The Shape of Victory

There has been substantial breastbeating in the media about the situation in states that are, in their view, opening up too quickly. Let’s consider this by looking at a few graphs. All of the following were sampled from Worldometers.info. I have taken the liberty of drawing some trend lines on the graphs.
Admittedly, these trend lines are not “fair” in the sense that they don’t all start from the same date. I drew them to be consistent with what I see as the actual daily trends.

Some caveats. Although daily deaths due to COVID-19 are a better indicator than the number of cases of COVID-19 for use in evaluating how the campaign against the disease it proceeding it is, indeed, a lagging indicator. In other words the number of deaths today reflects the number of cases and methods of treatment of a week or a month ago.

Additionally, the number of deaths alone is not adequate to assess how we’re doing without also taking into account the health of the health care system as well. Doing that is beyond the scope of this post other than to mention that as long as there’s 10% or more excess capacity in ICU beds, ventilators, and so on not only are we doing okay but greater excess capacity does not necessarily provide additional benefit.

California is the most populous state in the Union and it was the first to “lock down”. Much of the media attention has been focused on California as the “next epicenter of contagion” and the like. Is the concern expressed reasonable? I don’t think so. The number of deaths per day due to COVID-19 in California has been declining for months. If the disease overwhelms California’s health care system, it can only be attributed to fecklessness on the part of state officials. They had plenty of time to prepare. They should have used it more wisely.

The State of Texas provides the greatest cause for concern among the states. It is the second largest state by population and the largest by geography in the continental United States. Although the number of deaths per day declined for a month the trend has been in the wrong direction for the last month. Clearly, Texas is doing something wrong, remedial action is required, and, since deaths are a lagging indicator, we won’t know for a while whether they’ve been successful or not.

Florida’s pattern is similar to that of Texas—the number of deaths declined for a month but has increased more recently. In one sense it’s less worrisome than Texas but what is worrisome in Florida is demographics. The median age in Texas is around 34.9 while the median age in Florida is around 42.

Arizona is another state in which the trend is in the wrong direction and, once again, its pattern is similar to that of Texas.

If there is one state which looks as though it had done the right things among my sample, it would be Georgia. The governor issued a statewide shelter-in-place directive on April 2 and relaxed it a week later. The directive was removed on April 24 which is reflected in the bump in the graph in May.

You didn’t expect to get away without my mentioning Illinois, did you? Is Illinois’s trajectory indicative of success or failure? I think it’s too early to tell. I am reminded of a satirical comment that’s at least two centuries old: the operation was a success but the patient died. We will know if Gov. Pritzker’s strategy was successful if Illinois’s economy recovers and if Chicago doesn’t lose a hundred thousand Chicagoans in the process. Stay tuned.

What is the shape of victory? Is it Illinois’s? Illinois’s results parallel New York’s. Is it Georgia’s? Those results parallel those of Illinois and New York with much lower amplitude in the early stages. Or is it California’s?

In preemptive response to the complaint that I am attacking a strawman, in the last several days I have read several complaints from major media outlets that the only measure of victory is zero fatalities, cf. this one at Bloomberg.

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Reimagining the Marine Corps

I want to draw your attention to a piece by T. Greer (of The Scholar’s Stage) at Foreign Policy on the Marines’ plans to reconstitute the force to address a Chinese threat:

The Marines’ plans reflects a broader change of focus by the Pentagon, which has been ordered by the White House to redirect its focus from counterinsurgency campaigns toward what it dubs “great-power competition” with Russia and China. The threat posed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is especially dire. While American forces were campaigning in the mountains of Afghanistan, the commanders of the PLA slowly shaped their military into the world’s premier counter-American military force.

