COVID-19 in the United States: Latest Projections

I explained yesterday that I have devised a more sophisticated method of projecting the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. I had earlier projected 250,000 cases and 10,000 deaths. My new method yields higher numbers than those, but far fewer deaths than the official estimate issued by the White House: 100,000 to 240,000. My guess is that the official estimate has been inflated to scare people into staying at home, which will reduce the rate at which new cases arise and prevent the number of deaths from reaching 100,000 or more.

In any event, a day makes a difference. Yesterday, relying on data collected through April 1, I projected 870,000 cases and 40,000 deaths by the end of June. Today, with an additional day’s worth of date, the situation actually looks a bit better: 830,000 cases and 39,000 deaths. The difference isn’t significant, but the good news is that today’s estimate isn’t worse than yesterday’s.

Here’s how it looks in graphical form:

100,000 to 240,000 COVID-19 Deaths in the U.S.?

REVISED ESTIMATES (INDICATED BY STRIKETHROUGHS) TO ADJUST FOR THE ADDITION OF DATA THROUGH APRIL 1, 2020, INCLUDING PREVIOUSLY MISSING DATA FOR THE STATE OF WASHINGTON.

Using some simple linear models of the rates of growth in U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths, I predicted that cases would top out at 250,000 and deaths wouldn’t exceed 10,000. I assumed that

lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing continue for at least two more weeks, and assuming that there isn’t a second wave of COVID-19 because of early relaxation or re-infection.

I also said that, in any event,

the final numbers will be well below the totals for the swine-flu epidemic of 2009-10 (59 million and 12,000) but you won’t hear about it from the leftist media.

Is it time for me to back off my bold predictions, in light of the “official” estimate of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths that was announced at yesterday’s White House briefing? Probably.

First, let’s look at the numbers:

  • The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 resulted in a maximum of 675,000 deaths out of 29 million U.S. cases — a fatality rate of 2.4 percent.
  • The H1N1 pandemic of 2009-10 resulted in 12,000 deaths out of 59 million U.S. cases — a fatality rate of 2/100 of one percent.
  • COVID-19 is (thus far) more lethal than the two earlier pandemics — 4.6 percent of the number of cases reached 5 days earlier. (A 5-day lag yields the strongest correlation between new cases and new deaths.)

Rounding up to 5 percent — and assuming that the rate remains constant — a total of 100,000 deaths means a total of 2 million cases, and a total of 240,000 deaths means a total of 4.8 million cases. As of today, the number of cases is somewhere above 200,000. Will the number of cases increase 10-fold to 24-fold, or more? Will the fatality rate rise?

Lacking detailed knowledge of how the official estimates are derived, I computed non-linear estimates of the rates at which new cases and new deaths will occur, based on statistics through March 31, 2020 (though numbers for Washington haven’t been posted for three days) April 1, 2020. The rate of increase in new cases declines gradually (the function is a decaying exponential) and never reaches zero, but approaches it by the end of June 2020. The rate at which new cases yield new deaths declines gradually, from a base of 5.8 6.6 percent, as the number of new cases increases (the relationship is a power function with an exponent of less than 1).

The bottom line: By July 1, 2020, the total number of cases in the U.S. will may reach 800,000 870,000, resulting in 35,000 40,000 deaths. That’s a fatality rate of about 4.3 4.6 percent per case and 1/100 12/1,000 of 1 percent of the country’s population.

Again, I assume that lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing continue (though for how long I can’t say). I also assume that there won’t be a second wave of COVID-19 because of re-infections or an early relaxation of precautions.

Why is my revised and more sophisticated estimate of the number of deaths so much lower than the official one? It’s probably true that the official estimate simulates the spread of the contagion, whereas my general model doesn’t do that. But my guess is that the official estimate has been inflated to scare people into staying at home, which will reduce the rate at which new cases arise and prevent the number of deaths from reaching 100,000 or more.

Evaluating an Atheistic Argument

I am plowing my way through Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, and I continue to doubt that it will inform my views about cosmology. I concluded my preliminary thoughts about the book with this:

Craig … sees the hand of God in the Big Bang. The presence of the singularity … had to have been created so that the Big Bang could follow. That’s all well and good, but what was God doing before the Big Bang, that is, in the infinite span of time before 15 billion years ago? (Is it presumptuous of me to ask?) And why should the Big Bang prove God’s existence any more than, say, a universe that came into being at an indeterminate time? The necessity of God (or some kind of creator) arises from the known character of the universe: material effects follow from material causes, which cannot cause themselves. In short, Craig pins too much on the Big Bang, and his argument would collapse if the Big Bang is found to be a figment of observational error.

