Fake News Today


The dam breaks

 We seem to be entering what you might call a preference cascade.  Many unspeakable truths suddenly are being spoken all over the place.

In the Covid era, the Biden administration and its state-level allies have made a hard pivot away from the nudge approach towards an embrace of mandates. The presumed justification for this shift is that the severity of the Covid crisis required more drastic measures. But something else differentiates Covid technocracy from its predecessors: a remarkable incuriosity about whether the strictures it imposes actually work. This incuriosity has become all the more glaring in recent weeks, as Omicron has brought cases to unprecedented levels in cities like New York, where both vaccine passports and mask mandates are in effect.
The nudge approach, on the other hand, is at least ostensibly outcome-oriented: it assesses interventions on the basis of their measurable impact. So one of the problems with mandates, from the nudgers’ perspective, is that they risk conflating intention and outcome. Mandates are often difficult to enforce and generate backlashes, and thus may prove counterproductive. But they may remain in force, despite failing to achieve their objectives, because they demonstrate a moral commitment to a desired aim.
And as Zients’s holiday announcement demonstrated, when mandates fail to achieve the desired results, it is the fault of those who don’t follow the rules, not those who imposed them. A more empirical approach would treat the reality of noncompliance as part of what needs to be measured in order to assess the efficacy of a proposed policy. But such a strategy would imply that the technocrats themselves, rather than the anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers, should be held accountable for policy failures. Small wonder it has fallen out of favour.
Before last year it might have seemed obvious that the guiding ethos of technocracy was cold utilitarian calculus, but in the past two years it has become something like the opposite: moral fervour. Various factors brought about this shift, but the reaction of the technocrats and their constituency to Trump, with his “war on the administrative state” and love of the “poorly educated”, was arguably the crucial one. Tinkering behind the scenes, as was favoured in the Obama era, was no longer a viable approach for a class that felt its interests threatened.
Early on in the pandemic, the writer Alex Hochuli described the pandemic as “technocracy’s end-of-life rally”. At least temporarily, it had put the experts maligned over the previous half-decade back in the drivers’ seat. But the populist fervour that had driven the Trump movement re-energised itself in reaction to lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. Initially, this seemed to place the technocrats in an unassailable position, since they could impugn their allies as aiders and abettors of disease and death.

A boost

I'm agnostic about how dangerous the vaccines are; the signal is awfully noisy.  Boy, oh, boy, though, I'm having a hard time seeing any doubt about their efficacy against serious illness.  That's not a noisy signal.

I'm still completely uninterested in forcing anyone to get vaccinated or boosted, but I'm glad we did.  We're exactly at the age when it makes sense.

When you say Dylan, he thinks you're talkin' about Dylan Thomas


Something must be done, this is something

It's discouraging when the Supreme Court of the United States has members who are demonstrably incapable of thinking through the legal sources of government power. No one on that court should ever be caught saying something like this:
Justice Elena Kagan said federal agencies have expertise in disease management and suggested OSHA has the authority to make the mandate because “this is a pandemic in which nearly a million people have died.”
The government has a power the Constitution doesn't grant because a lot of people have died? It's a style of thinking called "A policy I favor" because "facts on the ground I hate." That's not even a good explanation for why she likes the policy, let alone a stab at an explanation for why the federal executive branch has the power to implement the policy. Was it an illusion that our society ever possessed the ability to consider two critical questions--(1) whether the policy will actually have the desired effect and (2) whether the proposed agent has the legal authority to implement the policy, even assuming it would have the desired effect?

I'm really losing patience with the argument that I have to agree to some policy of uncertain cost and benefit because otherwise I must not care about the bad things that are happening. Yes, it's a bad disease. Yes, I bitterly regret that it's hurting and even killing people. No, it doesn't follow that every harebrained scheme will make things better. Nor does it follow that everyone who objects to a harebrained scheme either denies that it's a bad disease or doesn't care about sick people. It's because it's a serious problem that's actually hurting and killing people that I insist that we find things to do about it, if we can, that don't make things worse. As in the case of global hot/cold/wet/dry mania, I advocate sticking to policies that are neither pointless, more harmful than beneficial, nor an illegal use of state power that will come back to bite us later--very possibly without even having helped in the crisis we argued was great enough to justify jettisoning both the Constitution and considerable material prosperity.


