Category: History

Janos Kornai and the soft budget constraint

The most developed thesis of that book was that capitalist economies were in a state of constant excess supply (overproduction) whereas centrally planned economies were in a state of constant excess demand (shortage), and he drew out with minute detail all the implications of this analysis. I remember raising arguments from his book in my general equilibrium class in university, surely annoying the professor. Olivier Blanchard once told me he had a similar experience. Kornai’s book was extremely popular among young rebellious economists who wanted to change the world.

In 1980, his magnum opus, Economics of Shortage, came out. Whereas his earlier work on the economics of planning was mostly theoretical (all that literature was very remote from how planning was done in reality), this was the first book to propose a systematic and powerful analysis of how the socialist economy really worked in practice. Starting with the concept of the soft budget constraint (state-owned enterprises in socialist economies that were making losses would never shut down), he explained how this led to increasing demand by enterprises, making them barely responsive to price variations. These increased demands led to generalised shortages that deeply influenced the behaviour of enterprise managers, consumers and planners.

That is from a broader appreciation by Gérard Roland.  Here is one original Kornai piece on the topic.  Here is a later ungated piece.  Here is Eric Maskin on different theories of the soft budget constraint.

The greatest book(s) on Africa ever written?

Yes, I am talking about the new seven-volume set Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am now about halfway through volume II, and will read the rest, albeit slowly.  The books have plenty of text and also a lot of quality photographs.  While they are easy to read, they are not actually fast going.

These books have dozens of authors, so a systematic review misses the point. But just think: do you need to read yet another largely political history of Africa, detailing the conflict in Biafra, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe?  At what I hope are your current margins, what exactly are you going to learn?

Should you instead read seven volumes about how Africans (and sometimes non-Africans) have built Africa?  Its homes.  Its businesses.  Its government buildings and non-profit centers.  Its churches and mosques.  What Africa looks like and why.  Every significant discussion is accompanied by a relevant photograph.

Is that not a more important learning?

Where else can you find a sub-chapter “Beyond Design: Finnish Architects in Senegal”?  Which are in fact the most notable vistas in the Nouakchott fish market?  Why does it seem that no building in Mauretania is next to any other building in Mauretania?  (I am reading the West Africa volume, obviously.)

Definitely recommended, a notable achievement.

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

Jack Yeats, the greatest Irish artist

I am going to pick Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957, Sligo) as Ireland’s greatest artist. And yes he was the brother of William Butler Yeats and son of the artist John Butler Yeats, notable in his own right.

(For background, here are my earlier posts on William Orpen, John Lavery, Mainie Jellett, and Harry Clarke.  Here are a few contenders whom I ruled out from the get-go.)

Wikipedia offers the following useful description of Jack Yeats:

His favourite subjects included the Irish landscape, horses, circus and travelling players. His early paintings and drawings are distinguished by an energetic simplicity of line and colour, his later paintings by an extremely vigorous and experimental treatment of often thickly applied paint. He frequently abandoned the brush altogether, applying paint in a variety of different ways, and was deeply interested in the expressive power of colour. Despite his position as the most important Irish artist of the 20th century (and the first to sell for over £1m), he took no pupils and allowed no one to watch him work, so he remains a unique figure.

I don’t think there are images I could show to convince you that Yeats should stand above the other contenders.  His signature expressionist works are thick with three-dimensional texture, and they look like crap on-line.  I am fortunate to have seen a large exhibit of them lately in Dublin.  When I first saw some many years ago, I thought they were a splotchy mess, a kind of second-rate Gaelic Kokoscha, but they hold up and improve remarkably well with time.  Everything is where it ought to be.

Here is a “more normal” picture by Yeats:

His scenes are more animated, more impudent, more multi-faceted, and fresher than those of any other Irish painter.  It is easy to imagine him still inspiring painters today, Irish or otherwise, and I don’t think the same is quite true for the other names surveyed.  There is something “whole greater than the sum of the parts” that makes Yeats a clear, easy, and I think (mostly) consensus choice for Ireland’s greatest artist.  And he certainly was “Irish enough” to count.

Here is a good Christie’s short essay, mixed in with six high-quality images of works recently up for sale.  Oh, and here is one of the expressionist horse paintings after all:

The best places to see Yeats works are in Dublin and Sligo, but London and even the Walters in Baltimore have some.  Catch the Dublin exhibit while you can!

Medieval Coasean warfare?

