A New Administration Tradition

At Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Duyeon Kim reminds us of a time-honored North Korean tradition—testing the incoming U. S. administration:

North Korea has both military and geopolitical drivers to stage another provocation. The question is when and what type. Once Pyongyang realizes Biden is in fact the president-elect, there are two possible scenarios regarding timing. On the one hand, Pyongyang might cross Trump’s “red line” by testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear devices during the transition period if it feels pressed to continue refining its nuclear weapons capability and believes that Trump cannot retaliate during his remaining weeks in office. Launching an ICBM (or any class of missiles for that matter) would simultaneously achieve the geopolitical objective of gaining leverage in future negotiations and testing an incoming Biden administration.

On the other hand, North Korea is heavily consumed with a fierce “80-day battle”—a national productivity campaign that began in October during which North Koreans are required to work extra hours to achieve national and economic goals before a rare Workers’ Party congress set for next January. These “battles” are also meant to firmly consolidate domestic unity around the Kim dynasty. State media say their priority this time is typhoon recovery, anti-coronavirus campaigns, farming, coal mining, and scientific research without outside help over fears of viral infections. This means that Pyongyang may wait until after the regime cements next year’s goals during its January party congress. If so, the window for a provocation would be between January and March, when President Biden’s team is not yet complete after inauguration and before the US and South Korea hold their annual spring military drills.

That is the same period during which Pyongyang has tested missiles or nuclear devices in the past after a change in American administrations. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the regime may even wait until it assesses an incoming Biden administration’s attitude toward it. But Pyongyang may not wait—candidate Biden personally called Kim a “thug” (although Pyongyang previously called Biden a “rabid dog” and “fool of low IQ”), which could be enough justification to provoke Washington, especially when Kim’s sister in July expanded the scope of “US hostile policy” to include rhetoric (insults) and human rights criticisms.

It could also provide the incoming Biden Administration with an opportunity, for example to show how tough they are or how effective they are at rebuilding alliances and just how effective those alliances can be. Or it could ignore “provocations” while trying to get itself organized and deal with an ongoing pandemic.

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Why Not Understanding Statistics Is a Handicap

There are quite a few articles being published these days in anticipation of Joe Biden’s repeated and reaffirmed campaign promise on educational loan forgiveness. There’s a statistic that’s frequently cited in the discussion: an average of $50,000 in educational debt.

But there’s another statistic that’s just as important, quoted in this article at Forbes. The median student loan debt is $17,000. To get the average debt you sum the total amount of debt and divide by the number of borrowers. The median debt on the other hand is the amount for which half of the borrowers owe more and have less.

With such a large discrepancy between the average and the median it suggests that most borrowers owe a lot less than $50,000. My intuition is that there’s a fairly small number, probably mostly professionals, with educational debt much higher than $50,000.

I don’t think that educational debt forgiveness is a good policy at all but how you craft it depends on what you want to accomplish. If you were to set the cap on forgiveness at $30,000, I think that most of the people you’d be helping would be the poor and the middle class while when you set it at $50,000, by far the greatest benefit would be to the upper middle class and the rich. I’d means test it and limit forgiveness to certain degrees.

It would be nice to know what the standard deviation is but that’s another subject.


Good Question

In an article at Wire Adam Rogers asks a very good question. Is a vaccine that prevents symptoms of COVID-19 enough?

The problem is, a Covid-19 vaccine that only prevents illness—which is to say, symptoms—might not prevent infection with the virus or transmission of it to other people. Worst case, a vaccinated person could still be an asymptomatic carrier. That could be bad. More younger people tend to get the virus, but more older people tend to die from it; socioeconomic status and ethnicity also have an impact on death rates. Some people have relatively light symptoms; other people have symptoms that hang on for months. And perhaps most importantly, a vaccine is the only way to reach herd immunity without a bloodbath. As politicized as the notion has become, herd immunity is essentially the sum of direct protection—what you might get if you’re vaccinated—and indirect protection, safety afforded by the fact that people around you aren’t transmitting the disease to you because they either already had the disease themselves or because they got vaccinated against it. If vaccinated people can still be asymptomatic spreaders, that means less indirect protection for the herd.