Infamy in the academy

"Let's not go there. It's a silly place."

Return to Normalcy

 The High Feast of Christmas is over. Now back to our regular programming.

Illegal Parading Day

Since they had the misfortune to schedule it opposite a real holiday, I missed yesterday’s extravaganza

Was it prudent for the President to call a protest that close to the building where the contested votes were being counted? No, though everyone who attended had a constitutional right to do so. Was it appropriate for a minority to march on Congress? Sure: that’s also constitutional, and they were there at the invitation of the President of the United States. 

Was it ok for a small subset of those to batter the police lines? Obviously not. People who broke the law should take responsibility, and the courts are issuing punishments. Aside from some high profile cases, judges — though clearly offended by the affront to the majesty of government— are mostly assigning less jail time than prosecutors ask. The offenses were almost all misdemeanor ones. No one brought guns or knives, no one was killed by the rioters. 

If they stuck to punishing the guilty according to the standards of the law, not a word of protest would they hear from the American right. Instead, they have to try to turn it into a bloody shirt to wave against tens of millions who never did anything wrong. 

Greenwald is right, again, which is a phrase I would never have expected to type once let alone several times. This is an insult both ridiculous and dangerous, and far more of the latter than any threat posed by last year’s riot. (It may not be more ridiculous.) These people should all be ashamed. 

Twelfth Night

The last day and night of Christmas is upon us. The evening is traditionally spent removing Christmas decorations, After this, the long and barren winter begins.

There are only a little more than seventy days until Spring, although for observant Christians the forty days of Lent are (sometimes only mostly) among them. It's a time of difficulty and discomfort, but also purification. 

But one last pleasant day first. We are having a lasagna I made yesterday as a last feast, although I'm 'fasting' a bit already, having decided to do the Dry January thing this year. I did a dry April last year in preparation for a Strongman tournament and was happy with the experience, so I've decided to include it as an occasional thing. 

UPDATE: My youthful participation in Christmas pageants had convinced me that all the events happened at once, the Wise Men and the angels and the shepherds all at once. But if this is the day for the Wise Men, it’s probably the day for this carol too. 

Introducing the numbat

This little guy's name came up in a letter-scramble word game at the NYT that I'm addicted to working every morning. I'd never heard of him, but he looks like a mash-up between a possum, an armadillo, and a fox. He eats termites. Some really peculiar creatures developed on the isolated Australian continent.

Let the money follow the student

Vouchers and school choice just got a leg up in Arizona, where parents will receive $7K/year to send their kids to a private school if the public schools shut down again even for a day. And no need for them ever to go back, I hope.

More painting

I can't seem to put away my paint set.

Stealing and Wealth

I am greatly bothered by an article that AVI linked to at his place with some additional discussion. I left a comment there outlining my objections, but I want to expand with at least one example I know well from personal experience and education. 

The comment I left may be helpful in clarifying where I'm going with the historical discussion, so here is the relevant part.
Even granting that the real source of the increase is the free market -- things like the miracle of compound interest, or the ability to invest in growing industries and factories and the like -- the premise leaves out something very important about how one obtains the capital to make such initial investments. Let's say that, due to these economic miracles, we could become rich with an investment of merely $100,000 -- that this will produce an increase like she's discussing, so that it will become worth $2,500,000 in time (and that will continue to grow).

