missing things, but I’ve never seen anyone be upset about the abuse of testing, tracing things, not even some of the paranoid folks.
Brink Lindsey: So tracing then had two modes, you could do it just manually call people on the phone, and then there was digital tracing. And the latter was what really sparked the paranoia, right?
Glen Weyl: Even the former civil liberties groups were talking about, well, the AIDS epidemic and how the lives of gay men had been ruined. As if covid was analogous to a sexually transmitted infection with low infection rates among a minority that with historical patterns of discrimination, it was such a different scenario than that. It was just completely different, but people were conjuring up these slippery slope things.
Brink Lindsey: And if contact tracing, which is just calling people up and saying, “Hey, you’ve been exposed to the virus,” is too intrusive, then supported isolation is… I was involved in a project with the Niskanen Center and the Washington Post where we did a series of op-eds together where we would find people to come up with policy solutions that tried to transcend or bridge the left right divide. So I found someone to do, someone who had lived in Hong Kong and lived through their supported isolation experience to write about the need for copying that here. And it just was met with absolute and total lack of interest. There was no response to whatsoever.
At one level we had some kind of supported isolation in that we spent trillions of dollars in stimulus payments that allowed some people to stay home that otherwise could not have a stayed home, but nothing in the way of directed isolation of folks. And nothing for people who couldn’t isolate at home, because they would be exposing their elderly relative or their kids or whatever, not even the rudiments of getting it off the ground to have facilities that could house people, using hotels that at that point had zero occupancy that could have been repurposed. Just no thinking along those lines at all, at least as far as I could tell, maybe you saw more because you were closer.
Glen Weyl: No, I think there was very little. I also think that, like in China, I’ve heard that they’ve now completed several 30,000 person villages for isolation. There was nothing even contemplated at that scale in the U.S. and there’s a bunch of other things that were clear but uncontemplated, like rearranging the floor patterns of public accommodations quickly in the way that I think very gradually we got to and then quickly unwound, like making meaningful social distancing. That stuff all eventually started to happen in the late fall, but in Singapore it happened in two days and that made a big difference to transmission rates.
Brink Lindsey: So in testing, tracing, and supported isolation, testing is the closest to being the silver bullet purely technical challenge. So that’s the part where now in retrospect looking at American culture, that’s the part that we were potentially most receptive to, whereas anything that involved novel forms of organization and coordination, people just threw up their hands and said impossible.
Glen Weyl And by the way, one problem we faced was that some of our potential allies in the testing front had this libertarian attitude and they didn’t want to do the other parts and they thought testing alone could do everything.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So around the same time that you came out with a Safra Center report, Paul Romer, a well-known economist, came out with his proposal for massive scale testing at a higher level of ambition than the 5 million tests a day that you were proposing.
My recollection is that his plan diverged from yours because of his lack of confidence in American capacity to go forward with contact tracing and isolation. The idea then would just be to completely blanket the country in tests so everybody can test every day, every time they turn around. In retrospect, given now what you know about American society, was that a better idea than yours?
Glen Weyl: I think there was physically no way to produce that number of tests within the relevant time. We’ve never managed to produce more than a few million tests a day.
Brink Lindsey: But I mean, we could. Right? For a price trivial in comparison to the stimulus payments and the economic damage.
Glen Weyl: There were shortages of various reagents. There would’ve been a lot of logistical challenges of distributing that volume of tests. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I think it’s a reasonable option. You still would’ve had to deal with isolation challenges to make sure that people don’t go out once they test positive.
Brink Lindsey: But if you’re assuming that most people are semi conscientious and if they’re sick or if they test positive, they’re not going to go to work, especially if-
Glen Weyl: Hopefully, hopefully.
Brink Lindsey: … the government support is there.
Glen Weyl: Yeah. But you can’t completely avoid the supported isolation component.
Brink Lindsey: Clearly, it would be leaky, but we could have been in a position where a lot more asymptomatic people knew that they had the virus, and that they were transmitting to folks. And some fraction of those people would’ve done the right thing. And some fraction of those people were the super spreaders who accounted for some crazy disproportionate percentage of infections.
Glen Weyl: I think once you take all those things out, you probably would’ve had to test people a couple times a day. That would’ve meant hundreds of millions of tests a day, which is two orders of magnitude, three orders of magnitude above where we ever got.
Maybe it was possible, but I think it is quite speculative when you get to that level of capacity to say whether that was within the logistical capacity. I mean, it was at a fundamentally different level. And the cost also would’ve actually started to add up at that point. It would’ve cost, I don’t know, something comparable to the cost of the stimulus to do that level of testing.
Brink Lindsey: That all makes sense. What about an even more rudimentary mass scale response, which is just flooding the world with PPEs? Making sure everybody’s got an N-95 mask, a moon suit, if necessary? At least all, the 40% of people who had to continue going to work because they were working in-person, make sure everybody that worked in a Walgreens, or in a grocery store, or in a meat packing plant had hospital quality masking…. Was that technically doable?
Glen Weyl: … I think that should have been technically feasible. Yeah. I don’t think that’s a overwhelming logistical challenge. That’s a one time supply of a very large amount of equipment. And there were some supply chain issues, but they weren’t as severe as the reagent ones. I think that should have been feasible. And I think that would’ve done something. I don’t think it would’ve suppressed the disease, but I think it would’ve done something.
Brink Lindsey: When you look back, was there anything you could have done different?
