Archive for September 2020


We’re all Howard Hughes now

There’s plenty of reason for pessimism. We saw that the establishment was utterly unprepared for the 2008 banking crisis, and equally unprepared for Covid-19. Does anyone seriously think we’d be prepared for a massive solar flare that took out our electrical system? How about an accidental nuclear war, (which has already come close to happening)?

Isn’t it only a matter of time until a crazy scientist tries to save the animal kingdom by creating a virus as easily transmittable as Covid-19 but 100 times more deadly for humans? I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the 21st century is going to be horrible.

And I’m completely done with politics—for the rest of my life. During the 1980s and 1990s, I found politics to be interesting. But now I see that I completely missed the big picture. I thought it was about the Reagan vision vs. the Clinton vision, whereas now it’s obvious that both were on the same team—advancing global liberty. Today, both sides are on the other team, advancing socialism and nationalism. There are no good guys left.

[please skip the next four paragraphs]

To be sure, Trump is much worse than Biden and I hope he loses. But even in the unlikely event that Biden wins it won’t actually solve the problem. In the late 20th century, people like Trump could only be elected in countries like Guatemala. Now we know that America’s the sort of country that will elect a Trump. Once you’ve lost your virginity, it cannot be reclaimed.

Biden’s something of a buffoon, but at least he’s a good man (at least according to his campaign commercials.) Bill Clinton was good at pretending that “he felt your pain”. Trump’s good at pretending he hates the people that you hate. Actually, he does truly hate those people, which is probably why his supporters view him as an unusually honest politician, despite evidence to the contrary.

Here in Orange County, the people that actually do the work must commute 40 miles because of NIMBY laws (supported by rich people in both parties). The rest of us sit at our computers, pretending to “work” while writing stupid blog posts. Now the GOP says they want things to stay that way; they don’t want working people to live close to the affluent, as they did for much of American history. That’s the last straw for me—I’m done with conservatism. (I’m sure that conservatives are saying “good riddance”.)

In the unlikely event that Biden wins, I’ll give him a chance. But I have little hope for the future. Things will get even worse.

Even with the end of the political world as I knew it, I’ll be fine. I’ve just signed up for Criterion Channel, which is the greatest human invention ever. It costs $100/year, but I’d gladly pay $10,000/year.

In his later years, billionaire Howard Hughes holed up on the top floor of that Vegas casino hotel and watched Ice Station Zebra over and over again. On the Criterion Channel, I can watch films by Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Imamura, Suzuki and Oshima, and those are just the Japanese directors.

When I was young we’d take trips to a nearby lake. Stopping at Dairy Queen on the way home was the highlight of my boyhood. I dreamed of when I would grow up and be able to eat ice cream whenever I wished.

Adulthood proved even more blissful than I anticipated, as Talenti Caribbean Coconut gelato is much better than Dairy Queen soft serve. Early adulthood brought the end of ice cream scarcity, and now at age 65 I’m at the end of classic film scarcity. We know from our economics textbooks that the end of scarcity portends near infinite utility, which I look forward to with great relish.

So don’t worry about the looming apocalypse; get your 77 inch OLED and stream a 4k version of Apocalypse Now. Like Howard Hughes, you can have food delivered to your house—no need to ever leave home. When I was young, Howard Hughes was one of America’s only three billionaires. But I’m far richer than he ever was.

Have a nice 2020!

PS. And it’s not just Criterion Channel, via the internet you can now enjoy the Prado’s magnificent Titians on your 77 inch OLED in all their glorious color:

Sometimes I just sit in my living room with the lights off and stare at Velasquez’s gorgeous painting of the spinners on my TV. Life just doesn’t get any better.

Borges thought a comprehensive library was heaven. How about a comprehensive book, film, and painting library, all at your fingertips?

And music.

Why Mitt hates Donald

[Over at Econlog, I have a follow-up to my recent Nick Rowe post.]

Mitt Romney famously divided America up between the “makers” and the “takers”, the latter group being those who pay no income tax:

“these are people who pay no income tax,” but they are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them . . .

During 11 of the past 18 years, Trump has been a taker.

