The Virus Is An Externality

Well, I see the “President” has restarted his pandemic “briefings,” and–wonder of wonders–said everyone should wear a mask. Whether that will convince any of the dangerous idiots who are refusing to do so (because “freedom”) remains to be seen.

My two favorite economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, are both Nobel prizewinners. I find both to be logical and persuasive–and I’m sure that a great deal of their persuasive power is their ability to explain things clearly to non-economists, of whom I am definitely one. Krugman stepped up to the plate again in a recent column for the New York Times, in which he explained what is at stake in the mask controversy with an analogy to the economic concept of externalities.

Krugman notes that there are a number of possible reasons for rejecting the wearing of a mask.

Some of this is about insecure masculinity — people refusing to take the simplest, cheapest of precautions because they think it will make them look silly. Some of it is about culture wars: liberals wear masks, so I won’t. But a lot of it is about fetishization of individual choice.

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

The reference to “going to a gym” was prompted by the stubborn idiocy of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Krugman had opened his column with a discussion of Florida’s soaring Covid-19 case count, and the Governor’s culpability for that rise.

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

As Krugman points out, this isn’t true–but the fact that healthy people can and do contract the virus is almost beside the point: gyms should be closed because the people we are trying to protect aren’t the people working out, but the people with whom they will come into contact. As he says, even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers.

And that brings us back to externalities.

Unregulated free markets simply cannot solve the problem of externalities. Externalities are defined as costs imposed on non-consenting others, on people who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example–the factory that dumps its waste in the local river in order to save the cost of proper disposal requires a government cleanup paid for with our tax dollars. Spreading a virus raises precisely the same set of issues yet, as Krugman notes, many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point.

And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

The people who refuse to wear masks are clones of the lawbreakers willing to dump industrial waste into our rivers, and spew harmful chemicals into the air we all breathe.

The pandemic has simply allowed them to advertise what and who they are: self-centered and illogical ignoramuses polluting the environment we all must share.


  1. The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party BECAME the Republican Party and managed to get the lunatic of all lunatics into the Oval Office. His removal in January, assuming that even happens, is only the start of the healing process. It must be followed by a relentless effort by voters to remove a significant number of the thousands of lunatics in the US Congress, state legislatures, and county, city and town governments.

    Indiana stands at the forefront of that movement and the more sane faction of its voters MUST break the GOP supermajority monopoly on power in state government, now into its 2nd decade.

    Please adopt a Dem candidate for one more State Representative and/or Senate offices and support their campaigns with your time and money. As for me, and although I live in LaGrange County, I’m volunteering for Aimee River Cole, who is running for the 2nd time as State Rep in District 37 Fishers against Todd Huston.

    The GOP is so worried that Todd could lose his seat to her that they elevated him to replace Brian Bosma as the next House Speaker. He is the personification of conflict-of-interest, grift and corruption in government as he “works” for The College Board as a sales VP and who heavily lobbies state governments to pass legislation to force our public schools to test, test and keep testing our students despite overwhelming evidence it does far more harm than good. His defeat would be a great start towards dismantling the stranglehold the party of lunatics has over our fair state.

  2. In so many ways, the free market exascerbates the collective dangers. Regulation does protect the society as a whole, but it also protects the competitiveness of the capitalists who are civic-minded. The companies that go to the expense of cleaning up after themselves are in constant competition with the bad actors who cut corners and can under-bid them. Regulation raises the standard for everyone and protects (rewards?) the good guys instead.

    Some will argue that regulations which protect clean air and water and public health and safety increase company and consumer costs. As Flint Michigan learned the hard way, the ounce of prevention cost much less than the billions of cure. Unfortunately, as COVID and Flint’s toxic water have demonstrated, some damage (such as lives lost and permanent brain damage to children) can’t ever be cured.

  3. The fact is that masks are just plain uncomfortable to wear and breathing fogs up glasses for those of us who need to wear eyeglasses. The overruling fact is that being diagnosed with coronavirus – IF we are fortunate enough to be tested (a painful experience) – it becomes much more uncomfortable to be hospitalized and treated with a ventilator or blood exchange IF we are conscious and aware of treatment. The discomfort to loved ones, friends, coworkers or cashiers who have been exposed, knowingly or unknowingly, is greater than wearing a mask. The pain of the death of a loved one and limited visitation for funeral services – again IF there is a viewing and funeral – is greater but those in cities where bodies are still frozen in refrigerated trucks parked on city streets is yet more painful and solutions for that condition appear to be insurmountable.

