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A bet on Ebola

Bryan Caplan, over at the EconLog blog, has issued a sort of challenge to folk in the US getting worried about Ebola:

Mainstream scientists assure us that Ebola poses very little threat to Americans; unless you’re a health worker who cares for the infected, Ebola is almost impossible to catch in a rich, modern society.  Yet many populists and borderline conspiracy theorists are convinced that the experts are seriously understating the danger.  In their contrarian opinion, we desperately need to close the border now. Fortunately, this is an easy argument to put to a bet. My tentative offer: $100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018.  I’m willing to switch to “Unless the U.S. changes its Ebola-related policies, $100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018,” but then we’d have to carefully define what policy changes count.

Leaving aside what you think about the specifics of the Ebola case, this idea of economists and other commentators making hard financial bets on specific claims has the merit of injecting a certain edge to proceedings. There is nothing quite so much like a bet to make people prove they are convinced of something. And as the late Julian L Simon proved when he bet against a neo-Malthusian about commodity price trends, there is nothing more satisfying than being proven right.  (Paul Ehrlich, who lost the bet to Simon, was invited to have another go and declined the offer, despite responding to Simon with singular ill grace.)

40 comments to A bet on Ebola

  • Paul Marks

    Hang on a minute…..

    Up to recently the establishment were denouncing anyone who thought that anyone would die in the United States of Ebola as “paranoid” indeed “racist”.

    How did no-one-will-die-here become “less than 300”?

    As for securing (“sealing”)the borders, is this era of international terrorism (Islamists terrorists have already crossed the Southern border of the United States – due to the insecure nature of that border) and welfare “rights” (the United States Supreme Court decided as long ago as 1982, against the State of Texas, that illegal immigrant children had a “right” to education, even though this is no where mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and the Californian courts long ago struck down any effort to limit health, education and welfare “rights” to illegal immigrants) that is only Common Sense.

    In this world (whatever may have been true in the 19th century) a country without secure borders will be swept away. Take the example of Israel – if Israel had open borders the country would be wiped out (exterminated).

    The United States is vastly bigger – but the principle is the same.

    Already property owners in the United States border area are under threat.

    Armed gangs threaten them with plundering and murder. And their own government threatens them with “Civil Rights” attacks if they attempt to defend their land against the invaders.

    What sort of libertarianism ignores property rights?

    Both the right of taxpayers not to be plundered (to provide “Emergency” health care and so on) and the right of property owners to defend their homes and land.

    Perhaps the Channel Islands have something to teach us all.

    Anyone may come and make such places as J or G their home – as-long-as they can afford to pay their own way (for example to buy their own home – at full market price – and have enough resources to look after themselves in old age and so on), i.e. not be a burden on the taxpayers.

    Nothing to do with “race” and so on – after all I am white, male, and English speaking, and the various governments of the Channel Islands would NOT pay for me to live on one of the islands.


  • Jacob

    Bets on things that are unknowable (like the number of ebola victims) are good only for entertainment purposes. It might be interesting to hear what Bryan Caplan believes, but I don’t think he possesses special knowledge or expertise.

    There was a character in the story “The jumping frog…” by Mark Twain who would bet on anything, and if there were no takers, would switch sides to try to obtain a bet.

  • tkdkerry

    Only $100? He’s not very sure of himself, even if it is only rhetoric. Perhaps he’s offering $100 each to all comers?

  • serialluncher

    Perhaps a stronger indicator is that businesses can buy Ebola insurance at Lloyd’s covering consequences of quarantine measures. It’s apparently not expensive.

  • llamas

    Hmmm. This wager demonstrates a touching faith in the abilities of the Federal government to effectively execute some of the unpleasant policies that will be required to keep this disease out. Based on performance to this point (which is to say, laughably-incompetent, except it’s really not funny) this doesn’t seem to me to be a very wise wager.

    I wouldn’t mind (too) much if the Feds spent a boatload of money and did some rather-unpleasant things while succeeding in keeping this disease out. Unfortunately, based on experience to this point (including experience with their response to the disease) I fear that the outcome will be BAU – they will spend a boatload of money, and do some rather-unpleasant things, but will still completely fail to keep the disease out.