That really matters, because there isn’t enough vaccine to go around. Not yet, anyway. Some groups of people will go first. The characteristics of the available vaccines would, in a perfect world, determine who those people should be. One that only prevented illness might go first to the elderly, in whom severe illness is more likely to lead to death. One that prevented infection and transmission might go to essential workers and frontline caregivers. “Part of our worry is, we want to get it right in the early allocation phase, making sure we’re targeting the vaccine as best as you can,” says Grace Lee, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine and a member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “If the only thing it did was protect against severe disease, you’d want to look at the population that has severe disease and only use it there, and nowhere else.”

That’s almost certainly not going to be the situation. The vaccines will probably all have some effect on transmission. But right now no one knows how much, or which one is better, or for whom—because so far only AstraZeneca has even a hint of data studying the problem.

We’re still largely operating in the dark. It makes considerable sense to know more about what we’re doing before inoculating billions of people with vaccines before we know whether they’ll actually prevent the spread of the disease or have serious long-term effects. At the very least why not wait long enough for the various studies to be published and reviewed by peers?


Why Now?

There is considerable anxiety about the surge of new cases and new deaths due to COVID-19 here in the U. S. Those are particularly severe in the Upper Midwest, i.e. North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan but isn’t limited to those states—California, Texas, and Florida are seeing surges in new cases as well albeit not as dramatic as in the Upper Midwest. The states that first experienced large numbers of cases back in the spring, e.g. New York, New Jersey, are experiencing surges in new cases although, interestingly, the surges in new deaths in those states don’t appear to be as great as in the Upper Midwest.

It isn’t just the United States. Not only is Europe having its own surge of new cases, South Korea and Japan are as well. At this point Taiwan is not.

My question is why now? I recognize that the popular explanation and that, apparently, relied on by elected officials is that the people in the Upper Midwest have not been taking the prudent steps, i.e. wearing facemasks, social distancing, etc. that might have prevented these surges and, indeed, I suspect that’s part of the reason. But, unless you believe that the Japanese and South Koreans have abandoned the practices that insulated them from the worst effects of the virus in the spring, something else is going on as well.

My own view is informed by the following beliefs:

  • Not everyone is equally susceptible to the virus even when exposed to it.
  • Not everyone has an equal likelihood of dying if they contract COVID-19.
  • The risk factors include age, genetics, pre-existing conditions, behavior and probably some other unappreciated factors.
  • Exposure to sunlight mitigates the risks somewhat.
  • Interior air circulation mitigates the risks somewhat.
  • Previous exposure to related viruses mitigates the risks somewhat.
  • Concentration of the virus increases the risks somewhat.

Some of those have evidence to support them, some stand to reason, other are speculative. I cannot disaggregate the relative importance of any of these factors.

Taiwan is in the tropics. That means more sunlight at a different angle at this time of year than is experienced, for example, in the Upper Midwest of the U. S. Heating is rare in homes there and many do not have air conditioning either. Due to its commerce with the mainland many Taiwanese people may have been exposed to viruses related to COVID-19 in the past. In addition most Taiwanese people are Han Chinese and may have genetic predispositions to be less susceptible to the virus. Also wearing facemasks is practically universal.


Thanksgiving After Action Report

Despite it being just the two of us, we prepared our regular Thanksgiving menu:

Smoked turkey
Mashed potatoes
Dressing made according to my wife’s family’s recipe (bread stuffing with Italian sausage, onions, celery, apples, olives)
Brussels sprouts braised with chestnuts
Cranberry mold (Jellied cranberry sauce, raspberry Jello, sour cream, cream cheese)
Freshly made dinner rolls
Cranberry bread
Pumpkin chiffon pie

Everything was made from scratch. Just about everything came out a bit better than in previous years. You learn with experience.