Politics thus gained a new intensity after the Conquest, and yet they were also less bloody.  In the great Anglo-Norman and English battles between 1106 and 1264, as in the more general ravaging warfare, very few nobles were ever killed.  The immediate reason, as Orderic stressed, was the protection of armour, but ultimately any knight could be surrounded and disarmed.  The key point was that when this moment came he simply surrendered and was taken off for ransom.  The institution of ransom was, therefore, absolutely central to the failsafe warfare enjoyed by the nobility in this period.  Indeed the whole aim in battle was to capture, not to kill, a noble opponent.  There was here a wider context because politics too, not just warfare, was largely bloodless.  It is a remarkable fact (and one quite contrary to usual perceptions of the Middle Ages) that between Waltheof’s demise in 1076 and Gaveston’s in 1312 not a single English earl, and indeed hardly a single baron, was executed (or murdered) in England for political reasons.

That is from the excellent and highly substantive book by David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain, 1066-1284.  Wasn’t there also a JLE piece about this kind of warfare?

Which were the best eras to visit various places?

Francis Quinn emails me:

I’m an American man, 29, arrived in Amsterdam for the first time yesterday, and I am finding it to be the least crowded European city I’ve been to. Is this COVID-related possibly, do you think, or did the city used to be empty? I even thought I was on a college campus, almost. I’m loving it.

I’m now thinking of a new question for Tyler: *when* was the best year to have visited various places? From 1900-2100 (past and present, future possible travel times for all your readers)?

Good idea, let’s put aside Covid, here are a few observations:

1. The best time to visit the United States is now.  The country keeps on getting better and more interesting, most of all the latter.

2. New York City is a big exception here.  It probably was more interesting to visit NYC in the 1950-1978 period when it was clearly the world’s leading city, culturally and otherwise.  San Francisco (1970s?) and Detroit (1960s?) are exceptions also.

3. Most of Western Europe probably was best to visit in the 1970s or 1980s?  Modern enough to be comfortable, less ruined by excess tourists, and the internet doesn’t really raise the value of Europe much at all.  Note that I am putting aside “visit in 1920 so you can be shocked by the novelty and then brag about it.”  That is an interesting plan, but I think not the question at hand.  And the danger of disease and poor medical care still would have been high.

4. Much of Eastern Europe was best to visit right after the Iron Curtain came down.  Poland is an exception to this, and it is best to visit Poland now.

5. For most of Asia, the best time to visit is right now.  Perhaps Japan was more exciting in the bubble years.  Some parts of China were wrecked by the Cultural Revolution, and Hong Kong was more fun before the takeover.  China was freer and more fun ten to fifteen years ago.  So there are exceptions, but mostly the point stands.  Asia as a whole is getting better and more interesting.

6. For most of Africa, the best time to visit is right now, wars aside.  Ethiopia for instance was obviously much better to visit a few years ago.  I am not sure about Nigeria.  Obviously, for some anthropological or wildlife-related interests, much earlier times might have been better, but not for the typical educated tourist.

7. Right now is the best time to visit Israel.  I suspect some of the Arab countries in the Middle East were better to visit much earlier — Beirut and Cairo for instance.  Yemen was clearly better to visit in the early 1990s.  Iran during the time of the Shah.  And so on.  Overall these points are not a promising sign for the region.  Dubai and the like are clearly best to visit now.

8. Most of Latin America is best to visit now, as the region remains largely unspoilt.  Brazil might be an exception to this, though I have not been lately.  Some parts of Brazil seem to be more dangerous, and an earlier visit may well have been superior.  Ever see the movie Black Orpheus, set in Rio?

9. The 1960s were the best time to visit Haiti.

What else?

Who are the greatest Irish artists? part V, Harry Clarke

Harry Clarke, 1889-1931, born Dublin, stained glass artist and book illustrator, styles broadly Art Nouveau and symbolist.

He produced over 130 stained glass windows, the majority of which are in Ireland and then England.  He was renowned for his rich, original colors and his deep blues.  The value of his work is often site-specific (it would make for a great “go around Ireland” tour), and, unlike with most paintings, a jpeg picks up only one part of the broader work. Nonetheless here is one image:

Or try this:

Still not good enough.  I don’t feel I can make a real case by giving you more images, maybe you would do better to just view a bunch en masse.  A visit to the National Gallery in Dublin is better yet.  Barring that, this excellent catalog has fine images.  Here is a good short piece on Clarke’s weirdness (“the Irish artist welded Christian, Celtic and pagan imagery with the decadence of Klimt and Beardsley into an exotic futuristic fantasy”), also with quality images.

