A temporary equilibrium only?

“The Tax Policy Center estimates that last year nearly 107 million households, or about 61 percent, owed no income tax or even received tax credits from the government,” Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, noted last week. “The spike is likely to be temporary, however. The share of non-payers will decline to about 102 million or 57 percent this year.”

n recent pre-pandemic years, the percentage of tax returns with no income tax liability has been closer to 44 percent in Tax Policy Center’s figures, though it has trended upward over time.

“The percentage of filers with no income liability has generally increased from where it was nearly 40 years ago,” the National Taxpayers Union Foundation reported in 2018. “This trend is indicative of a progressive income tax code under which higher-income earners pay a larger share of taxes while low-income earners are generally shielded from significant income tax liabilities.”

Here is more from Reason, via Ray Lopez.  In so many other areas, the pandemic has accelerated trends that already were present…

Fortschritt

Germany has decided to stop using the coronavirus infection rate as its yardstick for deciding if restrictions should be in force to contain the spread of the virus, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday.

The seven-day incidence rate was a key measure in determining whether restrictions could be imposed or lifted, with infection thresholds of 35, 50 and 100 per 100,000 people triggering the opening or closure of different parts of society.

But as the number of people who are fully vaccinated rises, calls have grown for the incidence rate to be dropped as a measure to determine whether lockdowns are necessary.

“We decided today that we no longer need comprehensive protective measures when the number of cases or incidence is 50, because a large proportion of the people are vaccinated,” Merkel said.

When will California do the same?  Here is the full story.

Monday assorted links

1. “Increases in pain in recessions are borne predominantly by women.

2. Covid earlier in the U.S. than had been thought.  (Cowen’s 17th Law)

3. Josh Marshall on media bias and Afghanistan.  And this one is brutal: “Out of a combined 14,000-plus minutes of the national evening news broadcast on CBS, ABC, and NBC last year, a grand total of five minutes were devoted to Afghanistan…”

4. Thread on the metaverse, and why securities regulation has suddenly become so onerous.

5. “…universalists have fewer friends, spend less time with them, and feel more lonely.

6. A paean to Los Angeles.

7. Saloni on what we know and do not know about depression.

Simple facts about Afghanistan

Trade will be a particular source of difficulty. The last IMF report on the country prior to the collapse of the government counted imports at about $7 billion annually, a huge fraction of Afghanistan’s $19 billion GDP. Imports exceeded exports by about a factor of five. While that high level of imports was sustainable under the unusual circumstances of the U.S. presence, it won’t be sustainable going forward.

So on top of its other problems, Afghanistan will need to balance its trade deficit, a deeply painful process that will, one way or another, reduce the number of imports available to Afghan civilians. Given that its currency reserves have been frozen to prevent the Taliban from accessing them, it will need to balance its trade deficit quickly, without any adjustment period.

Here is more, via Matt Yglesias (do subscribe!…and you can subscribe to the Afghanistan source here).  Note that electricity and medical supplies are among the most important Afghani imports.

My Afghan hamburger recipe

It is simple, virtually foolproof, and relies on easy to store ingredients.

1. Cook up some Jasmine rice with lots of turmeric on top while the water is boiling.  That will improve both the flavor and the visuals.

2. Cook some ground hamburger.  Toss in a fair amount of cumin.  For this recipe I find the ground, non-fresh version of cumin better, so its taste does not overwhelm the dish.

3. When the hamburger is two or three minutes away from being done, toss in a whole bunch of raisins.  The end of the cooking will soften and moisten them, but without pulverizing them.  Make sure you are tossing the beef (and raisins) regularly at that point.

4. Put the finished beef on top of the yellow rice, and lather plain, whole fat yogurt on top.  It will be better if you buy your yogurt from an Indian grocery.

5. And put it on a blue plate.  Serve with mineral water.

Voila!

The cultural life extension query

Rebecca Makkai asks:

You have the power to grant fifty more productive years to an artist of any discipline (writer, musician, painter, etc.) who died too young. Who do you pick?

My answer was Schubert, and here is why:

1. Schubert was just starting to peak, but we already have a significant amount of top-tier Mozart.  And I take Mozart to be the number one contender for the designation.  Schubert composed nine symphonies, and number seven still wasn’t that great.  Some people think number eight was unfinished.  Number nine is incredible.  Furthermore, I believe the nature of his genius would have aged well with the man.

2. John Keats is a reasonable contender, but perhaps his extant peak output is sufficient to capture the nature of his genius?

