Forecasting Federal Inaction

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language.

S2: It’s Wednesday, May 6th, 2020, from Slate, it’s the gist. I’m Mike Pesca. Kylie McEneaney, White House spokesperson. Unlike the last one actually speaks, but unlike a good one, doesn’t always speak sense. Are the unnecessary recitations from the standard hymnal?

S3: Can the president’s been clear that at this moment, you know, we’re at a wartime moment where we’re fighting the invisible enemy. And by that I mean Kovik, 19 oh oh oh.

S4: I thought that it might have been ghosts that you meant. And by Invisible Enemy, I, of course, mean Slimer Casper. Maybe Harry Potter under the cloak. OK, not technically a ghost. Let’s go with blueberry. But it’s not just that. It’s this.

S3: Yeah, well, let’s dismiss a myth about test right now. If we tested every single American in this country at this moment. We have to retest them an hour later and then an hour later after that, because at any moment you could theoretically contract this virus. So the notion that everyone needs to be tested is just simply nonsensical.

S5: Now, there are good, decent arguments against thinking that testing has wunder working powers that are unassailable. This is not such a good, decent argument. A good argument might be, including some concerns about testing capacity or testing accuracy. I mean, if there are too many false negatives, it might render tests moot. There are too many false positives that would be quite dangerous. But the biggest stumbling block to look at testing as a flaming sort of eradication rather than a modest ratchet of tinkering. Is this that there is so much we don’t know about immunity. We assume bordering on hope that testing positive means you had the virus means you will be immune. But we simply don’t know that. But what McEneaney and he said wasn’t that good or good ish argument against testing for Kofod 19. Heard’s was actually more an argument against testing really anything. The nature of tests, the results of a test, almost any test, not DNA tests, but the results of most tests could change with new inputs. Diabetics tests their blood sugar. Is it because it can’t change? No, it’s actually because it can. People get SDD tests. Is that because once you’re declared free of chlamydia, you can’t catch chlamydia? Oh, that’s what the sailors down by the wharf would have you believe. But that’s not why a test could be useful. Hell, you probably took the S.A.T. and it told you something about your ability to determine the volume of a cylinder. Of course, you could have and probably did for get how to calculate that. I think it’s area of square times, the height of the cylinder. But that doesn’t mean that the test at a time didn’t have some useful information. At least we could say it. Was it nonsensical. Let’s put it this way.

S6: A reporter might ask McEneaney a question and she might give an answer. Might that answer change? It might. Might she be denying an embarrassing development? Yes. That’s an example of a false negative. Might she be making an assertion not based on fact or offer something wildly optimistic? That could be a false positive.

S3: Take this. There are supposed to be two point two million deaths on and we’re at a point where we’re far lower than that instance thanks to the great work of the task force.

S6: That’s kind of both a positive and negative in that she was unwarranted li positive about how negative things didn’t become McEneaney. Ended the briefing by answering this question pretty useless.

S7: Before you were press secretary, you worked for the campaigns and he made a comment, I believe, on Fox in which she said President Trump will not allow the corona virus to come to this country. Given what has happened since then, obviously, would you like to take that back?

S6: Her answer was, I’d like to turn it back on the media and then say, would you guys take back this op ed or that that op ed predicting the corona virus wouldn’t be worse than the flu. And she then ended things, turned on her heel and exited the room, knowing that all the Twitter feeds with people who have American eagles and their usernames will tweet. Mike dropped GIFs. Great. Fantastic. The media sometimes gets it wrong and sometimes admits it. The press secretary held this entire White House will never admit it. It’s a really great argument for discounting the work and words of the press secretary. But in this administration, that was ever the case.

