Blow Me Down: Obesity, Age, and Aerosol-Borne Particles

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Super-spreading events are gatherings in which one or more attendees are already harboring an infection and manage to transmit it to a number of others. These people, in turn, spread it to their close contacts, possibly at the same event. Super-spreading has dominated the transmission of COVID-19. These transmissions have almost always taken place indoors in spaces with limited ventilation, and they have usually involved close or prolonged contact. In addition, super-spreading originates with a small subset of infected individuals. That’s essentially what the chart above shows. It ranks individual subjects by their exhaled quantity of aerosol particles per liter of air.

For more than a year, we’ve also known that obesity and age are associated with more severe COVID infections. Now, it’s startling to learn that obese and/or older, infected individuals are more prone to transmitting virus to others: this study found that a high body mass index (BMI) is associated with significantly greater quantities of exhaled aerosol, and that age has a similarly strong association. So called BMI-years, or age x BMI, has an extremely powerful association with the exhalation of aerosol-borne particles. The authors, David A. Edwards, et al, believe this is a consequence of the properties of mucus produced by different individuals in response to infections and how their lungs and airways handle it. The authors say:

Our findings indicate that the capacity of airway lining mucus to resist breakup on breathing varies significantly between individuals, with a trend to increasing with the advance of COVID-19 infection and body mass index multiplied by age (i.e., BMI-years). Understanding the source and variance of respiratory droplet generation, and controlling it via the stabilization of airway lining mucus surfaces, may lead to effective approaches to reducing COVID-19 infection and transmission. … ”

“Surfactant and mucin compositional and structural changes, driven, in part, by physiological alterations of the human condition—including diet (10), aging (11), and COVID-19 infection itself (12)—may therefore be anticipated to alter droplet generation and droplet size (7) during acts of breathing.”

So there is substantial variation in the exhalation of aerosol-borne particles across individuals. In the study, less than 20% of healthy subjects produced more than 156 particles per liter of air, accounting for 80% of the exhaled particles. This defined their so-called “super-spreader” cohort. The association of BMI-years and exhaled particles was less pronounced but still positive within the “low-spreader” cohort.

Edwards, et al speculate that these fine droplets might help explain the greater severity of COVID infections among the elderly and obese. Not only does the breakup of mucus into tiny droplets cause these individuals to exhale aerosols more profusely, it probably also leads to deep penetration into their lung tissue.

This knowledge might be broadly applicable to infectious diseases, and SARS viruses in particular. The elderly know they are vulnerable. It’s not clear that the obese have viewed themselves as vulnerable, but they should, even in the age of “body positivity“. And not only are they vulnerable: they appear to pose an elevated hazard to others. I came across a couple of sardonic comments that got right to the apparent elephant in the room: “Instead of a mask mandate, how about a push-up mandate?”; and “Instead of a vaccine passport, how about a BMI passport?”

The debate about how to care for the most vulnerable is ongoing, but the mere mention of regularities like those identified in the study might lead to proposals of coercive policies. But first, a few practical points to bear in mind: 1) while the study identifies a major risk factor for transmission, it must be replicated by others, and there must be research into the underlying reasons for the phenomenon; 2) while the obese and seniors may be more likely to super-spread, not all of them are super-spreaders; and 3) as a matter of policy, how would “super-spreaders be defined? What would be the cutoff BMIs at various ages? No matter what was decided, restrictive policies predicated on statistical associations would involve gross injustices to a large number of individuals.

With the degree of acquired immunity already in the population and fairly widespread voluntary vaccination (since alarmists have scared the bejeezus out of everyone), the whole issue might seem moot. It’s not, however, because COVID-19 is likely to become endemic, the immunities of some individuals might erode more quickly than expected, new and more dangerous variants might arise, and new SARS viruses are likely to emerge with time.

In a pandemic, however, and even without knowing who is infected, it is ethically barbaric to probabilistically isolate classes of individuals, whether based on age, BMI, or anything other than contagious status. The social cost is simply unacceptable. Instead, public health authorities should provide information to those at high risk, facilitate vaccination for those who desire it, and promote rapid, at-home tests. This is essentially a deregulatory agenda relative to the mindless lockdown approaches favored by so many public health experts.

Everyone must balance their own personal risks and rewards. Based on the study of exhaled particles discussed above, some might shun the obese and seniors until the threat has passed. Some of the obese and elderly might shun each other. That might be another regrettable dimension of the social costs of a pandemic. On the other hand, perhaps more of us will respond to the unquestionably positive incentives for weight loss, of which we’re almost all aware.

Joe Biden’s Fat Cooked-Goose Tax Plan

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I recently wrote on this blog about the damaging impact of corporate taxes on workers, consumers, and U.S. competitiveness. Phil Kerpen tweeted the chart above showing the dramatic reduction in the distribution of corporate tax rates across the world from 1980 through 2020. Yes, yes, Joe Biden’s posture as a fair and sensible leader aside, most countries place great emphasis on their treatment of business income and their standing relative to trading partners.

Kerpen’s tweet was a response to this tweet by economist Justin Wolfers:

Apparently, Wolfers wishes to emphasize that Biden’s plan, which raises the statutory corporate rate from 21% to 28%, does not take the rate up to the level of the pre-Trump era. Fair enough, but compare Wolfers’ chart with Kerpen’s (from the Tax Foundation) and note that it would still put the U.S. in the upper part of the international distribution without even considering the increment from state corporate tax rates. Also note that the U.S. was near the top of the distribution in 1980, 2000, and 2010. In fact, the U.S. had the fourth highest corporate tax rate in the world in 2017, before Trump’s tax package took effect. Perhaps Biden’s proposed rate won’t be the fourth highest in the world, but it will certainly worsen incentives for domestic U.S. investment, the outlook for wage growth, and consumer prices.

