Whether the issue is climate, energy, or the response to Covid-19, the use of the word “science” has become — in the words of Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity — a “cloak of virtue.” In this episode, Robert Bryce talks to Avik about the need to view scientific evidence dispassionately, the limits of models, the American health care system, why his mother is a Democrat, and why, even in the midst of the pandemic, he is hopeful about our future.
Robert Bryce 0:05
Hi, and welcome to the power hungry podcast where we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. I’m Robert Bryson, my guest today is my friend Avik Roy, the president of the foundation for research on equal opportunity. Thanks for being with us today.
Avik Roy 0:20
Robert, congrats on all the success you’re having with this podcast excited to be on.
Robert Bryce 0:24
Well, I’m thrilled to have you on and I’m gonna just make the disclaimer right at the beginning. We’re rampant conflicts of interest here on this. This podcast. I joined free up the foundation for research on equal opportunity a few months ago. ob gyn I met several years ago and he came to Austin and we talked a few years ago about and he invited me to join free opt in Well, I did finally and I’m glad to say
Avik Roy 0:49
it was a long courtship you’re like you know the girl who the pretty girl at the bar. Got to work on it.
Robert Bryce 0:57
Okay, well, we’ll move past the cord ship thing here. And dive deeper into what free op is doing. Because today really the focus is on politics and and some on innovation. So over a guy could give you a long introduction. But if you don’t mind, I like to ask the guests to introduce themselves. So if you’ve just arrived at a dinner party, you don’t know anyone there. What would you say?
Avik Roy 1:21
Wow, well, I don’t know what I would say honestly. But, but but I am the president of the foundation for research on equal opportunity or free app.org, like you mentioned, which is a think tank that focuses on expanding economic opportunity to those who least have one key thing about us that makes us different from every other thing tank that’s out there is we really try hard to bring progressives and conservatives together. Our whole thing is achieving progressive policy outcomes. Using free enterprise individual liberty and technological innovation has the tools. You and I know Robert, that free enterprises is the thing that’s lifted people out of poverty all around In the world, and our whole approach is to find ways to do that here in the United States and to bring Democrats and Republicans together on policies and ideas that can make a difference for the most people.
Robert Bryce 2:12
But to be clear, you come from the conservative side, you advised rick perry on his presidential campaign, Marco Rubio, show you I mean, would you identify yourself as a Republican? How would you identify your own politics now?
Avik Roy 2:25
I don’t know, man. I mean, I don’t know what the Republican Party stands for today. I know what I stand for. And it’s what I what I described. So I look at it like, you know, my, what I try to do in this world of public policy is identify the things that bring us all together. I mean, when I was growing up, you know, in the in the 70s, and 80s. I took it for granted that all Americans agreed that what made America special was this idea of equal opportunity that didn’t matter where you came from, where your parents came from, worth what they made, where you lived. We’re all we all had an equal opportunity success or something close to it, or at least that’s what we aspire to. That’s what we stood for as a country. And, and that’s what I believe today. And I don’t, I don’t feel that’s a particularly partisan point of view. And, you know, I would say that I’m a free market guy. And in that way, I align a lot with what Republicans have said they’ve stood for, but I would say Republicans have always lived up to the free enterprise. credo. And on the Democratic side. You know, while I made my I may not always agree with the democrats on every economic issue, I think, at least today, I certainly find a lot to respect about the Democratic Party in terms of the efforts Democrats have made to rise above their recent past as the party of the Confederacy and be an inclusive party racially and otherwise. Well, I love that question, Robert. Because my just just to step back a little bit One thing about me is that I come from a scientific family. My dad was a molecular biologist. I myself, majored in molecular biology at MIT before going to medical school. I’m someone who is was steeped from, from, from birth, basically to have a great belief in admiration of the scientific method and empiricism. And what’s so interesting about both the COVID debate, and the climate debate is how much the word science is thrown around in ways that are actually not scientific. And there’s this kind of, you know, there’s a degree to which in both the climate and energy debate and in the Cova debate, all you have to do is use the word science and it’s meant to be this kind of cloak of virtue, and there’s much less attention paid to whether or not what you’re doing is actually signing What you’re what you do whether what you’re doing is actually rigorously based on the evidence, what are the uncertainties? What are the things that are hard to measure? What are the things we don’t know. And I find that incredibly interesting. And what’s, you know, at first and particularly in the, say, March, April timeframe. Think about the Coppa debate. There was so much there still is, but there was particularly then this real annoyance among some public health officials that that they weren’t getting as much deference as they felt they deserved for their pronouncements about cobit. And that was always so interesting because SARS COBie two is a virus The world has never encountered before. That’s why sometimes a news reports it’s called the novel, Corona virus. And the point about a novel virus is that it’s biology. Its clinical effects. It’s it’s very Let’s it’s mutability are all things we don’t know, certainly didn’t know, then we certainly had some Inklings or some clues. But these are all things that we were starting to get to know better starting to learn more about. But at the time we were speculating about and a lot of those speculations were wrong by the very elites who were demanding fealty to, to their points of view merely because they had PhDs or academic appointments. And that was, that was a huge problem because in particular people who who steeped in the public health paradigm of how to combat influenza pandemics, influenza is a very different virus from SARS Coby to and so what you might do to respond to an influenza pandemic is actually quite different in certain ways than what you would do to respond to coronavirus. So all in all these ways, there were confident pronouncements that rapidly unraveled in terms of their accuracy. As a result, the public health community does not have today the the level of prestige or deference that it might otherwise have if there had been a much more careful and empirical approach to the, to the knowledge that we actually had.