S5: It is a theory that at this point hardly merits testing on the show today. Spiel about how feisty nationalist’s pugnacious politicians north of the border handle setbacks and criticism. But first, Nina Ferrymen is a University of Tennessee professor whose expertise is in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics. Basically, if it could be spread, multiply, divided or dispersed. Nina Pfeiffer, men will suss it out. And as you’ll hear in our chat, she’s also good at thinking of the vectors that you might not know exist or might be heretofore invisible. So it’s a creative and a computational exercise. And these days, it’s especially important. Nina, Faffed woman. Up next.

S1: Heiferman is a biologist and a researcher. Six years ago, in an interview that we played last week, she taught me about our not and viral spread. And since that interview, I’ve been saying I’ve got to have her back. That was an enjoyable talk. And every once in a while, Pfeiffer men would show up in a comedy podcast for studying something crazy. And I’d say, I gotta get her back on. Well, wouldn’t you know it? A worldwide pandemic that has affected over a million Americans is definitely I am absolutely not going to say worth it because that would make me a monster. But at least it gives us a chance to check back in on this researcher, Nina Pfeiffer, men she has agreed to come back on. Thanks for doing this again.

S8: It’s my pleasure to talk to you again, although I wish for better circumstances.

S1: Yeah, I know. But like, let’s talk to you. Corona hits. Let’s talk to you. If it’s like, you know, Americans win gold in the Olympics, why talk to you?

S9: Yeah. Yeah. No, but you know what? I’ll happily go into obscurity. I think if we could just eliminate some more pandemics, I will I will happily recede at the limelight and let everyone have a much happier life.

S1: So what has the corona virus? I mean, people who are experts will always admit there’s a limit to their expertise. And in some fields, you know, we thought one thing about ventilators, maybe it’s not true. We thought one thing about blood level oxygen levels and people who are have hypoxia are behaving normally with Korona. It’s a weird thing for experts in your field doing the modeling that you do. What has been surprising or shocking about the Corona virus?

S8: All right. So so first off, in my field, all of those medical things that you said that are surprising are things that do ultimately come into play. We get to be surprised by them as outsiders, though, not as experts. So the idea that you can have silent hypoxia because people are eliminating carbon dioxide just fine, but still taking oxygen is something that there are models that we would have had to know that to get the model right. And so things like that are still surprising. But just within the epidemiological modelling, I think the thing that has surprised most of us really is how little we could rely on the support of leadership. So I think a lot of our models for pandemic preparedness did have lots of cases of, oh, what if there’s this exciting new disease so exciting to us, terrible for everybody else. Exciting new disease. And it behaves in some new and unpredictable ways. And we had some thought experiment models where we went, OK, what if it’s a respiratory infection? What if it’s more like Ebola? What if it’s waterborne? What? And what kinds of responses would be good for that? Should we shut down schools? Should we. Do we need to roll out mass testing? Do we need to shelter in place? What happens in all of those scenarios? And in almost all of them, we had cases where we went, OK, what would the response, what would a good responsible response look like from leadership and government? And then let’s assume that that’s maybe not as effective as we want it to be, but let’s study what happens in those cases. And I think the most surprising thing from our perspective is how little, how little Buy-In we’ve got, how little of a partnership we’ve had with political leadership, both globally, nationally and locally, where we really we didn’t model and we probably should have in hindsight that 20/20 is always better in hindsight where we really didn’t get people going. No, I just think that’s either too scary or too pessimistic or I just don’t believe your science or what if we just didn’t do that? And I think that’s the part that really is sort of compromising our ability to know even how to support response well, in a way that we didn’t see. And it’s pretty surprising.