I thought I’d also mention how we set our table (picture here). As you can see we set it for just the two of us. The furniture, dishes, and art you see are part of our history—our families’ history, our individual histories, and the history we’ve made with each other.

The lace tablecloth is nearly 100 years old. It was given by my wife’s great-aunt to my wife’s grandmother who gave it to my wife’s mother who gave it to her. The dishes are more than 100 years old; the flatware is probably 150 years old. They were collected by me, mostly while I was an antique dealer.

You can’t really see the table. It was commissioned by me as were the chairs about 40 years ago. They are made of walnut. The top of the table is a beautiful parquet. The chairs’ seats are natural rush. The sideboard is made of pine. It’s a harvest table from Southern Illinois, well over 150 years old. I inherited it from my mother. On the sideboard are pictures of me and my wife, family pictures, a painting by one of my siblings.

The serving pieces on the sideboard include presents from my wife to me, things I purchased, and one very important family piece. An open serving dish that literally brought tears to my father-in-law’s eyes just seeing it. It’s probably nearly 100 years old. He remembered holiday meals when he was a child in which mashed potatoes were served from that dish. We always serve our mashed potatoes from it on holidays.


Why It Will Take Longer Than You Think

The latest editorial from the editors of the Washington Post provides a pretty good example of why I think that the inoculating process will take a lot longer than people seem to think:

THE WORLD HEALTH Organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in August that no country could afford to go it alone in fighting the pandemic. Nations already depend on global supply chains for everything from diagnostic testing to personal protective equipment, he said, and they must avoid “vaccine nationalism” when it comes to the most powerful tool to fight covid-19. When the Group of 20 leaders held their virtual summit meeting last weekend, they again declared their intent not to hoard lifesaving vaccines, saying, “We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people.”

But as vaccines come closer to reality, wealthy nations of the world have already taken care of their own needs and signed contracts to buy up hundreds of millions of vaccine doses. And the poor? A global risk-sharing procurement initiative to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines, the Covax Facility, could bring them protection, but only if it can get sufficient funding in 2021. This is the world’s best chance to help the poorest populations confront the pandemic, being led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.


The world’s wealthiest countries are on the verge of a science triumph with the arrival of an effective vaccine in less than a year. But in this moment of need, the haves should also extend a hand to the have-nots. As Dr. Tedros said in August, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

In other words don’t just think in terms of 330 million people in the U. S. but in terms of 7.5 billion people in the world. Assume that the certified and approved vaccine makers can produce enough vaccine in aggregate to inoculate 2 billion people. That means it would take at least 4 years to inoculate everybody. If you think they can produce more, you’ll need to provide evidence since that’s not what the pharma companies themselves are saying.


Meet the New China Policy—Same as the Old China Policy?

In his Washington Post column Josh Rogin says that the Biden Administration’s policies with respect to China should be expected to be much like the Trump Administrations’s, just more predictable and with stronger complaints about China’s internal human rights violations:

The Biden administration-in-waiting is sending clear signals about its China approach, which will look very different from President Trump’s — at least on the surface. But at the same time, President-elect Joe Biden’s personnel picks so far portend a strategy that maintains the Trump administration’s core thrust of focusing on competition — not engagement — with Beijing. That should comfort nervous allies even if it doesn’t satisfy hawkish Republicans.

He expands on that a bit:

Biden’s announcement he plans to nominate Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser shows he is making a break from the Obama White House’s engagement-focused China policy. There were fears in the region that Susan Rice, who resisted a more competitive strategy when she was national security adviser, might have become America’s top diplomat.

Blinken laid out his thinking on China in a July Hudson Institute event, when he argued that Trump put the United States in a weaker strategic position vis-a-vis China by undermining alliances and waffling on values promotion. Blinken promised to rally allies toward the mission of pushing back on China’s various bad behaviors.