    “The people who refuse to wear masks are clones of the lawbreakers willing to dump industrial waste into our rivers, and spew harmful chemicals into the air we all breathe.”

    How many of those refusing to wear masks are members of the anti-vaccination population who have caused epidemics of childhood diseases to support their freedom over the lives of others? And what is the actual count of those who tested positive in the Trump administration and among the Republican members of Senate and House and White House support staff? As for those diagnosed nation-wide, living and dead, asking their political affiliation was not on their test or hospitalization form…maybe it should be.

  4. So-called free markets are never really free. Somebody is paying for the irresponsible behavior of the corporate money grabbers. The greed of capitalism has no moral compass, no community sense, no cares about anything except money – just like Donald Trump.

    Donald Trump is the personification of the monstrosity that is un-regulated capitalism. His blatant defiance of both emolument clauses in the Constitution is clear evidence of his inherent criminality. The zombie party that enables him is funded and owned by the capitalists who have always whined about regulations. As Republicans did in the 1920s, they do nothing to correct their folly and will let the disaster happen, just like it did in 1928-29. Capitalists, aka Republicans simply lack the intellectual agility – the vacuum left by their reptilian adherence to hoarding money – to do the right thing for complex societies.

  5. Will we ever get to a root cause analysis of this particular externality? As we can see by the number of countries who had an adequate response to Coronavirus, it need not be so tragic. The abdication of duty and responsibility by 45 has allowed this externality to become our national nightmare.

    Right now, I’m surprisingly thankful for WalMart. When governors of several states wouldn’t take action, they stepped up and said they would require shoppers over the age of 9 to wear masks. That opened the floodgates. Now most major retailers are following suit. We can be certain that their bottom line was being impacted or it wouldn’t have happened, but who among us would have ever thought that people might actually owe their lives to WalMart? Sometimes capitalism works.

  6. One assumption of so-called “free market” theorists are rational agents being involved. Can anybody argue a case that the USA is full of rational agents?

    Therefore, who benefits from an unregulated market full of irrational agents?

    Other than oppressors/manipulators?

    As for public policy or what’s best for society outside my selfish realm, we need more rather than less. Period.

    This pandemic is a living petri-dish of data justifying this theory if the data can be relied upon within the red states. When the US POTUS gets caught on FOX falsifying data, you can only imagine what is happening within the red states like Florida who rushed to open against Fauci’s recommendation. Fauci got tossed to the back of the bus and now there is lots of crow to eat, but fudging numbers will be most likely the first plan of action.

    Will the next president send the CDC to the states and assume responsibility?

    Let’s hope…#wearamask #savealife

  7. in bismarck,NoDak,(no mask) theres a very small percentage who wear a mask. mainly over 60 as my wife and i are in that group…. local markets,and most every buisness has signs posted, but its elective.. being trump lives here,(or they wish he did) pickups with American flags being shreaded and camo as a tux for dinner..outside venues naw,masks,to hot.. send the kids back to school? well theres a push by our edu dept to full classes in person..the radio intrview from the dept of ed,made it sound like,gee, why not? they did mention a hybred or on line if the issue is not going as planned..(maybe we can sacrifice the kids for our needs now?).. listening to the people here,dont worry about it,if ya get it so what…bubbas at the bar making informed decisions for us,er them.. my wife is working at a truckstop,doing the take out food. wears a mask as required,but has to deal with out of state truckers and,now people fleeing their own states issues.. many coasters are showing up. a few reports on where to flee have popped up… (now theres a issue no one is mentioning.)seems the ones showing up are those who wont quarenteen. and many seem to be no mask wearing public,as with the family vacation bunch…ive yet to see any vacationers in rvs wear a mask..
    im seriously thinking my wife should just quit and call it good. we have a farm site miles outta town and our neighbors are all trumpers..thanks we dont dont have the same point of view, hense,we dont have to discuss it.. but, i am informed daily,about how this virus has made their summer so shitty…damn liberals..

  8. I live in Illinois and volunteer at an arboretum. It was able to reopen recently with guidelines. Our buildings have occupancy limits and volunteers are positioned by the doors with counters. We need to wear masks during our shifts. It was uncomfortable at first, but now it is no big deal. We are fortunate to have a beautiful place open again.
    As JoAnn said, a mask is more comfortable than a hospital.

