Archive for the ‘COVID-19’ Category.

Wait, You Mean That the Economic Damage From COVID Lockdowns DOES Matter?

As I mentioned last week on twitter, I have retreated from that platform for a variety of reasons and will focus again on long-form blogging of the style this site has been pursuing for 16 years.

For the last several months, I have been a lockdown skeptic, at least for the healthy population under 55 or 60 years old.  I will confess my early tendency toward skepticism was driven as much by the behavior of lockdown hawks as any data or knowledge on my part.  Whenever I hear appeals to authority, use of non-transparent computer model results as facts, politicization of scientific positions, and restrictions on dissent in any scientific issue, I immediately get skeptical of the orthodox position.  As I have watched things unfold, I am increasingly convinced that this virus is (like most new viruses in history) going to run its course until large sections of the population have gained immunity.  Lockdowns, while they may have salutary effects in preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, just seem to be delaying the inevitable -- when we come out of hiding, reservoirs of the disease are still there and infections mount again.  "Flatten the curve" made sense to me, but that seems as far in the past of political rationals as does the Tiger King mania.

But to some extent my opinion on lockdowns does not matter.  The one thing I AM sure of is that, whether lockdowns are effective or not, it is perfectly reasonable to balance the costs of such interventions against their benefits.  But I remember clearly when this commitment to making thoughtful tradeoffs marked one as practically Hitler.  Many of our intelligentsia, particularly on the Left, argued that it was immoral even to consider effects on the economy of COVID interventions.  I always thought this was ironic, because the worst economic effects were sure to hit lower income folks first -- they had jobs you had to, you know, show up for and they had less savings to weather the storm.   Paraphrasing one of my commenters, "Stay at home, work remotely by computer, and keep up with your family on Zoom" has to be one of the most white privilege government orders ever.  But nevertheless there was the Left self-righteously advising exactly this, with pundit after pundit who had portable jobs writing on a computer criticizing any hair dresser who wanted to actually be able to ply their trade as well.

So I was floored when I saw these charts on Kevin Drum's site as part of a criticism of the Republican reluctance to extend rich unemployment benefits:

You know what my reaction to these charts is?  No sh*t, Sherlock.  Many of us warned of EXACTLY this when the lockdowns began.  And folks on the Left treated our warning as not just irrelevant but evil. They would say, "How can you be so callous as to suggest jobs are more important that lives?"

But wait, now the economic impact of the lockdowns IS a problem?  I refuse to defend the Republican morons in Congress or the White House, but I can say that many of them warned of exactly this problem with the lockdowns while the Democrats were full steam ahead on economic shutdown.  I could accept Drum's post as self-criticism of the sort like "Wow, I really underestimated this when I was advocating for lockdowns" but now, he uses this as a platform to blame other people for the problem.

Libertarians have often highlighted how the government tends to create problems by their actions and then gains more power by saying that it needs to fix the problem its own actions created.   I can't imagine we will ever have a better example of this effect -- here is Drum advocating that the government simply must send more money to help people who were willing, even eager, to work but were not allowed to do so by the government.  COVID has been a socialist dream, converting payment for productive work to payment for breathing.

And let's discuss the exact program he is advocating.  He wants an extension of the Federal unemployment supplement of $600 a week which takes most state benefits to $1000 to $1200 a week.    Realize that is $50,000 to $60,000 a year we are paying people to not work (one only qualifies for these benefits if one does not work -- take a job and they are gone).  Look at the former income levels in his chart -- who is going back to work with this kind of government payment?  We are training people that they should be paid this much for not working and encouraging them not to seek actual employment -- this is a terrible message (and one reason a UBI makes far more sense if we are going to transfer this much money).   I think this is contributing somewhat to the position of the teachers' unions.  The public game now is to get paid and not work.

We have 13+% unemployment and our company has to struggle to hire anyone in these conditions.   I posted this on twitter as a comment on a Paul Krugman post, and his followers dutifully lined up to tell me that it was because I did not pay a fair wage.  People are making $25-$30 an hour on unemployment.  I thought $15 was our idea of "fair" -- are we really going to set $30 as our minimum wage?  Will anyone be employed?

Postscript:  I have one other rant related to employment and COVID.   Every blue check mark and Hollywood star bends over backwards on every occasion to thank health care workers during the pandemic.  Good, I agree, health care work is particularly fraught right now.  But you know who else worked through the pandemic?  I will give you a hint:  I bet you never had problems filling your car with gas, that you always had gas and electricity at home, and that (with a few brief exceptions) you always had plenty of food choices.  There are a lot of folks out there who showed a lot of commitment during COVID on whom we rely, and a lot of them are in industries (oil, manufacturing, farming) the elite of the Left tends to look down its nose at as backwards and inferior.