And in the same thread, Wolfers said this:

That’s certainly true, but let’s talk about those “loopholes”. First, much of U.S. corporate income is “passed though” to the returns of individual owners, so corporate taxes understate the true rate of tax paid on corporate income. Let’s also remember that the corporate tax represents a double taxation of income, and as a matter of tax efficiency it would be beneficial to consolidate these taxes on individual returns.

Beyond those consideration, the repeal of any corporate tax deduction or credit would have its own set of pros and cons. As long as there is a separate tax on corporate income, there is an economic rationale for most so-called “loopholes”. Does Wolfers refer to research and development tax credits? Maybe he means deductions on certain forms of compensation, though it’s hard to rationalize treating any form of employee compensation as income taxable to the business. Then there are the massive tax subsidies extended for investments in renewable energy. Well, good for Wolfers if that last one is his gripe! The CARES Act of 2020 allowed publicly-traded companies to use losses in 2020( presumably induced by the pandemic) to offset income in prior years, rather than carrying them forward. Did Wolfers believe that to be inappropriate? I might object to that too, to the extent that the measure allows declining firms to use COVID to cloak inefficiencies. Does he mean the offshoring of income to avoid U.S. corporate taxes? Might that be related to relative tax rates?

In any case, Wolfers can’t possibly imagine that the U.S. is the only country allowing a variety of expenses to be deducted against corporate income, or credits against tax bills for various activities. So, a comparison of statutory tax rates is probably a good place to start in assessing the competitive thrust of tax policy. But effective tax rates can reveal much more about the full impact of tax policy. In 2011, a study showed that the U.S. had the second highest effective corporate tax rate in the world. Today, among developed countries, the OECD puts the U.S. roughly in the middle of the pack, close to Germany but higher than Canada, Mexico and Japan, and lower than the UK. This article from 2019 reaches the same conclusion, though the rankings and rates differ from the OECD’s calculations. So it’s not as if the U.S. is the only country to offer tax incentives, or “loopholes” in Wolfers’ preferred terminology.

The corporate tax hikes proposed by the Biden Administration are intended to fund the massive outlays in the so-called infrastucture bill, which of course has very little to do with real infrastructure. Both the tax and spending proposals are bad policy. So far, however, passage of the bill is not a given. Let’s hope all of the Republicans and at least one Democrat senator have the sense to vote it down, but I’m not optimistic. The best hope for resistance among Democrats is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but even he has signaled his support. Biden’s appointment of Gayle Manchin to a key administration post couldn’t have hurt.

Myth Makers in Lab Coats

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The prestige of some elements of the science community has taken a beating during the pandemic due to hugely erroneous predictions, contradictory pronouncements, and misplaced confidence in interventions that have proven futile. We know that medical science has suffered from a replication crisis, and other areas of inquiry like climate science have been compromised by politicization. So it seemed timely when a friend sent me this brief exposition of how “scientific myths” are sometimes created, authored by Lee Jussim in Psychology Today. It’s a real indictment of the publication process in scientific journals, and one can well imagine the impact these biases have on journalists, who themselves are prone to exaggeration in their efforts to produce “hot” stories.

The graphic above appears in Jussim’s article, taken from a Cambridge study of reporting and citation biases in research on treatments for depression. But as Jussim asserts, the biases at play here are not “remotely restricted to antidepressant research”.

The first column of dots represent trial results submitted to journals for publication. A green dot signifies a positive result: that the treatment or intervention was associated with significantly improved patient outcomes. The red dots are trials in which the results were either inconclusive or the treatment was associated with detrimental outcomes. The trials were split about equally between positive and non-positive findings, but far fewer of the trials with non-positive findings were published. From the study:

While all but one of the positive trials (98%) were published, only 25 (48%) of the negative trials were published. Hence, 77 trials were published, of which 25 (32%) were negative.

The third column shows that even within the set of published trials, certain negative results were NOT reported or secondary outcomes were elevated to primary emphasis:

Ten negative trials, however, became ‘positive’ in the published literature, by omitting unfavorable outcomes or switching the status of the primary and secondary outcomes.

The authors went further by classifying whether the published narrative put a “positive spin” on inconclusive or negative results (yellow dots):

… only four (5%) of 77 published trials unambiguously reported that the treatment was not more effective than placebo in that particular trial.

Finally, the last column represents citations of the published trials in subsequent research, where the size of the dots corresponds to different levels of citation:

Compounding the problem, positive trials were cited three times as frequently as negative trials (92 v. 32 citations. … Altogether, these results show that the effects of different biases accumulate to hide non- significant results from view.

As Jussim concludes, it’s safe to say these biases are not confined to antidepressant research. He also writes of the “canonization effect”, which occurs when certain conclusions become widely accepted by scientists:

It is not that [the] underlying research is ‘invalid.’ It is that [the] full scope of findings is mixed, but that the mixed nature of those findings does not make it into what gets canonized.

I would say canonization applies more broadly across areas of research. For example, in climate research, empirics often take a back seat to theoretical models “calibrated” over short historical records. The theoretical models often incorporate “canonized” climate change doctrine which, on climatological timescales, can only be classified as speculative. Of course, the media and public has difficulty distinguishing this practice from real empirics.

All this is compounded by the institutional biases introduced by the grant-making process, the politicization of certain areas of science (another source of publication bias), and mission creep within government bureaucracies. In fact, some of these agencies control the very data upon which much research is based (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example), and there is credible evidence that this information has been systematically distorted over time.

