Bill Gates, Wayward Climate Nerd

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Bill Gates’ considerable philanthropic efforts through the Gates Foundation are well known. Much of the foundation’s activity has focused on disease control and nutrition around the globe. Education reform has also been a priority. Many of these projects are laudable, though I’m repulsed by a few (see here and here). During the coronavirus pandemic, Gates has spoken approvingly of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (lockdown measures), which are both coercive and ineffective (and see here). He has earned the enmity of anti-vaxers, of course, though I’m not anti-vax as long as the jabs are voluntary. The Gates Foundation funded the World Health Organization’s effort to provide guidance on digital vaccine passports, which is a de facto endorsement of discrimination based on vaccination status. His priorities for addressing climate change also raise some troubling issues, a few of which I address below.

Squeezing Policy from a Definition

Gates put a special Malthusian twist on a TED Talk he did back in 2010 using an equation for carbon dioxide emissions, which he’s reprised over the years. It gained a lot of notice in 2016 when a few sticklers noticed that his claim to have “discovered” the equation was false. The equation is:

CO2 = P x S x E x C,

where P = People, S = Services per person, E = Energy per service, and C = CO2 per energy unit.

This equation first appeared as the so-called Kaya Identity in a scientific review in 2002. Such an equation can be helpful in organizing one’s thoughts, but it has no operational implications in and of itself. At one level it is superficial: we could write a similar identity for almost anything, like the quantity of alcohol consumed in a year, which must equal the population times the ounces of alcohol per drink times the number of drinks per person. At a deeper level, it can be tempting to build theories around such equations, and there is no question that any theory about CO2 must at least preserve the identity.

There’s an obvious temptation to treat an equation like this as something that can be manipulated by policy, despite the possibility of behavioral links across components that might lead to unintended consequences. This is where Gates gets into trouble.

Reality Checks

As David Solway writes, Gates’ jumped to the conclusion that population drives carbon emissions, reinforcing a likely perspective that the human population is unsustainable. His benevolent solution? A healthier population won’t breed as fast, so he prescribes more vaccinations (voluntary?) and improved health care. For good measure, he added a third prong: better “reproductive health services”. Let’s see… what share of the 0.9 -1.4 billion reduction in world population Gates prescribed in 2016 would have come from terminated pregnancies?

In fact, healthier people might or might not want more children, but lower child mortality in the developing world would reduce certain economic incentives for high fertility. Another reliable association is between income and child bearing: an increase in “services per person” is likely to lead to smaller families, but that wasn’t given any emphasis by Gates. Income growth is simply not part of the narrative! Yet income growth does something else: it allows us to more easily afford the research and investments required for advanced technologies, including cleaner energy. These things take time, however.

Solway points to other weaknesses in Gates’ interpretation of the Kaya Identity. For example, efforts to slow population growth are not reliably associated with “services per person”, fuel efficiency, or carbon efficiency. In other words, carbon emissions may be powerfully influenced by factors other than population. China is a case in point.

Centralized industrial and social planning is generally ill-suited to advancing human well being. It’s especially suspect if the sole objective is to reduce carbon emissions. But Gates knows that lowering emissions without a corresponding drop in real income requires continuing technological advances and/or more efficient decisions about which technologies to deploy. He is a big advocate of developing cheap hydrogen power, which is far from a reality. He is also excited about carbon capture technologies, which are still in their infancy.

Renewables like wind and solar power play a large part in Gates’ vision. Those technologies cannot deliver a reliable flow of power, however, without either adequate backup capacity or a dramatic advance in battery technology. Gates over-promotes wind and solar, but I give him credit for acknowledging their intermittency. He attempts to come to grips with it by advocating nuclear backup, but it’s just not clear that he has integrated the incremental cost of the necessary backup capacity with other direct costs of these renewables… not to mention the considerable environmental costs imposed by wind and solar (see the “back-to-nature” photo at the top for a cogent illustration). Power storage at scale is still a long way off, and its cost will be significant as well.

We could deploy existing energy technologies to greater advantage with respect to carbon efficiency. We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions in the U.S. by substituting natural gas for less carbon-efficient fuels, but the Biden Administration would rather discourage its use. Gates deserves credit for recognizing the huge role that nuclear energy can play in providing zero-carbon power. Despite that, he still can’t quite bring himself to admit the boneheadedness of heavy reliance on intermittent renewables.

Bill’s “Green Premium

Gates seems to have deemphasized the Kaya Identity more recently. Instead, his focus has shifted to the so-called “green premium”, or the incremental cost of using zero-carbon technology relative to a traditional source. Needless to say, the premium is large for truly zero-carbon sources, but Gates emphasizes the importance of using the green premium to guide development even in the here and now.

That’s fine, but it’s not clear that he gives adequate consideration to cases in which emissions, while not eliminated, can be reduced at a negative incremental cost via appropriate substitution. That describes the transition to natural gas from other fuels. This is something that markets can do without the assistance of ham-handed interventionists. Gates prefers nuclear power and says natural gas is “not a real bridge technology” to a zero carbon future. That’s short-sighted and reflects an absolutist mindset that ignores both the economic and political environment. The thinking is that if it’s not zero emissions, it’s not worth doing.

Gates emphasizes the need to sharply reduce the range of green premia on various technologies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But the goal of net-zero emissions 2050 is based on the highly unlikely proposition that global catastrophe awaits failing net-zero. In fact, the predicted consequences of doing nothing are based on drastic and outdated carbon growth scenarios and rudimentary carbon-forcing models that have proven to be severely biased to the upside in terms of predicting global temperature trends.

The idea that 2050 is some kind of “deadline” is a wholly arbitrary determination. Furthermore, the absolutism with which such goals are stated belies a failure to properly assess the true costs and benefits of carbon-based energy. If we so much as accept the notion that fossil fuels have external costs, we are then expected to accept that zero carbon emissions is optimal. This is not “science”; it is doctrine propped-up by bizarre and false scare stories. It involves massive efforts to manipulate opinion and coerce behavior based upon shoddy forecasts produced by committee. Even carbon capture technology is considered “problematic” because it implies that someone, somewhere, will use a process that emits CO2. That’s a ridiculous bogeyman, of course, and even Gates supports development of carbon capture.

Conclusion

I’ve never felt any real antipathy for Bill Gates as a person. He built a fortune, and I used his company’s software for most of my career. In some ways I still prefer it to macOS. I believe Gates is sincere in his efforts to help humanity even if his efforts are misdirected. He seems to reside on the less crazy end of the spectrum of climate alarmists. He’s putting a great deal of his private resources toward development of technologies that, if successful, might actually lead to less coercion by those attempting to transform private energy decisions. Nevertheless, there is menace in some of the solutions to which Gates clings. They require concerted action on the part of central authorities that would commandeer private resources and abrogate liberty. His assertion that the world is over-populated is both dubious and dangerous. You can offer free health care, but a conviction that the population must be thinned can lead to far more radical and monstrous initiatives.

The “green premium” promoted by Gates is an indirect measure of how far we must go to achieve parity in the pricing of carbon and non-carbon energy sources, as if parity should be an objective of public policy. That proposition is based on bad economics, fraudulent analyses of trends in carbon concentrations and climate trends, and a purposely incomplete menu of technological alternatives. Yes, the green premium highlights various technological challenges, but it is also a direct measure of how much intervention via taxes or subsidies are necessary to achieve parity. Is that a temptation to policymakers? Or does it represent a daunting political barrier? It’s pretty clear that the “median voter” does not view climate change as the only priority.

Hyperbolic Scenarios, Crude Climate Models, and Scientism

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What we hear regarding the dangers of climate change is based on predictions of future atmospheric carbon concentrations and corresponding predictions of global temperatures. Those predictions are not “data” in the normal, positive sense. They do not represent “the way things are” or “the way things have been”, though one might hope the initial model conditions align with reality. Nor can the predictions be relied upon as “the way things will be”. Climate scientists normally report a range of outcomes produced by models, yet we usually hear only one type of consequence for humanity: catastrophe!

