Voting Rights Doublespeak

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The so-called insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021 (J6) has obsessed Democrats seeking to ram through a “voting rights” bill that they hope will advantage them in future elections. Oh, and to legitimize proposed new powers for agencies in the fight against “domestic terror”, and to somehow disqualify Donald Trump from holding the presidency again. We can thank a couple of moderate Democrats for shutting down the election bill, at least for the time being, by refusing to eliminate the filibuster.

The Real Threat to Voting Rights

If your real aim is to undermine ballot security and make it easier to cheat, you’d have to work hard to beat the election bill pushed by the Biden Administration: the Freedom To Vote Act (FVA). In their fashion, however, the Left prefers to stake-out phony rhetorical high-ground, replete with spurious charges against the opposition alleging racism and subversive, anti-democratic intent. Joe Biden demonstrated this vividly during his ill- advised speech in Georgia last week.

Here is a fairly thorough summary of the FVA, including an earlier version passed by the House last March. The overarching thrust of the bill is to substitute federal for state authority over the election process. States would not be permitted to demand that voters produce photo IDs. The bill would also require automatic voter registration at the department of motor vehicles and other government agencies, on-line registration, same-day registration, more days of early voting, excuse-free, notary-free, and witness-free absentee ballots, and extended counting of late-arriving ballots.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have now used a NASA funding bill as a shell for all these federally-prescribed protocols. Reportedly, this bill would legalize ballot harvesting nationwide, but that does not appear to be the case. Nevertheless, it includes all of the other provisions cited above, and many others.

While Congress certainly has the power to regulate elections, states were given the primary authority for conducting elections under the Constitution:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped secure minority voting rights that plainly exist under the Constitution, and it prescribed federal review of certain changes in state voting procedures (some aspects of which were struck down by the Supreme Court). However, never before has such sweeping federal authority been proposed as to the range of mechanics involved in casting and counting ballots. Ballot security would be compromised by several provisions of the legislation.

While voter registration should be relatively painless, it should not be so painless that non-citizens find it easy to register. That is likely to be the case under automatic voter registration. Surely many non-citizens have much to recommend them, but they have not yet demonstrated their commitment to the nation through earned citizenship. The right to vote is a benefit of citizenship; it serves as an inducement to learn about our system of government through the naturalization process. These individuals might not be interested in going to the trouble, however, or they might be loyal to a foreign power. Do we really want such individuals to have a vote? And to the extent that their interest is focused on public benefits, they surely do not have an equal claim to natural-born but similarly-situated Americans.

Voter ID is a safeguard against voter fraud, and a huge majority of Americans support it, including majorities of minorities. The very idea that a photo ID requirement would “suppress” the legitimate votes of minorities is based on the presumption that those voters might have difficulty obtaining identification such as a drivers license or other government ID. Oh really? We can safely file that contention under “the bigotry of low expectations”.

Extensive use of absentee ballots was intended to facilitate voting during pandemic restrictions that were expected to reduce the safety and efficiency of polling places. However, most developed countries ban “mail-in voting”, regarding it as a prescription for voter fraud. That threat seems all too real given the lax standards proposed in the FVA.

The Threat to Political Opposition

The House investigative committee looking into the January 6th melee may recommend new intelligence powers for the federal government. Those powers aren’t needed to investigate the Capitol riot: the FBI has been in possession of teams of video evidence, and it has broad powers under the PATRIOT Act and other measures. Here’s Patrick Eddington from the link above:

“… the FBI already has unbelievably sweeping authority to surveil individual Americans or domestic groups without ever having to go before a judge to get a warrant.

Under an investigative category known as an assessment, FBI agents can search commercial and government databases (including databases containing classified information), run confidential informants, and conduct physical surveillance, all without a court order.

The simple truth is that certain congressional Democrats and the Biden Administration are attempting to use the Capitol riot as an excuse to turn federal law enforcement against their political enemies. The claim by Biden, the guy who bragged of being mentored by Klansman Robert Byrd, and the same man who praised George Wallace on several occasions, is that his opponents are “domestic terrorists” and/or “white supremacists”. We’ve seen quite enough of this chicanery already. Having suffered through a lengthy “Russian collision” charade, a willingness to completely ignore massive riots and property destruction by BLM and Antifa activists in 2020, and an orchestrated attempt to treat concerned parents of schoolchildren as “domestic terrorists”, we’re expected to believe that these stooges need more power?

The J6 Fiasco

And that brings us back to the Capitol riot. It was, as Glenn Reynolds has said, a clownshow and a mess. But speaking of insurrection, let’s hope the FBI is keeping its eye on violent leftists as well, who perpetrated some unquestionably treasonous escapades in the not very distant past. From Legal Insurrection:

“…leftist rioters … attempted to stop the peaceful transition of power during President Trump’s inauguration. … did anti-Trump leftists riot, attack and injure police, set cars and buildings on fire…

… the multi-day May, 2020 assault on the White House that left at least 60 Secret Service agents wounded and forced President Trump to be whisked away to a bunker for his personal safety.”

Even more dangerous leftist attacks on the Capitol building have been perpetrated, such as bombings by the Weather Underground in 1971 and the Armed Resistance in 1983.

Many people were hurt in the J6 riot through no real fault of their own, including Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by a Capitol police officer shortly after she attempted to stop attackers from smashing windows. Nevertheless, those who breached the Capitol building were mostly a bunch of hapless goofballs encouraged to run amuck by certain instigators. Among those were the Oathkeepers, a gang who marched around in stack formation wearing gear that looked vaguely militaristic. They brought no weapons to the Capitol (though they had some stashed in the VA suburbs). Apparently, one of them did assist a crowd in barging through a door to the Capitol. Their activities on J6 have been described by one pundit as LARP — live action role playing. Nevertheless, there was much talk among them of interfering with the transfer of power to “the usurper”, as they called Joe Biden. And now, eleven of them have been charged with insurrection and sedition. Members of the Proud Boys were also at the Capitol, some of whom fought with police.

