6.4.20

TAIL TRACK.

Barring signal troubles, links to any posts of substance ought to work.

I REALLY DO HAVE WATERFRONT PROPERTY!

The decorative pond behind Cold Spring Shops headquarters is posted "No swimming, boating, or skating."  Apparently, though, that didn't deter a kayaker (!) from distancing himself from everybody else.


It would not be wise to tip over in there, as it's often a resting site for large flocks of geese, and all the byproducts originating therefrom.

RETHINKING THE VALUE OF CITIES IN AN ERA OF PLAGUE.

It's the tension between "contagions for good," the possibilities for sharing ideas and exchanging goods in thicker markets, and "contagions for evil," when it's your viruses and bacteria that are being shared with others.

Here's a roundup of some recent thinking about that tension.  We'll start with the politics.  The "data download" from the final Meet the Press of March included, predictably, the Team Red and Team Blue.
Believe it or not, even the coronavirus has a political component. And as COVID-19 hits some places harder than others, the current spikes in densely populated urban centers on the coasts mean it is now hitting blue areas a lot harder than red ones. As of Friday, 77% of confirmed cases were in counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 19% were in counties that voted for President Trump. 4% are unclear. Put it another way, 81% of Clinton counties had at least one case, while only 50% of Trump counties did. Those are wide discrepancies in firsthand experience. And that's showing up in polling data. A survey by Dynata, a leading survey insights company, finds 65% of Democrats believe the federal government is doing too little to protect life during this pandemic, compared with only 24% of Republicans who feel the same way. Of course, Democrats are always a bit more critical of President Trump. But it will be interesting to see how these numbers shift as the virus inevitably moves inland to counties that did vote for Mr. Trump, places that are even less equipped to handle a pandemic. When we come back, how COVID-19 may already be affecting President Trump's political fortunes.
A Gary Gindler column for American Thinker looked at the same phenomenon, but with a different interpretation.
At the beginning of the month, 93% of all cases in the United States were in Democrat-controlled states, with the remaining 7% of cases being in Republican-controlled states.  However, the last three weeks of March demonstrate that the situation has reached some sort of stabilization around 80% and 20% for Democrat-controlled and Republican-controlled states, respectively.  In other words, the 4-to-1 ratio has existed for the last three weeks, and this distribution is remarkably stable.  Before the second week of March, the data was incomplete/sporadic.
We'll see whether the contagion moves inland, or whether the close proximity of people in the thickly settled, Democrat-voting areas is the primary driver of infections.  There's not yet enough information.

One thing that did strike me, though, is how the blue social model in the cities might surprise the medieval prince or arch-bishop in form, if not in function.  There's public assistance for the paupers, with lotteries and professional sports offering a way out for a fortunate few.  There's patronage for the minor officials, whether in the form of sweetheart contracts, or in competitions for grants from the national endowments and public broadcasting, in order that the creatives embellish the secular Sistine Chapels rather than apply their talents to fomenting rebellion.  The rulers get to indulge themselves, but they'd better be careful when they venture outside the city walls.

We might be seeing a resurgence of that risk to the rulers, in the form of those border closures and resentment of vacationers bringing their plague with them, which will pose more of a threat to people living along the interstate highways going to the resorts than it will to the residents off those travel routes.  But that medieval ruler would surely not know what to make of conditions outside the cities: a population more mobile, more capable of communicating with each other, and with the intellectual and physical ammunition (thanks, Aristotle, Smith, Jefferson, and Colt) to think for themselves and question the automatic authority of people who consider themselves Intellectual Betters.  (Consider, dear reader, the etymology of "urbane" and "civilized.")

What, though, about that tradeoff I promised?  Let's start with Michael Barone.
It's unnerving, and perhaps instructive, that the arrangements elites have been prescribing for dealing with what they call our most dangerous environmental threat -- climate change, formerly known as global warming -- are almost precisely the opposite of the arrangements deployed to deal with the more immediate threat of COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus.

To reduce the carbon dioxide emissions thought to produce catastrophic climate change, Americans have been urged to cluster in large, densely populated cities. Large apartment buildings with small dwelling units, it is claimed, consume less energy and emit less carbon per capita than 2,500-square-foot houses spread out on suburban cul-de-sacs or newly constructed on exurban farm fields.
That part might be drawing contrast for its own sake, but he subsequently gets to the main message.  "Densely populated central cities produce more than their per capita share of economic output. The face-to-face contact they foster results in creativity in everything from finance to the arts. But historically -- as most of us forgot until the last few weeks -- they have also been incubators of deadly disease." We only forgot because most of the diseases that still are a part of city life -- why, dear reader, do we have the euphemism "social disease?" -- are diseases we've learned how to avoid or manage.  New challenge.

It is precisely the thicker markets and opportunities for information contagion that leads Arian Horbovetz to argue that it's premature to write off the big cities.
Cities are far more “public” than suburbs, making normal use of transit and large gathering spaces very dangerous at a time like this. But residents can adapt by embracing other options such a cycling instead of public transit. Having a plethora of possible modalities and ways of life makes the urban experience scaleable. In contrast, a corresponding disruption to the normal flow of suburban life makes adaptation difficult, simply because options are limited, especially with regard to mobility.

Still, the laundry list of reasons for people to not embrace city life will no doubt have another bullet point, even after this is all over. But just like those apartment dwellers singing together from their porches in Italy, city lovers know that we are better together than we are apart—even if this solidarity means keeping our distance, for a while.
Perhaps so, although in the logic of agglomeration economies and land rents there are centrifugal and centripetal forces working on the individual location decisions that lead to central places.

Streetsblog's Kea Wilson also suggests that the cities will weather the plague better than the hinterlands.  "But experts are warning that early stats about outbreaks in dense cities don’t give Americans the whole picture — and in many ways, people who live in the suburbs are actually worse off than their urban counterparts in this challenging global moment." There aren't enough "early stats" to draw any meaningful inferences, but it doesn't hurt to offer hypotheses.
But here’s what we do know: even in test-rich New York, the city’s suburban borough, Staten Island, actually has the highest rate of infection, with 14 more cases per 100,000 residents than ultra-dense Manhattan. And even though we don’t know if that pattern will hold true for other regions, we do know this: more than almost any other neighborhood type, suburbs are isolated, radically unsustainable places that are home to a public health crisis even in the best of times, because of their epidemic levels of traffic violence caused by the excessive driving suburbanites are forced to do because of bad urban planning.

And all three things are going to make it that much harder for suburban Americans — a group of people who, don’t forget, are increasingly poor — to weather this storm.
Those three things: first, suburban and exurban dependence on motorcars (you mean we can talk about trading off death by plague against death by motorcar?); the hospitals are farther apart and less likely to be on a transit line (in that alone, there is a whole 'nother post just waiting to be written);  and those isolated houses on half-acre lots are made-to-order for anomie (you mean we can consider the public health effects of forced confinement on people who might value some alone time even from their immediate family?)

Interestingly, though, in her lament there's the possibility of further devolution and decentralization of the Big Institutions.
It’s time to re-urbanize our suburbs — and that includes putting acute care healthcare providers back in our neighborhoods. That will have to happen in concert with decentralizing our medical system, and in particular, unf*cking our medical malpractice insurance industry that forces would-be neighborhood doctors to ally themselves with large hospitals if they want to afford to open a practice. But it may be crucial in our new reality.
My area of expertise is industrial and regional economics: let the health economists and scholars in other disciplines with subject expertise have at that!