The PLA realized that the U.S. military had grown accustomed to operating freely in the airspace and neighboring waters of its enemies. To counter this way of war, a terrific percentage of the Chinese defense budget has been directed to developing weapons that might challenge American control of the sea and air. The result: thousands of what are known as “anti-access” and “area denial” weapons whose range and precision create a death zone extending hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast. These precision weapons, launched from an ever-growing number of PLA Navy vessels, PLA Air Force craft, and PLA Rocket Force units, will make it impossible for traditional expeditionary forces—like the existing U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units—to get within striking range of any East Asian battlefield without risking destruction. When these long-range weapons are combined with the PLA’s air defense systems, sea mines, submarines, and electronic warfare and cyber-capabilities, the result is a gauntlet of fire that American expeditionary forces cannot be expected to securely traverse.

The Marines’ response has been to plan to station troops within the “death zone”, in the mistaken belief that such will deter the Chinese leadership from adventurism. I agree with Dr. Greer that they are planning for the confrontation they want to have rather than the one they are likely to have.

I think that our military leadership needs to adjust itself to the possibility that the Chinese leadership is not deterrable at all. 21st century “great power” confrontation cannot be limited warfare. That is foolishness. The Marines would be practically useless in the warfare of extermination that would ensue.

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Words To Ponder

I think that this passage in Holman Jenkins’s latest Wall Street Journal column are worthy of consideration:

So we return to a signature astonishment of our age. After almost four years in office, Mr. Trump has not managed to damage his own reputation (as any libel lawyer will tell you, he had no reputation to damage). He has done less damage to his office than you might think for the simple and obvious reason that people distinguish Mr. Trump from his office.

Seemingly effortlessly, though, he has incited people and institutions that do have something to lose to wreck their own reputations: The FBI, CNN, our universities, etc.

Tens of millions of voters who plan to vote against Mr. Trump in the fall hardly need Post lies to give them more reason to do so. But millions of others will vote for Mr. Trump, or consider voting for him, exactly because the Washington Post lies about him. Their wavering support at this point in his ill-starred presidency is sustained only by the deranged dishonesty of his opponents.

Anyone who does not recognize that Donald Trump is a schmuck is, in the immortal words of Harold Hill, merely closing your eyes to a situation that you do not wish to acknowledge. However, the last five years have revealed beyond reasonable doubt that the editors of the NYT, WaPo, and CNN, many pundits, as well as practically all politicians are schmucks, too.

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Inherently Political

Maybe this post should have been titled “Cognitive Dissonance Watch”. I’m seeing two conflicting pleas, frequently from the same people. On the one hand I’m seeing pleas for more and larger “stimulus” from the federal government but on the other I’m seeing complaints at how much of the last round of stimulus went to the politically-connected and the powerful.

To my eye that is a dangerous level of naïveté. Government programs are inherently political. If you want them to be less political, the plans will need to be much less direct. For example, providing aid by reducing or eliminating the employer side, employee side, or both of FICA is less political than the PPP was because it’s so broadly based and the rules are so simple. As soon as you start making rules to direct aid to specific groups or individuals or grant discretion to the regulating agencies, you introduce political judgments. That is the nature of government. It is inescapable.

FICA itself is highly political. FICA max is presently $137,700. That’s a political judgment.

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Thought for the Day

In a piece at Bloomberg Niall Ferguson quotes Liu Cixin’s science fiction novel, The Dark Forest:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost … trying to tread without sound … The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people … any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out.

Something to reflect on in a foreign policy context.

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Schrödinger’s Virus

There remains an enormous amount we do not know about SARS-CoV-2. On the one hand we may be a very long way away from achieving “herd immunity” to SARS-CoV-2, the point at which enough people have resistance to the cease that its spread ceases or slows, as this piece at The Telegraph avers:

Dr Jefferson believes many viruses lie dormant throughout the globe and emerge when conditions are favourable, which also means they can vanish as quickly as they arrive.

“Where did Sars 1 go? It’s just disappeared,” he said. “So we have to think about these things. We need to start researching the ecology of the virus, understanding how it originates and mutates.

“I think the virus was already here – here meaning everywhere. We may be seeing a dormant virus that has been activated by environmental conditions.

