Politics & Policy

The Task Forces Should Switch Members

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks during a press briefing held by President Donald Trump with members of the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House in Washington, March 14, 2020. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas )
Let the public-health officials focus on reopening the economy while the business luminaries focus on fighting the virus.

The world has turned upside down in six weeks, and President Trump has created two committees, one focused on the public-health side of the coronavirus’s effects and one on the economic side.

The former committee is led by Vice President Mike Pence, and staffed overwhelmingly with federal officials and advisers whose work is related to public health, such as the heads of the FDA, the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Joining them are doctors such as Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, and even HUD secretary Ben Carson, as well as some economic advisers. The latter committee, established in the last week, includes his secretaries of the treasury and commerce, as well as his entrepreneurial daughter and son-in-law.

My suggestion is that he should retain the two committees, but switch the expertise employed on them. Economists and businessmen — though perhaps not the ones he has on hand — should be on the public-health committee, and public-health officials should be on the economic committee.

For a few weeks in late February and early March, public-health officials and the democratically elected leaders they inform started putting out wild projections of the numbers of people they expected to get infected with coronavirus and die from it. It was an odd thing. China was insisting that it had, through titanic efforts, stomped out the uncontrolled spread of the virus in Wuhan, while East Asian countries seemed to have a tightening grip on it. Yet Western leaders and public-health officials were still predicting millions infected and possibly killed by it.

When you looked into the models, you could see that these numbers came from dead-simple extrapolations based on the characteristics of the virus itself, as if it would meet a human population that continued in its normal behavior. Some of the models even seemed to lack accounting for the fact that humans tend to meet and socialize in relatively small, consistent social networks, rather than at random. Given their flaws, their projections were always destined to see a dramatic downward adjustment, and that inevitable development became the single largest driver of distrust of governmental efforts to slow the virus.

Here is where flipping the committees comes in. Most economists and businesspeople worth their salt do not make projections like those early public-health models. Economists build in a more sophisticated understanding of social effects, dynamic modeling, and the effect of widely publicized economic predictions on economic actors. That kind of broad approach would be useful to the public-health response right now. And besides, we need businessmen, entrepreneurs, and economists on the coronavirus task force because the task of scaling up a test-and-trace regime in the United States can be coordinated and facilitated by the federal government, but all the heavy lifting will be done by private enterprise.

Meanwhile, we need the public-health officials on the economic committee for a very simple reason: No single elected official, regional collective of state governments, or group of businessmen can wave a wand and get the economy running again in the healthy state it enjoyed before the world shut down. Entrepreneurs and business owners don’t need a pep talk from others in their field or financial pundits to get them raring to go. The opportunity-costs and lost wealth of the last six weeks alone are motivation enough. What they lack is guidance on how to run their businesses safely — both for employees and their bottom lines, which could be threatened by liability lawsuits — while the pandemic continues in the background. What their would-be customers lack is confidence that going back out into the world is safe. Public-health experts can help on both fronts.

The federal government can help states develop guidelines for safe operation. Should we be taking the temperature of customers as they enter restaurants, as is done in some East Asian countries now? What face coverings are sufficient or insufficient? What should class sizes be once schools reopen? Some of this may even be a matter of “public-health theater,” designed to create a market-enhancing simulacrum of trust where it is currently insufficient — precisely the kind of work public-health officials were born to do.

So let’s switch things up. Have the businessmen study and report on the scale of the problem the virus poses to us, while the public-health officials focus on the task of opening up rather than closing business. These are not competing interests, but complementary ones. Pitting them against each other risks both public health and a decent economic recovery.

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