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Plot Economics

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For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, […]
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21 hours ago
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Welcome to Your Hastily Prepared Online College Course


Due to concerns about COVID-19, our university recently gave me three hours to move our entire class online for the next three to sixteen weeks. I am providing these instructions for a seamless, uninterrupted course experience. I have never taught online before, but with the help of our men’s field hockey coach turned online-learning coordinator, I have developed a virtual experience that matches the intimacy and rigor we cultivated in our Philosophy of Face-to-Face Discourse In the Public Square class.

Course Communication

We will use AOL Instant Messenger to recreate our passionate in-class discussions. I assume everyone has an AIM account, so please send out your usernames. Mine is HangingChad2000. For fun, I encourage everyone to include their favorite Donnie Darko quote as their away message.

Video Lectures

Lecture One

Content: I look in the camera and say, “Is this on? Is this on? Oh, I think it’s on! Wait, it’s not on! No, it is on! How do I share my screen?! I don’t think this is on.”
Takeaways: The camera was on.

Lecture Two

Content: I rhapsodize beautifully about Habermasian theories of the public square as they apply in times of pandemic before I realize that the camera was not on.
Takeaways: I don’t remember what I said, but it felt like a pretty amazing lecture. You would have loved it.

Lecture Three

Content: I provide an introduction to Amartya Sen’s work while my cat repeatedly sticks her butt into the camera and then knocks the laptop to the floor.
Takeaways: My laptop is now glitching after falling on the ground. This should not affect our course experience.

Lecture Four

Content: A YouTube clip of Bill and Ted meeting Socrates.
Takeaways: “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”

Discussion Questions

Please respond to the following discussion questions in our official course ICQ chatroom (formerly my Star Trek: Deep Space 9-fan chatroom. Please ignore my lengthy posts about why Jadzia Dax should have never married Commander Worf. I can’t figure out how to delete those).

Question 1: Which philosopher provides the more compelling revision of the idea of the public square: Nancy Fraser or Michael Warner?

Question 2: I don’t know, maybe write something about what Hannah Arendt would think of Facebook? Or should it be Instagram? What do you kids use these days?

Question 3: Who would get more swipe rights on Tinder: Hegel or Heidegger? Please provide at least three quotes and one image to defend your answer.

Final Exam

I will email a Word 93 version of the exam to you. When you open it, the formatting will be all messed up. Please print out the 27-page exam, complete it in blue or black ink, then take it to Kinkos and have them fax it back to me. Please complete the exam in two hours. If I understood a conversation I overheard in the hall correctly, you can time yourself with an online timer application called “TikTok.” It should be available on your mobile telephones.

Internet Access

I know some of you may struggle to get consistent internet access after the university removed you from your dorms. If you went back home, your parents do not remember the wireless password because they only wrote it down on that Ruby Tuesday receipt they lost six months ago. If you had to temporarily move into the Drury Inn and Suites on Highway 53, I heard you can steal Wi-Fi from the self-storage place across the road from 2:00-4:00 most afternoons.

Final Thoughts

Thank you for your patience in moving this course online! The good news is that our work will not go to waste, because no matter how terribly this goes, the administration will take this experience as proof that we can offer this course exclusively online and run this version of the course, without revision, online for the next ten years.

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1 day ago
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Will Trump’s Fumbling of Covid-19 Lead to His Exit in Weeks?

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I’ve said a number of times now that my intuition is that Trump will be gone soon. My current intuition is within five weeks of today. But the more I look at the numbers, the more true it seems to me, and might be worth unpacking.

It seems clear that Trump is the figurehead for an informal oligarchy of CEO’s and finance heavy-hitters, and they are rapidly developing a ‘back to work’ consensus, to be delivered by Trump at some point in the immediate future, mostly to try and staunch the catastrophic market losses they are all suffering.

But, on the other hand, the US is just starting the steep ascent of its exponential infection curve, and therefore, its death rate. In certain places, mostly LA and New York, they might be able to implement lockdowns sufficiently strong to flatten their curves, but this will be far outweighed by a complete lack of distancing and quarantine in other regions, and the resulting backflow cases into areas with better protocols.

