URLs du Jour

2021-08-27

  • Eye Candy du Jour. Presented without comment, from Mr. Ramirez: The Biden Memorial. [The Biden Memorial]


  • Fear is the mind-killer. Glenn Greenwald makes a point that we've made here before, about The Bizarre Refusal to Apply Cost-Benefit Analysis to COVID Debates.

    In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.

    The quickest and most guaranteed way to save hundreds of thousands of lives with policy changes would be to ban the use of automobiles, or severely restrict their usage to those authorized by the state on the ground of essential need (e.g., ambulances or food-delivery vehicles), or at least lower the nationwide speed limit to 25 mph. Any of those policies would immediately prevent huge numbers of human beings from dying. Each year, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “1.35 million people are killed on roadways around the world,” while “crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States for people aged 1–54.” Even with seat belts and airbags, a tragic number of life-years are lost given how many young people die or are left permanently and severely disabled by car accidents. Studies over the course of decades have demonstrated that even small reductions in speed limits save many lives, while radical reductions — supported by almost nobody — would eliminate most if not all deaths from car crashes.

    But I should add that it's not that easy to apply "rational cost-benefit analysis"; simplistic analysis might suggest that we should ban tobacco (more than 480,000 US deaths/yr) and alcohol (approximately 95,000 US deaths/yr). "Benefits" of such bans would be obvious. "Costs" become known too late; see Prohibition and the War on Drugs.


  • Fear is the mind-killer (again). An (unfortunately paywalled) article by Scott Lincicome at the Dispatch reveals America’s Math Problem.

    The most prominent recent examples of these difficulties arise in the case of the pandemic and public health policy. Over the last 18 months or so, we’ve been bombarded daily—by reporters, experts (real and imagined), colleagues, friends, and family (especially family)—by context-free figures that are often objectively worthless and, even worse, likely to elicit in many Americans precisely the wrong subjective reaction. And a few bits of recent vaccine-related news underscore just how rough the current situation is. For starters, NBC News reported back in July that the United States had experienced more than 100,000 breakthrough cases (i.e., vaccinated Americans who test positive for COVID-19)—a stat that was then amplified by numerous news outlets and shared by concerned folks around the country (and those with, ahem, less altruistic motives). But what many people failed to do—at least not in headlines or ledes—is explain just how tiny a percentage of total cases this really is:

    This type of reporting and commentary is depressingly common—I seriously cannot tell you how many times over the last year I’ve said the word “denominator”—and it’s a failure of both the people reporting the figures and news consumers who don’t recognize the problem and demand the reporting be more informative.

    Scott says "denominator" a lot, I've been saying "comparing apples to oranges" way too often.


  • Color me unsurprised too. Megan McArdle is restrained and moderate in her language, as befits her perch at the Washington Post: The FDA’s slow road to full vaccine approval will matter in the long run.

    Warren Buffett famously remarked that “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Of course, Buffett was talking about his industry — the quacks and frauds who surf the surging boom market, only to get beached when the waves of easy money recede. But his adage could easily be applied to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose bureaucratic procedures looked fine right up to the point when the pandemic showed them to be disastrous.

    By now, most people paying attention to the agencies seem to have conceded there is something very wrong with the CDC — recall the early coronavirus testing debacles, its slowness in embracing masks or acknowledging airborne transmission, the apparent politicization of guidance surrounding schools, the decision to stop tracking breakthrough covid cases, the inability to provide real-time data on infections.

    Yet, in the long run, the FDA issues are probably more consequential. While we don’t expect a pandemic to hit every year, most of us might eventually get some life-threatening illness that we’d really rather cure. And the covid-19 pandemic has made clear how FDA procedure can hamper the United States’ progress in the fight against disease.

    I'd be far more direct: FDA/CDC/NIH botches, and their attachment to business-as-usual bureaucratic mediocrity have killed people. And there's no indication that this will change in the future.

    But that's why I don't write at the WaPo.


  • Old and tired: commies under the bed. New hotness: capitalists under the bed! Phillip W. Magness looks at yet another academic attempt to paint Free Enterprise as Conspiracy.

    Lawrence Glickman’s Free Enterprise: An American History offers the latest contribution to this booming yet peculiar subfield. Styled as an intellectual history of the concept, his thesis holds that “free enterprise” is essentially a constructed mythology that arose from political opposition to the New Deal. Over the course of the 20th century, this version of “free enterprise” recast economic interventionism as an aberration from an artificially constructed history of the pre-Roosevelt American economy. The New Deal accordingly represented a break from an earlier time in which business and government occupied separate spheres, the latter constrained in its powers and proscribed from meddling in the affairs of the former. Glickman essentially sees the “free enterprise” concept as an attempt to retrofit a factitious historical barrier to what he perceives as routine and necessary progressive policy responses to the Great Depression. In his telling, the myth’s expositors—mostly a group of business interests and associated free-market intellectuals—set out to morally “delegitimize” the New Deal order and with it “the most basic functions of government,” namely taxation, regulation, and public expenditures.

    Magness notes that Glickman (as with many other "historians" writing in this genre) "conspiracizes the mundane—a practice of treating routine historical records from disliked conservative, libertarian, or free-market sources as if they were evidence of a collective will to politically transform the mechanism of history in ways that disrupt a specific course of progressive political development desired by the author."

    It's kind of like a left-wing version of the John Birch Society, unfortunately far more academically "respectable".


  • Wait, I thought Double Jeopardy was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Jack Butler discusses The Jeopardy of Jeopardy!. After a summary of the Mike Richards on-again/off-again host debacle:

    But for these comments to come to light at the precise moment Richards was set to assume one of the most prominent hosting gigs in modern popular culture seems awfully convenient. Surely any number of the guest hosts and others vying for the position would have a large interest in seeing to it that negative information about Richards emerges now. In the political realm, this is known as “leaking oppo”; it would not be surprising to see the same behavior appear in another realm of elite status competition, though it would still, of course, be vexing. And even if it were a genuinely spontaneous impulse that led The Ringer to examine Richards’s past for problematic material, either origin would classify this incident as yet another instance of “cancel culture”: the attempt to use some offensive statement to gin up online outrage against a selected target to weaken or, ideally, remove it in the public sphere.

    Examples of this phenomenon are so common nowadays that it’s not hard to find a comparable instance. In 2018, shortly after he was named as host of the next Academy Awards ceremony, Kevin Hart stepped down from the prospective role. Tweets had emerged that offended modern sensibilities. Hart’s career, however, did not end, raising questions once again about the nature and intent of this particular instance of attempted cancelation. Yet the episode did succeed in essentially blowing up the modern Oscars ceremony; since Hart’s removal, there hasn’t been a single individual designated as Oscars host at all. A similar fate may await Jeopardy! Mayim Bialik, an actress known for her role on The Big Bang Theory, has already been named a permanent guest host for show specials. But she, too, has opinions some (though not I) could easily deem problematic, being notably pro-Israel for a Hollywood personality. Her past comments on vaccines also drew criticism of late, but she’s clarified she’s not an anti-vaxxer and has received the COVID-19 vaccine. If hosting Jeopardy!, like hosting the Oscars, simply becomes a war of all against all, it is possible that, eventually, no one will win — except maybe Watson, a supercomputer contestant who has defeated the best human competitors on Jeopardy! and lacks a history of controversial tweets or podcasts.

    I, for one, would like to see Mayim don an IDF uniform for her first show, with appropriate weaponry. And insist all contestant responses must be grammatically-correct questions in Hebrew.