Everything’s Big In Texas Except Surge Capacity

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The February cold snap left millions of Texas utility customers without power. I provide a bit of a timeline at the bottom of this post. What happened? Well, first, don’t waste your time arguing with alarmists about whether “climate change” caused the plunge in temperatures. Whether it was climate change (it wasn’t) or anything else, the power shortage had very nuts-and-bolts causes and was avoidable.

Texas has transitioned to producing a significant share of its power with renewables: primarily wind and solar, which is fine across a range of weather conditions, though almost certainly uneconomic in a strict sense. The problem in February was that the state lacks adequate capacity to meet surges under extreme weather conditions. But it wasn’t just that the demand for power surged during the cold snap: renewables were not able to maintain output due to frozen wind turbines and snow-covered solar panels, and even some of the gas- and coal-fired generators had mechanical issues. The reliability problem is typical of many renewables, however, which is why counting on it to provide base loads is extremely risky.

Judith Curry’s web site featured an informative article by a planning engineer this week: “Assigning Blame for the Blackouts in Texas”. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is the independent, non-profit operator of the state’s electric grid, with membership that includes utilities, electric cooperatives, other sellers, and consumers. Apparently ERCOT failed to prepare for such an extreme weather event and the power demand it engendered:

“… unlike utilities under traditional models, they don’t ensure that the resources can deliver power under adverse conditions, they don’t require that generators have secured firm fuel supplies, and they don’t make sure the resources will be ready and available to operate.”

ERCOT’s emphasis on renewables was costly, draining resources that otherwise might have been used to provide an adequate level of peak capacity and winterization of existing capacity. Moreover, it was paired with a desire to keep the price of power low. ERCOT has essentially “devalued capacity”:

Texas has stacked the deck to make wind and solar more competitive than they could be in a system that better recognizes the value of dependable resources which can supply capacity benefits. … capacity value is a real value. Ignoring that, as Texas did, comes with real perils. … In Texas now we are seeing the extreme shortages and market price spikes that can result from devaluing capacity.

Lest there be any doubt about the reliance on renewables in Texas, the Heartland Institutes’s H. Sterling Burnett notes that ERCOT data:

“… shows that five days before the first snowflake fell, wind and solar provided 58% of the electric power in Texas. But clouds formed, temperatures dropped and winds temporarily stalled, resulting in more than half the wind and solar power going offline in three days never to return during the storm, when the problems got worse and turbines froze and snow and ice covered solar panels.

Power prices must cover the cost of meeting “normal” energy needs as well as the cost of providing for peak loads. That means investment in contracts that guarantee fuel supplies as well as peak generating units. It also means inter-connectivity to other power grids. Instead, ERCOT sought to subsidize costly renewable power in part by skimping on risk-mitigating assets.

Retail pricing can also help avert crises of this kind. Texas customers on fixed-rate plans had no incentive to conserve as temperatures fell. Consumers can be induced to lower their thermostats with variable-rate plans, and turning it down by even a degree can have a significant impact on usage under extreme conditions. The huge spike in bills for variable-rate customers during the crisis has much to do with the fact that too few customers are on these plans to begin with. Among other things, Lynne Kiesling and Vernon L. Smith discuss the use of digital devices to exchange information on scarcity with customers or their heating systems in real time, allowing quick adjustment to changing incentives. And if a customer demands a fixed-rate plan, the rate must be high enough to pay the customer’s share of the cost of peak capacity.

Price incentives make a big difference, but there are other technological advances that might one day allow renewables to provide more reliable power, as discussed in Tyler Cowen’s post on the “energy optimism” of Austin Vernon”. I find Vernon far too optimistic about the near-term prospects for battery technology. I am also skeptical of wind and solar due to drawbacks like land use and other (often ignored) environmental costs, especially given the advantages of nuclear power to provide “green energy” (if only our governments would catch on). The main thing is that sufficient capacity must be maintained to meet surges in demand under adverse conditions, and economic efficiency dictates that that it is a risk against which ratepayers cannot be shielded.

Note: For context on the chart at the top of this post, temperatures in much of Texas fell on the 9th of February, and then really took a dive on the 14th before recovering on the 19th. Wind generation fell immediately, and solar power diminished a day or two later. Gas and coal helped to offset the early reductions, but it took several days for gas to ramp up. Even then there were shortages. Then, on the 16th, there were problems maintaining gas and coal generation. Gas was still carrying a higher than normal load, but not enough to meet demand.

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Blobum

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I like interesting “shapes” as much as the next guy, but I have to agree with this piece in Current Affairs: much about modern architecture has gone badly wrong. Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson’s (R&R) entertaining piece decries what they call “blobitecture”, among other errant aesthetic trends in the design of modern buildings. The article includes a number of great photos depicting very good and very bad architecture, along with a few amusing captions like the following:

If It doesn’t make you feel desperately, crushingly alone, it’s probably not a piece of prize-winning contemporary architecture.”

