I was out and about on Saturday and ended up dropping by the shopping mall formerly known as The City. (The name may be familiar to the few of you who managed to finish Philip K. Dick's quasi-novel VALIS, though it was miscapitalized there.) The City has gone through many rebirths and retcons and what have you, and is currently known as The Outlets at Orange, even though most of the stores don't appear to be outlets at all, just ordinary stores.
Anyway, I took a few pictures and this is what it looked like. It's kind of weird. Orange County is ground zero for a lot of anti-mask nutbaggery, but out in real life nearly everyone is masked up. Even after the CDC's latest announcement, most people continue to wear masks outdoors, let alone indoors. I'd say about 75% of the crowd at the mall was wearing masks.May 15, 2021 — Orange, California
I'm reposting this since a lot of people might not have seen it over the weekend.
Not everyone wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Hesitance is highest among young people, the Black community, and, of course—Republicans.
This is nothing new. Here is the historical reaction of Americans to getting vaccines¹:
Overall response to the COVID-19 vaccine is right in line with historical averages. What's more, Republicans have always been more hesitant about vaccines than Democrats—though with a twist:
As you can see, Republicans have always been more wary of vaccines. That wariness has increased over time, but it's been stable since 2000 and obviously has nothing to do with Donald Trump. In fact, the especially big difference in the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine isn't due to Republicans becoming more hesitant at all. It's due to Democrats becoming less hesitant. Democrats are about 20 points more enthusiastic about the COVID-19 vaccine than they have been about other vaccines.
There's an important point here: People are hesitant about vaccines for different reasons, and conservatives have historically been more hesitant than average about them. This means that loud snarking about Republicans being idiot zealots willing to kill themselves just for partisan satisfaction misses the point: their hesitance has little to do with Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson or the polarization of modern politics. Vaccine yahooism may have made things worse at the margins, but that's about it. Conservatives have always been this way.
I don't know why this is. Maybe it's due to natural conservative suspicion of the federal government. Jonathan Haidt might say it's due to conservative belief in the sanctity of the human body. Or, since a big part of the difference is due to rural residents, it might have something to do with longtime rural suspicion of new technology.
In any case, those are the sorts of things we should be looking at if we really and truly want to increase vaccination rates.² It's more fun to go after Tucker Carlson—and I encourage everyone to continue doing this—but the evidence says that's not really the primary underlying issue here. Something else unrelated to the present day is at fault. We should try to figure this out with the same empathy and understanding that we feel toward young people and Black doubters.
Why did the United States suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:
- CDC incompetence
- FDA sluggishness
- Donald Trump's mismanagement
- Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration
Now let's rephrase the question. Why did the the United States and all of Europe suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:
- CDC incompetence
- FDA sluggishness
- Donald Trump's mismanagement
- Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration
This rephrasing should make it evident that none of these answers—or anything else unique to the United States—makes sense. Europe had good quality tests earlier than us, but it did them no good. Europe responded sooner than we did, but it did them no good. Europe had shortages of PPE etc. just like we did. Europe had the opportunity to establish travel restrictions before the US, but didn't. European health agencies provided roughly the same masking advice we did. Etc.
In other words, everyone needs to stop the CDC/FDA/Trump blame game because it's wrong. It's obvious that the United States isn't unique among Western nations, and by definition that means the primary cause of our high mortality rate is also not something unique to the US. Our premature reopening in May of last year was responsible for a higher summer death rate, and Donald Trump can certainly be blamed for that, but that's about all.
This is the question you should ask anyone who insists on blaming the virulence of the pandemic on some specifically American screwup: "But what about Europe?" If their theory doesn't explain Europe too, you can just toss it out immediately.
Here’s the officially reported coronavirus death toll through May 16. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
Here’s the officially reported coronavirus death toll through May 15. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
The American public continued to spend, spend, spend in April:
In March retail spending shot up well above the trendline of the past few years, and in April it stayed there. This is not yet enough to make up for the 3-month plunge last year, but it's getting there.
Unsurprisingly, we're all getting offline and starting to do more of our shopping out in the real world:
This only goes through the end of 2020, and I wouldn't be surprised if we're back on trend by the middle of this year.
While I was looking up these numbers, I got curious about spending at the start of the pandemic. There was a huge downward spike starting in mid-March, but different products went down more than others:
Grocery spending actually went up, which is no surprise since (a) everyone has to eat, and (b) all the restaurants were closed. Beyond that, I'm a little hard pressed to tell any kind of unified story about these numbers, though it sure looks like once the pandemic became official we all decided almost immediately that we didn't care how we looked anymore, which would explain the massive drop in spending on clothes and personal care.
Can you make up a story that explains all this? If so, you can join the pundit narrative hall of fame. For this assignment, pretend you're David Brooks.
A few days ago the CDC changed its official guidance about COVID-19, finally acknowledging that one of the primary transmission routes for the virus is via airborne aerosols. This prompted a lot of criticism about the CDC being extraordinarily late to admit this.