Yet I do not have an extra $100,000 to invest. If, however, there is a legal and successful way for me to rob another man for it -- taking it out of him in labor, or a legally contrived way of stealing his house, or whatever else -- then I can make the investment. And then I will become rich, and my descendants even richer! He will become destitute, and his descendants will not enjoy the increase in wealth that mine do. They may become better off if 'a rising tide lifts all boats,' as they may become well-paid servants of my descendants. Nevertheless, the initial theft really matters and produces long-term differentials in wealth and power.
The particular example I'm going to discuss is the economic history of the American South, but I think the general issues outlined here apply also to the other examples the original author gives, e.g., British India, the West African slave trade, and so on. To quickly outline one of these examples: The West African slave trade enriched a lot of West African slavers, as the author notes; they did not become nearly as wealthy as some of the others it enriched because they did not plug that wealth into the new industrial-age free market and investment system like the owners of the slave ships in Boston and New York had done. Even granting her point about the importance of the free market and investment systems, though, the initial investment that made Boston and New York so wealthy compared to other places was provided at least in part by inputs from slaving in the famous Triangle Trade. 

I. Antebellum Theft

America's South has long been its poorest and most benighted region, but this was not always the case. Before the Civil War, it was a tremendously prosperous region. This was driven by one of these forms of stolen wealth too, the slave system, whereby a man's whole life of labor was plugged into investments by another man who stole it. 

This combination of theft and the new systems of compound interest and investment in emerging industries worked extremely well. Plantation houses built in the South were some of the finest homes being built anywhere in the world, and they were accompanied by beautiful gardens, fine churches, elegant cotton shipping cities like Savannah or Charleston or Mobile, colleges and education. One of the highlights of this period was the poet Sidney Lanier of Georgia. In addition to his own poetry, he was a scholar of music and a translator of works out of Middle French and Middle English. He was especially interested in popularizing the high civilization of the Middle Ages for boys, and one of his works -- The Boy's King Arthur -- was illustrated by N. C. Wyeth and is still in print today. (I highly recommend both this and The Boy's Froissart for anyone with boys old enough to read longer works.)

Now this land, so rich and prosperous, had been a positive wilderness not very long before. Indeed, parts of Alabama and Mississippi were still in the process of being settled and transformed even as the civilization was flourishing. Just a few decades earlier, at the time of the Revolutionary War, most of it was unsettled; King's Mountain in North Carolina was the site of a battle in which a militia of outright frontiersmen had defeated the British Army.

II. The Effects of Post War Theft

Just as illustrative of the principle of stolen wealth's effect on the system, though, is the story of what happened after the Civil War -- the transformation of this region from wealth and education into poverty and a lack of education that made it the mockery of America for generations (indeed, one sees it still). The war itself was devastating, but what really destroyed the South for generations was the economic system imposed upon it after the war. This was a form of economics also used in colonialist economies in South America and India, and will help to illustrate those cases too.

I've written about this before, for example in 2013 when discussing a mystery that bothers historians -- why were the slave narratives captured by the CCC in FDR's day inclined to describe the antebellum South as a happy time? 
There are some other theories about why the former slaves had such positive things to say about their lives on the plantation. The one to which I am most inclined is that they were all much older when they gave the interviews, and spoke with the natural nostalgia of the old for the sunny days of youth. Memory paints the memories of those days, in nearly all of us, with rose colors.

But there are other possibilities too. For one thing, economic conditions in the South cratered after the war, so that life after the war was markedly harder for everyone -- especially, as is usual, those on the bottom. The traditional market for Southern cotton was lost, as the English mills had turned to India during the war's blockade. The South's mills were destroyed, so it was relegated to being a producer of raw materials for Northern mills at rates set by Northern banks. The economic system imposed by the North was a brutal colonial-style monoculture built around cotton production, and colonial monocultures are notoriously harsh places to live (here as in Latin America, India, and elsewhere). Until the boll weevil collapsed the cotton economy in the late 1920s, the South was ground down by the usual effects of such economies: the price of the monocultural good (cotton, here) dropped every year, because supply increased every year as those commanding the economy forced ever-greater production of the single cash crop. Under those circumstances, quality of life dropped, again especially for the poorest and those most dependent on agriculture. Naturally those who had been slaves who had only known how to work cotton farms, or who were directly descended of slaves who had, were very likely to be a part of the very lowest agricultural classes tied to the cotton monoculture. They would have endured the worst conditions imposed by the economic system.

So it is possible (indeed it doesn't seem unlikely) that happiness is greatly influenced by economic realities. When the interviews were conducted from 1936-8, the boll weevil had collapsed the cotton economy, and the Great Depression had followed on its heels. While the boll weevil eventually allowed the South to escape the monoculture economy, at first it meant a severe economic depression for the region, which was then followed on by a severe depression worldwide. The former slave speaking in 1937 would be looking back on a life that had, in economic terms, ground ever worse each year of his or her life, capped by ten years' complete economic failure. The pre-war plantations may really have seemed like a better place by comparison to that. They may really have been, if not a better place, a happier place.
Another thing the CCC was doing at that time was reforesting Warwoman Dell in northeast Georgia, which had been denuded by this system so the land could be used for cotton production -- required by the banks in order to obtain the loans, at interest. Warwoman Dell is in the mountains in land completely unsuited for cotton, but the system was totalizing and grinding. 

All that money -- all that interest -- impoverished almost everyone in the South, black and white, except a few robber barons called the Bourbon Democrats who managed to sit atop the misery in comfort. The invented the deep racism and the Jim Crow system to keep the poor whites afraid of the poor blacks, with whom they shared almost every practical and political interest. Instead, they spun narratives -- two exemplars of this being Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind -- out of the bones of the old civilization, still widely visible a hundred years ago in ruined plantation houses and the remains of old mills. That civilization was indeed gone with the wind, destroyed not so much by the war as by the effects of seven decades of economic theft activity by northern banks and the aforementioned robber barons. 

Nevertheless a lot of wealth was extracted from this system, even though it led to an ever-increasing decline in the price of the cotton it was over-producing (the ever-increasing supply being the reason for the ever-decreasing price). The ever-cheaper cotton went north to be turned into finished goods and sold at a profit. The interest on the loans went north and was added to the banks' capital, to be invested in emerging industries. Between the one form of extraction and the other, a great deal of investment was available to be invested for the miracles of the free market, from compound interest to new forms of technology. This partly explains how the United States became the richest nation in the world in the same period, capable of raising armies and navies that would be victorious in two World Wars.

These investments may eventually have produced a rising tide that lifts all boats; things are better in the South economically than they once were (although the last two years have reversed many recent gains). Yet the reason the South has long been the poorest and most benighted region of the United States is because of this economic theft; and the reason it was once extremely wealthy and profitable was because of another economic theft. The free market and these economic miracles it produces may well drive the vast increases in wealth; but whose children become wealthy is very much informed by acts of extraction. 

Actuarial Data

I wasn't going to do any more COVID posts, on the assumption that it's endemic now and therefore something we just have to learn to live with rather than trying to organize our whole society to defeat. Since Tex has already done two this morning, though, what's one more?

This story is worrisome to me because it's based on actuarial data from insurance companies. Actuarial data is a form of statistics, and we all know Mark Twain's famous line about 'lies, damn lies, and statistics.' However, actuarial statistics are different from most of the statistics one sees in the news because they directly inform insurance industry bottom lines. These data have to be right or it costs money, lots of money, and therefore they tend to be as accurate as anyone knows how to make them. A professor of mine once said that insurance was a great business because the main issue was deciding how much money you wanted to make that year, and then setting your prices accordingly. That's not quite true, but to the degree it's true enough to sound clever it's only true because of the accuracy of actuarial data.
OneAmerica is a $100 billion insurance company that has had its headquarters in Indianapolis since 1877. The company has approximately 2,400 employees and sells life insurance, including group life insurance to employers in the state.

Davison said the increase in deaths represents “huge, huge numbers,” and that’s it’s not elderly people who are dying, but “primarily working-age people 18 to 64” who are the employees of companies that have group life insurance plans through OneAmerica.

“And what we saw just in third quarter, we’re seeing it continue into fourth quarter, is that death rates are up 40% over what they were pre-pandemic,” he said.