Oh my fucking God, just look at it. Look at it! Does this make you happy? Does it nourish your spirit? What’s with all the little random protrusions? Aaaaagghh.

Calling of the Moderns

By “modern”, R&R really mean a philosophy of design having roots in the early twentieth century. “Form follows function” was the dictum set down by the famed architect Louis Sullivan. R&R quickly aver that Sullivan did not intend to condemn all ornamentation, but his statement was often interpreted as such. The misunderstanding was reinforced by Adolph Loos, who likened more austere designs to demonstrations of “spiritual strength”. So, modern design was not only superior from a practical perspective, but it was “honest”, imbued with a kind of valor and perhaps devine aspiration.

Form, and To Hell With Function

A delicious irony in R&R’s discussion is the fact that modern architecture has subverted its objectives in at least one fundamental respect. The utilitarian emphasis, with few or starkly simplified adornments, morphed into a celebration of asymmetry, then shape-shifted into a brave new world of three-dimensional manifolds. But buildings with unusual shapes can present difficulties in using the space effectively. So much for “form follows function”! As an illustration, R&R offer this vignette about Peter Eisenman:

“… one Eisenman-designed house so departed from the normal concept of a house that its owners actually wrote an entire book about the difficulties they experienced trying to live in it. For example, Eisenman split the master bedroom in two so the couple could not sleep together, installed a precarious staircase without a handrail, and initially refused to include bathrooms. In his violent opposition to the very idea that a real human being might actually attempt to live (and crap, and have sex) in one of his houses, Eisenman recalls the self-important German architect from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, who becomes exasperated [by] the need to include a staircase between floors: ‘Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? The problem of architecture is the problem of all art: the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.’

But Sometimes It’s Okay

My tastes must be more eclectic than R&R’s, because when it comes to modern buildings, my opinion is “it all depends….” I’ve never liked the boxy international style that still dominates most skylines, but some modern buildings really are interesting. Sometimes I like asymmetry and sometimes I don’t. The shapes of buildings, whatever they are, might contribute to a city-scape in appealing ways. But it probably depends on the presence of certain things like surrounding greenery, which R&R value highly, or even a stylized nod to classical aesthetics. A building — the whole of a structure— can have an ornamental quality of its own, even if it lacks the kind of minutia R&R yearn for. Some skyscrapers, which R&R find so damnable, do indeed soar gracefully.

Cost, From Both Sides of the Mouth

One of the more interesting points made by R&R has to do with cost. They contend that architects are reluctant to propose ornamentation and aesthetic minutia because of the presumed addition to cost of the final design. And likewise, clients are presumed to view those elements as lacking a return on investment. But as R&R note, this logic does not always stand up to scrutiny: unusual structural elements can be extremely expensive to engineer. In the end, a more traditional structure with decorative elements might be far less costly.

Is Capitalism To Blame?

Finally, I take issue with a point R&R make more strongly toward the end of their essay: that capitalism is a primary driver of the ugliness of modern design. They seem to equate capitalism with the sort of corporatist fascism that relies so heavily on government for its viability. This is the meaning of capitalism only in the imagination of the Left, even as the Left increasingly embraces the state-dominated mechanics of corporatism.

The large private entities that thrive under such a regime might well be inclined to build the sort of stark monoliths assailed by R&R. An ancient, didactic finance professor once cautioned me against investing in companies that build glitzy offices, essentially monuments to themselves. He said it’s a sure sign of trouble ahead, of managerial waste. Fair enough, but today, in a world of “too big to fail”, it might be more symbolic of prospective bailouts from ravaged taxpayers. The problem is these corporate managers don’t pay enough attention to ROI precisely because they are protected from downside risks by public policy makers. So they bring on the monoliths!

In contrast, capitalism means truly private enterprise with no guarantee against failure. It relies on the sovereignty of individual actors in pursuit of their self-interest. Yes, costs matter, but they must be balanced against benefits in order to reach rational, efficient outcomes. In this sense, tastes guide decisions, including decisions about design. The abominations of modern architecture are not purely cost-driven, capitalist phenomena, independent of tastes. Whether it is an office, a storefront, or a home, tastes matter, not just costs. People and businesses are usually willing to pay more for things they find attractive. But again, there’s no accounting for tastes.

Of course, commercial developers can and sometimes do make bad design choices, but that’s hardly uniform. At the same time, to label better design choices “pastiche” or “Disneyfied” sounds like a bit of a cop-out when we’re entertaining thoughts of ornamentation and adornment. Perhaps it’s a thin line. But I find a great deal of variety in the design of residential and commercial construction today, and I quite like some of it.

Tyranny of the Critics

R&R give frequent nods to “democratic” ideals, as if some sort of majoritarian principle should guide design. The ideal is more closely approximated by the free market in which people can express their preferences through purchase decisions, whether those be residential or commercial structures, or even simple decisions about which stores to frequent. Sure, most people might hate contemporary architecture, but alternatives are available. I very much enjoyed R&R’s article and agree with many of their sentiments, but what they really crave is the hand of a central planner who thinks just like them.