At The American Conservative, Lewis McCrary suggests it might be time to rethink some of the traditional forms of land use.
If the pandemic leads to a significant contraction—not merely a temporary disruption, so that we all go back to business as usual—all Americans should consider how our settlements will prosper and thrive in the future, all along the spectrum from the megacity to the small town. The question is not about the old, tired question of cities vs. suburbs, or metropolitan vs. rural. Instead, whether you live in a tall glass skyscraper or shop at a big box store, you may be perpetuating an outmoded, unsustainable way of living. This is why, since the 1990s, the New Urbanist movement has provided a playbook for a way out of this old paradigm—mixed-use, walkable, humane places, whether they are located in rural villages, railroad suburbs, or dense metropolitan neighborhoods.

The New Urbanist approach won’t be a cure-all solution; it won’t keep us from getting sick again, nor will it prevent natural disasters or economic recessions that disrupt normal patterns of life. But adapting old suburbs and new urbanist-style development—including allowing moderate levels of density—will be more resilient in these uncertain times. We should celebrate the return of our cities in these past few decades, not rush back to the dying malls and decaying tracts of yesterday.
Maybe, maybe not. The same essay also notes,
Even Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin admits that for now, the pandemic is beating cities:  “In the conflict between density and social distancing, social distancing should always win…. The joys of density will return once this tragic chapter is over.”

With the virus on the move, some feel less panicked living in suburban or exurban environs, seemingly safe as we drive around our hermetic car-bubbles and await anonymous Amazon deliveries. Who needs face-to-face interaction and pedestrian encounters when people are the enemy? In these times of known unknowns, such as exactly how bad it will get, there is an easy and understandable correlation made between density and contagion. For now, some may find it easier to go back to the suburban development of sprawl where many live—for all of its unsustainable flaws, waste, and expense.
I hate to keep beating the same drum, but beat it I must: we have sprawl in response to the expense of living in cities, and private motorcars, virtual workspaces, and now, the greater risk of contagion, all have the effect of making living at a distance look more attractive; and, at the same time, that effect will lower the pressure on urban rents.

Joel Kotkin appears to get that.
As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.
And, intriguingly, that outmigration began when the humble streetcar was the means of reducing transportation costs, not the despised lefty-contagion-wagon the more vocal critics of rail projects seem to think they currently are.
Cities in Europe and America had gradually cleaned up by the later parts of the 19th century. Urban reformers, “sewer socialists,” and social democratic governments across Europe improved sanitation and water delivery systems, and expanded parks. Equally critical, Western cities began a conscious “un-bunching” of the population through the introduction of streetcars, subways, passenger trains, and eventually freeways. Radicals and conservatives alike welcomed the British visionary Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” ideal, which sought to offer the majority the option of resettling in the more hygienic hinterlands.

Over the ensuing century, developers became adept at building cities—even in the tropics—but it seems clear they have not been able to stop the revival of old hygiene problems. This is particularly true in China, which has undergone extraordinarily rapid urbanization. Behind the impressive setting of China’s high-rise cities, many urban residents, particularly some of the 200 million migrant workers, live in overcrowded neighborhoods with poor sanitation and drinking water.
That's right, what replaced Chairman Mao's anthill society might be even less appealing.
Once held up as a grand ideal, the megacity is increasingly losing its appeal as a way of life. Chinese science fiction writers—increasingly the last redoubt of independent thought in that increasingly totalitarian country—envision an urban future that is, for most, squalid and divided by class. There are already deep divisions between those who hold urban residence permits, hukou, and those relegated to an inferior, unprotected status. Hao Jingfang’s novella, Folding Beijing, for example, portrays a megacity sharply divided between the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast underclass living mainly by recycling the waste generated from the city.3

During my last visit to Beijing, Communist Party officials shared their concerns about how these divides could undermine social stability. They have already essentially banned new migration into cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and encourage migrants to move to the less crowded interior or even back to rural villages. Given the dictatorial nature of the regime, it’s not shocking that growth is already shifting to “second tier cities” including some in the interior. In far more chaotic India, the Modi government also supports an ongoing shift to smaller cities, and even a push for revitalization of rural villages. This reflects a growing concern among Indian researchers that the much ballyhooed “shining India,” concentrated in large urban centers, increasingly resembles the orbiting world portrayed in the science fiction movie Elysium—hermetically sealed from the vast majority of the population.

Even without government assistance, and often in the face of opposition from planners, dispersion has continued to characterize Western cities. This pattern is well-established throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia and is particularly evident in the United States where, since 2010, nearly all population growth has occurred in the urban periphery and smaller cities. As a new study from Heartland Forward demonstrates, both immigrants and millennials—the key groups behind urban growth—are increasingly moving to interior cities and even small towns. This is true even in San Francisco where nearly half of millennials described themselves as “likely” to leave the City by the Bay, a dramatic shift from a decade earlier, due in large part to insanely high housing prices and deteriorating conditions on the streets.

Indeed, as Richard Florida has noted, the bulk of the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” The rise in the migration of such prized workers is now two to three times faster in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, MI than in regions around New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.
Incentives and emergence: enough to convince even Richard "provide the amenities and the creatives follow" Florida that there are limits to what Credentialed Experts can do to shape a spiky world.

(Cross-posted to Chicago Boyz.)

THINK ABOUT REJECTING THE FALSE BINARY.

Why do we let comedians set the tone of political debate.  Here's Serious Reporting involving Joe Rogan.  "Democrats have ‘made us all morons’ by running Joe Biden."  The Soviet Politburo under Late Communism; the Democrat leadership under Late Technocracy, what difference, at this point, does it make?

Mr Rogan, though, is acting under the expectation that others will vote for one or the other of the nominees of the current major parties.
That was Rogan’s response when his guest, Thiel Capital managing director Eric Weinstein, said that “people, when they are given no choice at all, express themselves moronically. I want a choice of an actual president that’s viable. I don’t have one.”
Be part of the coalition of the unwilling.

WE GENERALLY JOKE ABOUT THE CHEDDAR CURTAIN.

In Wisconsin, though, there are people who would like to raise the Sturgeon Bay drawbridge.
Tension rose last week as the local health department reported the first two COVID-19 cases in Door County; both patients are local residents who had traveled recently. At the same time, more out-of-state license plates have been spotted, Lienau said. And yes, many of those plates are from Illinois. The sheriff’s office has fielded calls from people who want the bridges raised (they won’t be). Notes have been left on cars, and out-of-towners have been confronted in grocery stores.

On the Door County Vacationers Facebook page, spats have broken out, where at least one local member joined the page purely to get a sense of how many out-of-towners were planning to come up.

“The only tourists who surprise me are the ones who don’t act like complete sociopaths when they come up here,” wrote Joshua Olson, a Sturgeon Bay nursing student. “Otherwise, their entitlement and disregard for others is the norm.”
That sort of talk used to be good fun, oh, those F'n Illinois B*****ds, clogging our ski slopes, disregarding the no wake buoys, hitting on our girlfriends at the bar.

It could get real.
This is a conversation playing out in resort destinations nationwide: in Cape Cod and the islands in Massachusetts; in the Catskills and the Hamptons in New York; in the Florida Keys, where state troopers have set up highway checkpoints to verify drivers’ residency. The Wall Street Journal has reported on the value of vacation homes in helping to isolate sick or potentially vulnerable family members.

