Archive for January 2021


White Tiger bleg

I just saw “The White Tiger” on Netflix. As a film, it’s quality middlebrow entertainment, roughly comparable to Slumdog Millionaire. On the other hand, it’s a big step down from Parasite (which has a similar plot). But I’m not interesting in the artistic quality of the film, I wonder about its politics.

I noticed that one character was a female Dalit leader of a northern Indian state, who was enriching herself through corruption—presumably Mayawati.

And reading a recent post by Razib Khan, I noticed this comment:

Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, is no Nehru. While Nehru was a Kashmiri Brahmin Pandit, Modi comes from a so-called “backward caste.” Nehru earned a degree at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He then studied law at the “Inner Temple” in London. Modi received a third-class degree from the School of Open Learning at the University of Delhi. Nehru’s father was a wealthy lawyer who served twice as President of the Indian National Congress. Modi helped his parents run a tea stall at a railroad station.

This sounds a lot like the class (caste) conflict at the heart of the film. Indeed the lower caste protagonist (who carries the film) had to drop out of school in order to work in a tea shop. He becomes rather nationalistic and anti–Muslim. I won’t say more, as I don’t want to give away the plot.

A question for my Indian readers. How much of this film is a commentary on events in India that a viewer like me might overlook? Is it a stretch to think the main character somehow refers to Modi?

BTW, Razib Khan’s two part essay on Indian history is brilliant. While it’s long for a blog post, you’ll learn more about India than you would in many full length books. The final portion is a thoughtful meditation on the role that cancel culture has always played in science, right up to the present day. The following quote occurs toward the end, referring to the pressures that scientists face not to contradict cherished beliefs:

Such capricious conformity and mercurial manias are in the charter of the human condition; we’re mortal, we’re curious, we’re creative, we’re dogged, we’re social, we’re hubristic, we’re fragile, we’re clannish and we’re thin-skinned. But we’re all we have. Group identities and loyalties fluctuate and morph over the long-term. And present-day collective passions have a short-term sell-by date. The truth trundles inexorably along, regardless of whether we mortals mark it. . . .

The passions of the present will fade in their own time. Often, overnight. Scientists ignore the zeitgeist at their own peril, but posterity will reap the greatest rewards from those thinkers who wore its shackles most lightly. Their ultimate master is the truth, not the judgment of the public, or even their peers. Coming decades will likely deliver many more wondrous discoveries, each guaranteed to shock or offend some group or other’s sensibilities. But if the past teaches us anything, it is that the future is not built by those most exquisitely attuned to the whims of their age. The future is built by those who checked their data, consulted their own conscience, and insisted eppur si muove.

As we approach the Covid endgame

Right after the election, I speculated on the prospect of a bad interregnum. I’d say a coup attempt by a sitting president and a horrific increase in Covid deaths counts as bad:

But now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The pace of vaccinations is speeding up and a big chuck of old people will likely be vaccinated by the end of February (including me?!?!?) So the IFR should fall sharply during March. By summer the economy may be booming. We don’t need fiscal stimulus; we need a faster vaccine rollout.

Another good sign is that the daily case total has finally peaked and is trending downward. That might reverse, however, if the UK variant becomes very widespread. Thus vaccination is a sort of race against time.

Nonetheless, I think we finally have a pretty good grasp of what the final US death toll will look like, something in the ballpark of 1/2 million. And the US doesn’t look good when compared to other parts of the world:

There’s certainly more underreporting in Latin America than in the US, but even accounting for that we are doing far worse than the world average. Don’t forget that there’s also underreporting in the US.

The vast majority of humans live on the three “A continents”, and thus for most people Covid was not a major health problem. But even there the economic effects were substantial (much worse in India than China, for reasons I that am not able to fully explain.)

There could be more surprises. I’ve consistently underestimated how bad it would get, but I think we finally have a picture of how it’s playing out. One thing is clear, the commenters who told me “don’t try to stop it, everyone will eventually get it” were almost laughably off base. I don’t expect them to admit they were wrong.

New Jersey lost at least 0.236% of its population to Covid (and rising), and would have lost many more without social distancing. So people who suggested the IFR was 0.25% were way off. Without social distancing, America would have lost more than a million lives, perhaps much more. And the deaths would have almost all bunched up in March, April and May (before improved treatments were available), creating a complete disaster in our hospital system.

Of course, there was zero chance of that happening. Even if the government hadn’t encouraged social distancing, the public would have done it anyway.

Rule #1 of social science: Most people don’t want to die.

Nick Rowe channels Robin Hanson (and John Cochrane)

This is a great idea (he’s discussing government debt):

There is some risk that the government could change the way it computes NGDP. But there is also risk that the government changes the way it calculates the CPI, and that doesn’t stop people from buying TIPS.

There are no offensive jokes

Here’s a joke:

You say Trump was doing fine until Covid came along? That’s like saying “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

OK, that’s a very lame and unfunny joke. But then I’m a deeply unfunny person. I wanted to make a joke about the assassination of the President of the United States, and it was the best I could come up with.