“There is a growing consensus across parties that China poses a series of new challenges and that the status quo was really not sustainable,” he said. “We are in a competition with China, and there’s nothing wrong with competition, if it’s fair.”

I’m not sure how you might consider China’s competition to be fair when it relies on slave labor and its environmental and labor laws aren’t enforced. Or with a country whose policy is so patently zero-sum (we win; you lose) as China’s.

My view has long been that we should be imposing Pigouvian tariffs in the estimated amount of what it would cost China to enforce its own laws plus the estimated cost to U. S. businesses of Chinese hacking and intellectual property theft.


Thanksgiving, 2020

This Thanksgiving will be a strange, rather sad one for me. I started cooking Thanksgiving dinners for a crowd well over 50 years ago, first for my parents and siblings and whatever guests were invited, then for my mom and siblings and guests after my dad had died, for my siblings and spouses after they married, and for my siblings, spouses, and their children after they started to arrive. Not all of my siblings and their families every year, of course, but frequently. We’ve had as many as 20 and generally no fewer than five. I may have gone to one of my siblings’ homes one Thanksgiving and just forgotten but it’s probably 60 family Thanksgiving dinners I’ve cooked.

This year it’s just my wife and me. No siblings or their families. No guests. I’ll put a picture of the table up after it’s been set.

I’m making the same things as I’ve made for years just downsized. Well, I didn’t make my cranberry sauce. We’ve got the cranberry mold my wife has made for years. That’s plenty. Maybe I’ll make my cranberry sauce in a day or so. I have the cranberries, the bourbon, and the black pepper. Just need to get some shallots and a lemon.

One of my nieces texted my wife to tell her she was giving making my wife’s famous pumpkin chiffon pie a try for the first time and her husband was smoking a turkey so I guess we’ve inspired the next generation at least a little.

May all of my readers and those with whom they celebrate whether near or far have a happy Thanksgiving!


The Biden Foreign Policy Takes Shape

In his latest Wall Street Journal column Walter Russell Mead makes what strikes me as a reasonable analysis of what he divines from the appointments that Joe Biden has made so far about the likely foreign policy of the Biden Administration. I’m tempted to quote it in full and it deserves to be read in its entirety but I’ll excerpt it.

1. It doesn’t suggest a third Obama term.

As a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a hands-on vice president, Mr. Biden comes to the White House with more foreign-policy experience than any post-World War II president besides Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush. America’s new foreign policy will have Mr. Biden’s fingerprints all over it; the president-elect knows what he wants and is choosing a team he believes can deliver it.

The second, related point the appointments make is that Joe Biden has turned to what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes famously called “the Blob”—experienced foreign-policy insiders who work comfortably within the key assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy since the late 1940s.

I’m not as optimistic about that as Dr. Mead. IMO U. S. foreign policy has been seriously flawed for at least the last sixty years. Assumptions about the Soviet Union, strategic alliances (anyone remember SEATO?), Latin America, and Europe have all been erroneous for much of that time or more. The obsession with the Middle East is more recent—largely since the Arab Oil Embargo if that tells you anything. Jonathan Pollard was just released from prison which is a nice reminder.

2. His foreign policy will not be supported either by progressives or by Republicans.

This is not the Squad’s dream team, but the president-elect seems untroubled by that perception.

That said, nobody should mistake this for a Republican administration. Mr. Biden’s expected nominees may be centrists, but it is the Democratic mainstream in which they swim. They are, for example, multilateralists not out of pragmatism (like, say, James Baker and George H.W. Bush), but out of conviction.

or, to use Dr. Mead’s taxonomy, they are solidly Wilsonian in their views. That will predispose them to intervene when the more pragmatic would step back.

3. Climate change will be a major focus.

As they see it, climate change is not only a direct threat to international peace and American well-being; it is an issue that links the administration’s foreign and domestic policies and offers an opportunity to split progressive greens away from more isolationist, anticorporate voices on the Democratic left. Linking a global push for an accelerated transition to a net-zero carbon economy (in the relatively distant future) with a domestic infrastructure program focused on green energy can, the new team believes, energize a coalition behind Biden-style centrism at home and abroad.