But what really happened to make things go off the rails on January 6th? This article by Joseph M. Hanneman offers an excellent discussion of the events of that afternoon, and the subsequent investigation. He notes the mysterious absence of a number of individuals involved in the breach of the Capitol and grounds from the FBI’s “Seeking Information” list of over 1,500 photos. That includes one Ray Epps, whose incitement was otherwise fairly well-documented. Some suspect certain parties with no interest in seeing Donald Trump remain in office actually encouraged the rioters, up to and including the FBI. Would that surprise anyone after the Whitmer kidnapping operation or the Russian collusion hoax?

The vast majority of the crowd on J6 came to the Capitol grounds to conduct a peaceful protest in the vain hope for congressional action to put a hold on the counting of electors pending state election audits, investigations, and court challenges. Many of those arrested were denied due process, and were held for months with no charges filed.

As for the “threat to the nation” posed by the crowd on J6, I found this Marco Rubio quote to be apropos:

I don’t care how many candlelight vigils and musical performances you have from the cast of Hamilton, you’re not going to convince most normal and sane people that our government last year was almost overthrown by a guy wearing a Viking hat and speedos.

Conclusion

Democrats still hope to vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster and then pass the FVA. That is a pipe dream at this point, but they would come to regret eliminating the filibuster in due course. They have used it themselves to defeat legislation hundreds of times in the recent past. The filibuster has its shortcomings, particularly its inability to restrain executive power. Nevertheless, it has never been more critical as protection against a tyrannical (and slim) majority in Congress.

The Freedom To Vote Act is doomed to failure. Still, no one should forget the mendacious rhetoric employed by Joe Biden and the leftist Democrat leadership in Congress on the issue of election integrity. Nor should anyone forget their dishonorable, anti-democratic intent to devalue legitimate voting rights.

Three Justices Reveal Astonishing Covid Ignorance

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Good God! What a remarkable display of ignorance we witnessed on Friday from three different Supreme Court justices. This trio dumped buckets-full of erroneous information about the current state of the COVID pandemic, all points that are easily falsifiable. The three are Sonia Satamayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan. The flub-fest occurred during a proceeding on challenges to OSHA’s attempt to impose a nationwide vaccine mandate on private employers having more than 100 employees. I’m sorely tempted to say these jurists must know better, but perhaps they were simply parroting what they’ve heard from “reliable” media sources.

Here’s a list of the false assertions made by the three justices at the hearing, as compiled by Michael P. Sanger, along with my own brief comments:

  • 100,000 children in critical care and on ventilators (Sotomayor) — Not even close!
  • Vaccine mandate would prevent 100% of US cases (Breyer) — Lol!
  • 750 million people tested positive last Thursday (Breyer) — That’s more than twice the U.S. population… in one day! Haha! See here.
  • COVID deaths are at an all-time high (Sotomayor) — No, they are well under half of the all-time high, and many of those “announced” deaths are Delta deaths and deaths that occurred weeks to months ago.
  • It’s “beyond settled” that vaccines and masks are the best way to stop the spread (Kagan) — Say what?
  • COVID vaccines stop transmission (Kagan) — Is that why two fully vaccinated attorneys arguing the government’s case just tested positive?
  • Federal agencies can mandate vaccines using the police powers of the federal government (Sotomayor) — Incorrect, not at their fancy. Police powers with respect to health, safety and morals are generally reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment. The Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate these powers through federal agencies on “major questions”. Congress, however, has never acted on the question of vaccine mandates.
  • Hospitals are nearing capacity (Sotomayor) — Again, no! And see here.
  • Omicron is deadlier than Delta (Sotomayor) — Omicron may be more severe than the common cold in some cases, but all indications are that it has much lower severity than the Delta variant.
  • Hospitals are full of unvaccinated people (Breyer) — No, on two counts: 1) hospitals are not full, and 2) there are COVID hospitalizations among the vaccinated as well. Also see here.

I’ve covered most of these points on this blog at various times in the past, a few links to which are provided in the bullets above. As one wag said, it’s almost as if these justices read nothing but the New York Times, the paper that once assured the world that Joseph Stalin was actually a pretty decent fellow. With tongue firmly in cheek, Ed Morrissey asked whether Twitter would suspend Justice Sotomayor for spreading COVID misinformation.

There also followed a desperate attempt by left-wing journalists to convince themselves and their followers that Justice Neil Gorsuch had incorrectly claimed hundreds of thousands of people die from the flu every year. The actual Gorsuch quote in the transcript reads:

“Flu kills—I believe—hundreds, thousands of people every year.”

And that indeed is what can be heard clearly on the audio (short clip here). But in the fertile imaginations of the lefty commentariat, Gorsuch uttered an extra “of”. Gorsuch was clearly correcting himself mid-sentence. As noted by Phil Kerpen, the line of questioning had to do with the establishment of a limiting principle under which OSHA could conceivably have authority to impose a vaccine mandate. Naturally, Gorsuch intended to quote a number smaller than the count of COVID deaths.

Most of the justices appeared to lean against the OSHA mandate. We’ll probably get a ruling this week. However, the episode vividly illustrates the power of the leftist mainstream media and social media to manipulate beliefs, even beliefs held by individuals of formidable intellect. It also shows how fiercely people cling to falsehoods supporting their ideological mood affiliations.

Price Controls: Political Gut Reaction, Gut Punch To Public

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In a gross failure of education or perhaps memory, politicians, policymakers, and certain academics seem blithely ignorant of things we’ve learned repeatedly. And of all the dumb ideas floated regarding our current bout with inflation, the notion of invoking price controls is near the top. But watch out, because the Biden Administration has already shifted from “inflation is transitory” to “it only hurts the rich” to “it’s fine because people just want to buy things”, and now “greedy businessmen are the culprits”. The latter falsehood is indeed the rationale for price controls put forward by a very confused economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst named Isabella Weber. (See this for an excerpt and a few immediate reactions.) She makes me grieve for my profession… even the frequently ditzy Paul Krugman called her out, though he softened his words after realizing he might have offended some of his partisan allies. Of course, the idea of price controls is just bad enough to gain favor with the lefty goofballs pulling Biden’s strings.

