Monday, March 30, 2020

A Tale of Two Photos

Two photos in the Post told a tale. 

  1. One was a picture with an article on Gov. Guomo, lauding his leadership.  It showed him at a briefing, seated at a long table with another official about 10 feet away from him.
  2. The other was a picture of the vice president walking to the president's briefing with the members of the taskforce walking at his side, no one more than feet away.
Of course my interest was triggered by the contrast between Dems and Reps in observing social distancing.  On reflection, my initial reaction was unfair--people keep to old habits until they consciously override them.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Gas Lines, Flour, and PPE

I remember the gas lines in the 1970's when OPEC embargoed oil.  Everyone panicked.  Gas is essential after all. So we all got into lines at gas stations, and we filled our tanks. Every time the gas gauge got down to about half full, we got back in line again.  The effect was to aggravate the shortage, because the amount of gasoline sloshing around in car tanks increased, not to mention the gas wasted idling in long lines. The supply of gas had gone down but hoarding increased the demand.

We're seeing similar effects with Covid-19. People are stocking up  on flour and toilet paper. It's not quite as foolish as it might seem.  John Phipps has tweeted out his concerns that the food supply chains are adapted to supply restaurants and fast food chains with a sizable portion of our food consumption.  The dollars spent between home and restaurant are about equal, but of course it's more expensive to eat out. 

So flour mills would be supplying a large amount to the bakeries which supply hamburger buns and sub rolls. And since a good deal of our elimination of wastes occurs outside the home in normal times, the paper products people are set up to supply the middlemen. This means our current shortages in the supermarkets result from two causes: the fill-the-tank syndrome, stocking up for future disaster'; a slow change in the adaptation of supply chains. Obviously we don't need more food or toilet paper.

The medical community is dealing with shortages of  PPE (*personal protection equipment"), masks, gowns, etc. and other essentials like ventilators.  Here the cause seems to be; we do need more PPE., but countries and people are doing "fill-the-tank" hoarding.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What's in the Covid-19 Bill for FSA?

From Politico:
Special deal: The stimulus provides $9.5 billion in emergency aid for the agriculture industry and replenishes $14 billion in spending authority to the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era financial institution set up to stabilize the farm economy — the same USDA agency sending trade bailout payments to farmers. Producers ranging from dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to fresh fruit and vegetable growers are eligible.
How they got it: Livestock groups have been leaning on lawmakers for weeks to pony up funds for producers who have seen commodity prices plummet since January. Western senators including John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who chairs the Appropriations panel that oversees agricultural spending, made sure those provisions were part of the stimulus plan from the get-go. Then, top Democrats like Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, pushed to include language making specialty crop farmers — like Michigan’s tart cherry growers — eligible for the emergency aid.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What's the Metaphor for the Covid-19 IMpact

I like metaphors, as I've said before.

The other day I ran across a metaphor used by someone, perhaps an economist, who said the course of the economy will be like driving a car on a highway--you run into a jam, a slowdown where all the traffic slows down, but once the jam is resolved you and the rest of the traffic resume their usual speed.

That's a reassuring image.  Let me offer a differ one, more realistic in my opinion;  In spring and fall you sometimes encounter fog banks on interstates.  In winter you sometimes get a storm which lays down some ice in an area where traffic isn't expecting it.  In these situations you can have a sequence of rear-end accidents, resulting in 20, 30, or more vehicles involved in some damage.  Some cars can run, but are blocked in;; some are a total loss.  Traffic is stopped for a time.

Now I'm not comparing the covid-19 impact to such an accident. Let's imagine a four-lane highway, like the Dulles toll road or the CApitol Beltway. There's a multi-car accident which blocks 2 or 3 lanes and damages some cars.  Rubbernecking slows the traffic in the unblocked lanes. 

That's my metaphor. It seems to me part of the question in sending people back to work is this: how many cars have been damaged in this accident--is the major problem a blockage of the lanes or the damage to the cars.

Damage to the cars in this example equates to impacts on employers and employees. If there's little damage, the economy could easily resume its speed. If there's lots of damage, it will take time to repair it. 

I'm thinking that the more damage we see, the greater the importance of getting the economy going again. 

