How a Crypto Guru Shaped Harvard’s Roadmap for Reopening the US Economy

Glen Weyl, an intellectual firebrand of the Ethereum community, played a key role in crafting a pandemic-fighting blueprint just published by Harvard.

AccessTimeIconApr 23, 2020 at 1:55 p.m. UTC
Updated Dec 11, 2022 at 2:04 p.m. UTC

An intellectual firebrand of the Ethereum community has played a key role in creating the action plan for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic published this week by Harvard University.

E. Glen Weyl, founder of the RadicalxChange Foundation and a researcher for Microsoft, collaborated with Harvard professor Danielle Allen and other experts to write the "Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience." The 56-page document charts a course for scaling up testing, tracing and supported isolation (TTSI) in a way that protects health while preventing permanent injury to regular people's livelihoods.

"In public health, you have a lot of experts doing their thing ... but not really working in an integrated way with other people to come up with what the policy framework should be. I felt the same way about the economy," Weyl told CoinDesk.

He and Allen convened a group with strong reach in the academic and industrial worlds, including Alex Tabarrok, one of the two economists behind the blog Marginal Revolution; Weyl's colleagues from Microsoft (including YouTube legend Vi Hart, who made a video explainer of the plan); other Harvard faculty; and NGO leaders from organizations such as the Breakthrough Institute and New America.

The work at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics was conducted at first through a series of white papers and discussions that eventually coalesced into the document released Tuesday, which Weyl described as "a compilation."

The report concludes: "We can be democracy's bulwark against this existential threat if we elevate our ambitions and determine to act swiftly and with purpose."

War effort

The core idea of the plan is that COVID-19 must be fought with massively scaled-up testing and tracing. Further, it says people who have a reasonable expectation of exposure should be isolated in a way that won't make them miserable, wreck their careers or expose others. 

The centerpiece of that plan is a proposed body established temporarily with significant but narrow powers, which the authors call the Pandemic Testing Board, in the same spirit as the World War II-era War Production Board.

"What we're advocating in this plan is that for a very narrow part of the economy, we get this real concentration of authority from a bunch of different people working together to coordinate everything," Weyl said.

He acknowledged that a central authority with outsized power is not the type of prescription RadicalxChange usually makes. 

"A lot of centralization is not a big focus of our movement," said Weyl, a frequent collaborator with Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin.

But the report Weyl helped write notes these are extraordinary times:

"In virtually every successful historical example of such rapid coordination, a central authority has set goals and ensured that each part of the chain meets the interlocking goals required for the chain to succeed. This authority must have clarity on the levels in the supply chain and the kinds of output required at each level to reach desired targets and must induce all parts of the chain to act in conformity with this plan, to avoid failure in one part that would sow systemic distrust."

Distributed centralization

Weyl said he hopes authorities will realize that such a model can work only if it blends private entities with different levels of government, rather than attempting to beat COVID-19 with a command-and-control operation out of the federal government alone.

"Obviously, RadicalxChange is a big fan of that sort of emergent cooperation," he said. "It's going to really need to be complemented with a lot of these emergent technologies to support all sorts of things."

In a section called "Design of the Pandemic Testing Board" the Harvard paper presents two possible models for convening such a board, and Weyl pointed in particular to the "Federalist Model," which envisions a body funded by Congress but convened through an interstate compact. The nine-member board would include representatives from business, labor, academia and government.

It's politically conceivable, Weyl said, that because leaders in Washington have failed to coordinate a national response, state leaders may be able to fill that void in a way that turns out to be much more distributed in practice.

"The challenges the Trump administration has had are encouraging because they mean we are going to have a more decentralized approach to dealing with this," Weyl said.

The paper presents a strategy where the board initially focuses on stabilizing the spread of the virus in the 40 percent of the economy that's deemed essential, using a flexible suite of TTSI strategies. 

"Once we do get that part of the economy stabilized it will be far easier to reopen the rest of the economy," Weyl said.


Before the coronavirus was designated a pandemic, Weyl had started getting interested in Taiwan's success. 

He and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier wrote a piece on how the island nation’s hacker culture was marshaled into creating applications that shared data about the crisis in a way that made people better prepared and less prone to panic.

Taiwan's success has been well documented throughout this crisis – and RadicalxChange had a direct connection to its anti-COVID apparatus. Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang, is also a member of the RadicalxChange board. 

Weyl found Tang was deeply involved in getting technologists there to work with people on the ground, creating solutions that fit people's actual needs.

"I think what Taiwan got really right is the fusion of technology and empowering diverse people to build that technology – which crypto doesn't always get right," Weyl said, citing contact tracing that preserved individual privacy as an example.


Just before the Harvard report came out, RadicalxChange published a series of examples of distributed approaches to problem-solving that might be useful in this crisis.

While the Harvard roadmap says nothing about blockchain or adjacent technologies, Weyl said this industry has an important role to play.

For example, there's the issue of using mobile technology for contact tracing. Weyl explained that technology is particularly important for such tracking in large urban areas. There's no way to interview someone and find out every person they sat with on a subway car, but with Bluetooth enabled on ubiquitous mobile phones, it is possible, using cryptographic tools, for an application to know and warn others without revealing the infected person's identity to them, or vice versa.

Weyl is aware privacy advocates have had significant doubts about using these technologies this way, but he said there's an opening for cryptographic tools to be integrated in a way that makes these more protective. "I think there's a quite good chance that that plays some non-trivial role," he said, even at the level of the model that Apple and Google have committed to deploy.

Additionally, Weyl worries a pandemic environment could undermine civic participation in a way that's truly crippling for the U.S.

"I would love to get the VTaiwan system, the digital democracy platform they have there," Weyl said, "to sustain democratic engagement." 

VTaiwan is a technology-enabled public deliberation process that has driven the writing of legislation in Taiwan over the last several years and would be quite adaptable to the present Zoom era.

"I think if we get this plan adopted, which I think we've got a good shot at doing, I will very quickly pivot my attention to working on that kind of stuff," Weyl said. 


Lastly, Weyl said he entered this process with a nuanced goal in mind: marrying stringent public-health efforts with ways of mitigating the economic shock.

As the crisis unfolded, Weyl saw policymakers "deal with the public health situation as if it were any other recession. That was a huge problem with the way we were initially responding to everything, that it was viewing these as two independent things – rather than as two sides of the same coin."

While crypto users have long been critical of how the U.S. and its corporate class have stewarded the economy, sometimes arguing the country was due for another collapse, Weyl contends the impact of this crisis has been much too large to be wholly attributed to public and private balance sheets.

"I'm sympathetic to the notion that we were due for an economic problem. The particular collapse we saw was very extreme. It's on a completely different economic level," Weyl said. "This may well be the most severe dip in economic activity ever in reported history."

And that severe dip relates not just to over-leveraged firms and too-plentiful dollars, but also stems from the fact that people are not really participating in the Main Street economy. This is having all sorts of bizarre effects in the so-called "real economy," such as supply chains not finding ways to re-route to where they are needed and certain categories of insurance providers effectively printing money in a way no one could have anticipated.

While in crypto and beyond there's a ferocious debate about the legitimacy of orders for people to stay at home, the impact of quarantine will last beyond the orders, Weyl said. That's why TTSI is needed as soon as possible so people can feel reasonably safe participating again, he argued.

"I think mostly people are staying at home because they don't want to kill their grandparents, honestly. I don't therefore think the solution is about removing stay-at-home orders," Weyl said.

Read the "Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience" below:


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