    Firestone, Nigeria and some other places have shown that the only ways to limit the spread of the disease are brutally-rigorous quarantine coupled with exhaustive attention to the most basic public-health, sanitation and treatment measures. Some of these things may involve uncomfortable invasions of personal liberties. Others will have politically-difficult consequences. All demand a deep pool of extreme competence.

    Any of those things spring to mind when you think of the Federal government and this administration? They can’t launch a functional website, what makes you think they can launch a functional immigration-control-and-quarantine program?

    Once word got back to West Africa that people suspected of having the disease who can make it into the US are treated with every possible extent of the best of Western medicine, what did you suppose will happen? Faced with near-certain death in some plague-infested hell-hole in Liberia, or at least a chance at life if one can make it to the USA, I know what I would do if I had even a suspicion that I had been exposed. You would, too. It would be sheer foolishness to suppose that hundreds, perhaps thousands of West Africans have not thought the exact same thing, and that a serious number of them have set out to do something about it.

    I’ll make a wager, although of course it will be impossible to verify. I’ll wager that there are already more than 100 persons from West Africa inside the US who have been meaningfully exposed to the virus, and that they all entered via legal channels (normal ports of entry) although they may have done so by illegal means.



  • Chip

    Caplan believes in open borders like Billy Graham believes in God.

    Therefore he believes Ebola isn’t a threat not because he has any scientific knowledge, but because it aligns with his faith.

  • Laird

    Putting some cash on the table (even a nominal amount such as $100) does indeed add an “edge to the proceedings.” And Caplan may be correct that Ebola poses little threat to Americans (although he certainly has no competence to make such an assertion, as Chip noted). Nonetheless, from my perspective Ebola is merely one aspect of a much larger problem.

    Since the Obama Administration (or shall we now start referring to it as the “Obola Administration”?) embarked on its policy of encouraging the admittance of unaccompanied minors into the US, according to the government’s own website over 43,000 of them (through August) have arrived here. They have been scattered literally to every state in the union, plus the District of Columbia and even the Virgin Islands. There are over 500 in my state (South Carolina) alone. These children have brought with them dangerous infectious diseases which had been totally or nearly eradicated in this country, including polio, whooping cough and others, as well as deadly enteroviruses which have already killed several small children here. Yet no screening of these illegals is being conducted or even permitted, and they are being systematically distributed everywhere across the country. School districts are not allowed to test them for diseases or insist on vaccinations, but rather are required to introduce them into the general school population. Far from doing anything to contain these diseases, the Obola Administration is doing everything within its considerable power to exacerbate them, and to facilitate the importation and widespread dissemination of these disease vectors.

    And now that administration is refusing to take any meaningful steps to exclude from this country carriers of a disease for which there is at present no cure and which, according to the WHO, has a 70% mortality rate. Their proffered rationale is a combination of breathtaking illogic and facile lies. Indeed, they have lied to us at every turn about every aspect of this matter.

    Surely this response to the Ebola crisis (if such it truly is) and the facilitation of the widespread introduction of other communicable diseases is of a piece. I bow to no one in my respect for Hanlon’s Razor, but this policy has been so broadly applied, and so carefully orchestrated, that it cannot be attributed to incompetence or even stupidity; there must be at least some element of malice involved, and at the highest levels of our government. Perhaps fewer than 300 people in the US really will die of Ebola before 2018. But whatever the number, every one of those deaths, plus the deaths from all those other imported diseases, lies directly at the feet of Barack Obama. I can only hope that he contracts Ebola himself; it would be perfect poetic justice.

  • Laird

    It occurs to me that Ebola might be our version of the St. Mary’s Virus in “V for Vendetta”. In that film John Hurt plays Barack Obama (and Tim Pigott-Smith plays Eric Holder). The movie takes on more immediacy when viewed in that light.