Hooray For Florida!

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It’s been said that many of the so-called “heroes” of the COVID pandemic who’ve been celebrated by the media are actually villains, and perhaps Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York should top the list. He saw to it that retirement homes were seeded with infected patients by ordering them returned their care homes rather than admitted to hospitals. Deaths in these facilities mounted, and they mounted faster than Cuomo’s administration was willing to admit. But the media and even Democrat state legislators have begun to take note, which is practically a miracle!

It seems equally true that some vilified by the media for their COVID response are actually heroes. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida might deserve top honors here. Having spent the last month in Florida, I can attest that the business and social environment here is quite open compared to my home state (despite the presence of a few freaked out northerners who can’t quite fathom how stupid they look wearing masks on the beach). Florida’s infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been lower than in California, New York, and many other states where lockdown measures have been stringent. (The first chart below is just a little busy…)

As I’ve written for much of the past year, COVID is far more dangerous to the elderly than anyone else, particularly those with co-morbidities. It’s also true that blacks (and some other minorities) are more vulnerable than whites, but if we want to save more black lives, we’re still better off prioritizing the elderly than racial groups. DeSantis understands this, and Florida is among the leaders in vaccinating the elderly population. (States don’t report this data on a uniform basis):

This approach to saving lives is obvious, yet critics at outlets like NBC News insist that DeSantis must be pandering to the senior population in Florida. Well, one wouldn’t want to be responsive to voters who happen to face high mortality risks, right? Others such as horror writer Stephen King have jumped onboard to offer their bumbling public health expertise as well.

There were many experts and the usual collection of numbskulls on social media who were wrong about Florida. DeSantis handled the pandemic as it should have been handled elsewhere. But the propaganda to the contrary goes unabated. For example, this article is pathetic. Can these people be serious? Or are they really that stupid? This goes for the Biden Administration as well, which had entertained the notion of imposing federal travel restrictions on Florida!

The political attacks on Florida and its governor reveal the extent to which opponents wish to ignore the evidence in plain sight. The data on COVID outcomes put the lie to the narrative of a public health emergency requiring massive restrictions on personal liberty. We know those policies are powerless to control the course of the contagion. The pandemic, however, was the key to convincing the public to accept a more authoritarian role for government. It’s a blessing that not everyone bought in, and that there are places like Florida where you can still go about your business in approximate normalcy.

COVID Cases Decline Despite New Variants

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For weeks, even months, we’ve been hearing about dangerous new mutations of the coronavirus, and they’ve been identified in cases in the U.S. There’s a UK strain, a South African strain, a Brazilian strain, and still others, which differ in seemingly minor ways. Nevertheless, these variants are said to be more infectious. It’s also been reported that the South African and Brazilian strains might resist antibodies from prior infections from earlier strains.

Kyle Lamb has provided the following charts to put things in perspective:

Just to round things out, here is the trend in cases worldwide:

There is a great deal of concern about the new variants. A search for “COVID-19 variants” turns up plenty of scary articles. However, there is some evidence that the new variants are not as dangerous as alarmists contend. The resistance to specific antibodies does not necessarily imply resistance to protection by T-cells. As Youyang Gu points out, even if a new strain becomes “dominant”, that does not imply that cases will reverse their decline. This study indicates that the Pfizer vaccine is protective against both the UK and South African strains, and there is evidence that other vaccines offer adequate protection as well (and see here).

The charts demonstrate that the new strains haven’t arrested or reversed the declines in infections witnessed worldwide since early January. That doesn’t mean the mutations haven’t made a difference: perhaps the declines would have been faster in their absence. And we don’t know what the future will hold as the virus in various forms becomes endemic. Still, it’s reassuring to see that the increased transmissibility of the new strains hasn’t overcome factors that have contributed to the recent declines, which in all likelihood are related to increasing immunity in the population with a minor assist from vaccinations (thus far). As Lamb wryly notes about the recent declines in transmission: “Just saying”.

Teachers Unions and Educational Hostage-Taking

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Intelligent public policy is all too often undermined by policy makers incapable of properly assessing risks. The Biden Administration is setting new standards in this regard with its so-called “return to school” effort. It’s difficult to know how much of it is sheer stupidity and how much is pandering to teachers unions. Equal parts is probably a reasonable approximation.

The public teachers unions have consistently opposed reopening since remote learning began last spring, despite reams of data showing the safety of school environments. Even the CDC agrees! Oh, but wait: the CDC just issued new guidelines for reopening, which among other things require six feet of distancing rather than the three feet Director Rochelle Walensky claimed was adequate just a few months ago. Obviously, this reduces the number of students many existing school buildings can accommodate.

COVID transmission in schools is “extremely rare”. And in addition, remote education is sorely lacking in effectiveness. Teachers who truly care about educating their students should be giving the unions an earful. Not only has learning been compromised, but remote learning has increased the achievement gap between the best students and those in the lower part of the distribution.

