Category: Current Affairs

Cheer up

I know that quite a few of you are distressed about recent events, although perhaps you do not agree entirely which are the good and bad developments.

From my vantage point, both American politics and economics look much better than they did a month ago.  To be sure that is relative but nonetheless this should be cheering you up.  China and India have sought to deescalate their conflict. Most of Europe continues to reopen without a surge in cases, and American death rates still are falling.  The advantages of police reform are much overstated, but still I think we will get something modestly better than the status quo.

The worst news, as far as I can tell, is how poorly Pakistan is doing against Covid-19, relative to some initial expectations.  If that is what has got you down, by all means continue. But how many of you can say that?

Otherwise, probably your feelings are irrational, and thus you should not be so down.

Except about that of course.

The course of Covid-19 in the United States

Via Amihai Glazer.  And if you wish to verify, here is another (non-smoothed) presentation of the data.

In terms of the delta this picture is not as bad as what you sometimes hear, though data on cases are far worse, with a very long and indeed continuing plateau. And since deaths lag cases by a few weeks, you still might see reason to be alarmed.  Nonetheless, the trend we can see is one of improvement, at least for a little over two months.

Do note it is better for everyone if you think the death rate is still rising!

My Conversation with Rachel Harmon

Rachel Harmon is a Professor at University of Virginia Law School, and an expert on policing.  Here is the audio and transcript, and here is part of the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the best ideas for improving policing, including why good data on policing is so hard to come by, why body cams are not a panacea, the benefits and costs of consolidating police departments, why more female cops won’t necessarily reduce the use of force, how federal programs can sometimes misfire, where changing police selection criteria would and wouldn’t help, whether some policing could be replaced by social workers, the sobering frequency of sexual assaults by police, how a national accreditation system might improve police conduct, what reformers can learn from Camden and elsewhere, and more. They close by discussing the future of law schools, what she learned clerking under Guido Calabresi and Stephen Breyer, why she’s drawn to kickboxing and triathlons, and what two things she looks for in a young legal scholar.

And here is one bit:

COWEN: Should we impose higher educational standards on police forces?

HARMON: There’s mixed evidence on that. Slightly older police officers tend to be better in certain respects, at least, and education is often associated with age. But, again, I don’t think that we can select our way out of problems in policing.

COWEN: But why can’t we? Because different individuals — they behave so differently. They think so differently. Why is it that there’s no change in selection criteria that would get the police to be more the way we want them to be, whatever that might be?

HARMON: I think we could do some things. We could screen out people who have committed misconduct in the past, for example, by decertifying them at the state level and therefore discouraging departments that can’t or don’t care very much about quality of their officers from hiring those officers.

It’s not that we can’t select against problems in policing at all. Sometimes we know that an officer’s problematic, and still he’ll wander around from department to department. I think we should set minimum age standards that are above 18, which many states have as a minimum age standard.

But in terms of education or other more subtle factors, I think the effects can often be subtle, and when we look at what creates problems in policing, departments create officers. The officers don’t preexist a department, really, so what you’re really looking at is the culture of the department, the incentive structures, the supervision, discipline. You can make good officers with imperfect people.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and yes we discuss San Francisco and Singapore too.

Why non-distanced social and commercial interactions have resumed so quickly

People have solved for the equilibrium.

First, the socially-distanced goods, such as food delivery, are starting to rise in price.  The non-distanced goods have been falling in relative price, and so now people are moving along their demand curves and engaging in less distancing.

Second, the longer the pandemic will run, the harder it is to use intertemporal substitution as a “make up.”  “I won’t go to a bar for two months, but then I’ll go a lot to make up for it” is a plausible story to tell oneself.  “I won’t go to a bar for a year and then I’ll go a lot…” is harder to swallow and act upon.  It starts to become a habit, and at some point you can’t drink enough to make up for what you have lost.  And so people are more inclined to go to the bar right now.

Most importantly, peer effects are remarkably strong.  Most people are not willing to accept a small additional risk of death to say eat in a particular restaurant.  But they are willing to accept a small additional risk of death to live life as other people are living life.

So once enough people are not respecting social distancing, most of the others will follow.

Some wag on Twitter said we can no longer use the expression “to avoid like the plague,” because apparently people do not take so much care to avoid the plague.

Claims about equities (and gamblers)

Mr. Young, 30, has only about $2,500 invested, making him a guppy among whales. But some Wall Street analysts see people who used to bet on sports as playing a big role in the market’s recent surge, which has largely erased its losses for the year.