To understand the inflation process, it’s helpful to distinguish between two different dynamics:

1. When prices change we usually look for explanations in supply and demand conditions. We have supply constraints across a range of markets at the moment. There’s also a great deal to say about the ways in which government policy is hampering supplies of labor and energy, which are key inputs for just about everything. It’s fair to note here that, rather than price controls, we just might do better to ask government to get out of the way! In addition, however, consumer demand rebounded as the pandemic waned and waxed, and the federal government has been spending hand over fist, with generous distributions of cash with no strings attached. Thus, supply shortfalls and strong demand have combined to create price pressures across many markets.

2. Economy-wide, all dollar prices cannot rise continuously without an excess supply of a monetary asset. The Federal Reserve has discussed tapering its bond purchases in 2022 and its intention to raise overnight interest rates starting in the spring. It’s about time! The U.S. money supply ballooned during 2020 and its growth remains at a gallop. This has enabled the inflation we are experiencing today, and only recently have the markets begun to react as if the Fed means business.

Weber, our would-be price controller, exhibits a marked ignorance with respect to both aspects of price pressure: how markets work in the first instance, and how monetary profligacy lies at the root of broader inflation. Instead, she insists that prices are rising today because industrialists have simply decided to extract more profit! Poof! It’s as simple as that! Well what was holding those greedy bastards back all this time?

Everyone competes for scarce resources, so prices are bid upward when supplies are short, inputs more costly, or demand is outpacing supply for other reasons. Sure, sellers may earn a greater margin on sales under these circumstances. But the higher price accomplishes two important social objectives: efficient rationing of available quantities, and greater incentives to bring additional supplies to market.

So consider the outcome when government takes the advice of a Weber: producers are prohibited from adjusting price in response to excess demand. Shortages develop. Consumers might want more, but that’s either impossible or it simply costs more. Yet producers are prohibited from pricing commensurate with that cost. Other adjustments soon follow, such as changes in discounts, seller credit arrangements, and product quality. Furthermore, absent price adjustment, transaction costs become much more significant. Other resources are consumed in the mere process of allocating available quantities: time spent in queues, administering quotas, lotteries or other schemes, costly barter, and ultimately unsatisfied needs and wants, not to mention lots of anger and frustration. Lest anyone think this process is “fair”, keep in mind that it’s natural for these allocations to take a character that is worse than arbitrary. “Important people” will always have an advantage under these circumstances.

Regulatory and financial burdens are imposed on those who play by the rules, but not everyone does. Black market mechanisms come into play, including opportunities for illegal side payments, rewards for underworld activity, along with a general degradation in the rule of law.

Price controls also impose rigidity in relative prices that can be very costly for society. “Freezing” the value of one good in terms of others distorts the signals upon which efficient resource allocation depends. Tastes, circumstances, and production technology change, and flexible relative prices enable a smoother transitions between these states. And even while demand and/or input scarcity might increase in all markets, these dynamics are never uniform. Over time, imbalances always become much larger in some markets than others. Frozen relative prices allow these imbalances to persist.

For example, the true value of good A at the imposition of price controls might be two units of good B. Over time, the true value of A might grow to four units of good B, but the government insists that A must be traded for no more than the original two units of B. Good B thus becomes overvalued on account of government intervention. The market for good A, which should attract disproportionate investment and jobs, will instead languish under a freeze of relative prices. Good B will continue to absorb resources under the artificial tradeoff imposed by price controls. Society must then sacrifice the gains otherwise afforded by market dynamism.

The history of price controls is dismal (also see here). They artificially suppress measured inflation and impose great efficiency costs on the public. Meanwhile, price controls fail to address the underlying monetary excess.

Price controls are destructive when applied economy-wide, but also when governments attempt to apply them to markets selectively. Posturing about “strategic” use of price controls reveals the naïveté of those who believe government planners can resolve market dislocations better than market participants themselves. Indeed, the planners would do better to discover, and undo, the damage caused by so many ongoing regulatory interventions.

So beware Joe Biden’s bluster about “greedy producers” in certain markets, whether they be in “Big Meat”, or “Big Oil”. Price interventions in these markets are sure to bring you less meat, less oil, and quite possibly less of everything else. The unintended consequences of such government interventions aren’t difficult to foresee unless one is blinded with the scientism of central planning.

Reformed Covid Reporting Might Quell the Omicron Panic

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That’s our Commander and Chief this week, posing in a mask on the beach in what is a phenomenal display of stupidity. More importantly, that kind of messaging contributes to the wholly unwarranted panic surrounding the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Panic, you say? Take a look at this admission from a New York health official. She says a recent alert on pediatric hospitalizations was driven by a desire to “motivate” parents to vaccinate their children. Yet Covid has never posed a significant risk to children. And take a look at what this insane physician posted. It’s fair to say he’s “catastrophizing”, an all too common psychological coping mechanism for alarmists.

The Omicrommon Cold

Given Omicron’s low apparent severity, it might be the variant that allows a return to normalcy. It’s perhaps the forefront of a more benign but endemic Covid, as it seems to be out-competing and displacing the far more dangerous Delta variant. In fact, Omicron infections are protective against Delta, probably for much longer than vaccines. The mild severity we’ve seen thus far is due in part to protection from vaccines and acquired immunity against breakthrough infections, but there’s more: there are plenty of non-breakthrough cases of Omicron, and most hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated. Yet we see this drastic decline in Florida’s ratio of ICU to hospital admissions (as well as a reduction in length of stay — not shown on chart). Similar patterns appear elsewhere. Omicron’s more rapid onset and course make it less likely that these patterns are caused by lags in the data.

Panic Begets Lockdowns

The frantic Omicron lunacy is driven partly by data on the number of new cases, which can be highly misleading as a guide to the real state of affairs. Testing is obviously necessary for diagnosis, but case totals as an emphasis of reporting have a way of feeding back to panic and destructive public policy: every wave brings surges in cases and the positivity rate prompting authoritarian measures with dubious benefits and significant harms (see here and here).

