Give Back My Stolen Face

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She looks good in a mask, and I grant you: masquerades often convey exciting undertones of sexual adventurism. But masquerades and masks should be novelties, not a constant way of life dictated by over-precautious public health authorities.

That brings me to the subject of an outdoor concert I’m attending with some friends on May 8th. It’s to be held at a grassy amphitheater along the Mississippi River in south St. Louis County. Unfortunately, the county health department imposes idiotic rules at this and other outdoor facilities. In the document at the link, it’s clear the rules were given some spin by the band who will perform that night, Jake’s Leg, a very good Grateful Dead cover band. And I get it: these guys just want to play music and perform for their fans, who will be happy to soak in the sounds, party, and dance the night away. Still, some of the rules are absurd and fly in the face of “the science”.

There is a certain libertarian streak among Grateful Deadheads, though in terms of realpolitik, probably the majority is of a more collectivist persuasion (not me). Some in the crowd will welcome the rules and might even go so far as to rat-out anyone whose behavior they find “unsafe”. Others will just go along with the rules as they interpret them. Some like me might push the envelope. But as the evening wears on… what a nice expression, … “as the evening wore on…”, it will be interesting to see whether forces tear loose from the prescriptive axis.

I’ve excerpted some of the rules below and added brief commentary. They appear in the order listed in the document, though it might seem a bit jumbled. I’m sorry to have left out most of the friendly color added by the band:

Bring a cloth or paper face covering. You will not be allowed entry if you do not have one. Gaiters, bandanas and full-face shields are not acceptable as primary or only face covering. Face coverings must completely cover the nose and mouth. Children under 2 years old are not required to wear a face covering.

The chances of contracting COVID outdoors are virtually nil, and don’t tell me we’re just learning these details … we’ve known that since almost the beginning of the pandemic. Second, in any case, cloth and paper masks are ineffective at stopping the aerosols responsible for most viral transmission. That’s been known for many years. Our public health experts are only now starting to admit these facts. Allowing toddlers to go maskless is the only concession, and it’s true that transmission by children is unlikely and COVID severity in children is very low. But that goes for older children as well, not just toddlers. Asymptomatic spread is similarly rare, so if you feel good enough to go (and they’ll check your temperature at the gate), you are unlikely to present a risk to anyone.

Please bring small personal coolers only (no coolers w/ wheels) for your favorite beverages (cans and non- breakables please), along with snacks and food, chairs, blankets and personal use items for you and your small group.

So, maybe not so bad… it’s about like the usual charade at restaurants: we must enter wearing masks, but then we can rip them off as soon as we find a spot to enjoy the music, our snacks, beverages and those all-important personal use items. Hmm, I guess the unsanitary passing of spleefs ist verboten. A hookah with several hoses could accommodate a small group, but that never goes over with an event staff! Edibles are fine!

Have your ticket ready to be scanned … and always maintain at least 6 feet social distancing while you’re in line. Markers will be placed as a reminder for you.”

Even indoors, three feet of distancing has been acknowledged as adequate by the undeservedly celebrated Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Please spread out and maintain at least six feet social distancing from other attendees outside of your small group. There is plenty of room to move and dance.

More of the same hogwash. Note that the requirements offer no definition of “small group”. To appreciate the absurdity and unnecessary ass-covering inherent in all this, let me point out that my “small group” will consist of six or seven friends who haven’t met as a group in more than a year, We are almost sure to mix with other friends whom we’ll see at the show. So group members will migrate between groups, or small groups might merge into somewhat larger “small groups”. This will be happening all over, and it’s a pretty sure bet there will be lapses in mask compliance. If you happen to be spinning or dancing, the last thing you should do is wear a mask. You need oxygen, and you should avoid trapping hot breath and spittle right up against your face (see the latter part of this article).

Once you’ve found a place to watch the show, please stay with your group at your area. If you must leave your space, you must wear a face covering at all times whenever you are not able to maintain at least 6 foot social distancing.”

Uh-huh… “Distancing” is not always clear-cut behavior. You pass people coming and going and dancing around. Are you “distancing” on average? Will you be ejected if you briefly come within a few feet of another concert-goer, sans mask? These are matters of uncertain degree, and it’s generally why police don’t enforce mask mandates in pedestrian areas, aside from a few draconian “mask traps” outside stores. Outdoors, it’s absurd.

