White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, introduces Kevin Hassett, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, to the media during a press briefing in the Brady press briefing room at the White House, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images
President Donald Trump and his top advisers have repeatedly down played the threat posed to American lives and the US economy by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a so-called “cubic model” devised by Kevin Hassett, a top economic adviser, that shows COVID-19 deaths plummeting to zero by mid-May.
A slew of economists and public health experts quickly repudiated Hassett’s model and some argued he bent the data to fit the outcome he desired.
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, tweeted that Hassett’s modeling was “beyond stupid” and will “kill thousands.”
Emily Gee, a former staff economist on the CEA, told Insider that CEA’s decision to release the graph shows the Council is “being used as a mouthpiece for the administration and a political tool.”
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President Donald Trump and his top advisers have repeatedly played down the threat posed to American lives and the US economy by the coronavirus pandemic.
In some of the most infamous instances, Trump predicted on February 26 that the number of COVID-19 infections in the US “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero,” while Larry Kudlow, Trump’s director of the National Economic Council, declared the virus had been “contained.”
Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that the White House is relying in part on a so-called “cubic model” devised by Kevin Hassett, a top economic adviser, that shows COVID-19 deaths plummeting to zero by mid-May.
This model, which the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released on Tuesday, contradicts all other data and modeling, including that the White House is reportedly looking at. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts 135,000 deaths by August 1. Nearly 73,000 people have already died from the disease in the US, with about 2,000 dying every day over the last week.
On Wednesday, Hassett told The New York Times he used “just a canned function in Excel, a cubic polynomial” to create the model, confirming theories circulating online.
‘Predictions are hard, especially those about the future’
A slew of economists and public health experts quickly repudiated Hassett’s model, which they argue flies in the face of existing data, and criticized the administration for relying on its economic team to produce rosy public health analysis.
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, tore into Hassett’s modeling and his record of economic research in a Tuesday op-ed.
Krugman pointed out that Hassett has made several major economic predictions — including that the stock market was massively undervalued in 1999 and that there was not a housing bubble in the mid-2000s — that turned out to be wrong and that Hassett has never admitted to those errors.
“Hassett remains … a pillar of the modern conservative establishment, and Trump called on him to second-guess experts in epidemiology, a field in which he has no background,” Krugman wrote.
He added in a series of tweets that Hassett’s modeling was “beyond stupid” and will “kill thousands.”
Hassett defended his work on Wednesday, telling The Times that the model wasn’t intended to predict deaths.
“It’s not an alternative to the model — it’s just a different way of visualizing the model,” Hassett said.
Emily Gee, a health economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former staff economist on the CEA, said Hassett’s mathematical model is “suspect” for a host of reasons, including that it doesn’t factor in the loosening of social distancing policies happening in states across the country.
“Fitting a model to past data is one thing, predicting the future is much harder,” she told Insider. “To paraphrase Yogi Berra, ‘Predictions are hard, especially those about the future.'”
Gee said CEA’s decision to release the graph shows it’s “being used as a mouthpiece for the administration and a political tool.”
“They have at their disposal the best and brightest at the CDC and in the civil service and it boggles my mind why they’re not using those resources and releasing more information, at least publicly,” she said.
U.S. President Donald Trump displays a photo of the coronavirus beside Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and CDC Associate Director for Laboratory Science and Safety Steve Monroe during a tour of the Center for Disease Control on March 6, 2020.
Republicans have also been critical of Hassett’s model and the Trump administration’s overall virus response effort.
“Pandemic response requires more than mathematical modeling,” Mike Leavitt, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, told Insider of Hassett’s model. “It demands an understanding of the biology, a deep knowledge of history and the capacity to factor in human nature. Some of the more optimistic models I’ve seen are a product of assumptions that seem devoid of history and biology and human nature.”
Brian Riedl, a conservative economist at the Manhattan Institute who called Hassett “a friend,” conceded it is unusual for an economist to devise modeling about public health issues.
“I don’t want to beat up Kevin … For the most part, he is taken seriously by those on both sides of the aisle,” Riedl told Insider, adding that Trump and his staff “really trust” Hassett. “That said, generally pandemic modeling is usually done by people with more of a background in public health data analysis.”
Jason Furman, a former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, similarly slammed Hassett’s work after the Council shared a graphic of the cubic model on its Twitter account.
“This might be the lowest point in the 74 year history of the Council of Economic Advisers,” Furman tweeted on Tuesday. “The stakes on the epidemiological questions are so high that this utterly superficial and misleading ‘modeling’ has no place whatsoever in any discussion of the government’s response.”
Furman added that “the ‘cubic fit’ is based on an approach to epidemiology that has long been absent from any serious epidemiological discussions” and surmised it was “chosen to get the result they wanted.”
Tomas Philipson, Trump’s current CEA chair, tweeted back at Furman, attacking his credentials and accusing him and Krugman of not understanding that the modeling was “data smoothing,” rather than “forecasting.”
“Today was the low point, with past CEA Chair Furman (and economist turned political hack Krugman) not understanding the difference between data smoothing and model-based forecasting,” he wrote on Tuesday evening. “Furman only chair without peer-reviewed scientific work and academic appointments-it shows.”
Furman, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told Insider he has no further comment.
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