3. After the 1982-1984 period, there was decline in the quality of Basquiat’s output.  His was the genius of a young man, and drugs would have interfered with his further achievement in any case.

4. Buddy Holly had already peaked, and he didn’t quite have the skills or ambition to have morphed into something significantly more.  No one from popular music in that time period did.

5. Frank Ramsey is a reasonable choice, but I am more excited about Schubert.  We still would have ended up with the same neoclassical economics.

6. Perhaps Kurt Cobain’s genius was that of a young man as well?  Nonetheless he is in my top ten, if only for curiosity reasons.  Hank Williams and Hendrix are competitors too.

7. Carel Fabritius anyone?

Who else?  Caravaggio?  Egon Schiele?  Eva Hesse?  I feel they all have styles that would have aged well, unlike say with Jim Morrison.  Seurat?  Thomas Chatterton I can pass on, maybe Stephen Crane or Sylvia Plath from the side of the writers?

The problem with fitting third doses into a regulatory structure

That is a key theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In the U.S., President Joe Biden’s administration is now pushing third booster shots for people who already have been vaccinated. That might be a good idea, but it too creates additional uncertainty for travel and migration — and for social interaction more broadly. If three doses are so important, should people be allowed to travel (or for that matter interact indoors) with only two doses? The bar is raised yet again.

Of course the issues do not end with the third dose. If the efficacy of the second dose declines significantly in less than a year, might the same happen with the third dose? How long before four doses are necessary, or maybe five? Or what if yet another significant Covid variant comes along, and only some people have a booster dose against that strain? What then counts as being “sufficiently vaccinated”?

Many Americans seem to be keen to get their third dose, but by the nature of counting that number is fewer than the number willing to get two doses. Furthermore, many people might just tire of the stress of dealing with an ongoing stream of obligatory booster shots and stop at one or two.

The sad reality is that the “two-dose standard” may not last very long, whether abroad or domestically (the same is true of the even weaker one-dose standard with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca). Vaccine mandates will become harder to define and enforce, will be less transparent, and will probably be less popular.

If you tell people that three doses are needed for safety, but two doses are enough to get you into a concert or government building, how are they supposed to sort out the mixed messages? It is not obvious that enough people will get the third dose in a timely manner to make that a workable standard for vaccine passports.

Add to that the problems with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which originally the government urged people to get. Now those people are not being given comparable chances to obtain boosters — in fact, they are not yet being given specific guidance at all. Are they orphaned out of any new vaccine passport system, or will (supposedly dangerous?) exceptions be made for them? Or do they just have to start all over?

The big international winner from all this is likely to be Mexico, which has remained an open country and is not relying on vaccine passports. In general I do not admire Mexico’s lackadaisical Covid response, but the country may end up in a relatively favorable position, most of all when it comes to tourism and international business meetings.

As for the U.S. and Europe, the temptation to escalate required safety measures is understandable. But the previous vaccine standards were largely workable ones. If they are made tougher, they might break down altogether.

Recommended.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Why is violence so prevalent in kitchens, and how has it become a behavioral norm?

2. Meng Wanzhou update.

3. I really don’t view MR or links as a chance to dunk on people, but this is so, so wrong, and so indicative of the problems with public health “experts.”  More here.  That is an example, and in my view an instructive one, but really not interested in making this about any particular person.  It was in turn taught by someone else, and it is believed by many in the field.  The actual reality is that even very poorly educated Americans, on the whole, hold more sensible views than that.

4. Michael Mina from November 2020.  Not bad.

5. Dishonest dishonesty study study.

6. “They shoot dogs, don’t they?”  Or try this short video.  And the AstraZeneca stockpile continues to grow.  Why are the defenders of civil liberties so quiet?

7. The difficulty in getting hospitals to post their prices (NYT).

Saturday assorted links

1. Private insurers are now picking up less of the tab for Covid-related hospital stays.

2. Claims about vaccine efficacy, useful.  And further claims about boosters.  The correct final picture here still is not clear to me.

3. Dishonesty update.

4. Progress in the use of monoclonal antibodies.  Sadly: “For the administration, mum’s the word on monoclonal antibodies, rapid home tests, high quality masks . . . anything except vaccines,” Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said in an email. “Which is wrong, since we need every tool in the kit to effectively take on delta; we’re not doing that well at all.”

5. What academia used to be like.  Before the internet, that is.

6. Jerry Brito on the coming regulatory challenge for crypto.

The economics of Taliban finance

An example of Islamist governance can be found on the stretch of road from Kabul to the Mile 78 border crossing in south-west Farah province that borders Iran.