Here’s Will Wilkinson:

Wilkinson got fired for that joke, even though it is clearly funnier than my joke. Also more original. So why does Wilkinson get fired while I (presumably) keep my job?

I’d say 155 years and 20 IQ points.

The Lincoln assassination happened a long time ago, and it’s no longer a sensitive topic. It’s been barely two weeks since some Trumpistas tried to assassinate Pence. And Wilkinson’s joke is more subtle, so some readers might have thought he was serious.

[Which is a sad comment on our public, as even I got the joke. I’m the guy at the party who when everyone else is roaring with laughter says, “Wait, I don’t get it, can someone explain the joke to me.”]

In any case, I sort of know why Wilkinson was fired, but in another sense I don’t understand. Perhaps the Niskanen Center was under great pressure to fire him, but that raises the question of why do we have a society where institutions are pressured to fire people for tasteless jokes? Why not just have Wilkinson put out another tweet explaining the joke and apologizing to anyone who was offended? Why make a mountain out of a mole hill?

To answer this question, we need to dig deeper. Not only did I do a joke about assassinating President Lincoln, I repeated Wilkinson’s joke about assassinating Pence. Isn’t that bad? Now you might argue that I’m just repeating the joke as a “reporter”, not endorsing it. OK, but what if I endorse it? What if I say I think the joke is funny? Then do I get fired? Probably not, because almost no one reading this post would assume I favor assassinating people. Incredible as it may seem, some people seemed to think Wilkinson was serious. So it’s not so much the words you say, it’s the public’s perception as to whether you actually believe something. Wilkinson was fired because people (wrongly) believed he favored assassinating Pence.

Here’s another angle. Suppose Wilkinson does the exact same joke but uses Pelosi instead of Pence. Does he still get fired? I doubt it. The people who missed the humor in the Pence joke would obviously understand that a Biden supporter like Wilkinson would not actually favor lynching Pelosi.

And the situation gets even more absurd. Here’s Reason, one of the few reasonable voices on cancel culture:

This affair has produced several hypocrisies. First, if the Niskanen Center “draws the line at statements that are, or can in any way be interpreted as, condoning or promoting violence,” then it would have to fire its president. Taylor has arguably used Twitter in a manner that suggests he condones violence. He rooted for antifa to punch out Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who waved their guns at protesters encountered on their private street. “If I were in that march, and these racist lunatics were waiving [sic] guns at me, I’d like to think I’d rush them and beat their brains in,” said Taylor. “And I wouldn’t apologize for it for one goddam [sic] second.”

Unlike Wilkinson’s tweet, there’s little reason to assume this was meant in jest. And unlike Wilkinson, Taylor is the president of the organization and sets the tone for what is permissible. If the boss can tweet an unapologetic call to “beat their brains in,” his employees might very well think that edgy humor is okay. Perhaps that’s why Taylor deleted his statement regarding Wilkinson’s firing—he realized that it impugned him as well. 

In America, we have a lower moral standard for our leaders. Trump could say and do things that would get lower level people fired, and so can think tank presidents. We’ve had this double standard all throughout human history—especially in banana republics. (A bit less so in the Denmarks of the world.)

In the early years of blogging, I expected to eventually get enmeshed in some sort of scandal for a politically incorrect statement, but oddly it has not happened so far. And yet, I feel its only a matter of time, as each day I get a bit more out of touch with contemporary society. Fortunately, I’m in the enviable position of being able to say whatever I want, as I don’t need my job. I’m an affluent 65-year old, yearning for the quiet life.

People like Wilkinson and Matt Yglesias can always make a living with Substack, but cancel culture is a legitimate problem for lots of lower level people. Back when I was a professor, I knew several people who were seriously (and unfairly) damaged by the PC police. So don’t lecture me on it being a phony issue. On the other hand, it is a pretty trivial issue relative to the 400,000 people in prison for drug crimes.

In my view, there are no offensive jokes, only offended people. And don’t say, “Surely you are not saying joke X is not offensive.” I just said there are offended people, and that might include me on occasion.

You’ll never see me advocate that someone get fired for a joke that was well intended, but ended up in bad taste. An apology is sufficient. That’s why I’m not a conservative or a progressive—I oppose the cancel culture championed by both of those two misguided ideologies.


When it comes to Covid-19, lots of people have their heads in the sand.

Sam Bowman directed me to a good site for debunking all those idiotic Covid denialist claims, such as the supposed Danish study that “proved” masks don’t work.

Lyman Stone is a good place for estimates of excess deaths. The official Covid death total for the US (over 400,000) is probably an undercount.

Zvi Mowshowitz is a good place to go for the latest estimates of how the disease is progressing.

Scott Aaronson provides an excellent defense of challenge studies and other proposals to speed up the process.

And of course Marginal Revolution has been the best place to learn about the things that we should have been doing all along.