S10: And I think I think the reason why it might also be the thing that I’m the most mad we. Well, it’s not that I’m mad we got it wrong. I’m mad that it’s happening because every other thing that we could have ignored, there is nothing about the partnership between science and government that isn’t made better by it being a partnership. There’s no challenge that having your leaders consult with experts in the field before they make their decisions isn’t made better about the decisions that they make. And so even if they didn’t make a decision ultimately that disagrees with their experts, if they’ve heard their experts and gone, OK, I believe that my value judgment is not to is not to act on it. But I trust and agree with the realm of the scientific analysis or the expert analysis. I mean, in sort of the same way it would be equivalent to this would be, OK, we’re where we start. You know, there’s a giant crash of the stock market and then economists come in and say, we think the following things will help. And this is part of what’s driving the problem. And instead, the politicians go, oh, that’s all politically motivated. Instead, we’re just going to listen to Bob and and Bob is just their friend. And maybe Bob is really smart. But it would be great if if. The reaction was OK. That’s what the experts in this field, in that case, the economists or in this case the epidemiologists and doctors, if instead of going we just don’t like what you’re saying or who you are saying it. If the answer was here, the the rationales behind going, we don’t agree with that value judgment on the system.

S1: Right. And the point is, the interesting point is that this what you’re saying is something that we’ve heard some governors say and most opinion column this say and politicians say. But you’re saying it from the standpoint of a researcher who builds models and you’re saying had we known we could have build better models, we could have actually priced it in to the science and the math that we’re looking at and relying on now.

S10: Yeah. And honestly, for me personally, I think what happened is that you could you can watch the last three months, all of us as modelers. The first thing we all did was pile on to making predictions about how many people will be infected and how many people would die and how many ventilators do we need under our normal assumptions of governmental action. And now we’re behind the curve a little bit on things like models of how do we come out of sheltering in place before the epidemiological models would say so. There’s lots of good modeling work to figure out how to do a compromised situation, how to say, well, I guess we’re not keeping everyone safe. So how do we what would be the best practices for a middle ground and the best minds in the world? Didn’t jump to that. The best minds in the world for good reason because of how we anticipated this going. We’re like, OK, how do we keep the most people from dying? OK, here’s what we should recommend. And we could have and I mean, it’s it’s a terrible thing to say, but but seriously, like some of the work I’ve just submitted is academic papers and are now trying to talk to lobbyists about and people on the ground in the real world about how to use my models is not about how to keep people safe. It’s now about given that we’re not going to keep people safe, how do we prevent the most people from dying for reasons we couldn’t prevent if we reject the best practices?

S1: Right. Right. And maybe that’s, you know, the best minds in the world. Don’t necessarily think that they’ll be working within the confines of every other decision being made by the best minds in the world. But you would at least hope that you’re not being constricted by some of the worst thinking in the world, affecting your modeling and to the point where you’re like, what is the best? What’s the best practices for coming out of a locked down way too early? So what’s the best practices for a really bad practice? And I was thinking, it’s almost like let’s have a Manhattan Project. But here’s the constraint. All the math can only be done with everyone’s left hand. Well, we have a trigger for that.

S10: So it is true that right now some of the work that I’m doing is in areas of policy that I never anticipated wading into. I mean, half of my last week was working on epidemiological models of what happens if instead of having supermarkets. If we try to support restaurants becoming points of sale for groceries so that our farmers can get food to the restaurants that they normally supply and can’t currently supply supermarkets because that supply chain doesn’t exist. What happens if we just redistribute that infrastructure to the consumer in a way that still keeps all of the infrastructure that was already there to distribute food to restaurants? But now, instead of having restaurants prepare the food because we’re not letting their capacity go back to full, what happens if they let them? If we let them sell onto to the public, that also that’s a really good epidemiological practice because it means that not if everyone is trying not to go to the supermarket, they’re all going once every two weeks. That’s still one fourteenth of the catchment served by a supermarket going in every day. That’s already pretty dangerous if you’re coming out of shelter in place. What happens if all of the 30 restaurants in the same catchment area get to sell some of the food and then it supports local businesses. It supports them being able to keep their employees. It supports the farmers that are growing the food. It diffuses epidemiological risk. This is not a model that I would have come up with three months ago. It’s not a question I would have asked three months ago. It’s ridiculous to have thought of. But it’s what I spent half of last week trying to do. And and some of last week also I spent with people who understand the politics of this, trying to get the word out that that might be a really good thing that we could do.