Robert Bryce 7:16
Well, I like that idea about the sciences the cloak of virtue, right, because that’s been the both sides and I’ve heard it I to my ear. I’ve heard it more from the left about well, we’re trusting the science. Well, science is messy. I mean, it always is. Right. And that was one of the things that that one of my next points was just about the models, right. So I looked at the, you know, in March, the Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson estimated that they published a paper, it said, even with social distancing, the US could have 1 million deaths from the virus. And then a more recent one from the University of Washington just in the last week or so said, predicted for the US 225,000 Cova deaths by November. So I don’t know With the, you know, the idea of models, and you know, we’ve heard about them for a long time, but how accurate have the models been? And how much should we trust them?
Avik Roy 8:10
Well, there’s a lot to say about we could spend a whole hour talking about models, because, and again, as as, as you started with this is relevant to the climate conversation as well, but talk about COVID models. I listened to a really interesting interview recently that that the 538, Nate Silver site did with one of the guys at the University of Washington, the witches where the Institute for Health metrics and evaluation is how’s that does one of these models and they asked questions that were very intelligent as you’d expect from people who understand what modeling is and what projections are and how to think about data. If you listen carefully to the interview, that 538 did, it’s really revealing if you know what to listen for, and and what what the questions they ask What they teased out from this guy from the University of Washington was that the way they were modeling COVID future COVID deaths was not by actually understanding anything about the virus, SARS, COBie two and how it spreads. But rather, they were taking historical data from Lu Han and other places as to how, how many cases how many deaths, etc. designing an equation to retroactively fit that curve. Now, that’s one way to model things. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s an understandable way to think about modeling. But to imbue some sort of miraculous power to a model who’s basically that’s basically built on taking a simplistic equation and mapping it on to a historical data set. That’s not actually predictive of anything because as we all know, from investing Past performance is not a predictor of future results, just because the curve has gone a certain way in the past does not have anything to do with how it will go in the future. And yet, that is the kind of epidemiological modeling that, that that that has held sway. And that’s what created not only wildly inaccurate predictions of future death tolls, but also wild swings in the projection. So one day it will predict there’ll be 500,000 deaths, the next day, they’ll predict those 50,000 deaths. And all that is being driven by the fact that as the real data comes in, they have to adjust their equation to retroactively fit that curve, and it spits out different numbers, which is that’s just not how that’s not the right way to think about modeling. The right way to think about modeling is to say, Okay, here is the virus. Here’s how the virus is transmitted. Here is its its general spread in certain communities. Here’s how it affects people of different ages. Here’s how it affects people in places where the population density is different, etc, etc, etc. Here are some of the policy restrictions that have come into play. And again, to give them some credit, they’ve tried to retroactively build some of those, because they’ve been criticized for that they’ve tried to build some of that into their model. But, you know, again, people, people, the public perception, particularly among journalists, as well, these people have PhDs, they’re using equations, therefore, it must be true. And just because you have an exponent next to a letter does not mean you’re predicting something accurately.
Robert Bryce 11:43
So then, with the other thing that underlies the models that are similar, it seems to me and we discussed this, when we were thinking about this interview was underlying all of these projections and the models is the fear of the future. Right, that catastrophe looms unless we do X and Y and Z and the more extreme action we can take now then the less fear we might have about the future is that am I reading the same this the same way as you? How do you see it?
Avik Roy 12:16
Well, there certainly is, I think a situation like this definitely reveals the spectrum of human nature in terms of people who are more risk averse, and people who are more comfortable with risk. And this plays out on socio economic lines too, because think about the construction worker who who goes to work every day wears a hardhat has to take many precautions in order to protect himself from serious injury, or that’s someone who understands risk, who understands what it is means to take precautions to go to work every day knowing that danger is around. On the other hand, a journalist who spends all his time in front of a keyboard In an office building may not have the same assessment or understanding the knowledge workers of people who work in the intellectual or information or creative economy are people who temperamentally have maybe chosen those professions because of a certain orientation towards risk aversion, but at the very least, certainly don’t experience that daily physical risk the way a lot of blue collar or rural Americans might. And so that leads to a sorting or a a bell curve or a binomial curve, you might say, in which there’s a cluster of people who are more risk oriented. We’re comfortable with the possibility, however small, they may get COVID and they’re willing to say, hey, let’s reopen the schools. My kid has a one in 2 million chance of dying from co but I’m okay with that. Because he’s actually got a bigger chance of getting hit by a car on the way to school and get it dying a covid. I’m okay with that. And for others, No risk is too small to be scared of in this particular context. And one thing I think about in this regard and relates to how the COVID is being covered by the media is the thing we used to talk about back in the day was car crashes, versus plane crashes. So every time there’s a plane crash, it’s all over the news. And yet, every time there’s a car crash, it’s not all over the news. And that lead that is, over time has led a lot of people to fear that planes are more dangerous than than cars, even though statistically your chance of dying in a plane crash is far far smaller than your chance of dying in a car crash. Sure. But and so and you know, we see this in, you know, I was I’ve been listening to Mike Shellenberger his book on the way to work. The thing he talks about in that book is how the high profile nuclear accidents like okay, there’s a tsunami that knocks over Fukushima and you know, it’s one of the few nuclear generators that’s on an island, that subject that’s susceptible to a tsunami. And if they have some problems associated with that, and then then all of a sudden Germany decides they’ve got to shut down all their nuclear reactors, even though Germany’s in the middle of Europe and is not at risk of being drowned in a tsunami. Right. Like, this is the kind of thinking that goes on. And we’ve seen it in COVID, as well, obviously, that there’s a spectrum of views, spectrum of
Robert Bryce 15:28
tolerance for risk. So why is the US doing so badly? What I mean, what I’ve looked at the mortality rates per 100,000, and I think we’re the third worst, I think, is in overall but Is that a fair characterization? Why is the US doing badly?