Flawed Case Data

In many respects, the data on Covid case totals have been flawed from the beginning, owing largely to regulators. At the outset in early 2020, there was a severe shortage in testing capacity due to the CDC’s delays in approving tests, as well as restrictions on testing by private labs. Many cases went undiagnosed, including a great many asymptomatic cases. The undercount of cases inflated the early case fatality rate (CFR). Subsequently, the FDA dithered in its reviews of low-cost, rapid, at-home tests. The latest revelation was the Administration’s decision in October to nix a large rollout of at-home tests. While the results of those tests are often unreported, they would have been helpful to individual decisions about seeking care and quarantining.

The PCR test finally distributed in March 2020 was often too sensitive, which the CDC has finally acknowledged, This is a flaw I’ve noted several times in the past. It led to false positives. Hospitals began testing all admitted patients, which was practical, and the hospitals were happy to do so given the financial rewards attendant to treating Covid patients under the CARES Act. However, it resulted in the counting of “incidental” Covid-positives: patients admitted with Covid, but not for Covid. That inflates apparent severity gleaned through measures like hospitalized cases, and it can distort counts of Covid fatalities and the CFR.

On balance, the bias caused by the test shortage at the start of the pandemic likely constrained total case counts, but the subsequent impact of testing practices is uncertain except for incidental hospitalized cases and the impact on counts of deaths.

Omicron Enlightenment

Omicron spreads rapidly, so the clamoring for tests by panicked consumers has resulted in another testing shortage, both for PCR tests and at-home tests at pharmacies. The shortage might not be relieved until the Omicron wave has crested, which could occur within a matter of a few weeks if the experience of South Africa and London are guides. In the meantime, another deleterious effect of the “case panic” is the crush of nervous individuals at emergency rooms presenting with relatively minor symptoms. Now more than ever, many of the cases identified at hospitals are incidental, particularly pediatric cases.

A thread by Monica Gandhi, and her recent article in the New York Times, makes the case that hospitalizations should be the primary focus of Covid reporting, rather than new cases. Quite apart from the inaccuracies of case counting and the mild symptoms experienced by most of those infected, Gandhi reasons that breakthrough infections so common with Omicron render case counts less relevant. That’s because high rates of vaccination (not to mention natural immunity from prior infections) reduce severity. Even Jennifer Rubin has taken this position, a complete reversal of her earlier case-count sanctimony.

Incidental Infections

Phil Kerpen’s reaction to Gandhi’s article was on point, however:

“Unless HHS Protect adds a primary [diagnosis] column, hospital census isn’t much more useful than cases.”

HHS Protect refers to the Health and Human Services public data hub. Without knowing whether Covid is the primary diagnosis at admission, we have no way of knowing whether the case is incidental. If Covid is the primary reason for admission, the infection is likely to be fairly severe. It is more useful to know both the number of patients hospitalized for Covid and tge number hospitalized for other conditions (incidentally with Covid). The distinction has been extremely important to those interpreting data from South Africa, where a high proportion of incidental admissions was a tip-off that Omicron is less severe than earlier variants.

The absence of such coding is similar to the confusion caused by the CDC’s decision early in pandemic to issue new guidance on the completion of death certificates when Covid is present or even suspected. A special exception was created at that time requiring all deaths involving primary or incidental Covid infections to be ruled as Covid deaths. This represented another terrible corruption of the data.

Summary

Earlier variants of Covid were extremely dangerous to the elderly, obese, and the immune-compromised. Yet public health authorities seemed to take every opportunity to mismanage the pandemic, including contradictory messaging and decisions that compromised the usefulness of data on the pandemic. But here we are with Omicron, which might well be the variant that spells the end of the deadly Covid waves, and the focus is still squarely on case counts, vaccine mandates, useless masking requirements, and President Brandon wearing a mask on the beach!

Case counts should certainly be available, as Gandhi goes to great lengths to emphasize. However, other metrics like hospitalizations are more reliable indicators of the current wave’s severity, especially if paired with information on primary diagnoses. Fortunately, there has been a very recent shift of interest to that kind of focus because the superior information content of reports from countries like South Africa and Denmark is too obvious. As Don Wolt marvels:

Behold the sudden interest by the public health establishment in the “With/From” COVID distinction. While long an important & troubling issue for many who sought to understand the true impact of the virus, it was, until very recently, actively ignored by Fauci & crew.

That change in emphasis would reduce the current sense of panic, partly by making it more difficult for the media to purvey scare stories and for authorities to justify draconian non-pharmaceutical interventions. It’s no exaggeration to say that anything that might keep the authoritarians at bay should be a public health priority.

May All Your Christmas Parleys Be Bright and Well-Officiated!

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The Christmas holidays are upon us, with many joyful gatherings of family and friends, lots of tempting treats and libations, and of course, plenty of college football bowl games… all barring cancellation due to Covid psychosis. Just as discipline and good sportsmanship is maintained on the football field via sound officiating, it might be helpful to designate at least one friend or family member to serve as an impartial referee for the many political and philosophical discussions that are bound to crop up around the Yule log.

In the spirit of giving, I present you with an illustrated guide to officiating these deliberations. A complete set of hand signals for philosophy referees is shown below, with credit to the Leiter Reports blog. However, you better give your designated ref(s) a day or so to prepare. And remember to appoint a videographer for replay review!

The Curious Case of Unnecessary Pronoun Lists

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A subset of my LinkedIn connections list “preferred pronouns” after their names, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any misapprehensions about their “gender identities”. Not one of them. Their “gendentities” are obvious based on the names and/or photos they’ve chosen to use on social media. In fact, the “default” pronoun designations in the English language work pretty well that way. So, apart from the fact that LinkedIn invites its users to list pronouns, why do these people bother? Would they introduce themselves that way in person? “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Jane Smith, she / her.” Maybe on a name tag. Otherwise, unlikely.

Let’s face it: precious few of us have any doubt about our own biological sex. Do you have a penis and no vagina? Or vice versa? That settles it! But if you wish you didn’t have a penis, or wish you did, or you’re not sure… then you have a gender quandary and a pronoun problem. Still, those who decide to “take” one gender via transition will have chosen their pronouns. They typically make an effort to “present” that way as well.