It appears right now that total deaths are doubling every three to four days. There are 780 deaths so far. Five weeks would be between eight and 12 more doublings. That’s, on the low side, around 200,000-400,000 deaths. And this is being very conservative, I think. Fortunate areas of the US will look like Italy at it’s worst, and quite a bit will look more like Iran. (As an aside, the parallels between the social/ideological forces in red states vs those in Iran are quite interesting to think about.)

Anyway. Let’s say half a million deaths in under two months from now. Nothing like that has happened in living memory. It will be completely undeniable. Unspinnable. And it will hit the Trump base hardest of all. And the market impacts will dwarf anything we’ve seen so far. It will, quite simply, blow any consensus currently keeping Trump in power to pieces. The money people will need him out, so they can try to restore some confidence and recoup losses, and his political base will be dragged under by a wave of ill or dead constituents. There will be no rallies–that would be abject insanity. No one will be listening anymore to his pronouncements, as they will be manifestly, grotesquely, false. There will probably not even be White House briefings at that point. He might try to start a war, but I simply do not believe the military would go along with that. There might even be a coup if he tried.

At that point, he will be in a vice: Either strengthen the lockdowns, in which case the money people will dispense with him, or release the lockdowns totally and risk mass insurrection on many levels.

His best bet, at that stage, to avoid removal and probably jail is to resign, blame whoever, and have Pence pardon him for everything. At that point, things will be so bad I doubt anyone will have a problem with it. He will just need to be out, so that professionals can tackle the crisis he created.

That’s it. I don’t really see any holes in the theory. You could adjust some of the numbers a bit, but exponential growth is exponential growth, and unless I’m drastically wrong in some respect, it would only change the timeline by a week or two.

The alternative to his removal is complete pandemonium and the collapse of the United States as a world power, and even I am not that pessimistic, or optimistic, depending on my mood.

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1 day ago
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Yet Another Rant on Coronavirus & Trump

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Would "reopening America for business" on Easter backfire. Oh, ye sit could. Oh, it definitely could backfire: BIGTIME.

The experience so far is that, in a society not undertaking social distancing, coronavirus cases double in a little less than five days—grow 100-fold in a month. If, say, the virus has been largely suppressed and only 10000 in the U.S. have it Easter week, then after the u.S. is opened up 1 million will have it on May 15, and then 100 million on June 15, at which point the epidemic will have pretty much run its course. But from May 1 to June 15 hospitals will have been overwhelmed. The likely death rate will have been not 1% but 6%. 5 million additional Americans will have died.

In return we will have produced an extra $1 trillion of stuff.

That's a tradeoff of $200K per life, which is not a good tradeoff to aim at making.

And, while it could be better, it could be much worse...

The right way to do it is to lockdown while we test, test, test, test, test:

  • Test a random-sample panel of 10000 Americans weekly to get a handle on the progress of the disease.
  • Test everyone for antibodies.
  • Let those who have had the disease and so are no immune go back to work—after testing to make sure that they are immune.
    • Indeed, draft those who have recovered to be hospital orderlies and nurses.
  • Make decisions based on knowledge of where the epidemic is in the community, and tune quarantine, social distancing, and shutdown measures to those appropriate given where the epidemic is.

But we do not know where the epidemic is.

And because we are not testing on a sufficient scale, we will not know when and if the virus is truly on the run until a month after the peak, when deaths start dropping. And even then we will not know how much the virus is on the run.

And removing social distancing before the virus is thoroughly on the run means that the virus comes roaring back.

Once the virus is thoroughly on the run, then normal public health measures can handle it:

  • Test, test, test.
  • Test patients presenting with symptoms.
  • Trace and test their contacts. Do what Japan and Singapore did—close to the epicenter in Wuhan, yet still with true caseloads lower than one in ten thousand.
  • Test those crossing borders, symptomatic or not.
  • Test those moving from city to city via air.
  • Test a random sample on the interstates, to see how much virus is leaking from place to place that way.
  • Test a random sample of the population to see whether and how much the disease was established, and then test another one.

Wherever community transmission becomes reestablished, apply the Wuhan lockdown for at least three weeks, so the caseload could be diminished enough so that contact tracing could be resumed.