There's a lot I could say about this, but I won't for now. I just want to ask one question: Why does anyone care? The CDC's official guidance may have been slow to change, but as early as May they were publishing research that acknowledged the possibility of airborne transmission. In August they formed a task force to investigate transmission modes. By September Dr. Fauci was publicly conceding that COVID transmission was "much more aerosol than we thought." In October the CDC's official guidance acknowledged the existence of airborne transmission. Super-spreader events (which are indicative of airborne transmission) had already been in the regulatory eye for months. And very early on the CDC was recommending better ventilation to rein in virus transmission, which mostly matters only if the virus is airborne.Illustration from a May CDC publication acknowledging the possibility of "super-emitter" aerosol transmission at a choir practice in Skagit County, Washington.
So we were already focused on super-spreader events and the CDC was recommending better ventilation. What would have been different if the CDC had acknowledged the aerosol infection route earlier? A little less obsessive surface cleaning? (Though the CDC always said that surface transmission was rare.) Social distancing at ten feet instead of six?
I'm not sure, but this is a genuine question. I know that hospitals fought against acknowledging airborne transmission because it would have required them to adopt protective gear that was both more expensive and more cumbersome. An official change in CDC guidance would have had a big impact on them. Beyond that, though, I'm a little hard put to figure out what would have changed outside the hospital world if the CDC had been quicker on the ball. As Fauci said in October,"Rather than getting bent out of shape of, what's the evidence of 5%, 10%, 20%—aerosol transmission almost certainly occurs, then act like it's occurring. And then do the same thing you've been doing otherwise."
So: was the public response to COVID-19 really hindered much by the CDC's sluggish official guidance? Can anyone help me out here?
Here’s the officially reported coronavirus death toll through May 14. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
I keep seeing stuff along these lines:
I have to say that my most frustrated and confused friends are the ones who "followed the science" and are now trying to figure out why the science has changed so drastically in the last 2 months
— PoliMath (@politicalmath) May 14, 2021
Am I crazy or is everyone else crazy? Nothing significant has changed about "the science" in the past two months—although we do have more data about how well the COVID vaccines work against all the variants floating around out there. (Pretty well, it seems.) Nobody has said otherwise.
What's changed is the circumstances. No one ever suggested that we'd wear masks forever, which means there was always going to be a day when the CDC would announce that it was OK for vaccinated folks to stop wearing them. That day would come when (a) the case count was dropping, (b) the vaccination rate had gotten sufficiently high, (c) real-world experience with the vaccines was convincingly positive, and (d) other indicators suggested that it was safe to drop the mask recommendation.
This is something of a judgment call, and there's nothing special about the day before or the day after. Nothing "suddenly" changed. Is this really so hard to understand?
Back in the day, this lamp sported an incandescent bulb that provided some lovely warmth for a snoozing cat. We replaced it long ago with an LED bulb, but Hilbert still loves it. Apparently the Pavlovian association of light with warmth continues even years after it's been broken.
This is the Queen Mary, docked at Long Beach harbor. The stacks have a wavering look to them, as if I shot this from a mile away with a 2000mm lens, but that's just an artifact of shooting through the front windshield of my car. For some reason, even though the street was empty, I was apparently too lazy to open the door and shoot the picture normally.May 8, 2021 — Long Beach, California
The news is covered with such a remarkable array of nonsense that I can't really find anything to write about. The war in Israel is a tragedy, but it will end the way their wars always end. Donald Trump still lost the 2020 election. The insurrection at the Capitol on 1/6 is still an insurrection. National economic indicators are slightly off for a tiny time period, and they're still meaningless for anyone not desperately trying to make a partisan point. The Colonial pipeline has been restored, and in a week or two no one will remember it. The CDC has finally said that vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most places.
Anyway, I was roaming around looking for something off the beaten path, when I remembered this:
"Coincident Economic Activity" is an index of economic health for each state. It's composed of four difference measures, and I don't suppose it's especially any better than other indexes that do the same thing. However, it has the benefit of being a longtime series from the Philadelphia Fed, which means it has no ax to grind.
In this case, it shows how well states have recovered from the Great Recession and then how well they've recovered from the pandemic. Among the six large states on the chart, California did the best at recovering from the recession, while Georgia has done the best at recovering from the pandemic (in the sense of getting back to its pre-pandemic level). Overall, California and Florida showed the best performance both before and after the pandemic.
There's no special point to make here. It's just something to take your mind off the news for a few seconds.
UPDATE: I got curious about which states had shown the biggest drops in economic activity after the pandemic hit. Here's the data for all 50 states:
Arkansas dropped only 3.4%, while West Virginia was down 46%. This is a pretty astonishing range of results and I'm not sure what explains it. Here's a chart that shows how well each state has recovered from the pandemic (that is, their current level compared to January 2020):
Utah comes in the best, while West Virginia still has a long way to go.