Please wash/sanitize your hands before and after using all restroom facilities. Always be kind, think of others and practice social distancing when waiting.”

Post-toilet hand washing is always a good practice, of course, but these guys are nuts! When I arrive at the restroom, I’m generally not worried about the remote chance that my hands will pass the virus to my genitals or vice-versa, and we know that the virus isn’t transmitted from surfaces. It’s also regrettable that masks and distancing will limit those sometimes entertaining conversations in bathroom lines.

All attendees must adhere to these guidelines regardless of vaccination status.”

This also is sheer stupidity, and I’m complaining only because it reflects the “Zero COVID” mentality of the public health authorities holding us hostage. I guess I’d rather not bring my vaccination card along in any case, and at least they aren’t requiring “vaccine passports” for entry to the venue. But just in case I’m misunderstood, the chance that a fully vaccinated individual will catch or transmit the virus is very low and not even worthy of concern in any rational balancing of risk and benefit.

Disclaimer: All venue initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are strictly followed and enforced. Those on premises are subject to compliance with all venue safety procedures and protocols. Non-compliance will result in refused entry or ejection from venue without refund. Upon purchasing tickets for the event, you acknowledge and agree to adhere to all venue policies.

Again, as a practical matter, some of the rules listed above are virtually unenforceable, but we’ll see how the evening unfolds with a crowd of free-wheeling Deadheads. It could be all strangers stopping strangers, just to bump their elbows. Either way, if past is prelude, the amphitheater will be something of a heart-of-gold land.

BLM’s Trail of Homicide

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Check out this Vox article on the impact of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests on police homicides, other homicides, and property crime within the communities where protests occurred. It cites a study by Travis Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at UMass-Amherst with the following major findings for the period 2014-2019:

1) Police homicides in census areas where BLM protests took place were 10% – 15% less than if those deaths had followed the trend where BLM protests did not take place, after controlling for confounding factors like the local unemployment rate. That’s about 300 fewer uses of lethal force by police, or one less for every 4,000 BLM protestors. So far, so good, one might guess.

2) Other homicides increased by roughly 10% using the same basis of comparison, or somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000. This estimate is less precise for a number of reasons, and it was not the main focus of Campbell’s research. Still, using a value near the mid-point, say 3,000, yields one extra murder for every 400 BLM protestors! The effect seems to taper off after about four years.

3) Reported property crimes decreased by 8.4% in areas that had BLM protests, but the share of those crimes solved declined by 5.5%. Campbell interprets the latter as an indication of reduced policing intensity. Reports of crime might decline if confidence in the police declines post protest, but reduced effort by the police is also consistent with less reported property crime, less police engagement, and more homicide.

As Alex Tabarrok says:

The explanation is consistent with what happened in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests and riots, namely arrests went down and murders went up.

The research did not include data on the 2020 protests and riots following the death of George Floyd due to lags in reporting homicides and crime.

One of BLM’s primary objectives is to end “systemic racism” in policing, a problem that has no real empirical basis. Nevertheless, a reduction in deadly confrontations between police and blacks would seem to be a win (though the study doesn’t address the racial makeup of police homicides). But if that means less police engagement and a substantial increase in homicides in the community, the cost is obviously too high. Areas suffering from high homicide rates need more policing, not less. But yes, it must be good policing in partnership with citizens, and there are real reforms that could help.

BLM’s continued calls to “defund the police” are more about signaling lofty intent than about solving real problems. After all, that’s the perverse charm of the Marxism espoused by BLM, Antifa, and gentry leftists having class immunity to unintended (but predictable) consequences. You don’t really have to solve problems. You can just make them for others and take credit for trying!

The Social Security Filing Dilemma

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A 67-year-old friend told me he won’t file for Social Security (SS) benefits until he turns 70 because “it will pay off as long as I live to at least 81”. Okay, so benefit levels increase by about 8% for each year they’re deferred after your “full retirement age” (probably about 66 for him), and he has no doubt he’ll live more than the extra 11 years. Yes, his decision will “pay off” in a “break-even” sense if he lives that long: he’ll collect more incremental dollars of benefits beyond his 70th birthday than he’ll lose during the three-year deferral (but actually, he’d have to live till he’s 81.5 to break even). But that does not mean his decision is “optimal”.