S1: So that’s what you found out? It could be a really good thing.

S10: Yeah. Yeah. Right now, that’s one of the most practical models that I’ve been building, is quite literally, if we want to come out of shelter in place, we want to do it responsibly. And we don’t want our our critical infrastructure of food supply to be interrupted by supply chain disruption, distributing the risk across multiple locations while still employing small businesses that then don’t go bankrupt is a fantastic thing. But that kind of question, finding that that’s a really important epidemiologically and a. Economically, I wouldn’t have been asking that as an economic question. Three, three months ago, I might have been asking it epidemiologically of just distributed risk. What happens if we shut down large points of communal consumer sale? But I wouldn’t have been thinking, okay, where should that go? And how do and then how do I calculate that counterfactual of what’s the epidemiological risk of everyone showing up to like three different restaurants in the span of a week to pick up produce from this one and eggs from that one and cheese from that one?

S1: Do you I mean, who came up with that idea? Who floated it to you? Hey, here’s something we’re thinking about.

S10: Unfortunately, that was just me.

S1: That was just you. So you came up with Idea. You said if you were the lieutenant governor of a state, you might say to yourself, oh, what about this? And then you’d have no way to answer it since you are an epidemiologist, you said. OK. Now I have a way to answer it. Unfortunately, I’m not the lieutenant governor of the state.

S8: Yes, I have been. I honestly, I’ve been sending e-mails to to different state. So some states have been consulting me on different questions. And so I did just sort of shamelessly write them back on a couple of things, being like, I know this wasn’t what you asked me, but have you thought about doing this? And I’ve been talking to some of the organizations of farmers nationally because we have some really great people who facilitate those connections at University of Tennessee. So they’ve been wonderfully supportive and so open, starting to talk to national organizations. And I’m trying to talk to the National Restaurant Association now, also to see whether or not this could work, because it seems like they they are very worried about the economics of maintaining their businesses. And just if you look at news reports, right, all of the different sectors are in trouble, not because there’s no demand. Right. Restaurant people still want prepared food, but restaurants can’t put a crowd in the room. They shouldn’t. And even if they can’t, even if the state opens back up and says they’re allowed to, they shouldn’t. And farmers are slaughtering and are calling there their animals because they don’t have distribution to get it from meat processing plants. Dairy farmers are pouring out milk. It’s not because in the past when we’ve had crises of farming, it’s been because there is no demand or that pricing was was too poor and they needed some help financially from the federal government. Now we have demand, reasonable pricing and and even infrastructure, but we don’t have a way to get that infrastructure to the consumer because we’ve shifted where people are getting food, because cafeterias aren’t running and schools aren’t processing school lunches and businesses that have no catering and cafeterias aren’t doing commercial cooking. A lot of our food is supply chain dedicated towards commercial supply in ways that aren’t natively able to get to individual household level consumers. So, yeah, that was just me looking at a whole bunch of different problems on the news and going, you know what? This is also epidemiologically riskiest. Is everybody going to the grocery store? I bet we can kill multiple birds with one stone and then just assembling people and going, how do we how do we get this information to people?

S1: Yeah, that’s that’s an interesting part. So you have this intuition. You do some research on it. You have this idea. It seems like a good idea, but now you have to get the idea out to people who are in a position to enact policy. But wait. That also dovetails with what you do. And you’ve studied how ideas are work as vectors. So what has that knowledge? How is that knowledge, if at all, influenced how you’re trying to convince people about this new idea?