  • Jacob

    Nigeria… rigorous… “with exhaustive attention to the most basic public-health, sanitation and treatment measures”.
    I don’t believe it.
    That Nigeria eradicated Ebola shows it’s not such a big threat… Or maybe the virus got scared at the mess and fled…

  • Dom

    So if, in 2018, the newspapers headline “300th patient now has Ebola, and still no vaccine in sight”, Caplan would say, “See? No crisis. Everybody go home. Next year, only 100 more people will be infected.”

    I’m a little bit on the pessimistic side here (or rather, the “err on the side of caution” side), and I still think there is a good chance the number will be less than 300, or that a good working cure will be discovered by 2018. $100 is not the bet of a sure man.

  • Laird, I think that the link to the government website that you tried to post got messed up – or is it just my end?

  • Mr Ed

    My tentative offer: $100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018.

    So the gentleman doesn’t know when to use ‘fewer’.

    He also disregards deaths in the District of Columbia in the scope of his bet.

    He appears to know nothing of virology or epidemiology.

    It strikes me as very poor taste to bet on the numbers of people who might die.

    Why is this man taken at all seriously?

  • RickC

    In line with Laird’s take on this I’m wondering what happened to the precautionary principle? Isn’t that a central theme of the Obama Adminstration’s reasoning on climate change? Why, according to this logic, would restricting travel from those countries to the U.S. be out of line? I’m also seeing, even at libertarian websites and blogs, the straw man argument that people calling for a quarantine (travel restrictions) are for sealing the borders of west African countries where Ebola is currently epidemic. Isn’t the first step of defense for highly contagious, deadly diseases quarantine?

  • Laird

    Alisa, I’m not sure what happened to the link (it worked when I tested it in “preview” mode). Here’s another attempt.

  • Alisa

    Thanks – it works now.

  • Mr Ed


    Isn’t the first step of defense for highly contagious, deadly diseases quarantine?

    Yes, 40 days of isolation for an infected ship to let the disease, like the Black Death, burn out or burn through the host population on the ship. Trouble was, the bleeding’ rats might jump ship or survive carrying the fleas that had the plague bacterium. Still, given the knowledge at the time, it was a very good measure.

    Today, one might test for the virus, isolate those showing symptoms or even test the blood of the suspected person for antibodies to the virus although antibodies would be hard to detect except in survivors. From what I have read, a 21 day ‘quarantine’ should suffice for symptoms to develop.

    It does strike me as rather risky for the UK govt. to send 750 personnel on an RFA hospital ship to lounge around offshore of Sierra Leone, presumably hoping that we don’t end up with 750 potential human vectors returning to the UK, less ‘attrition’.

    In the 1980s I got Scarlet Fever in Iberia, and in theory I was liable to quarantine on my return to the UK, such was the state of the law then.

  • RickC

    Yeah, the U.S. will actually have hundreds of men on the ground – up to a couple of thousand. An article (I’ll look for it) the other day mentioned how 9 people from Doctors Without Borders, five from a group of a several dozen doctors who published a study on Ebola and several other specialists who are supposed to be trained in how to protect themselves have died from the disease. The U.S. military personnel being sent over got a four hour training session at a base in Mass. It sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  • Stuck-Record

    $100 is a crap bet. he’s got nothing to lose.

    $100 per case of Ebola over the bet limit would be more like it.

  • Regional

    $100, jeez you’d spend that on beer before hitting the spirits(Bundy Rum) during a night out on the piss.

  • Richard Thomas

    Sure, I’ll put up $100 if he puts up volunteering to be #301

  • joel

    Why should even one American die of Ebola?

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    Joel, as everyone knows, all diseases are created by the American government to use on other people. Sometimes the diseases make a break for freedom, and sometimes the evil corporations that really run America (Americorp?) let some loose, either for fun, or just so people won’t start asking questions about why it never happens to Americans.
    Does that answer your question?

  • SC

    > Perhaps he’s offering $100 each to all comers?

    So you didn’t even read his post.

    >This wager demonstrates a touching faith in the abilities of the Federal government to effectively execute some of the unpleasant policies that will be required to keep this disease out.

    I doubt Bryan Caplan has much faith in the Federal government’s abilities here. His claim is more along the lines of ‘There won’t be an epidemic despite the Federal government’.