Good things come to those who wait. I’ll simplify here just a bit, but let’s say an 8% increase in benefits is uniform for every year deferred beyond age 62. (It’s actually a bit more than that after full retirement age, but it’s less than 8% in some years prior to full retirement age.) 8% is a very good, “safe” return, assuming you don’t mind putting your faith in the government to make good.

The Reaper approaches: Unlike your personal savings, SS benefits end at death (a surviving spouse would continue to receive the higher of your respective benefit payments). That means the “safe” 8% return is eroded by diminishing life expectancy with each passing year. For example, average life expectancy at age 62 is 25.4 years, but it falls to 24.5 years at age 63. That’s a decline of 3.5% in the number of years one can expected to receive those higher, deferred benefits. At ages 69 and 70, remaining life expectancy is 19.6 and 18.8 years, respectively. Therefore, waiting the extra year to age 70 means a 4.1% decline in future years of benefits. So rather than a safe, 8% return, subtract about 4%. You’re looking at roughly a 4% uncertain return for deferral of benefits between age 62 and age 70. If you have health issues, it’s obviously worse.

Opportunity Cost: It would be fine to take an expected 4% annual return for deferring SS benefits if you had no immediate use for the extra funds. But you could take the early benefits and invest them! If you’re still working, you could possibly save a like amount of funds from your employment income tax-deferred. So taking the early benefits would be worthwhile if you can earn at least 4% on the funds. Sure, investment returns are uncertain, but over a few years, a 4% annualized return (which I’ll call the “hurdle” rate) should not be hard to beat.

The same logic applies to an already retired individual who would withdraw funds from savings to afford the deferral of SS benefits. Instead, if he or she takes the benefits immediately, leaving a like amount invested, any return in excess of about 4% will have made it worthwhile. But of course, all of this is beside the point if you really just want to retire and the early benefits allow you to do so. You value the benefits now!

But what about taxes? Investment income will generally be taxed, and it’s possible the incremental benefits from deferred SS benefits won’t be. That might swing the calculus in favor of waiting a few extra years to file. And taking benefits early, while still employed, might mean a larger share of the early benefits will be taxed. If 80% of your benefits are taxed at a marginal rate of 25%, state and federal, you’re out 20% of your early benefits. Also, if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in the future (good luck!), or if you plan to move to a low-tax state at some point in the future, deferring benefits might be more advantageous.

On the other hand, if you’re subject to tax on a portion of your early benefits, you’re likely to be subject to tax on benefits you defer as well. If you’re SS benefits and investment income are both taxed, the issue might be close to a wash, but that hurdle return I mentioned above might have to be a bit higher than 4% to justify early benefits.

Optimal? So what is an “optimal” decision about when to file for SS benefits? For anyone in their 60s today who has not yet filed for SS benefits, it depends on your tolerance for market risk and your tax status.

—You can likely earn more than the rough 4% annual hurdle discussed over a few years in the market, so taking benefits as early as 62 might be a reasonable decision. That’s especially true if you already have some cash set aside to ride out market downturns.

—If you are an extremely conservative investor then you are unlikely to achieve a 4% return, so the “safe” return from deferring SS benefits is your best bet.

—If you believe your tax status will be more favorable later, that might swing the pendulum in favor of deferral, again depending on risk tolerance.

—If you are afraid that failing health and death might come prematurely, filing early is a reasonable decision.

—If you simply want to retire early and the benefits will enable you to do that, filing early is simply a matter of personal time preference.

So my friend who is deferring his SS benefits until age 70 might or might not be optimizing: 1) he is supremely confident in his long-term health, but that’s not something he should count on; 2) he might be an extremely cautious investor (okay…); and 3) he’s still working, and he might expect his tax status to improve by age 70 (I doubt it).

I plan to retire before I turn 65, and I think I’ll be happy to take the benefits and leave more of my money invested. As for Social Security generally, I’d be happy to take a steeply discounted lump sum immediately and invest it, rather than wait for retirement, but that ain’t gonna happen!

Bottom-Line Booster Shots

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The barrage of precautionary COVID missives continues, and with a familiar “follow-the-money” twist. The CEOs of both Pfizer and Moderna say that booster shots are likely to be needed a year after initial administration of their COVID vaccines, and almost certainly every year thereafter. Of course, this message is for those who felt compelled to be vaccinated in the first place, whether out of concern for their own health, high-minded community spirit, fear of social ostracism, or fear of possible vaccine passport requirements. It’s probably also intended for those who acquired immunity through infection.