The authors of the Cambridge study discuss efforts to mitigate the biases in published research. Unfortunately, reforms have met with mixed success at best. The anti-depressant research reflects tendencies that are all too human and perhaps financially motivated. Add to that the political motivation underlying the conduct of broad areas of research and the dimensions of the problem seem almost insurmountable without a fundamental revolution of ethics within the scientific community. For now, the biases have made “follow the science” into something of a joke.

On Bended Knee To the Intolerant Few of

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The U.S. Constitution was intended, among other things, to avoid a hazard common to purely democratic systems: a tyranny of the majority. Now, however, we’re threatened by a phenomenon that might have sounded absurd to the founding fathers: a tyranny of the minority. Hassan Nicholas Taleb describes how small, intolerant minorities can dominate the terms under which the rest of a society plays. Taleb discusses a few cases in point from the historical record. Some of these are fairly benign, like the evolution of certain dietary conventions, but the larger implications for a free society are grim. His discussion appears here, but it is actually a chapter of his book, “Skin In the Game”.

In a way, these phenomena are often “squeaky-wheel-gets-oiled” situations, but there’s more to it. Much depends on the cost of allowing an uncompromising minority to have its way. So, for example, the food and beverages we consume are usually kosher, but not many people notice the circled “U” on the label, and they don’t know the difference. That’s relatively low cost. In other cases, people are cowed into believing they’ve been insufficiently sensitive to the grievances of small groups, but they do not fully appreciate the cost (and futility) of proving their compassion. From Taleb:

How do books get banned? Certainly not because they offend the average person –most persons are passive and don’t really care, or don’t care enough to request the banning. It looks like, from past episodes, that all it takes is a few (motivated) activists for the banning of some books, or the black-listing of some people. The great philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell lost his job at the City University of New York owing to a letter by an angry –and stubborn –mother who did not wish to have her daughter in the same room as the fellow with dissolute lifestyle and unruly ideas.

The same seems to apply to prohibitions –at least the prohibition of alcohol in the United States which led to interesting Mafia stories.

Let us conjecture that the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance. The same can apply to civil rights.

Taleb’s point runs counter to the theory that most forms of governance, either legal or cultural, work best when they reflect broad, prior consensus. He insists, however, that people are often willing to placate the most uncompromising parties. In a tolerant, liberal society, there is a certain willingness to give ground when grievances have a whiff of legitimacy. That’s well and good, but a liberal society may be plagued by the existence of enough saps who just want to get along with more poisonous elements. And those poor saps will find a way to defend their position and become useful idiots.

The intolerant and intransigent minorities get the ball rolling with various grievances. Right or wrong, there are many disparate groups with perceived social or economic grievances. Their determination plays out in agitation of various kinds, sometimes rhetorical and sometimes violent. One way or another, and with the assistance of certain institutions, the grievances (and potential policies to deal with them) may be integrated into the political views of a larger set of sympathetic listeners. To the extent the aggrieved can find common ground with other aggrieved groups, the movement grows.

Some institutions are likely to be more naturally sympathetic to claims of victimhood, such as academia and the press. These institutions are, in a real sense, “grievance aggregators”, along with community organizers of various kinds, and they are capable of accelerating the fire. Then, grievances have a way of becoming enshrined as permanent talking points, all earnest efforts at mitigation aside. Appeasement seems only to invite more demands.

Today, there is a special intransigence on social media that is difficult for many if not most well-meaning individuals to stand up against. You must be “woke” or face social and economic repercussions. The intolerant minority can adopt a number of tactics to gain cooperation. These are often intimations of bad faith including racism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or “bad-think” and “denialism” of any sort. Apparently these are all ripe targets. This potential ostracization gives rise to fear on the part of those who might otherwise think and speak independently.

All this goes for businesses as well, which are only too eager to avoid litigation or offending any and all “stakeholders”, an ever-growing class increasingly unrelated to the firm’s trade. As institutions, many large corporations have fallen well into the fold of wokeness. They attempt to virtue signal to consumers, workers, government, and the “community” in a bid to stay out front. That sets the stage for repercussions in the lives and careers of workers who might fear doxing by an intransigent minority. Just go along with the demands and you’ll be fine. In a version of Stockholm Syndrome, some of the intimidated will convince themselves to adopt the cloak of woke righteousness and signal their virtue! Be a hero! More useful idiots.

And so the intolerant minority wins. Or, a coalition of intolerant minorities and their sympathizers win. Taleb again:

Clearly can democracy –by definition the majority — tolerate enemies? The question is as follows: ‘Would you agree to deny the freedom of speech to every political party that has in its charter the banning the freedom of speech?’ Let’s go one step further, ‘Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?’

We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it will eventually destroy our world.

So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western principles’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.

This article by Steve McCann struck a chord with me because it describes a culmination of the forces of intolerance: McCann draws a tight comparison between the tactics of the Left, who attempt to represent themselves as champions of the aggrieved, and German National Socialists in the 1920s and 30s. Here is the shared playbook:

  • Exploit racial division;
  • Censor your enemies;
  • Unleash a flood of propaganda and fake news;
  • Exploit class envy;
  • Incite street riots;
  • Exploit events (the Reichstag fire vs. the Capitol “riot”) to legislate one-party rule (the Enabling Act of 1934 vs. HR 1).

This has very much to do with the acceptance of pseudo-realities and outright lies about the state of social affairs, some of which become institutionalized (e.g., “systemic racism”, “follow the science”, “sustainability”, “fair trade”, “disparate impact”, “infrastructure plan”, Modern Monetary Theory, and the meaning of “liberalism”). Individuals frame their lot in relation to a “perfect” society, a utopianism that can’t ever be fully satisfied. “Failure” will always be blamed on elements of the status quo, like capitalism and anyone perceived to benefit from it (except perhaps for those “privileged” agitating against it).