Glen Weyl: Yes, we could have at the very start had a much more focused understanding of navigating the politics than we had. We took primarily an intellectual, inquisitive approach. And I think we should have, from the start, had our eye on how we were going to navigate the politics much more crisply.
Brink Lindsey: And if you had had your eye on that, how would you have presented things differently?
Glen Weyl: I probably would’ve been quite a bit more secretive. I would’ve had a much stronger Republican hue to the whole look and feel of the thing. [crosstalk 00:43:55]-
Brink Lindsey: Coming out of Harvard, it wasn’t really designed to appeal to the Trump administration. Right?
Glen Weyl: It came off as center with a tiny bit of right. But we should have been much more… And we tried later, but we didn’t try soon enough to get that balance. And then we should have hit the President from every conceivable angle we could find, and ignored pretty much every other approach.
Now, some of that, we just didn’t know. The CDC turned out to have been almost unimaginably incompetent, and ineffectual, and unable to communicate with people in relevant positions of power. And we weren’t counting on that. We thought that if we just got to a reasonable person at CDC, we could do the numbers with them and they would agree and they would pass that up to Dr. Fauci. And Dr. Fauci would be our ally on this, but that wasn’t what happened.
Brink Lindsey: I mean, if they had been a competent organization, they would’ve… They didn’t need you. They would’ve already known all this. Right?
Glen Weyl: … Yeah. I mean, it’s almost inconceivable to me that they hadn’t at some level figured this out, but they were deliberately trying not to ask questions not directly posed to them, because they were trying to protect themselves. There was a weird game of chicken. Where the White House was afraid of the CDC and the CDC was afraid of the White House and neither was actually communicating with the other.
Brink Lindsey: This gets to the issue of just the quality of public health expertise in public health institutions. You’re a social theorist with an economics PhD. Danielle Allen is an academic with a PhD in classics and a PhD in government. How did you two outthink the entire American public health establishment?
Glen Weyl: I don’t think we outthought anyone. We just thought more broadly and more integratively than other people did. There were economists who were taking for granted the disastrous nature of the disease and talking about stimulus. There were logistical people taking for granted the demand from the government and trying to satisfy that. There were public health people taking for granted the basic policy trajectory and trying to make do with what they had.
There were all these people who were staying in their lane, and we didn’t stay in our lane. We tried to actually put the pieces together. And in principle, that’s the role of the White House or whatever, but it wasn’t in this context going to be executed by that function within the government. It took someone who was willing to step out of their lane and put the pieces together.
Brink Lindsey: One can understand how different specific agencies in the government are siloed and have tunnel vision. And that’s why you need some sort of high level coordinating function. But the White House set up a task force and by the end of January. They had the idea of a task force that can cut through red tape and ask the right questions to get to the right answers. But why were you so lonely?
Why weren’t they just besieged from every quarter with, “Well, my God, you just have to do testing and tracing, and supported isolation. That’s what’s effective everywhere.”
Glen Weyl: I mean, I think the insularity of the American public is part of it. It’s not only in politics that we fail to communicate across lines of authority and difference. I think it’s true in the academy. It’s true in many other areas of public life.
Even for our effort, trying to get the public health people to spend the time to realize that communicating with people from other fields might actually get them what they wanted more effectually than just working on their narrow problem was very challenging, because all the institutional incentives were there for them to just publish papers on the topic rather than try to solve the problem at a macro level. And no one had confidence that you could solve it. Everyone assumed that nothing can ever change on a macro level within the US system. And so…
Brink Lindsey: So what do we do next time? This isn’t our last pandemic. What institutions in the government need to be created that don’t exist now? To me, it seems foolhardy to imagine that the CDC could be reformed. You just need to start over with another entity.. The CDC seems like it’s very good at taking information from other people and producing high quality retrospective research. It does a good job at those things. But being a war fighting agency, it doesn’t have any competence at all. Where is our pandemic fighting capacity that can see this as a challenge to be won and surmounted, that can see the full integrated problem in all its technical and social dimensions, where should that be housed and what kind of people are in that agency?
Glen Weyl: I don’t have a clear answer for you to that question. I’m not totally sure, but I do think that you need people with an entrepreneurial spirit with a tight integration with and finger on the pulse of civil society, and with a lot of flexibility to try to aggressively solve problems that as you find, not even in general in the private sector, but in certain entrepreneurial organizations. Elon Musk’s operations have a lot of that character to them. You probably need things of that sort. Audrey has done a phenomenal job creating things like that in Taiwan. I’m not sure how we get there in the US.
Brink Lindsey: Okay.
Glen Weyl: I think our best hope actually is in many ways is the current situation in Ukraine because I think that what Vladimir Putin didn’t figure on is that no matter how internally divided and incoherent democracies can be, common threats have a way of mobilizing decentralized activity rapidly. And I think we’re seeing that now. And somehow, COVID was not understood that way quite as much.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So it’s but only common human threats. Right? We had a common threat in COVID and it did not bring us together.
Glen Weyl: But the benefit of that is that sometimes the institutions that you set up in those contexts can work for other things as well. And I think during the second World War and during the Cold War, there was several examples of that sort.
Brink Lindsey: Yes. Well, you’ve mentioned something to be as a possible ray of hope, and there haven’t been many of those in this conversation. So maybe that’s a good place to stop. But if there’s anything that you want to add as far as wrapping up, feel free to.
Glen Weyl: No, that’s great.
Brink Lindsey: Okay. Well, thanks a whole bunch, Glen, for taking the time.
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