Can We No Longer Learn From Our Mistakes?

In a 1796 letter from French Royal Naval officer Charles Louis Etienne, Chevalier de Panat to anti-revolutionary journalist Mallet du Pan: Nobody has been corrected; no one has forgotten anything, nor have they learned anything.

Can We No Longer Learn From Our Mistakes?

By Capital Thinking • Issue #884 • View online

After great events, will the US government and political system learn from mistakes? Or will we raise the bridges and enshrine whatever was done last time as holy writ, to be repeated again?

Reputations of people in power push for the latter. But learning from mistakes is the only way to get ahead.

-John H. Cochrane

Lessons learned? Review of a great review.

John H. Cochrane | The Grumpy Economist:

Bailouts and stimulus from 2008 seem to have followed the latter possibility.

Will the lesson from covid look skeptically on the disastrous performance of CDC and FDA, evaluate whether lockdowns did good commensurate with cost, question the need to spread trillions of newly printed money around, measure the effectiveness of masks that have now become political symbols?

Or will this simply be enshrined as the playbook?

Do we twist every event to push our partisan narratives, facts be damned?

A blame-Trump-for-everything camp offers some hope, but they’re not clear what they would do differently as most of the world’s response was the same or less effective than our own.

This big question frames a must-read Alex Tabarrok Marginal Revolution review of Andy Slavitt’s Preventable.

The review doesn’t just destroy an otherwise forgettable book, but it really raises these larger questions whether we are so politically polarized that we can no longer learn from mistakes.

In contemporary discussion, people can just say things that are blatantly untrue, and it all washes over us.

The standard narrative … leads Slavitt to make blanket assertions—the kind that everyone of a certain type knows to be true–but in fact are false.

He writes, for example:In comparison to most of these other countries, the American public was impatient, untrusting, and unaccustomed to sacrificing individual rights for the public good. (p. 65)

Data from the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) show that the US “sacrifice” as measured by the stringency of the COVID policy response–school closures; workplace closures; restrictions on public gatherings; restrictions on internal movements; mask requirements; testing requirements and so forth–was well within the European and Canadian average.

The pandemic and the lockdowns split Americans from their friends and families. Birthdays, anniversaries, even funerals were relegated to Zoom. Jobs and businesses were lost in the millions. Children couldn’t see their friends or even play in the park.

Churches and bars were shuttered. Music was silenced. Americans sacrificed plenty.

Some of Slavitt’s assertions are absurd.

The U.S. response to the pandemic differed from the response in other parts of the world largely in the degree to which the government was reluctant to interfere with our system of laissez-faire capitalism…Laissez-faire capitalism??!

Political hyperbole paired with lazy writing. It would be laughable except for the fact that such hyperbole biases our thinking. I think the problem is deeper. It’s not that this is “hyperbole.”

It’s that this is the sort of mushy sentiment that one can pass around at Washington cocktail parties as easily as write on the front pages of all major media these days, and everyone says yes, sure, without batting an eyelash.

It’s not hyperbole, it is the unquestioned narrative, it’s an inshallah people can add to any statement without question.

That’s the true danger. Laissez-faire capitalism??!

The US hasn’t had laissez-faire capitalism since, well Wickard v. Filburn 1942 (you can’t grow wheat on your own land to make your own bread if the federal government does t like it.)

If you read Slavitt uncritically you’d assume–as Slavitt does–that when the pandemic hit, US workers were cast aside to fend for themselves. In fact, the US fiscal response to the pandemic was among the largest and most generous in the world.

An unemployed minimum wage worker in the United States, for example, was paid a much larger share of their income during the pandemic than a similar worker in Canada, France, or Germany. To say nothing of a year and counting of eviction moratoriums and more.

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Lessons learned? Review of a great review.