Resort towns have responded by shutting down short-term rentals and reiterating nonessential travel bans. Coastal towns in Michigan likewise are urging would-be travelers to stay home.
If I recall correctly, there bridges linking Door County east of the canal to the rest of the state are movable to permit the movement of shipping, including the military's ships being erected at the shipyard on the east bank. Easier to implement that closure than Rhode Island's attempt to exclude New Yorkers.  Problem is, the only thing worse than F*I*Bs congesting the waterways and buying the beers is no F*I*Bs to spend money.

PERHAPS THEY'LL MAKE THE EXPERIENCE LESS ANNOYING.

Chicago Tribune entertainment writer Michael Phillips asks a serious question.  "If AMC folds, are we done going to the movies?"  It's primarily about the effects of those state lockdowns: the one place you don't want to be is in a closed space with a lot of other people, some of whom might be sniffling, and some of whom might be asymptomatic.

He is envisioning an "after."  As is Chris Johnson, chief executive officer of the suburban Classic Cinemas chain.
For now, Johnson said, the Classic Cinemas ushers and concession counter staff are on furlough, though office staff and managers remain salaried even though, "as I like to say, I’m 100 percent revenue-free at present."

Asked to contemplate a longer shut-down period, well into summer or into the fall, Johnson said that a strong late 2020 rebound would be crucial. Otherwise, he said, "it could be devastating, even though we’re in a better position for a comeback than most. Let’s just say my hope is the holiday season will be bigger than ever, because people will have been cooped up a long time.” Johnson takes heart from longtime customers who’ve bought gift cards as a gift to the movie theaters, as much as to any one friend or relative.
Perhaps it is time for the people who run the theaters to rethink their business model, which seems to be based on upselling at the concessions, and endless commercials. Nearly half an hour of previews? Seriously? We're already doing the theaters a favor by purchasing tickets and their popcorn, and we can tolerate the high prices intended for popcorn lovers at the concessions.  When the scheduled start time for the feature is 1.30, start it no later than 1.35.  Don't make me wait until two.

5.4.20

SCIENCE IS A PROCESS.

Furthermore, by construction, scientific experts are necessarily people who have deep knowledge of a few things.  Purdue's Eric Schmidt clarifies.
Public health experts are not experts in healthcare delivery systems. They are not experts in supply chains or logistics. And most importantly, they are not experts in any economic matters. In fact, many of them seem to bristle when economic tradeoffs are discussed in response to their policy recommendations.

Our media have apparently decided to place all their trust in these public health experts. However, as both a hospital administration professional and a student of economics, I have concerns about handing complete control over to “the experts” due to the constrained nature of their expertise.
It's worse than that, the experts on contagion are advising government officials on how to respond based on their own extrapolations of incomplete information. At least we ought be grateful that the people doing so are noting that with better information (more tests, more knowledge of who is sick and who has antibodies and where they are) their extrapolations will get better.  (Are the environmental alarmists paying attention?)

That might not be the best course of action in the middle of an emergency, notes National Review's Daniel Tenreiro.
For one, a monolithic expert opinion on the present pandemic does not exist. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerged only three months ago; scientists haven’t had nearly enough time to conduct conclusive research into it. And constraints on testing, compounded by uncertainty as to the number of asymptomatic cases, make the current medical data largely unreliable.

While some epidemiologists have used previous flu pandemics to inform their thinking, that approach requires rough estimates of factors such as reproduction and fatality rates, leading to wide variance in projections. To take one example, Oxford University researchers found that as much as 40 percent of the U.K. might be immune to the novel coronavirus, while a team from Imperial College London projected more than 250,000 domestic deaths, even under strict social-distancing measures.
That's probably not satisfactory to the people who make policy, and in the case of uncertainty, they might understandably take what they understand the safe course to be, and shut down most commercial activity.  The problem is, the people who make policy are themselves making policy under conditions of relative ignorance: no Platonic or Stiglitzian omniscience here.
Thus, decidedly unscientific factors — lived experience, cultural mores — have trumped technical prowess in the fight against this pandemic.

In the West, overreliance on expertise accelerated the outbreak. The World Health Organization, which in a matter of weeks has brought itself permanent disgrace, assured the public in January that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.” Later on, the WHO incorrectly advised against the use of face masks by the general public. Because we’ve been trained to see science as a monolith that delivers incontrovertible dictates, many of us believed these falsehoods, which drove public messaging for weeks and almost certainly affected ordinary citizens’ decision-making.
Science is a process, and even scientists at the World Health Organization, assuming there are any who don't put third-world wokeness ahead of principle, can only act on the basis of the information they have.  It probably didn't help in the United States that Our President was treating the Kung Flu as an improv act.  But perhaps, he, too, was fighting the same past pandemics that the Wise Experts understood.
Prior experiences with SARS, Ebola, and swine flu indicated that the U.S. was resilient in the face of pandemics. In retrospect, it’s easy to identify why that wasn’t the case with the novel coronavirus, but it wasn’t at all clear at the time. The hard sciences are empirical, requiring careful observation of phenomena over long periods of time. Unlike “experts,” political leaders must act preemptively in the face of uncertainty. If policy is “data driven,” without data, there’s no one at the wheel.
Or, put another way, there's analysis paralysis, and doing nothing until one has that state of Stiglitzian omniscience will quickly be overtaken by events.
Trump himself is hardly an intellectual, but policy responses across the West — from the U.S. to the U.K. to France — have arguably been too academic. Waiting on precise data and expert judgment, the White House and state governors were caught flat-footed. Scientific researchers operate in the friendly environment of the lab, proving and disproving hypotheses definitively, and social scientists painstakingly superimpose scientific methods onto the humanities. The name “political science” implies that, like biology or physics, the question of human flourishing has fixed answers to be found by sifting through data. This empirical modality now dominates policymaking, leaving us defenseless against novel threats.

When a super-spreader is boarding a flight from Wuhan to New York, there’s no time to run a regression. As Clausewitz said of war, “in the course of action, circumstances press for immediate decision, and allow no time to look about for fresh data.”
Let me caution again: science is a process, the whole point being that there is no final answer.  Past experience: helpful.  Extrapolations: possibly helpful, but respect the margin of error.  Fresh data: pray that we will make it through in such a way as to be able to second-guess at leisure.

At the moment, significantly many people are fearful or worried and generally going along with the shelter-in-place requirements.  But Noah Feldman correctly identifies the conditions under which I might be fearful of widespread civil disobedience to extensions of those orders.
When epidemiologists say that there is no trade-off to be had between health and the economy, because if people keep getting sick and dying it will leave the economy worse off, lots of economists just shake their heads. "There is always a trade-off," you can hear them thinking. The consequences are measurable. People dying is unfortunate, but it's still a cost that can be compared to the costs of shutdown.

Meanwhile, when the economists talk the trade-off talk, lots of epidemiologists (and others) find it morally reprehensible when people are dying.

The conflict between these two approaches is going to come to a head if and when the rate of new infections and deaths in the United States starts to go down as a result of social isolation. That's when economists will say it's time to start getting people back to work. And it's when epidemiologists will say we are courting the disaster of a recurring outbreak.
That part of the debate will take place using the usual academic conventions, including but not limited to begging to differ or acting shocked and appalled.

