Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Rolling Out the Vaccine

Rolling Out the Vaccine

 This morning’s (Dec. 25) New York Times offers a panel discussion on the question of who should get vaccinated against Covid first.  Broadly speaking, they take a utilitarian position: it’s interesting that none disagreed with the positions taken by panelist Peter Singer, the world’s most prominent utilitarian philosopher.  And I wouldn’t either, except for one thing.

The vaccines approved by the FDA, along with those approved by other countries like China and Russia, have gone through the fastest possible testing.  Tens of thousands of individuals have been placed in control and treatment groups in order to determine two things: to what extent do the vaccines reduce the likelihood of getting infected (efficiency) and how common and severe are the side effects (safety)?  Meeting both criteria is sufficient for approval, which is how it should be.

But there is another crucial question, to what extent do the vaccines reduce transmission of the virus to others?  The answer does not affect whether these vaccines should be employed, but they do have large consequences for other policies during this phase of the pandemic, such as rules for separation and masking, restrictions on activities and events, resumption of in-person schooling, and how much should be spent on interventions like ventilation overhauls. To the extent that vaccination reduces transmission, other restrictions and investments can be modified as the vaccinated portion of the population increases.  Unfortunately, our knowledge of this issue is minimal.  We don’t have any published lab results at all, and we are at least months away from meaningful epidemiological data.

The Failure of the Public Health Establishment

Prof. Peter Dorman of Evergreen College writes at EconoSpeak and portrays Matt Yglesias’s retrospective on how the healthcare establishment failed the public when passing information on facemasks, hand-washing, distancing, etc., and how Covid is transmitted.

The direct result of not following these practices or casting doubt upon them is an elevation of Covid cases which strains the capacity and logistics of healthcare facilities, the equipment used on patients, and the supply of medicines.


Matt Yglesias has an excellent retrospective on the absurd reversals over mask usage that arose in the early stages of the pandemic.  You will recall that the public health establishment, amplified by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, told us all to ditch our masks and concentrate instead on frequent, vigorous hand-washing.  This was transparently absurd at the time, since from the beginning it appeared that coronavirus transmission had something to do with airborne virus exposure.

We were told masking didn’t protect us.

We were told only N95 masks worked, and only if they were taken on and off just so, in a complex procedure us untrained mortals could never execute.

And we were told we had to save these precious masks so health care workers could protect themselves, even though that was in direct contradiction to argument #1.  (Later, Anthony Fauci told us that conserving the inadequate supply of N95’s was the underlying motivation, and the rest was mostly persuasion.)

Two Questions about the Election (from last night)

Two Questions about the Election

 I am about to turn in and let the vote-counting continue without me.  It will be a troubled sleep since the election was mostly a disaster.  (Universal preschool won in Oregon, and if everywhere were like here I would be happier.)

Meanwhile two questions:

1. What went wrong with the polls?  They didn’t do too badly in 2016; the popular vote was close to the consensus prediction, and the electoral college was a squeaker within the margin of error.  This time though the polls were apparently way off.  Yes, the votes are not all in, but it doesn’t look like we’ll see the massive popular victory for Biden they foretold.  In fact, as I fade away tonight, it’s still possible that Trump could pull out a legitimate electoral college victory, something that seemed almost impossible a day or two ago.  Take Wisconsin (my home state) for instance.  We saw numbers ranging from 5-13% for Democrats, and now it’s nip and tuck.  Meanwhile, analysts were giving the Dems a better than even chance of taking the Senate, but that looks out of reach now.  So what gives?  Supposedly the weights were adjusted to better reflect the role of education, and the “shy Trumpster” effect was taken into consideration.  But here we are.

2. And how do we understand the politics?  We’re dealing with a president whose failures were about as massive as could be, especially in the context of a pandemic.  He made a fool of himself in the first debate.  He is mired in corruption.  And the Republican senate has repeatedly blocked measures to support workers, small business,es and local governments devastated by the economic effects of the virus.  If this isn’t enough to expunge them from office, what is?

I hope the news is better when I wake up.

No Bumper Crop in 2020

No Bumper Crop in 2020

We took a trip this weekend, driving 180 miles each way on I-5 through Oregon and Washington State.  We kept our eyes peeled for bumper stickers relating to the upcoming election but counted only three for Trump and an amazing zero for Biden.

I’ve never seen anything like this before in the US.  (In Europe bumper stickers don’t seem to exist at all.)  Just four years ago you could see Clinton and Trump plastered on cars everywhere.

Is this your experience too?

And what does it mean?  This election is supposed to be attracting more interest than any in decades; why is it practically stickerless?  Is it because there are fewer non-virtual events and less door-to-door canvassing where bumper stickers can be handed out?