Here’s the officially reported coronavirus death toll through May 12. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
For those of you interested in a non-panicked look at inflation, the Cleveland Fed has been forecasting 10-year inflation expectations for the past forty years. Here's their entire time series:
These forecasts have been pretty accurate. Obviously there's a fair amount of noise in the data, and no forecast can account for recessions and pandemics ten years in the future, but generally speaking the Cleveland Fed forecasts are within about one percentage point of how things turn out ten years later. Right now they're forecasting future inflation at about 1.6%.
Other measures of inflation expectations, based on daily movements of Treasury rates, showed almost no movement today after the latest inflation figures were announced. Whatever the pundits are saying, the market doesn't seem to think today's figures meant much of anything at all. The 5/5 forward rate, for example, has been rising all year but dropped slightly today from 2.38% to 2.36%.
Bottom line: as with every other economic indicator, everyone should chill. Daily and monthly movements just don't mean anything, especially during a turbulent period like we're going through now. Over the next few months inflation will stabilize, the economy will grow, people will all get back to work, and everything will be fine.
This is a milkweed leaf beetle, photographed as it was scuttling across a path toward safety in the nearby greenery. It was searching, I assume, for a milkweed leaf to chew on. The blue sheen is very attractive, don't you think?April 10, 2021 — Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Orange County, California
As expected, the headline inflation rate rose 4.2% in April. My best guess for the real rate of inflation, based on ignoring the artificial drop a year ago, is 266.832 ÷ 259, or about 3%:
For all you inflation worriers out there, 3% is still high too! But hardly unexpected. We've pumped enough money into the economy that everyone expects a temporary bout of elevated inflation. The only real disagreement is over how long this will last. Is it just for a few months, and therefore no big deal? Or is this a harbinger of high inflation for years to come?
My vote is on "temporary bout," but only time will tell.
After a month of stalling at about two deaths per million, our mortality rate dropped to 1.85 per million on Tuesday. This is a rolling 7-day average, so it's not just a single day's anomaly, and it comes right on schedule, about a month after our case rate started dropping. So cross your fingers and try to persuade any holdouts you know to get vaccinated. We might finally be on track to beat this thing.
Here’s the officially reported coronavirus death toll through May 11. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
According to official figures, here is the size of the COVID-19 outbreak in India:
In no way am I trying to downplay the tragedy in India, but if these numbers are correct then India's outbreak is still only a fraction the size of the outbreak we went through just a few months ago—and it appears to be already peaking and starting to turn down.
Is this right? Or are the official figures nowhere close to the truth? Is the devastation in India really due to the size of its outbreak, or is it more about the inadequacy of its medical system?
The Wall Street Journal reports on the malware attack that shut down the Colonial pipeline late last week:
While ransomware has been a challenge for small businesses for years, a confluence of factors have emboldened attackers in the past year, culminating in the shutdown Friday of a critical gasoline pipeline to the U.S. East Coast. The pipeline’s operator, Colonial Pipeline Co., now says service could be offline until week’s end, threatening to raise prices at the pump for millions of Americans.
How soon we forget. The NotPetya malware attack happened four years ago and shut down operations at the Maersk shipping line for more than two weeks. Adam Banks, head of technology at Maersk, describes what happened:
Two years on, Banks is willing to outline the scale of the destruction he encountered as what later become known as the NotPetya malware took hold and the company’s operations ground to a halt. “All end-user devices, including 49,000 laptops and print capability, were destroyed,” he says. “All of our 1,200 applications were inaccessible and approximately 1,000 were destroyed. Data was preserved on back-ups but the applications themselves couldn’t be restored from those as they would immediately have been re-infected. Around 3,500 of our 6,200 servers were destroyed — and again they couldn’t be reinstalled.”
The cyber-attack also hit communications. All fixed line phones were inoperable due to the network damage and, because they'd been synchronized with Outlook, all contacts had been wiped from mobiles — severely hampering any kind of coordinated response.
....Banks is candid about the breadth of the impact: “There was 100% destruction of anything based on Microsoft that was attached to the network.”
Maersk was able to recover only thanks to a wild bit of good luck: an uninfected directory file from their office in Nigeria. Even at that, though, the effect on shipping was a hundred times greater than the Suez Canal blockage earlier this year, and the damage to Maersk clocked in at about $300 million.
The NotPetya attack also hit WPP, Merck, Rosneft, Saint-Gobain, DHL, Cadbury's, JNPT, FedEx, and others. Total damage has been estimated at around $10 billion.
Technically, NotPetya wasn't a ransomware attack because the payload had been altered so that the files it encrypted couldn't be decrypted at all by anyone. But that's a tiny difference. We've known for a long time just how destructive this stuff can be on both small companies and the largest of multinational corporations. Nothing that happened this year taught us anything new.
These are white cosmos blooming against a field of California poppies and purple lupine. The picture was taken at the Farm + Food Lab in the Great Park, an "interactive outdoor classroom for visitors of all ages."April 27, 2021 — Irvine, California