Taleb’s observation that intolerant minorities tend to “win” might be easier to swallow now than it might have been a few years ago. It’s certainly a warning to anyone who might take comfort in thinking our present dysfunction will be fixed when a sensible majority gets good and fed up. They might be unhappy, but most tend to lack sufficient determination to avoid getting cowed by intolerant minorities. Suicide of the West indeed!

UFOs and the Crisis Seeking State

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Happy with the government’s management of the pandemic? Happy with how much government grew during the pandemic? How well do you think governments would manage our realization that we have nearby extraterrestrial observers? It’s hard to know what that would mean for our future, but such a presence could well pose a singular menace to humanity. It might ignite panic, to say nothing of the bedlam that would ensue with the actual ingress of extraterrestrials or their intelligent machinery.

How would governments handle it? If the pandemic is any guide, my guess is they would follow the authoritarian impulse. For our own safety, that is. Hoarding and shortages of key goods might ensue. Curfews and stay-at-home orders would be seen as a way to limit civil disorder. Depending on the perceived threat, draconian measures such as limiting the use of electronics and communication devices might be considered. No telling what might seem appropriate to political leaders, but a military component to the response is much more likely than under a pandemic, and not just because of the external threat.

Let’s assume we’re talking about observers, not battalions of landing parties. A lot would depend on what’s known about them, or more specifically what the government knows. Why are they probing our atmosphere? Why are they studying our planet and our civilization? Are they waiting for a larger force to arrive? Can their machines self-replicate using resources mined from elsewhere in the solar system? Of course, the reaction of the public depends on how the government characterizes the presence of our observers. That gap in knowledge is of great concern.

But let’s take a step back. Is it real? We know the pandemic was “real”, but many question its true severity and the appropriateness of stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions, including yours truly. Some would say the government’s response was opportunistic, calibrated to force a change in political leadership, and calibrated to transform the role of government in our lives as well as attitudes about that role. Now imagine the opportunity for even more drastic change in the role of government given the prospect of an intersection with a potentially grabby alien civilization!

Like many others, I am fascinated by the possibility of life beyond our planet. Discussions of the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox are like candy to me. UFO sightings are always a matter of curiosity, except now we’re learning to call them “unexplained aerial phenomena” (UAPs) under guidance from government and military authorities. Lately, we’re hearing a lot about UAPs observed and filmed by military aircraft and detected by other forms of telemetry. These admissions are considered a sea change in the government’s attitude toward sharing sensitive, and possibly socially disruptive, information with the public. By June 1, a large batch of information on additional UAP sightings is due to be released under the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2021, which was signed into law by President Trump in December.

I’m as curious as anyone, but there are many reasons to be skeptical about UAP sightings, at least insofar as entertaining the possibility that these are extraterrestrial beings or machines. For example, there are natural (and technical) explanations for the images seen in the Navy videos. But some have speculated that these are sightings of top-secret technologies developed by an agency of the federal government such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). A former Pentagon UFO Program Chief dismisses that as improbable. Well, if you say so. Another possibility is that a foreign government has leaped far ahead of the U.S. in the science of flight. That would be threatening to U.S. security, though perhaps not as threatening as the machinery of an interstellar expeditionary force.

Whether the potential threat is an intersection with extraterrestrials or simply advanced technology possessed by an earthbound adversary, might it be in the interests of certain factions to promote our vulnerability? Or to manufacture evidence of such a vulnerability? Forgive my tin-foil hat, but I think the answer is yes. For example, it would be an opportunity for the defense establishment to garner more funding. It’s also a potential opportunity for those who wish to impose a more authoritarian order. There is always something to be gained from potential threats, so much so that major segments of our society seem to thrive on them. But is that what’s happening?

Defense funding is one thing, but the kinds of threats in question might call for widespread actions on public safety at all levels of government. Federal funding will be required to meet these needs, after all, and only the federal government can print money to create the means of competing for resources with the private sector. This is consistent with other federal initiatives that, beyond their stated public purposes, seem almost designed to eviscerate the power of state and local governments:

The plan to federalize government is already moving and has three parts:

  • Flood every unit of local government with federal cash, irrespective of need, while prohibiting tax cuts, thereby bailing out failing states and cities.
  • Make that flood of federal money made regular and permanent.
  • Annul or override state laws that make certain states competitive, thereby eliminating their competitive advantages, and federalize elections to make it all permanent.

The third point has as much relevance in the context of any threat to our security as did the pandemic. Once lower levels of government are dependent on federal funds, there is little they can do to resist federal demands. The more credible the threat of an incursion by an extraterrestrial or foreign force with awesome technological power, the more likely are voters to accept expansive programs to enhance their safety, including assistance to lower levels of government for providing various forms of local protection … the federal way.

The pandemic did little to promote faith in the government’s ability to manage a crisis. Nevertheless, look no further than the federal budget explosion induced by the pandemic for evidence that advocates of expansive government did not let the crisis go to waste. Will they want new crises? I’m sure they will. There’s certainly a possibility that a drummed-up threat from UAP’s would be a candidate down the road. It might need a little more percolation, but make no mistake: it has potential value to statists.

I still prefer to call them UFOs, and it’s still fun to think about them, but if they’re “real”, or even if they belong to a foreign power, we might be in big trouble. If they’re not “real”, our own state actors might toy with us enough to make us wish we’d never heard of UFOs.

