May 7, 2020

No Virus Deaths by Mid-May? White House Economists Say They Didn’t Forecast Early End to Fatalities


WASHINGTON — The White House Council of Economic Advisers posted a chart to its Twitter account on Tuesday. That’s not unusual; the point of the account is, very often, to post charts. But this one set off a firestorm because of a series of pink dots on the tail end of a curve.

The dots appeared to suggest that Americans will stop dying of the coronavirus by the middle of May. There is no indication in any available data or modeling about the virus that such a sharp halt in the spread of the pandemic is imminent. On Tuesday, for example, the United States recorded 2,000 deaths from the virus.

So the dots alarmed many experts, including economists who had served on the council. They read the chart as an overly optimistic forecast for the path of the virus — and a sign that the Trump administration was wielding false hopes in its push to reopen large parts of the economy. Jason Furman, a chairman of the council under President Barack Obama, said on Tuesday on Twitter that the chart might represent “the lowest point in the 74 year history” of the council.

The man behind the dots calls that criticism silly. Kevin Hassett, the former council chairman who left the White House last year, only to return as an unpaid adviser to President Trump during the pandemic, said in an interview on Wednesday that the chart in question was not a forecast of deaths and never meant to be read as one.

It is not even a model of the virus, Mr. Hassett said. Rather, the chart was intended to show a simple mathematical formula, logged in a popular spreadsheet program, that produces a graph that roughly aligns with the forecast model of daily virus deaths produced by a team at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It looks like a smooth curve, peaking near the end of April and falling off quickly this month. The point of the curve, Mr. Hassett said, is to show how the actual death count in the country has matched up with what the institute’s model had forecast in the past.

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. He said that he had never shown the curve to the president or any members of the White House coronavirus task force, and that the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has confirmed to him that no one in the administration has ever used the chart as a forecasting tool.

“It’s not an alternative to the model — it’s just a different way of visualizing the model,” Mr. Hassett said.

Reported deaths vary by the day, particularly on weekends. To smooth out the volatility, Mr. Hassett said he had employed “just a canned function in Excel, a cubic polynomial.”

Outside economists said they had not read the chart that way. Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, said in an interview on Tuesday that the dotted line in the chart could only mislead people into believing it was a forecast for a rapid decline in deaths.

“It’s malpractice on its face to show that to anybody,” he said. On Wednesday, he said he did not find Mr. Hassett’s explanation that the chart was not meant to convey a forecast to be plausible.

In his Twitter post on Tuesday, Mr. Furman wrote that the chart was “utterly superficial and misleading.”

“Faux expertise is even worse than ignorance,” Mr. Furman wrote in a follow-up post. “To the degree this crowded out input from genuine experts in the conversation and confused other participants into thinking that CEA or other economists had any sort of real or valid model of the epidemic it is really & truly terrible.” (He declined to comment further on Wednesday.)

Mr. Hassett dismissed the criticisms. “It’s just silly season,” he said.

The current acting chairman of the council, Tomas J. Philipson, fired back at Mr. Furman on Twitter late Tuesday evening, mocking his academic publishing credentials, and in a later post, adding a sort of schoolyard-economist’s taunt. “Comparing things to the data might have helped Furman when he advised the worst economic recovery in history,” he wrote.

In a country that has suffered more than 70,000 deaths from a pandemic and where 20 million private-sector jobs have vanished almost overnight, a name-calling dispute among economists barely registers on the public consciousness. But it reveals a raw and growing frustration among economists inside and outside the administration, centered on the damage the virus has inflicted and the administration’s efforts to ease the pain.

Mr. Philipson played down the potential economic and health damage from the virus in interviews and speeches in February and early March, even as the virus was beginning to spread in the United States. Liberal economists who rushed to Mr. Furman’s defense on Twitter — including Austan Goolsbee, another former council chairman under Mr. Obama — criticized Mr. Philipson for that stance and reminded him that Mr. Furman had called early in the crisis for government spending to mitigate the coming economic damage.

To many of those economists, Mr. Hassett’s chart is further evidence that the White House is not taking the health or economic risks of the virus seriously enough, driven by Mr. Trump’s desire to quickly “reopen” the economy and concerns over his re-election prospects. The dotted line at the end of Mr. Hassett’s curve falls toward zero daily deaths much faster than the latest forecast from the model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which predicts nearly 1,000 Americans will still be dying every day of the virus at the end of May.

Other White House officials said Mr. Hassett’s charts had not influenced the administration’s response to the virus or pushed it to lift restrictions on economic activity. They have defended their efforts to bolster the economy and aid the public health response to the virus, including a push inside the council to support exchanges of ventilators to help the states that need them the most.

Asked about Mr. Hassett’s modeling by CNN on Sunday, after The Washington Post first reported the model, Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said, “We didn’t change anything based on that.”

In his own television appearances and interviews, Mr. Hassett has been somber in his predictions for how the virus will continue to affect the economy. He has suggested that the unemployment rate could jump to 19 percent when the Labor Department releases new figures on Friday, and that economic activity could contract by 40 percent on an annualized basis in the second quarter.

Mr. Hassett said those predictions were evidence that he was not forecasting a quick end to the virus’s death toll.

“The irony is, I’ve been the most negative guy in the White House” on the looming damage to the economy, he said. “You can’t be negative about the economy and think the deaths are going to stop.”




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