  • affenkopf

    @Paul Marks: Islamists terrorists have already crossed the Southern border of the United States – due to the insecure nature of that border

    I’ve heard this claim many times. Do you have a source for it?

  • Rob

    The movement from “no deaths” to “no more than 300” reminds me about the Paris newspapers in 1870 reporting ‘victories’ against the Prussians at locations successively closer to Paris.

  • c777

    Most of the victims catch it from funeral practices which are common among ignorant backward people.
    You know like the other stuff they go in for, demonic possession, zombies, Witchcraft, oh and eating the Hearts of their enemies.
    The sort of thing that goes on in parts of London nowadays, LOL.


    I suppose its true there’s no way you can compare a lunatic Asylum like West Africa to civilisation.

  • Snorri Godhi


    It occurs to me that Ebola might be our version of the St. Mary’s Virus in “V for Vendetta”. In that film John Hurt plays Barack Obama (and Tim Pigott-Smith plays Eric Holder).

    Yes, in that movie Hurt plays a role similar to that played by Obama in real life, but it is difficult to imagine 2 characters more different in temperament.

    At the same time, it is difficult to imagine 2 characters less suited to the roles they were called to play. Hard as it is to believe, John Hurt is even less credible than Obama. Apparently nobody told him (Hurt) that, when somebody looks angry, that means he feels powerless; and it is never a good idea for a dictator to look powerless.

  • Laird

    Snorri, it seems to me that Hurt’s character got progressively more angry as time went by precisely because he was losing his grip on power. He was unable to catch V, his key lieutenants were wholly ineffectual, the public was growing more and more unruly the closer it got to November 5, and he was becoming increasingly unhinged by his lack of control over the situation. I found the portrayal quite realistic. (And of course Eric Holder is Obama’s evil enforcer, so Pigott-Smith would be perfect in that role, except for the skin color.)

  • Snorri Godhi


    it seems to me that Hurt’s character got progressively more angry as time went by precisely because he was losing his grip on power.

    I didn’t notice such a shift in Sutler/hunt but i trust you are right.

    Even so, while it is understandable that Sutler felt angry, if he was smart enough to get to power, then he should have been smart enough not to show his anger, not even to his most trusted subordinates.
    Didn’t he read Machiavelli? every ruler should!
    (And also everybody afraid of rulers, following Sun Tzu’s maxim: know yourself, know your enemy, and you shall never be defeated.)

    My first reaction to the movie:

  • Snorri Godhi

    PS: off topic, but for the record, i list some people smart enough not to show their anger:
    Tiberius in Tacitus’ Annals
    the original Snorri Godhi in Eyrbyggja Saga
    Don Vito Corleone
    Tyrion Lannister.

  • Laird

    All I can say, Snorri, is de gustibus non est disputandum. Personally, I liked the movie sufficiently that I own the DVD (I don’t own many) and have its poster hanging on my office wall. But, whatever. Anyway, my central point was about the St. Mary’s Virus and Ebola, not Hurt/Sutler.

  • CaptDMO

    “Mainstream scientists assure us that…..”
    Oh SHUT UP!
    Instant self-immolation of “credentials”.
    I’ll ask the folks with dirty fingernails, and muddy boots, thank you very much.
    Meanwhile, consider the “Of those pre-selected responses surveyed….”

  • While I never want to play down the harmfulness that is Ebola, the CDC should be betting on what kind of damage this year’s strain of seasonal flu is going to cost. Ebola could definitely be used as a type of biological warfare weapon, but for now I’d be more worried about staying away from people with influenza.

  • Pardone

    Yes, those ignorant backward brown people…then take a look at the shocking incompetence, as bravely revealed by Brianna Aguire, of Texas Presbyterian (confirming the widely held and accurate view that American doctors are in essence nothing more than drug dealers, handing out antibiotics as well as nonsense drugs like Ritalin like candy ffs) and the awesome, reckless stupidity of the corrupt Spanish government (flying in two missionaries with Ebola to a hospital that did not have the resources to handle them, in large part because said government had sold the equipment. Thus lives were endangered by Rajoy and Mato’s cheap Catholic voter pandering political stunt.

    In both cases nurses were infected due to inadequate protection and equipment and the arrogant complacency and stupidity of their superiors, who then tried to pass the buck.

    Also, let’s consider that many British people don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet, and openly spit, piss, and vomit in the streets, before smugly deriding African nations.

  • Rob

    Yep. In my office there are a significant number of people who seem unable to pass a washbasin without hawking and spitting into it. My personal survey would suggest Indians are particularly prone to do this. It is visually, aurally and, public health wise, utterly disgusting.

  • Laird

    Well, it certainly took them long enough. CBS News is reporting that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (yes, we have one of those; it’s part of the Department of the Interior) has now officially blamed the Ebola outbreak on climate change. (And also on other man-made factors such as deforestation; I guess they want to be sure that they have all of their environmentalist bases covered.)

    But here’s a Fun Fact to go along with that: the F&WS has now removed the referenced article from its website! If you click on the link in the CBS News story it now takes you to a wholly innocuous article, having an entirely different name, which mentions Ebola only in passing. (You can still see the name and address of the original article under the link CBS provided.) The layers of governmental dishonesty and perfidy are astounding, if hardly surprising.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Indeed, Mr. Ed. But lo! once again our Laird proves his mettle as a speaker of his native tongue. Unlike Bryan Caplan and Dick Cavett, he speaks of “FEWER than 300” or whatever the number was.

    Laird, you’ve made this lonely woman’s night. :>))!!

    . . .

    As for the topic at hand. Those of you who’ve read The Puppet Masters know the drill. “Stay away from crowds. Don’t go out at night. [Well, not sure about that one. I don’t think the little crooks really care about the time of day.] A man fully clothed is an enemy– shoot on sight!” (That doesn’t really apply either, and also I forget the exact wording, but what the heck — The Puppet Masters is the second of my two all-time favorite SF novels. In the original version, before the stream of re-writes began.)

    It would seem that ebola epidemics in Africa have come on suddenly and not lingered long, but presumably that’s because the little crooks stupidly kill off their hosts, unlike Heinlein’s puppet-masters, who quickly learned they needed to allow their hosts time for sleeping, bathing, and eating, lest the hosts die out from under them.

    Historian Clare Spark has posted at her website an article which begins as follows:

    – – –

    October 16, 2014

    Ebola, the CDC, and Government Ineptitude

    by James Pagano, M.D.

    [Introduction by Dr. Spark:] This is a guest blog by James Pagano, M.D. and author of two novels.

    Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the CDC, appeared in a taped interview last evening on Megyn Kelly’s program. His intention was to answer some of the questions regarding his handling of the Ebola problem, to explain why the things he is or isn’t doing are correct, and to reassure the audience that all would be well. He failed miserably.

    The CDC and Dr. Frieden are likening Ebola to hepatitis or HIV. Like Ebola, both are diseases caused by viruses, and both require contact with infected body fluids for transmission from one individual to another. Neither, though, is anywhere near as infectious. In the case of HIV, a healthcare worker who experiences a needle stick injury from a needle contaminated with an HIV patient’s blood has about a 0.3% chance of being infected. By comparison, it appears Ebola can be transmitted by coming into contact with minute amounts of fluid, such as that which could be on the exterior surface of a protective gown.

    A disease that infectious, with a mortality rate of over 70% in Africa and at least 50% if contracted and treated here should be taken seriously. Everything that can be done to prevent its spread in this country should be done. Unfortunately that is not how it is being handled.

    The only effective way to stop an outbreak of a lethal illness for which there is no specific treatment is by isolating those who already have the disease and preventing its spread to other areas of the globe. This requires travel restrictions and quarantine.


    – – –

    The rest of the article is not particularly optimistic.

  • Gabriel M

    300!!!! That’s where open borders lunatics have set the bar now?

  • Oh you poor timid thing. 300 people is really not a lot. Looking at the 2011 figures for the USA, that is about the half the number who died from accidental firearms discharges and about the same as appendix diseases, but sure, go build a Great Wall of America along the borders, that’ll keep you safe 😀