What will really matter is whether sufficiently many people come to the conclusion that continuing to do nothing, when the epidemiologists have still not offered an exit strategy, is a less bad option than, oh, having the kids go to the playground, or getting a beach volleyball game going, or opening the taverns, governors' orders or not.

There are people writing about those tradeoffs.  Perhaps more along those lines in a few days.  There's rain in the forecast later this week.  It's still not forbidden to do yard work.

A FISKING.

I forget whether Tim Blair first came up with the term "fisking" (referring to the line-by-line mockery of foolish statements, originally honoring a useful idiot who attempted to understand why Afghan jihadis beat him up): anyway, he's still a good practitioner of the art.  "The Daily Telegraph this week received a letter from the Australian Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, who took gentle issue with our excellent coverage of the coronavirus crisis."  Just go, read the whole thing (before they paywall it) and keep in mind that one way to deal with the Corrupt Chinese Communist Party is to undermine them with mockery.

Oh, just one excerpt.  The United Nations is mock-worthy as well.  "The World Health Organisation does a lot of stupid stuff."

4.4.20

ON MY WORKBENCH.

Another week of staying out of hell (thanks, J-P Sartre) and working on the railroad.

The model building challenge continues.  It's possible for me, though, to manage a couple of projects at the same time.  (That's the same mind-set as having several research papers in progress and in the pipeline, in case anyone is curious.)

Here's a Locomotive Workshop kit of the Russian Decapod that I've been working on, on and off, for probably twenty years.  I took advantage of the time while paint was drying on the challenge project to solder up the cab front and attach a large Russian-style headlight to the smokebox top.


A firebrick comes in handy when you're soldering with a pencil torch.  My technique is getting better, those are stains on the wood, not scorch marks.

The week's progress on the main project is below the jump.

THE FIRST INSTINCT OF THE PUNDIT CLASS IS TO PUT AN EXPERT IN CHARGE.

For some reason, that Special Functionary, sometimes appointed by a president with no Congressional Approval Necessary, to Take Charge of some Pressing National Issue, goes by the unofficial official title of "czar."  There's usually some more formal sounding terminology, but "czar" is generally what you'll hear, dear reader.

I believe the first such "czar" was William Simon, who had the responsibility of making sure that people got their motor fuel during those early Arab oil embargoes.  Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, a Member in Good Standing of the Eastern Liberal Establishment (cemented by marriage to NBC's Jane Pauley, no less) had some fun with the concept:


The official perspective was that the Energy Czar had the responsibility of judiciously allocating the available gasoline, and helping the country achieve Energy Independence.  Yes, that was even called "Project Independence," presumably to put the subjects constituents in mind of such achievements as the then-recently-suspended Project Apollo, or for those with longer memories, the Manhattan Project.  In practice, though, the cartoon summarizes what really happened: morally autonomous citizens reduced to the status of grade-grubbing mediocre students, only it's "If I don't get home ..." rather than "If I don't get a B in this course ..."

Notice, dear reader, particularly if you're younger, that the United States has achieved a form of energy independence and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is pretty much a dead letter.  Why?  No more czars, no special rules for the pricing of old oil as opposed to new oil, and some technical breakthroughs in fracking.  Bear in mind that at the same time this virus is giving people good reason to travel less, Russia's oil ministry (do they have a Lukoil Tsar?) is waging a price war with the hopes of taking down fracking in the United States, never mind the effects on Venezuela or Iran or the Rodina (and she's got the Chinese fever too, dear reader) and that price war is having an effect on stock prices, particularly in energy.  Bet on emergence.

What, though, if rather than having a Czar of All The Oil Wells, we simply concentrate on one type of machinery.  Consider the pulmonary ventilator.  That became a major topic on last Sunday's Meet the Press.  Start with Chuck Todd conversing with Deborah Birx, M.D., one of the special advisors to the president dealing with the current pandemic.
CHUCK TODD: What are you seeing in New York that raises alarm bells to you when this does -- when suddenly Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago start to see the same incoming to their ICU units that the New York area is seeing now?

DR. DEBORAH BIRX: Well, we're studying New York very carefully. We're studying the hospital needs, how to do better testing, how to keep less sick people away from the hospital and being tested elsewhere, looking at admissions, looking at how to keep those hospitals stocked. It's not enough for us to get materials to warehouses. We have to be working with the state and local governments comprehensively to ensure that equipment and supplies are getting to each hospital. Hospitals are so busy taking care of the people who are ill. They can't be spending time doing inventory. And so we need to help and support that.

CHUCK TODD: Well, that appears to actually be a problem. And, look, I'm curious. What role do you play in deciding where spare ventilators go versus the role FEMA plays? And the reason I ask that is there seems to be some confusion. Governors are complaining that they find themselves either bidding against other states or the federal government when it comes to different equipment issues. So is the federal government going to take over all procurement and disbursement of medical equipment or not?

DR. DEBORAH BIRX: I think at this moment we're asking every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now. Know where every hospital is, public, private. Know where every one of your surgical centers are. That's where your anesthesia ventilators are. Know how to change those anesthesia ventilators up to supportive ventilators to take care of people. Know where every piece of equipment is in the state. Know how to move that around the state based on need. The one thing that we can do as Americans is we know how to innovate. So it's not just what you have inside your doors today. It's how you can surge and move things around. We know this epidemic moves in waves. Each city will have its own epidemic curve. And so we can move between states, we can move within states to meet the needs of everyone.

CHUCK TODD: You sort of overlooked the question though about: Is the federal government going to take over at least the procurement and the distribution of things going forward? I understand what you're saying states and mayors need to do right now in case they don't have this from the government. But who should be trying to acquire new equipment: states or the federal government?

DR. DEBORAH BIRX: Well, I think the federal government right now is working very hard on looking at where all the ventilators are and where production can be. But we need states at the same time to look where all of their ventilators are, including outpatient surgical centers, which is a really important place to be looking because you get staff plus ventilator. They have also the clearly -- the cardiac monitoring, they’ll be able to monitor oxygen levels. All of that can come into the hospitals to care for patients. So both of those pieces need to come together. The government looking to increase procurements and states looking for every single option that they have.
Notice how quickly Mr Todd, minding his manners for once, envisions federal involvement in "all procurement and disbursement of medical equipment."  It's going to be tough enough to do that for ventilators, although having some way of moving them around from hot spot to hot spot seems like a tractable problem.  Medical equipment more generally?  Like "Project Independence," the only things it is likely to prolong is the employment of czars and the absence of independence.  That might not be what Michigan's governor Gretchen Whitmer is getting at during her time on screen.
CHUCK TODD: Governor Whitmer, you seemed to imply late in the week that you thought the federal government or perhaps President Trump was punishing Michigan and your attempts to procure different medical items. Do you have any -- do you still believe that is happening? Or, or do you believe that you were mistaken?

GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER: No, you know -- here's what I said, what we are doing is placing all of these orders. We are contracting. We are trying to procure this in addition to the help we need from the federal government. And like Massachusetts, like New York, like California, like places all across the country, we're bidding against one another. J.B. Pritzker from Illinois observed that same thing. And then we get a notice that it's going, being directed to the federal government. And I think that's a frustration point that is not unique to Michigan. But it is certainly a part of the issue that we're all confronting. There's not enough ventilators. We need thousands of ventilators in Michigan. There is not enough N95 masks. We've got nurses who are wearing the same mask from the minute they show up for their long shift to the end of that shift. You know, we've got to slow the spread. And that's why the stay at home orders, asking people to do their part -- people need to understand the seriousness of this issue. It's a novel virus with no cure, no vaccine, highly contagious and deadly. No one's immune from this thing. No generation is. And that's why staying home and keeping this virus from being transmitted from person to person is really the best tool we have. But we've got to keep working to get all of these other pieces of equipment. And when we're bidding against one another, it's creating a lot of frustration and, and concern. And that's exactly what I was trying to convey, and the same thing that's been conveyed by others on both sides of the aisle.
First, the government in Washington buys up all the stuff, then the state governors have to ask Washington to release some of the stuff to them. My signet ring and hot wax!  It's too much to suggest, though, that perhaps Washington not compete with the states for the stuff.

If you're on Chuck Todd's short list, though, that's one step short of heresy.
CHUCK TODD: Carol Lee, it does seem as if the quarantine back and forth yesterday and this issue about who takes the lead on finding ventilators, this is -- this, this, whatever you want to call it, it's a choke point, whatever it is between the states and the feds, we’ve got to -- we haven't unclogged that choke point yet.

CAROL LEE: No, and it was clear, Chuck, from your interview with Dr. Birx that they don't have an answer to this problem yet. And you've heard from a number of governors. Governor Whitmer just said to you and Governor Cuomo has been saying this every day, that, you know, they need, they want the federal government to step in to somehow kind of regulate this process because they're all competing against each other and it's causing a lot of problems. And you've, you’ve seen Governor Cuomo specifically say that if that doesn't happen, then maybe states will try to come together and figure out their own way to alleviate this problem. But there is, you know, an ask for help from the federal government. And we could wind up seeing this being the issue, like the ventilators were in the past week, where the president finally moved on that. This could wind up being the thing that in this coming week that he finally moves on.
Their hope, apparently, is that the Czar will hear all their petitions.  The reality might be that the rent-seekers will crash the system.  That is, if there isn't widespread civil disobedience after one too many extensions of the shelter-in-place orders first.

The problem is that these process-worshippers are comparing an ideal technocratic vision, a Michael Munger unicorn, if you will, with a messy reality that the best epidemiologists are still attempting to quantify and contain.  It's the old parable of the second singer winning the contest after the judge has heard the first singer.  Here's longtime political economist Richard Wolff, making my point. “[P]rivate companies have no incentive to produce test kits and store them in a warehouse for years before there’s a crisis. It’s not profitable.” Maybe, maybe not.  On the other hand, “A socialist system would much more likely have required production of all the needed supplies (tests, ventilators, beds, etc.) and stockpiling them around the country.”  Maybe, although socialist planners can only plan on the basis of what they think they see and what they believe they can measure, and it would do no good to have strategic reserves of life-expired tests (these things aren't civil defense crackers) or ventilators with cracked gaskets (because once the ventilators were produced and stockpiled, it occurred to nobody to check.)

So here stands Professor Wolff with his unicorn, and there stands Energy Czar Simon with his ring and wax.  Perhaps emergence deserves a better hearing.

SQUANDERING THE VICTORY DIVIDEND.

Here's how J. H. "Clusterf**k Nation" Kunstler has it.
On behalf of the Boomers, let me try to explain and apologize.

We came along at the end of history’s earlier biggest trauma, the Second World War, following the hard stumble of the Great Depression — which, by the way, for those of you unsure of chronology, followed the First World War, an epic, purposeless slaughter that utterly demoralized Western civilization. What a set-up for my parents’ generation.
He's a few years older than I, and his lived experience somewhat different.
We Boomer boys had his war as movies and comic books: Sergeant Rock and John Wayne on the beach at Iwo! We had all the fruits of that postwar bonanza. We had Disneyland, the 1964 World’s Fair, the Carousel-of-Progress, and Rock Around the Clock. We eventually had a war of our own, Vietnam, but it was optional for college kids. I declined to go get my ass shot off, of course.

You have no idea what a fantastic bacchanal college was in the 1960s. Let the sunshine in! The great anti-war protests gave us a chance to pretend we were serious, but, believe me, it was much more about finding someone to hook-up with at the teach-ins and the street marches. The birth control pill was a fabulous novelty. We ignored the side-effects — especially the social side effects that led later on to an epidemic of divorces and broken families. When you are a young man, sex is at least half of what you think of minute-by-minute. I was on a campus where all you saw were waves of nubile, joggling breasts coming at you beneath those sheer peasant blouses (which, you understand, suggests that the women were in on it, too, being every bit as incited by their own frisky hormones).

Personally, I was not altogether on board with the hippie program, though I let my hair grow. A lot about it gave me the creeps — the lurid posters of Hindu gods with elephant heads, the dumb-ass “Hey, man,” lingo, the neurotic sharing of everything from clothing to money, the wooly armpits, the ghastly organic cuisine…. I mostly eschewed drugs, never dropped acid, and smoked pot infrequently due to a chastening episode of frightening paranoia early on. Anyway, after Charlie Manson’s caper, the whole thing lost its luster and by the early 1970s there wasn’t much left but sideburns, and by then many of us were in an office of some kind.
It's the early 1970s when I start college, and my academic life involved researching heavy industry as heavy industry was coming apart around me. But his recollection, and mine, are distinct impressions of the same squandering of the victory dividend.  (That Carousel of Progress, not so much.  That's a meditation for another day.)

The political economy might be interesting, though.
The Boomers should never have been allowed in those offices, especially the ones within ten miles of Wall Street. That’s where the cleverest among us came up with the signal innovations that have now wrecked the world. The corona virus is a very bad thing, for sure, but it’s really nothing compared to the deliberate wickedness that engineered the so-called financialized economy — a supernatural matrix of something-for-nothing swindles and frauds that purported to replace actual work that produced things of value. The great lesson of the age was lost: the virtual is not a substitute for the authentic.

And now the Boomer geniuses of finance are scrambling frantically to hurl imaginary money into the black hole they have opened with their own reckless wizardry. But black holes are nothing like ordinary holes. They are unfillable. They just suck everything into a cosmic vacuum that resembles something like death — which, in its implacable mystery, may just be a door to a new disposition of things, the next life, the next reality.
Perhaps, although one of the Tom Clancy allusions that has recently come to mind is the reset of the financial markets in Debt of Honor.  The productive bits of the economy are still there, perhaps repurposed for medical goods at the moment, and concentrating on delivering food for home consumption, and the task to come will be banishing sufficient fear that people will be willing to venture to the arenas and eateries and coffee houses once we have a better understanding of this virus.

THE THOUGHT POLICE ARE STILL AT WORK.

It's still possible, indeed encouraged, to rat out the unwoke learning online at Northern Illinois University.
NIU’s Ethics and Compliance Office announced a COVID-19 update to remind students and faculty about its high priority to keep discrimination and harassment out of academic and work spaces.

The update lets the campus community know that the office is still open and will be operating on a remote basis for the remainder of the semester. The update also provides ways people can report incidents of discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct.

Students and faculty can report acts of discrimination or harassment using the “compliant resolution” tab on its website.
Nothing quite like anonymous accusations to foster social solidarity in the presence of social distancing.