Postscript #2:  I am well aware that Drum has had significant medical issues that make him likely particularly vulnerable to this virus.  I am thrilled that he has a career he can pursue without endangering himself via public contact.  Our family made certain choices we might not have to protect my 85 year old mother in law.  But I am exhausted with people applying their own personal preferences and risk trade-offs to others who may be in very different situations.

Another Climate-COVID Computer Modelling Similarity

In this post, I wrote about parallels between climate and COVID alarm and related issues of computer modelling.  I realized I left out at least one parallel.

In the world of climate, computer model results are often used as the counterfactual case.  Let me give you an example.  The world has warmed over the last 100 years at the same time atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased.  Obviously, to truly judge the effect of CO2 on temperatures, we would like to know what the temperatures would have been over the last 100 years without rising CO2 concentrations.  But we don't have thermometers that read "with" and "without" CO2.

I remember I got caught up in this years ago when I published an analysis that showed that estimates of temperature sensitivity to CO2 concentrations used in projections going forward greatly over-predicted the amount of warming we have seen already.  In other words, there had not been enough warming historically to justify such high sensitivity numbers.  In response, I was told that alarmists considered the base case without CO2 increases to be a cooling world, because that is what some models showed.  Compared to this cooling counterfactual, they argued that the warming from CO2 historically had been much higher.

By the way, this argument always gets to be very circular.  When you really dig into the assumptions of the counter-factual models, they are based on assumptions that temperature sensitivity to CO2 is high.  Thus models predicated on high sensitivity are used to justify the assumption of high sensitivity.

I thought of all this today when I saw this post on COVID models and interventions from Kevin Drum.  I read Drum because, though I don't love his politics, he is more likely than most team-politics writers from either the Coke or Pepsi party to do a reasonable job of data analysis and interpretation.  But I have to fault him for this post, which I think is just terrible.  You can click through to see the chart but here is the text:

At the end of March, the highest estimate for [NY State] hospitalizations was 136,000+. Today the peak is estimated at about 30,000. That’s a difference of 5x. Did the modelers screw up?

Not really. Remember the Imperial College projections for the United States? They estimated about 2 million deaths if nothing was done; 1 million deaths if some countermeasures were taken; and 200,000 deaths if stringent countermeasures were taken. That’s a range of 10x. If you figure that we’ve taken fairly stringent countermeasures but not the maximum possible, then a reduction of 5x is about what you’d expect. Alternatively, if you ignore the Columbia University projection as an outlier, the IHME estimate has only gone down by about 2x. That’s what you’d expect if we took countermeasures that were just a little more stringent than their model assumed.

At the end of March it was still not clear how stringent and how effective the coronavirus countermeasures would be. In the event, it looks like they worked pretty well, cutting cases by at least 2x and possibly more. This is why the model estimates have gone down: because we followed expert advice and locked ourselves down. Just as we hoped.

Treating the early model estimates as if they are accurate representations of the "no intervention" counter-factual is just absurd.   It is particularly absurd in this case as he actually quotes a model -- the early Imperial College model -- that is demonstrably grossly flawed.  He is positing that we are in the Imperial College  middle intervention case, which estimated a million deaths in the US and is likely to be off by more than an order of magnitude.  Given this clear model/estimate miss, why in the world does he treat early Columbia and McKinsey models as accurate representations of the counter-factual?  Isn't it at least as likely that these models were just as flawed as the Imperial College models (and for many of the same reasons)?

The way he uses the IHME model results is also  flawed.  He acts like the reductions in the IHME estimates are due to countermeasures, but IHME has always assumed full counter-measures so it is impossible to use the numbers the way he wants to use them.

Parallels Between COVID-19 Alarm and Global Warming Alarm

So I finally had a day or two of downtime from trying to keep my business afloat (it's weird reading all the internet memes of people at home bored when I have never been busier).  I wondered why I was initially, and remain, skeptical of apocalyptic COVID-19 projections.

I have been skeptical about extreme global warming and climate change forecasts, but those were informed by my knowledge of physics and dynamic systems (e.g. feedback mechanics).  I have been immensely skeptical of Elon Musk, but again that skepticism has been informed by domain knowledge (e.g. engineering in the case of the hyperloop and business strategy in the case of SolarCity and Tesla).  But I have no domain knowledge that is at all relevant to disease transfer and pathology.  So why was I immediately skeptical when, for example, the governor of Texas was told by "experts" that a million persons would die in Texas if a lock-down order was not issued?