There’s a tiny minority of individuals whose biological sex is ambiguous, and there are others who simply consider themselves “non-binary” or “genderqueer”. They represent three to four people out of every 1,000, if a recent survey can be believed (and surveys like this can be terribly flawed). These people are actually included in the broad definition of transgender. But again, for biological or other reasons, they identify as neither male nor female. It would be natural for these individuals to prefer gender-neutral pronouns (for example, possibilities are they / them and zi / hir, rather than he / him or she / her). That’s understandable, but: 1) using the plural “they” as a singular pronoun can lead to awkward grammar, inviting the use of the plural verb form as a fix*; and 2) remembering different pronouns for different people is a complexity to which most of us are quite unaccustomed. This is a practical issue, and social encounters with non-binaries are fairly unusual for most of us.

If tolerating the use of “he” or “she” just won’t do for this tiny minority, even as a courtesy to the “unschooled”, then it must be very important to make one’s non-binary status clear to everyone. That suggests a different problem, and one of a psychological nature. The insistence on strict adherence to alternative pronouns reflects a narcissism common to most manifestations of identity politics. And no, there is no reliable research showing that use of non-gendered pronouns reduces non-binary suicides, as one advocacy group has claimed.

I speak as one who has been called by the wrong gendered pronoun! I’m a male and I’m confident I present that way. However, I’ve worked with many Chinese over the course of my career, and gendered pronouns aren’t used in Chinese. The distinctions between “he” and “she”, or “his” and “hers”, can be as foreign to them as the pronouns “zi” and “hir” are to me. I’ve heard myself referenced by Chinese colleagues as “she”. Did it offend me? Not at all, because I knew the speaker was not fluent in the English language.

It should be easy to tolerate members of a minority who get it wrong because we empathize with their language challenge. We don’t demand their absolute conformity, but they understand their minority status and might prefer to avoid the potential embarrassment of getting it wrong. Contrary-wise, if I’m in the minority, say at a gathering of Chinese, shall I press the issue by demanding that every member of the majority distinguish between me and my wife using the correct English pronouns? I think not. But non-binary activists are so offended by gendered pronouns, which have been in common use among English speakers for centuries, that they demand the majority change the language to accommodate them. That is unreasonable. It’s okay to let others know what you prefer, but you shouldn’t feel slighted by every miscue or be a complete prig about it!

Now, if you happen to be a plain-old binary individual, what’s your excuse for listing preferred pronouns on social media? It seems completely unnecessary, so why bother? Here are a few possibilities:

  • You have transitioned to your gender and list pronouns as a courtesy to anyone who knew you before your transition.
  • You are an HR functionary having a career imperative to signal your evenhandedness.
  • You are a plaintiffs attorney chasing genderqueer discrimination business.
  • You simply like the Chinese practice and want to adopt gender-neutral pronouns. Good luck at your high school reunion!

My guess is that pecuniary and career motives are less important to most pronoun-listers than simple political correctness. Either way, it’s a virtue signal. Of course, you might have non-binary friends or relatives and wish to demonstrate to the world your unerring respect for their preferences. That’s admirable loyalty, but it’s an unnecessary compulsion.

Pronoun lists seem designed to announce support for all things LGBTQ+. I also suspect that some believe it more firmly establishes their socially progressive bona fides, that the pronoun-lister is beyond reproach no matter the nasty capitalists for whom they might toil. Therefore, announcing one’s preference for default pronouns seems both unnecessary and pretentious.

I am fairly tolerant of the notion that gender identity can transcend biology in some individuals. However, that is a controversial metaphysical assertion that many do not accept. Certainly, a decision to reject one’s biological sex should not be made hastily. In particular, these decisions should not be encouraged in children except for cases in which biological sex is ambiguous and where medical procedures might be appropriate. Yet LGBTQ+ doctrine teaches that questioning one’s gender identity should be normalized, even among impressionable children. That is highly objectionable and even abusive. Persuading straights to engage in pronoun pretensions of the kind described above is part of the LGBTQ+ crusade to normalize gender dysphoria.

Beyond all that, changing the structure of the English language to accommodate LGBTQ+ advocates requires a change in language curriculum for young children. One might object on purely grammatical grounds, but it would also raise questions as to why dual sets of pronouns are necessary. To whom do these pronouns apply? That broaches the sensitive topic of gender fluidity that many parents and taxpayers do not wish to be taught as standard curriculum in elementary or even secondary schools. I’m inclined to agree with them.

My general attitude is “whatever floats your boat, but leave me out of it”. I submit that the use of non-gendered pronouns is not “owed” to anyone. It would be easier for the rarefied non-binaries to accept the same fluidity with respect pronouns that they profess with respect to their own gender identities.

* I have occasionally used plural pronouns (they, them, and their) with plural verb forms in reference to “one”, “someone”, or “you”), who might be either male or female. In those cases, the sentence is meant to apply to both genders, but I admit it’s sloppy writing.

Homeownership, Pensions, and the Wealth Distribution

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My theme in “What’s To Like About Income Inequality?” was the existence of natural drivers of an unequal distribution of income, as where institutions reward merit and legal systems assign strong property rights. I also discussed trends in income and wealth inequality and how standard measures of inequality are distorted by income taxes and transfer payments, including differences in unrealized and realized capital gains. Furthermore, income mobility makes “snapshots” of inequality less compelling, as individuals are not “stuck” for all time at a point in the income distribution, but are typically moving across the distribution and usually upward as they age through their working years.

Wealth inequality is another matter, but a new paper by Daniel Waldenström entitled “Wealth and History: An Update” shows that wealth concentration, which he defines as the share of wealth held by the top 1%, declined markedly between 1920 and 1970 in Europe and the U.S. After 1970, however, the share remained flat in Europe and was flat in the U.S. as well if unfunded pensions and Social Security benefits are valued as wealth. However, the near-entirety of the earlier decline in U.S. wealth concentration occurred by about 1950.