Private schools have been open and as the map above shows, public schools in a number of states are largely open to in-person learning. Where that’s not the case, public school buildings are often still being used by children. They’re under the supervision of adults, but not teachers! As Matt Welch says:

“… many of the empty school buildings in largely closed districts are not in fact empty—they are filled with kids, being supervised by adults, just not adults who belong to teachers unions.

Incidentally, many adults with children now at home, rather than in school, have been forced to leave the labor force, and many of them are women. As Michael Watson asks, why are advocates of working women so silent on this point? And this is to say nothing of the health care workers diverted, during a pandemic, from patient care by the need to manage children at home.

In December, Joe Biden promised to reopen “most” K – 12 schools within his first one-hundred days in office. Shortly after his inauguration, that promise became “most” K – 8 schools. As Welch notes, now the goal has been made a bit more precise, and it’s a complete sham: the Administration wants at least half of schools to be “open” for in-person learning at least one day a week! But we’re already well ahead of that! (And see here.)

On top of that, the federal government is playing the interloper here: reopening is not a federal decision. Ah, but Biden wants $130 billion in federal money earmarked to aid schools in their reopening efforts. Anthony Fauci has decided the stimulus is necessary for schools to reopen, his latest in a series of embarrassing policy flip-flops. The funds targeted at schools would be spent in a variety of ways, including PPE, COVID tests, new ventilation systems, and enhancement of remote learning to accommodate smaller (and distanced) in-person class sizes. Some of the funds are likely to make their way into teacher pay and to shore up pensions. One thing is certain: the unions want that money, and they will come back for more!

The unions also argue that teachers should be prioritized for vaccines, which would place them ahead of groups facing drastically higher risks. This is flat-out callous, insane, and evil. Again, the risk of COVID to teachers and children is low, while the elderly population faces staggeringly higher risks. Vaccinating teachers ahead of the elderly would cost many thousands of lives on balance.

This article from Education Next by Darrell Bradford describes the conditions for reopening demanded by teachers unions as the culmination of several years of activism. The unions contributed mightily to Joe Biden’s election campaign, of course. Their overwrought posture on teacher safety aside, the unions’ obstinance on the question of reopening is intended as leverage in the legislative push for Biden’s school aid package. Here’s Bradford:

In other words, if you’ve wondered what a national teacher strike might look like and what might cause teachers across the country to arrest local economies and subject millions of students to instruction that may lock in deep learning losses, it’s just like this.

The schools are safe, remote learning is substandard, and isolation is damaging to children’s’ emotional well being. Union demands for continuing limitations on in-person learning and requirements for reopening are not just unreasonable, but dastardly. That the Biden Administration is crafting its reopening policy and spending initiatives to appease the unions is motivated more by politics than the interests of children and their families. It’s time for parents and other true advocates to let their school administrators, elected representatives, and government officials know that the unions do not have their children’s interests at heart. And well-informed teachers should demand that their union representatives stop playing politics with the educational goals to which they’ve devoted their careers.

The Critical Race Dialectic

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The very notion of impartiality requires decisions that are independent of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, gender identity, or any other component of identity. The great irony of identity politics is its insistence on using characteristics of identity as the key drivers in a broad range of human decisions. It does so in an effort to redress injustices, often in the distant past. This necessarily penalizes individuals bearing no responsibility for the original injustices, and of course those penalties are also assessed on the basis of identity.

That would seem to limit the political viability of reparations for injustices of the distant past, but identity politics seeks to foster a sense of contemporary and immediate relevance to claims of compensable injustice. That’s one way to rationalize the kind of massive redistribution contemplated by this movement. Those who would stand to benefit must be convinced of their ongoing victimhood, and those who would pay must be convinced of their guilt: despite all good intentions, they practice unconscious bias in all of their actions, words, and thoughts. If successful, the possibilities for transfers of wealth and power in all matters are limited only by the negative-sum reality of this scam.

The kind of propaganda referenced above is the province of Critical Race Theory (CRT). S.G.Cheah explains:

Critical Theory originated from Immanuel Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Critical Philosophy states that ‘proper inquiry is not about what is out there in reality, but rather about the character and foundations of experience itself.’

For a more detailed analysis of Kant’s “Critiques” of pure reason, practical reason, and judgement, see here. His primary focus was theology, but the adherents obviously found much broader application. The brief explanation quoted above is pretty accurate, and probably offers all the intellectual underpinnings critical race theorists require to push their agenda.

If one’s “experience” is the only evidence that matters, then the ravings of any lunatic must be taken at face value, and as truth. A concession to objective reality is tolerated only when and if it confirms an individual’s mood affiliation. And what defines one’s experience if not one’s inner feelings about events? Thus, regardless of facts, CRT would have us bow to mere feelings, perceptions, and assertions of harm said to be inflicted by the so-called “privileged”.