S8: Well, so there’s there for me, there are a couple of different things I’m trying to do. So one is just to get public Buy-In because on some level for four years, locally owned businesses, individual owners of businesses are going to have to want to adopt this. But then there’s also trying to reach policymakers because some some regulations make this hard. What restaurants are licensed to do and sell is not trivial. And so we kind of need political leadership also. And like mayoral or governor or gubernatorial orders that alleviate some of the licensing restrictions while still having some of the health and safety inspections that go on for food handling and restaurants to to deal now with repackaging for for point of sale. So it’s sort of a multi tiered system. And some of the research I do is about spreading information. So it’s actually part of why I’m glad to be able to talk to you about this, because I’d love it if your listeners, some of whom are restaurant owners, like maybe we could do that. Who do I talk to in my town to get the right permissions to do that? That would be great. But then some of it is is outside of my expertise of how to to really talk to politicians about things like regulatory compliance. And that’s where I’ve been leveraging some of my my network of researchers and the amazing folks at at my institution who really do just constantly deal with policymakers and asking them for help. So if anyone’s interested, I have now, with their help, crafted a two page like why does this help farmers? Why does it help businesses? Why does it help the epidemiological risk to populations? Why does it help the local wholesale distributors? How does it fit into each of those niches of the market that can help? And then if anyone cares, I do have the science. Kind it of like here’s how much epidemiological risk we can avoid by doing this.

S1: By the way, if someone listens to this and is a restaurant owner and is like, good idea, and they learned it from the gist, what would be the term for what the gist was? Were we a node?

S8: Oh, yes, I would. I would think that we are hopefully where a super spreader. Oh, nice.

S5: Well, I always wanted to be a super spreader in the idea context, not the subway one. This is an interesting talk. Is it not? It is. It gets even better.

S2: And tomorrow we’ll talk about, among other things, back casting to validate models and how we even know if a model that turned out not to be true was right or wrong. Tune in for that.

S4: And now the spiel. These times are unprecedented. They’re marked by upheaval and uncertainty. And therefore, it is time to talk about that issue that has been, if not in the forefront of our minds, than just a little off to the side. I speak, of course, of Canadian license plates. Oh, yes, sure. You’re interested. Well, Canada, that’s fairly large country. That must have about a.. 45, 50 million vehicles. Canadian license plates could have far reaching consequences. Well, actually, I’m talking only about Ontario license plates. Oh, well, that could be. I see. I see. That could be a thing of interest. Actually, you can’t see. That’s the thing. You can’t see these license plates.

S11: The government has been on the defensive since first denying the license plates were difficult to read at night. It’s an embarrassing flaw, especially considering the plates were redesigned with p.c blue colors, prompting the opposition to dub them vanity plates.

S4: So Canadian opposition. Don’t go all scorched earth. Vanity is quite an insult. It’s not avarice, but it’s worse than charging someone with misguided ness. And your reputation doesn’t just simply rebound from a charge like vanity. The plates, by the way, also had the slogan changed. It used to be yours to discover. And now the new plates were to say, a place to grow or in the dark they would read Apple Tiger. Wow. I want to say, and you also may have heard in that clip a reference to P.S. P.S. Colors. It’s not politically correct. In fact, it’s quite the opposite because the issue is the progressive Conservative Party. P.c has the same colors as the new plate. And the premier of Ontario, progressive conservative Doug Ford, is definitely the kind of guy not above using license plates to expand the brand. Imagine if Trump issued license plates in all red with white letters and changed the state’s belove slogan to. I don’t know, something like it will all disappear by April.

S12: Doug Ford is the brother of the late comedy sensation and Chris Farley reincarnation Rob Ford and then Dean incarnation. Rob Ford was the mayor of Toronto who did a little crack in his day and died young. Doug shares some traits with his late brother. Is a populist. He is conservative by Canadian standards. He has the affect of an everyman. He fights with the media. In fact, here he is ripping the media. When they asked him about those license plates that could not be seen in the dark.

S13: You’ve got to be kidding. We sent a press release Friday just for these folks that can’t believe what I deal with, with his media here and. We’ve give him a press release on Friday. We gave the details. It’s being corrected.

S4: We’re going to have good license plates.