Later, however, Craig adopts a more reasonable position:

The theist … has no vested interest in denominating the Big Bang as the moment of creation. He is convinced that God created all of space-time reality ex nihilo, and the Big Bang model provides a powerful suggestion as to when that was; on the other hand, if it can be demonstrated that our observable universe originated in a broader spacetime, so be it — in that case it was this wider reality that was the immediate object of God’s creation.

Just so.

Many pages later, after rattling on almost unintelligibly, Smith gets down to brass tacks by offering an actual atheistic argument. It goes like this (with “premise” substituted for “premiss”):

(1) If God exists and there is an earliest state E of the universe, then God created E.

(2) If God created E, then E is ensured either to contain animate creatures or to lead to a subsequent state of the universe that contains animate creatures.

Premise (2) is entailed by two more basic theological premises, namely,

(3) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.

(4) An animate universe is better than an inanimate universe….

[Further]

(5) There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity….

The scientific ideas [1, 2, and 5] also give us this premise

(6) The earliest state of the universe is inanimate since the singularity involves the life-hostile conditions of infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density.

Another scientific idea … the principle of ignorance, give us the summary premise

(7) The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will emit a maximal configuration of particles that will evolve into an animate state of the universe….

(5) and (7) entail

(8) The earliest state of the universe is not ensured to lead to an animate state of the universe.

We now come to the crux of our argument. Given (2), (6), and (8), we can now infer that God could not have created the earliest state of the universe. It then follows, by (1), that God does not exist.

This is a terrible argument, and one that I expect to be demolished by Craig’s response, which I haven’t yet read. Here is my demolition: Smith’s premises (3) and (4) are superfluous to his argument; if they are worth anything it is to demonstrate the shallowness of his grasp of theistic arguments for the existence of God. Smith’s premise (2) is a non sequitur; the universe does contain animate creatures and might do so even if God didn’t exist. Smith’s (6), (7), and (8) are therefore irrelevant to Smith’s argument. And, by Smith’s own “logic”,  God must exist because premise (2) is confirmed by reality.

Here is my counter-argument:

(I) If God exists:

(A) He must exist infinitely, that is, without beginning.

(B) He is necessarily apart from His creation; therefore, His essence is beyond human comprehension and cannot be characterized anthropomorphically nor judged by any of His creations, except to the extent that if God is a conscious essence, He may enable human beings to know His character and intentions by some means.

(II) The universe, as a material manifestation that is observable by human beings (in part, at least) must have been created by God because material things cannot create themselves. (The processes appealed to by atheists, such as quantum fluctuations and vacuum energy, operate on existing material.)

(III) The universe, as a creation of an infinite God, may have had an indeterminate beginning.

(IV) There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that the Big Bang and all that ensued in the observable universe is the whole of the universe created by God. Rather, the Big Bang, and all that ensued in the observable universe may be a manifestation of a broader spacetime that is forever beyond the ken of human beings.

(V) Human knowledge of the observable universe is limited to the physical “laws” that can be inferred from what is known of the observable universe since its apparent origin as a material entity.

(VI) It is therefore impossible for human beings to know what processes preceded the origin of the observable universe.

(VII) Because animate, conscious organisms exist in the observable universe, the physical processes (if any) involved in the origination of the observable universe must have been conducive to the development of such organisms. But, by (6), whether that was by “design” or accident is beyond the ken of human beings.

(VIII) But animate, conscious organisms may be the result of a deliberate act of God, who may enable human beings to know of His existence and his design.

This is an unscientific argument, in that it can’t be falsified by observation. By the same token, so too is Smith’s argument unscientific, despite his use of scientific jargon and “scientific” speculations. But the weakness of Smith’s argument is proof (of a kind) that God exists and that He created the universe. That is to say, Smith (and countless others like him) seem determined to refute the logically necessary existence of God, but their refutations fail because they are illogical.


Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
A Theory of Everything, Occam’s Razor, and Baseball
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
What Is Time?
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Tenth Dimension
The Big Bang and Atheism
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II) (first item)
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Religion, Creation, and Morality
Atheistic Scientism Revisited
Through a Glass Darkly
Existence and Knowledge

COVID-19 in the United States

I have created several charts based on official (State-by-State) statistics on COVID-19 cases in the U.S. that are reported here. The statistics exclude cases and deaths occurring among repatriated persons (i.e., Americans returned from other countries or cruise ships).