Models Are Not Reality

The kinds of climate models quoted by activists and by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been around for decades. Known as “carbon forcing” models, they are highly simplified representations of the process determining global temperatures. The primary forecast inputs are atmospheric carbon concentrations over time, which again are themselves predictions.

It’s usually asserted that climate model outputs should guide policy, but we must ask: how much confidence can we have in the predictions to allow government to take coercive actions having immediate, negative impacts on human well being? What evidence can be marshaled to show prospective outcomes under proposed policies? And how well do these models fit the actual, historical data? That is, how well do model predictions track our historical experience, given the historical paths of inputs like carbon concentrations?

Faulty Inputs

The IPCC has been defining and updating sets of carbon scenarios since 1990. The scenarios outline the future paths of greenhouse gas emissions (and carbon forcings). They were originally based on economic and demographic modeling before an apparent “decision by committee” to maintain consistency with scenarios issued in the past. Roger Pielke Jr. and Justin Ritchie describe the evolution of this decision process, and they call for change:

Our research (and that of several colleagues) indicates that the scenarios of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the end of the twenty-first century are grounded in outdated portrayals of the recent past. Because climate models depend on these scenarios to project the future behavior of the climate, the outdated scenarios provide a misleading basis both for developing a scientific evidence base and for informing climate policy discussions. The continuing misuse of scenarios in climate research has become pervasive and consequential—so much so that we view it as one of the most significant failures of scientific integrity in the twenty-first century thus far. We need a course correction.

One would certainly expect the predicted growth of atmospheric carbon to evolve over time. However, as Pielke and Ritchie note, the IPCC’s baseline carbon scenario today, known as RCP8.5 (“Representative Concentration Pathway”), is remarkably similar to the “business as usual” (BAU) scenario it first issued in 1990:

The emissions scenarios the climate community is now using as baselines for climate models depend on portrayals of the present that are no longer true. And once the scenarios lost touch with reality, so did the climate, impact, and economic models that depend on them for their projections of the future. Yet these projections are a central part of the scientific basis upon which climate policymakers are now developing, debating, and adopting policies.

The authors go on to discuss a few characteristics of the BAU scenario that today seem implausible, including:

“… RCP8.5 foresees carbon dioxide emissions growing rapidly to at least the year 2300 when Earth reaches more than 2,000 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. But again, according to the IEA and other groups, fossil energy emissions have likely plateaued, and it is plausible to achieve net-zero emissions before the end of the century, if not much sooner.”

Pielke and Ritchie demonstrate that the IPCC’s baseline range of carbon emissions by 2045 is centered well above (actually double) the mid-range of scenarios developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA), and there is very little overlap between the two. However, global carbon emissions have been flat over the past decade. Even if we extrapolate the growth in atmospheric CO2 parts per million over the past 20 years, it would rise to less than 600 ppm by 2100, not 1,200 ppm. It’s true that a few countries (China comes to mind) continue to exploit less “carbon efficient” energy resources like coal, but the growth trend in concentrations is likely to continue to taper over time.

It therefore appears that the IPCC’s climate scenarios, which are used broadly as model inputs by the climate research community, are suspect. As one might suspect: garbage in, garbage out. But what about the climate models themselves?

Faulty Models

The model temperature predictions have been grossly in error. They have been and continue to be “too hot”. The chart at the top of this post is typical of the comparisons of model projections and actual temperatures. Before the year 2000, most of the temperature paths projected by the particular model charted above ran higher than actual temperatures. However, the trends subsequently diverged and the gap has become more extreme over the past two decades.

The problem is not merely one of faulty inputs. The models themselves are deeply flawed, as they fail to account adequately for natural forces that strongly influence our climate. It’s been clear for many years that the sun’s radiative energy has a massive impact on temperatures, and it is affected not only by the intensity of the solar cycle but also by cloud cover on Earth. Unfortunately, carbon forcing models do not agree on the role that increased clouds might have in amplifying warming. However, a reduction in cloud cover over the past 20 years, and a corresponding increase in radiative heat, can account for every bit of the warming experienced over that time.

This finding not only offers an alternative explanation for two decades of modest warming, it also strikes at the very heart of the presumed feedback mechanism usually assumed to amplify carbon-induced warming. The overall effect is summarized by the so-called carbon sensitivity, measured as the response of global temperature to a doubling of carbon concentration. The IPCC puts that sensitivity in a range of 1.5C to 4.5C. However, findings published by Nic Lewis and Judith Curry are close to the low end of that range, as are those found by Frank Bosse reported here. The uncertainties surrounding the role of cloud cover and carbon sensitivities reveal that the outputs relied upon by climate alarmists are extreme model simulations, not the kind of reliable intelligence upon which drastic policy measures should be taken.

The constant anxiety issued from the Left on the issue of climate change, and not a little haranguing of the rest of us, is misplaced. The IPCC’s scenarios for the future paths of carbon concentration are outdated and seriously exaggerated, and they represent a breach of scientific protocol. Yet the scenarios are widely used as the basis of policy discussions at both the domestic and international levels. The climate models themselves embed questionable assumptions that create a bias toward calamitous outcomes.

Yet Drastic Action Is Urged

The UN’s 2021 climate conference, or COP26 (“Conference of the Parties …”) is taking place in Glasgow, Scotland this month. Like earlier international climate conferences, the hope is that dire forecasts will prompt broad agreement on goals and commitments, and that signatory countries will translate these into policy at the national level.

Things got off to a bad start when, before COP26 even began, the G20 nations failed to agree on a goal of “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. Another bad portent for the conference is that China and India, both big carbon emitters, will not attend, which must be tremendously disappointing to attendees. After all, COP26 has been billed by Prince Charles himself as “the last chance saloon, literally”, for saving the world from catastrophe. He said roughly the same thing before the Paris conference in 2014. And Joe Brandon … er, Biden, blurted some hyperbole of his own:

Climate change is already ravaging the world. … It’s destroying people’s lives and livelihoods and doing it every single day. … It’s costing our nations trillions of dollars.

All this is unadulterated hogwash. But it is the stuff upon which a crisis-hungry media feeds. This hucksterism is but one form of climate rent-seeking. Other forms are much more troubling: scary scenarios and model predictions serve the self-interest of regulators, grant-seeking researchers, interventionist politicians, and green investors who suckle at the public teat. It is a nightmare of scientism fed by the arrogance of self-interested social planners. The renewable energy technologies promoted by these investors, politicians, and planners are costly and land-intensive, providing only intermittent output (requiring backup fossil fuel capacity), and they have nasty environmental consequences of their own.

The precautionary principle is no excuse for the extreme policies advocated by alarmists. We already have economically viable “carbon efficient” and even zero-carbon energy alternatives, such as natural gas, modular nuclear power, and expanded opportunities for exploiting geothermal energy. This argues against premature deployment of wasteful renewables. The real crisis is the threat posed by the imposition of draconian green policies to our long-term prosperity, and especially to the world’s poor.

Electric Vehicle Fueling Costs in the Real World

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While the photo above exaggerates, honest electric vehicle (EV) owners will tell you that “refueling” is often not cheap or convenient. However, less jaded EV drivers and enthusiasts seem to view recharging costs through an oversimplified economic lens. A realistic accounting involves a variety of cost factors, including the implicit cost of the time needed to recharge when away from home. An analysis recently published by Anderson Economic Group (AEG) provides a thorough comparison of the costs of fueling EVs relative to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs).