Avik Roy 15:44
We’re not the third worst were among the advanced countries, I think, where I don’t remember the exact number. We actually just published an updated analysis of this at free app.org. In our world index of healthcare innovation, pandemic performance rankings, you can look On our website, but the US actually is has done. It’s not done great, but it’s done better relative to other big European countries like the UK, France, Spain, Italy, the one big European country that has done better than the US is Germany. And part of that may be due to the fact part of it may be just Germany being Germany, and being a country where people follow rules and are willing to do things like trust the public authorities that could be we’ve seen that to a large degree in the Nordic countries as well. But it could also be that Chinese tourists don’t go to Frankfurt on holiday, but they do go to Spain. They do go to Italy, they do go to France. So we just don’t know and we’ve tried in our analysis to adjust for for that fact that tourism and economic integration isolations factor so people will point to New Zealand and say, well, New Zealand’s doing great with the COVID. Well, New Zealand is pretty easy to shut your borders. If you’re New Zealand, you know, you’re not going to take a road Both from Wu Han to New Zealand. Right? So you know that a
Robert Bryce 17:06
lot of not a lot of African migrants moving through New Zealand or people. Yeah, they can close their borders pretty easily. Yeah.
Avik Roy 17:14
Yeah. So when you when you grade on a curve like that and try to think about all the different factors that are involved of which sub may be actually different strains of the virus, it may be that a more virulent strain of the virus swept through Europe to the east coast of the US, versus the one that came from Wu Han through the Pacific Rim to the west coast of the US in December in January. So there’s a lot we don’t yet know. And in fact, if you if you look at all this in context, what I would say is our response has not been meaningfully better or worse in other countries. There are other countries whose stats are better, but it’s unclear whether their stats are better because they’ve had a better pandemic response or because they’ve benefited from other structural factors. Basically, half the cases half the deaths have taken place in the The tri state area around New York City. So if you were to basically split the us into two countries, one is the way the New York City metropolitan area handled the crisis and the way the rest of America handled the crisis, you’d come to a fairly different story. And and and, and that I think, will continue to be true as we evolve here even though America is continuing to see cases in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. We know a little bit more about how to handle hospitalizations. It’s largely younger people who are getting infected now. And and they are less susceptible to serious illness and death.
Robert Bryce 18:38
And isn’t that I mean, as I’ve watched your work and free ops work on this, what I’ve heard is what your prescription for future dealing with this in the future is, we need to protect the vulnerable while allowing as much freedom as as possible for the people who are left vulnerable? Is that a fair way to characterize what you What’s your position on it?
Avik Roy 19:04
Yeah, I mean, this goes back to our our early point about science and evidence, right? We have overwhelming overwhelming evidence at this point that SARS kobie, to virus to COVID-19 disease is especially dangerous for people over the age of 65. And it’s not that dangerous, though they’re isolated cases, they get a lot of play in the newspaper. It’s not that dangerous. For people under the age of 45. Only, I think 1.8% of all Cova deaths United States have taken place in people under 35. Only 0.1 something percent have occurred to people under 25. So as you go down the age curve, it’s pretty profound, how much lower the risk is. It doesn’t mean it’s zero risk, but there is much lower risk. And so if we understand that, that leads us to do a couple things, one, it would lead us to do a much better job than one Have a protecting vulnerable seniors 45% of all deaths from COVID-19 have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that house 0.6% of the US population. Think about that 45% of the deaths have taken place in residential facilities, housing 0.6% of the US population. Now in any rational, scientific evidence based world, that would be the headline in every newspaper every single day, what are we doing to protect people in nursing homes? And it has been a total afterthought, in fact, at free up, we obviously as you know, Robert, we did the first nationwide analysis to add up the statistics because a lot of states weren’t even reporting the data. They weren’t even bothering identify where people were dying from, we actually had to publish an incomplete data set with 37 states and basically shame the other states and reporting the data to get a full 50 days. We don’t even still have a 50 state data set. We have a 49 state data set, but it took that long months have worked to get that out there. And then on the other hand, you have people are saying no, we should keep preschools and kindergartens closed. Even though there is pretty compelling evidence, overwhelming evidence, I would argue at this point that kids are in no danger from COVID-19 themselves almost no danger near zero danger, far more danger from the flu than from COVID-19. And most importantly, are not a risk for infecting their teachers or other school staff. So that is pretty compelling as well. And yet, you have a lot of people say no, the schools have to stay close. So there’s just you know, the the people out there brag and boast about how scientific they are. I urge them to to live by that, that stated philosophy.
Robert Bryce 21:57
So a lot of work and the paper that Did for free up on natural gas is ultimately about? A lot of your work is about class and that was one of the reasons why I was attracted to free up right about the class divided America. How is this? How is the lockdown or who is being hurt the most what what parts of society are being hurt most by the lockdown you’ve testified before Congress on this very on this very issue What? And so who’s being hurt most and why is it important that we do this reopening, which has become a part as an issue? How is it Why is it important for low and middle income people that we reopen as quickly as possible?
Avik Roy 22:38
First, there absolutely is a an economic divide between those who have the luxury of working from home and those who don’t. If you have the luxury of working from home if you’re in the knowledge sectors it’s pretty easy to camp out, relatively speaking your inconvenience but it’s relatively easy. If your job requires being physically present in a workplace. You can’t. And and especially if your job involves something like, obviously a hospitality based industry or travel or hotel restaurant, it’s doubly hard because not only does your job require to be there, but the business may not be there, even if you show up. So there is a huge divide there and you see it in, again, the comfort that journalists have, relative to those who work in more blue collar professions. So that’s definitely one problem. There.
Robert Bryce 23:39
Can I interrupt for a second? Because Yeah, maybe you’ve made several points here and, and digs. Let’s call it what is at the media and how the media has covered this. And is it because journalists in general, don’t work with their hands that they’re not like that they just assume everybody else should be able to stay at home too. I’m challenging a little bit on that because I’ve heard But I and I, and I see where you’re coming from. Is that fair? Are you have you seen this? I don’t want to hide here.