If I believe I’ve experienced racism, then CRT supports the conclusion that I have experienced racism. It is not confined to situations of overt discrimination. It goes for any conflict I might have with someone of a different race; any transaction in which I might feel disadvantaged; any life circumstance that I experience as “unfair”; or any judgement against me in a court of law. Racism is reality if I “experience” the world as racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, for that matter.) These charges are conveniently leveled against those who have enjoyed any differential success in the world, irrespective of race, but primarily against whites and often Asians regardless of success.

Apparently, under CRT, one’s “experience” may extend to perceptions that today’s culture and institutions are evolved from any version of history one might choose to conjure. A prominent case are the lies promoted by the New York Times’ 1619 Project that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. Jonah Goldberg’s thoughts on that topic are worth reading.

CRT has spawned some incredibly bad research. Here’s a review of two academic papers on the connection between the use of the “N-word” in LLP Google searches and 1) gun purchases “motivated by white racial animus”, and 2) “anti-black voting patterns”. The authors of those papers drew behavioral conclusions from mere coincidental events, based more upon their personal biases than objective evidence. They undoubtedly were aware of the weaknesses of using Google trends to gauge attitudes, but they willfully ignored that evidence.

CRT is being taught to our children in public schools and probably in some private schools. This is nothing short of an indoctrination campaign. Of course, CRT made much earlier inroads in higher education. A new web site, criticalrace.org, includes a searchable database on CRT training at U.S. universities, as well as links to a variety of articles on CRT. Many private corporations have been eager to jump on board with CRT. Take a look at the instructor’s notes on the poster boards at the racial struggle session shown below. Here is a longer description.

This is literally a propaganda putsch, and it is meeting with far more success than I would have thought possible. I’ve apparently misjudged the ability of my countrymen to think independently, or to think at all. Here are examples of the success of CRT advocates in convincing whites of their individual and collective guilt. There are individuals now so convinced of the guilt of all white people that they can’t help but make complete fools of themselves:

We will only achieve tolerance and unity once white people accept that they are evil, repugnant, worthless trash whose very existence is a vomit stain on the fabric of society.

Speak for yourself! I have to conclude that this poor woman recognizes something quite damning within herself, and she feels it necessary to project her innermost racism onto others who happen to share her skin color.

Now here’s a man to admire: Lt. Governor Mark Robinson of North Carolina. He isn’t having any of the CRT crap, and he knows how to give it back to the petty stringers in the media as well as anyone.

CRT is a lie, or many lies. Racists certainly walk among us, but to condemn all whites of racism, or to allege racism by any class with presumed privilege, is a gross violation of ethics. Guilt of recompensable racism cannot be established by mere claims about anyone else’s “experience” without impartial adjudication. The thoughts and actions of decent people are not dominated by racial animus or repugnance, and any presumption to the contrary must be rejected in the absence of objective proof. Everyone matters, and we must insist on equality under the law. That does not mean equality of outcome, and it is not an excuse for blaming negative outcomes on anyone skilled and/or fortunate enough to have enjoyed more positive outcomes. If the fact that blacks have not achieved average economic parity with whites is evidence of “systemic racism”, I would suggest it has more to do with short-sighted public policy efforts to engineer social outcomes than with racism. More on that in a later post.

Note: the graphic at the top is from New Discourses.

Revisiting Excess Mortality

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In early December I said that 2020 all-cause mortality in the U.S. would likely be comparable to figures from about 15 years ago. Now, Ben Martin confirms it with the chart below. Over time, declines in U.S. mortality have resulted from progress against disease and fewer violent deaths. COVID led to a jump in 2020, though some of last year’s deaths were attributable to policy responses, as opposed to COVID itself.

Here’s an even longer view of the trend from my post in December (for which 2020 is very incomplete):

As Martin notes sarcastically:

Surprising, since the US is undergoing a ‘century pandemic‘ – In reality it is an event that’s unique in the last ‘15 years’

The next chart shows 2020 mortality by month of year relative to the average of the past five years. Clearly, excess deaths have occurred compared to that baseline.

Using the range of deaths by month over the past 20 years (the blue-shaded band in the next chart), the 2020 figures don’t look quite as anomalous.

Finally, Martin shows total excess deaths in 2020 relative to several different baselines. The more recent (and shorter) the baseline time frame, the larger the excess deaths in 2020. Compared to the five-year average, 364,000 excess deaths occurred in 2020. Relative to the past 20 years, however, 150,000 excess deaths occurred last year. While those deaths are tragic, the pandemic looks more benign than when we confine our baseline to the immediate past.

Moreover, a large share of these excess deaths can be attributed to non-COVID causes of death that represent excesses relative to prior years, including drug overdoses, suicide, heart disease, dementia, and other causes. As many as 100,000 of these deaths are directly attributable lockdowns. That means true excess deaths caused by COVID infections were on the order of 50,000 relative to a 20-year baseline.

As infections subside from the fall wave, and as vaccinations continue to ramp up, some policy makers are awakening to the destructive impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions (lockdown measures). The charts above show that this pandemic was never serious enough to justify those measures, and it’s not clear they can ever be justified in a free society. Yet some officials, including President Biden and Anthony Fauci, still labor under the misapprehension that masks mandates, stay-at-home orders, and restaurant closures can be effective or cost-efficient mitigation strategies.