Voting in a Time of Covid: A Question about Judicial “Originalism”

Voting in a Time of Covid: A Question about Judicial “Originalism”

The originalist theory of legal interpretation holds that judges, in reviewing the implementation of a statute, should be guided by the “plain meaning” of its language at the time it was adopted.  This is in opposition to the notion of a “living law”, whose interpretation should evolve as the conditions it addresses evolves.  For instance, originalists are appalled by Supreme Court decisions like Roe v Wade, since nowhere does the Constitution establish a right to bodily privacy, nor could the framers have plausibly thought back in the eighteenth century that the language they drafted encompassed such a right.  It is one interpretation of the living law view, on the other hand, that, as governments increasing acquired the administrative power to regulate our intimate lives, the zone of restriction implicit in the first amendment should be extended to measures that impinge on the freedom to control one’s own body.

Until his death the most vocal supporter of originalism on the Court was Antonin Scalia; now we are looking at the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who describes herself as an acolyte of Scalia and a resolute defender of his philosophy.

Here is a case I would bring up if I were questioning Barrett.

The rules governing elections are established at the local and state levels, not federal, but the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of how they might be interpreted.  It is common for jurisdictions to have regulations prohibiting interference with or attempts to influence voters at voting sites.  In every instance I’ve seen this is expressed in terms of physical distance, something like “within 100 yards of the polling place”.  In enforcement this has always implied a radius extending from the door voters use to enter the building in which they will cast their vote.  You can’t hold signs and shout at voters, much less accost them, within so many feet of that door.

 

A Framework for Coronavirus Policy

A Framework for Coronavirus Policy

There are two general ways to reduce the transmission of the virus.  One is “engineering”, changing the physical environment, the other is “social”, changing behavior to keep people distant from each other.  Under engineering, we can include not only physical partitions, UV lighting and ventilation, but also mask-wearing and other PPE.  I know, there is a very large behavioral component to masking, but I want to focus on the distancing aspect, so let’s put everything else in the engineering box.

Now for distancing.  Suppose we know instantaneously and with certainty everyone who is infected.  In that case, we can selectively quarantine them, and this will cut off transmission.  That is possible only in rare circumstances, such as a country that has fully eradicated the virus but has occasional external visitors.  If you have a reliable test you can identify anyone arriving with the disease and isolate them.  The rest of the population, known to be uninfected and unexposed, can move freely and congregate as they want.

A more realistic case is that you know with near certainty everyone who is infected, but only with a delay.  Then those who came into contact with them during their potential spreading period are also suspect and need to be isolated.  This is the idea behind contact tracing, which imposes distancing on a small subset of the population who may not be infected but leaves everyone else free to go on with their life.

Why Trump Is in Trouble

Why Trump Is in Trouble

Trump is staggering.  He’s plunging in the polls, and his behavior has become erratic and unhinged.  I don’t mean he’s being crude, infantile and wrapped in a world of fantasy—he’s always like that.  Rather, I see him as suddenly incoherent, fumbling with threats and catchphrases as if he were locked out of his house at night, frantically trying one key after another to see if any will work.

Why?

Here’s my theory: throughout his career, Trump has been resolutely self-defining.  He selects his issues, positions and attributes (clever deal-maker, hardass boss, financial/sexual/political winner, tough guy warrior for patriarchal values, underdog rebel against the Establishment) to construct a persona of his own choice.  He takes the initiative.

2016 was a great year for him.  While much was wrong with America, none of it was urgent in a screaming you-can’t-look-away-from-this sort of way.  There was plenty of political space for Trump to define what he thought the country should be focused on and why he would be the one to fix it.  The media provided invaluable service, making a big deal of every tweet, boastful claim or rally-fueled hyperbole.  Through them, Trump told us what the election was about: the invasion of dangerous immigrants pouring through our undefended borders, the humiliation of the America by China, and the haughty, corrupt elitism of Democratic politicians.  Even by disputing his take on these things, the media reinforced the notion that these were the main issues facing the country.

What has collapsed for Trump, finally in 2020, is not just the economy, the health of the population or the racial order, but his ability to determine what the issues are: he has lost control of the narrative.  This is not because the Democrats have beat him at his own game.  On the contrary, they are as clueless about these things as they’ve always been.  His problem is that we are facing real crises that demand our attention whether we want them to or not.  Trump has almost no influence over what politics are about in an election year; the pandemic, the economy and the revulsion against racism and police violence define the political moment on their own.  This is why he seems to be flailing: his entire career has been based on his projection of his needs onto the world, and he has hardly any capacity to respond to the demands of others.

Bad news for Trump: we don’t know how long the current challenge to the racial order will last, but the pandemic and the economic crisis will be with us well beyond November.  They will call the shots.  Trump can blather about some other fantasy issue being the real problem, but few will listen.