Promoting the Narrow Focus

AEG notes the shortcomings of most cost studies quoted by “EVangelists” (not AEG’s term):

Many commonly-cited studies of the cost of driving EVs include only the cost of electric power for EVs, but compare this with the total cost of fueling an ICE vehicle. Moreover, many presume drivers can routinely charge at favorable residential rates, ignoring the much higher costs of the commercial chargers EV drivers must use when they are away from a residential charger (if they have one).

The kind of incomplete assays to which AEG refers can lead to statements like the following, from none other than Joe Biden:

When you buy an electric vehicle, you can go across America on a single tank of gas, figuratively speaking. It’s not gas. You plug it in.

Well no, it’s not a single tank of “gas”. You still have to stop, plug into a source of power mostly generated by fossil fuels, and it might take a while to get back on the road.

Cost Categories

The AEG report concludes that vehicles powered by ICEs are far cheaper to fuel on average than EVs. The analysis considers several categories of fueling costs including:

  • Gasoline Prices vs. Commercial & Residential Power Rates: EV drivers recharging away from home often pay more costly commercial rates.
  • Registration Taxes: applied at EV charging stations, but bundled in fuel price for ICEs;
  • EV Charging Equipment: upgraded “Level 2” chargers are generally “encouraged” at purchase of an EV;
  • Deadhead Miles: usage costs on fueling/charging runs; there are far fewer EV charging stations than gas stations in the U.S., which can lead to costly “excursions”;
  • Charging/Refueling Time: much higher for EV drivers away from home;

Direct Costs

AEG performed their analysis using electric rates, gas prices, and other cost factors as of mid-2021. They did so for six “representative” vehicle classes: entry level, mid-priced and luxury EVs and ICEs. Direct monetary costs account for the first four factors listed above; they do not include the time costs of refueling.

AEG calculates that the direct monetary costs of driving 100 miles in a mid-priced ICE vehicle is $8.95, while the cost in a mid-priced EV using a high proportion of commercial charging is $12.95, about 50% more. The direct cost in a luxury ICE is $12.60, but for a luxury EV it is $14.15 (12% more) for mostly home charging and $15.52 (23% more) for mostly commercial charging.

In addition, AEG finds that the direct cost of EV fueling is far more variable than ICE fueling. This is due to widely varying rates for commercial and residential power, including time-of-day variation, differences in charger efficiency, and the varied structure of pricing at different commercial charging stations.

Implicit Time Cost

It should be obvious that the time costs of refueling EVs are more significant than for ICE vehicles. However, I believe AEG’s report might over-estimate the difference. They say:

… it takes substantially longer to fuel EVs than for comparable ICE cars. Real world conditions often impose additional burdens, including these two:

  1. Driving and charging time: … it often takes about 20 minutes to drive to a reliable DC fast charger. It often takes another 20 to 30 minutes for the charging process to complete. Of course, this is for fast DC chargers. Slower L2 chargers are much more common …
  2. Recurrent reliability problems: EV drivers face recurring problems at chargers such as breakdowns, software bugs, delays in syncing the mobile application with the charger, charger output being significantly lower than advertised, and outright failures. This is in addition to the problem of vehicles blocking (or “icing”) EV charging spots.

Online forums are full of comments from drivers expressing frustration about these problems.

All true, as far as it goes. The implicit value of this time depends on the driver’s opportunity cost. Whether valued at the minimum wage or at a much higher opportunity cost, AEG’s straightforward valuation of the time cost is five to six times as high for EV drivers than for ICE drivers, depending on the vehicle class. For EVs, the time cost AEG calculates can be more than $200 a month, or about $20 per 100 miles for a someone who drives 1,000 miles a month, versus about $4 for a similar ICE driver. Adding those values to the direct monetary costs (which AEG does not do) yields a total cost per 100 miles of $33 for a mid-priced EV versus about $13 for an ICE vehicle in that class. That’s 2.5 times more to fuel an EV than a comparable ICE vehicle!

However, I would discount the cost of EV fueling time, because many drivers can use this waiting time productively, whether performing certain work tasks remotely or simply enjoying it as an extension of their leisure time, reading or viewing/listening to content on their mobile devices, for example.

Other Qualifications

AEG acknowledges that their cost comparisons use commercial power rates to account for “free” chargers offered by some stores to shoppers and by some employers to workers as benefits. That’s because stores and employers compensate for that kind of service along pricing and other margins.

AEG does not account for “phantom drain” (the loss of EV battery power while not in use) and the costs of battery degradation over time. Nor do they attempt to quantify the use of battery power while charging takes place (which inflates charging time but also increases direct costs per mile).

I would also note that many of the EV cost disadvantages described by AEG are likely to diminish going forward. More charging stations are being added as the fleet of EVs grows. Battery technology is improving as well, and chargers will become faster on average. In addition, EV “engines” have far less complexity and fewer parts than ICEs, which undoubtedly confers maintenance cost advantages over a period of time.

The Green Itch

Finally, while some consumers might find that EVs scratch a certain green itch, these vehicles are not carbon neutral, as noted above. The vast bulk of the power they use comes from fossil fuels. Higher energy prices in general might or might not work to their advantage, but electric power availability is becoming less reliable as the push toward renewable power generation continues. As we have seen repeatedly, reliance on intermittent power sources has drastic consequences for users in the absence of adequate, dispatchable baseload capacity.

To put a somewhat finer point on the difficulties posed by the intermittency of renewable power, a great deal of EV charging is done at night, when solar panels are not harvesting energy. Wind turbines can harvest a greater proportion of their power at night, but they must be fairly tall to do so (the minimum height ranges from 30 to 100 meters, depending on local conditions). That requirement means that the manufacture and construction of these turbines and their towers is all the more carbon intensive. Furthermore, disposal of both solar panels and wind turbines at the end of their useful lives creates serious environmental issues that green energy advocates have been all too willing to ignore.

Ultimately, until our ability to store power at scale advances dramatically, the issue of renewable intermittency can only be dealt with via adequate baseload power. Growth in the number of EVs will require growth in the dispatchable capacity of the power grid, which means either more plants burning fossil fuels, nuclear power, hydroelectric, biomass, or thermal energy. The alternative is an increasing frequency of blackouts, which would drastically reduce the utility of EVs.

Failed Health Education, In One Anecdote

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I’d just posted an article about the idiocy of masking outdoors, which included a call for an end to the confused public health messaging we’ve heard during the pandemic, when I witnessed something that made my eyes roll:

A fiftyish guy just ahead of me is wearing a mask, walking from the beach toward a public pavilion where there are restrooms. He is barefoot…. and he enters the men’s room and steps right up to the row of urinals. He leaves the restroom without washing his hands.

Perhaps he’s not quite Darwin Award material, but I ask: do you think this guy’s precautions against potential pathogens and disease vectors were well balanced? It’s not terribly uncommon to see “moisture” or even shallow puddles around public urinals. Don’t go barefoot! Wear flip-flops to the john, at the very least. And wash your hands when you’re done!

Amazingly, the only message related to health and hygiene that our friend has absorbed is to wear a useless mask. And he wears it at the beach! I’m sure he got around to adjusting his mask with unwashed hands at some point. I’ll cut him some slack for wearing a mask inside the restroom, but as my last post noted, that precaution is almost surely wasted effort.

Mask Truths and Signals

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It’s been clear since the beginning of the pandemic that your chance of getting infected with COVID outside is close to zero. (Also see here). Yet I still see a few masked people on the beach, in the park, on balconies, and walking in the neighborhood. Given the negligible risk of contracting COVID outdoors, the marginal benefit of masking outdoors is infinitesimal. Likewise, the benefit of a mask to the sole occupant of a vehicle is about zilch. Okay, some individuals might forget to remove their masks after leaving a “high-risk” environment. Sure, maybe, but cloth masks really don’t stop the dispersion of fine aerosols anywhere, indoors or outdoors. Of course, the immune-compromised have a reasonable excuse to apply the precautionary principle, but generally not outside with good air quality.

