Which “Rich Countries”?

In his Washington Post column Fareed Zakaria chides “rich countries” for not doing enough to inoculate the entire world against COVID-19, blaming the emergence of the omicron variant of the virus on that failure:

It’s estimated that 100 million of the doses stored by Western countries will expire and have to be thrown away by the end of the year if they are not used — and yet they sit stockpiled while the poorest 1.6 billion people in the world have only about 5 percent of the world’s vaccinations.

This is not a case of global institutions failing. There exists an effective mechanism to share and distribute the vaccines worldwide, COVAX, set up by a group of international health organizations. But rich countries have been stingy about actually making donations. The United States pledged the most — 1.2 billion doses — but so far has delivered just around 280 million. The European Union, Iceland and Norway have collectively pledged about 500 million doses and delivered about 112 million. China has recently increased its pledge to 850 million doses, up from 100 million, and has delivered about 89 million. As a result, 82 countries are at risk of falling short of the World Health Organization’s goal of vaccinating 40 percent of every country’s population by the end of the year, which means that the virus will keep replicating and mutating freely among billions of people. What is the chance that we will not see another variant in the next year?

To some extent I agree with him. Nearly a year ago I said that the U. S. should be sending vaccine to Mexico and the Central American countries as it became available. But I do have two problems with his complaint.

First, the problem isn’t “rich countries” so much as “rich countries other than the U. S.”. We’ve given twice as much vaccine to COVAX as Europe and by “Europe” I largely mean Germany. Germany and the U. S. have about the same vaccination rates so that’s no explanation for Germany’s failure. And China, true to form, has been much better at making pledges than at fulfilling them.

But it’s more complicated than that. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have storage requirements that make them impractical for use in the poorest countries in the world and the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines, which just require normal refrigeration, aren’t as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna. If we weren’t being berated for not delivering vaccines we’d be scolded for foisting off substandard vaccines on other countries.

Here’s my suggestion. President Biden should order one of the Navy’s hospital ships to be fitted to store the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines properly and make a tour of ports in Mexico and Central America, inoculating anyone who presents themselves (in an orderly fashion, of course). Of course, that would need to be cleared with the authorities in those countries. If they’re turned down, they could go to other countries.


‘Tis the Season

It’s prediction season and I strongly suspect we will be deluged by them over the coming weeks. I found these “outrageous predictions” from Saxo Bank interesting.

Some of them I didn’t find outrageous at all, viz. “Policymakers kick climate targets down the road and support fossil fuel investment to fight inflation and the risk of social unrest while rethinking the path to a low-carbon future.” I think that’s practically a foregone conclusion. On the other hand I’m pretty skeptical about this one: “US inflation reaches above 15% on wage-price spiral”.

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What Is the Purpose of the Public School System?

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he puts his support behind charter schools on the grounds that the public school system is broken and can’t be fixed:

American public education is broken. Since the pandemic began, students have experienced severe learning loss because schools remained closed in 2020—and even in 2021 when vaccinations were available to teachers and it was clear schools could reopen safely. Many schools also failed to administer remote learning adequately.

Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of U.S. students weren’t reading at grade level, and the trend has been getting worse. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card, show that in 2019, eighth-grade math scores had already fallen significantly.

Teachers understand the severity of the problem, and many are doing heroic work, yet some of their union representatives are denying reality. “There is no such thing as learning loss,” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, head of the Los Angeles teachers union, in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine this past summer. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience.”

What nonsense. How about reading, writing and arithmetic, the critical skills we are funding schools to teach?

Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement. This harms students, especially those from low-income families. When and if they graduate, they will try to find work in an economy that values knowledge and skills above all else, and their old schools will say to them: “Good luck!”

Other nations are rising to this challenge and racing ahead, but we are moving backward, creating an economic and national-security crisis that will worsen over time. Unless we have the courage to rebuild public education from the bottom up, we will continue to doom our most vulnerable to a life of poverty and, in too many cases, incarceration.

Sadly, diplomas saying “more about their attendance record than their academic achievement” is a best case outcome, as NPR learned when examining a high school from which all of its students went on to college:

An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.

According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.

Teachers say when many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically, often needing intense remediation.

“I’ve never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write,” says Butcher about his two decades teaching in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw this at Ballou, and it wasn’t just one or two students.

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says Butcher.

Let me offer an alternative explanation. The system is succeeding admirably at its purpose. Its purpose, however, is not educating children but employing adults at wages they could not realize in the private sector and providing them a comfortable pension after retirement beyond what anyone in the private sector might expect.


The Debate

There’s a rather fascinating debate going on about a subject you might have thought thrashed out to death—to wear a facemask to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 or not? What got the ball rolling was apparently this post analyzing the Bengladeshi study which is, apparently, the largest one of the use of masks in a non-healthcare setting and to which Scott Alexander reacted earlier.

A few days ago Tyler Cowen entered the lists with this post, following up with this response from the author of the first post linked and there’s a rather sharp post from Greg Piper summarizing it all at Just the News.