There are reasons to believe, however, that such a booster is unnecessary. This case was made a few days ago in a series of tweets by Dr. Monica Ghandi, an infectious disease expert and Professor of Medicine at UCSF. Ghandi says immunity from an infection or a vaccine can be expected to last much longer than a year, despite the diminished presence of antibodies. That’s because the immune system relies on other mechanisms to signal and produce new antibodies against specific pathogens when called upon.

So-called B cells actually produce antibodies. Another cell-type known as T cells act to signal or instruct B cells to do so, but so-called “killer” T cells destroy cells in the body that have already been infected. Dr. Ghandi’s point is that both B and T cells tend to have very long memories and are capable of conferring immunity for many years.

While our experience with COVID-19 is short, long-lasting immunity has been proven against measles for up to 34 years, and for other SARS-type viruses for at least 17 years. Dr. Ghandi links to research showing that survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic were found to have active B cells against the virus 90 years later! The COVID vaccines cause the body to produce both B and T cells, and the T cells are protective against COVID variants.

A last point made by Dr. Ghandi is intended to dispel doubts some might harbor due to the relatively ineffectual nature of annual flu vaccines. The flu mutates much more aggressively than COVID, so the design of each year’s flu vaccine involves a limited and uncertain choice among recent strains. COVID mutates, but in a more stable way, so that vaccines and adaptive immunity tend to retain their effectiveness.

While I’m sure the pharmaceutical companies believe in the benefits of their vaccines, there are undoubtedly other motives behind the push for boosters. There is money to be made, and much of that money will be paid by governments eager to jump on the precautionary bandwagon, and who are likely to be very insensitive to price. In fact, the vaccine producers might well have encouraged those pushing vaccine passports to include annual booster requirements. This would be another unwelcome imposition. The very discussion of boosters gives government officials more running room for other draconian but ultimately ineffective mandates on behavior. And the booster recommendation gives additional cover to public health “experts” who refuse to acknowledge real tradeoffs between the stringency of non-pharmaceutical interventions, economic well being, and other dimensions of public health.

Defang the Administrative State

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The American administrative state (AS) was borne out of frustration by statist reformers with expanded voting rights. It continues to be an effective force of exclusion and discrimination today, according to Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School. I’ve discussed Hamburger’s commentary in the past on the extra-legal power often wielded by administrative agencies, and I will quote him liberally in what follows. At the first link above, he provides some historical context on the origins of the AS and discusses the inherently discriminatory nature of administrative law and jurisprudence.

An Abrogation of Voting Rights

Hamburger quotes Woodrow Wilson from 1887 on the difficulty of appealing to a broad electorate, a view that was nothing short of elitist and bigoted:

“‘… the reformer is bewildered’ by the need to persuade ‘a voting majority of several million heads.’ He worried about the diversity of the nation, which meant that the reformer needed to influence ‘the mind, not of Americans of the older stocks only, but also of Irishmen, of Germans, of Negroes.’ Put another way, ‘the bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes.’

Wow! Far better, thought Wilson, to leave the administration of public policy to a class of educated technocrats and thinkers whose actions would be largely independent of the voting public. But Wilson spoke out of both sides of his mouth: On one hand, he said that administration “lies outside the proper sphere of politics“, but he also insisted in the same publication (“The Study of Administration“) that public administration “must be at all points sensitive to public opinion“! Unfortunately, the views of largely independent public administrators seldom align with the views of the broader public.

Administration and Prejudice

Wilson was elected President 25 years later, and his administration did much to expand the administrative powers of the federal executive. Over the years, the scope of these powers would expand to include far more than mere administrative duties. Administrative rule-making would come to form a deep body of administrative law. And while traditional legislation would nominally serve to “enable” this activity, it has expanded in ways that are not straightforwardly connected to statute, and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans has been massive. Furthermore, a separate legal system exists for adjudicating disputes between the public and administrative agencies, with entirely separate rules and guarantees than our traditional legal system:

It is bad enough that administrative proceedings deny defendants many of the Constitution’s guaranteed civil procedures. … In addition, all administrative proceedings that penalize or correct are criminal in nature, and they deny defendants their procedural rights, such as their right to a jury and their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, these administrative proceedings deny procedural rights to all Americans, but they are especially burdensome on some, such as the poor.