The following link provides a list of mask studies, and meta-studies. Several describe randomized control trials (RCTs). They vary in context, but all of them reject the hypothesis that masks are protective. Positive evidence on mask efficacy is lacking in health care settings, in community settings, and in school settings, and the evidence shows that masks create “pronounced difficulties” for young children and “emotional interference” for school children of all ages. Here’s another article containing links to more studies demonstrating the inefficacy of masks. Also see here. And this article is not only an excellent summary of the research, but it also highlights the hypocrisy of the “follow the science” public health establishment with respect to RCTs. Compliance is not even at issue in many of these studies, though if you think masks matter, it is always an issue in practice. Even studies claiming that cloth masks of the type normally worn by the public are “effective” usually concede that a large percentage of fine aerosols get through the masks… containing millions of tiny particles. In indoor environments with poor ventilation, those aerosols remain suspended in the air for periods long enough to be inhaled by others. That, in fact, is why masks are ineffective at preventing transmission.

Another dubious claim is that masks are responsible for virtually eliminating cases of influenza in 2020 and 2021. Again, to be charitable, masks are of very limited effectiveness in stopping viral transmission. Moreover, compliance has been weak at best, and areas without mask mandates have experienced the same plunge in flu cases as areas with mandates. A far more compelling explanation is that viral interference caused the steep reduction in flu incidence. The chance of being infected with more than one virus at a time is almost nil. Simply put, COVID outcompeted the flu.

Again, I grant that there are studies (though only a single randomized control trial out of India of which I’m aware) that have demonstrated significant protective effects. Even then, however, the mixed nature of this body of research does not support intrusive masking requirements.

Nevertheless, masks are still mandated in some jurisdictions. Those mandates usually don’t apply outdoors, however, and not in your own damn car! Mask mandates contribute to the general climate of fear surrounding COVID, which is wholly unjustified for most children and healthy working-age people. Public health messaging should focus on high-risk individuals: the elderly, the obese, and those having so-called comorbidities and compromised immune systems. Those groups have obvious reasons to be concerned about the virus. They have excuses to be germaphobic! Still, they are at little risk outdoors, the value of masks is doubtful, and breathing deep of fresh air is good for you in any case!

The incidence of COVID has declined substantially in many areas since early September, but the virus is now almost certainly endemic and is likely to return in seasonal waves. However, the Delta wave was far less deadly than earlier variants, a favorable trend many believe will continue. These charts from the UK posted by Michael Levitt demonstrate the improvement vividly. Perhaps the mask craze will fade away as the evidence accumulates.

The pandemic has been a moment of redemption for germaphobes, but no reasonable assessment of risk mitigation relative to the cost, inconvenience, discomfort, and psychological debasement of face jackets can prove their worth outdoors. Their value indoors is nearly as questionable. Yet there remains a stubborn reluctance by public health authorities to lift mask mandates. There are far too many individuals masking outdoors, and to be nice, perhaps it’s mere ignorance. But there are still a few would-be tyrants on Twitter presuming to shame others into joining this pathetic bit of theatre. I believe Anne Wheeler nailed it with this recent tweet:

This is one of the first things you learn in OCD therapy – you don’t get to make people participate in your compulsions in order to lesson your own anxiety. It’s bizarre that it’s been turned into a virtue.

There’s also no question that masks are still in vogue as a virtue signal in some circles, but a mask outdoors, especially, is increasingly viewed as a stupid-signal, and for good reason. I’ll continue to marvel at the irrationality of these masked alarmists, who just don’t understand how foolish they look. Give yourself permission to get some fresh air!

Stagflation and the Supply of Bad Public Policy

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Price inflation is getting more attention now than it has in many years, but not everyone is convinced it will persist, most conspicuously bond investors. The Biden Administration’s initial narrative was plausible even if there were seeds of doubt: a price spike was to be expected relative to the low-ebb of price changes during the pandemic. However, the inflation data has come in strong since the spring, and events point to continuing price pressures and the potential for expected inflation to drive escalations in contract pricing. Once embedded like that, the phenomenon broadens and gets harder to squeeze out.

Broadening Price Hikes

The evidence at hand is never enough to take much comfort in predictions, and the uncertainties now are similar to those I discussed in June. At the time, the price moves had been pronounced only in the prior month or so, and there was no evidence of any breadth. Now, it’s at least clear that increases in the so-called “core” Consumer Price Index (CPI), which excludes food and energy prices, have escalated. In addition, the growth in the median component of the CPI basket reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has begun to jump. So has the “trimmed CPI”, which excludes the most extreme 8% of prices changes in both directions within the index. The chart below shows one-month changes in these gauges:

So the recent upward price trends have expanded in breadth, and their persistence is making it a little harder to argue that the changes are transitory rebounds from pandemic weakness.

Bond Investors Still Nonchalant

Investors are by no means convinced that the recent price pressures will persist. They have an incentive to bid-up bond yields to compensate for expected inflation, so these yields can be used to infer inflation expectations. The chart below from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the five-year “breakeven” inflation rate, which is derived from inflation-indexed versus unindexed Treasury securities.

The pattern does not suggest that a meaningful change in inflation expectations has taken place. In fact, the implied five-year inflation forecast has edged down a bit. Of course, we’re still worrying about a fairly short period of high month-to-month changes in prices, and five years is a long time in that context.

This “casual” reaction of interest rates to the inflation spike undoubtedly reflects investors’ belief that the Federal Reserve will tighten policy in an effort to contain inflation. Some of us have strong doubts about the Fed’s inflation-fighting resolve, however. There is little the Fed can do to relieve supply-side problems, and many would argue that the Fed should take an accommodative stance in an attempt to minimize output and job losses, but that would reinforce the inflationary effects. There is no easy way out. Risks loom in both directions, and though I might regret it, at recent yields, I’m not buying Treasury bonds.

Sources of Price Pressure

Economists have tended to divide price pressures into those driven by demand and those driven by supply. Sometimes the terms “demand-pull” and “cost-push” inflation are used for shorthand. The former is usually associated with economic growth, where rising prices indicate that demand is outpacing gains in capacity. With cost-push inflation, however, rising prices indicate that production snd supply is somehow impeded. You get higher prices and lower output. This is so-called “stagflation”. Today we seem to have a combination of those inflationary forces in play: demand has rebounded from the pandemic lows of 2020, while breakdowns in the supply chain have choked production, with a consequent need for more severe price rationing. If the latter forces win out, we will have entered a stagflationary episode.

Unfortunately, administration policies are exacerbating supply-side inflationary pressures. Officials first insisted that the jump in inflation measures would be transitory. More recently they’ve said that it really only hurts “the rich”, an assertion that is decidedly false. Biden flaks are doing their level best to put lipstick on a pig. “Peppermint” Psaki says it shows that people just want to buy things! On the other hand, the Washington Post encourages us to “lower our expectations”. Um, yeah… I think we’re there!

Burning Energy Producers and Consumers

Energy policy is an obvious case: while a hurricane moving through the Gulf of Mexico took a big bite out of domestic oil production, Biden took several steps to hamstring the domestic fossil fuel industry at a time when the economy was still recovering from the pandemic. This included revoking permits for the Keystone pipeline, a ban on drilling on federal lands and federally-controlled waters in the Gulf, shutting down production on some private lands on the pretext of enforcing the Endsngered Species Act, and capping methane emissions by oil and gas producers. And all that was apparently just a start.