The Dirt On the Corporate Income Tax

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The Biden Administration is proposing a substantial increase in the corporate income tax rate from 21% to 28%. This is another case of a self-destructive policy that serves as a virtue signal to the progressive Left. See? We’re taxing the rich and their powerful corporations! What none of them realize is that the tax on corporate income is actually a regressive tax on consumers and workers; it is a disincentive to the formation of productive capital; and it is a highly wasteful tax due to compliance costs and the impact of avoidance. And the Biden proposal would make the U.S. less competitive internationally, as the chart above from Joseph Sullivan demonstrates. Maybe some of the proponents realize it, but they still like it because it sounds so good to their base!

It’s not as if all these unhealthy characteristics of the corporate tax are new findings. Milton Friedman explained some of the basics in 1971 when he said:

The elementary fact is that ‘business’ does not and cannot pay taxes. Only people can pay taxes. Corporate officials may sign the check, but the money that they forward to Internal Revenue comes from the corporation’s employees, customers or stockholders. A corporation is a pure intermediary through which its employees, customers and stockholders cooperate for their mutual benefit.”

In 1984, two giants of public finance economics, Richard and Peggy Musgrave, investigated how the corporate tax was shifted to households. Here’s a description of their findings from a recent paper by Edward Lane and L. Randall Wray:

“… the bottom quintile pays 4.6–5.5 percent of its income toward the corporate profits tax, the top decile pays 2.5–3.7 percent of its income, and the ninth decile pays 2.4–2.9 percent of its income. They conclude that the corporate profits tax is largely regressive while the federal personal income tax is progressive.

The incidence of the corporate tax rate falls primarily on workers in the form of lower wages and lost jobs, and on consumers in the form of higher prices. Lane and Wray cite several influential studies over the years showing a substantial negative association between corporate taxes and wages. As the authors note, major corporations often have pricing power in both product and labor markets, at least relative to their power in capital markets where they must raise capital. Capital markets are highly competitive, so they don’t provide much opportunity for shifting the burden of the tax to owners of equity and debt. There are limits on a firm’s ability to pass the tax along to customers and workers as well, of course, but shareholders are relatively well-insulated from the burden of the tax.

There are still other reasons to avoid increasing the corporate income tax rate. It currently raises about $200 billion annually for the U.S. Treasury, or about 7% of estimated federal tax revenue for the 2021 fiscal year. It also has extremely high compliance costs. Lane and Wray quote a 2016 Tax Foundation estimate that U.S. businesses face tax compliance costs on the order of $193 billion a year. Not all of that figure applies to corporations, and not all of it is for federal tax compliance, but a great deal of it is. There are also a number of ways the tax can be avoided, such as off-shoring operations and using overstated transfer prices of inputs obtained from units overseas. This is not an economically efficient way to generate tax revenue.

Moreover, the corporate income tax creates perverse incentives. When new investment in productive, physical capital is penalized at the margin, you can expect less capital investment, lower wages, and fewer jobs. Alan D. Viard explains that the dynamics of this mechanism take time to play out, but the longer-run decay in the capital stock is perhaps the most damaging aspect of a high corporate tax rate. And indeed, while there are probably short-run effects, the reduction in the incentive to invest is the real mechanism linking a higher corporate tax to reduced wages and higher prices, not to mention reduced economic growth.

Finally, there is a pernicious political-economic aspect of the corporate income tax owing to the difficulty for the general public in identifying its true incidence. This was also discussed by Milton Friedman:

… Indirect effects make it difficult to know who ‘really’ pays any tax. But this difficulty is greatest for taxes levied on business. That fact is at one and the same time the chief political appeal of the corporation income tax, and its chief political defect. The politician can levy taxes, as it appears, on no one, yet obtain revenue. The result is political irresponsibility. Levying most taxes directly on individuals would make it far clearer who pays for government programs.

If the government intends to tax the owners of corporate wealth (a significant share of which is held in retirement savings accounts), it should be honest about doing so. That would mean taxing capital income in a more consolidated way, as Lane and Wray put it, at the individual level. That kind of transparency might be too much to hope for because the politics of doing so are much less favorable.

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration wants to have it all: higher corporate taxes and higher taxes on relatively high-earning individuals. But a significant burden of the corporate tax increase ultimately is shifted to individual workers and consumers. It is a regressive tax, and it is an inefficient tax with outrageously high compliance costs. It is a destructive tax because it undermines the economy’s growth in productive capacity. And it offers tax revenue to politicians who have little budgetary resolve, and with little political consequence.

Tragic Atlanta Shootings and The Drive To Divide

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The shooting of eight people at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area last week has become a lightning rod for those who bemoan racism against Asians. Except that the shooting had absolutely nothing to do with racism! The killer, Robert Aaron Long, describes himself as deeply religious but a sex addict. He said his actions were retaliation against establishments that had tempted him. The victims included six women of Korean extraction and two whites, one of the latter a male who was apparently a passer-by. A Latino woman was injured.

Andrew Sullivan describes the adoption of a pseudo-reality by the media based on critical race theory: Asians have struggled against prejudice in the West. The killer was white and most of the victims were Asians. Ergo, white supremacy must lie at the heart of this monstrosity:

Accompanying one original piece on the known facts, the NYT ran ninenine! — separate storiesabout the incident as part of the narrative that this was an anti-Asian hate crime, fueled by white supremacy and/or misogyny. Not to be outdone, the WaPo ran sixteen separate stories on the incident as an antiAsian white supremacist hate crime. Sixteen! One story for the facts; sixteen stories on how critical race theory would interpret the event regardless of the facts. For good measure, one of their columnists denounced reporting of law enforcement’s version of events in the newspaper, because it distracted attention from the ‘ real’ motives. Today, the NYT ran yet another full-on critical theory piece disguised as news on how these murders are proof of structural racism and sexism — because some activists say they are.”

Make no mistake: there are racists against Asians in this country, as I discuss below, but this was the work of an individual unable to control his sex drive, deeply ashamed of it, and a psychopath to boot. Yet the urge to virtue signal is so strong that people who should know better immediately ascribed racist motives to the killer. Corporate America is only too eager to endorse the pseudo-reality: the CEO’s of Goldman Sachs, Blackrock, J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, and many other corporate leaders issued statements tying the Atlanta shootings to racism against Asians.

The Goldman CEO, David Solomon, posted a statement on LinkedIn (which I’m now unable to locate) that was interesting in several respects: it came shortly after the release of a damaging survey of junior bankers, not a few of whom are Asian, who complained of 100-hour work weeks and frequent verbal abuse by managers. Nevertheless, a number of Goldman employees, including a number of Asians, posted adoring responses to the post. One woman was indignant because she felt the shootings illustrated racism manifest in the stereotyping of Asian women as sex objects. Of course I know of men who seem particularly attracted to Asian women, but can that really be construed as racism? I’m not the least bit convinced.

Equally unconvincing are claims that obvious criticisms of the Chinese government are racist, or that they encourage violence against Chinese americans or people of Chinese extraction. That includes President Trump’s references to the “China virus”, as well as the ridiculous charges against Tom Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego.

As I noted above, racism against Asians is real, but who harbors it? We know that a number of elite academic institutions are actively discriminating against Asians in their admissions practices, and critical race theorists are only too eager to ascribe the academic and economic success of Asians as “white adjacency”. In this context, they’ve also been willing to exploit Asians as a so-called “model minority” in something of a variation on “Uncle Tom” epithets. As for violent crimes against Asians, Andrew Sullivan provides some statistics at the link above. Asians are victimized by whites, blacks, Latinos, and other Asians, but blacks, who represent about 13% of the U.S. population, account for a disproportionately high 27.5% of violent crimes against Asians. Is that racism or mere criminal opportunism? Of course, the pattern is a legitimate area of inquiry.

I implore my Asian friends to reject the baited narrative that the Atlanta shootings were motivated by white racism. Let’s be honest about calling mental illness what it is, and naming things accurately when we see them. Here are some closing words from Wenyuan Wu, Executive Director of Californians for Equal Rights:

Conflating an attack on Asian Americans with claims of ‘white supremacism’ and systemic racism is dangerous. It seeks to foster a victimhood mentality among all Americans of Asian descent, eroding social solidarity and trust. At a minimum, choking up all present and past injustices to racism, while proselytizing the model minority myth for Asians, is dishonest.

Texas Cold Snap Scarcity: Don’t Blame Markets!

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People say the darnedest things about markets, even people who seem to think markets are good, as I do. For example, when is a market “too efficient”? In the real world we tend to see markets that lack perfect efficiency for a variety of reasons: natural frictions, imperfect information, taxes, subsidies, regulations, and too few sellers or buyers. In such cases, we know that market prices don’t properly reflect the true scarcity of a good, as they would under the competitive ideal. Nevertheless, we are usually best-off allowing market forces to approximate true conditions in guiding the allocation of resources. But what does it mean when someone asserts that a market is “too efficient”.

Not long ago I posted about the failure of Texas utility planners to maintain surge capacity. Instead, they plowed resources into renewable energy, which is intermittent and unable to provide for reliable baseline power loads. That spelled disaster when temperatures plunged in February. Wind and solar output plunged while demand spiked. Even gas- and coal-fired power generation hit a pause due to a lack of adequate winterization of generators. The result was blackouts and a huge jump in wholesale power prices, which are typically passed on to customers. The price to some consumers rose to the ceiling of $9/kwh for a time, compared to an average winter rate of 12c/kwh. A bill in the Texas Senate would reverse those charges retroactively.

I cross-linked my post on a few platforms, and a friendly commenter opined that the jump in prices occurred because “markets were too efficient”. For a moment I’ll set aside the fact that what we have here is a monopoly grid operator: “market efficiency” is not a real possibility, despite elements of competition at the retail level. There is, however, a price mechanism in play at the wholesale level and for retail customers on variable rate plans. Prices are supposed to respond to scarcity, and there is no question that power became scarce during the Texas cold snap. Higher prices are both an incentive to curtail consumption and to increase production or attract product from elsewhere. So, rather than saying the “market was too efficient”, the commenter should have said “power was too scarce”! Well duh…

If anything, the episode underscores how un-market-like were the conditions created by the Texas grid operator, the ironically-named Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT): it allowed massive resources to be diverted to unreliable power sources; it skimped on winterization; it failed to arrange interconnection agreements with power grids outside of Texas; and it charged customers on fixed-rate plans too little to provide for adequate surge capacity, while giving them no incentive to conserve under a stress scenario. ERCOT can be said to have created a situation in which power supply was highly inelastic, which means that a normal market force was short-circuited at a time when it was most needed.

ERCOT‘s mismanagement of power resources is partly a result of incentives created by the federal government. The installation of wind and solar power generation came with huge federal subsidies, which distort the cost of the energy they produce. Thus, not only were incentives in place to invest in unreliable power sources, but ERCOT forced electricity produced by fossil fuels to compete at unrealistically low prices. This predatory pricing forced several power producers into bankruptcy, compromising the state’s baseline and surge capacity.

There are plenty of distortions plaguing the “market” for electric power in Texas, all of which worsened the consequences of the cold snap. This was far from a case of “market efficiency”, as the comment on my original post asserted.

