Last Time You Heard of “Flattening the Curve”?

We were told that many or most Americans workers had to be idled to “flatten the curve” of contaminations. This means simply that it was desirable to avoid having a sudden upsurge of people infected so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. Officials – including the president and the Gov of California, Nancy’s nephew – never gave us any other reason for confinement.

Notably, limiting the total, final number of contaminations was not the reason. Instead, and since no vaccine is in our short sights – herd immunity will save us. But the slower the rate of contamination, the later we will enjoy herd immunity. Thus, a policy of confinement may cause more deaths that it avoids. I am not saying it’s the case; I don’t know. It’s just plausible based on the info I am given, including by my government(s).

Well, I am reasonably sure that to-date, C-virus patients have not overwhelmed American hospitals except in New York City. How do I know? The end-of-time loving, Trump-hating media would make sure I would know it if any American hospital were in a catastrophic situation caused by an unexpected influx of patients. That main danger seems past. It does not mean that individuals should not take common sense precautions, including social distancing. I know I do (but I am old).

In the meantime, the American economy is undergoing an unprecedented disaster; I mean, unprecedented in my lifetime. No mystery: When people don’t work, wealth is not being generated. The solution to this problem is as obvious as it seems: More people have to go back to work. In this connection, I think it’s time to discuss something that should also be obvious: Working at close quarters leads to contamination, and thus, for some categories of the population, to death. Economic contraction leads to sectorial poverty which also kills people. Panic also kills people: surgeries and other medical interventions are being re-scheduled all over the country. No doubt, patients are dying as a result, indirect victims of the pandemics. (And many doctors are complaining of loss of income.)

Who should go back to work? A is always the case, this issue must be resolved as close as possible to those most directly concerned. In this case, it’s the employees themselves and their employers. This principle does not necessarily lead to the wisest decisions; it makes bad decisions less consequential than would be the case for decisions taken by government at the federal level. It makes rolling back bad decisions more likely.

During all this confinement period, my fellow-citizens’ general submissiveness horrified me. (I had two postings on this.) It seems that submission is over. There is a mass automobile protest going on in Lansing, Michigan as I write. It’s directed at the governor of that state, an extreme example of schoolmarmism gone mad. (“Why do I have to do it?” “Because I say so!”)

By the way, if you fear the rise of America fascism, don’t look for guns, look for ballpoints.

Coddle the Old, Spoil Them; Everybody Else, Back to Work!

I am more worried by the day about the economic consequences of the current isolation policy intended to change the shape (not the numbers) of the corona-virus epidemic in America. This, in spite of the a large infusion of (national debt) money, that I would approve regretfully if it were my sole decision. (Note: I am not an economist but I have been reading the Wall Street Journal daily for thirty years. I am also a scholar of organizations including businesses.) What inspires most of my fear is that the issue of small-scale entrepreneurship is seldom discussed, as if it did not exist.

I believe that the larger businesses, those that survive the current crisis, may well come back with a roar (as the president seems to predict for the whole US economy.) The problem is that small businesses, restaurants, but also dry cleaning establishments, hair dressers, bookstores, and the like, have short financial lifelines. Many must be dying like flies, right now. It will be difficult or impossible for them to make a comeback once the health emergency is gone. Also we can’t count on fast replacement of those failed business by new entrepreneurs. The collection of small business that accrued over many years at a particular location is not going to be replaced in the course of a few months, I think. (Yes, I know something about this topic. Ask me.)

All the above, in spite of large infusion of my granddaughter’s money by the federal department. (She is 11.) And, repeating myself, I would do it too if it were my decision, but regretfully.

The ruinous strategy of idling much of the workforce could have been avoided and could still be modified quickly, it seems to me. The alternative solution would be to confine all the sick and most of the aged, and to keep children out of school (because they are veritable cesspools, as everyone knows).