As Mark Theisen notes, when you promise to destroy a particular industry, as Joe Biden has, by taxing and regulating it to death, who wants to invest in or even maintain production facilities? Some leftists with apparent influence on the administration are threatening penalties against the industry up to and including prosecution for “crimes against humanity”! This is moronic, of course, but perhaps these extremists are just trying to move the Overton Window. Fossil fuels have been and still are a miracle in terms of human well-being, and renewable (but intermittent) energy sources are simply not capable of replacing the lost power, as Germans, Californians, and Texans are learning. Furthermore, the effort to kill fossil fuels amounts to a war on the poor. Americans are facing steep increases in their utility bills and blackouts during the times when power is needed most. Now, Biden is actively trying to wheedle more oil production out of OPEC, as if it’s okay for those nations to extract it, but not for us to do so!

Labor Shortage

Have you heard it’s hard to get help these days? You’ll notice it pretty fast if you have regular occasion to deal with service establishments. Goods are getting scarce on the shelves as well. Food and paper goods are getting pricier. The semiconductor shortage has been prominent, impacting production and pricing of electronics, computers, and new cars, with a big cross-effect on the used car and rental car markets. Everywhere you look, sellers seem short of inventory. This year it might be tough to fill the space under the Christmas tree for lack of availability.

This isn’t just about cargo ships unable to unload at the ports, although that’s significant. Patrick Tyrell and Anthony B. Kim note the difficulty of overcoming the supply chain breakdowns even with 24/7 operations at the ports. Tyrell snd Kim offer this quite from the Financial Times:

The US is facing a shortage of warehouse space and truck drivers, and shifting to 24/7 operation will require enormous co-ordination between the publicly operated ports and private sector groups, including large retailers and freight companies.

There are several reasons for the labor shortage: a few workers and businesses might still be living in fear of COVID, especially in “blue” states and urban areas where the fear factor seems to have been more palpable. That’s where the high unemployment is. There has also been an apparent wave of retirements among late baby-boomers who were already on the cusp of hanging up their skates. However, the Biden Administration has instigated a set of ill-advised policies that blunt work incentives, leading to reduced labor force participation: the repeated extensions of pandemic-related unemployment benefits; increased child and dependent care tax benefits; the moratorium on evictions from rental property; the elimination of work requirements for expanded Medicaid coverage; and increased EBT and SNAP benefits. This is not hard to understand: if you pay people to stay home, they will stay home, even as you suffer through an interminable wait for your fast food. But there might not be a wait at Dunkin’ Donuts, because they’ve been running short on donuts due to “supply chain issues”!

Destructive Public Policy

COVID policy contributed to the early plunge in demand in 2020. Economic output declined, and ramping-up production is not always a simple thing. In this case, it was hindered by repeated non-pharmaceutical interventions and confused messaging from public health authorities. These are issues I’ve felt compelled to address too many times on my blog over the past 18 months. The negative economic effects of these policies continue to linger, and it should surprise no one.

The Democrats’ so-called “social infrastructure” bill, which looks mercifully unlikely to pass without major curtailments in scale and scope, would exacerbate many of the problems cited above. As I’ve noted recently, it’s more of an “infra-shackle” bill for the private economy than an infrastructure bill. For $3.5 trillion (an understatement based on budget gimmickry), we get heavy regulation and taxes, particularly on fossil fuels, subsidies for uneconomic technologies, assorted entitlements with no means testing, wage- and job-killing (and inflationary) hikes in corporate taxes, and other tax disincentives to private investment. The bill would represent a huge reallocation from the private to the public sector via coercion and public competition for scarce resources.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, now Biden has issued his legally dubious vaccine mandate, which has been met with outrage among many workers, from Chicago cops and other public servants, health care workers, truckers and workers at such corporate giants as Boeing, Southwest Airlines, and many others. Unions are furious. People are walking out. This represents a negative “supply shock”, an unexpected event that hinders production and boosts prices. Joe Biden looks to be well on his way to earning the title of “The Stagflation President”.

I’ll leave you with this gem from Brian Dunn:

Parents and Taxpayers Confront Rogue Educrats

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This Norman Rockwell painting is called “Freedom of Speech”. It depicts a Vermont dairy farmer speaking his mind at a school board meeting, and no, he is not a “domestic terrorist”! (A recent piece by Selina Zito reminded me of this painting.) Today, parents of schoolchildren have a very special reason to be upset: the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) as part of the regular curriculum. A better name for this vapid “theory” might be “critical race theology”, because it is no “theory” at all: it is a set of “woke” accusations leveled against “out groups” designated by leftists: whites, straights, men, and sometimes groups like Jews and Asians. Many people of color are just as dismayed as those among CRT’s targets because its wrongheaded and corrosive nature is so plain. CRT is itself straightforwardly racist.

Taxpayers have a place in this debate as well, at both the K-12 and public university levels. However, their role in funding the indoctrination taking place in public schools has been neglected in the story of the revolt against CRT.

The Parent Trap

Many parents have taken strong action in response to the CRT onslaught. Some have quietly removed their children from public schools, while others have chosen to register their objections with school officials, often at school board meetings. Also, there has been some success at the ballot box by dissident school board candidates. This is grass roots participatory democracy in action, local and vocal. Certainly parents have a greater stake in their childrens’ education than anyone (except the kids themselves). They have a right to know what’s being taught and to provide critical feedback to schools.

School officials, teachers unions, and CRT teacher-enthusiasts are not likely to be straightforward about whether CRT is actually taught, however. This link might help you see through the gaslighting to which we’ve all been subjected. This article discusses various political avenues for fighting CRT in the schools. And here’s a “tool kit” that might be helpful.

Garland’s Effrontery

To top it all off, recently we’ve witnessed an act of fascist authoritarianism by the U.S. Attorney General that, by all appearances, involves a conspiracy between the Biden Administration, top officials at the Department of Justice, and the National School Boards Association (NSBA). AG Merrick Garland’s memorandum of October 4 announced a “partnership among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement to address threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.“ He did not provide actual evidence of threats against school boards or personnel, however. Yet Garland is willing to treat interested parents as if they are domestic terrorists! His memorandum is a thinly veiled warning to anyone having the temerity to confront school authorities on issues like CRT, as well as school mask mandates (which are ineffective, unnecessary, and detrimental to learning, socialization, and the psychological well being of children). Furthermore, we now know of an obvious conflict of interest: Garland’s daughter is married to the cofounder of Panorama Education, which sells training materials for teachers of CRT.

While Garland’s attempt to undercut free speech might chill the willingness of some parents to speak out against CRT in the schools, many refuse to back down. The following is an excerpt from a letter to the NSBA written on behalf of 427,000 parent-members of 21 organizations:

Our organizations unequivocally oppose violence and find it deeply troubling that you imply otherwise about concerned citizens who care deeply about their community’s children – and who are concerned by the direction that America’s schools have taken.

  • Citizens are angry that school boards and school officials around the country are restricting access to public meetings, limiting public comment, and in some cases conducting business via text messages in violation of state open meetings laws.
  • They are angry that schools are charging them thousands of dollars in public records requests to view curriculum and training materials that impact their children and that should be open to the public by default.
  • They are angry that pandemic-related learning losses have compounded the already-low reading, writing, and math proficiency rates in America’s schools.
  • They are angry that rather than focusing on declining student achievement, large numbers of districts have chosen to fund, often with hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, “social justice” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs with finite resources.

Insularity At the Board

I’ll be surprised if Garland’s memorandum doesn’t inspire many parents to push harder against CRT in their local schools. However, getting in front of school boards is not always easy, thanks to restricted access for public comment. Here’s an example of the draconian reaction by school authorities in their effort to silence parents, from Orange County, CA. In my own local school district in Missouri, making a short comment at a board meeting first requires submission of a request detailing the subject or question you wish to address to the board. Not only can they simply ignore your request, but it also gives them an opportunity to “circle the wagons” in advance, as it were, even calling upon various “friends of the board” to attend en masse.

The leftists who support CRT fight dirty, as this article notes:

Nicole Solas, a mother who has complained about her school board, has been harassed and even sued by the authorities. Go ahead, ‘arrest me,’ she said on Twitter. ‘They wanted to publicly humiliate me,’ she said. ‘They paid a PR firm to call me a racist in the national media. So they really wanted to ostracize me from my community.’