No Light at the End of the Vietnam Tunnel

"Light at the end of the tunnel" was a phrase made famous during the Vietnam war.  Its initial use is not clear, but it grew to be used sardonically to mean the opposite--there is no way out of this mess.

This history seems to be forgotten by the Trump administration according to this post.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why Trump's Ratings Are Up

My guess of the reason for Trump's approval ratings to be rising is three-fold:

  • he's no longer doing his rallies.  I'd guess independents and Democrats don't like his behavior during the rallies, so that helps.
  • he's talking from the White House in the press briefing room.  While he's still doing Trumpisms, there's a veneer of presidential behavior.
  • Republicans are feeling better about Trump, and Democrats are worried about the virus, which impacts willingness to respond to pollsters and how they respond.

Peeves: Flaunted and Dispersed

"Flaunt" means to show off.  When writing about people disobeying  Covid-19 rules you mean "flout".  Your "aunt" might be showy, a "lout" definitely isn't.

"Dispersed" means to scatter.  When writing about payments from stimulus programs, you mean "disbursed".   (Did your college have a "bursar"? )

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Epstein Dead and Buried (Metaphorically)?

Gregory Cochran is an anthropologist who is very much a contrarian.  On his West Hunter blog he posts occasionally, mostly on the evolution of humans.  He seems to be on the conservative side, at least in that he argues for the impact of evolution on human traits, etc.  In other words, he's not politically correct.

With that understanding of his leanings, I was surprised to read this takedown of Richard Epstein, who recently speculated on the outcome of Covid-19, arguing that concerns were over done. Most notably he predicted deaths in US would be 500 or les.

I only know that predictions vary very widely, and everyone who positively asserts a prediction is overdoing it.

But Cochran's post is a great example of taking no prisoners.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Claw Backs on Covid Aid

Personally, my wife and I fall into the category Steven Pearlstein described Friday--people whose income is not siigniicantly impacted by Covid-19. See this more recent post on Politico.

I don't know whether we will receive anything under the measures now being put together in  Congress.

It strikes me that in the absence of the right infrastructure to focus payments you could include a clawback provision. For us, the IRS would know on our 2020 taxes that we received Covid money. If our adjusted gross income for 2020 doesn't show a decrease from 2019, i.e., we weren't hurt by the pandemic, then tax the Covid money, 100 percent or something less.

[Updated:  Here's Greg Mankiw proposing the same thing.]

The Lack of Governmental Infrastructure

One of things crisis  fighters run into is the lack of governmental infrastructure. 

In the Great Recession a bit part of the problem in helping people whose houses were under water was the lack of any infrastructure which had direct contact with mortgagees.  Instead people like Geithner had to design programs to work through banks, but because the mortgages often had been been sold on/collateralized from the original loan maker it wasn't an effective program.

We now come to 2020 and Covid-19.  The programs under discussion now want to make direct payments to people.  But the government doesn't have that infrastructure.  The best we can do is write checks to those who filed a tax return with IRS in the past, but that obviously misses a lot of people: those who weren't required to file, those who joined the country more recently, those who never filed a tax return--i.e., tax evaders.

My Predictions?

I don't really have any, but I just saw a Politico post following up on various predictions made about Obamacare.  They mostly were wrong.  So with that in mind I'll venture this: at least 80 percent of the predictions ever offered about Covid-19 will turn out to be wrong.

Nicholas Kristof at the Times sketched the best and worst cases for the outcome. I'll venture the prediction that the outcome will be closer to the best than the worst.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Will the Cost of Fighting Covid-19 Exceed the DAmage It Causes?