People are obsessing over the $70,000 spent on haircuts. The real issue is not the cost; it’s the lack of awareness that haircuts should be treated as consumption because they are consumption. Just as business lunches should not be tax deductible, haircuts to look good for business meetings should not be tax deductible. Bill Gates got rich without nice hair.

People need to understand that consumption is consumption. It is what it is. You may be consuming for pleasure, or consuming in the thought that it will make you more marketable in the future. But consuming food is consumption, whether it’s at a business meeting or at home. Consumption should be taxed.

I understand that from a certain perspective everything can be viewed as “investment”. If a factory worker doesn’t eat he starves, and thus is less productive. But society must make choices, and the most sensible choice is to treat all consumption as a taxable event. That includes business lunches and haircuts for The Donald.

PS. One reason to eliminate inheritance taxes is that as long as they exist then rich people will do things like pay their children millions in “consulting fees”. Unless you believe that Ivanka is a world-renowned expert on hotel development in Azerbaijan.

PPS. A few quick takeaways from the NYT story:

I had assumed that Trump was embarrassed to release his taxes because they would show a low level of charitable contributions. I was wrong. He took a $21.1 million charitable deduction for allowing a “conservation easement” on a lavish estate in Westchester County.

People used to ask me, “If Trump’s so dumb, how come he is rich?” Now we know. Trump got rich after 2005 by playing a billionaire on TV. The real reason he didn’t want his taxes made public is that they show he’s a lousy businessman; indeed most of his actual business ventures lose money. He got rich off The Apprentice, and uses the income to subsidize his money losing businesses. He had a few successful property deals, but nothing special given that he inherited a fortune from his dad in the 1970s, at a time when NYC property was dirt cheap. It’s been a near non-stop 45-year bull market in New York. He also makes money by cheating the Treasury out of the tax money he owes. And cheating students at Trump University. And cheating the taxpayer by using the presidency to put government workers into his hotels. And he encourages foreign despots to spend vast sums on his hotels in order to curry favor.

Trump is an almost textbook definition of “the swamp”.

PPPS. Now we know why Trump did not spend a few hundred million of his claimed “$10 billion” fortune on his 2016 campaign. He didn’t have the money.

PPPPS. I love it when a Trump aide confirms a story by attempting to deny it:

In response to a question about the audit, Mr. Garten, the Trump Organization lawyer, said facts cited by The Times were incorrect, without citing specifics. He did, however, write that it was “illogical” to say Mr. Trump had not paid taxes for those three years just because the money was later refunded.

That’s NOT what you say if the underlying story is false.

PPPPPS. I much prefer Biden to Trump, but just to be fair and balanced I should point out that this Yahoo article is kind of insane:

Under a scenario where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency and both the Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by Democrats, 18.6 million jobs would be added by 2024, according to the analysis from Moody’s Analytics.

Under the opposite scenario where President Donald Trump wins a second term and Republicans control both chambers of Congress, 11.2 million jobs would be created.

Biden favors a $15/hour minimum wage.

Why no flu in the antipodes?

That’s the first time I ever typed the word “antipodes”.

This graph in The Economist caught my eye:

At one level the answer might be obvious. Steps taken to control Covid-19 had the side effect of almost eliminating the southern flu season. Here’s Australia, for instance:

Data from Australia tell a remarkable tale. From May to mid-August of 2015-19, an average of 86,000 Australians tested positive for the flu each year, and around 130 died of it. This winter the government has registered only 627 influenza infections and just a single death.

But these countries were significantly impacted by Covid. Australia wasn’t hit too hard, but did have 875 deaths, and Chile’s been hit even harder than the US.

Maybe the international travel restrictions prevented the flu from ever reaching these countries. But then how do you explain the Australian data showing 627 flu infections? And why didn’t those same international travel restrictions prevent Covid-19 from arriving?

The only explanation that I can think of is that the flu is far less contagious than Covid-19. Social distancing worked really well against the flu. (Dear God, I hope that doesn’t give the public health authorities any ideas!) Are there any other explanations that I missed?

One thing we now know for sure; Covid is not “just the flu”.

PS. Notice that Australia’s normal rate of flu deaths (130/year) is more than an order of magnitude lower than in the US, even in per capita terms. But then some people question the US flu mortality data.

PPS. This was a lot of fun to read.