“There’s zero doubt in my mind that it is a factor,” said Julian Emanuel, chief equity and derivatives strategist at the brokerage firm BTIG. “Zero doubt.”

Millions of small-time investors have opened trading accounts in recent months, a flood of new buyers unlike anything the market had seen in years, just as lockdown orders halted entire sectors of the economy and sent unemployment soaring.

It’s not clear how many of the new arrivals are sports bettors, but some are behaving like aggressive gamblers. There has been a jump in small bets in the stock options market, where wagers on the direction of share prices can produce thrilling scores and gut-wrenching losses. And transactions that make little economic sense, like buying up the nearly valueless shares of bankrupt companies, are off the charts.

File under “speculative,” here is the full NYT story.

China-U.S. fact of the day

Some 54 scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of an ongoing investigation by the National Institutes of Health into the failure of NIH grantees to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. In 93% of those cases, the hidden funding came from a Chinese institution.

The new numbers come from Michael Lauer, NIH’s head of extramural research. Lauer had previously provided some information on the scope of NIH’s investigation, which had targeted 189 scientists at 87 institutions. But his presentation today to a senior advisory panel offered by far the most detailed breakout of an effort NIH launched in August 2018 that has roiled the U.S. biomedical community, and resulted in criminal charges against some prominent researchers, including Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology.

“It’s not what we had hoped, and it’s not a fun task,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in characterizing the ongoing investigation. He called the data “sobering.”

Here is the full story, and there are further points of interest at the link.

Why don’t NYPD police officers wear more masks?

While police officers may forgo mask-wearing for any number of reasons, from peer pressure within ranks that are loath to change to a desire to more easily communicate, the images have fueled a perception of the police as arrogant and dismissive of protesters’ health — perhaps even at the peril of their own.

And while several officers have conspicuously knelt down with or hugged people at rallies, the widespread failure to use masks is creating a more standoffish look, one that protesters say suggests that the police operate above the rules — one of the very beliefs motivating the nationwide movement.

“If you’re out here to protect the public, it starts with you,” said Chaka McKell, 46, a carpenter from Bedford-Stuyvesant who attended a protest in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday. “The head sets the example for the tail.”

The official New York Police Department policy is that officers should wear masks when interacting with the public. But in a statement on Wednesday, the department dismissed the criticism about the lack of masks as petty.

“Perhaps it was the heat,” Sgt. Jessica McRorie of the department’s press office said in a statement. “Perhaps it was the 15 hour tours, wearing bullet resistant vests in the sun. Perhaps it was the helmets. With everything New York City has been through in the past two weeks and everything we are working toward together, we can put our energy to a better use.”

“In a nutshell,” as they say, and here is the full NYT piece.  This short vignette reflects two basic truths: first, there is a tendency to see oneself above at least some of the laws, and to follow defined procedures only selectively.  Second, given the resources and constraints put on the table, such attitudes should not be entirely surprising.

Solve for the journalistic equilibrium

In a company memo, the chief executive of the politics news site said he supported staff members’ right to march, adding that the publisher would cover bail for any employee who is arrested…

According to several people with knowledge of recent discussions at Axios, Mr. VandeHei said he did not intend his note to actively encourage marching in protests. He has also reminded the staff that the company’s reporters still need sources to open up to them, and that appearing to take one side could jeopardize their position.

And for purposes of contrast:

Ethics guidelines at The Times — similar to many other newsrooms across the country — say the company’s journalists “may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements” or publicly take positions on public issues. It adds, “doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.”

Here is the full NYT story, via a loyal MR reader.

That was then, this is now, pandemic public protest edition

Greta Thunberg is calling on other young climate activists to avoid big protests and move their demonstrations online amid efforts to contain the novel coronavirus. Over the past year and a half, Thunberg has incited thousands of students across the globe to protest inaction on climate change. She’s inspired many to join massive demonstrations like those outside United Nations climate conferences in New York and Madrid last year. Now, she’s asking people to stay home…

Just as she does when it comes to climate change, Thunberg urged people to “unite behind experts and science” to address the current public health crisis posed by the novel coronavirus…

“We’ll have to find new ways to create public awareness & advocate for change that don’t involve too big crowds,” Thunberg tweeted. “Listen to local authorities.”

Here is the relevant article.  I don’t recall anyone protesting her decision at the time, or arguing that the benefits of the climate change protests would outweigh their public health costs, or even attempting such a calculation.