Tyler’s view approximates my own:

To be clear, I am fine with wearing masks myself, I am used to it, and I dislike it but I don’t hate it. On this issue, I am not one of those people translating his or her own snowflake-ism into some kind of biased policy view.

and I did want to highlight what I found to be Tyler’s most astute observation:

Any good assessment of mask efficacy has to be radically intertemporal in nature, and I mean for the entirety of the pandemic. “Not getting infected” now may well raise your chance of getting infected later on, and that spans for longer than any feasibly designed RCT.

Said another way it’s not enough to measure the effectiveness in preventing contracting the disease today. Just how important delaying contracting the disease for two weeks, four weeks, or a year when you will, ultimately contract it is important as well. It seems to me that the honestly remarkable pace at which new treatments are being introduced makes delaying when you will contract the disease that much more important rather than less.

I find that the weakness of the supportive evidence casts a bit of a pall on mandates to wear masks but IMO mask mandate by presidential executive order is itself problematic since

  • I do not believe that a mask mandate is within the authority of the president even under emergency conditions
  • Although such a mandate might be within the power of the Congress as a temporary emergency measure, a permanent mandate or one of unspecified duration is outside the Congress’s power and
  • Such mandates are within the power of the states

As usual I think the underlying problem is not COVID-19 but the Congress and in this instance the torpidity of state governments. That echoes all sorts of other issues much in the news these days including anthropogenic climate change and abortion.

Under the circumstances G. K. Chesterton’s wisecrack rings true to me: it is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged in this country.


Reviving the Biden Presidency

William Galston has stunning advice for President Biden in his latest Wall Street Journal column on how the president can recover the popularity he’s lost since January which I feel confident he will not take—do what he campaigned on doing:

To retain a share of power in Washington, Democrats must craft a three-year plan to climb out of the deep hole they have dug for themselves, by limiting their losses next year and then cooperating with the president to restore his public standing. This means paying attention to what most Americans think, not only the party’s base.

and even that is a misstatement of what has happened. Far from honoring the wishes of “the party’s base”, he has done precisely what I predicted he would: moved to the ideological center of the party. As the progressive caucus has bolted leftwards with Bernie Sanders who isn’t even a Democrat leading the charge, so has President Biden, leaving the actual base which largely consists of moderate and social conservative Democrats far behind.

The most important issues for Mr. Biden today are COVID-19, inflation, order on the border, and crime in the streets. With glacial slowness he’s doing a course correction on the only one of those actually within his power to change, order on the border. Without much fanfare his policies on that are coming to resemble those of his despised predecessor. If no one notices it won’t give him the boost he needs.


Dereliction of Duty

The editors of the Wall Street Journal chortle over the most recent Fed pronouncement:

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell finally jettisoned the word “transitory” to describe today’s inflation, and we suppose it’s better late than never. Asked by Sen. Pat Toomey on Tuesday how long inflation would have to persist before the Fed no longer considers it to be transitory, Mr. Powell abandoned the word.

The chairman acknowledged that inflation has long since gone beyond the central bank’s 2% target. He then said that some people define transitory to mean “short-lived.” But at the Fed “we tend to use it to mean that it won’t leave a permanent mark in the form of higher inflation.” He added that perhaps it’s time for the Fed to “retire” the word and “try to explain more clearly what we mean.”

That sounds good to us, though it does invite the question of what he means by a “permanent mark” from inflation. The current annual rate of 6% is already permanent in the sense that the inflation of the last year is built in and prices won’t fall to erase it. Transitory or permanent, we’d prefer that Mr. Powell act to stop it.

As I and others have pointed out the Fed appears to have adopted as it mandate a second derivative approach, i.e. managing the rate of change in prices. However, that is not its charter and the empowering legislation could not be clearer: its charter is to maintain stable prices to the greatest degree possible. What Mr. Powell and the Fed governors are presently doing is non-feasance, dereliction of duty. Not only should they not be reappointed, they should be fired for cause.


How Not to Discourage the Russians

In his regular Washington Post column David Ignatius sets out to explain why the U. S. intelligence apparatus is worried about Russia’s invading Ukraine:

The CIA discovered something scary in October: Russia was moving troops toward the Ukrainian border — and, unlike in previous border thrusts, was making secret plans about how to use them.

The agency also worried that the potential conflict zone didn’t appear to be just the eastern sliver of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed separatists, which Russian troops had approached the previous April, but a much broader swath of the country. Alarm bells rang at the agency, and then across the U.S. government.

going on to propose that President Biden talk to President Putin, explaining to Mr. Putin how bad such an invasion would be for Russia:

How do you stop a “master of audacity,” as a former CIA official describes Putin? One way is to talk to him, as Biden is planning to do, and offer a dignified retreat. But if that fails and Putin invades Ukraine, the United States and its allies are discussing this week how to make him pay as heavy a cost as possible.

I think he’s looking at the matter through the wrong prism. More than a century ago Lord Palmerston said of the British Empire that it had no permanent friends or enemies but it did have permanent interests. So does Russia. Among those interests are:

  • Russia seeks to be the leading Slavic country and the defender of all Slavs.
  • Russia seeks to be the leading Orthodox country and the defender of the Orthodox.
  • Russia wants a warm water port.

Those have been Russian national goals for hundreds of years. Ukrainian rapprochement with the West threatens all of those goals.

If we are genuinely interested in preserving anything like Ukrainian independence, I would like to suggest the following:

  • End all talk of Ukraine joining the European Union (unless you’re prepared to admit Russia, too).
  • End all talk of Ukraine joining NATO (ditto).
  • Accept permanently the notion of a neutral Ukraine.

Anything short of those steps are just non-starters for Russia.


Missing the Obvious

Canadian writers comparing Canada nd the U. S., almost always to Canada’s advantage, is practically a cottage industry. At the Washington Post J. J. McCullough considers the differences between Canadian politics and U. S. politics:

Neither Canada nor the United States is in the best political health these days, but the symptoms plaguing each country run in sharply different directions. If excessive division is preventing Americans from getting much done, too much consensus in Canada makes doing the wrong things too easy.

and identifies three major differences:

  1. It’s easier to get elected in Canada — even if you’re unpopular
  2. Canadian political parties are much more powerful
  3. Canadians vote less than Americans

Although he almost gets to the real difference between Canada and the U. S. in his opening his three points miss the essence of the difference between the two.

First, a point on which both Canadians and Americans are confused. Canada is a different country from the U. S. just as Mexico and Canada or Germany and Canada are different. They resemble each other superficially but it is, indeed, a superficial resemblance. We have different histories, different economies, different expectations, different politics.

The main difference between the two is that Canada is much more ethnically and culturally homogeneous than the U. S. even taking the Anglophone/Francophone dichotomy into account. 75% of Canadians are of primarily European descent, a considerable decline, and 70% of Canadians are Christians (or post-Christians). Fewer than 5% of Canadians are black or Hispanic compared with 30% of Americans.

Consensus-based government is enormously easier in Canada than in the United States.


Sauce for the Goose

In his New York Times column Bret Stephens pleads that we stop pointing fingers to assign blame for COVID-19:

Let’s quit arguing that Covid is a red- or blue-state thing. Yes, Republican areas have tended to have lower vaccination rates, but disease trends have a way of switching directions for reasons none of us really understands.

Let’s stop imputing bad faith or recklessness or greed to our partisan opponents. They have loved ones who are just as much at risk of infection as our own.

Let’s accept that people have needs and ideas that differ from ours, whether on account of health status, livelihood or deep-seated belief. Lectures, condescension and scorn aren’t going to change the way they think.

I have no idea what Omicron will bring, and very slight hopes that we’ll be able to exercise any effective form of control over it. But it shouldn’t be beyond asking that we stop being beastly to others. We are all riding out the same storm.

That plea follows a list, by no means exhaustive, of the finger-pointing going on. Let’s focus on just one, shall we?

Trump is responsible for hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths that might have been avoided if only someone else had been in the White House! But now Biden has presided over even more deaths, not that anyone should blame him for it.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I think that Candidate Biden was out-of-bounds in blaming President Trump for the COVID-19 deaths on his watch but once he had said that it became completely fair game to blame President Biden for the COVID-19 deaths on his. It’s a near-perfect example of something I’ve held up as the gold standard: model in your own behavior the behavior you want to see in others.

Additionally, I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made between commission and omission. If the policies you put in place, the acts you commit, have adverse consequences, it should always and everywhere be completely fair to assign blame for them. However, if you are actually working with alacrity, blaming you for not doing enough should be out-of-bounds it is equally always and everywhere wrong to assign blame unless you have set the precedent by doing that to your political opponents.

“Myside bias” is an impediment in dealing with any realworld problem not just COVID-19 but it appears to be a dominant feature of today’s debate. IMO it’s a factor in the positions on wearing masks, lockdowns, vaccines, non-vaccine treatments, etc.

I also think that there was no real hope of containing or, indeed, doing anything but adapting to COVID-19 after around September 2019 and the issue quickly became tangled with national standing on the part of the Chinese. But that’s a topic far-removed from the point Mr. Stephens is making.


We Don’t Need a Policy Change

We need a 12-step program. That was my immediate reaction when I read this editorial at The Economist, “Why the situation on America’s southern border has become unmanageable”. The first step in AA’s recovery program is recognizing that you’ve failed and that the situation has become uncontrollable.

The number of illegal border-crossers is the highest for 21 years. The number of “encounters” in the 2021 fiscal year (which ended in September) was the highest on record. (“Encounters” and the number of border-crossers are different, since one person may attempt several crossings.) The perception that Mr Biden is less hostile to migrants than Mr Trump was one factor in the rise, but not the only one. Covid-19 has hit economies to America’s south, adding to the poverty, violence, natural disasters and autocracy which many people are eager to escape. As more migrants arrive at the border it becomes harder to manage them in a consistent way.

The situation can no longer be explained away as seasonal variance.