  9. The idea that this ignoring of externalities is just a Trumpet or Republican issue would be an over simplification.

    A report in the Guardian from NYC highlights the fact this is more than a political issue of Red vs Blue. >>> ‘It’s chaotic’: New York street partying fuels fears of coronavirus resurgence. In April, the city was the center of the global coronavirus pandemic, with the daily death toll reaching almost 800 people at its height. Steinway Street has emerged as an unofficial party street.

    Some other post-pandemic going out hotspots include the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

    With indoor nightlife still banned, crowds of largely younger people – many not wearing face masks – have reportedly continued partying in Astoria on other nights long after the bars and restaurants closed.

    Omar Melendez, 39, who has a newborn at home, said he was “living in fear”. “It’s chaotic. Everything’s going back to what it was. There’s no social distancing, many people not protecting themselves.”

    In another article in The Guardian: Los Angeles county, the country’s most populous with 10 million residents, reported that younger people were driving the spread of new infections.

    “The tragedy of what we are witnessing is that many of our younger residents are interacting with each other and not adhering to the recommended prevention measures, while our older residents continue to experience the results of this increased spread with the worst health outcomes, including death,” said Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles county public health director.

    I suppose the case could be made that the Federal response politically fueled a “party hearty” approach, i.e., Corona will go away, it is not as bad as the flu, a hoax, etc. Since The Trumpet and Pastor Pence and some governors refused to listen to Science and Medical experts, an effective nationwide approach to Corona was lacking.

    Nothing could have stopped Corona from spreading. IMHO if we had a President who put the welfare of the people ahead of his own desires (fantasies) we might have contained Corona better. The Trumpet has never placed the anyone in front of his own needs.

  10. When I think about the sacrifices my parents’ and grandparents’ made during WW II, I find myself wondering if the people who refuse to wear masks would be willing to make the kind of sacrifices they did to protect America from Nazi tyranny.

    I’m a retired RN. Many of my colleagues wear masks every day because they work in operating rooms or with patients who have infectious diseases. And they wear them for hours. On top of that, they wear gloves for hours as well.

    People in grocery stores and restaurants, essential workers are wearing masks for hours at a time. Hundreds of people are wearing masks to maintain our food supply and infrastructure.

    For me, wearing a mask is a simple act of compassion for others and love for myself. And if someone can’t wear a mask due to a severe respiratory condition, then I would hope that person has friends and neighbors who will deliver groceries etc. so that person can avoid being exposed to COVID 19.

    I wish the leaders of this country could practice more compassion. I wish we could unite and stand together to address this pandemic instead of helping the virus spread with all this divisive bickering. I wish we had such a profound reverence for life that we let that be our guiding principle with the economy we create. Unlike others, I am not looking to our government leaders for inspiration. Instead, I am looking to those who sacrificed so much so that I could be free today and am following their leadership, not # 45.

  11. In NYS, ex-epicenter of the pandemic, I still see very few, if anyone, out in public who isn’t either socially distant or wearing a mask. Most people now won’t eat in restaurants if they can’t eat outside from socially distanced tables with the waitstaff masked and customers unmasked only while sitting down at the table. Nobody is in a store unmasked. Bars and gyms are closed. Our numbers have been very low for a couple of months now

    Here’s the explanation. Political leadership starting with Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo who never stops explaining why this behavior will have the least expensive impact on the economy as well as why he personally respects everyone’s right to life.

    It can be done. Trump has no idea how.

  12. There is a management axiom that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. It follows that if you will not measure, you cannot manage. From the beginning POTUS has chosen not to measure and therefore is unable to manage. It is a choice that has thus far murdered 143,000+ citizens. He could care less and in fact it gives him an escuse to eventually declare marshall law before the election. This is what he wants and for which we must be prepared.

  13. Pete,

    I don’t think just claiming Trump “has no idea how” … to lead or do anything else is an oversimplification. He now has the truly evil Mark Meadows whispering more hate and discord into his ears. It seems more likely every day that the racist ugliness of Trump is being DIRECTLY enabled by Meadows who was one of the first Obama haters in Congress. Trump is willfully evil, racist and bigoted. Meadows is teaching him how to weaponize fear, hate and division among the populace. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, et. al., would be so proud of what Meadows/Trump are now doing.