The anger of parents toward this bankrupt philosophy in our schools, and its belligerent proponents, is well justified. Parents obviously have the biggest stake in this controversy. My kids are grown, but I’m angry too, in part because the once-fine education offered by our school district has digressed to brutish proselytization about victimhood, its supposed perpetrators, and the emphasis on the Left’s version of “social justice”. I’m also angry as a taxpayer. While the student population might shrink as decent families abandon the brainwashing camps in favor of private schools or home schooling, does anyone expect the tax bill to decline commensurately? At all? School taxes should be a ripe area for activism, because lots of people don’t want to pay for this shit!

Our Taxes, Our Schools?

Opponents of CRT won a victory of sorts this summer when the U.S. Department of Education amended a proposal that would have prioritized CRT initiatives in awarding grant money.

The Department of Education withdrew ‘the requirement that grantees incorporate curriculum and instruction based on or similar to the 1619 Project or the works of Ibram X. Kendi.’

Hooray for that. And in August, the U.S. Senate passed a “STOP CRT” amendment to the otherwise misbegotten $3.5 trillion “social infrastructure” bill. The amendment would ban the use of federal funds for teaching CRT in schools. Of course, that the federal government has any role in funding local schools, and in shaping their curricula, is itself regrettable.

At the state level, many Republican office-holders seem unaware of the use of state resources for CRT in schools, as this piece about Indiana demonstrates. Perhaps they’ve been cowed, and are reluctant to comment for fear of being called racists by CRT proponents. Registering strong displeasure with state legislators regarding the onslaught of CRT is something all within our opposition should be doing.

Local taxes still account for most school funding. There’s obviously no way to get around school district bond servicing. Most ballot initiatives on school taxes appear at the behest of the school districts themselves, and generally those go in only one direction: up! General funding may be subject to reduction via ballot initiative, but petitions are usually necessary, and apparently those have been few and far between. A more promising avenue for wresting control over school funding are school voucher programs, whereby school funds (either state or local dollars) follow the student rather than remaining under the control of monopoly school districts. School choice is expanding across a number of states, having been given a boost by the pandemic. CRT might prove to be an additional impetus in some states. But parents should be careful: some private schools are just as brazen as public schools when it comes to peddling CRT. And there is the danger that vouchers, one day, will bring unwelcome government curriculum mandates.

Joining Arms

The widespread adoption of critical theology in public schools (and universities) is not only a corruption of education: it is institutional roguery and a misappropriation of taxpayer funds for political indoctrination. This is aggravated by the unresponsiveness of many school boards, administrators, and teachers. Parents have good cause to be infuriated, and so do taxpayers. They are natural allies in this struggle to win back our educational institutions.

The Digital Erosion of Collecting and Ownership

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Our material possessions aren’t the most important things in the world, but they are often part of our identities as people. Almost anything qualifies, from the big, expensive stuff like a home or a car, to whatever we find worth keeping. Declutter if you must, but the things that remain have a lot to do with our well being, even if they exist simply as part of our surroundings. They reflect our past, present, and hopes for the future, and they embody important aspects of our interests and passions.

I don’t doubt that individuals of high spiritual or metaphysical consciousness are able to transcend the desire for material goods. Very well, though for most of us, certain physical possessions matter. People collect things like matchbook covers or fine art because they are important in one way or another. Great works and quirky novelties all have their place… with someone.

We’ve witnessed an accelerating erosion in the personal art of “collecting” certain kinds of things, however, and that is the main subject of this post. It draws heavily on Kyle Chayka’s excellent piece, “The Digital Death of Collecting”. There are at least two aspects of this decline. One has to do with digital storage, which eliminates physical media and presents a new set of administrative issues. The other strand has to do with a loss of ownership. That’s a distinct phenomenon, but it has probably been driven by digital technology, at least to this point.

Losing Physical Control

Much of the entertainment we experience today is delivered electronically. Historically, we used physical storage media of various kinds: books, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, books on tape, etc… so it was (and still is) possible to accumulate and possess a physical collection of music, for example. It can be fun to document those collections, like my old bootleg Grateful Dead concert tapes. Now, actually owning a collection of physical music media is an anachronism to many (mostly younger) people. Instead, their favorite music is stored on a device, a server, or “in the Cloud”. Often, without a shred of awareness, this has led to a kind of interference with the individual’s ability to possess and control a whole class of property closely associated with the cultural and intellectual self.

For example, with respect to physical media and storage, we used to shoot photos and, once developed, we’d curate them and put our favorites into photo albums. However, for the better part of the past two decades, phones have allowed us to snap photos and take videos more or less indiscriminately. I periodically transfer my photos to an electronic hard drive, with minimal curation, where they are automatically assigned names with inscrutable combinations of letters and numbers. I’ve been doing it for years now, and it’s a mess. How long will it take me to find a particular photo? Even one photo from a particular event? What if the drive fails?

I need to back them up, of course, but that was the original purpose of the external hard drive! As I updated and transitioned to new computers over the years, I failed to maintain a complete set on the new laptop hard drives. Now, they reside only on the external hard drive. Sadly, in the end, many of us are simply unable or unwilling to implement better record management practices. My “collection” of photos has been neglected. I could try to rename these images descriptively and sort them into folders, but digging into it now seems almost an insurmountable task.

To some extent, the advent of digital players had the same impact on music collections. Some listeners never made the transition and consigned themselves to the use of older media and technologies, despite the increasing difficulty and expense of finding recordings. But they kept their physical collections active, which is a gratifying thing. Those who made the transition grappled with new issues in managing their “collections”, often without the satisfaction of arranging and beholding the physical media. Granted, this isn’t always an either/or proposition, but doing both requires extra effort.

Similar transitions took place with digitized movies and reading material. I have a small movie collection, mostly movie musicals, animated children’s films, and a few cult films and classics. Not all are on DVD, and I haven’t added anything to this little trove in years. I still rent discs from Netflix, but like most people, streaming accounts for a growing share of my viewing. As for books, it’s less common today to see handsome collections of books arranged on shelves, but some doggedly attempt to maintain personal libraries, even if they aren’t all bound hardcovers.

Loss of Ownership

The other strand of our evolving relationship with digitized entertainment has to do with ownership itself. Today, we often purchase what amount to listening, viewing, or other “use rights”. This has sealed Chayka’s “Digital Death of Collecting”. Here’s how he sums it up:

My lostness comes from the sense that our cultural collections are not wholly our own anymore. In the era of algorithmic feeds, it’s as if the bookshelves have started changing shape on their own in real time, shuffling some material to the front and downplaying the rest like a sleight-of-hand magician trying to make you pick a specific card — even as they let you believe it’s your own choice. And this lack of agency is undermining our connections to the culture that we love.

Again, books are a case in point. Chayka notes that building a personal library is an expression of one’s intellectual history and interests. Yet today, with electronically delivered reading material sans physical media, you don’t really “own” the books you purchase. This blogger states the case well:

As I’ve tried to point out before, both publishers and distributors like Amazon have spent the past decade or so removing rights that we used to have when books were physical property, and were something that you actually bought — along with the right to resell and/or lend them to whomever you wished, whenever you wished. Those rights no longer exist, which is why it’s better to think of an ebook purchase as an agreement to rent access under specific terms rather than an actual acquisition of something tangible.”

Free To Rent … and Pay As You Go

Subscriptions are replacing ownership in all sorts of contexts, and the use rights they confer are obviously of limited duration. For example, I was surprised when I realized that I could no longer “purchase” Microsoft Office and then download and install it to my computer. Instead, I have to buy annual subscriptions to continue to use it. Now, I don’t really “collect” software, unless the plethora of apps I’ve downloaded to my phone qualifies. Also, I understand that software becomes obsolete, so my “ownership” of Office was really equivalent to an indefinite but limited rental period. Maybe one-year subscriptions will be a better deal, though I have my doubts.