“There was a case in the Falkland Islands in early February. Now where did that come from? There was a cruise ship that went from South Georgia to Buenos Aires, and the passengers were screened and then on day eight, when they started sailing towards the Weddell Sea, they got the first case. Was it in prepared food that was defrosted and activated?

“Strange things like this happened with Spanish Flu. In 1918, around 30 per cent of the population of Western Samoa died of Spanish Flu, and they hadn’t had any communication with the outside world.

“The explanation for this could only be that these agents don’t come or go anywhere. They are always here and something ignites them, maybe human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should be looking for.”

I think that the genetic studies contradict that view but I present it in the interest of completeness. On the other hand herd immunity may be just around the corner as Allysia Finley declaims in the Wall Street Journal:

A small study last month from France found that six of eight close family contacts of sick patients didn’t develop antibodies but did develop Covid-19-specific T-cells. A new study from Sweden finds that moderately ill patients developed both Covid-19-specific antibodies and T-cells. But twice as many healthy individuals who donated blood during the pandemic and asymptomatic family members of sick patients generated Covid-19 specific T-cells than did antibodies.

“SARS-CoV-2-specific memory T cells will likely prove critical for long-term immune protection against COVID-19,” the study concludes. “The observation that most individuals with asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 generated highly functional durable memory T cell responses,” not uncommonly in the absence of antibodies, “further suggested that natural exposure or infection could prevent recurrent episodes of severe COVID-19.”

In short, antibody tests may significantly underestimate the number of people who have already been infected with Covid-19, especially if they had a milder strain. If so, it’s possible that some early hot spots, like New York City and northern Italy, already have a degree of herd immunity. The same may be true of other places soon.

There is some controversy about what percentage of the population must not be susceptible to the virus in order to achieve “herd immunity”—anything from 33% to 95% has been suggested. It would seem to me that graph theory would suggest that the actual percentage may depend very highly on circumstances.

“Schrödinger’s cat” was a thought experiment devised by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The scenario presents a hypothetical cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead. Similarly, SARS-CoV-2 seems to be “Schrödinger’s virus”—simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

My own view is that we should be making a drastically different set of assumptions than policymakers seem to be making, based on experience. “Spanish flu”, the flu that infected nearly a third of Americans in 1918 and killed millions worldwide, never vanished. It is still with us. It is now called A(H1N1) and broke out a decade ago as “swine flu” and people are still contracting it. It is a serious flu, more deadly than the seasonal flu, but we aren’t destroying our economy and society over it.

Let’s not assume that a vaccine will ever be produced for SARS-CoV-2 and that we never actually achieve “herd immunity”, whether because not enough people are susceptible to it or it evolves just fast enough to evade our immune systems. It seems to me that the appropriate measures for me, personally, to take given that assumption is to take the measures that seem prudent to avoid contracting the disease but otherwise just accept that life cannot be risk-free.

Under those circumstances what would be the most prudent public policies?

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Genocide With Chinese Characteristics

The editors of the Washington Post remind us that China is actively engaging in genocide in its Sinjiang province. After a lengthy catalogue of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Chinese leadership against the Uighurs they conclude:

China long employed coercion in family life with its one-child policy, now abandoned. In Xinjiang, it has sought to whitewash the horrors it is inflicting on people. The new disclosures make it even more urgent that China’s leaders be pressed to account for these atrocities. The measures fall within the definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” China is a signatory but rejects the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

President Trump has just signed a new sanctions law against individuals who are found responsible for abuses in Xinjiang. But China’s treatment of the Uighurs is so reprehensible that it calls into serious question whether China should be permitted to proceed as host of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Why should the world sports community honor a country that has committed genocide?

There are several additional factors I think are worth mentioning. First, it needs to be recognized that although the Chinese leadership does not think very highly of ordinary Chinese people its regard for those who are not Han Chinese is even lower. China is, fundamentally, an ethnic state. From the point of view of its leadership that it is also a multi-ethnic empire is merely a temporary inconvenience, to be remedied by forcible birth control and resettling of Han Chinese people in areas formerly occupied by non-Han Chinese. They have run this playbook before.