Build up a database of those who tested positive and are presumably now immune so that they can be on the frontlines of treatment and contact with those possibly newly infected, and reopen the economy by putting them in the jobs that have high human contact and thus high virus transmission rates.

Jim Stock at Harvard has lots of good ideas and has thought a lot about how to do the Hunker Down. He is actually the person I would be asking how to do this—very smart, and has thought hard over the past month about it.

My view, however, is that right now we are scr--ed AF.

It is the end of March. The United States has tested only 500,000 people. There is no nationwide random sample time series. An awful lot of symptomatic people were not tested, and were instead sent back into the community. By the metric of the speed of growth of reported cases since the establishment of the virus dated to the hundredth first-reported case, the U.S. has performed worst of any country: worse than Italy, worse than Spain, worse (we think) than Iran. The 105,000 cases reported as of the evening of Fr Mar 27 are just the tip of the iceberg. From 1700 currently reported deaths so far in the United States, we might guess that there were between 60 and 170 thousand cases active at the start of March, which have grown to between 600 thousand and 2.5 million new cases, with perhaps the same number coming in the next week.

But we really do not know where we are.

We have not imposed the Wuhan lockdown.

If we had imposed the Wuhan lockdown, then three weeks after the lockdown had been imposed, the Hunker Down could start to be relaxed. Then, if we had enough testing capacity, we could start to relax knowing how much and where we could do so without the virus roaring back. Public health could then do its normal job: testing a random sample, testing all those symptomatic, tracing contacts, quarantining, and so keeping the spread slow enough that the health care system is not overwhelmed and that the bulk of the cases come next year or the year after or even later, by which time our virologists will have worked miracles.

But Trump, Mnuchin, Kudlow, & co. appear to want to draw to an inside straight and make the existential bet that transmission will melt away with the coming of spring and the warming up of the country. It might. 10%.

I have not found any economist who will say in private that that is not a very bad idea from a cost-benefit risk point of view.

And then, in two months, we are going to want to restart all the businesses that were functioning as of March 15. Nobody should go bankrupt as a result of anything that happened between March 15 and May 15 this year. That should be the proper goal of economic policy: to create a moment of Jubilee in the middle of this spring.

How would I do it, if I were running economic policy? Medical tests, treatment, tests, food, utilities, plus everything we can do that does not require human-to-human contact within six feet—that should be the extent of our economy for the next three weeks. All else should be shut down. And then, in a month, everyone should go to the job they had on March 15. And if the financing isn't there to run your business on May 15—if you are bankrupt?

That is what the Jubilee is for: the government assumes your debts.

But what if people are worried about the now-higher government debt? That is good reason to impose a highly-progressive tax on income and wealth both to reassure investors that the long-term finances of the government are sound, and to recoup some of the unearned increment that will be captured over the next month by those who turn the lockdown into a source of financial advantage.

That is what the U.S. should do. That is not what the U.S. will do. For one thing, we do not have and are not making enough tests.

With respect to the "China" questions:

  • The U.S. has passed China in reported number of cases.
  • In two weeks, the U.S. is going to pass China in reported coronavirus deaths.
  • Unless China loses (or has already lost control of the virus and is suppressing the news), for the next 50 years China's rulers will say:
    • Our society handled this much better than yours did.
    • Look to us rather than the U.S. for models and as your partners.
  • The U.S. has lost all global leverage over China—unless they are suppressing very bad virus news, and I see only a 10% chance that they are.
  • When the U.S. economy reopens, U.S.-China negotiations are likely to take the form of us saying "please allow us to buy your stuff on whatever terms you offer".

#coronavirus #highlighted #orangehairedbaboons #publichealth #2020-03-27
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2 days ago
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A 40-Day Plan to Start Recovery

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Based on the experiences of other countries, it appears the number of cases per day (and deaths per day) will peak about 2 to 3 weeks after well observed shelter-in-place orders are issued (some areas are reporting less than 2 weeks - that would be great).

In some areas of the United States, shelter-in-place orders were issued a week or more ago. In some states and communities, orders have still not been issued.

Based on the experience in China, it appears the recovery can start in about 40 days after a national shelter-in-place - if certain rules are in place.

So here is a suggested 40-day plan to start recovery:


1. The Federal Government should ask all states to order Shelter-in-place (except for essential workers and businesses).  This starts the clock across the country.