The source tables include the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, but I have excluded them from my analysis. I would also exclude Alaska and Hawaii, given their distance from the coterminous U.S., but it would be cumbersome to do so. Further, both States have low numbers of cases and (as yet) only 3 deaths (in Alaska), so leaving them in has almost no effect on the results displayed below.

All of the following charts are current through March 30, 2020. Based on statistical relationships underlying the charts, I stand by the prediction that I made on March 29, 2020:

Assuming that lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing continue for at least two more weeks, and assuming that there isn’t a second wave of COVID-19 because of early relaxation or re-infection:

  • The total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. won’t exceed 250,000.
  • The total number of U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 won’t exceed 10,000.

In any event, the final numbers will be well below the totals for the swine-flu epidemic of 2009-10 (59 million and 12,000) but you won’t hear about it from the leftist media.

UPDATE 03/31/20: Some sources are reporting higher numbers of U.S. cases and deaths than the source that I am using for my analysis and predictions. It is therefore possible that the final numbers (according to some sources) will be higher than my predictions. But I will be in the ballpark.

UPDATE 04/01/20: See my revised estimate.

*   *   *

As indicated by Figure 1, the number of cases is about 1/20th of 1 percent of the population of the U.S.; the number of deaths, about 1/1,000th of 1 percent. Only 1.8 percent of cases have thus far resulted in deaths. Note the logarithmic scale on the vertical axis. Every major division (e.g., 0.01%) is 10 times the preceding major division (e.g., 0.001%).

Figure 1

I have seen some comparisons of the U.S. with other countries, but they use raw numbers of cases and deaths rather than cases and deaths per unit of population. The comparisons therefore make the situation in the U.S. look far worse than it really is.

Nor do the publishers of such comparisons address cross-country differences the completeness of data-collection or standards for identifying cases and deaths as resulting from COVID-19.

In any event, Figure 2 shows how the coronavirus outbreak compares with earlier pandemics when the numbers for those pandemics are adjusted upward to account for population growth since their occurrence. (Again, note that the vertical axis is logarithmic.) The number of COVID-19 cases is thus far only about 2 percent of the number of swine-flu cases; the number of COVID-19 deaths is thus far about 16 percent of the number of swine-flu deaths. So far, COVID-19 seems to kill a higher fraction of those infected than did the swine flu, but on present trends (discussed below) it may not prove to be any more lethal than the swine flu.

Figure 2

As shown in Figure 3, the daily percentage change in new cases is declining, as is the daily percentage change in new deaths.

Figure 3

However, new deaths necessarily lag new cases. As of yesterday, the best fit between new cases and new deaths is a 5-day lag (Figure 4). At the present rate, every 1,000 new cases will yield about 34 new deaths. This ratio has been declining daily, which is another bit of good news.

Figure 4

Figure 5 shows the tighter relationship between new cases and new deaths (especially in the past two weeks) when Figure 3 is adjusted to introduce the 5-day lag.

Figure 5

Figure 6 shows the similarly tight relationship that results from the removal of the 6 “hot spots” — Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — which have the highest incidence of cases per capita.

Figure 6

The good news here is the the declining rate of increase in the incidence of new cases, both nationwide (including the “hot spots”) and in the States that have been less hard-hit by COVID-19. The rest of the good news is that if the rate of new cases continues to decline, so will the rate of new deaths (though with a lag). Thus the prediction at the top of this post.

COVID-19 Update and Prediction

I have updated my statistical analysis here. Note especially the continued decline in the daily rate of new cases and the low rate of new deaths per new case.

Now for the prediction. Assuming that lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing continue for at least two more weeks, and assuming that there isn’t a second wave of COVID-19 because of early relaxation or re-infection:

  • The total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. won’t exceed 250,000.
  • The total number of U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 won’t exceed 10,000.

In any event, the final numbers will be well below the totals for the swine-flu epidemic of 2009-10 (59 million and 12,000) but you won’t hear about it from the leftist media.

UPDATE 03/31/20: Some sources are reporting higher numbers of U.S. cases and deaths than the source that I am using for my analysis and predictions. It is therefore possible that the final numbers (according to some sources) will be higher than my predictions. But I will be in the ballpark.

UPDATE 04/10/20: See my revised estimate.

Something Cheerful

I have trained a Pandora station to play popular songs from the 1920s and early 1930s. I wrote about the music of that era in an earlier post, “It’s Time to Revive 1920s’ Jazz“. Here’s the post in its entirety (with some updated links), plus an addendum about a long-forgotten singer who will brighten your day.