Taking Inspiration From Morons

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I just quit Facebook for good, and it’s about time! Over the years my posts there became focused on links to my blog, SacredCowChips. In fact, I started the blog as a vehicle for longish-form refutation of nitwitted ideas to which I was regularly exposed on Facebook. Of course, nitwitted ideas are all too common in economic and political discourse, so there is always a deep vein of blog-worthy material. Facebook has no monopoly on that! More recently, COVID became a primary vehicle for foolish policy and commentary, which gave me plenty to write about.

What strikes me now is how much inspiration I drew from the purveyors of nonsense on Facebook. And when I say “inspired”, I mean it excited me to write posts that I knew would drop their jaws. Again, there are infinite sources of wrongheaded thinking and non-thinking acceptance of “woke” BS outside my circle of former Facebook friends. Still, I wonder whether posting my articles there gave me an extra thrill because I knew those people and could stick it right under their noses.

I’d say my hope was to persuade except I couldn’t help giving in to my disdain for “sacred cows.” Those aren’t really confined to one side of the political aisle, either. I’ll find a way to piss off everyone eventually. People of all stripes take pieces of received wisdom without subjecting them to logical scrutiny, and they don’t like to be told they’re wrong. I’m sure that led certain “friends” to “unfollow” me on Facebook. There’s no way of knowing, but it really didn’t bother me. What bothered me a little was when friends who agreed with me were too chickenshit to “like” a post. I know some had business interests to protect and couldn’t afford to alienate the crowd, but some people are more daring in that regard, to which I must accord some respect.

I now find myself on several platforms dominated by folks more amenable to my largely libertarian point of view. But I feel much more as if I’m “singing to the choir”. Also, I’m concerned that articles might get lost amid a sea of posts appealing to similar “mood affiliations”.

Here’s another concern: since I posted “On Leaving Facebook”, in which I was highly critical of the tech giants, my readership has plunged. Granted, I haven’t posted in six days due to travel and reorienting my social media connections. Nevertheless, I find the downturn in views and visitors to my blog highly coincidental and suspicious.

Even after all that, however, I’m still eager to continue writing about issues that are important to me. As part of that, I’ll find plenty of inspiration in the dumb reports of woke journalists, pundits, and politicos. And after all, the Biden Administration and Congress are full of busybodies who are so set on “doing something” that they will propose all sorts of moronic public policies. No, inspiration won’t be a problem!

On Quitting Facebook

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Cartman is awesome! Haha! But really, that kind of reaction to the dominant social media platforms is well deserved, especially given their recent behavior. Listen to this: my wife’s church held a service of hymns and prayer for “healing the nation” on Tuesday. The church’s IT administrator posted an advance notice about the service on the church’s Facebook wall. There was nothing overtly political about the notice or the service itself. Nevertheless, somehow FB deemed the notice subversive and blocked it! We are not dealing with decent or reasonable people here. They are pigs, and we don’t have to do business with them.

FaceHook

A number of years ago, a woman told me FB was “the Devil!” She was very good natured and I laughed at the time. But there are many reasons for people to wean themselves from social media, or at least from certain platforms. The web abounds with testimony on lives improved by quitting FB, for example, and there are forums for those who’ve quit or would like to. There’s also plenty of practical advice on “how to leave”, so there is definitely some interest in getting out.

Ditching FB offers a certain freedom: you can eliminate the compulsion to check your news feed and escape those feelings of obligation to “like” or comment on certain posts. These are distractions that many can do without. No more efforts to “unsee” expressions of foot fetish narcissism! Free of the pathetic virtue signals that seem to dominate the space. And quitting might be especially nice if you’re keen on cutting ties with certain “frenemies”. Almost all of us have had a few. This study found that quitting FB results in less time online (surprise!) and more time with family and friends (pre-COVID lockdowns, of course). It also found that quitting leads to less political polarization! Imagine that!

There’s no question that FB helped me make new friends and reconnect with old ones. It also led to overdue severing of ties with a few toxic individuals. I know I’m likely to lose contact with people I truly like, and that’s too bad, but in most cases I must leave it up to them to stay in touch (read on). Obviously, there are many ways to stay in contact with friends you really want to keep.

FacePurge

As for politics (and seemingly every aspect of life has been politicized), now is a very good time to quit FB if you believe in free expression, the value of diverse opinion, and a free marketplace of ideas. FB doesn’t want that. As the episode at my wife’s church demonstrates, FB has been brazenly selective in suppressing opinion, like other prominent social media platforms. It was obvious well before the presidential election, and it has become intolerable since.

How To Defacebook

There are voices that counsel patience with the tech giants. They recommend a strategy of diversification across platforms, without necessarily quitting any of them. I can understand why certain people might prefer that route. It’s well nigh impossible to migrate an extended family to another platform, for example. However, juggling several accounts can be a problem of time management. And for me, this all boils down to a matter of disgust. It’s time to stick it to FB.