Defund the vice squad

In the past, whenever I’ve contacted the police with a problem such as a stolen car, they’ve given me the impression that they are too busy to do much about it. (They did continue to mail me parking tickets, however, as the thief never changed the plates, and the police have no computer to link the license plate for parking violations with the license plate for stolen cars.) Other people I’ve spoken with give me the same impression. See how the cops react if you tell them your house has been burglarized. Perhaps this Reason article explains why the police are so busy:

Kraft gets off [LOL!] while Orchids of Asia workers still face 25 prostitution charges each. After nearly two years, Florida prosecutors are finally giving up on prosecuting New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft for twice paying an adult woman in Palm Beach County for a hand job. The state had little choice, since a court said the video evidence of this sex act was illegally obtained.

Florida cops had pretended to be hunting a “human trafficking” ring in order to get a warrant for the secret surveillance cameras—which ultimately showed no signs of forced work, forced sex, child labor, or illegal immigration. What they caught was licensed, adult, immigrant masseuses sometimes providing manual sexual stimulation at the end of a client’s massage.

Two years! Who knew that Inspector Javert worked for the Palm Beach police?

Consider that those perverts in the Palm Beach police force were spying on people taking off their clothes, an activity that would rightly be viewed as a crime if you or I did the same thing. The cops also lied about their motives, falsely claiming they were trying to stop “sex trafficking”:

But authorities went forward with the “trafficking” lie anyway, holding a press conference that garnered a huge amount of media coverage. Readers and viewers across the country were told that an international “sex trafficking ring” forced “girls” to have unprotected sex with 1,000 men a year and did not let them leave. Major outlets such as The New York TimesCNN, and NPR relayed the government’s account.

Many countries have long outlawed prostitution for religious reasons. In the past, the prostitutes were put in prison while the “Johns” got off scot-free. Then feminists began to object, and Sweden pioneered a shift toward viewing the prostitutes as the actual victims and their patrons as the villains. That’s why Kraft was also arrested. Notice that the government is certain that prostitution should be illegal, they are just not sure who is the villain and who is the victim.

Eventually, the courts ruled the surveillance to be illegal and Kraft was let go. But that didn’t stop the police, who remained convinced that some sort of crime had occurred. So they arrested the women that were victimized by Kraft:

Hua Zhang, the 59-year-old owner of Orchids of Asia owner, and 41-year-old Lei Wang—one of two women whom Kraft allegedly patronized—were charged with 22 counts apiece of “soliciting another to commit prostitution,” as well as one count each of maintaining a house of prostitution, deriving support from proceeds of prostitution, and renting space to be used for prostitution. The other woman accused of servicing Kraft, 60-year-old Shen Mingbi, was charged with one count of deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution and 10 counts of soliciting another to commit prostitution.

Trigger warning: The following may be “yucky”.

Let’s contemplate exactly why this sort of massage is illegal. Traditionally, society justifies various “sex laws” on either religious or utilitarian grounds. Many religions view adultery as a crime, whereas utilitarians worry that sex can have negative repercussions, especially for young people and women. In the case of women, there is the danger of pregnancy and also STDs. There is also some risk of violence, especially for “streetwalkers”.

Based on the article, however, it doesn’t seem like this was “sex” in the normal sense of the term. There doesn’t seem to have been much risk of pregnancy, violence, or the transmission of STDs.

So what exactly makes these “hand jobs” so objectionable? Unless I’m mistaken, the exact same activity would be legal if no money changed hands. Is this like the prohibition on the payment of money in kidney transplants?

Or is the actual objection that Kraft should have been home with his wife? What if a lonely paralyzed Iraq War veteran who was stuck at home in a wheelchair had paid a massage therapist for a hand job. Would you feel differently than the way you feel about the Kraft case? What if the hand job were provided for free to the Iraq War veteran? I feel like we need to carefully interrogate our intuitions if we are going to ever be able to figure out which of our views are wrong, i.e. which of our views will be regarded as wrong by future generations.