I see a few reasons for giving Clarke serious consideration:

1. He did most of his major work in Ireland.  And his “Celtic revival” emphasis is perhaps closer in spirit to contemporary Ireland than are the Anglo-Irish backgrounds of many of the other leading contenders for best Irish artist.

2. He expresses the playful, dramatic, and rebellious sides of the Irish national spirit.

3. He is strikingly original.  Some of his work also influenced later developments in illustration and graphic novels.  He in turn drew on varied sources, including religious illustrations, Russian ballet and Russian theatre art, and the cinema.

4. The colors are memorable and the technical execution is very strong.

5. He and his studio did church stained glass for Bayonne, New Jersey.

6. You could imagine him doing a cover for a Camille Paglia book.  As it stands, he did illustrate Goethe, Swinburne, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Ultimately he seems a little too concentrated in one direction to be my top pick, and maybe my number one Irish artist shouldn’t be so…”fruity”?  But I enjoy his work greatly those (few) times I have been able to see it and I do recommend him highly.

I hope you’ll be getting the final installment in this series — my #1 pick — pretty soon.

My Conversation with the excellent Claudia Goldin

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Claudia joined Tyler to discuss the rise of female billionaires in China, why the US gender earnings gap expanded in recent years, what’s behind falling marriage rates for those without a college degree, why the wage gap flips for Black women versus Black men, theoretical approaches for modeling intersectionality, gender ratios in economics, why she’s skeptical about happiness research, how the New York Times wedding announcement page has evolved, the problems with for-profit education, the value of an Ivy League degree, whether a Coasian solution existed to prevent the Civil War, which Americans were most likely to be anti-immigrant in the 1920s, her forthcoming work on Lanham schools, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If you look at a school, say, like Duke or Emory, is it a long-run problem that if they admit people on their merits, there’ll be too many women in the school relative to men, and some kind of affirmative action will be needed for the males?

GOLDIN: These are private institutions, and they can generally accept whom they would like to accept for various reasons of diversity.

COWEN: Should they do that? Or should they just get in 76 percent women, say?

GOLDIN: I’m brought back to the original issues that were raised by a small number of liberal arts colleges and universities in the ’50s and the ’60s about why they should become coeducational institutions.

Those reasons were that their marginal student was not going to Princeton but going to Harvard, not going to Princeton but going to Penn, not going to Princeton but going to Cornell, because that student wanted an education that was more balanced in terms of what the world would look like when they got out. And that more balanced, then, was not necessarily Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but the one major thing that was missing from Princeton and Yale and Dartmouth and Amherst and Wesleyan and a whole bunch of places was women.

Those institutions, in a process that I’ve described in the origins of coeducation, led these institutions to move in the direction of accepting more women. Now what’s going through your mind, I think, is, “Yes, but they weren’t lowering quality. In fact, they were increasing quality.” Diversity, in any dimension, can be thought of as a plus for everyone.

It was about 10 years ago that some dean in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest admitted to the fact that they were accepting men with lower SAT, ACT, and grade point averages to increase diversity.

COWEN: Men, probably, are not less intelligent than women, on average. What’s the pipeline problem? Is it too much homework and too many extracurriculars in high school or something else? Where are we failing our young boys?

GOLDIN: We can go back to as early as we have data on high schools and know that girls attended high schools, graduated from high schools at far, far greater numbers than boys. If there is an issue here, it’s certainly not extracurriculars. It may have to do with what’s going on in your cells and this difference between this Y and this double X.

COWEN: The value of an Ivy League degree — what percentage of that value do you think comes from signaling as opposed to learning?

GOLDIN: Very little. I think that it’s not signaling. It’s probably networks.

Self-recommending…

Why are newer, nice neighborhoods so hard to find?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, Scott Alexander has been covering related issues.  Here is one excerpt:

I can visit many European cities and find lovely parts of town to walk through. Closer to home, there is no recently created neighborhood in my own Virginia, or nearby Maryland, that can compare to the older homes of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. The nicest residential neighborhoods of Washington, such as Georgetown, are typically quite old, predating World War II for most of their attractive structures and sometimes going as far back as the 18th century. Do I need to mention Prague, or the contrast between prewar and postwar German buildings?