This rest of this post offers some practical advice on quitting FB and more thoughts on how and why I’m doing it. This will also appear on some speech-friendly platforms, so if you see it there and you haven’t quit FB, do it! You’re already halfway there.

The first decision is whether to quit outright or deactivate. Many don’t have the fortitude to stay away if they merely deactivate, and maybe they just need a break. For others, FB has earned an enmity that can only be satisfied by leaving for good. Count me among the latter.

You should reclaim all of your data before you quit: you can download it to a zip file, which will include all of your photos, chats, “About” information, your friends’ birthdays, etc… While it’s been claimed that shutting your account will cleanse Facebook of all your data, that’s not entirely the case. For example, your friends might still retain chats in which you participated. In fact, I’m not convinced all of your data isn’t permanently in FB’s possession, if not the NSA’s, but we might never know.

You should also change your login credentials on other online accounts linked to FB. You should be able to identify some or maybe all of those by looking at the password section in “Settings”. I’m not sure whether scrolling though and checking all the apps listed in Settings will help — it didn’t help me identify anything that the password section did not.

It’s a good idea to keep Messenger up for a while in case any of your friends want to inquire or find a way to stay in touch. That’s fine, but to really rid yourself of FB, you must part with Messenger eventually. Of course, you’ll lose Instagram and WhatsApp when you quit FB. I don’t use those, so it won’t be a problem for me.

Then there are the “I’m Going To Quit!” status updates, sometimes laced with sadness or anger. I haven’t found those particularly appealing in the past… I’ve often wondered if they were merely ploys to get attention. But things have changed. I will add this post to my wall and leave it there for a few days. My *noble* intent is to help others quit, and to do my small part to foster a more competitive social media environment. Another way to communicate your departure would be to use Messenger to inform selected friends, but that’s more work. And by the way, in anticipation of my stop date, I’ve been culling my friends list more aggressively than ever.

Once you pull the trigger and click “Delete”, your account will remain active for a few days. Don’t be a sucker. Delete the app on your phone. Wait it out. Forget about it!

Not OurBook

Again, there was never a better time to dump FB. Beyond any emotionally corrosive aspects of social media, the last straw should be the selective censorship of political views, shadow bans, outright bans, and deletion of groups. Lately, it’s been like witnessing the early transition from Weimar to the Third Reich. We can only hope the full transition will remain unfulfilled.

For a company protected from liability under Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, FB’s refusal to respect First Amendment rights and to abide diversity of opinion is shocking. Don’t tell me about fact checking! Facebook fact checkers are politically motivated hacks, and the new “oversight board” is not likely to help you and me. The presumption underlying Section 230 is that these platforms are not publishers, but having abandoned all pretense of impartiality, they should not be entitled to immunity. Moreover, they have tremendous market power, and they are colluding in an effort to consolidate political power and protect their dominant market position.

Big Tech, and not just FB, has been flagrant in this hypocrisy. These firms have deplatformed individuals who’ve questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election, and there is plenty to question. But they refuse to censor Antifa and BLM rioters, antisemites, state terrorists, and genocidal tyrants from around the world, including the Chinese Communist Party. More recently, FB and other platforms have condemned supporters of President Trump, as if that support was equivalent to endorsing those who stormed the Capital on June 6th. And even if it were, would an objective arbiter not also condemn leftist violence? How about equal condemnation of the Antifa and BLM rioters who ravaged American cities throughout last summer? Or those who rioted at the time of Trump’s inauguration?

The social media platforms won’t do that. FB is bad, but Twitter is probably the worst of them all. I quit using Google years ago due to privacy concerns, but also because it became obvious to me that it’s search results are heavily biased. Amazon pulled the rug out from under Parler, and I will quit using Amazon when my Prime membership is up for renewal unless Jeff Bezos starts singing a different tune by then. These companies are anticompetitive, but there are other ways to buy online, and there is plenty of other video programming.

Let’s Book

The power of Big Tech is not absolute. Remember, there are alternatives if you choose to quit or diversify: check out MeWe, Clouthub, Rumble (video hosting), Gab, Signal, and Telegram, for example (see this interesting story on the latter two). And Parler, of course, if it manages to find a new hosting service or wins some kind of emergency relief against Amazon.

Message me for my contact information or my identity on other platforms, or you can always find my ruminations at SacredCowChips.net. You can even share them on FB (if they’ll let you), at the risk of alienating your “woke” friends! So long.

COVID Now: Turning Points, Vaccines, and Mutations

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The pandemic outlook remains mixed, primarily due to the slow rollout of the vaccines and the appearance of new strains of the virus. Nationwide, cases and COVID deaths rose through December. Now, however, there are several good reasons for optimism.

The fall wave of the coronavirus receded in many states beginning in November, but the wave started a bit later in the eastern states, in the southern tier of states, and in California. It appears to have crested in many of those states in January, even after a post-holiday bump in new diagnoses. As of today, Johns Hopkins reports only two states with increasing trends of new cases over the past two weeks: NH and VA, while CT and WY were flat. States shaded darker green have had larger declines in new cases.