The AS has truly become a fourth, and in many ways dominant, branch of government. Checks and balances on its actions are woefully inadequate, and indeed, Wilson considered that a feature! It represents a usurpation of voting rights, but one that is routinely overlooked by defenders of universal suffrage. It is also highly prejudiced and discriminatory in its impact, which is routinely overlooked by those purporting to fight discrimination.

Bio-Medical Discrimination

Hamburger devotes some of his discussion to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which are mandated by federal law to conduct prior reviews of research in various disciplines. These boards are generally under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services. One major objective of IRBs is to prevent research involving human subjects, but this prohibition can be very misguided, and the reviews impose costly burdens and delays of studies, often stopping them altogether on trivial grounds:

This prior review inevitably delays and prevents a vast array of much entirely innocent bio-medical research. And because the review candidly focuses on speech in both the research and its publication, it also delays and prevents much bio-medical publication.

The consequences, particularly for minorities, are devastating. Although supposedly imposed by the federal government in response to scientific mistreatment of black individuals, such as at Tuskegee, the very solicitousness of IRBs for minorities stymies research on their distinctive medical problems. …

When government interferes with medical research and its publication—especially when it places administrative burdens on research and publication concerning minorities—the vast costs in human life are entirely predictable and, of course, discriminatory.

Stifling Political Speach

Hamburger tells the story of Hiram Evans, a 1930s crusader against religious influence on voters and legislators. Evans also happened to be the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Hamburger classifies Evans’ agitation as an important force behind nativist demands to outlaw religious speech in politics. Ultimately, Congress acquiesced, imposing limits on certain speech by non-profits. Individuals are effectively prohibited from fully participating in the political process through religious and other non-profit organizations by Section (501)(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Of course, tax-exempt status is critical to the survival and growth of many of these institutions. More traditionally religious individuals are often heavily reliant upon their faith-based organizations not just for practicing their faith, but as centers of intellectual and social life. Needless to say, politics intersects with these spheres, and to prohibit political speech by these organizations has an out-sized discriminatory impact on their members.

The insulation of the AS from the democratic process, and the effective limits on religious speech, often mean there is little leeway or tolerance within the AS for individuals whose religious beliefs run counter to policy:

The difference between representative and administrative policymaking is painfully clear. When a legislature makes laws, the policies that bear down on religion are made by persons who feel responsive to religious constituents and who are therefore usually open to considering exemptions or generally less severe laws.

But there are other fundamental biases against religious faith and practices within the AS:

… when policies come from administrative agencies, they are made by persons who are chosen or fired by the executive, not the public, and so are less responsive than legislators to the distinctive needs of a diverse people. They are expected, moreover, to maintain an ethos of scientism and rationality, which—however valuable for some purposes—is indifferent and sometimes even antagonistic to relatively orthodox or traditional religion, let alone the particular needs of local religious communities.

Sucking Life From the Republic

The administrative state imposes a variety of economic burdens on the private sector. This is not just costly to economic growth. It also creates innumerable opportunities for rent-seeking by interest groups of all kinds, including private corporations whose competitive interests often lead them to seek advantage outside of traditional participation in markets.

Hamburger’s arguments are even more fundamental to the proper functioning of a republic, but they are probably difficult for many journalists and politicians to fully grasp. He identifies some core structural defects of the administrative state, and he does so with great passion. He sums things up well in his closing:

… was founded on racial and class prejudice, it is still supported by class prejudice. Moreover, by displacing laws made by elected lawmakers, it continues to discriminate against minorities of all sorts. Along the way, it stifles much scientific inquiry and publication with devastating costs, particularly for minorities. It is especially discriminatory against many religious Americans. And it eviscerates the Constitution’s procedural rights, not least in cases criminal in nature.

So, if you are inclined to defund oppression, defund the administrative state. If you want to tear down disgraceful monuments, demolish the prejudiced and discriminatory power that is Woodrow Wilson’s most abysmal legacy. If you are worried about stolen votes, do not merely protest retail impediments to voting, but broadly reject the wholesale removal of legislative power out of the hands of elected legislators. And if you are concerned about the injustice of the criminal justice system, speak up against the loss of juries, due process, and other rights when criminal proceedings get transmuted into administrative proceedings.

Little in America is as historically prejudiced or systematically discriminatory as administrative power. It is a disgrace, and it is time to take it down.

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

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Super-spreading events are gatherings at 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 aerosolized 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: 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 by the study might lead to proposals for 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 mere 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 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.