A Performance Principle

Norway, it turns out, did really well as a nation during the recent Wuhan Virus Situation.

Not long ago, the World Health Organization published mortality stats from the past two years, which showed that nearly every country’s excess death count spiked during the pandemic. Norway’s barely moved. The Norwegians had pulled off the closest thing possible to an optimal response to the most vexing problems that Covid-19 presented.

Then what? Norway, rather than rest on its laurels, studied the situation, with particular reference to the nation’s successes and failures—and there were some failures, even as Norway did so well overall. Why was Norway, in the words of the WSJ article’s author, so eager to probe its failures? Norwegian economist Egil Matsen is the second chair of the Norwegian commission that was set up early in the virus situation to plan ahead and then to study in hindsight Norway’s response for future reference. He said,

It reflects a desire to see what we did well—and what we did not do well. I think there is perhaps even an expectation that when something this unusual and serious happens to our country, it should be evaluated and we should try to learn from it in the aftermath.

What a concept. Plan ahead, and then see how well the plan did and did not do in an actual situation. Don’t just kick back in celebration—do that, sure, and rue failure when that occurs—but work to do better. Learn from experience. And one lesson here is that, while a physician chaired this sort of commission, an economist was second chair. Economists are trained to take a much more systems approach, to look at the broader picture, of a problem that has a range of national-level implications; a medical professional is trained to understand only the medical implication.

Responding to a pandemic is nothing if not the classic economics problem of weighing costs and benefits.

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