Renting certainly isn’t new in the “film space”. Blockbuster was a huge success for a time. And again, I get two discs at a time from Netflix to this day. People can still “collect” videos, but I suspect it’s not quite as common today in terms of collecting physical media.

I’ll always argue that renting is an economically rational alternative to homeownership. Same with leasing vs. owning a car, or anything else. And people often take a measure of pride even in things they rent. These own vs. rent choices and their relative values depend on one’s circumstances in life as well as one’s preference for control over the items in question.

Our Carts Runneth Over

A huge upside of all these changes is that we’re enjoying an astonishing array of choices as well as unprecedented convenience. (We can argue about the quality of the art, but that’s for another day.) In fact, the scarcity of new “collectibles” in the categories I’ve mentioned here might not be such bad news to collectors who’ve been at it for a while. After all, their existing collections might gain value. However, some forms of storage media might require technical or mechanical skill on the part of the collector. That’s because they have rigid hardware requirements. Eight-track players? Cassette tapes? VCRs? Who supports them? Yes, you can still buy a phonograph, but finding compatible “content” can be challenging. For the rest of us, streaming digital content frees us from those requirements and their inevitable obsolescence.

Unfortunately, our relationship to so much of our personal entertainment bounty seems more ephemeral than in the past. Streaming music and films is fine, but I’m much less likely to “burn them”, and ownership is an all but forgotten possibility. Like Chayka, I find the loss of owned, physical collections that has accompanied the digital revolution lamentable, not to mention the loss of control. I truly believe that if publishers ever quit printing physical books we’ll be poorer for it. But I’m not a complete technophobe, and I think there’s promise in recent developments in blockchain technology that might restore our ability as consumers to own more encompassing rights to digital assets.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are essentially digital assets of almost any kind, with ownership documented in the blockchain. Some of the most publicized NFTs we’ve seen thus far are notoriously lacking in the actual rights they confer to the buyer. However, advances in standards are enabling the creation of more robust NFTs. There is no reason, in principle, why a consumer could not possess an NFT documenting ownership for a digital copy of a particular film, piece of music, e-book, or any other form one might collect. That might solve the ownership issue if and when crypto assets gain more acceptance. Individuals who are especially proud of their collections of NFTs could produce physical tokens to represent each NFT for display, if only for themselves to gaze upon lovingly. These could be plaques, for example, or the physical tokens could look like DVDs or books! Granted, it’s not the same as a real collection of physical media, but it might serve an emotional purpose.

Censorship and Content Moderation in the Public Square

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I’m probably as fed up with social media as anyone, given the major platforms’ penchant for censoring on the basis of politics, scientific debate, religion, and wokeism (or I should say a lack thereof). I quit Facebook back in January and haven’t regretted it. It’s frustratingly difficult to convince others to give it up, however, and I’ve tried. Ultimately, major user defections would provide the most effective means of restraining the company’s power.

Beyond my wild fantasies of a consumer revolt, I will confess to a visceral desire to see the dominant social media platforms emasculated: broken up, regulated, or even fined for proven complaints of censorial action. That feeling is reinforced by their anti-competitive behavior, which is difficult to curb.

Are There Better Ways?

While my gut says we need drastic action by government, my head tells me … not … so … fast! These are private companies, after all. I’m an adherent of free markets and private property, so I cannot abide government intrusions to force anyone to sponsor my speech using their private facilities. At the same time, however, our free speech rights must be protected in the “public square”, and the social media companies have long claimed that their platforms offer a modern form of the public square. If they can be taken at their word, should there be some remedy available to those denied a voice based upon their point-of-view by such a business? This seems especially pertinent when access to “public accommodations” is so critical to the meaning of non-discrimination under current law (not that I personally believe businesses should be forced to accommodate the specific demands of all comers).

In a lengthy and scholarly treatment of “Treating Social Media Platforms Like Common Carriers”, Eugene Volokh states the following about U.S. Supreme Court case law (pg. 41):

Under PruneYard and Rumsfeld, private property owners who open up their property to the public (or to some segment of the public, such as military recruiters) may be required by state or federal law to share their real estate with other speakers.”

The Common Carrier Solution

Volokh’s article is very detailed and informative. I highly recommend it to anyone hoping to gain an understanding of the complex legal issues associated with the rights of big tech firms, their users, and other interested parties. His article highlights the long-standing legal principle that so-called “common carriers” in telecommunications cannot discriminate on the basis of speech.

Volokh believes it would be reasonable and constitutional to treat the big social media platforms as common carriers. Then, the platforms would be prohibited from discriminating based on viewpoint, though free to recommend material to their users. He also puts forward a solution that would essentially permit social media firms to continue to receive protection from liability for user posts like that granted under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act:

“… I think Congress could categorically treat platforms as common carriers, at least as to their hosting function. But Congress could also constitutionally give platforms two options as to any of their functions: (1) Claim common carrier status, which will let them be like phone companies, immune from liability but also required to host all viewpoints, or (2) be distributors like bookstores, free to pick and choose what to host but subject to liability (at least on a notice-and- takedown basis).

Economist Luigi Zingales emphasizes the formidable network externalities that give the incumbent platforms like Facebook a dominance that is almost unshakable. Zingales essentially agrees with Volokh, but he refers to common carrier status for what he calls the “sharing function” with Section 230-like protections, while the so-called “editing function” can and should be competitive. Zingales calls recommendations of material by a platform part of the editing function which should not be granted protection from liability. In that last sense, his emphasis differs somewhat from Volokh’s. However, both seem to think an change in the law is necessary to allow protections only where they serve the “public interest”, as opposed to protecting the private interests of the platforms.

The most destructive aspect of Section 230 immunity is the so-called “Good Samaritan” clause aimed at various kinds of offensive material (“… obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”), which the social media platforms have used as “a license to censor”, as Philip Hamburger puts it. Here, Eugene Volokh and others, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, assert that this provision should not receive a broad interpretation in determining immunity for content moderation decisions. In other words, the phrase “otherwise objectionable” in the provision must be interpreted within the context of the statute, which, after all, has to do with communications decency! (Here again, I question whether the government can legitimately authorize censorship in any form.)

Arm of Government?

Viewpoint discrimination and censorship by the platforms is bad enough, but in addition, by all appearances, there is a danger of allowing companies like Facebook to become unofficial speech control ministries in the service of various governments around the world, including the U.S. Here is Vivek Ramaswamy’s astute take on the matter:

… Facebook likely serves increasingly as the censorship arm of the US government, just as it does for other governments around the world.

In countries like India, Israel, Thailand, and Vietnam, Facebook frequently removes posts at the behest of the government to deter regulatory reprisal. Here at home, we know that Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg regularly correspond with US officials, ranging from e-mail exchanges with Dr. Anthony Fauci on COVID-19 policy to discussing “problematic posts” that “spread disinformation” with the White House.

If Zuckerberg and Sandberg are also directly making decisions about which posts to censor versus permit, that makes it much more likely that they are responsive to the threats and inducements from government officials.

Even LinkedIn has censored journalists in China who have produced stories the government finds unflattering. Money comes first, I guess! I’m all for the profit motive, but it should never take precedence over fundamental human rights like free speech.

There is no question of a First Amendment violation if Facebook or any other platform is censoring users on behalf of the U.S. government, and Section 230 immunity would be null and void under those circumstances.