John Hinderaker at Powerline blog ends a post on the Covid-19 virus (he uses "Wuhan virus" which is an indicator of his viewpoint) with this sentence:
" But policymakers need to consider the possibility that the damage done by the extreme measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus will ultimately prove to be greater than the harm done by the virus itself."
My reaction was--we should hope that's the case.   But I've had to struggle with figuring out whether my kneejerk reaction was valid, or just liberal bias.  Let me try now:

  1. Covid-19 is a case of natural disaster.
  2. Natural disasters vary widely in their causes and destruction: think of Hurricane Katrina or Sandy; earthquakes and tsunamis, droughts, floods, forest fires
  3. It seems to me that forest fires are a decent parallel with forest fires.  Why-both fires and epidemics occur over significant time, not the minutes of an earthquake or the days of a hurricane. That extended time period means humans can fight them, can hope to mitigate effects, limit their scope. 
  4. So consider the Paradise CA fire of a couple years ago.  Suppose, instead of a downed transmission line, it had started as campfire which escaped the firepit. But there was a fire station near enough and someone with a cellphone who saw the escape. In short, the Paradise fire was contained within a couple acres by the exertions of a fire crew over a day.  The cost of fighting the fire would maybe have been $1K, more than the burn damage.  Given that scenario,should we not fight the fire because of a cost-benefit ratio.
  5. In summary, when considering natural disasters the correct cost-benefit analysis is not money expended versus damage incurred; it's money expended versus some combination of probability of damage and the cost of the damage.

Friday, March 20, 2020

In Lieu of Mail Elections

There's a move, led in part by my former candidate for President, Amy Klobuchar, to move to mail elections in the fall.

I've reservations about mail elections because I like the feeling of community you get by voting in person.  I've reservations about moving to mail for our national elections, fearing that people are underestimating the difficulty involved, particularly when you consider counties are basically in charge of elections (remember the butterfly ballot). IMO there would likely be a number of snafus in November because the Harshaw rule applies.

I'd suggest an alternative in case Covid-19 is a danger in November--move to multi-day elections.  Instead of "election day" we'd have maybe "election week", or 2-3 days  That way we'd not need to change the technology, just spread out the people as they come to vote, so they can maintain their 6 foot distance.  The big hurdle that comes to mind is the burden on the people manning the polling places--older folks usually and more vulnerable to sickness.  But, if the virus is still an issue unemployment will be higher, providing a pool of potential hirees.

[Update--it seems the Klobuchar/Wyden proposal allows in-person advance voting, which is the same as an "election week"--I knew she deserved my support

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Innovation--Uses of Social Media

I think it's true that whenever things change some humans adapt to it.  It's like invasive species in biology--when a new ecological niche opens some opportunistic species will take advantage of it.

Anyway, what seems to be going on today is, given the challenge of Covid-19, humans are finding ways to use the internet and social media to counter its effects.  Using Amazon to order supplies, using Zoom for online learning, having a community sing over media, joining friends for online meals.

These uses aren't unprecedented, I'm sure, but tweaks on existing uses and expansion to new audiences.  These uses and audiences are likely to persist even after Covid-19 becomes a normal part of the world's health picture.

Kevin Drum has a post today arguing the greater speed of information exchange now as compared to 1918's Spanish flu explains a greater economic impact.  I'd agree, but also point to the advantages this speed offers--we can learn from the esperiences of others much quicker than in 1918.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Logistics of Checks to Everyone

As a bureaucrat when I see proposals to send checks to "everyone" I immediately jump to the logistics.

I know we've done this in the past--I think in the GWBush administration.  Google that and I find this:
In 2009, the Economic Stimulus Act sent out $14.2 billion in stimulus checks.1 2 The one-time payment went to recipients of Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, veterans, and railroad retirees.
Note that's far from "everyone".  Others, the employed, got a tax credit. This was part of Obama's stimulus.  As for GWB:
The year before ARRA, the George W. Bush administration sent out stimulus checks to battle the 2008 recession. It spent $120 billion in fiscal years 2008 and 2009.1 It rebated taxes on the first $6,000 of income for individuals or the first $12,000 of income for couples. Stimulus checks were mailed out as follows:

Individual taxpayers received up to $600.4

Married couples were eligible for up to $1,200.
Households with children received $300 per dependent child.
Rebates were reduced for higher incomes at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples.\
Around 20 million retirees on Social Security and disabled veterans also received checks for $300 if they earned at least $3,000 in benefits in 2007.4 Couples received $600.
Everything from this site including a discussion of impacts.

The problems with "everyone" is the government doesn't have a database with everyone in it, unlike say Estonia or India.  So to issue checks Congress has to cobble together databases from across the government.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Contrails as a Metaphor for Covid-19

I like metaphors, using something concrete to grasp ideas. I was thinking about Covid-19 (surprisingly!) this morning, specifically the process by which the virus spreads. What gets complicated to think about is the elapse of time, particularly since I tend to resist binary choices--a person is infected or not.