The very idea that markets and the price mechanism are “ruthlessly efficient” is a concession to those who say high prices are always “unfair” in times of crises and shortages. We hear about “price-gougers”, and the media and politicians are almost always willing to join in this narrative. Higher prices help to ease shortages, and they do so far more quickly and effectively than governments or charities can provide emergency supplies (unless, of course, a monopoly grid operator leaves the state more vulnerable to stress conditions than necessary). Conversely, price ceilings only serve to exacerbate shortages and the suffering they cause. So let’s not blame markets, which are never “too efficient”; sometimes the things we trade are just too scarce, and sometimes they are made more scarce by inept planners.

Ballot “Access” Or Fraud, Vote “Suppression” Or Security

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Do a search of “suppression” on Twitter and you’ll be treated to an uninterrupted stream of lefty hallucinations and shrieks about GOP efforts to bring back Jim Crow, subvert democracy, and deny people their right to vote. Every state-level initiative to shore up election integrity is labeled suppression. Well, what we should suppress is the country’s headlong plunge into ballot debasement and jobbery. Election fraud is not new, as the Supreme Court noted in 2008. Ballot harvesting is not new. And we knew well ahead of the 2020 presidential election that the usual safeguards against election fraud were being severely compromised. These changes leveraged vulnerabilities that were of concern to the Left in the not too distant past. Now, any mention provokes indignance!

You Gotta Get Up To Participate

Voting is usually a hassle, but the right to vote does not mean voting must be made effortless; it does not relieve the right-holder of obligations to exert what effort might be necessary, including minor inconveniences to verify that their vote is legitimate. COVID-19 gave momentum to those seeking to eliminate certain obligations associated with voting. After all, exposure to a deadly virus at a polling place would have represented more than a minor inconvenience. In response, 28 state governments instituted changes to expand mail-in voting in 2020 in addition to compromises such as allowing late ballots to count, and the changes were often made without legislative authority.

Predictably, these changes enabled widespread fraud, Even now, after many lawsuits over 2020 election fraud were dismissed on procedural grounds, there remain a large number of election fraud cases in the courts. A substantial share of the voting public believes that fraud occurred on a massive scale. The perceived illegitimacy of the 2020 election represents a real threat to the stability of our Republic.

For the People?

It’s unfortunate that relieving the minor inconveniences imposed on voters creates major opportunities for fraud, but it appears to be in the interest of some factions to loosen those screws. Thus, we have a piece of federal legislation called the “For the People Act”, or H.R. 1 (the omnibus election transformation bill), which has passed the House on a strictly partisan vote and is now in the Senate. The bill would completely usurp the primary (though not exclusive) power of states to regulate elections under the Elections Clause of Article I of the Constitution. The breadth and reach of H.R. 1 would be deemed unconstitutional under any sane interpretation. Here is Hans von Spakovsky:

H.R. 1 would mandate same-day and automatic voter registration, and encourage vote trafficking of absentee ballots. It would eviscerate state voter ID laws and limit the ability of states to verify the accuracy of their voter registration lists.”

And there is much more in the bill that would undermine the integrity of elections, including registration of the many disenfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds who have long been denied votes. A somewhat more detailed summary of H.R. 1 is provided by Conrad Black. It would:

“…compel states to accept mailed-in votes for 15 days prior to and 10 days after Election Day; set up automatic and online voter registration; prohibit review of the eligibility of voters; compel acceptance of ballots cast in the wrong precincts; bar the removal of the ineligible voters from the rolls; permit ballot harvesting; ban any voter identification laws; consign to unelected officials the redrawing of congressional districts; infringe upon free speech by the imposition of ‘onerous legal and administrative burdens on candidates, civic groups, unions, and non-profit organizations’; and establish a disturbingly named ‘Commission to Protect Democratic Institutions’ in order to end-run the courts.

IDs Required When It Suits Them

We are told that the disenfranchised can’t be expected to produce identification. Is that so? But identification is required in most jurisdictions in order to receive a COVID vaccination, and there are discussions of how we’ll need to produce cards or “vaccine passports” to participate in a wide variety of activities. But an ID for voting is “suppression”?

Lacking identification, how are individuals expected to become “enfranchised” as a functioning members of society? Yes, if they are citizens then they have a right to vote. But one person, one vote requires some means of verified identity. If they know so much as to vote their pocketbooks, yet will not fulfill a simple obligation to produce identification in order to exercise that right, should they be accommodated?

Of course, there are individuals who need a “helping hand” in order to obtain proper identification, but short of inserting subcutaneous microchips, those individuals must be entrusted to keep it in their possession. That certainly doesn’t provide an excuse to cast aside rules intended to safeguard election integrity.

Is it unfair to expect everyone to vote on Election Day? There must be exceptions for those away from home or unable to appear at a polling place for health reasons. Absentee ballots have long been a feature of our voting system, but they must be mailed on time to prevent the gaming we witnessed in 2020. Having the resources to process all voters in one day might be challenging, so perhaps it’s not unreasonable to allow in-person voting over several days. I would also support a holiday for national elections.

Federalism Vs. Centralized Power

Again, it’s no secret that loosely controlled mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud. A drastic expansion of vote-by-mail facilitates efforts to harvest ballots and even manufacture votes. In 2020, deadlines for ballot delivery were extended indiscriminately. Signature verification was sidestepped. Ballots were shredded. Documented chains of custody were often lacking. Despite all that, even now there are many bills in state legislatures that would expand “voter access” in various ways. These are usually steps that would expose the public to more fraudulent elections and devaluation of legitimate votes.

But there is pushback: as of late February, there were 165 bills in 33 states designed to tighten election security, according to the Brennan Center for Justice:

These proposals primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges. These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.