So a great thinning in the fat right tail of the wealth distribution occurred during the middle years of the 20th century. Waldenström attributes this transition to growth of homeownership and pension assets. These are so-called “popular assets” because they are held more broadly than the legacy wealth of the 1800s and early twentieth century:

“… the structure of private wealth has changed over the twentieth century, from being dominated by elite fortunes in agriculture or businesses to consisting mainly of widely dispersed assets in housing and funded pensions.

Waldenström concludes that the facts run contrary to claims that wealth inequality has worsened in Western, capitalist economies over the years:

These new findings have implications for the historiography of Western wealth accumulation and wealth concentration. They cast doubt over the view that an unfettered capitalism, such as in pre-democratic and pre-taxation nineteenth-century Europe, generates extreme levels of capital accumulation. The new findings also question the pivotal role of wars, crises and progressive taxation as the sole important factors behind the wealth equalization of the twentieth century.

Waldenström considers the role of progressive taxation in equalizing wealth, but he acknowledges that taxes undermined wealth accumulation at all levels, so the effect was ambiguous. A point on which I’d take issue with Waldenström is the role of regulation, which he believes “curbed the growth of large fortunes”. That might be true in some cases, but this effect is also subject to ambiguity. Regulation is often welcomed by powerful market players as a way of consolidating market position and hindering new competition. The regulatory state has long been considered a primary channel for rent seeking, so the impact on the wealth distribution is likely to be mixed.

Market institutions, together with rising education levels, labor reforms, and gains in productivity enabled this broadening in the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Social Security certainly played a part as well, though we don’t know how private pensions might have evolved in its absence. Of course, Social Security has a terrible record as an “investment” of payroll taxes. Private control over the investment direction of those funds would have done far better, and still could, which would be a further boon to wealth for the lower 99%.

It is true that inequality in both income and wealth is to be expected under merit-based systems of rewards. However, Daniel Waldenström’s paper offers evidence that markets do not merely concentrate wealth at the expense of workers. Rather, they deliver gains to all participants, who are in turn free to accumulate wealth in the kinds of “popular assets” discussed by Waldenström.

Scary New Variant or Omicrommon Cold?

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The political motives behind the naming of the Covid Omicron variant might prove to be a huge irony. The Greek letter Xi was skipped by the World Health Organization (WHO), undoubtedly to avoid any symbolic association between Covid and the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. After all, he’s probably determined to bury discussion of the leak at the Wuhan lab that was the probable cause of this whole mess. The WHO was happy to provide cover. The irony is that the Omicron variant might well bring on a more gentle phase of the pandemic if early indications can be trusted. But in that case, my guess is Chairman Xi wouldn’t have appreciated the twist even if WHO had called it the Xi variant.

The Omicron variant was identified in the Gauteng Province of South Africa and announced by national health authorities on November 24th. The earliest known sample was taken on November 9th. The variant was subsequently diagnosed in a number of other countries, including the U.S. It has a large number of mutations, and initial reports indicated that the variant was spreading extremely fast, having suddenly outcompeted other variants to account for the majority of new cases in South Africa. It is apparently highly contagious. Moreover, Omicron has been diagnosed among the vaccinated as well as those having immunity from prior infections, which is usually more effective and durable than vaccination. Thus, it is said to have “immune escape” properties. Scary indeed!

However, Omicron seems to have been around much longer than suggested by its initial diagnosis in late November (and see this link for an extreme view). Cases in a number of countries show that it is already global; the lags involved in diagnosis as well as earlier contacts with spreaders suggest that Omicron’s origin could have been as early as late September. That means the spread has not been quite as fast as the first alarming reports suggested.

The reported symptoms of the Omicron variant have been quite mild, with fatigue being the most noteworthy. Omicron appears to have taken one mutation from the common cold, which, like Covid-19, is a type of coronavirus. And while there has been a surge in hospitalized cases in South Africa, most of these are said to be “incidental”. That is, these patients were admitted for other problems but happened to test positive for the Omicron variant. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, the data is not always reliable.

It’s too early to draw definite conclusions, and this variant might prove to be more dangerous with time. In fact, some say that South Africa’s experience might not be representative because of its young population and high natural immunity. It also happens to be early summer there, when higher vitamin D levels help to boost immunity. So, there is a great deal of uncertainty about Omicron (and see here). Nevertheless, I’ll risk a jinx by momentarily contemplating an outcome that’s not terribly far-fetched.

Viruses mutate in ways that help ensure their survival: they must not kill too many of their hosts, which means the usual progression is toward less lethal variants. They may become more contagious, and new variants must be contagious enough to outcompete their ancestors. Viral interference can sometimes prevent multiple viruses from having a broad coexistence. That’s the likely phenomenon we witnessed when the Covid pandemic coincided with the virtual disappearance of the flu and other respiratory viruses. More to the point, it’s the same phenomenon that occurred when the Spanish Flu was eventually outcompeted by less deadly variants.

So it’s possible that a mild Omicron will put the pandemic behind us. If it proves to be as contagious and as mild as it appears thus far, it would likely displace Delta and other variants as the first phase of a new, endemic malady. That might even cut into the severity of the current seasonal wave. The Ethical Skeptic tweets thusly:

So was Omicron an ultra fast-mutating magic terminator variant? A gift from God, or aliens…? … Or natural virility/genetic profile derived from a previous variant conferring immunity …”

That would be a wonderful outcome, but Omicron’s arrival in the northern hemisphere just as winter gets underway contributes to the uncertainty. It’s severity during the northern winter could be far worse than what we’ve seen in South Africa. We can hope this variant isn’t one truly deserving of Chairman Xi’s name.

Climate Alarmism and Junk Science

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The weak methodology and accuracy of climate models is the subject of an entertaining Norman Rogers post. I want to share just a few passages along with a couple of qualifiers.

Rogers quotes Kevin Trenberth, former Head of Climate Analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, with apparent approval. Oddly, Rogers does not explain that Trenberth is a strong proponent of the carbon-forcing models used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He should have made that clear, but Trenberth actually did say the following:

‘[None of the] models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate [of the Earth].’“

I’ll explain the context of this comment below, but it constitutes a telling admission of the poor foundations on which climate alarmism rests. The various models used by the IPCCc are all a little different and they are calibrated differently. I’ve noted elsewhere that their projections are consistently biased toward severe over-predictions of temperature trends. Rogers goes on from there:

“The models can’t properly model the Earth’s climate, but we are supposed to believe that, if carbon dioxide has a certain effect on the imaginary Earths of the many models it will have the same effect on the real earth.

