Comment: It’s time Biden ignored the science and the CDC

Masks will always be a good idea, but like not eating a rare steak, not all good ideas can be mandated.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg Opinion

As Democratic governors race to relax mask mandates and other covid restrictions for a post-omicron world, it’s natural to wonder: When will the federal government see the light and let airline passengers and Amtrak riders take their masks off?

Technically, this is a question for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the federal mask mandates. As a scientific agency, the CDC is supposed to base its decisions on scientific facts rather than political realities. But in the real world it’s bizarre to imagine a scenario in which President Biden’s administration remains to the left of the governors of New York, Massachusetts and California on a high-salience issue on which there is partisan political conflict.

I live in Washington, D.C., and often take the train to visit my father in New York. So it’s possible that in the near future I will be able to ride the Metro maskless to Amtrak’s Union Station, then have to put a mask on when I board the train to New York, then take it off to ride the subway uptown to his house. It’s all a bit ridiculous. Federalism is fine, and it’s unrealistic to ask for total uniformity in policy. But the federal government shouldn’t be an extreme outlier on a topic on which states have reached consensus.

And yet: It would be unseemly for the White House to lean on the CDC to change its scientific recommendation on the basis of a pure political concern. This is especially true for an administration that made a big deal out of its promises to “follow the science.”

The problem is that science does not offer answers to policy questions, and never has; a truth that’s taken for granted in other contexts.

On alcohol consumption, for example, the CDC recommends one drink a day or fewer for women, and two or fewer for men. No state, not even Utah, has entrenched these recommendations in policy. They don’t not only because such a policy would be unpopular, but also because enforcement would be extremely difficult. You’d end up either with a very weakly enforced rule that makes the state government look ridiculous, or a draconian enforcement regime. In both cases, the policy would become increasingly unpopular. And last, even though the public health benefits of restricting alcohol consumption are very real, they would primarily accrue to the drinkers themselves, which weakens the case for mandates; especially in a country with a deeply entrenched tradition of individualism.

And so we arrive at the status quo: Drinking alcohol, including in large quantities, is legal in all 50 states. And since there is a wide political consensus that alcohol should be legal, you’re allowed to drink three beers while riding on Amtrak even though the CDC says you shouldn’t.

But — and this is critical — the policy solution isn’t to lean on the CDC to lie and say that booze is healthy. The solution is simply to ignore the CDC.

This is going to be important on the mask question, because scientifically speaking it’s never going to stop being the case that it’s better for public health for everyone to wear masks. Covid-19 is unlikely to vanish in the future.

But even if it did, it’s not the only respiratory virus. And even though the influenza and common cold viruses are less deadly than covid, they are not harmless. It is a true scientific and medical fact that if people wear high-quality masks every time they go indoors, transmission of viruses will decrease. The CDC also recommends against eating runny egg yolks and says that all grilled steaks or burgers should be at least medium-well or well-done.

Asking the CDC to align its meat recommendation with the political reality that nobody is going to ban medium-rare steak would be absurd. The recommendation is, to the best of my understanding, grounded in genuine science. But for most people, eating flavorful meat is worth risking an increased exposure to bacteria.

Applying the same logic to masks, it’s unreasonable to expect the CDC to recommend that they can ever come off. So the Biden administration should let the caution-minded public health experts at the CDC continue to dispense their cautious advice on masks; and then the president should ignore their advice and lift mandates to bring federal policy into line with what even blue states are doing.

Straightforwardly ignoring expert public health advice will ultimately be better for science and neutral expertise than Biden’s current course of deferring to them. Science does not render politics obsolete. And in practice, the White House’s deferential posture means leaning on the CDC to make politically convenient decisions, rather than having elected officials make choices and take responsibility for them.

If the president is worried about breaking campaign promises, he should rest easy. There are a lot of unrealistic promises he made; to bring people together, for example, unite the country and restore the soul of America. Given the structural increases in partisan polarization, these pledges were always going to be difficult.

At the same time, he can cite some real successes. There haven’t been any government shutdowns or real scares about the debt limit. He secured a bipartisan infrastructure bill. A huge postal reform bill passed the House with big bipartisan majorities last week. A bipartisan science-funding-and-China-competition bill still seems to be in the works.

The point is, when it comes to breaking promises, the stakes may be lower than the White House thinks. And as president of the United States, Biden is well within his rights to tell his science advisers that he hears what they are saying, but his judgment is that efforts to impose mask mandates are simply causing too much social division.

At his best, Biden is a politician’s politician who knows when not to listen to the grim ideologues of the world. And a president famous for his love of ice cream understands that there’s a difference between the science of personal health and the reality of daily life. Just as expecting the CDC to say ice cream is healthy would be unrealistic, pressuring it to say so would be inappropriate.

At the end of the day the presidency is a political office, held by politicians in order to make political choices. Joe Biden needs to level with the American people, as they say, and tell them what they need to hear: It’s OK to have some ice cream.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he is also the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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