Archive for December 2020


So what’s your point?

Here’s a typical recent headline, this one in Bloomberg:

Wuhan’s Covid Cases May Have Been 10 Times Higher, Study Shows

And the two subheads:

  • Some 500,000 may have been infected in China’s virus epicenter
  • China has been criticized for allegedly undercounting its data

And the first paragraph:

The scale of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan early this year may have been nearly 10 times the recorded tally, a study conducted by China’s public health authorities indicates, leaving the city where the coronavirus first took hold still well short of the immunity required to protect against a potential resurgence.

I don’t get it. What are readers supposed to take away from this story? It sort of reminds me of the big news story that SOMEONE DIED IN THE COVID VACCINE TEST (after taking a placebo.)

Yes, early in the year China underreported the Covid case count by nearly a factor of 10, as did Europe and (to a lesser extent) the US.

But why is this news today? We’ve known this all along, as the official death count in Wuhan was around 3000 or 4000, and (in China) slightly less than 1% of people die of the disease. Everyone knew that lots of people with mild symptoms were not being tested early in the epidemic, both in China and around the world. More recently, testing has ramped up in many countries. But China’s cases almost all occurred in the first quarter of 2020.

So what’s the point of this “news” story? There is no point, other than for the media to pat itself on the back for being tough on China.

If Bloomberg believes the recent Chinese study, why not a headline saying, “Antibody studies show American right wing accusations of 40,000 dead in Wuhan were fake news”. That would actually be useful.

I could find dozens of similar examples of such non-stories, such as this recent CNN news example, which reported the “scandal” that estimated case counts in China were suddenly boosted at a later date, just as in Europe and the US.

There’s plenty of negative news to report on China, including concentration camps in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong, and the steadily diminishing amount of free speech. Why go out of your way to make up fake scandals?

In contrast, this recent FT report is actually useful:

The EU and China have announced a long-awaited deal on an investment treaty, in a move that is aimed at opening up lucrative new corporate opportunities but risks antagonising president-elect Joe Biden’s incoming US administration. 

The accord was confirmed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and EU leaders including European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, bringing seven years of often difficult negotiations to a successful close.

We should criticize the Chinese government and trade with the Chinese people.

The socialists vs. the conservatives

The conservatives:

Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary who has reportedly advised President-elect Joe Biden, thinks $2,000 stimulus checks would be a “pretty serious mistake” that could overheat the US economy. . . .

He said he was “not even sure I’m so enthusiastic about the $600 checks,” let alone $2,000 ones.

And the socialists:

On Tuesday morning, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, two Georgia Republican senators facing difficult run-off races next week that could determine control of the upper chamber, backed Mr Trump’s push for $2,000 payments, squeezing Mr McConnell further on the issue.

Mr Perdue said in a tweet: “@realdonaldtrump is right — I support this push for $2,000 in direct relief for the American people.”

When asked if she supported the $2,000 payments, Ms Loeffler told Fox News: “I’ve stood by the president 100 per cent of the time. I’m proud to do that. And I’ve said absolutely, we need to get relief to Americans now and I will support that.”

And AOC:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York clapped back at a GOP congressman who opposed direct payments of $2,000 in coronavirus relief to most Americans, parodying his reason for opposing them.

The new face of the Republican Party:

I don’t think $2000/person will overheat the economy, but it’s a waste of money and hence I’m with conservatives like Larry Summers.

PS. China spent a trillion dollars and got a brand new 36,000km high speed rail network. We’ll give people a trillion dollars that they’ll spend on stuff made in China, delivered by Amazon. To each their own.

Back in 1973

In 1973, I became an adult (age 18), able to legally drink alcohol and vote in elections. It was an eventful year. The military draft was ended and a peace treaty was signed with Vietnam. Five days before the draft was abolished, abortion was made legal with the support of the religious right:

When Roe was first decided, most of the Southern evangelicals who today make up the backbone of the anti-abortion movement believed that abortion was a deeply personal issue in which government shouldn’t play a role. Some were hesitant to take a position on abortion because they saw it as a “Catholic issue,” and worried about the influence of Catholic teachings on American religious observance.

Shortly after the decision was handed down, The Baptist Press, a wire service run by the Southern Baptist Convention — the biggest Evangelical organization in the US — ran an op-ed praising the ruling. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” read the January 31, 1973, piece by W. Barry Garrett, The Baptist Press’s Washington bureau chief.

“Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions. They are free to practice their religion according to the tenets of their personal or corporate faith.

The reverse is also now true since the Supreme Court decision. Those whose conscience or religious convictions are not violated by abortion may not now be forbidden by a religious law to obtain an abortion if they so choose.”

Garrett reassured his readers that the decision had been made not by “a Warren type or ‘liberal’ Supreme Court,” but “a ‘strict constructionist’ court, most of whose members have been appointed by President Nixon.”

In the Middle East, young ladies wore miniskirts:

It was a glorious time to be alive. Progress seemed inevitable, as liberalism was on the march all over the world. And then the right struck back . . .

And look at where we are now.

You can think of post-1970s changes are reflecting “religion”, but that’s a pretty vacuous concept. Cultures change, and religion just goes along for the ride.

In 1973, the US supported Israel in its war with Egypt. In retaliation, OPEC jacked up oil prices 4-fold. The flood of revenue (indirectly) supercharged terrorism (and nuclear ambitions), and made Iraq and Iran into rogue states. That led to the first Gulf War, and then 9/11, and then the second Iraq War. Terrorism and war led to refugees from the Middle East, and fueled suspicion of Muslim immigrants in America and Europe and Muslim residents in India and China. That led to Trump, Orban, Le Pen, Salvini, Brexit, etc. And the anti-Muslim atrocities in India and China.