But how on earth can a modeler accept the poor track record of these models? It’s not as if the bias is difficult to detect! On this question, Rogers says:

The climate models are an exemplary representation of confirmation bias, the psychological tendency to suspend one’s critical facilities in favor of welcoming what one expects or desires. Climate scientists can manipulate numerous adjustable parameters in the models that can be changed to tune a model to give a ‘good’ result.

And why are calamitous projections desirable from the perspective of climate modelers? Follow the money and the status rewards of reinforcing the groupthink:

Once money and status started flowing into climate science because of the disaster its denizens were predicting, there was no going back. Imagine that a climate scientist discovers gigantic flaws in the models and the associated science. Do not imagine that his discovery would be treated respectfully and evaluated on its merits. That would open the door to reversing everything that has been so wonderful for climate scientists. Who would continue to throw billions of dollars a year at climate scientists if there were no disasters to be prevented?

Indeed, it has been a gravy train. Today, it is reinforced by green-preening politicians, the many billions of dollars committed by investors seeking a continuing flow of public subsidies for renewables, tempting opportunities for international redistribution (and graft), and a mainstream media addicted to peddling scare stories. The parties involved all rely on, and profit by, alarmist research findings.

Rogers’ use of the Trenberth quote above might suggest that Trenberth is a critic of the climate models used by the IPCC. However, the statement was in-line with Trenberth’s long-standing insistence that the IPCC models are exclusively for constructing “what-if” scenarios, not actual forecasting. Perhaps his meaning also reflected his admission that climate models are “low resolution” relative to weather forecasting models. Or maybe he was referencing longer-term outcomes that are scenario-dependent. Nevertheless, the quote is revealing to the extent that one would hope these models are well-calibrated to initial conditions. That is seldom the case, however.

As a modeler, I must comment on a point made by Rogers about the use of ensembles of models. That essentially means averaging the predictions of multiple models that differ in structure. Rogers denigrates the approach, and while it is agnostic with respect to theories of the underlying process generating the data, it certainly has its uses in forecasting. Averaging the predictions of two different models with statistically independent and unbiased predictions will generally produce more accurate forecasts than the individual models. Rogers may or may not be aware of this, but he has my sympathies in this case because the IPCC is averaging across a large number of models that are clearly biased in the same direction! Rogers adds this interesting tidbit on the IPCC’s use of model ensembles:

There is a political reason for using ensembles. In order to receive the benefits flowing from predicting a climate catastrophe, climate science must present a unified front. Dissenters have to be canceled and suppressed. If the IPCC were to select the best model, dozens of other modeling groups would be left out. They would, no doubt, form a dissenting group questioning the authority of those that gave the crown to one particular model.”

Rogers discusses one more aspect of the underpinnings of climate models, one that I’ve covered several times on this blog. That is the extent to which historical climate data is either completely lacking, plagued by discontinuities or coverage, or distorted by imperfections in measurement. The data used to calibrate climate models has been manipulated, adjusted, infilled, and estimated over lengthy periods by various parties to produce “official” and unofficial temperature series. While these efforts might seem valiant as exercises in understanding the past, they are fraught with uncertainty. Rogers provides a link to the realclimatescience blog, which details many of the data shortcomings as well as shenanigans perpetrated by researchers and agencies who have massaged, imputed, or outright created these historical data sets out of whole cloth. Rogers aptly notes:

The purported climate catastrophe ahead is 100% junk science. If the unlikely climate catastrophe actually happens, it will be coincidental that it was predicted by climate scientists. Most of the supporting evidence is fabricated.”

Break the Market, Blame It, Then Break It Some More

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Much of what is labeled market failure is a consequence of government failure, or rather, failure caused by misguided public intervention, not just in individual markets but in the economy more generally. Misguided efforts to correct perceived excesses in pricing are often the problem, but there are myriad cases of regulatory overreach, ham-handed application of taxes and subsidies for various enterprises, and widespread cronyism. But it is often convenient for politicians to appear as if they are doing something, which makes activism and active blame of private enterprise a tempting path. The Biden Administration’s energy crisis offers a case in point. First, a digression on the efficiency of free markets. Skip the next two sections to get straight to Biden’s mess.

Behold the Bounty

I always spent part of the first class session teaching Principles of Economics on some incredible things that happen each and every day. Most college freshmen seem to take them for granted: the endless variety of goods that arrive on shelves each day; the ongoing flow of services, many appearing like magic at the flick of a switch; the high degree of coincidence between specific wants and all these fresh supplies; the variety and flow of raw materials and skills that are brought to bear; the fantastic array of sophisticated equipment deployed to assist in these efforts; and the massive social coordination necessary to accomplish all this. How does it all happen? Who collects all the information on what is wanted, and by whom? On the feasibility of actually producing and distributing various things? What miracle computer processes the vast set of information guiding these decisions and actions? Does some superior intelligence within an agency plan all this stuff?

The answer is simple. The seemingly infinite set of knowledge is marshaled, and all these tasks are performed, by the greatest institution of social cooperation to ever emerge: decentralized, free markets! Buying decisions are guided by individual needs and wants. Production and selling decisions are guided by resource availability and technology. And all sides react to evolving prices. Preferences, resources, and technology are in a constant state of flux, but prices react, signaling producers and consumers to make individual adjustments that correct larger imbalances. It is tempting to describe the process as the evolving solution to a gigantic set of dynamic equations.

The Impossible Conceit

No human planner or government agency is capable of solving this problem as seamlessly and efficiently as markets, nor can they hope to achieve the surplus welfare that redound to buyers and sellers in markets. Central planners or intervening authorities cannot possess the knowledge and coordinating power of the market mechanism. That doesn’t mean markets are “perfect”, of course. Things like external costs and benefits, dominant sellers, and asymmetric information can cause market outcomes to deviate from the competitive “ideal”. Inequities can arise from some of these imperfections as well.