Note, though, the functionary tasked with implementing the ukase.
Sarah Garner, Ethics and Compliance Officer and Title IX Coordinator, said interim measures are implemented when there is a report of discrimination, harassment or sexual misconduct. The measures taken depend on the situation and can range from movement of resident halls to issuing no-contact orders for the people involved.
That's an interesting job title. "Ethics" is as in the required ethics training (thank you, Rod Blagojevich.) "Compliance" might refer to a number of things, although in university-speak that most commonly refers to damping down corruption in the revenue sports, in order to preserve the fiction that the athletes are students, receiving only the approved extra benefits.  "Title IX" is that part of the 1972 Civil Rights Act most commonly applied to spending on sports, although there are all sorts of other opportunities to creatively use it.

Then, despite the current national government rolling back the Obama "Dear Colleague" letter, the spirit of It Is Your Duty still lives, presumption of innocence be damned.
The update also reminds people that the the university's policies on discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct also apply to online and virtual misconduct. It states that any in-person behavior that is prohibited by policy is likely to be prohibited in cyber forms like cyber harassment and cyberstalking.

Faculty and staff who are deemed “responsible employees” are reminded that they’re expected to report sexual misconduct incidents, especially when members of the campus community are involved regardless of how they learn of the potential misconduct.

Garner says the “responsible employee” term comes from the Title IX amendment and the definition comes from the federal government.

“[A responsible employee] is anyone who has the authority to action, to address sexual misconduct, has the duty reporting sexual misconduct and the student reasonably believes has the authority or the duty to report sexual misconduct,” Garner said.

Garner said all staff and faculty are considered “responsible employees,” but members of the confidential resources are not.
So it always is with the nomenklatura.

2.4.20

THE GROWTH RINGS OF SPRAWL.

It's not the case that exurban neighborhoods are built to a finished state.  The state of the art, though, changes, and The American Conservative's Addison del Mastro takes a trip from Arlington, Virginia, onward to Winchester.  "Closer into D.C., in Arlington and Fairfax, a good deal of the early post-war construction still remains, making for some retro sightseeing along the way." Sorry, no orange-roofed Howard Johnson or working Dutchland Dairy (a Wisconsin reference).  First, you get the contemporary stroad experience.
Not counting its service roads, U.S. 50 is six lanes wide through much of this, and four at a minimum. It is utterly inhospitable to pedestrians, and barely hospitable to motorists. A couple of mixed-use developments along the way, little islands in a sea of speeding cars, are only one more element in the discordant list of elements that’s the secret sauce of sprawl. Oh, and Seven Corners, which feels like it consists of the atom-smashing of seven highways and seven shopping centers.
Beyond Chantilly, the stroads narrow and the more recent development pattern isn't as evident.
We are really seeing two things here: a physical history of the layers/rings of development, and the current built form/stage of development of each particular place. Places back east like Annandale or Bailey’s Crossroads, or some parts of Arlington—now congested and undergoing some of the physical decay typical of early suburbs—were not built all at once. They all went through a process: something like countryside/farm > transition zone > exurb > suburb. Unless land use and housing affordability change dramatically, in all likelihood today’s transition zone, and communities still further west for 10 or 20 miles, will eventually go through this same process. At the same time, the overall density gradient or layers of development, driving west from D.C., will remain observable, because there will always be a particular land area undergoing transition.
Beyond the transition zone, the congestion (and the wide roads) end as well. "The longer half of the trip is breezy and pleasant, a taste of what it must have been like to be an early adopter of the automobile."  Or, to the Civil War historian, to contemplate Sheridan on his horse, urging the men to come up.  I suspect, though, that Sheridan would not know what to make of the Reagan-era stroad and strip-mall belt outside central Winchester.  The thickly settled areas, though?   People view those as the norm, because, for many, that is the norm.  "there’s still plenty of countryside left, and the trope of sprawl swallowing up vast tracts of land is something of an exaggeration. It felt like that in the ’60s and it feels like it now, because the traffic is so slow and because it’s the context of our daily lives. "

HOW LOW CAN HIGHER EDUCATION GO?

Don't say I didn't warn you.  Business as usual, though, and John Ellis notes nothing has improved.  "One study after another has found that [graduates] write badly, can’t reason, can’t read any reasonably complex material, have alarming gaps in their knowledge of the history and institutions of the society in which they live, and are in general poorly prepared for the workplace."

LET THE RECRIMINATIONS BEGIN.

Mike Lofgren calls out one of Our President's court intellectuals.  "Walter Russell Mead writes Trump campaign propaganda disguised as analysis."  Possibly, although it's misleading to call the professor a "Yale academic" (he once worked there) when his current post is Bard College, and I wonder if he's dubious of people who go by three names generally.
Has Yale’s Professor Walter Russell Mead (using the middle name in one’s moniker is a flashing caution light when it comes to pretention) ever actually ventured into Wheeling or Steubenville or Youngstown to see, unblinkered, what motivates their residents? The American class system is riven with more denial, fake guilt and crocodile tears, snobbery, reverse-snobbery, and sheer humbug than any social organization on earth.
We could call the roll of columnists and talking heads who go by three names, and it's not hard to come up with examples from all over the political spectrum, just turn on the opinion shows this evening or Sunday morning and convince yourself.  I'm probably in agreement with Mr Lofgren about the pretentiousness, although what I've done is simply use the railroad convention of two initials and a surname to refer to such people.

But that's not Mr Lofgren's most telling error.  Rather, it's that he decided to open up a can on the people whose lives are being blighted (For Their Own Good, mind you) by the ongoing confinement and shutdown of normal business.  "Could it be that Jesus, Duck Dynasty, and putting minorities in their place might have loomed larger in their political imagination than sober calculations about where they will sell their soybean crop, or how long they’d be able to keep their Obamacare policy?"

Listen up, Mikey, you'd better hope that the weather in Illinois will be favorable to getting those beans in the field.  Another growing season with snows into April and mid-October snows, and it's going to be difficult for hipsters to get their tofu fix.  (I have a view of the corn and bean fields across the mile road and hope to be able to report on the activity there.)

Meanwhile, the expert class hasn't been covering itself with glory.
But, says Mead, the pointy-heads discount the populist base’s profound distrust of establishment competence and wisdom on economic policy (meaning, mainly, outsourcing), while skimping on health care and infrastructure items like good roads and bridges, and at the same time piling up enormous deficits. He even gets in a few licks against social promotion and virtue signaling, whatever that is.
Getting a screed published by Common Dreams meets the bar for social promotion and virtue signalling. Q.E.D.

The American Conservative's Daniel Larison also weighs the professor's arguments and finds them wanting, although in a different way.
One of the reasons why there has been so much self-flagellation, as Mead would have it, is that for at least the last thirty years American leaders have overdosed the public with self-congratulation and fantasies of exceptional excellence that masked serious shortcomings and failings in our society. Especially since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have cultivated a triumphalist attitude that blinded us to the flaws of our system, and that blindness left us vulnerable. The “indispensable nation” that presumes to dictate the affairs of nations on the other side of the planet can’t even take care of its own people in an emergency. The government that imagines that it can remake other countries in our own image can’t provide enough protective equipment for our medical professionals. The U.S. could have invested much more in its own health care, infrastructure, and workers, but for decades we have chosen to fritter it away on imperial fantasies and giveaways to concentrated wealth.
There's nothing like a plague to quickly destroy concentrations of wealth.