A more detailed look at WY shows something like a blip in January after the large decline that began in November. Trends in new cases have clearly improved across the nation, though somewhat later than hoped.

While the fall wave has taken many lives, we can take some solace in the continuing decline in the case fatality rate. (This is not the same as the infection mortality rate (IFR), which has also declined. The IFR is much lower, but more difficult to measure). The CFR fell by more than half from its level in the late summer. In other words, without that decline, deaths today would be running twice as high.

Some of the CFR’s decline was surely due to higher testing levels. However, better treatments are reducing the length of hospital stays for many patients, as well as ICU admittance and deaths relative to cases. Monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma have been effective for many patients, and now Ivermectin is showing great promise as a treatment, with a 75% reduction in mortality according to the meta-analysis at the link.

Reported or “announced” deaths remain high, but those reports are not an accurate guide to the level or trend in actual deaths as they occur. The CDC’s provisional death reports give the count of deaths by date of death (DOD), shown below. The most recent three to four weeks are very incomplete, but it appears that actual deaths by DOD may have peaked as early as mid-December, as I speculated they might last month. Another noteworthy point: by the totals we have thus far, actual deaths peaked at about 17,000 a week, or just over 2,400 a day. This is substantially less than the “announced” deaths of 4,000 or more a day we keep hearing. The key distinction is that those announced deaths were actually spread out over many prior weeks.

A useful leading indicator of actual deaths has been the percentage of ER patients presenting COVID-like illness (CLI). The purple dots in the next CDC chart show a pronounced decline in CLI over the past three weeks. This series has been subject to revisions, which makes it much less trustworthy. A less striking decline in late November subsequently disappeared. At the time, however, it seemed to foretell a decline in actual deaths by mid-December. That might actually have been the case. We shall see, but if so, it’s possible that better therapeutics are causing the apparent CLI-deaths linkage to break down.

A more recent concern is the appearance of several new virus strains around the world, particularly in the UK and South Africa. The UK strain has reached other countries and is now said to have made appearances in the U.S. The bad news is that these strains seem to be more highly transmissible. In fact, there are some predictions that they’ll account for 30% of new cases by the beginning of March. The South African strain is said to be fairly resistant to antibodies from prior infections. Thus, there is a strong possibility that these cases will be additive, and they might or might not speedily replace the established strains. The good news is that the new strains do not appear to be more lethal. The vaccines are expected to be effective against the UK strain. It’s not yet clear whether new versions of the vaccines will be required against the South African strain by next fall.

Vaccinations have been underway now for just over a month. I had hoped that by now they’d start to make a dent in the death counts, and maybe they have, but the truth is the rollout has been frustratingly slow. The first two weeks were awful, but as of today, the number of doses administered was over 14 million, or almost 46% of the doses that have been delivered. Believe it or not, that’s an huge improvement!

About 4.3% of the population had received at least one dose as of today, according to the CDC. I have no doubt that heavier reliance on the private sector will speed the “jab rate”, but rollouts in many states have been a study in ineptitude. Even worse, now a month after vaccinations began, the most vulnerable segment of the population, the elderly, has received far less than half of the doses in most states. The following table is from Phil Kerpen. Not all states are reporting vaccinations by age group, which might indicate a failure to prioritize those at the greatest risk.

It might not be fair to draw strong conclusions, but it appears WV, FL, IN, AK, and MS are performing well relative to other states in getting doses to those most at risk.

Even with the recent increase in volume, the U.S. is running far behind the usual pace of annual flu vaccinations. Each fall, those average about 50 million doses administered per month, according to Alex Tabarrok. He quotes Youyang Gu, an AI forecaster with a pretty good track record thus far, on the prospects for herd immunity and an end to the pandemic. However, he uses the term “herd immunity” as the ending share of post-infected plus vaccinated individuals in the population, which is different than the herd immunity threshold at which new cases begin to decline. Nevertheless, in Tabarrok’s words:

“… the United States will have reached herd immunity by July, with about half of the immunity coming from vaccinations and half from infections. Long before we reach herd immunity, however, the infection and death rates will fall. Gu is projecting that by March infections will be half what they are now and by May about one-tenth the current rate. The drop will catch people by surprise just like the increase. We are not good at exponentials. The economy will boom in Q2 as infections decline.”

That sounds good, but Tabarrok also quotes a CDC projection of another 100,000 deaths by February. That’s on top of the provisional death count of 340,000 thus far, which runs 3-4 weeks behind. If we have six weeks of provisionals to go before February, with actual deaths at their peak of about 17,000 per week, we’ll get to 100,000 more actual deaths by then. For what it’s worth, I think that’s pessimistic. The favorable turns already seen in cases and actual deaths, which I believe are likely to persist, should hold fatalities below that level, and the vaccinations we’ve seen thus far will help somewhat.