While I agree there will be more attention paid during a Biden Administration than there has been under previous previous administrations, I also think that practically everyone will be disappointed. This is not the 1980s. China’s and India’s increasing emissions will guarantee that nothing we can do will have any effect. I wonder when advocates will start to realize that the increased emissions not to mention particulate emissions from implementing the measures they support will overwhelm the results they intend to gain? At a first approximation my guess is never—they’re too solidly intentionalists.

4. A “pivot to Asia”?

American foreign-policy’s focus, however, will continue to shift toward the Indo-Pacific. This is very much a “pivot to Asia” foreign-policy team that’s likely to pursue a more robust policy in the East than the Obama administration did. The new team’s critique of Trump-era China policy was on means more than ends.

I don’t honestly understand how Dr. Mead arrives at that conclusion. So far this team looks pretty darned eurocentric to me.

5. Stronger alliances will strengthen our hand.

Poor relations with allies, particularly in Europe, meant Team Trump couldn’t marshal a united front on economic matters with China. In Team Biden’s view, this was a fatal flaw that undercut the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Globally, besides Iran, which will hope for a return to some version of the nuclear agreement, Germany and Japan are probably the chief beneficiaries of the coming shift in U.S. policy. Berlin can expect a renewed close partnership with Washington. Haggling over its NATO contribution and trade surplus will be off the front burner as America recommits to the multilateral and green goals dear to German hearts. Tokyo can expect continued close support from the U.S. in the face of the China challenge from a less volatile administration with, again, a less mercantilist trade policy.

IMO this is a fundamental miscalculation. In reality we have no allies. The Europeans and Japan only support us as long as we’re furthering their own foreign policy objectives otherwise they view us more as threat than asset. They only turn to us when other threats look greater. For Japan that time is now which is why they’re been pretty supportive of the Trump Administration. If the Germans see Russia and China as threats, they’ll turn to us. If they see them more as customers or vendors, they’ll oppose us.

He concludes:

The new U.S. foreign-policy leadership is less a team of rivals than a reunion of friends. Let us wish them the best as they prepare for the challenges of leading the world’s greatest power through a stormy and tumultuous time.


What metrics can we use to assess the success of this new/old foreign policy team? I’ve already proposed some. I also note that Dr. Mead does not mention immigration, legal or not, in his assessment. IMO the Biden Administration will be very much pro-immigration which pragmatically means that are also pro-low wages for Americans. That’s sure to earn them the approval of Big Tech.


Getting the Band Back Together

The editors of the Washington Post are enthusiastic about the foreign policy and security team Joe Biden is assemblng:

PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden’s choices for his national security team will please those who hope, as we do, that he will quickly replace President Trump’s chauvinist and self-defeating “America First” policies with a return to liberal internationalism, with its focus on building and leading alliances and promoting democratic values. But the nominations also ought to encourage anyone who values experience, expertise, integrity and fundamental competence in U.S. government leaders.


The nominations could be portrayed as the return of a foreign policy establishment that led the United States to failure in the Middle East and elsewhere. But Mr. Biden’s team has reflected deeply on the shortcomings of the Obama administration and the ways in which the world has changed in the past four years. In an essay published last year, Mr. Sullivan said the United States must reassert its global role, but in new ways: It must fashion “a different kind of leadership, giving others a greater voice along with greater accountability.”

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, a chance.

I’ll be impressed if they start no new wars or deepen our commitment in present wars, if they can counter the challenges posed by China without doing very much what the Trump Administration has, and if they can rebuild alliances rather than just crafting venues for our notional allies to act as free riders. If they have a plan for increasing wages for U. S. workers and revitalizing the U. S. economy, without tariffs and without controlling our southern border, they should articulate it as quickly as possible.