What can be much worse is the damage to market performance caused by government policy. Usually the intent is to “correct” imperfections, and the rationale might be defensible. The knowledge to do it very well is often lacking, however. Taxes, subsidies, regulations, tariffs, quotas, capital controls, and manipulation of interest rates (and monetary and credit aggregates) are very general categories of distortion caused by the public sector. Then there is competition for resources via government procurement, which is frequently graft-ridden or price-insensitive.

Many public interventions create advantages for large sellers, leading to greater market concentration. This might best serve the private political power of the wealthy or might convey advantages to investments that happen to be in vogue among the political class. These are the true roots of fascism, which leverages coercive state power for the benefit of private interests.

Energy Vampires

Now we have the curious case of the Biden Administration and it’s purposeful disruption of energy markets in an effort to incentivize a hurried transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As I described in a recent post on stagflation,

“… Biden took several steps to hamstring the domestic fossil fuel industry at a time when the economy was still recovering from the pandemic. This included revoking permits for the Keystone pipeline, a ban on drilling on federal lands and federally-controlled waters in the Gulf, shutting down production on some private lands on the pretext of enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and capping methane emissions by oil and gas producers. And all that was apparently just a start.

As Mark Theisen notes, when you promise to destroy a particular industry, as Joe Biden has, by taxing and regulating it to death, who wants to invest in or even maintain production facilities? Some leftists with apparent influence on the administration are threatening penalties against the industry up to and including prosecution for ‘crimes against humanity’!

In addition to killing Keystone, there remains a strong possibility that Biden will shut down the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan, and there are other pipelines currently under federal review. Biden’s EPA also conducted a purge of science advisors considered “too friendly” to oil and gas industry. This was intertwined with a “review” of new methane rules, which harm smaller, independent oil and gas drillers disproportionately.

Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” (BBB) legislation, as clumsy in policy as it is in name, introduces a number of “Green New Deal” provisions that would further disadvantage the production and use of fossil fuels. Hart Energy provides descriptions of various tax changes that appeared in the Treasury’s so-called “Greenbook”, a collection of revenue proposals, many of which appear in the BBB legislation that recently passed in the House. These include rollbacks of various deductions for drilling costs, depletion allowances, and recovery rules, as well as hikes in certain excise taxes as well as taxes on foreign oil income. And all this while granting generous subsidies to intermittent and otherwise uneconomic technologies that happen to be in political favor. This is a fine payoff for cronies having invested significantly in these rent seeking opportunities. While the bill still faces an uphill fight in the Senate, apparently Biden has executive orders, held in abeyance, that would inflict more pain on consumers and producers of fossil fuels.

Biden’s energy policies are obviously intended to reduce supplies of oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. Prices have responded, as Green notes:

Gas is up an average of 57% this year, with corresponding increases of 44% for diesel and a whopping 60% for fuel oil.

The upward price pressure is not limited to petroleum: electricity rates are jumping as well. Consumers and shippers have noticed. In fact, while Biden crows about wanting “the rich” to pay for BBB, his energy policies are steeply regressive in their impact, as energy absorbs a much larger share of budgets among the poor than the rich. This is politically suicidal, but Biden’s advisors have chosen a most cynical tact as the reality has dawned on them.

Abusive Victim Blaming

Who to blame? After the predictable results of cramping domestic production and attacking fossil fuel producers, the Biden team naturally blames them for rising prices! “Price gouging” is a charge made by political opportunists and those who lack an understanding of how markets allocate scarce resources. More severe scarcity means that prices must rise to ration available quantities and to incentivize those capable of bringing forth additional product under difficult circumstances. That is how a market is supposed to function, and it mitigates scarcity!

But here comes the mendacious and Bumbling Buster Biden. He wants antitrust authorities at the FTC to investigate oil pricing. Again from Stephen Green:

… the Biden Administration has decided to launch a vindictive legal campaign against oil producers in order to deflect blame for the results of Biden’s policies: Biden’s Solution to Rising Gas Prices Appears to Be Accusing Oil Companies of Price Gouging.

There’s nothing quite like a threat to market participants to prevent the price mechanism from performing its proper social function. But a failure to price rationally is a prescription for more severe shortages.

Biden has also ordered the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to release 50 million barrels of oil, a move that replaces a total of 2.75 days of monthly consumption in the U.S. The SPR is supposed to be drawn upon only in the case of emergencies like natural disasters, so this draw-down is as irresponsible as it is impotent. In fact, OPEC is prepared to offset the SPR release with a production cut. Biden has resorted to begging OPEC to increase production, which is pathetic because the U.S. was a net exporter of oil not long ago … until Biden took charge.

Conclusion

Properly stated, the challenge mounted against markets as an institution is not that they fall short of “perfection”. It is that some other system would lead to superior results in terms of efficiency and/or equity. Central planning, including the kind exercised by the Biden Administration in it’s hurried and foolish effort to tear down and remake the energy economy, is not even a serious candidate on either count.

Granted, there is a long history of subsidies to the oil and gas sector. I cannot defend those, but the development of the technology (even fracking) largely preceded the fruits of the industry’s rent seeking. At this point, green fuels receive far more subsidies (despite some claims to the contrary). Furthermore, the primacy of fossil fuels was not achieved by tearing down competing technologies and infrastructure. In contrast, the current round of central planning requires destruction of entire sectors of the economy that could otherwise produce efficiently for the foreseeable future, if left unmolested.

The Biden Administration has adopted the radical green agenda. Their playbook calls for a severe tilting of price incentives in favor uneconomic, renewable energy sources, despite the economy’s heretofore sensible reliance on plentiful fossil fuels. It’s no surprise that Biden’s policy is unpopular across the economic spectrum. His natural inclination is to blame a competitive industry victimized by his policy. It’s a futile attempt to avoid accountability, as if he thinks doubling down on the fascism will help convince the electorate that oil and gas producers dreamt up this new, nefarious strategy of overcharging customers. People aren’t that dumb, but it’s typical for the elitist Left presume otherwise.