So here's my metaphor:  think of an infected person as a jet plane flying in a clear sky, particularly a older one.  The plane leaves a contrail behind it, which over time loses its structure and dissolves into nothing.  The contrail represents the virus particles being

Nowfly another plane through the contrail, representing an uninfected person.  If the contrail is well structured the person is more likely to be infected than if time has passed or winds have dispersed it.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Covid-19 Makes Us All Poor

Don't normally listen to podcasts but I did this one at Slate with an ER doctor..

He points to the lack of control felt by him and the public. That's one of the things about being poor--the lack of control over your life, the need to live from crisis to crisis, without the resources to get ahead of things.  The lack of control means you lose the ability to scan the environment and to plan the future.

For me, these descriptions apply to my current state of mind--my mental horizon has contracted to the issues raised by the virus: buying food, the loss of outside entertainment possibilities, the uncertainty,.  In other words, I'm now pretty much stupid.

[Updated--I forgot the most important thing--obsessing about the possibility Starbucks will close. I can't live without my coffee.]

Saturday, March 14, 2020

If Memory Serves--Cheney and Pence

If I remember correctly after 9/11 Vice President Cheney and President Bush were, for several weeks/months? kept separated, so a terrorist attack on one wouldn't take out the other.

Is it possibly time for President Trump and Vice President Pence to be separated?  Trump is in the population must vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19. The VP is getting there, but isn't nearly as vulnerable.  By separating them we'd help ensure that the virus couldn't take out both men at once, given that serious cases can result in lengthy hospitalizations.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Flu and Social Forces

The Covid-19 virus has caused us (starting with President Trump) to become more aware of the toll of the annual  outbreak of influenza.  I was vaguely aware the death toll was significant, but not the full scope of the impact.

I'd compare the flu and some social forces such as segregation, prejudice, changes in social mores.  Like the flu, we're vaguely aware of such forces,  but we only sporadically become really conscious of them. Like the flu, forces operate mostly below our level of consciousness.  Like the flu, some social forces there's a range of variation in the instances: most being minor and temporary but some being very serious.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Slow Learners in Trump Administration

It seems as if it's the fourth or fifth time Rep. Katie Porter has questioned Trump administration officials with results that rate a tweet.

If I were someone in the administration I'd use a sick leave day to avoid testifying.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh, Architect of Empire, was a Christmas present.  It's academic history, for which I've a smaller appetite these days.  I understand there are limited sources for his biography,which has to be considered. Anyhow, I just finished it:  Some things which struck me:

  • a lot of parallels between the treatment of Ireland and America (i.e.,Virginia). In both cases England was dealing with natives and trying to "plant" colonists. In the case of Virginia there was much ignorance and little attention to logistics.
  • the English thought of their efforts in America as different and more enlightened than those of the Spanish, partly because the Spanish were Catholic and England's adversary, partly from learning about the Spanish conquest and rule.
  • while dealing with the monarch was much like dealing with our current President, requiring much flattery etc. Queen Elizabeth I and King James I had the Tower and eventually the executioner's axe.
  • government was very fluid and not well defined; the most obvious example is the ease with which government resources were used for privacy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Linking "Vertical Farms" With Microgrids

If I understand this article, a microgrid is a set of power generators dedicated to supplying a set of power consumers.  When the generators are a combination of solar and natural gas and the consumers are "vertical farms" there might be a workable and economic combination.  Vertical farms use lots of energy (the old dream of using sunlight which I laughed at years ago seems now defunct).

The big advantage of a microgrid is that it can be installed along with the vertical farm, so you don't rely on the power company to have the capacity to support your farm.  The microgrid operator can guarantee a price, making it easier to figure out your business plan.

Seems to me in the long run the microgrid is not the best solution.  Vertical farms need a lot of energy and for many hours in the day (apparently if you blast a seeding with light for 18 hours a day instead of 6 you get more growth--that's my impression). But it strikes me that plants are relatively forgiving, which means if you're operating a smart transmission system, vertical farms could easily be cut off when the system gets overloaded for some reason.  See this.