I’m not anti-Israel, but maybe we should have just stayed out of the Middle East. Or maybe (probably?) that would have made no difference.

PS. Read Colin Thubron’s account of traveling through Lebanon on foot in 1967. And then weep for what we’ve lost.

PPS. Or you can read about China in 1973, and think about how much better things are today, “despite” the fact that China is more religious today than in 1973. But then 1973 in China is a really low bar.

What I’ve been reading

George Selgin has an excellent set of posts discussing the myth that fractional reserve banking is inherently unstable. He concludes as follows:

Whereas empirical (as opposed to mythical) support for the “inherent instability” hypothesis is scarce, there’s no shortage of evidence favoring this alternative “legal restrictions” theory of banking crises. For starters, there’s the fact that some of the world’s least heavily-regulated banking systems have also been remarkably crises free. There is the fact that voluntary contracts allowing bankers to suspend convertibility of their liabilities—the most obvious private-market device for preventing runs—have frequently been outlawed. Finally, there are piles of evidence concerning the (often crucial) role other misconceived regulations have played in past banking crises—so much evidence, indeed, that it’s hard to discover any past banking calamity in which misguided regulations played no part. Besides the works just linked, skeptical readers are encouraged to consult Fragile by Design, Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber’s excellent 2014 survey which, thick though it is, is but the tip of a very large iceberg.


In his essay, “Monetary Theory and History: An Attempt at Perspective,” Sir John Hicks observed that “Monetary theory is less abstract than most economic theory; it cannot avoid a relation to reality, which in other economic theory is sometimes missing. It belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history.”

What Sir John said of monetary theory necessarily goes for its subdisciplines. It follows that the theory of banking also “belongs” to monetary history, and therefore can’t avoid a relation to reality. The trouble with Diamond and Dybvig’s model is that its relation to reality is so very distant that the two might as well be perfect strangers.

I’ve also started subscribing to “Substacks”, including one by Matt Yglesias and another by Razib Khan. Khan ends a post on religion with the following observation:

The death of the godly nation that Europeans saw the United States as has not meant the rebirth of something fundamentally different. The nature of the people remains the same. Instead of apocalyptic street prophets, we now have unhinged YouTube celebrities. Rather than epistemological humility the human mind still prizes the certainty of beliefs that must not be questioned. Unseen forces, from George Soros to the Koch brothers dominate the demon-haunted minds of post-religious Americans, becoming our modern-day myths. Ultimately the faith in rationality was just that, another faith. Reason is a far less powerful motivator for human action than faith, whether we label it religious or not.

This is from an Yglesias post on Covid:

I know the public health community has a lot of raw feelings right now after being so blithely dismissed by Trump and tossed into the maw of partisan politics. And I agree that we could have parked this in a better outcome had Trump listened to them more closely.

But to get to the kind of dramatically better outcomes that we see on the other side of the Pacific would have required an approach that was more different from the range of outcomes under consideration in the United States. Maybe there are good reasons for that and enforceable quarantines, mandatory testing, and travel restrictions never would have flown in the United States. But the confused dialogue around masks and ventilation and the superior performance of countries exposed to SARS suggests to me perhaps simply that people and institutions were not adequately thoughtful about the specific dynamics of a respiratory illness which, after all, is quite different from Ebola or HIV/AIDS.

An added bonus is that in addition to being really smart, Yglesias and Khan are both quite witty, albeit more so in their tweets.

1933 redux

Here’s what I said before I knew the outcome of the election:

6. Are we facing a bad interregnum, as during 1932-33? Perhaps, especially if Trump becomes bitter and blames the American people, much as Hitler blamed the Germans for letting him down. (Oops, I’m not allowed to compare Trump to Hitler.) Perhaps the only constitutional amendment with a prayer of passing is to have presidents take office in early January with the new Congress, or better yet right after the Electoral College votes in mid-December. It’s hard to see how either party would object, at least if the interregnum ends up being a mess.

And here’s the FT:

Just before boarding his Marine One helicopter to depart the White House on Wednesday, Mr Trump vetoed a $740bn bill that funds everything from weapons to military pay. The veto came less than 24 hours after he rejected a stimulus relief bill that his team had helped craft with Democrats and Republicans.

On top of throwing a spanner into the legislative works on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump on Wednesday issued a series of controversial pardons, including to Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager. That followed another set of pardons on Tuesday, including to four men who killed unarmed Iraqi civilians when they worked for Blackwater, a security company founded by Erik Prince whose sister Betsy DeVos is Mr Trump’s education secretary. . . .

Some critics have accused Mr Trump of trying to spark turmoil to spite his opponents, while others have suggested that the president is throwing a long temper tantrum because of his failure to win re-election.

“Every day it feels like it gets worse. It is not just incompetence, it feels like malice,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former top Democratic congressional aide. “There’s no American analogue in terms of the scope of what he’s doing . . . I’ve never seen this level of malevolence in American government.”

Some critics portrayed Mr Trump as a petulant child throwing his toys out of his pram. “He just wants to break stuff on the way out,” tweeted George Conway, a Republican lawyer and persistent critic of the president whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, recently served as a White House aide to Mr Trump.

Trump’s making the congressional GOP look “mean” just days before an election that will determine control of the Senate. An election that is arguably as important as the presidential election.

And why do people say Trump has a big ego?

Merry Christmas!!