I am inclined to conclude that some mix of two truths must hold, though I am not sure in what combination: 1) Many of you care less about climate change than you may think, compared to other issues, and/or 2) The lockdown has made us all somewhat batty.

I thank A. for the relevant pointer, noting that no one else seems to have considered this parallel, which is perhaps evidence for #2?

Rescheduling for thee, but not for me

When Wisconsin Republicans refused to move their election day, Democrats, experts, and various media types decried the decision as immoral and dangerous during a pandemic. “Regularly scheduled, orderly elections with direct governmental consequences were either too dangerous, or insufficiently compelling,” Adam wrote in a late-night email. “Contrast that, of course, with Democrats’s evident belief that we absolutely must not delay these protests against police brutality. The protests—spontaneous not scheduled, disorderly not orderly, emotive not concretely consequential—simply had to go on.”

Protests and demonstrations are more important and indispensable than elections. The deliberate act of voting, essential to a democracy, can be put on a schedule delay but political catharsis must proceed on its own schedule. Mario Cuomo used to say that “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” Now it’s poetry or nothing.

Here is more by Jonah Goldberg.  I am not looking to attack or make trouble for any individual person here, so no link or name, but this is from a leading figure in biology and also a regular commenter on epidemiology:

As a citizen, I wholeheartedly support the protests nonetheless.

My worries run deep.  Should the original lockdown recommendations have been asterisked with a “this is my lesser, non-citizen self speaking” disclaimer?  Should those who broke the earlier lockdowns, to save their jobs or visit their relatives, or go to their churches, or they wanted to see their dying grandma but couldn’t…have been able to cite their role as “citizens” as good reason for opposing the recommendations of the “scientists”?  Does the author have much scientific expertise in how likely these protests are to prove successful?  Does typing the word “c-i-t-i-z-e-n” relieve one of the burden of estimating how much public health credibility will be lost if/when we are told that another lockdown is needed to forestall a really quite possible second wave?  Does the author have a deep understanding of the actual literature on the “science/citizen” distinction, value freedom in science, the normative role of the advisor, and so on?  Does the implicit portrait painted by that tweet imply a radically desiccated, and indeed segregated role of the notions of “scientist” and “citizen”?  Would you trust a scientist like that for advice?  Should you?  And shouldn’t he endorse the protests “2/3 heartedly” or so, rather than “wholeheartedly”?  Isn’t that the mood affiliation talking?

On May 20th, the same source called a Trump plan for rapid reopening (churches too, and much more) “extraordinarily dangerous” — was that the scientist or the citizen talking?  And were we told which at the time?  Andreas’s comments at that above link are exactly on the mark, especially the point that the fragile consensus for the acceptability of lockdown will be difficult to recreate ever again.

If you would like a different perspective, bravo to Dan Diamond.  Here is his article.  And here are some better options for public health experts.  Here is a useful (very rough) estimate of expected fatalities from the protests, though it does not take all-important demonstration effects into account.  I can say I give credit to the initial source (the one I am criticizing) for passing that tweet storm along.

We really very drastically need to raise the quality and credibility of the advice given here.

Have we already defunded the police?

Here is more complete data on police expenditures, interesting throughout, via Charles Fain Lehman.  The sociology of this issue I find fascinating.  Usually in Progressive lore, if you defund an agency, you lower its quality and make it all the more dysfunctional.  But in this case, defunding the bureaucracy, namely the police, is supposed to solve the problem.  Is there anywhere a well-worked out model of why this particular bureaucracy might be different from the others?  (Maybe it is, I would gladly link to such an argument!)  Or, dare I say it, is this just mood affiliation and once again…politics isn’t about policy.  I’ll give 4-1 odds on the latter.

Why do people hate the media so much?

I usually do not wish to reprise posts, but this one from 2016 deserves another exposure, given recent events.  What would be the point of trying to rewrite the same idea in other words?:

Haven’t you noticed this?

I have a simple hypothesis.  No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.  (It’s a bit like “politics isn’t about policy.”)  That’s even true for this blog, though of course that is never my direct intention.

But now you can see why people get so teed off at the media.  The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.  You hold more of a grudge from the status slights than you get a positive and memorable charge from the status agreements.

In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time.  You might even say the media is insulting you.  Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered.  It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.

In return you resent the media.

A good rule of thumb is that if you resent the media “lots,” you are probably making a number of other emotional mistakes in your political thought.

Here is the original link.  And here is my 2017 post on social media, also more relevant than ever.  And here is my 2016 post on how today’s world reminds me increasingly of the Reformation — all the more true today and even this week.