Avik Roy 24:07
Yeah, like, I don’t want to paint with a broad brush in the sense. It’s not all journalists, right? Yeah. See, there are plenty of journalists who are doing a great job working hard covering the story, doing, you know, conscientious about their work, really concerned about the economic dislocation, etc. But I think we all have to be able to, you know, we’re talking a lot these days about white privilege, right. And maybe we’re not talking enough about the privilege that comes from working in the information economy. And we need to be talking about that more and journalism is very, very much a central part of the privilege that comes with working in the information economy.
Robert Bryce 24:50
That’s well put, I like that. So how much of the one of the other things that I’ve noticed and you know, you and I live here in Austin, but is the divide between rural America and urban America, just when it comes to the issue of wearing masks, I mean, just go a little ways outside of town and there’s this divide, you know, that people in rural areas like, well, that’s what they do in the city. We don’t we’re not worried about it here. But how much the question is this? How much of the spread of the virus is due to this kind of natural disinclination among Americans to distrust government? And that will I’m just not going to do that. Or even if a vaccine becomes available, I’m just not going to take it. Is there? Is that part of the Do you see that as a part of the the reason why the virus has swelled? Or is this just the natural progression of the virus regardless of how we are as a people in terms of how we relate to government?
Avik Roy 25:43
There’s a degree of that, but I think it’s been somewhat exaggerated. If you actually look at Europe, in the early days of the pandemic, people in France weren’t wearing masks. People in Italy weren’t wearing masks. People in Spain, were partying on the street. They’re basically all of Europe, most of Europe, I should say, not all, most of Europe did not take seriously the warnings from public health authorities, particularly in those big Southern European countries where they also maybe in a different way than rural Americans, but they also have their healthy disregard for authority and rules and traffic lights, other thing. And whereas in Asia, they reacted instantly, they snapped to because they understood the risks from that experience 17 years ago. And I think that’s what’s going to happen here is that the hardest hits parts of the country are, are more focused on mass because they’ve been hard hit and the parts of the country that have not been hard hit, it’s it’s harder for them to, as you say, to relate this to the way if you live in rural Texas, you have genuine reason to be frustrated that the mismanagement of the pandemic in New York City is being imposed on you and That doesn’t mean you should be in an enclosed space with 20 other people not wear a mask if you if you live in a rural part of the country, but it does mean that you we, those of us who live in cities should be more understanding of their point of view. And, and and try instead of lecturing people about how irresponsible they are. I think we should come to it with a little bit more understanding and say, Look, I get that. You know, it This may seem like it’s not a real threat, that it’s only something that happens in cities. But But look at this rural area, or that rural area where all it takes is one case. And because everyone goes to the same church, once there’s one case, every you know, everyone else gets hit. And we don’t want to be like that other small town over there. Right. And I think that’s that’s the way to try to bring it to people and this whole just sort of lecturing tone that people take is is
isn’t going to work.
Unknown Speaker 28:03
Robert Bryce 28:04
back to the numbers in the we talked about and co opted that great work early work on nursing homes, which the New York Times then quickly copied, I think. But the are the numbers around the infections misleading. And that is that that gets the headline. Well, this many new cases today another record, what should we be focusing on that or should it be on the mortality rate? What some what’s the key number to be watching here?
Avik Roy 28:30
Well, there’s been an incredible negativity of bias towards negativity and sensationalism of any negative oriented figure in a lot of the coverage, particularly the headlines that have come out of recent data sets, and what’s important to understand is, and I tweeted about this a few weeks back and it got a lot of circulation that not all cases are the same. If you are if you test public For COVID-19, your call the case. But if you test positive for COVID-19, and you’re 25 years old, the likelihood that you’re going to get hospitalized is very low. The likelihood that even if you do get hospitalized, that you dive COVID-19 is also very low. Whereas again, if you’re 85, or 75, or 65, the risk is much higher. So not all cases are the same. And you really have to dig into the data of, okay of the people who are infected, who were testing positive. What’s their age now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about young people getting infected because young people, if they become a reservoir, the virus can then go out and affect their elderly parents or their grandparents or their relatives and nursing homes or whoever it is. So you can’t ignore it. It’s important, but but it’s also important to understand the context of the numbers, which is to say not all cases are the same. Not all hospitalizations are the same and not all deaths are the same. And, by the way, one one way to think about this optimistically. There’s been a fair amount of controversy not just in the US but around the world about how exactly to count COVID deaths, different countries count them differently. In the US the standard model is if you die in a motorcycle accident, but you tested positive for COVID a week before you’re counted as a COVID. Death, even though COVID was not clearly the cause of death. And that’s why if you actually look at the footnotes of the CDC data, it says, we’re counting deaths with COVID. Not that’s from COVID. Now, other countries do it differently. And because of that, the researchers who are trying to do international comparisons, talk a lot about of how many people have died in a given week in June or may or April. And you compare that historical pattern to how many people are dying in 2020. What’s that difference because that should take into account under counted deaths, and also over counted deaths and get you somewhere that’s approximately Right.
Robert Bryce 30:57
Right, so you get into an accident. Have an excess death number which would be more accurate?