That reference to a failure of government to provide protective equipment and ventilators is a topic for a future post.  Mr Larison is right, though, to be skeptical of nation-building activities.  Nations are emergent.  As will be the life of the world to come.

NOW IS NOT A TIME FOR FORCED CONSENSUS.

Don "Cafe Hayek" Boudreaux meditates on the shared experience of house arrest.
Yesterday evening, during WJLA’s local DC-area news telecast, the station ran an ad featuring many of its on-air personalities proclaiming – about the coronavirus crisis – “We’re all in this together.”

What an ironic choice of words, given that rapidly strengthening social norms along with ever-more-draconian government commands are forcing us all into an unprecedented and unnatural separation from each other.
That makes it particularly urgent for people to dissent and to consider differing policy proposals.  "We may all be stuck together on the same planet, but we have better chances of living well on this planet by having opportunities to choose who to associate with or not associate with, or to try different approaches to face the challenges life throws our way."

The people who successfully manage the pandemic and the recovery will be in a position to claim moral authority for a long time (in much the same way that the transnational technocrats kept appealing to the New Deal and Total War for too long).  Trust, but verify.

THE YEAR WITHOUT SPORTS.

There won't be any new sports trivia generated for a while.  On the other hand, the absence of any basketball tournaments (does anybody else see the irony in the absence of lost-productivity-during-tournaments statistics in the face of unprecedented lost productivity accompanying cancelled tournaments?) provokes the custodians of trivia to do something to pass the time, and keep up morale.  For example, how about an all-Wisconsin field of 64 for the men's tournament?  Regionals at LaCrosse, Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee.

30.3.20

IT MIGHT NOT BE THE END. IT MIGHT BE BETTER THAN THE END OF THE BEGINNING.

A professor emeritus from the Medical College of Wisconsin (the former Marquette medical school) has time to crunch some numbers.  "I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the epidemic."  The numbers he's been crunching are those put out by Johns Hopkins.  (One of these days I'll have to post about how recent events put me in mind of several Tom Clancy novels ...)  Feel free to crunch the numbers yourself, dear reader.  Note, in particular, "If there were a confounding effect from increased surveillance (more testing revealing yet more cases), the apparent velocity should be going up."  We're still staying home for the most part.

LET THE BENEFICIARY BEAR THE BURDEN?

Streetsblog's Kea Wilson notes a surprising unintended consequence of people working from home and limiting their shopping trips.  "[T]he Real Cure For Freight Truck Congestion is Fewer Cars."  It's not that the trucks have suddenly become more nimble, rather it's that in the absence of traffic jams, the gear-jammers are able to maintain their cruising speeds and carry out their 62-overtaking-61 maneuvers without multitudes of in-a-hurry commuters being inconvenienced.

Then she gets off into the weeds of Utopian Wonkery(TM).  "Even some #BanCars advocates acknowledge that the world would probably be better off if our highways were the domain of more fast-moving freight trucks rather than a slow-moving mix of trucks and cars — at least until we build a greener option, like a comprehensive national freight rail network." Unlikely. The railroads got out of the retail freight business, particularly in urban areas, years ago.  All those package trucks making delivery on Manhattan?  The infrastructure of car-floats, warehouses, and drayage terminals by which the small stuff used to get there is long gone.  It might be that Union Pacific's Global One, which Chicago and North Western built on an old potato yard, lifted more than a few refrigerated containers of produce and frozen food until it closed.  In Milwaukee, the rail yards that used to service Commission Row offered the builders of expressways space that could be taken without inconveniencing as many employees and congregations.

All those horse-drawn wagons and hand carts were the way we used to do break-bulk delivery.
And it should be noted, of course, that when it comes time for trucks to exit the highway and venture into our cities, high truck speeds are a disaster — because fast-moving freight is deadly for walkers. That’s why many safe streets advocates have long argued for a safer urban delivery model that requires large trucks to stop at distribution centers outside the city, to split their loads among smaller vehicles. (And yes: those “smaller vehicles” should include bike couriers.)

But until we have a true revolution in freight delivery, we can at least celebrate the fact that there are fewer private cars on the highway — and that trucks are getting respirators to hospitals a little faster because of it. And while Rebecca Brewster isn’t sure that the trucking industry is likely to become an ally of the [vehicle miles travelled]-reduction movement anytime soon, she says the industry is enjoying the plunge in traffic while it lasts.
I submit: it might be more productive for highway departments and local authorities to prohibit the movement of forty-foot or longer trailers in urban areas. The speed and mass are one safety challenge, the reality that those things don't fit the streets very well, and jump curbs even when the driver properly executes a right turn well into oncoming traffic.

But it appears to be business as usual: in Wisconsin the authorities are issuing overweight permits to haulers of foodstuffs and toilet paper, look for additional pet projects in the next round of borrowing for infrastructure.  As far as that retail railroading: perhaps once the highway departments understand the roads are assets.

29.3.20

THERE'S SOMETHING CALMING ABOUT WATCHING TRAINS.

Power Line's Steven Hayward thinks so.
So as we settle in to what I’m calling The Great Hunkering Down, it appears I may have acquired a mild form of a non-contagious hobby to pass the time: trainspotting. Lately on my late afternoon walks when I’m working at my temporary residence (long story) down in central coast wine country, I’ve taken to walking along a dirt road parallel to the train tracks around the time the daily northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight (which I sometimes ride up to the Bay Area) rolls through. I am surprised at how often it seems to run on time these days; it has a reputation for running hours late all too often.
He's also using a remote-controlled camera (at least I hope it is a remote-controlled camera) to get pictures of the trains rolling above the camera, and more recently, meeting on either side of the camera.

THINKING ABOUT RETURNING TO WORK.

We've been considering the tradeoff between risking mass contagion and risking mass deprivation.

The first step toward getting back to work is getting a better idea of how bad the contagion is.

A team of public intellectuals at American Enterprise Institute have provided a framework making use of that data.  It's a long report and I'm grappling with a slow internet this afternoon, the quote is only a little piece of what's over there.  I consider it relevant to today's post.
To guard against the risk that large outbreaks or epidemic spread could reignite once we lift our initial efforts to “slow the spread,” the trigger for a move to Phase II [partial reopening of ordinary life] should be when a state reports a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days (i.e., one incubation period); and local hospitals are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization without resorting to crisis standards of care; and the capacity exists in the state to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, along with state capacity to conduct active monitoring of all confirmed cases and their contacts.
The report includes a number of footnotes, not hyperlinked, that I have snipped for simplicity's sake. By all means read the full report.

Note that the recommendation depends on a number of metrics: curve-flattening over a fortnight; sufficient capacity to serve the anticipated future cases; sufficient resources for testing and monitoring.  There is no time horizon for any of these items, meaning a reopening of any region by Easter or May Day or what have you is going to be incidental, not deliberate.

That does give the people making policy a basis, though, for telling their subjects constituents the conditions under which an end to their confinement might be in sight.  Given that a number of the state emergency measures have been rolled out piecemeal and then extended, my fear has always been that without some sort of end condition, the time will come when continuation of the social distancing and business closures will prompt civil disobedience.  Chicago's mayor was able to close all the lakefront trails and such attractions on a nice day, early in the emergency order.  Wait another month, wait for that first really nice day, wait for the little kids to spontaneously go to the neighborhood tot-lot: will the Powers that Be still be respected if there isn't some firm sense that there is an exit strategy?  Now contemplate the high-schoolers and young adults heading to the beaches.