Conspiracy Theories: How to Pick Out the Plausible Ones

Conspiracy Theories: How to Pick Out the Plausible Ones

This is an age of rampant conspiratorialism.  Bill Gates is behind the pandemic because he wants to shoot you full of vaccines.  No wait, it’s all those 5G cell towers.  Or maybe it’s bioterrorism from China.  Or just a hoax perpetrated by international capital to undermine Donald Trump, the people’s tribune.  The right wing disinformation machine cranks out this stuff constantly, but paranoid fantasies also emanate from the left/alternative world.

So to counter the conspiracy pandemic, mainstream experts have come forward to advise us on how to detect and puncture unfounded rumors.  The problem I see is that sometimes there really are conspiracies, and it isn’t immediately obvious how to separate the ones that might be true from the purely crazy.

In the public interest, I offer the following rule of thumb.  A conspiracy, of course, is an agreement by a group of insiders to keep something important secret from the public.  If the group is tightly organized, motivated and able to operate separately from those on the outside, it is capable of waging a conspiracy.  If you relax these assumptions, however, you need additional groups to hide the initial conspiracy—in other words, secondary conspiracies.  And if the secondary conspirators aren’t tight enough a third ring of conspiracies is required.  As soon as you find yourself imagining lots of interlocking conspiracies to keep the central one secret you’ve wandered over the line.

A Compromise on Liability

A Compromise on Liability

So Mitch McConnell and the senate Republicans want blanket employer liability protection as the price of another round of economic support.  They have this leverage because Democrats kept postponing their agenda until they were the only ones with a list of things they wanted to spend money on.

(This illustrates classic bargaining theory to a T.  Bargaining power depends on how much you think you will lose if the agreement is delayed [Rubinstein] or fails completely.  Democrats feared economic damage to the public if bailout bills weren’t approved immediately.  Once the financial markets were backstopped Republicans considered the rest to be low stakes.  Hence the strong tilt to McConnell et al.)

So here is a possible Democratic counter:

OK, you want liability protection.  Let’s give it to any employer, large or small, that sets up a health and safety committee to oversee protections on the job, elected by the whole workforce, one person one vote.  If protections are consensual, liability is waived.  Otherwise proceed at your own risk.

This would be good policy, and it has the political advantage of placing liability within a larger, readily communicable frame about participation and consent.

Woke Is Reactionary: The Small Business Lending Edition

Woke Is Reactionary: The Small Business Lending Edition

We live in a drastically unequal society.  Everywhere you look you will find injustice, constraint and exploitation.  Being a member of a racial or other minority increases the odds you will end up on the short end, so what should we do about it?  There’s a progressive solution, to change the system so injustice, constraint and exploitation are minimized.  And then there’s the woke solution, to demand benefits targeted to minorities (and women) that will more evenly distribute the injustice, constraint and exploitation that remains.

You can support the woke solution, but please don’t confuse it with progressive social change.

For a current example, look at this recent op-ed in the New York Times by Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet, “How We Spend Tells Us Whose Lives Matter”.  They point out, “only 12 percent of the black and Latino [small business] owners in a survey who applied for aid reported receiving what they had asked for.”  I don’t know how that compares to white/Anglo owners, and no link is provided to the source they relied on.  But let’s assume with them this means minority SB owners have been disadvantaged in the expanded lending program to counter the effects of the coronavirus.  Knowing this country, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true.

Two reasons are given for the disparity.  First, minority-owned businesses are less likely to have an existing loan relationship with a bank, and private banks are being used to funnel loans authorized by Congress.  Second, these businesses have slimmer reserves and are less able to survive the process of application, review and disbursement.  Again, let’s assume this analysis is correct.

The progressive solution would be to either impose greater obligations on the private banking system or bypass it altogether in administering the program.  If commercial banks are to be deputized to distribute public funds they should be required to do so not just for their existing clients but their share of the applicant pool, and streamlined procedures should be in place to get the money out the door as quickly as possible.  Or perhaps it would have been possible to forego using commercial banks altogether (or in part) and to quickly ramp up a dedicated lending facility operating in conjunction with the Fed or a specialized government agency.  (How much easier all of this would have been if we had a nationwide public banking system already in place.)

And then there’s the woke solution: “providing dedicated funding opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses, and within that funding pool, for women of color-owned businesses.”  So the inadequacies and unfairness of the lending arrangement are OK as long as they don’t disproportionately fall on these groups.  I suppose white business owners locked out of the deal can console themselves with their privilege.

Again, the woke program is a choice some may make; it’s goal is to take the racism and sexism out of exploitation.  Just don’t confuse social justice with a more equally distributed injustice.