Will there be another “2020”?


“The fact is we are a more interconnected world. The two main drivers of new pandemics are the two things that are being debated about the origin of this one: animal-human interface and dangerous laboratory work.” – @DrTomFrieden, Wharton Moneyball

But let’s consider the case for why there won’t be another 2020. Tyler Cowen writes as at least three different people: an economist on his blog Marginal Revolution, a contra-Tyler as Tyrone (also on the blog), and from a business perspective on Bloomberg. He aims to understand the same story from different sides.

Cowen’s colleague Caplan (Bryan) coined the ideological Turing test (ITT). Like the Turing test asks: can a person distinguish if an output is from a machine or a human. The ITT asks: can a person distinguish if an argument is from a person who believes X or not-X?

The legs of my argument point in the same direction as the March 2020 argument to ‘flatten the curve’. If everything I note moves 10% away from “2020” then the chances of another pandemic are greatly reduced. Only rather than lots of talk about flattening people will do it anyway.

Why there won’t be another 2020:

Technology. Teenagers are driving less and doing fewer drugs. There’s less movement across state lines. Look at screen times: they’re going up and time is a zero sum game.

Work has become remote, or at least can be. In the 1990s I first heard of “Blizzard Bags”. If there was an anticipated snow storm headed for Ohio, schools made up a day of work for the kids to take home. Now there are 40 million Google Chromebook in education.

I’m not sure the move digital all bad. Audiobooks for instance are a fine addition. YouTube teaches almost anything, maybe everything by the time you read this. “My internet friend” feels less and less weird each time I tell my wife. Some jobs are more productive online.

Salience. Experiencing a thing makes us overrate it (relatively). After a serious car crash I was a very conservative driver. Even now when it rains I slow way down, especially on the drag strips known as ‘Florida highways’.

Most people know someone who passed away due to Covid, who had their lives seriously stressed as a medical professional, or who (might) have long-Covid symptoms. It’s one thing to hear about an experience and another to live it and we all lived “2020”.

Experience. It’s crazy looking back. We did what?!?!? It reminds me of a grandfather-ism: good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.

When someone starts they often copy someone. That’s fine. That’s how humans learn basic things. Then as that person figures things out they change their game (sports), pitch (sales), interactions (relationships).

That’s how the 2020 pandemic feels looking back. We had no idea what to do. Taking a page from a long-time Florida family member, we prepared as if a hurricane was coming through. Now though, we know more than we did. It’s hard to imagine personal, local, regional, and national reactions that are worse.

Medicine. March 2020 through March 2021 was not a good stretch for most, but look at the medical field and it’s pretty dang amazing. The virus was sequenced, the vaccine was created, tested, produced (!), and distributed (!!). Treatments improved. There are probably relevant discoveries we don’t even know yet.

Each of these areas: technology, salience, experience, and medicine offers the bare minimum case. Isn’t there even a good chance medical or technological advances leap forward? Even if they don’t, a small reduction in actions (more work from home, more masks, better medicine, more experience, etc.) will flatten the future curve.

Good organizations know there’s value to argue-well. James Mattis says to be “hard on the issues, not on the people”. Ben Horowitz said you want to be friendly but not so friendly you don’t ask the opposition difficult questions.

After writing this I believe this case more. How much more is hard to say. Maybe I’ve moved from from very likely to likely.

Eric Jorgenson has been writing a lot of about leverage and I guess this post is about leverage. My main idea here is that if many people change in a small way then there will be a substantial change. Erik tweets about leverage as people, time, or money. On the blog we’ve addressed this idea too but under the name Large N small p.

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