“Just to give you an idea of how bad that is, a three-sigma or a one-in-200-year catastrophe would be 10% increase over pre-pandemic,” he said. “So 40% is just unheard of.”

Davison was one of several business leaders who spoke during the virtual news conference on Dec. 30 that was organized by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Most of the claims for deaths being filed are not classified as COVID-19 deaths, Davison said.

“What the data is showing to us is that the deaths that are being reported as COVID deaths greatly understate the actual death losses among working-age people from the pandemic. It may not all be COVID on their death certificate, but deaths are up just huge, huge numbers.”

Emphasis added. H/t: D29, who also cites a source which notes that the increase in death is coming late enough in the pandemic that the disease itself is not a likely explanation -- and that death rates from the disease seem to be down, even as much as half as last year. These deaths correlate with the vaccines' becoming widely distributed through society, though that correlation is not proof that there is a casual relationship. The leading proven cause of death for most of this population (18-45) is (suddenly) fentanyl overdose. 

The fentanyl that is killing so many Americans of working age is being driven by Chinese production. Mexican fentanyl is not nearly so pure nor so deadly, but Chinese-produced fentanyl is being made available to the cartels in Mexico.

So here is another theory about the cause: the pandemic has driven higher illicit drug use among America's working age population of 18-45. This is also, please note, America's military age population. Chinese sources are providing large amounts of deadly chemicals to be added to the illicit drugs, which is thinning America's military population. 

Why would they do that? Payback to the West for the opium wars and so forth, perhaps; or as a preparatory measure for the war they expect when they try to take Taiwan, reducing our potential fighting forces even in case of a draft; or just because it makes them money, and anything that makes money is a good thing -- whether it entails forced-labor/slavery of the Uighurs or the Tibetans, the brutal working conditions in their factories, or dead Americans. 

I think it would be fair to characterize it as at least potentially a military attack on the American people, however, if it can be shown that the Chinese government is knowingly contributing to the flows of these drugs to Mexico. You might even regard it as the first shot, already fired, in the next World War.

Honesty sells when the idea is good

Every now and then I run into a COVID article written by a sane person, and I like to publicize it. It's so refreshing to read the thoughts of someone not addicted either to wishful thinking, to demonizing opponents, or to ignoring the impact of incentives on behavior. It's possible to believe that vaccines and masks are somewhat beneficial without concluding that they're either 100% bad or 100% good. It's even possible to believe that they're an OK idea for some people in some circumstances with also concluding that mandating them for all people in all circumstances is justified or even effectual for our ostensible purposes. It's possible to accept that a disease is sometimes quite dangerous, even deadly, without concluding that we can create a world in which that's no longer true, or that attempting to do so will be worth the considerable damage the corrective measures inevitably will cause. In fact, it's a lot like trying to discuss climate alarmism. Above all, it's essential not to advocate policies we know to be sketchy because we secretly believe they'll nudge people into behavior we believe will help them despite themselves. That might work for a one-off emergency, but it's deadly if we ever want people to take our well-meaning advice on any other topic ever again. I speak now from a purely utilitarian standpoint, as if it weren't enough to realize that lying is simply wrong.

Here's an idea

From Andrew McCarthy:
Having finally discovered federalism, perhaps President Biden could take the next step and discover liberty. If he did, he’d accomplish more of what he wants — higher vaccination rates and lower incidence of serious illness and death, fewer disruptions and better economic performance — by trusting Americans to care for themselves. Trying to strong-arm reluctant people into compliance with increasingly irrational protocols is not working on them, and it is strangling all of us.
The CDC reports COVID hospitalization rates in the U.S. by age group for all of 2020 and 2021:

Meat Pies

I made venison pies with compound herbal butter on New Year’s Eve, and homemade meat pizzas yesterday. They’re a traditional part of the holiday cheer.

A Timeline of Food

This is a pretty neat website, although it has the usual limits of history. Fried chicken is almost certainly older than the oldest source attesting to it, for example. 

Still, it’s a lot of fun. Enjoy.