Second, the Uighurs have no friends. They are distantly related to the Turks and for a while the Turks were their lonely Middle Eastern advocates. That is no longer the case. Coincidentally, the Turks have become increasingly dependent on Chinese aid. Since the community of all those who profess Islam is an article of faith for the religion in theory one might think that Muslims would be outraged by the treatment of the Uighurs. In practice Islam is and always has been an Arab tribal religion. That most Muslims are not Arabs does not seem to make much difference. Since the Uighurs are not Arabs, they look in vain for succor from their ostensible Muslim brethren.

The undergirding reason for the plight of the Uighurs can be simply stated: business is business.

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What’s “Essential”?

I’ll make no bones about it. I think the categorizations of “essential” workers are overly broad and in fact arbitrary, far beyond the bounds of absurdity and certainly enough to call into question the very notion of a state-mandated lockdown. Here’s a little evidence for my view in the form of a piece at United Way. The state with the lowest percentage of “essential” workers (Arizona) deems 39.3% essential; the state with the highest (North Dakota) 57.9%. But wait folks that’s not all. In Washington, DC 74.9% are “essential”. That is arrant nonsense. How in the world do you have a meaningful lockdown in which three-quarters of the workers continue to work?

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What’s the Matter With California?

I have issues with German Lopez’s analysis at Vox.com on California’s response to COVID-19. I think it’s proceeding from flawed assumptions.

As you’re no doubt aware, California was the first state in which the governor issued a statewide lockdown order and now it’s the state in which the largest number of cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed. The underlying premise on which I think that Mr. Lopez’s analysis is based is that the purpose of the lockdown was to minimize the cases of COVID-19. That was never the purpose. The purpose was to avoid overwhelming the health care system, allow time to prepare, and control the rate of spread.

California is a very big state so it’s not terribly surprising that it would have a lot of cases of COVID-19.

Let’s stipulate, as I’ve pointed out before, that if you locked every individual in a hermetically-sealed cell, we could stamp SARS-CoV-2 out completely. Along with the population. The economy would collapse and a lot of people would starve. So that’s out as a solution. IMO California’s problem is that they proceeded as though minimizing the number of cases were the objective without bolstering their ability to handle more cases at the same time sufficiently. They were too successful. They should have relaxed the restrictions a little earlier. Yes, people would have contracted COVID-19. But as long as the restrictions were relaxed just a little they should have been able to manage the new cases.

Then relax a little more, manage the new cases, and so on.

As it is despite the panic-stricken tone of the news coverage, California isn’t doing too badly. Its cases per million are about half that in Illinois and a third that in New York while its death rate per million population is a third that in Illinois and a tenth that in New York.

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The Final Count

Over the 2020 Fourth of July Weekend in Chicago 20 people were killed and 72 wounded, the largest number killed over a Fourth of July Weekend although the number of those wounded did not reach the 89 of 2017.

The pat solutions for ending the carnage are mostly fantasies. Gun control except of an unimaginably draconian kind will not do it. Not a single one of those killed were killed by Chicago police. The notion that the problem can be addressed by less policing is fanciful.

The violence is perpetrated by gangs. The gangs are not a result of drugs; if anything it’s the other way around. It doesn’t help that Chicago politicians have been hand in glove with the gangs for years.

It might be true that a lighter hand by the Chicago police could improve matters in the long run but that would only be true if it fostered more trust between the police and the people of the South and West Sides. What really needs to happen is that people on the South and West Sides need to start turning in the gang members who live in their neighborhoods which means their husbands, sons, and brothers. Either that or turning on them.

What is far more likely to happen is that people will continue their flight from the South and West Sides. I have long believed that people will be shocked by the results of the 2020 decennial census.

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