Avik Roy 31:03
Yeah, it at least particularly when you’re comparing to other countries, it should at least align. So if countries are reporting the data in different ways, it should give you some sort of way of comparing countries internationally, even if their data sets are different. And by the way, if you look at if you look at those charts, if you look at those figures and look at excess deaths, right now, as of today, as we record this podcast, the excess deaths in the US are zero. Today, meaning like this week, the number of people dying of it for any reason, is roughly the number of people who died last year and the year before that year before that. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re free and clear from COVID. But it does suggest that what we’re seeing now at this point is while some people may be dying of COVID people aren’t dying of other things. Maybe because they’re staying home or activity has been reduced or what have you. Maybe there are fewer car accidents because people aren’t sure driving to work could be a lot of things. But it does give you some reason to be optimistic about, about where we are going into the tail end of the year. And by the way, if you look at those excess death statistics and compare the US to other countries, the way it plays out right now is, if I recall correctly, as we record this, the most recent data set shows that the excess mortality in total in 2020, for the US is about 23%. So 23% more people have died in 2020, then you would expect based on historical data, in countries like the UK, Belgium, Italy, it’s more like 45% or higher. So that gives you a sense when I talk about comparing us to other countries. There may be we may turn out as the research gets done, and we look backwards, that we didn’t do as badly as the perception is now and and by the way, I wouldn’t be shocked if If starting in mid November, the tone of coverage around COVID changes
Robert Bryce 33:07
in that it wasn’t that we didn’t do well, as you said, we didn’t do that badly, or we didn’t we did better than we thought we did, or is that what you’re saying?
Avik Roy 33:15
Yeah, they’re just it’s just possible that there will be an emergence of research that that puts the data in context more after the election is over.
Robert Bryce 33:24
I see, because so much of this is being seen through the partisan lens. Now.
Avik Roy 33:29
A lot of that is I mean, a lot of people want to be able to say it’s tribal, either genuinely or for partisan reasons want to be able to are mad about the way the US has been handling as it were, that they want to blame Trump for that.
Robert Bryce 33:41
So let’s talk about innovation for just a second. There’s some news that there’s positive developments on the vaccine front. Why is it so hard to develop a vaccine for this for this virus?
Avik Roy 33:55
Well, vaccines are hard in general to develop the fastest vaccine ever developed. novel virus took five years. That was the Ebola virus. So it normally takes a long time to develop vaccines. And a big part of why is because not only do you have the standard challenges of research and development, but you have to manufacture the vaccine, which is itself a labor intensive, labor intensive and time consuming process, then you have to put in a bunch of people and then wait to see if they get infected. So you put the vaccine, say in 10,000 people or 1000 people, obviously you hope it’s safe to you have to do those safety trials first. But then you have to just wait and see, okay, in six months or a year, how many of them got infected versus the people you didn’t give the vaccine to. So generating the data just logistically doesn’t matter how smart you are talented are generating the data that validates that your vaccine actually works takes time, regardless how smart you are. Now, there are some people out there who do think they’re very smart and feel like they figured this one out and tier two Your your question about what what, what makes the development vaccine for this particular virus hard. It’s that there can be a lot of mutations. So the the part of the virus that most people are trying to develop a vaccine to is this protein on the surface of the virus called the spike protein, which is the protein on the surface of the Coronavirus that then attaches to your, your acetylcholine esterase receptors or Ace actually, so it’s not sorry not seagull coolness trace angiotensin converting enzyme receptors which is a acetylcholine straight it’s something else which are a seal a angiotensin converting enzyme is used to regulate blood pressure and a bunch of other cellular processes and it’s it’s thought that the virus uses that receptor to attach and then get into your body. Now there is the reason why the common cold there’s no cure for the common cold the common colds also a Corona virus and The common cold mutates every year mutates even within a given year. And so you might develop immunity to the common cold but you won’t develop immunity necessarily to the next common cold that comes from. Having said that, it may be that one of the reasons why some people are immune to the coronavirus. The novel coronavirus, is because they have common cold antibodies lying around their system that are working against SARS COBie two, we just don’t know. There’s a lot of wild cards. And you know, I spent, before I started doing public policy work, I spent a dozen years as a biotechnology investor, and anyone who’s invested in biotech can tell you that most things fail. And so we’re all those of us who invest in these companies are all aware that you you often have promising data early on. But that promising data in early studies of 10 patients or 12 patients doesn’t necessarily lead to something that works in 1000 patients or 10,000 patients or 10 million patients, which is what we’re talking about when it comes to a vaccine. And you have to be sure that there are no side effects, right? Because you’re going to be putting this intense have millions of people. So all that to say there’s a lot of risks ahead a lot of wood to chop. And, and obviously, we all hope that a virus succeeds. And I think that’s part of what’s driving the coverage of these vaccines. we all we all, we all want an easy solution and vaccines are appealing in that regard. But you also have to remember that there are a lot of investors in these companies who have an economic incentive. And and the science we have today is encouraging, but very, very preliminary.
Robert Bryce 37:31
Good. So let’s, let’s talk just about a couple of other things. And then we’re coming on an hour here pretty soon. So I don’t want to want to keep you all day. But that Well, let me ask this one about the climate change thing first, because we’ve been told on the climate change, and I’m not picking out Well, I’m picking on that because of the the parallels that we’re seeing with the COVID issue, but climate change has been so well. This is the existential threat. Well, we knew about the possibility of pandemics And but it seemed to me when if we look at it now and say, well, let’s compare the two threats, the pandemic threat, in terms of the effect on society has been far greater than the summertime threat, it seems to me of, of climate change sometime in the future. How do you compare those two issues?
Avik Roy 38:20
Yeah, it’s interesting. I, I’ve seen people I’ve seen takes on both sides of that, which is to say, I’ve seen people make the point that, hey, you know, all this talk about climate change, when we should have been concerned about a pandemic, which is a greater threat. I’ve heard other people say, Well, maybe the pandemic will help people realize what a threat climate change is, because people have been warning about pandemics being a disaster, and no one listened to them. And now here we are. And now maybe that will show that people should be scared about disasters in general, including the disaster of the world ending because of climate change.
Robert Bryce 38:57
Let me let me let me go move on to the school issue. And talk about that. So why is it important that we reopen schools sooner rather than later?