Everyone else would be invited to go back to work by agreement with his employer. Some financial dispositions should be offered at state’s expense to help parents who lose income because they must stay home to care for their children. Under such conditions, the economy would grow again and many irreplaceable small businesses would survive. Sweden is currently trying something like this policy. That country never ordered most people to stay home. I hope this experiment stays in the news. It may not because the liberal media are afraid of rational responses and of responses that don’t proceed from panic.

I only know two people who have consistently advocated for an American policy and a California policy of confining only the old and the sick. The two are myself and Jimmy Joe Lee, a singer composer musician from Boulder Creek, near Santa Cruz. Both of us are old dudes. We are both close to the center of virus’ target. I am 78 and Jimmy Joe may be even slightly older. (OK, let the whole truth come out: He is taller, straighter than I am and a much, much sharper dresser.) I am just pointing to the obvious: neither of us is speaking out of selfishness.

Now, let’s imagine the old are confined from, say, the age of 65, even 60. First, some of them wouldn’t even know anything has changed because they don’t go out much anyway. For the rest of us, all you would have to do is serve us promptly two hot meals a day. They would have to be of gourmet quality. That would be easy to achieve because so many expensive restaurants are idle and hurting. It would be a nice touch if the meals were brought and served by a youngish woman wearing a short skirt. We may not remember why we like it but we do. Yes, and speaking for myself and I am sure, for Jimmy Joe, don’t forget to send along each meal a couple of glasses of really, really good old wine. I assure you that however extravagant you went with that last component of our confinement regimen, it would be a lot cheaper than what you are currently doing. At least, promise to think about it.

A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

Nightcap

  1. The Use of Knowledge in Society F.A. Hayek, American Economic Review
  2. On conservative nationalism and foreign policy Emma Ashford, War on the Rocks
  3. Europe’s ‘solidarity’ crumbles in the face of a crisis Kai Weiss, CapX
  4. Bigger Brother: surveillance capitalism Tim Wu, New York Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. What’s the difference between Italy and the rest of the Western world? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Viruses, civil rights, jails, and prisons Premal Dharia, Slate
  3. Is YIMBYism the answer to California’s housing crisis? Apoorva Tadepalli, New Republic
  4. Even Hayek quoted FDR Peter Canellos, Politico

Nightcap

  1. Police tailgating and entrapment Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Singapore’s military elite Francis Sempa, Asian Review of Books
  3. Bill Barr, the man from the 1980s Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. Open borders and hive minds (NIMBY) Bryan Caplan, EconLog

Nightcap

  1. Nationalization is as American as apple pie Thomas Hanna, Jacobin
  2. In China, every day is Kristallnacht Fred Hiatt, Washington Post
  3. How Mengzi bested the Golden Rule Eric Schwitzgebel, Aeon
  4. Countries are not anecdotes Scott Sumner, EconLog

Nightcap

  1. Second-hand: the new global garage sale Susan Blumberg-Kason, Asian Review of Books
  2. Learning to love America Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Why I don’t trust the police” Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
  4. Chicago cops Paul Buhle, Counterpunch

Hong Kong protests: justified but futile in the end

The world is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. Brave youngsters are testing the limits and patience of the Hong Kong authorities, first protesting against the extradition law, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China in case of serious allegations, and now with much broader demands for several kinds of liberties. Anybody with who cares for personal and political freedom can only watch in great sympathy, knowing that this is a modern day version of a number of small Davids against the towering power of the Chinese autocratic Goliath, with the Hong Kong authorities as its stumbling middle man.

I happened to be in Hong Kong for a few days, just for touristic purposes, in the first half of the past week. Arriving from mainland China on Monday, we encountered the protests a number of times. The protests caused major traffic jams, making it impossible to leave the train station in the regular way. Yet a small detour on the metro sufficed to reach our hotel. Later that night, we tried to reach one of the night markets, which turned out to be impossible: not only had the traders already packed their stuff, because a prominent protest location was just around the corner, students had also blocked the road and made sure our taxi returned nicely to where it came from.

protest 3

In the hotel we could watch live footage from confrontations between the police and the protesters, with the latter throwing stones and rocks against a police station just a few hundred meters from our hotel in Kowloon City. At times, it seemed there were as many journalists as there were protesters, which is of course an encouraging sign from the perspective of press freedom. The next day we went to Hong Kong University, but only the Student Union was in full protest mode, there were no visible signs of other unrest at the campus.