A few caveats: The modern world has produced striking individual buildings, such as Guggenheim Bilbao or the Seattle Public Library, among many others. And there are neighborhoods that sell a kind of livability, such as the Kentlands in Maryland or Celebration, Fla., and it works well. It’s just not that beautiful or striking. In general, modern residential neighborhoods are not very aesthetically appealing.

This is not a purely subjective judgment (though it is my personal subjective judgment). If you ask the objective and measurable question of which neighborhoods tourists pay money to see, the answers are almost exclusively older neighborhoods, dating as far back as medieval times but pretty much never after 1940. Tysons Corner just isn’t as charming as Old Town Alexandria.

The decline of neighborhood beauty is all the more striking because of economic development. The world is not just two or three times wealthier now as it was in the 18th century, it is dozens of times wealthier. That is why the increasing cost of craftsmanship, while real, cannot account for the decline of neighborhood beauty. And note that when it comes to interior design, product design, cinema and many other areas, there are still plenty of notable and beautiful creations, fueled of course by greater wealth.

And:

One common explanation for the decline of urban and neighborhood beauty is the rise of the automobile, which makes it harder to develop such places. Surely cars and traffic can ruin many an attractive scene. Still, this is not even close to a full answer. For one thing, there are autos all over Paris, so at least in principle it ought to be possible to build in ways that are both highly attractive and allow for cars.

Or consider college campuses and their central quads, which typically do not have automobiles even today. The ones people admire are the older ones, not the newer campuses, which tend to be functional but aesthetically mediocre. The beauty of the University of California at Santa Barbara relies a lot on the surrounding scenery, not the architecture.

No need to put this point in the comments:

“Selection effects” are also often cited as an explanation for the decline of neighborhood beauty: The best neighborhoods from the past are (at least partially) preserved, conveying an overly glorified sense of the aesthetics of previous eras. It’s a good point, but it’s hard for me to name many recent neighborhoods that will go down in history as aesthetically admirable.

My solution to the puzzle?  I think we’ve given up on coordination and instead we devote our resources to making interiors much more pleasing, beautiful, and comfortable.  The modern world is not aesthetically bankrupt!  So:

These days, most homeowners decide to “go it alone.” Since they cannot hope for a latter-day Rothenberg ob der Tauber — namely, coordination around exterior excellence in a consistent style — they focus on the interior, and indeed interior design has made huge strides forward. The lovely and comfortable rooms of many modern houses, along with many other recent aesthetic creations, belie the common notion that the world is too depraved to express beauty.

In that equilibrium, the exteriors of houses often end up coordinated — around relatively inexpensive, highly functional, non-aesthetic features so common in suburbs. It doesn’t make sense to aim for a 19th-century-palace look if your neighbor is doing an Art Deco exterior.

We do end up with more beauty on net:

So outward appearances suffer as homeowners save the real beauty for private purchases. And when beauty is privatized, it makes more sense to spend your money on other things — such as a really nice case for your iPhone.

Ever try to sit on one of those older sofas?  Ouch!

Addendum: As a side note, wonderful neighborhoods are great for tourists, but perhaps they are slightly overrated?  There is one splendid neighborhood of modernist homes in Alexandria, and I could live there if I wanted to.  But it would not improve my life, so I am staying put.

UV-C and the Future

Are you surprised that the airport pictured below (I assure you, it is a real place) has also installed high-capacity air filters and UV sanitization?

Since the onset of COVID-19, the air-conditioning system filters across the passenger terminals have been upgraded from MERV-7-rated models to MERV-14-rated ones. These higher grade filters can effectively remove about 85 per cent of the particles of 0.3 to 1.0 micrometres in size in the air, smaller than the size of a COVID-19 particle in a respiratory droplet.

To ensure the MERV-14 rated filters continue to operate at effective efficiency, they are replaced every one to two months, depending on the condition of use. All used filters are sealed for proper disposal by maintenance workers donning the highest level of personal protective equipment (PPE) for safe handling.

In addition, fresh air intake for the air-conditioning systems have also been maximised by fully opening the dampers to admit outdoor air.

As a further layer of protection, Changi Airport is installing Ultraviolet-C (UV-C) sanitisation equipment in Air-Handling Stations (AHS) and Air-Handling Units (AHU) progressively across all terminal air-conditioning systems. The UV-C kills any remnant virus traces in the mixture of fresh and returned air passing through the cooling coil, providing a second level of defence after the MERV-14 rated filters.

Singapore will thus have air filtration and UV sanitization in the airport before we have it in the hospitals.

Is the future slipping away from the United States? It seems that way sometimes. Only the high-tech sector is keeping us afloat and, of course, that is under attack by the elites.

Here and here are my previous posts on UV-C sanitization.

Hat tip: Randall Parker.

Photo Credit: Matteo Morando.

Who are the best Irish artists?, part III, Mainie Jellett

Mainie Jellett, 1897-1944, born in Dublin to a well-to-do Protestant family of Huguenot origin.  She studied with William Orpen in Dublin and then moved to England, where she developed an attractive figurative style.  But soon thereafter her work turned abstract  when she studied Cubism in Paris in the early 1920s.  She was part of what might be the most significant (and rapid) revolution in the history of art, although the Irish branch of that revolution usually receives little attention.  She and Evie Hone led the introduction of modern art to Ireland, and arguably still represent the peak of that tradition.  “Like James Joyce, who had ‘not become modern to the extent that he ceased to be Irish’, Jellett made modernism Irish.” (source)

She blended cubism on top of Christian devotional ideas and also structures and images from the Book of Kells and other medieval Celtic sources.  At its best, her work is just perfect — you would not wish for the curves or angles or colors to go any other way.  Here is a classic Jellett image, also drawing on some Chinese influences:

Here is her painting “Abstract Crucifixion”:

For a point of contrast, see her homage to Fra Angelico.  Her Anglo-Irish background led to some hostility, and her deliberate invocation of specifically Catholic images is sometimes interpreted as a project for Irish cultural reconciliation.

Here is a less typical but still fine representational work:

I can’t bring myself to call her the greatest Irish artist ever, as perhaps she is not tops in breadth or multiplicity of perspectives, but she was one of the very best and I do not tire of viewing her work.  She is the equal of many of the better-known modernist artists from other countries and she excelled also in watercolors and sketches.  Her life was cut tragically short by pancreatic cancer.

Who are the best Irish artists?, part II on John Lavery

John Lavery (1856-1941, born North Belfast, Catholic) is perhaps the most classic pick for Ireland’s greatest artist, though he is not my personal pick.  He did, however, create many of Ireland’s most beloved and I would say most typical paintings.  It is difficult to keep him out of your top three.  Although he moved to Scotland as a child, and then to England, his works captured the Ireland of the period very well.  He also was tangentially involved in Irish politics, mostly as an intermediary and negotiator, and he died in Ireland while escaping the Blitz, thereby cementing his Irish credentials just a wee bit.

Consider this work, in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, a portrait of his own wife sketching, more luminous when you see it live:

And the chess players:

Here is “Michael Collins (Love of Ireland)”:

There is a consistent depth and classiness to his work.

Like William Orpen, Lavery also was an official artist for WWI, commissioned by the British.  His crowd and war room scenes were the best of that lot:

He was born on St. Patrick’s Day, ended up an orphan, and his wife Hazel later taught Winston Churchill how to paint.  John Lavery painted his Hazel — actually born an American — onto Irish currency notes, where she remained for fifty years until the advent of the euro.  It was widely rumored that Michael Collins was the love of her life, and that she had affairs.

Top paintings by Lavery might auction for about one million pounds, much cheaper than say a Warhol.  Is that a form of aesthetic arbitrage?  Or are you just paying less for a less important and also less liquid asset, appreciated by many fewer people?

Does a Lavery look good in your Miami Beach contemporary home?  Does it get you dates?  But doesn’t he represent a whole country?  How did he do that by spending so little time there?  That too is part of the magic of art.

Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In October of 2020 Science published a long article by Charles Piller titled Undermining CDC with the subtitle “Deborah Birx, President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 coordinator, helped shake the foundation of a premier public health agency.” The article focuses on a battle between Deborah Birx and the CDC over collecting data from hospitals with the basic message that Birx was an arrogant Trump tool who interfered with the great CDC. One year later, much of the article has a different cast beginning with “premier public health agency”. Hmmpfff. The opening now reads to me as almost laughable:

Zaidi lifted her mask slightly to be heard and delivered a fait accompli: Birx, who was not present, had pulled the plug on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) system for collecting hospital data and turned much of the responsibility over to a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc., a hospital data management company. The reason: CDC had not met Birx’s demand that hospitals report 100% of their COVID-19 data every day.