Avik Roy 39:08
Well, this is a great example of something where the trade offs should be very clear, because we know very well, it’s well established both scientifically and economically, the damage that’s caused to children, particularly younger children, but really all children, who, who can’t go to school, what that does to their educational attainment, what that does to the development of their brains, what that does to their economic outcomes. There’s an enormous amount of research on this. This is something we understand we know. And, by the way, it’s really talked about equal opportunity and disparities, rich people are going to be fine. You know, what I’m hearing about from a lot of my New York City friends, by the way, is the schools are closed in New York City. So rich people are hiring the public school teachers to be personal tutors for their children. So like, that’s what’s going to happen the upper middle class and the wealthy will figure a way around. Either by providing their own enrichment for their children intellectually or by hiring tutors, and it’s the poor kids who are going to suffer. And this is incredibly regressive policy. And, again, the flip side of it as well, there’s this, you know, the worry is that teachers will get infected and be put at risk. And we have a lot of evidence, particularly from Europe, that that’s not the case. The schools in Europe have been more open to the spring, and they’re going to be open again in the fall. And this is not controversial. There’s they’re very few people in Europe or saying, Oh, it’s really terrible that schools are reopening, this is understood as completely normal. One thing you hear now as a counter argument, it’s starting to burble up is because as you know, Robert, we just put out a big white paper on reopening schools at free OPT org. One of the things that’s come up in response to that is some people say, Well, yes, it’s true that Europe is reopening schools, but we have to ignore that because America’s performance in the pandemic pandemic is so much worse than Europe’s which goes back to our earlier coverage. About this very topic we actually know like, yes, there are some countries that are doing better than the US like Germany, but other countries that are doing worse, and yet they’re all opening schools and seeing no problems. So that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the spread of, of COVID-19 into account, particularly at the college level. And maybe even at the high school level. If there are local communities, they’re really having a major outbreak. That’s something to be mindful of. For those older children. And younger adults, the risk of adult to adult transmission is higher. So teachers should wear masks, they should engage in physical distancing. They should take their classes outdoors if they can, lots of things that the teachers should do to protect themselves from other teachers and other staff. They don’t have to be worried that that a five year old is going to infect them with COVID, which is, again, I understand the intuition, right. We all those of us who’ve had young children, we all understand that when it comes to other things like the common cold or the flu. We get bugs from our kids all the time. And so there’s an underlying Stand up will worry that COVID is going to be like that. Well, if we all get books from our kids when they go to school in a normal year, shouldn’t that be the case with COVID. And this is where again, the science is really important. And those who, who like to talk about science and mentioned the word science, in every sentence should be the ones who have the most responsibility to talk about the evidence dispassionately.
Robert Bryce 42:25
So when I was talking about talking with a friend of mine about this issue, and about I had this crush, I said, I will I want to ask this question, what is the danger of not reopening? And his his reply was? Well, that’s a republican question. Right. But it just seemed to me that it goes back to what we’ve been talking about around this whole issue. Is this partisan divide over the science and what’s considered good science and what’s considered partisan so we talked around this but I want to ask this question directly. Why is the partisan divide over the policy so extremely And and and we’ve seen something something similar in climate issues. But why about COVID? Why is the why is this become such a partisan issue?
Avik Roy 43:09
Well, Emily Eakins who’s a member of Fraps board of advisors and a pollster of a particular millennials done some really good polling about this, where she shows that there are there is a partisan discrepancy on the subject of risk aversion versus risk orientation that people who identify as conservative politically or republican politically are more risk oriented. And those who are who identify with Democratic Party are more progressive, have more risk aversion you see this in some of Jonathan heights work to about interest in avoiding harm as being a particularly important to people on the left side of the spectrum. So there is some partisan sorting or ideological sorting that occurs. But I’d like to take your Question, Robert in a different direction Sure, is to say that I really am disappointed by the dynamic in which democrats or people on the progressive side think of themselves as the party of science. And Republican voters or conservatives who don’t who bristle at being talked down to, by the PhDs in the ivory towers respond to that being talked down to by saying they’re just going to ignore science or we’re going to be anti scientific. And it says they’re kind of being goaded into an anti scientific position, when in fact, all parties, you know, Republicans, Democrats, concerns progressive centrist should all be evidence driven. And if you’re a true, a true conservative, you should, you should be a conservative because the policies that you support, empirically, will make people better off than the policies you pose. And, in fact, there’s, there’s quite a bit of science, quite a bit of evidence to support to support that view. And there are a lot of free market economic thinkers, Friedrich Hayek in particular comes to mind, who understood this problem very well. Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize for for his theory of knowledge or his concern about the knowledge problem, that that central planning doesn’t work because central planners don’t get accurate information about how the economy is performing. Because there’s no price signal. This was this was his contribution to economic thought. So understanding knowledge and evidence and science and empiricism should be central to to a well functioning, conservative movement.
Robert Bryce 45:52
You should you there was an article that was published about you in the Atlantic and you said My goal is to persuade those who disagree with me that we ought to reorient the conservative movement to embrace the diversity of America. And you, we talked around this a little bit about the right and the right left divide. And I think we’ve seen a lot of this under Trump that there’s been some rejection on the conservative side of this diversity. So how do you that’s a big goal that you’ve set, how do you how do you go about accomplishing that?