  14. It makes sense, when do a person’s rights usurp others rights? Wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, imposing particular religious beliefs in a secularist society? In Chicago here, there are babies being shot almost every single night! Every single night you have ministers and toothless organizations that just seem to look for face time, complaining about those babies being murdered. What happens to an open sore if you keep picking the scab off constantly, it gets scarred and becomes numb. Just as a wound scars, so does collective conscience. When conscience does not matter, and you only feel compassion if something happens to your personal family group, because your so scarred, you feel no empathy towards anyone else.

    When Barack Obama cried and begged to the Congress to enact some sort of controls to prevent another Sandy Hook in Newtown Connecticut from happening in other places, he was criticized by so many for being weak. And of course, with sarcasm, I say, we all know that empathy and compassion are a sign of weakness. When children being murdered is politicized as a lie, when a pandemic is being politicized as a lie, when huge swaths of the Constitution are being politicized as a lie, there is a major problem! And, I will say, any defunding of police is stupid! There should actually be better pay and better training to get better personnel. This society in which we live, is truly ignorant, and it’s not just one side that is ignorant, it’s all sides.

    Black lives matter (BLM) could be so much more than what they are already, they have recognition, they have a certain amount of political capital, but, at rallies and protests, the possibility of being gunned down right now is very very small, but entering into the communities where babies are being murdered every day, where upwards of 60 or 70 people are shot down in the streets of Chicago every night, BLM fears to tread. So, I say, they should put their money where their mouth is, because babies lives matter, face time on network television or social media does not solve the problem. You could lump the ignorance and one great big basket and ask yourselves why? Just as the wing nuts show no compassion or empathy, so does BLM show no empathy. The answers I receive are even more pathetic than those of my ignorant cousins who forward their wingnut ignorance like automatons without even verifying it.

    So, I have no faith that society will solve its problem. Because this society is like and open wound trying to stem the bleeding by itself, and, we know that’s impossible! All factions of society have an agenda, and most of it is not for the greater good of society. Every single elite society that has crashed and burned throughout human history has gone down the same path. Because I love history, I see the parallels and how it constantly repeats. We do the same thing that’s always been done, we worry about the rights of the fringe, and that fringe is like a virus that infects the entire body of societal politic. We claim to not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that’s why we allow the illness to continue, and when illness continues, it’s usually fatal.

  15. Charlie @10:43:

    Not sure If you were intending to suggest that “martial law” be imposed to enforce mask wearing, social distancing, et. cetra, among those who refuse to comply? I think that would be the very last thing that we need. Even if it might help quell the virus pandemic.

    Trump and his henchmen would love nothing more than having a National Emergency decreed allowing him to impose marital law and order active duty U.S. military troops to all of the cities — well mostly Democratic controlled cities. That would allow him to basically shut down the fall elections.

    Either by scare tactics and outright intimidation. Would you be willing to go to the polls and vote, if it were surrounded by heavily armed military troops in camouflage and riot gear? And, of course, the polling places that will be surrounded will be the ones in heavily Black or Latino precincts. Or in Trump’s best case scenario, allow him to order the election cancelled entirely. Since, at the moment at least, it appears he stands no chance of being re-elected in a fair election, it appears that the Trumpers are increasingly seeing that as their and his only real path to remaining in power.

    And if anyone thinks I might be being overly dramatic, IMO, we are already seeing the first steps of that plan being activated by Trump’s having ordered DHS — mainly hired, private security firm — heavily armed, unidentified thugs being sent into first Portland and now other major Democratic cities. Trump is using his private DHS goons at this point because they learned from D.C. that they may not — yet (hopefully never!) — be able to depend on the active duty military or National Guard units following an order to take up arms against their fellow citizens.

    IMO, what Trump and his henchmen are hoping for by sending the DHS goons into Democratic strongholds is massive resistance and clashes in the streets between protestors and his thugs.

    His entire campaign and ads are now directed solely to stopping the Black and Brown “terrorists” in the cities. “Only Trump can save all the White suburban folks from the marauding hoards of Black and Brown terrorists coming to steal, rape and pillage.” I think he hopes that the more violence and clashes in the streets, the more, it will boost his chances of being re-elected.

    Or if it gets bad enough, just declare martial law, and declare himself President for Life. That’s why his DHS thugs are not only just standing outside of and protecting the Federal property, which is the current “legal” justification for sending them into the cities, but actively going out onto the streets and trying to instigate violence.