Elections … Their Way

On the other hand, we also know that platforms repeatedly censored distribution of the Trump Administration’s viewpoints; like them or not, we’re talking about officials of the executive branch of the U.S. government! This raises the possibility that Section 230 immunity was (or should have been) vitiated by attempts to silence the government. And of course, there is no question that the social media platforms sought to influence the 2020 election via curation of posts, but it is not clear whether that is currently within their rights under Section 230’s Good Samaritan clause. Some would note the danger to fair elections inherent in any platform’s willingness to appease authoritarian governments around the world, or their willingness and ability to influence U.S. elections.

Pledge of Facebook Allegiance

Some of our domestic social media companies have become supra-national entities without a shred of loyalty to the U.S. This article in The Atlantic, of all places, is entitled “The Largest Autocracy on Earth“, and it has a sub-heading that says it all:

Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power; it’s time we treated it that way.

The article reports that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has promoted the mantra “company over country”. That should disabuse you of any notion that he cares one whit about the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution. He is a child consumed with dominance, control, and profit for his enterprise, and he might be a megalomaniac to boot. If he wants to host social media relationships in this country, let’s make Facebook a common carrier hosting platform.

Inflation: The Leftist “Tax the Poor” Policy

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Recent years have seen explosive growth in federal deficits along with growth rates in the money supply that would have made John Maynard Keynes blush. It’s no coincidence that a new school of thought has developed among certain “monetary economists”. But as someone trained in monetary economics, I wish I could make those quote marks larger. This new school of thought is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and it asserts that the money spigot is a perfectly legitimate means of financing government spending and, furthermore, that it is not necessarily inflationary. Here is how Scott Sumner and Patrick Horan describe MMT:

A central idea of MMT is that a government that issues its own fiat currency can pay its bills in that same currency. These governments need not worry about budget deficits when contemplating additional spending. Thus because the US government has a monopoly on money creation, our federal government does not need to raise all its revenue through tax or bond finance. A government with its own currency cannot go bankrupt because it can always issue more currency to cover any budget deficit. … MMT advocates argue that this why the US government can afford expensive programs such as a jobs guarantee and universal healthcare.

Spend and Print

Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “social infrastructure” package would be just a start, but that’s likely to be more like $5.5T once the budget gimmicks are stripped out. We can be somewhat hopeful, because that initiative looks increasingly likely to fail in Congress, at least this time around. But the tax side of that bill was already $2.6T short of the latter spending figure, and the tax provisions keep shrinking. Now, it’s looking more like a shortfall of $3.5T would require financing. Moderate Democrats may not support this crazy bill in the end, but Dems from deep blue states want to reinstate state and local tax deductibility, which would cut the tax component still more. Well who cares? Print the money, say the brave MMT advocates.

Sumner gets to the heart of the problem in this piece. Progressives, with false assurance from MMT, want loose monetary policy to make their expansive programs “affordable”. As he explains, if this happens while the economy is near its production potential, inflation is a sure thing. These lessons were learned long ago, but have been conveniently forgotten by the political class (or they simply prefer to ignore them), instead jumping onto the MMT bandwagon.

Inflation Is Taxation

No conscientious observer of government finance should ever forget that inflation is a form of taxation. Assets whose values are either fixed or subject to some inertia are devalued by inflation in terms of purchasing power, or in real terms, as economists put it. Strictly speaking, this is true when inflation is unexpected… if it is expected, then lenders and borrowers can negotiate terms that will compensate for these changes in real value. But when inflation is unexpected, the losses to lenders are offset by gains to borrowers. Of course the federal government is a gigantic borrower, so inflation can represent a confiscation of wealth from the public.

It’s not small potatoes. Currently, about $22T of U.S. Treasury debt is held by the public, and its average maturity is more than 5 years. If the Federal Reserve engineers an unexpected 1% jump in the rate of inflation, it shaves over $1T off the real value of that debt before it’s repaid, and it reduces the real interest cost of that debt as well. Of course, the holders of that debt will suffer an immediate loss if they are forced to sell prior to maturity for any reason, since new buyers will be demanding higher yields to compensate for higher inflation if it is expected to persist.

The Poor Losers

Inflation causes redistributions to take place, especially when it is unexpected inflation. We’ve already discussed lenders and borrowers, but similar considerations apply to anyone entering into fixed price contracts for goods or labor. Here’s what Claudio Bario of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has to say about these shifts:

Inflation shifts income and wealth away from those who are least aware of it, or least able to protect against it. These segments of the population often coincide with lower-income groups, which explains why inflation has often been portrayed as a most regressive form of tax. The ‘inflation tax’ takes its toll through the erosion of the value of financial assets and contracts fixed in nominal terms.

Inflation is a regressive tax! In this respect, economist Noah Smith echos Bario in a recent op-ed in which he discusses “money illusion”, or the confusion of real and nominal income:

Workers … who are slow to perceive the rise in prices they pay for goods like cars and groceries, won’t realize this, and will be happy with their unusually large raises. But companies, whose accountants and managers certainly know the true inflation rate, will also be happy, because they know they’re not actually paying more for labor.

That information asymmetry between workers and employers may be exactly what keeps wages from rising faster than inflation. If workers take a year to realize how much prices have gone up, they may be satisfied with the raises they got during the time of high inflation — even if that inflation ultimately turns out to be transitory. By then, it might be too late to negotiate for a real, inflation-adjusted raise.”

Inflation taxes and redistributions become more acute at higher rates of inflation, but any unexpected escalation in the rate of inflation will take a toll on the poor. Bario elaborates on the mechanisms by which inflation inflicts budgetary pain on the those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“As regards wealth distribution, the financial assets that are most vulnerable to inflation are cash and bank accounts – the typical savings vehicles held by the poorest segments of the population. This is mostly because the poorest have access only to limited investment options to protect their savings. …

… wages and pensions – the main sources of income for a large majority of households and even more so for the poorest half of the population – are typically fixed in nominal terms and hence vulnerable to inflation. Indexation mechanisms, such as those adopted in many [advanced economies] in the 1970s, are no panacea: they may fail to keep pace as inflation accelerates; …”

In addition to the inflationary gains reaped by government, it’s clear that inflation gives rise to redistributions between private parties: generally from those with lower incomes and wealth to their employers, producers, financial institutions, and pension payers (businesses, state and local governments). An exception is some low income debtors might benefit if they owe long term obligations at fixed interest rates, but low income individuals are often constrained from obtaining this form of credit.

Causing, Then Exploiting, Inequality

Another especially galling aspect of the Left’s focus on money finance is how its consequences fly in the face of their concerns about income and wealth inequality. Inflation is typically manifested in rising equity prices: nominal stock values tend to escalate in an inflationary environment, protecting their owners from losses to the real value of their investments. Stocks are generally a good inflation hedge. Yet we know that stocks are disproportionately owned by those in the highest strata of the income and wealth distributions. Later, of course, the Left will seek to level the burgeoning inequality wrought by their own policies by “taxing the rich”! Apparently, for the Left, consistency is never considered a virtue. This is not unlike another trick, which is to blame “greedy corporations” for the inflation wrought by Leftist policies.

It’s a great irony that the Left, which purports to support the poor and working people, would propose a form of government finance that is so regressive in its effects. To be generous, perhaps it’s just another case of “progressives” unknowingly hurting the ones they love. The expansive programs they advocate will confer government benefits to many individuals in higher income brackets, not just the poor, but those government alms will help to compensate for higher inflation. But this too takes advantage of money illusion, because those benefits might well buy progressives the loyalty of beneficiaries unable to recognize the ongoing erosion in their standard of living, and who are unwilling to come to grips with their increasing dependency.

But Tut, Tut, They Say

Advocates of MMT, in combination with expansive government, also have a tendency to deny that inflation has ever been a consequence of such policies. As Sumner points out, they have forgotten historical episodes that run contrary to the theory, and most “popular” advocates of MMT fail to recognize the important role played by limits on the economy’s production potential. When money growth outruns the economy’s ability to produce real goods and services, the prices of goods will rise.