Posted in Brownstone
September 4, 2022

I Weep for My Profession: Letter to the American Economic Association

Directors of the American Economic Association 

AEA Directors: 

In advance of the AEA’s annual convention next January in New Orleans, you inform all AEA members of the following

All registrants will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to have received at least one booster. High-quality masks (i.e., KN-95 or better) will be required in all indoor conference spaces. These requirements are planned for the well-being of all participants. Participants are also encouraged to test for COVID-19 before traveling to the meeting. 

Your announcement ensures that I will not attend the meetings under such absurd restrictions. Furthermore, it makes me weep for my profession, for it is strong evidence that today’s leaders of the world’s most prestigious organization of professional economists are unaware of basic facts about covid and, worse, ignorant of basic tenets of economics. 

Start with this reality: While being vaccinated against covid might prevent serious illness in the vaccinated, it doesn’t prevent the virus’s spread. So there’s no negative externality that is avoided by requiring that all attendees be vaccinated and boosted. Each attendee can personally escape danger by being vaccinated without requiring that other attendees be vaccinated – or, indeed, that other attendees wear masks. 

Even if you deny the reality that vaccination doesn’t prevent the spread of the virus, the effectiveness of the vaccine at substantially reducing the risk of serious suffering from covid should alone suffice to render pointless your draconian requirements. Or, at any rate, such is the conclusion that would be reached by any economist of competence. 

Next let’s recognize the wisdom of cost-benefit calculations and the reality of the margin (remember those?!). Because (1) many AEA members are young and, thus, at very little natural risk from covid, and (2) by this point most members, regardless of age, likely have already had covid and, thus, (as even the CDC now admits) enjoy natural immunity, it’s reasonable for any member to conclude that, for him or her, the costs, although perhaps slight, of being vaccinated exceed the benefits. 

Yet in issuing your draconian requirements you ignore three realities that we economists (should) teach our undergraduates: First, every benefit has a cost; second, at some point an additional increment of the benefit isn’t worth what that incremental benefit costs; and third, because each adult’s preferences – including that for risk – is subjective and differs from those of other adults, there is no objectively ‘best’ level of risk reduction that applies to any group of people each of whom is able to choose his or her preferred level of risk reduction. 

You also ignore the margin with your mask mandate. Most attendees will fly to New Orleans in airplanes in which the majority of passengers will be unmasked (and many, by the way, also unvaccinated). All attendees will dine at restaurants most of the patrons of which will be unmasked (and many unvaccinated). Many attendees when not in session will drink at bars, shop in stores, visit museums, and ride in elevators elbow to elbow with unmasked (and unvaccinated) fellow dinners, shoppers, and tourists.

The Hilton Riverside itself – the convention’s main hotel – has no vaccination or mask requirements! It’s therefore unrealistic to suppose that the marginal benefit of requiring the wearing of KN-95 masks while presenting – or listening to – the presentation of papers, or while interviewing for a job, exceeds the costs that come in the form of the discomfort of obstructed breathing and the difficulty of muffled communications. 

I earnestly hope that you’ll drop these extreme requirements – requirements that are not merely pointless and in disregard of the ethical agency of individual AEA members, but also pose a risk to the physical health of some individuals and reduce the benefits of professional engagement to everyone. 

Sincerely, 

Donald J. Boudreaux