I assume it's also true that there are economies of scale in power generation.  Such economies should mean a power company could undercut a microgrid in many cases.

The article notes it's not clear what price for electricity would enable vertical farms to make a profit.

We'll see.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Telework--What Will USDA Do?

OPM is out with guidance to agencies encouraging telework due to Covid19. 

Earlier in the administration Sec. Perdue made drastic cutbacks in the USDA employees authorized to telework.

So far there's nothing on the USDA website about telework.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Caldwell's Age of Enlightenment

As a thinker, Christopher Caldwell is a good writer.  His words flow, and you ride with them, until suddenly there's a problem.

Bpttomline--I don't like his style--

I'll pick out one paragraph in his final chapter

"Those who lost most from the new rights-based politics were white men.  The laws of the 1960's may not have been designed explicity to harm them, but they were gradually altered to help evceryone but them, which is the same thing.  Whites suffered because they occupied this uniquely disadvantaged status under the civil rights laws, because their strongest asset in the constitutional system--their overwhelming preponderance in the electorate--was slowly shrinking, because their electoral victories could be overruled in courtrooms and by regulatory boards where necessary, and because the moral narratives of civil rights required that they be cast as the villains of their country's history. They fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races."

page 276

Notice what he does there.  In the first sentence the losers are "white men".  By the end of the paragraph "they", who are the bottom rung, are "whites". To me that's sloppy thought. Somehow the advances women have made since the 1960's are ignored. To be consistent he'd have to discuss an ethnic/gender  hierarchy, but that would complicate his argument.  He'd have to recognize that white women have gained during the period.

He's also playing games with the causes.  Assume that white voters were the "overwhelming preponderance" of the electorate in the 1960' in part because of the denial of the right to vote in the South.  The civil rights laws were passed by that overwhelming preponderance (85 percent in 1960). Whites still maintain their preponderance and will for another 20 years or so. The Republicans have had a majority on the Supreme Court since Nixon.  Give Caldwell credit though--he doesn't name a villain to account for the changes other than the sleepiness of whites.

There's an interesting book to be written discussing the last 60 years, paying attention to what was lost and what was gained, but it isn't this book.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Every Cow Has "Her People"/

Vox has an interview with the director of "First Cow", who comments of the cow: "She had her people."

She also agrees with the interviewer: “Milk is so exciting.”

Friday, March 06, 2020

That Was the Week That Was

I'm showing my age in the title I chose--see this wikipedia explainer.

For Democrats, and political observers, it's been 7 days of twists and turns.  I'm amused to see Hugh Hewitt's Mar 1 oped: and the Michael Tomasky's piece in the New York Review of Books.

Both remind me of this

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Why I Voted for Warren

I voted for Elizabeth Warren yesterday.  I've been a supporter of Klobuchar for as long as she was in the race and would have voted for her had she not withdrawn.  So my choices yesterday were Bloomberg, Biden, and Warren.  Sanders is both too old and too radical for me to consider, though I will vote for him if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

My bottomline was that anyone my age is too old for the job. I think I'm still pretty good mentally.  My memory fails occasionally, more than it used to, but I can analyze and write pretty well.  Assume that Bloomberg and Biden are equally capable.  But I find it hard to imagine that either man would, if elected, be able to credibly plan to run for reelection. That's just an age too far.  So they'd be a lame duck  immediately.  The record of our presidents during their second terms when they're lame ducks is not great.

The VP,  whoever it is, would naturally want to run for president in 2024, which would likely mean she'd need to establish some distance from the president just to have their own identity. Meanwhile other Democratic politicians would be maneuvering to run as well.  All that means big difficulties in getting the party to come together and support the President's proposals.

Applying the logic above leaves me with Warren as my choice.  I'm not fond of some of her plans, but I like her brains and her passion, so she was an acceptable choice. When I voted, I realized it was a symbolic vote, since she had no chance to win delegates in VA.  But that's life. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

When You Know You're Losing It

When you tweet about the silent generation finding "it's voice."

On the other hand, the title of this post isn't "When You Know Your Losing It"

If all this is too cryptic, congratulations--you're a millennial.