There were lots of protests at night though, as the coverage in the main Hong Kong quality paper South China Morning Post made clear.

One of the main questions this week was whether the Chinese army or police force would interfere. The local Chinese army commander hinted at it, while about 12,000 policemen gathered in nearby Shenzhen, just across the border in the mainland. The Hong Kong authorities, notably executive leader Carrie Lam and several police commanders, emphasized they were perfectly capable of handling this situation themselves. Given the developments in the past months one can question this, but the hesitation of Beijing to interfere is comprehendible. They do not want unrest, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while they know that direct action will make it impossible to get realigned with Taiwan in the foreseeable future, which has been a main goal of any Chinese leader since Mao, current leader Xi Jinping in particular.

Lam hinted at a press conference that the protests only foster the quick termination of the ‘one country two systems’ situation, agreed as part of the handover Treaty with the British in the nineteen eighties. One of the important elements is that Hong Kong keeps its own liberal laws and regulations for the first 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Earlier protests died down, without much change achieved, mainly because the protesters did not succeed in broadening their movement to the wider public in Hong Kong. Although there was a supporting demonstration of public servants last Friday, this may happen again. On Wednesday, small traders already complained about the income they lose due to all the protests. And there are the mysterious groups of men in white t-shirts who beat up the protesters.

However, in the midterm, the protests will be futile. In the end this is an internal Chinese issue. Sure enough, there will be international protests, and depending on the outcome of the current crisis, perhaps also economic sanctions against China, if it just ends the protests by police or army action. These international protests are mainly symbolic though. Economic sanctions are the instruments of the impotent, not the powerful. Never have they worked to change a regime, or to make live very miserable for the leaders of a country. They do hit the population, but his and her concerns are easily overlooked in the international arena. The sad but undeniable truth is that no foreigner is going to die for Hong Kong. The great powers will treat this an internal Chinese affair. The USA already said so. No foreign power will intervene in China if the terms of the Sino-British Treaty are tampered with. At present, it is far more likely that Hong Kong will lose its special status, perhaps also earlier than the 50 years agreed, than that China will change into the liberal direction. The world may protest, but in the end the Chinese will have their way.

Nightcap

  1. Oakeshott versus the American Originalists David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  2. The limits of common sense Charlotte Allen, Law & Liberty
  3. Woah. Catherine Kim, Vox
  4. Getting to definitions and then getting beyond them Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. Ayn Rand and international politics Edwin van de Haar, NOL
  2. Seeing the Gothic in Notre Dame blaze Cynthia Houng, JHIBlog
  3. So let it be unwritten Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. The persistence of poverty Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

Nightcap

  1. Teach your children well Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. A quiet NATO success story Azita Raji, War on the Rocks
  3. Whack-a-mole and Westphalian sovereignty Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  4. Why moving sucks Firoozeh Dumas, New York Times

Nightcap

  1. Duke, lacrosse, and the accusations that have never gone away William Cohan, Vanity Fair
  2. How James Burnham won the Cold War for the West Francis Sempa, Claremont Review of Books
  3. Common sense and the American frontier RealClearHistory
  4. Why the GOP is wrong about work Rachel Lu, the Week

Nightcap

  1. Conscientious refusal to plea bargain Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. How the communists re-educate Muslims James Millward, ChinaFile
  4. The counterfactual histories of Nazi Britain Catherine Gallagher, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. Bringing natural law to international relations Samuel Gregg, Law & Liberty
  2. How to face down the Secret Service Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Affirmative Action at Harvard and statistics Gelman, Goel, & Ho, Boston Review
  4. The right’s triumph; the Left’s complicity Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling