What’s in a Word?

The difference between “physical” and “social” distancing

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It was March 20 that the World Health Organization officially expressed a preference for the term “physical distancing” as opposed to “social distancing.” In response to a question about appropriate behavior on the first day of spring, in Iran in particular, physician Mike Ryan, head of the UN agency’s Health Emergencies Program, warned that crowds were to be avoided, whatever the reason. “I think we need to be exceptionally careful… not to bring too many people together too closely at any one time.”

His technical director, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, chimed in:  “If I can just add, you may have heard us use the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing and one of the things to highlight in what Mike was saying about keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another; that’s absolutely essential. But it doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family… We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected.”

The change came too late. Social distancing has become the standard desideratum at every level of discourse and has proved all but impossible to dislodge. What’s at stake? Perhaps more than you think.  Consider an example last week from May Day, in Massachusetts.

After the coldest April on record, temperatures finally rose above 60 degrees on the first day in May. There was even some sun in the afternoon. Gov. Charlie Baker seized the occasion to issue an executive order requiring citizens statewide to cover their faces outdoors, calling it “common sense.”

“This is going to be basically a way of life,” Baker said. “No ifs, no ands, no buts, no doubts. If you can’t [socially distance] inside or outside, you’re going to be expected to wear a face covering or a mask.”

Glossed over in those brackets in The Boston Globe’s front page account was the qualifier.  Whatever the governor actually said on Friday at the point of what seems to have been an elision, what he meant was “if you can’t physically distance yourself,” at least when you are outdoors. The story seemed to acknowledge as much it its first paragraph.

Millions of Massachusetts residents will be required to cover their faces when they shop for groceries, take public transportation, or even go for a jog if they can’t distance themselves from others, under a statewide order Governor Charlie Baker issued Friday.

It is not just jogging at issue, but walking along sidewalks, paths, or simply standing around.  Baker was artful in making it clear, at least by the act of omission. Municipal orders have taken sterner views.  Suburban Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville ban pedestrian activity without masks, whatever and wherever the case. Big fines are involved, at least in principle.

It is true that, as The Washington Post reported yesterday, at 64,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases so far, Massachusetts has the third count in the nation and the fourth largest number of deaths.  The number of newly identified cases remains high. More than half of the deaths have been in long-term care facilities.

There seems to be some widely-shared sense of gain from the show of social solidarity among mask-wearers. If it helps slow the virus, whatever the odds, goes the reasoning, it is a small price to pay.

But two kinds of losses are involved when pedestrians are required to wear masks. One has to do with the dismissal of the sense of personal responsibility – to give others a wide berth on the sidewalk (which even the masked-up do automatically these days); to acknowledge one another in passing; to be cheerful. Civility is diminished by masks.

The other thing damaged is trust.  Trust in the judgement of officials, when no scientific support is advanced for the effectiveness of new measures of contagion-suppression.  Trust for news media that pass along orders without questions.

Instead of reporting the science behind Gov. Baker’s decision last week, or the politics that went into his decision, the Globe sent more than twenty reporters and editors around the eastern part of the state to count noses, in order to produce a story designed to shame pedestrians not wearing masks.

Yes, I admit that I am a habitual walker. No one, as far as I can tell, doubts the wisdom of requiring masks in stores, offices, and on airplanes.  Vice-president Pence seems to have been universally condemned for deliberately flouting house rules when he visited the Mayo Clinic without one. He donned masks for appearances the next day when visiting a General Motors plant.

A great deal will be learned from this pandemic about the interplay of public health measures, economic activity, and voter confidence. Next time even the most rudimentary integrated assessment models will take account of the difference between social and physical distance.

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What turned Rebecca Henderson from a leading innovation economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at the Harvard Business School? As much as anything, it was HBS’s determination not to be eclipsed, as it had been during the financial crisis, when the climate change becomes more of a crisis.

Henderson was hired in 2009 to become the school’s next thought leader.  The course she organized, “Reimagining Capitalism,” attracted 28 students in its first year. But word gets around. It now enrolls nearly 300 (when it enrolls at all). And Henderson’s book, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire appeared online last week.

“The key to prosperity for both business and society at large is to understand free markets and free politics as complements rather than as adversaries,” she writes.  Fine words, you say, as long as the president, the Congress, or the Conference Board doesn’t try to put them into practice.

It might pay to remember, though, that the time before last that HBS made a big bet on a champion was when it hired Michael Jensen away from the University of Rochester, in 1985. Jensen was the most influential apostle of the gospel that maximizing shareholder value was the only way corporations should be expected   to serve public purpose.

Then read the first chapter of Henderson’s book: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? Shareholder value as yesterday’s idea.” Or watch this half-hour lecture.)  Get ready for the era of ES&G (environmental, social, and governance) investing.