For instance, today it is considered 100% OK for a 21-year old woman to have sex with a “man” on his 18th birthday. One the other hand, if the same woman has sex with a “boy” who is 17 years and 364 days old, that’s “rape” in many states and the woman would spend a lot of time in prison and have her life ruined. Is there nothing in between? How confident are you that our society’s current moral stance will still be considered true 100 years from today? True beyond a reasonable doubt? Confident enough to put people in prison, the way that Alabama puts pot smokers in prison? I have my doubts, but I also have no idea how our moral intuitions will evolve. During my lifetime, I’ve seen society become first less puritanical and then more puritanical.

And don’t say, “you have to draw the line somewhere”. You also need speed limits, but the penalty for going 150 mph is vastly higher than the penalty for going 5 MPH over the limit. Why is our society so squeamish about admitting that there might be such a thing as “minor sex crimes”—sex misdemeanors? What’s so special about sex? Speeding endangers peoples’ lives. Why is the Kraft case even in the news? Shouldn’t that fact alone make us suspicious?

America is an unusually puritanical society, filled with lots of unimaginative people would would benefit from watching more European films. People fearful that someone, somewhere, is getting more sex than they are.

We are also a society that feels more comfortable imprisoning non-white working class women with odd names than rich white guys like Kraft. And most rich men can pay for sex without getting caught. They do so implicitly, showering their “dates” with expensive “gifts”

Puritanism and class/race bigotry is a toxic mix, and the effects on our criminal justice system are not pretty. Don’t say I didn’t give you a trigger warning.

PS. I know what you are going to say. If we legalized drugs we’d become a hell hole like Colorado, and if we legalized prostitution our society would fall apart like Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Words matter

People often say, “I don’t care what Trump says; I support his corporate tax cuts and Supreme Court nominees”. But is it true that words don’t matter?

Iris Li, an undergraduate student at Emory University, went back to China at the beginning of the pandemic. She has decided to stay there for the semester. Li said she was “incredibly scared” when she heard Trump started calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” and lived in “constant fear” that she would not be able to finish her study on site, since the pandemic is still rampant in the U.S. But she held a glimmer of hope that her humanities major would make her less of a target by the U.S. government.

Li’s friend, who studies computer science, was not so lucky. On September 9, Li received a photo of her friend’s defaced apartment door at Rice University, with the word “spy” written on it. “I don’t think her neighbors knew she studied computer science,” Li said. . . .

President Trump had reportedly claimed at a dinner party in 2018 that “almost every student that comes over” to the U.S. from China “is a spy.” . . .

Having spent two years in Colorado Springs, the playground for pro-Trump evangelical Christians, Angelina Chen is no stranger to hearing outbursts of “Go back to your country” directed at her and her Asian-looking friends from passing cars. But the undergraduate at Colorado College still sensed something different brewing in the air since the pandemic started. She felt the glares of more people and heard more murmurs upon entering non-Asian grocery stores. Going downtown for her internship was cause for fear that she would be targeted. She also suspected that people treated her differently once they realized she was from China.

Interesting to see evangelical Christians and “Go back to your country” in the same sentence. I recall back in 2001 when President Bush went out of his way to encourage people not to be prejudiced against Muslims. And that was right after 9/11! China did not bomb the US.

Meanwhile, here’s a report from America’s nicest state:

A door-to-door COVID-19 testing survey has been halted due to multiple incidents in greater Minnesota of residents intimidating and shouting racial and ethnic slurs at state and federal public health survey teams. . . .

Insults came at doorways, from angry people approaching the surveyors or just people walking their dogs on the other sides of the streets, said Stephanie Yendell, a state senior epidemiology supervisor. . . .

The frequency of problems became clear last weekend when surveyors discussed their experiences, Yendell said. A Hispanic surveyor was called one slur “more in the last week than in her entire life,” she said.

Most people were polite in all areas of the state, but there were “several” incidents and “a pattern emerged,” said Dan Huff, assistant state health commissioner. The state ended the survey rather than continuing without the CDC workers, or sending only white surveyors in largely white rural communities.

“We found that our white teams had a very different experience, a much more positive experience, but I think from our perspective it’s ridiculous for us to contemplate that,” he said. “We choose who is doing this survey on their professional qualifications.”

Minnesota was the only state to vote Democratic in 1984, and one of only 2 midwestern states to do so in 2016.

America’s always had a fair number of racists, but Trump’s really made these people comfortable in expressing their actual beliefs about East Asians.

PS. I never knew my wife was a spy!