The road has more than 25 government checkpoints and a fee is charged at multiple points on the journey. By contrast, the Taliban who police the same road have far fewer checkpoints and give a receipt, so only a single payment is necessary.

Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan consultant at International Crisis Group, said the Taliban sought to portray themselves as better administrators. “Increasingly they began co-opting government infrastructure to offer [improved] service deliveries,” said Bahiss, explaining that the Taliban in some areas ensured that teachers and nurses showed up to work.

In recent years, the Taliban has widened its tax base from centuries-old taxes of oshr, a one-tenth tithe of harvest produce, and zakat, a religious tax of 2.5 per cent of disposable income for the poor, although collection is often lower.

In Nimroz province, levies on transit goods such as vehicles and cigarettes formed 80 per cent of Taliban revenues, ODI research concluded.

Illegal mining and taxes on imported fuel are further sources of funds. Taliban earnings on fuel imported from Iran were as high as $30m last year, according to the Alcis consultancy.

Here is the full FT story.  You will note that the “bandits” side of the Taliban are able to raise this revenue, in part, because Afghanistan suffers from the misfortune of being a landlocked country.  With sea routes as a possible alternatives to goods and services, such fiscal systems would be harder to pull off, for both the Taliban and the previous government, I might add.  Landlocked countries often have it tough.  (By the way, much of the rest of the article considers drugs as a revenue source.)

Covid markets in everything, certified air ambulance regulatory arbitrage edition

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen … if they were going to separate us or put us in a hospital,” said McElroy. “I didn’t know if I was going to need a respirator.”

None of that happened. Within 72 hours, the couple was on a Learjet back to Arizona.

Before they left, Underwood purchased memberships with Covac Global, a medical evacuation company launched by the crisis response firm HRI in the spring of 2020. It meant the couple didn’t pay a dime for their repatriation, said McElroy.

Commercial airlines and private jets can’t fly travelers with Covid-19 home, but certified air ambulances staffed with medical teams can.

While some companies evacuate travelers who require hospitalization, Covac Global retrieves travelers who test positive for Covid-19 and have one self-reported symptom. About 85% of evacuees are returned home, while the rest need hospital attention, said CEO Ross Thompson.

When CNBC first spoke with the company in March, it was performing about two to three medical evacuations every month. Now, that number has climbed to about 12 to 20.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.

What is going on with productivity? (from my email)

Various web sources, but none of this seems controversial:

1. US GDP is now higher, in fact a fair bit higher, then when the pandemic began.

2. US labor force participation is about 1.5% lower than when the pandemic began.

Was there really slack to the tune of a few million people in Jan of 2020?

Has inflation really changed enough to make the GDP numbers misleading?

Has total factor productivity improved that much in that time, under those stresses?

Or is this all a sign that the structure of the economy is more stratified than we think – that there are millions of people in more-or-less filler jobs who can be cast out and the economy just keeps on running along?   Yes, there are all sorts of reports of labor shortages, and all manner of supply chain hiccups which seem to often be associated with off shoring, but general activity is still high.   (Or is it?  Are the numbers reporting “vapor GDP?” – or are the inflation adjustments really out of whack so real GDP is not what we think it is?)

That is all from Bryan Willman.

*Against White Feminism*

In Zero Dark Thirty (and the truish story behind it), American feminism — once a movement that existed in opposition to the state, as a critique of its institutions and mores — was recast as one that served the state’s interests through any means imaginable. This identification with state interests, and the idea of going out to conquer the world with the same mindset of subjugation and domination possessed by white men, seems to have become a warped feminist goal. Put another way, white women wanted parity with white men any at any cost, including by avidly taking on the domination of Black and Brown people.

That is from the new and noteworthy Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria.  Or how about this:

Securo-feminism, thus, bound white American feminism to the neoimperial and neoliberal project of nation-building around the world — one that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson had articulated in his history of “Angloglobalization,” proposing that young Americans should be taught to go overseas and transform other nations in their own image much as Britain had done.  Caught in its fevers, American feminists did not question loudly enough the wisdom of exporting feminism through bombs and drones.

Or:

White feminists in the colonial era were all about spreading their civilized ways, but neo-colonial white feminists want to illustrate their courage and compassion — often while providing moral subsidy for cruelties inflicted in feminism’s name. Times may have changed, but the commitment of whiteness to extracting value wherever it can — and dominating the narrative to frame this extraction as benevolence — persists.

Recommended, sort of.  And here is the author with more detail on “Securo-feminism.”