According to two officials in the meeting, one CDC staffer left and immediately began to sob, saying, “I refuse to do this. I cannot work with people like this. It is so toxic.” That person soon resigned from the pandemic data team, sources say.

Other CDC staffers considered the decision arbitrary and destructive. “Anyone who knows the data supply chain in the U.S. knows [getting all the data daily] is impossible” during a pandemic, says one high-level expert at CDC. And they considered Birx’s imperative unnecessary because staffers with decades of experience could confidently estimate missing numbers from partial data.

“Why are they not listening to us?” a CDC official at the meeting recalls thinking. Several CDC staffers predicted the new data system would fail, with ominous implications. “Birx has been on a months long rampage against our data,” one texted to a colleague shortly afterward. “Good f—ing luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”

Scott Gottlieb tells this same story very differently in Uncontrolled Spread (my WSJ review).

Deborah Birx convinced the Coronavirus Task Force to direct money to the CDC to modernize its reporting of the COVID hospital data, but the CDC said no.

…The federal government had bought the entire available supply [of remedsivir], and HHS needed to know where to ship its limited doses [but]…the CDC didn’t have actual data on who was currently hospitalized for COVID, just estimates built off a model….Birx said that the government couldn’t ship scarce doses of the valuable medicine to treat estimated patients that were hypothetically hospitalized according to a mathematical formula. So she gave hospitals an ultimatum. If they wanted to get access to remedsivir, they would need to start reporting real data on the total number of COVID patients that they admitted each day. Hospitals quickly started to comply…Rather than cajole the CDC into fixing its reporting system, Ambassador Birx and Secretary Azar decided to recreate that structure outside the agency. The had concluded that getting the CDC to change its own scheme, and abandon its historical approach to modeling these data, would have been too hard.

…Under the new reporting system, 95% of US hospitals soon provided 100 percent of their daily hospital admission data. In an unfortunate twist, the CDC declined to work with the new data, worrying that since it wasn’t their data, they couldn’t assure its providence and couldn’t fully trust its reliability. As one senior HHS official put it to me, the CDC “took their ball and went home.”

…The cofounders of the COVID Tracking Project, one of the most authoritative and closely watched enterprises to report bottom-line information about the pandemic, would later say of the [HHS/Teletracking data], “the data set that we trust the most–and that we believe dose not come with major questions–is the hospitalization data overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. At this point, virtually every hospital in America is reporting to the department as required. We now have a good sense of how many patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 around the country.” [Link here, AT]

Gottlieb’s story strikes me as much closer to the truth. Why? Notice that on most of the facts the stories agree. Gottlieb says the CDC refused to work with the HHS data and took their ball and went home. The Piller story has CDC people sobbing, angry, and saying “I refuse to do this.” Check. What differs is the interpretation and everything in Piller’s story is infected by an anti-Trump perspective. I don’t blame Piller for being anti-Trump but Trump plays no role in the story he just hovers in the background like a bogeyman. Piller says, for example:

…Birx’s hospital data takeover fits a pattern in which she opposed CDC guidance, sometimes promoting President Donald Trump’s policies or views against scientific consensus.

“Fits a pattern.” Uh huh.

Birx sometimes “promoted President Donald Trump’s policies.” Promoting the policies of the President of the United States? Why that’s practically treason!

Promoting views that go “against scientific consensus” Yeah, the “scientific consensus” of workers at the CDC.

Trump obviously had no interest in how hospital data was collected yet he is portrayed throughout as the hidden puppeteer behind the story.

Gottlieb’s story removes Trump from the equation and that rings true because we now know that the Biden administration has been as frustrated with the CDC as was the Trump administration. Politico writes, for example:

…senior officials from the White House Covid-19 task force and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly accused CDC of withholding critical data needed to develop the booster shot plan…

…the CDC advisory committee episode in late August only reinforced perceptions in the [Biden] White House that the agency represents the weakest link in a Covid-19 response…

The agency has for years struggled with obtaining accurate disease data from state health departments, and the pandemic strained the country’s public health infrastructure, causing massive delays in reporting and case investigation.

Withholding critical data. Struggling to obtain accurate data. Massive delays. Sound familiar? Indeed, if these parallels weren’t enough we even have CDC Director Rochelle Walensky overruling CDC scientists to allow boosters–but Walensky, unlike Birx, gets the benefit of the doubt so the story isn’t sold as Walensky going against scientific consensus to promote President Biden.

Evaluations of Trump colored evaluations of all the people and policies of the Trump administration leading to reporting that was sometimes unjust and inaccurate. It will take time to sort it all out.

Who are the best Irish artists?, part I on William Orpen

During my recent trip to Dublin and the UK I tried to make a systematic go of learning more about Irish art, mostly by looking at it more systematically.  I’ll do a multi-part series about the best Irish painters, noting that hardly anyone outside of Ireland seems to follow Irish art.  That is a shame, as it is a greatly underrated area, as most things are once you get to know more about them.  Overall, I think of it as a fairly conservative form of modernism, subtle in its attachments to Ireland, and on the aesthetic side lacking in manifestos and foot-stomping.  It is perhaps a better introduction to “the Irish spirit” than the more familiar yet also more exotic and mannered gateways of Joyce and W.B. Yeats.

Let’s start with…

William Orpen, 1878-1931, born County Dublin but mostly worked in London.

His best work is of World War I, as he was stationed by the British government as a war artist in France.  His perspective on war was critical and penetrating, but not maudlin.  It is striking how many sides of the war experience he portrayed, not just fighting, but soldiers walking through towns, German planes circling overhead, abandoned trenches, lone soldiers sitting, a deserter being interrogated, and much more.  It is one of the most significant human attempts to depict the multi-faceted sides of war.

This body of work does not receive more recognition, perhaps because it panders to neither anti- nor pro-war types, nor to Irishmen, nor to Englishmen.  Orpen’s war work made him a painter without a clear constituency.  Here is a good survey of his war work.  Note also that much of it is owned by Imperial War Museum in England, so the reputation of these works has not been “equitized,” namely there are few private collectors or galleries to talk up its value.  His genius was not widely recognized until the 1980s.

I think of Orpen’s war work as critical of the modernist “machine aesthetic,” well ahead of his time in seeing where it would lead.  He is plaintive and tragic, yet accepting of the rules of social convention, including those of war.

There are many more wartime images here.  Here is one soldier:

And this set piece:

Here is one of the military portraits, full of character and it understands how the soldiers on the other side would never quite look like this:

Orpen did support the British war effort and found that returning to Ireland after WWI was not an appealing option, given the civil war and pending independence from Britain.  He ended up orphaned just as Ireland itself took on a geopolitically orphaned status in the 1920s.

Oh, here are Dead Germans in a Trench:

At first the British military was going to ban public display of the painting, but then they realized only the Germans were dead in it.

Orpen actually is best known for his lovely portraits, especially of well-to-do British women, and that is how he paid the bills:

But it was death and terror that brought out the best in him.

16th and 17th century Protestantism (that was then, this is now)

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant culture is, despite both popular and popular scholarly persuasion, diametrically opposed to each one of the cardinal positions of the liberal tradition listed above.  Those central features of early modern evangelical culture might be quickly and crudely summarized thus: enslavement of the will, with total repudiation of works as currency in the economy of salvation, and the permanent shadow of despair; a sense of self subject to an impossibly high bar of authenticity, and forever vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy; a fear of dramatic performativity, now described as seductive, irrational, and lethal magic; repudiation of visual images, both material and psychic, as the destructive allurements of idolatry; obsessive focus on the literalist written as the source of salvation; and non-toleration for freedom of religious conscience.

The author, James Simpson, later lists some traits of this earlier [sic] ideology:

  • posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other…
  • produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancient regime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity…
  • generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion,
  • targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies…
  • actively developed surveillance systems;
  • legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time…
  • promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead…
  • legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue…In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached…The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.

That is all from the excellent book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, Belknap Press 2019, again by James Simpson.

In case you don’t know when the Reformation was, it was a long time ago.

I also loved the author’s take on how Shakespeare was in fact, for his time, a deliberate answer to the (what we now would call) Wokeism surrounding him.  Here is one of the best sentences I have read this year:

By the seventeenth century, Shakespeare began to educate audiences out of the revolutionary discipline of sincerity, by inventing partial escape routes from the schismatic and intolerable logic of early modernizing authentic, singular selfhood.

CS should like that sentence!  It is followed by a very good analysis of Measure for Measure and Winter’s Tale.

And I thank GC for carrying this book to me.