Avik Roy 46:25
I think it was Margaret Mead who wants said that, never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has. And that’s how I think about what we’re doing free out is, yes, it’s true that we’re tackling big problems. we’re tackling tackling problems like how to solve the debt deficit crisis of America, the affordability of health care, the climate challenges and affordability of energy, the stuff that you’re doing that’s incredibly important. The affordability of housing and Education, student debt, criminal justice reform, we’re taking on the biggest problems that affect 10s of millions, if not hundreds of millions of Americans, you could say, well, that’s pretty ambitious for a small group of people. But history shows that it is small groups of people who who’ve achieved that change over time by having an approach that works, and having ideas that that’s that solve problems in original ways. So, on this particular topic of how to make the conservative movement more inclusive, it really requires us to think New about what conservatism is trying to conserve. And I think that’s been a challenge. It’s a challenge for conservative movements all around the world if you’re, but but it’s true in the United States where the conservative movement in the 1950s of Nintendo 55 would be saying, well, we’re trying to conserve maybe the Anglo American tradition. And the Anglo American tradition has a lot to conserve are committed to it. But it’s not the only tradition out there. That’s that’s, that’s in America today. And the the idea that stated or unstated somehow you’re not an equal part partner and the American project, if that’s not your tradition, is problematic on many levels. And it’s particularly problematic because it’s not actually true there. The reason people come here to go back to what we started with, is because America is a place that where anybody can succeed regardless of their ancestry. That’s what makes America exceptional. America is not exceptional because of our tax rate. America is not exceptional, because there is a legislator and legislative branch and an executive branch and the judicial branch. What makes America exceptional, is that it’s a country where people from all over the world have come here with nothing and made something amazing out of their lives. That’s what makes America exceptional. And so How to bring that back to the conservative movement. You have to have a conservative and again, I don’t know if the conservative is even the right term to describe what I’m describing maybe it’s not maybe it’s maybe it’s liberal. Maybe what people like you and me need to do Robert is reclaim the world word liberal, where people have the freedom to pursue their own path in life, and, and they’re economically free to pursue their own path in life. But we really try hard to give everybody a fair chance of success maybe what that is is not conservatism at all but liberalism. And and let the progressives have have a different a different economic agenda for what they describe as progressive versus it’s interesting when we
Robert Bryce 49:43
say progress. Sure. Well, it’s interesting as you say that because as I I look at you, and you know, we’ve known each other a while but your your first generation American, your folks immigrated here, and that they, I mean, you’re you’re kind of an example of this exceptionalism that you’re talking about, aren’t you?
Avik Roy 50:00
I missed you said first generation.
Robert Bryce 50:04
Yep. Yeah, I’ll restate it. So I think you said that really beautifully, honestly, that this idea about American exceptionalism is this opportunity, right that you that if you know it, but your own history, your own family’s history, your mother who was, as I remember, you said, identifies as a Democrat, because she didn’t feel like the republicans accepted that diversity. But you’re living example of this right, you know, son of immigrant parents, you went to MIT with Yale? I mean, that’s our you’re kind of an example of this, aren’t you?
Avik Roy 50:37
Yeah, you know, just to flesh out the story on my mom. I mean, the thing about her that that made her a democrat was, even though she is a conservative in every aspect of her life. fundamental thing is that my mom is a devout Hindu. And she not merely perceives, but knows that the republican party does not see him Do as equal partners in America like, there will not be, you know, at least in the next several years, a Republican member of congress who’s Hindu, or a leading republican politician who’s Hindu, the the, the Indian American politicians who’ve been successful at the national level in the US on the Republican side are Indians who converted to Christianity. Now, nothing wrong with that. I myself am a Christian convert, but you can understand to someone who’s a devout Hindu that that they look at that, as a Republican Party say, you know what, that’s not for me. And so, so so that’s it’s not it’s not just about race. It’s about you know, you’ll hear a lot of conservatives say, Well, what we are about is the Judeo Christian tradition. And again, the Judeo Christian tradition is wonderful, has a lot to commend to it. But a party that that self identifies as being sold About the Judeo Christian tradition is one that is inherently going to be exclusive to people who do not see themselves as part of that tradition or believers, religious believers, and some people might say, Fine, Good riddance, I don’t, because I think there are a lot of people who share my values share the values of my mom, who, who just come from a different background, and that should be okay. And the conservative movement in America to the degree that it’s worth saving, and maybe it’s not. But if it wants to save itself, if it wants to be representative of a reflective of the majority of the country again, it’s going to have to find a way to be much more inclusive. Sure.
Unknown Speaker 52:44
Robert Bryce 52:46
Well, so last two things. So what are you reading these days? What books are you reading what’s on your nightstand? What’s on your on your desk, your bookshelf that you’re reading now? What What, what what do you what do you what captures your attention these days?
Avik Roy 53:00
You mean other than a question of Power by Robert rice?
Robert Bryce 53:02
Well, other than that, I know that’s on the top of that, and rightfully so on the top of the list, but besides, besides, besides that,
Avik Roy 53:12
well, I’ve been, I’ve been reading a lot of interesting books lately. I’ll go through some of the ones I’ve read recently, and then the ones that are on deck, which is always subject to change of course, if something comes out that’s interesting. I’ve the couple of books that I’ve read recently gone through. One is the great influenza the the john berry history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is only read it if you’re a glutton for punishment, because it is really tough reading as a lot of, you know, sordid tales of dead bodies. Basically, he’s trying to explain to you in an environment of forces COVID-19 what it’s like to live through a pandemic. So it’s, it’s, it’s not the it’s not the most pleasant reading, but it’s it is very interesting to think about the lessons from 1918 and how they apply today. I also read a great book by my friend as reclined called why we’re polarized, which is about the roots of the political polarization we that we’re dealing with now something that we’ve talked about on this show. In particular, what’s interesting about that book is and as we sort of touches on this, he’s not as he’s not, he doesn’t as clearly articulate this as I’m about to, but we’ve always been polarized. The difference is we used to be polarized along maybe north south lines or white black lines. Now we’re polarized among urban rural lines, you know, more regional lines and, and, and partisan lines, right, the republican part of the Democratic Party are much more, not so much necessarily even ideologically sorted, but very culturally and temperamentally sorted in ways that are mutually reinforcing. And that’s and that’s aided and abetted by various things about the modern media ecosystem and society. So that’s it. That was an interesting book.