I think the reason for my skepticism was pattern recognition -- I saw a lot of elements in COVID-19 modelling and responses that appeared really similar to what I thought were the most questionable aspects of climate science.  For example:

  • We seem to have a sorting process of "experts" that selects for only the most extreme.  We start any such question, such as forecasting disease death rates or global temperature increases, with a wide range of opinion among people with domain knowledge.  When presented with a range of possible outcomes, the media's incentives generally push it to present the most extreme.  So if five folks say 100,000 might die and one person says a million, the media will feature the latter person as their "expert" and tell the public "up to a million expected to die."  After this new "expert" is repetitively featured in the media, that person becomes the go-to expert for politicians, as politicians want to be seen by the public to be using "experts" the public recognizes as "experts."
  • Computer models are converted from tools to project out the implications of a certain set of starting hypotheses and assumptions into "facts" in and of themselves.   They are treated as having a reality, and a certainty, that actually exceeds that of their inputs (a scientific absurdity but a media reality I have observed so many times I gave it the name "data-washing").  Never are the key assumptions that drive the model's behavior ever disclosed along with the model results.  Rather than go on forever on this topic, I will refer you to my earlier article.
  • Defenders of alarmist projections cloak themselves in a mantle of being pro-science.  Their discussions of the topic tend to by science-y without being scientific.  They tend to understand one aspect of the science -- exponential growth in viruses or tipping points in systems dominated by positive feedback.  But they don't really understand it -- for example, what is interesting about exponential growth is not the math of its growth, but what stops the growth from being infinite.  Why doesn't a bacteria culture grow to the mass of the Earth, or nuclear fission continue until all the fuel is used up?  We are going to have a lot of problem with this after COVID-19.  People will want to attribute the end of the exponential growth to lock-downs and distancing, but it's hard to really make this analysis without understanding at what point -- and there is a point -- the virus's growth would have turned down anyway.
  • Alarmists who claim to be anti-science have a tendency to insist on "solutions" that have absolutely no basis in science, or even ones that science has proven to be utterly bankrupt.  Ethanol and wind power likely do little to reduce CO2 emissions and may make them worse, yet we spend billions on them as taxpayers.  And don't get me started on plastic bag and straw bans.   I am willing to cut COVID-19 responses a little more slack because we don't have the time to do elaborate studies.  But just don't tell me lockdown orders are science -- they are guesses as to the correct response.  I live in Phoenix where it was sunny and 80F this weekend.  We are on lockdown in our houses.  I could argue that ordering everyone out into the natural disinfectant of heat and sunlight for 2 hours a day is as effective a response as forcing families into their houses (initial data, though it is sketchy, of limited transfer of the virus in summertime Australia is interesting -- only a small portion of cases are from community transferBy comparison less than a half percent of US cases from travel).
  • In both cases, advocates of the precautionary principle seem to rule the day.  I would argue that in practice, the precautionary principle means that any steps that might conceivably limit something bad should be pursued irregardless of cost.  You see a form of this all over social media, which folks arguing that it is wrong to balance deaths against money, and any life spared is worth the cost.  But this is absurd two at least two reasons
    • First, unemployment and economic recession have real, proven effects on mortality.  Shut down the economy to reduce CO2 or virus spread, and people will die
    • Second, if we really followed this principle for everything we would be back in the stone age.  Take the flu.  15,000-20,000 people will die of the flu every year in the US -- my healthy 25-year-old nephew died of the flu.  Are we going to shut down the economy next year in flu season?  It would reduce flu deaths.  Or take the 37,000 people killed each year in the US in motor vehicle accidents.  With the lockdowns, that figure is certainly reduced right now.  Should we just shut down the economy forever, it sure would reduce car fatalities?
  • And of course there is the political polarization of what should be scientific opinion.  The Nevada and Michigan governors initially banned chloroquine treatment strategies for no good reason other than the fact that Trump publicly highlighted them as promising.

Update:  Prediction from climate applied to COVID-19:  No one will go back and call out widely-used models for failing to accurately model the disease or attempt to learn from their mistakes.  If it is ever mentioned that these models grossly over-estimated deaths, it will be forgiven as being exaggeration in a good cause.  (Somewhat related, Bryan Caplan on Social Desirability Bias)

Please Honor Social Distancing Rules, Even if You Are Skeptical of the Risk

I write this because I have been publicly skeptical of some of the COVID-19 responses.  But be that as it may, the decision has been made to go all-in on social distancing.  I am fully participating, whatever my personal beliefs are about risk.  Our family is staying isolated and wearing masks and gloves when we need to go into a store -- not because we are scared but because we are participating.  These sorts of things are much easier to do when everyone else is doing them, and more effective as well.

In places like Phoenix that is lightly hit by the virus and in rural areas where my company operates that have been hit not at all (e.g. zero cases in the county), a lot of folks are not playing along.  It would be heartbreaking to crash the economy and double the government debt only to have this thing still drag out because folks couldn't put neighborhood barbecues on hold for a few weeks (yes, I have seen several).

Update from a long-time reader:

The claimed purpose of quarantine is to create a gap in a long line of transmission. While it can be quite effective, the quarantine time does not really start until EVERYONE stops moving around. As long as even a few still move between isolated groups, those groups are not actually isolated at all. This means that failure to self quarantine lengthens the required quarantine period of all who actually comply. I would like this to be over, the sooner the better.