2. Use the Defense Production Act to increase supply of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).   We must protect our healthcare workers.  This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other protective equipment - and also medical equipment, primarily ventilators and ICU beds.

3. Sign Disaster relief fiscal policy into law.   This will help Americans impacted by this national disaster.

4. Name a head of a national Test-and-Trace-and-Quarantine task force.   Start putting in place the necessary manpower and tools to conduct test-and-trace when testing capacity (and sufficient PPE) allows for testing all contacts of anyone who has tested positive.   We can't do this surveillance testing today due to lack of testing capacity and insufficient PPE (the priority for PPE is our healthcare workers and first responders) - but we should be able to do test-and-trace a couple of weeks after the cases-per-day peak.  We must be ready!   We will need people in the field, and software to track contacts, and also software (and manpower) to call those in quarantine twice a day until they test negative twice.

Every day:
1. Remind people about shelter-in-place, hygiene, and minimizing contact with others.  

2. Ask people to keep a record of where they go, and the people they have contact with.   This will be important once test-and-trace starts.

After Cases-per-day peak:
1. Continue to manufacture PPE, especially surgical masks - there will be another need for these masks.

2. Start test-and-trace and quarantine program as soon as possible after cases-per-day peak.   This will identify asymptomatic people that will need to self-quarantine.

About 40 days from now (maybe sooner in some areas).  Note: This will require an operational test-and-trace program, and sufficient masks for anyone who needs one.
1. Start easing shelter-in-place rules.

2. Require anyone in close contact with others to wear a mask (this is why surgical mask production must continue at high levels, even after the number of cases slows0.  People need to wear masks, not to protect themselves, but to protect other people.  This will help slow the spread.

3. Remind everyone daily about hygiene and minimizing contacts and staying home when sick (even as restrictions ease).

4. Anyone with even mild symptoms should be tested.   Wide spread testing - and following up with test-and-trace will keep the spread minimal.

The crisis will not end completely until a vaccine and effective treatments are available, but the economic recovery could start in 40 days (or less time in some areas), if the Federal government takes action today.

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4 days ago
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The US just crossed a dangerous threshold

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Today, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator said something you should hear:

The only data that we all have [is that] the two areas that have moved through their curve [are] China and South Korea. […] Those were 8-10 week curves. Each state and each hot spot in the US will be its own curve because the seeds came in at different times.

So Washington State is on their curve, they’re about two weeks ahead of New York, and so each of these have to be done in a granular way to really understand where we are. It’s the charge of the President […] to really define those issues about where the virus is, where is it going, and what predictions we can make about where we are in that bell-shaped curve.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Press Conference, March 23, 2020

I think this is one of the most important dynamics to understand. There are two parts:

  1. Every infected city/area develops independently, tracing its own curve along the way
  2. Each of these curves started with a ‘seed’ individual at a specific time.

These two facts are important, because they unlock the ability to compare infections that happen at different places at different times. To do this, you need to define the beginning of a local infection and you need to record total cases over time.

Let’s call the beginning the day a region (country, state or city) reaches 100 cases. Now that you have “day zero”, you can plot cases on a common timeline: days since 100 infections. When you do, some startling (and terrifying) things become clear:

At Instagram, we called these ‘snail charts’. We’d use them to compare the growth of a product over time from day of launch (often we’d launch a product in one country before another)

State of the United States

The first conclusion to take in: the United States now has the fastest growing mature infection on record. What does this mean? Since infections start at different times, it’s hard to say which infection is ‘worst’. Presumably, an infection that goes from zero to 100,000 cases faster than another one is both qualitatively and quantitatively more troubling (mortality rates notwithstanding).

By the way, these lines don’t bend easily. When they do bend (China and Korea), it has taken draconian quarantines, mass surveillance and mass testing – none of which exist in the US. Even once these measures are in place, cases have taken over a week to flatten.

Looking at the chart and knowing the US has relatively mild measures, it’s not hard to conclude that cases will soar past China’s and end far higher. Only an act of god (or a more reasonable national lockdown of all transit and non-essential health, food and government business banned) will give the US a fighting chance. Any talk of reopening the economy soon will ensure this line stays straight, up, and to the right.

Flatten that Curve. Now.

Now with just four countries – but I’ve added dotted lines showing a hypothetical country that doubles every 1, 2, 3 and 7 days for reference.

I mentioned how hard it is to bend these curves. This is the second key lesson. There are only two ways these curves bend: reducing contacts between people and thus reducing transmission, or running out of people to infect. The key is to choose the former before being dealt the latter.

Take China: on January 23rd, they suspended travel and kept anyone from leaving Wuhan. Not everything went well. An estimated 300 thousand people left before the lockdown took place. In response, the government quarantined all of Hubei province’s cities by the 27th. By that point 56 million residents were under quarantine and every non-essential business was closed. The stunning fact about this all? At the moment of quarantine, there were a paltry 830 cases.

Let’s turn to Italy. After a series of cases linked to China, Italy’s cases grew quickly. On March 8th, when Italy had 7,375 cases, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte quarantined all of Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces. Italy had nearly ten times the number of cases when China took similar action. And stories from the time show that there was little enforcement:

“There was no immediate disruption to air travel, either, with scheduled flights still departing and landing in Milan. A sign at Milan’s Linate airport assured passengers that regular service was continuing. Italy’s national carrier, Alitalia, said it would reduce the number of flights in and out of Milan.”

“Italy’s Coronavirus Lockdown Met with Confusion, Questions About Enfrorcement”
Margherita Stancati, WSJ.com

Realizing they were behind, Italy expanded this quarantine to the entire nation the following day, stopping all commercial activity, and finally closing all non-essential businesses on the 21st when the latest case count showed a towering 53,578 cases. Now, two weeks later, Italy’s cases have ballooned to 64,000. Sometimes early isn’t early enough. The good news is that for the second straight day the number of new cases in Italy has dropped. The prognosis is complicated, and I plan to write about that separately. But the lesson, if any, from Wuhan is that the most effective action is to lock down when infections are low.

Some US states have had a succession of increasingly restrictive lockdowns. First, San Francisco and surrounding counties mandated residents to shelter in place on March 16th – there were 472 cases. At the same time, New York Gov. Cuomo dismissed the idea of a shelter in place order:

“As a matter of fact, I’m going so far that I don’t even think you can do a state-wide policy.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York State Governor, CNN

Days later, with cases just topping 1000, California ordered residents statewide to shelter in place. Only then on the 20th, Gov. Cuomo announced a stay at home order – a euphemism for shelter in place. By then, cases in New York had reached 8,402. Today, not three days later, they passed 20,875.

I suspect history will show that the early action in California saved countless lives. At the same time, I worry the hesitation–if only for a few days–in New York might be one of the largest public policy mistakes of our generation.

US doesn’t have an infection, States do

The last conclusion, and one that I will revisit again in upcoming posts, is that it’s a mistake to analyze a country as a whole. After all, California has 40 million residents – Italy has 60M. The line between states and countries starts to blur. You can aggregate regions any way you want, but you will always get a clearer picture by analyzing the component parts. In this case, we have states – each of which has a very different trajectory.

The same chart, but now with states. This exercise can be repeated for regions of a country or even cities themselves.

Once you look at this chart, you can’t unsee New York’s line. Not only is it just as mature as Washington State (the state with the first infection, which arguably garnered most of the media attention for the last couple of weeks), but it has an order of magnitude more cases in the same time. New York is currently hugging the ‘doubles every two days’ line – which for a state of of nearly 20 million people should give you pause.

But don’t let the largest states get all your attention. The chart above shows that Michigan (1,328), New Jersey (2,860) and Illinois (1,285) have grown far more quickly in a shorter number of days. At the age each of those reached 1,000, New York was sitting in the hundreds.

Of course, this might be because of increased testing and therefore cases. It’s possible New York missed cases and is now catching up. Regardless, you should watch these states over the next week. They are all bigger and growing faster than New York at the same age and that doesn’t bode well.

When forecasting, you don’t always need a complicated model. Sometimes all you need to do is find similar situations and observe how they evolved. If they evolve in predictable ways, ask yourself: why is this time is any different? If you don’t have a good answer, you can surely expect more of the same.

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4 days ago
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