    I hope that none of it happens. But it sure appears that Trump not only has started down that path, but is more than willing to go all the way down that road to remain in power. Seems a bit like the Summer of 1968 all over again with the Virus Pandemic thrown into boot!

  16. It is time for “good folks” to put maximum pressure on the Administration’s unethical, undemocratic and, often, illegal actions. While it is great for the DEMs to “call out” each one, given their inability to have any standing for legal actions, we need a coordination for those who can such as NRDC, ACLU, etc. Tie them up in as many courts as possible paired with NON-VIOLENT protests for the worst actions.

  17. The effluvium that occupies the White House is an externality imposing costs on all of society not named Trump. The solution to repressing the stench is called the U.S. Senate, but they seem not to mind.

    Trump is getting a virtual pass on his murder of 140,000 Covid-19 victims. We received an email this a.m. written by a registered nurse whose father has been in the hospital for 36 days. She thinks he will make it, but he requires two emergency operations that can’t be conducted because of overcrowding in the hospital. No sane person can read about the seriousness of this disease without wanting to do everything in their power to eliminate it. Refusing to do so means you are certifiable or homicidal.

    We can’t even convince everyone to wear masks to save lives. How can we hope to get across the idea of externalities to the individuals who are paying for them with money they don’t have?

  18. I half way agree with Sheila. I am a fan of Krugman but my two favorite economists are my all time favorite John Maynar Keynes and a fellow Hoosier from Gary, Joseph Stiglitz, with Krugman and Piketty right behind. All have had immense influence in the world of economics both in their own ouontries and internationally.

    Keynes was the British representative to the Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) Conference in 1944 (when I was in New Guinea) which was designed to determine how we were to run the economic world after the war was over. That conference, among other things and importantly, chose the American dollar as the world’s reserve currency and it has been ever since, though currently under attack by Russia and China, who want to instead establish a “basket of currencies” as the world’s reserve curreny. We are rightly resisiting their efforts since the dollar is the world’s most stable currency (so far) and helpful to our foreign traders and in our other international transactions. (Let’s hope Trump doesn’t abandon such a leveraged position to Putin in return for a hefty post election gift in Zurich.)

    Externalities to corporate production of goods and services include smoke, traffic jams, noise, etc., and their direct costs rests with their consumers and their indirect costs to all of us. Any attempt to regulate the safety of oil pipelines, dumping by-products into our rivers etc. is immediately deemed to be anti-business rather than pro human and business framing of such issues (since such practices involve paychecks) is winning. Our task, among others, new zoning ordnances that require these greedy capitalists to clean up their messes, including but not limited to fines and/or increasses in taxes specific to the costs involved in public cleanup if they refuse, along with other means of forcing conformity with an eye to the public good. As to the magnitude of the risk of externalities involved, don’t get me started, but let’s say a nuclear operation wants to build a plant a few miles south of the IUPUI campus and the VA hospital on White River. See any problems? Anyone care to join me for anti-business marches on the Circle?

  19. I’ve heard it explained this way — if you’re unwilling to take simple precautions — like wearing a mask or foregoing crowded businesses — it’s like saying you’re OK with a “Pee-pee section” in your local pool.

  20. I wonder how the free market advocates reconcile themselves to things like bailouts, stimulus, disaster relief, and similar taxpayer funded relief. A true free market believer would insist such actions do not belong in a free market economy. Yet these relief measures are welcomed and even demanded when things go awry. However, regulations, which help to guard against damaging externalities are not. It’s the typical human paradox in which individuals pick and choose what parts of a belief system they like and ignore or castigate those they don’t all the while insisting they are true believers. Realistically, though, nothing works quite right for everyone and we are in a constant state of flux trying to sate competing interests and often doing a bad job of it. Invariably, someone will be offended. We should try to be pragmatic and realize that no single belief system, religious or political, will satisfy everyone. We can’t even get the fundamentals to apply to all cases regardless of what belief system we apply – free market capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. We should avoid dogmatism when seeking solutionsto our problems. Most answers are neither entirely correct nor entirely wrong. The hard part is figuring out what will do the most good for the most people while doing the least harm. This requires a great deal of thought, a great deal of compassion, and completely ignoring self interests. It’s hard work and many people are not willing to put in the effort or to move past their self interests. And so we spin our wheels in perpetuity.

Comments are closed.