S12: Now, some of the ire, some of the passion might seem familiar to us, but notice he didn’t call them perfect plates. He didn’t insist they were already perfect. And in blames someone else for the imperfections and also notice or take note of the date when all of this went down. It was March 2nd. And within weeks, license plates would, of course, become much less relevant as Ontario went on lockdown during that period. There was an unusual and heartening development, and it was this Doug Ford set aside the bombast and address the needs of his constituents.

S14: He really set about to deliver for the voters real value as a public servant. He was great in briefings. He went above and beyond. He criticized Trump. Not that that’s such a virtue, but he did say in doing so. Now, during these times, you really know who your friends are. And Ontarians. People of Toronto, Hamilton and the environs came to really appreciate Doug Ford. In fact, Chrystia Freeland, who’s Canada’s deputy prime minister. She’s a hyper intelligent progressive tasked with and she was tasked with running the country while Justin Trudeau convalesced. She and Ford would get together for press conferences and they became a real moment of unity. She. Credited his optimism, quote. He’s my therapist. She told The Toronto Sun. He praised her intellect. This transformation, it probably happened for reasons beyond the person and character of one Doug Ford. It’s the entire ecosystem, the public, the politicians and the press. The Toronto Sun, by the way, went from needling Ford over the license plate fiasco and other things in early March to running the headline, Doug Ford has risen to the Corona Virus Challenge. I don’t know that American media would be able to make such a shift today when asked in a press conference about the unable to be seen in the dark. License plates. Here was Doug Ford’s answer.

S15: What is this battle over license plates worth it? With this perspective? And also, was it worth the taxpayer dollars spent?

S16: Oh, look at these plates. Really? Honestly, driver’s not being top of mind for me. Over the last little while, what I can say is we got feedback from our stakeholders and we’re following their advice will not be moving forward with the new plates for passenger vehicle use and further work is needed if we’re done.

S15: I think the last few months have given us all perspective. A lot of perspective. And with that in mind, I’m just wondering about the announcement, the press release that came out from your office about these license plates and that you’re not going forward with the design. What is this battle over license plates worth it with this perspective? And also, was it worth the taxpayer dollars were spent?

S16: Oh, look, these these plates are really honestly drivers not being top of mind for me. Over the last little while, what I can say is we got feedback from our stakeholders and we’re following their advice will not be moving forward with the new plates for passenger vehicle use and further work is needed if we’re to move forward with the new plates. And right now, Travis, I’m I’m just not ready to put any more resources towards this. And we’ll run through all the inventory of existing plates we have and also look at ways to to use the new plates for non passenger vehicles. We have over 31 other categories of vehicles. We can use a license, as on. And I just want to mention about the money there. There’s no additional cost to the taxpayers on this.

S14: That is such a fair, sane and bombastic take. It should actually be seen as unremarkable. Everything about the stance is right. Look, it was a fight that seems silly in retrospect. It’s not a fight I want to keep having. That is exactly what you want in a leader. And that’s exactly how you want a leader to phrase it. Contrast that with well, in other flashy ready man who is incapable of such sentiments in such basic decency. I think about the character of people and the character of countries, but I also think about the structure and incentive systems at play in a way.

S12: Doug Ford’s transformation is a hopeful lesson about the possibility for growth. But to be honest, it’s also a little bit of a depressing illustration of how impossible that all seems here in America. I don’t know, in the United States if any leaders have truly changed their ways during the pandemic. And if we can find one or two, have. I wonder if they would say, you know, it’s worth the costs of being seen to have betrayed my base. When we come out of this, I do know one leader who can never change. And I do have my hopes overall, but also my doubts about the country that elected him in the first place.

S2: That’s it for today’s show, Margaret Kelley is the associate producer of The Gist. She’s hoping that lettuce in restaurants goes really well. And then maybe we could say Guido artichokes in auto body shops. Daniel Shrader is the Gist producer. He’s developing a Canadian street light that just doesn’t work in the dark. The JESTE we propose a unity license plate between yours to discover a place to grow and the current Idaho license plate. How about discover a place to grow famous potatoes in Peru, Deborah to Peru. And thanks for listening.