Robert Bryce 55:00
And now I’ll just add to that quickly because I think this geographic divide is one of the ones that I mean, I’ve written about it a lot. I do a lot of interviews with with small town, politicians, rural landowners, and it is a profound disconnect between rural American urban America and it’s one that I think is growing and it’s been it’s a it’s going to change a lot of these energy plans that are being talked about now because a lot of rural America just won’t have it. They just won’t put up with it.
Avik Roy 55:27
So that’s that’s absolutely right. And then
after I finished Mike Shellenberger his book, apocalypse never the the two that are that are on deck for me right now
are a book that I’m
third of the way through by Elizabeth Rosenthal called an American sickness, which is a really well written, compelling book. She’s a New York Times writer, a compelling book about the struggles that Americans have with the complex and costly healthcare system. How drug companies, medical device companies, your local doctor, the hospital system in your area, all extract and exploit the complexity of the healthcare system to enrich themselves at your expense. And that may seem like a very populist way of describing it. But the healthcare system makes you more of a populist once you realize how rigged the system is against ordinary people. And then the other book that I haven’t started but I’m really eager to read is the the new biography of Frederick Frederick Douglass, who’s a guy who I think we all can learn a lot from and and I’m who, who
Robert Bryce 56:41
wrote it, who’s the author?
Avik Roy 56:43
Boy, this embarrassing that I don’t have in front of me and because I quit Safari to make our internet connection. I’ll look it up right now because I’ll pull up audible on my phone. And I will find it and it is. Who wears it? It’s very by David blight, and the subtitle is, oops, now I’m just about to play it on my phone. I don’t want to do that. But it’s basically this new biography of Frederick Douglass said a number of my friends have recommended to me that’s, that’s super compelling and also super long. So it’s the kind of book you want to read if you if you’ve got a long quarantine ahead of you.
Robert Bryce 57:21
Which, which we may still have. So last question, what makes you hopeful? Oh, Vic would mean, we’ve talked about a lot of things that are difficult, and the lockdown has been difficult. And you know, it’s been taking a toll on all of us. I mean, you’re in my own family about just Oh, God, you know, can’t we just go out to dinner? And, you know, but what, amidst all of these things with you, as you look forward, what makes you hopeful for the future?
Avik Roy 57:49
Well, that’s a great question. And
I’ll recommend, by the way, a, one of another member of our board of advisors Zack Caravelle has
on this topic. What are the things about modern society that should or technological innovation that should make us more optimistic and useful to what’s going right? So I recommend that for podcasters out there. I looked at the irony of the world of today is actually in many ways, it’s better than it’s ever been. Right, we are freer to pursue our passions in wealthy countries like ours, than we’ve ever been of the fact that you’re doing this podcast and writing and thinking and doing whatever you want making a living doing it. That’s pretty cool that very few people have the ability to do that 40 years ago, and obviously not everybody has the ability to do that today. But the point is, there’s a lot more opportunity to pursue your dreams today in a way that
that that wasn’t true and that we fail to appreciate but
and sometimes it the irony of material prosperity is we’ve been become less happy because we don’t realize how How, how good we have it. And I think that’s probably the place to start is to say, you know, the the essence of,
of life in a sense, I have three rules of happiness. Actually, I’ll put it to you this way, Robert, I have troubles
Robert Bryce 59:13
of happiness lay him on me.
Avik Roy 59:16
It’s I believe that they’re as profound as Newton’s three laws of mechanics, though, you know, no, no buildings have been named after me as a result of my profundity. But, but here they are. The first is never be afraid to look stupid. Think of the things that we don’t do or the people we don’t approach or the things we don’t try because we’re afraid of failing and falling flat on our face looking stupid. If you’re never afraid to look stupid, and you’re okay with that failure and that that humility or that humiliation, there’s an enormous amount you can achieve in life and be happy
and a richness to your life.
And I think we live in a world that’s culturally increasingly moving in that direction where people are willing to try new things. The second is never say no to a new a unique experience is obviously not self destruct. I’m not saying go out there and you know, snort cocaine. But if you have the opportunity to do something unique in a way that’s not obviously destructive to you, or irresponsible, you should do it. And if you do that, you’re going to find that you never have that regret of Gosh, I should have, I should have taken that interview, or I should have traveled taking that trip or I should have, you know, asked that girl or guy out or whatever. Sure. And then the third is, and this is the one that really relates to the theme. There’s nothing in this life that you deserve. I think too often, we are angry or upset or unhappy. Because of the things we feel like we deserve that. We don’t have. Like right now a lot of us are frustrated because of the constraints on our lives as we enter this pandemic, but in other parts of the world, disease, illness, death injury are an everyday occurrence. Imagine what it’s like to be born in, in Syria right now. Especially if you’re a member of an ethnic or religious minority, your life is a hell of a lot better and the United States regardless of your income, sure, than it is if you’re growing up in that environment and so no matter how tragic our individual situation is, and for for most of us it’s not actually that tragic some of us it genuinely is. We have a lot to be thankful for. And if we if we take that as our approach and we then look around the world and see how how much we have to be thankful for actually have quite a bit.
Robert Bryce 1:01:54
I like that. That’s good. That’s my I boil it down. Well, I don’t know who somebody study this these are my these two so you give me your three, my two gratitude and forgiveness. So those are my go there. But I’m hopeful as well. And I like just getting, you know, hopeful view for the future so that that’s great. So Avik thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcast thanks to all you people out there in podcast land who are listening. If you like this podcast go to rate this podcast.com slash power hungry and give it 612 14 stars I think you can give five but if you want to give more, by all means, again, thanks to Avik the president of free up the foundation for research on equal opportunity free op.org frep.org you can tune in there. Thanks again for listening. This has been the power hungry podcast Tune in next week. We will have a new episode, then. Alright, thanks again, y’all.