28.3.20

WILL AMTRAK'S CONTEMPORARY DINING REMIND PEOPLE OF SOCIAL DISTANCING?

Brian's Travel Spot offers a lament on "The Demise of Amtrak’s Full Dining Service."  His main points are familiar to my regular readers.
Although the new service is touted as an “upgrade” by Amtrak, it’s anything but. Having experienced (and loved) the full service dining car, what’s replaced it is vastly inferior, as Amanda and I discovered when we took the train from New York to Atlanta at the start of this month. Instead of a bustling dining car, full of happy passengers, we found a near empty carriage, grumpy staff and, while the food was good, the menu was limited (particularly if you don’t eat meat). As an experience, it was an immense disappointment, fundamentally detracting from the enjoyment of our journey.
The bulk of the column recites many of my observations (it's useful, though, for people who are not hardcore ferroequinologists to point them out).  What occurred to me, though, is that the act of picking up your meal, or having it delivered, imitates the experience of dining out during these days of shelter in place.
Under the old service, you would book your slot in the dining car then make your way down to the dining car when the time came. Unless there were four of you, you’d be sat on a table with a selection of your fellow passengers, the waitstaff making up tables of four on the fly. I met some very interesting people as a result and never had a bad experience.

One of the touted benefits of the new system is its supposed flexibility, allowing you to eat in your sleeper compartment if you want (with your attendant fetching your food) and doing away with the need to reserve your dining slot. However, the reality of the new system turned out to be quite different.

Our attendant came to take our dinner orders in mid-afternoon. If there was the possibility of having our food delivered, it wasn’t mentioned.
These days, if you're ordering take-out, the people running the eateries that are still open are probably happy for the business, and it's good manners to tip generously.  The demoralized staff of the table cars, not so much.
On previous trips, the dining car was a hive of activity, full of conversation and with a warm welcome from the waitstaff (on one particularly memorable journey, everyone, regardless of age or gender, was endearingly referred to as “baby doll”). This time, we arrived to find an empty dining car, bereft of any atmosphere, plus one extremely grumpy, uncommunicative member of staff.

Even though we clearly didn’t know the routine, we had to go and ask for our dinner. Amanda went up and was wordlessly handed a large white bag with sleeper car and compartment number written on it. And that was the sum total of our interaction with the staff.

The food itself was pretty good, although my vegan Asian noodle bowl (the only thing I could eat on the entire menu) was spicier than I’d have liked and resulted in my lips going numb. Amanda similarly enjoyed her red wine braised beef, although she wasn’t a fan of the polenta (which, in its defence, I quite enjoyed). The chocolate brownie (Amanda) and toffee crunch blondie (me) were also good, but a far cry from the desserts I’d enjoyed and previous trips.
Yes, although simply taking a brownie, or one of those ready-to-mix oatmeals off a common table isn't worthy, as the author notes, of "a breakfast buffet that many budget hotels would be embarrassed to serve."

Perhaps in current times we don't have to be singing about bluebirds over the cliffs of Dover.
In closing, the new dining service is a massive downgrade from what went before and I wish Amtrak would reverse its decision. It’s a loss, by the way, not just for the sleeper car passengers: with the old full service dining car, coach passengers were also allowed to eat in the dining car if they wished, paying for their meals. That option has also gone with the new system. Sad times indeed.
Dinner in the diner: nothing could be finer, than being reminded of the days of social distancing.

THE END OF FASHIONABLE NONSENSE?

Power Line's Steven Hayward has been offering what he calls "Observations on the Great Hunkering," and in his latest are a number of Cold Spring Shops themes.
Reusable grocery bags and and personal coffee mugs have been banned, and plastic bags are making a comeback. Even the New York Times admits that high-density urban form and mass transit, which environmentalists have been trying to cram down our throats for the last 25 years, are detrimental to controlling a pandemic.
To an economist, everything is a tradeoff, including the tension between the contagion of ideas and the contagion of plague, and there's more in the project pile to keep me writing.

It's cathartic, too, to see him open up a can on the superfluous deanlets and deanlings.
And don’t even get me started on the indispensable role of all those assistant deans of diversity and inclusion that have sprung up like topsy on every campus. How can we possibly overcome this health crisis without them? (I’ll come back to this later, too. The financial hit colleges and universities are going to take from this is likely to be substantial, with many colleges perhaps going out of business as soon as next fall or the year after. And perhaps the necessary belt-tightening to stay alive will see some of these asshat administrators given their much-deserved pink slips.)
The short answer is that their contributions are so far tangential to the health crisis. Hectoring a few people who note that the current plague originated in China? Yawn. Perhaps their current silence will be a harbinger of their future absence.

THERE ARE NO SOLUTIONS, ONLY TRADEOFFS.

Michael Smerconish's Saturday morning show devoted a fair amount of time to the political economy of shelter-in-place responses to a pandemic.  The show poll question (scroll down) was "Is a universal quarantine worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health?"  The correct response is "it depends" and credit ought to be for your explanation.  Online polls don't work that way, and the response as of 9 am God's time was that it was worth it.

His show spent a lot of time, though, on the "it depends."  One guest was Stanford's Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine, who tackles the question, "how deadly is COVID-19/WUHAN?"  The short answer, which probably frustrates people no end, is "we don't know."


That is, there are two components that have to be measured first: the transmissibility of the thing (that requires serious testing of the infected and the exposed but not ill alike) and the lethality of the infection.  The common cold, for example, is contagious but rarely kills people who get it.  Ebola, on the other hand, kills its hosts so fast that contagions die of natural causes, if you will.

Yale's David Katz also appeared, and he noted that it's probably too late to do anything other than the shelter in place protocols, as the opportunities to test and contain have passed.


Once the immediate contagion has been tamed, though, there's going to be an opportunity to pause and reflect. Did it make sense, for instance, for all the colleges and universities to close down and send home students, many of whom might have been asymptomatic carriers, to their families, where the older adults might have been at greater risk?  Note, though, that neither practitioner ruled out a modified reopening of business as usual, once additional testing and understanding of the transmissibility and lethality of the bug became available.

The show also included New York University's Arthur Caplan addressing the possibility of triage at hospitals or emergency clinics.  (That's a battlefield phenomenon: for all the hours the old televised M*A*S*H offered, only rarely did we see it in action, and generally in its benign form, e.g. Hawkeye Pierce assuring a G.I. he'd be fine and they'd be back.  The part where they make the mortally wounded comfortable, not so much.)

The point the doctor makes is that it would be foolish for clinics to have to make these decisions up on the fly: better to have some guidelines, and pray they don't have to implement them.


Those clips might help allay peoples' fears.  This thing is by no means over, and yet the people whose reputations depend in fair part on getting the understanding right are working on getting the understanding right.

We'll conclude this weekend's briefing with Lester Holt's signoff piece from the NBC Nightly News.

"Your grandparents were called to war.  You're being called to sit on your couch."  (That's excessive, there might be a to-do list at home or something, but for the most part it doesn't involve random death from the sky.)


That's not to say it's time to R-E-L-A-X, not by any means, nor that there are lots of controversies still to address (and I will be participating in that.)