President Trump’s habit of promising unrealistically low casualty counts is one of the more inexplicable unforced errors in the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “One is too many,” he said on April 20, “but we’re going toward 50 or 60,000 people.” Just four days later, the number of confirmed deaths had already exceeded 50,000. A few days after that, he tacked on another 10,000 to the upper and lower bound, saying, “we’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.” That figure is already moot.
Trump’s normal sales pitch is to juxtapose his results against a horrific alternative. He routinely says that, had he not been elected, the economy would have collapsed, the U.S. would have gone to war with North Korea, and so on. Why, this time, did he establish a target he couldn’t meet? Indeed, why did he throw out numbers that were obviously going to be exceeded very quickly?
A chief culprit in the blunder turns out to be Kevin Hassett, the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Despite having no expertise in epidemiology, Hassett designed his own model and “White House aides interpreted the analysis as predicting that the daily death count would peak in mid-April before dropping off substantially, and that there would be far fewer fatalities than initially foreseen,” reports the Washington Post.
Hassett denies that his model projected death counts, but other officials insist “his presentations characterized the count as lower than commonly forecast,” and was embraced by Jared Kushner and other Trump officials eager to downplay the pandemic’s severity and justify scaling back social-distancing measures faster than public-health experts advised. At minimum, Hassett’s model gave support to the administration’s most unqualified and irresponsible officials.
Hassett’s role in the debacle is one of its less surprising developments. Throughout the course of the coronavirus saga, the supply-siders have anchored the administration’s anti-public-health wing. Supply-siders are a conservative sect fanatically devoted to the reduction of top-level tax rates. They dismiss standard economic thought, circulating affirmations of their creed in their own lavishly funded ecosystem of think tanks, op-eds, and books.
Hassett is one of the subtler and more measured adherents of the supply-side creed, but this is a bit like being Santa’s tallest elf. In 1999, he notoriously co-authored Dow 36,000, a book arguing, via his own idiosyncratic calculations, that the stock market’s true value was massively higher than anybody forecast. (More than 20 years later, it remains well below that level.) Hassett is less kooky than Art Laffer, Lawrence Kudlow, or Stephen Moore, but relying on him to home-brew a model of the coronavirus is still a ghastly error.
The most incriminating aspect of his involvement is not that Hassett’s model was wrong, but that he decided to make one in the first place. There are any number of available models designed by actual experts. The only reason to jerry-rig a Kevin Hassett model is to provide a pretext to ignore them.
That need explains the odd prominence of a sect whose putative expertise in tax rates has no bearing on the present crisis. People whose professional role is making wrong fiscal and economic forecasts have moonlighted as makers of wrong epidemiological forecasts. Their actual skill is not economics per se, but persuading Republican officials to ignore experts and embrace magical thinking that pleases their wealthy donors.
The Post’s account is a devastating portrayal of Trump’s haphazard response and reliance on the magical thinking of right-wing cranks. Even in the best-possible scenario, in which the peak of the pandemic slopes downward and has no second wave, the death count will continue to climb in the coming months. By fall, Trump’s chipper promises to keep the threshold below 50 or 60 or 70,000 will be on endless repeat in Joe Biden ads. Pinning your hopes to a Kevin Hassett spreadsheet turns out to be a giant error! Who could have guessed?
After the Post’s report, the Council of Economic Advisers tweeted out Hassett’s graph. Sure enough, it shows coronavirus deaths dropping to zero by mid-May:
Incredibly, Hassett insist this is not a forecast. “Mr. Hassett said the dots at the end — the ones showing deaths trailing off to near zero by May 16 — were not a prediction and were never understood by anyone in the White House to be one,” reports Jim Tankersley. So, to get this straight, Hassett drew a graph showing a trend that takes the data points so far, and then extends the data into the future, and the extended line is somehow not supposed to represent any kind of forecast of future events?
This post has been updated.