Conservative states can also resist federal efforts to control elections via nullification: arguably unconstitutional attempts by the federal government to regulate elections should not be recognized and enforced by states. Steve Baldwin asserts that the Tenth Amendment gives states the power to do so:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

There is, however, some ambiguity in Article I regarding the federal government‘s power to regulate elections. Despite the “secondary” nature of that federal power, it has certainly been invoked over the last 150 years, primarily in establishing voting rights previously denied on the basis of race and gender. H.R. 1 does not represent an unambiguous defense of voting rights of that kind, however. Instead, by facilitating fraud, it represents wholesale debasement of voting rights.

Let’s hope traditionally conservative states are aggressive in pressing their primary power to regulate elections on multiple fronts: legislative, nullification of federal overreach, as well as court challenges. And let’s hope H.R. 1 goes down to defeat in the Senate, but it will be tight.

CDC Wags Finger; Diners Should Wag One Back

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The CDC’s new study on dining out and mask mandates is a sham. On its face, the effects reported are small. And while it’s true most of the reported effects are statistically significant, the CDC acknowledges a number of factors that might well have confounded the results. This study should remind us of the infinite number of spurious and “significant” correlations in the world. Here, the timing of the mandates (or their removal) relative to purported effects and seasonal waves is highly suspicious, and as always, attributing causality on the basis of correlation is problematic.

On one hand, the CDC’s results are contrary to plentiful evidence that mandates are ineffective; on the other hand, the results are contrary to earlier CDC “guidance” that masks and limits on indoor dining are “highly effective”. Nevertheless, the latest report has massive propaganda value to the CDC. The media lapped up the story and provided cover for Democrats eager to pass the COVID (C19) relief package. Likewise, the Biden Administration is apparently committed to the narrative of an ongoing crisis as cover for continued attempts to shame political opponents in states that have elected to “reopen” or remain open.

Right off the bat, the study’s authors assert that the primary mode of transmission of C19 is from respiratory droplets. This is false. We know that aerosols are the main culprit in transmission, against which cloth masks are largely ineffective.

Be that as it may, let’s first consider the findings on dining. There was no statistically significant effect on the growth rate of cases or deaths up to 40 days after restrictions were lifted, according to the report. In fact, case growth declined slightly. There was, however, a small but statistically significant increase after 40 days. The fact that deaths seemed to “respond” faster and with greater magnitude than cases makes no sense and suggests that the results might be spurious.

The CDC offers possible explanations the long delay in the purported impact, such as the time required by restaurants to resume operations and early caution on the part of diners. These are speculative, of course. More pertinent is the fact that the data did not distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining, nor did it account for other differences in regulation such as rules on physical distancing, intra-county variation in local government mandates, and compliance levels.

Finally, the measurement of effects covered 100 days after the policy change, but this window spans different stages of the pandemic. There were three waves of infections during 2020, which correspond to the classic Hope-Simpson pattern of virus seasonality. One was near year-end, but as each of the first two waves tapered (April-May, August-September), it should be no surprise that many restrictions were lifted. Within two months, however, new waves had begun. Karl Dierenbach notes that most of the reopenings occurred in May. Here’s how he explains the pattern:

The map on the left shows counties where there was no on-premises dining (pink) in restaurants as of the beginning of May (4/30). … The map on the right shows that by the end of May, almost the entire country moved to allow some on-premises dining (green).

In the 100 days after May 1, cases nationwide fell slightly, then began to rise, and then plateaued.

And what did the CDC find happened after restaurants were allowed (changing mostly in May) to have on-premises dining? … Surprise! The CDC found that cases fell slightly, then began to rise, and then plateaued.

The summer “mini-wave” is typical of mid- and tropical-latitude seasonality. Thus, the CDC’s findings with respect to dining restrictions are likely an artifact of the strong seasonality of the virus, rather than having anything to do with the lifting of restrictions between waves.

What about the imposition of mask mandates? The CDC’s findings show a much faster response in this case, with statistically significant changes in growth during the first 20 days. Another indicator of spurious correlation is that the growth response of deaths did not lag that of cases, but in fact deaths have reliably lagged cases by over 18 days during the pandemic. Again, the CDC’s caveats apply equally to its findings on masks. A large share of individuals adopted mask use voluntarily before mandates were imposed, so it’s not even clear that the mandates contributed much to the practice.

It’s a stretch to believe that mask mandates would have had an immediate, incremental effect on the growth of cases and deaths, given probable lags in compliance, exposure, and onset of symptoms. Moreover, a number of mask mandates in 2020 were imposed near the very peak of the seasonal waves. Little wonder that the growth rates of cases and deaths declined shortly thereafter.

We’ve known for a long time that masks do little to stop the spread of viral particles. They become airborne as aerosols which easily penetrate the kind of cloth masks worn by most members of the public, to say nothing of making contact with their eyes. The table below contains citations to research over the past 10 years uniformly rejecting the hypothesis of a significant protective effect against influenza from masks. There is no reason to believe that they would be more effective in preventing C19 infections.

The CDC’s report on dining restrictions and mask mandates is a weak analysis. They wish to emphasize their faith in non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to minimize risks. They do so at a time when the vaccinated share of the most vulnerable population, the elderly, has climbed above 50% and is increasing steadily. Thus, risks are falling dramatically, so it’s past time to weigh the costs and benefits of NPIs more realistically. The timing of the report also seemed suspicious, coming as it did in the heat of the battle over the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which subsequently passed.

It’s also a good time to note that zero risk, including “Zero COVID”, is not a realistic or worthwhile goal under any reasonable comparison of costs and benefits. Furthermore, NPIs have proven weak generally (also see here); claims to the contrary should always make us wary.