I often wonder why the popular jazz of the 1920s, which faded in the mid-1930s, isn’t still widely popular. It’s rhythmically inventive, driving, and upbeat — as opposed to the monotonous and often dreary, dissonant, and unmelodic droning of what later became known as jazz. (I’m not writing here about the New Orleans style of jazz, which is a genre of its own, and has never died out. If you’re unsure of the distinction, click on the links at the end of this post.)

The jazz of the ’20s (and early-to-mid-’30s) evolved into the swing of the ’30s and 40s. Swing evolved into the ponderous big-band sound of the ’40s and ’50s.

Rhythmically inventive, driving, and upbeat popular music returned in the mid-’50s, with the birth of rock and roll. The Beatles and their ilk put a twist on rock and roll, and the genre evolved into what is known as classic rock — the sound that dominated the mid-’60s to early ’70s. Its variants — some of them close to the classic sound — survive and thrive to this day.

But nothing — with the possible exception of early swing — has yet to rival the musical sophistication of ’20s jazz. Bands led by the likes of Red Allen, Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds, the early Duke Ellington, Jean Goldkette, Fletcher Henderson, Isham Jones, Vincent Lopez, Jelly Roll Morton, Red Nichols, King Oliver, and Paul Whiteman (to name only a small representation) recorded thousands of foot-stomping tunes (plus innumerable blues, ballads, novelty tunes, other non-jazzy material).

It is de rigeur in some musical circles to deride the offerings of the larger ensembles, such as those led by several of the band leaders mentioned above. But their tight orchestrations delivered as much toe-tapping vitality as anything offered up by smaller groups.

For a feast of ’20s jazz — and much more — go to The Red Hot Jazz Archive, tap your toes, and lighten your spirit. (RealPlayer required.)

One of my favorites, which number in the hundreds, is “Dinah“. Not a jazzy song, you say? Well, dig these variations on a theme:

Cliff Edwards (1925)

Jean Goldkette (1926)

Joe Venuti (1928)

Red Nichols (1929)

Louis Armstrong (1930)

Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers (1932) (After a ballad-y start, Bing rips into it. Bing as you’ve probably never heard him.)

The Boswell Sisters (1934) (The Bozzies followed Bing’s lead.)

Quintette of the Hot Club of France (1934)

Fats Waller (1935)

And feast your ears on this long anthology of Bix Beiderbecke‘s recordings. Beiderbecke crammed a long lifetime of music into his brief 28 years.

Now for the long-forgotten singer: Annette Hanshaw. Until I set up my Pandora station, which I call Upbeat, I hadn’t heard of her. The only female singers of that day whose works I was familiar with were Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Smith and Rainey were blues singers. Etting and Morgan were identified (in retrospect, at least) with torch songs: Etting with “Body and Soul“, Morgan with “Bill“. Hanshaw’s renderings of “Body and Soul” and “Bill” are vocally superior to those of Etting and Morgan, though less torchy.

Hanshaw’s sprightly soprano is simply too cheerful to be subdued by songs of longing and regret. It’s not a perfect voice (the lowest notes are weak). But it’s such a happy voice that I must share some links to a few of the dozens of her songs that I’ve heard on my Upbeat station:

Am I Blue?” (a happy blues song with Hanshaw at the mic)

Button Up Your Overcoat” (in her Betty Boop/Helen Kane voice)

Get Out and Get Under the Moon

Happy Days Are Here Again

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

I Get the Blues When It Rains” (more happy blues)

I Love a Ukelele

I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling

Let’s Fall in Love” (as close to a plaintive sound as she gets)

For many many more songs by Annette Hanshaw, go here and here.

P.S. After I had added the paragraphs about Annette Hanshaw, I found John Wilson’s article, “The Influence of Jazz on Modern Singing” (The New York Times, August 20, 1990). It’s a review of a book about jazz singing. This is spot-on (except for the part about Hanshaw’s age, as discussed below):

There is a fascinatingly abbreviated saga of Annette Hanshaw, ”the Louise Brooks of jazz,” as Mr. Friedwald calls her. She was born wealthy: ”no two-bit manager ever cracked the whip and tried to Svengali her into sounding like everybody else.” She became a star through her records, starting in 1926, by using the musical idiom of the 20’s in what Mr. Friedwald terms ”a creative modern way.” Although she had virtually no ambition, despised being a celebrity and was terrified of audiences, in her eight years of recording she made ”the period’s most consistently excellent series of female vocal records outside the blues idiom.” She retired permanently at the age of 28 and lived happily for 50 more years without singing.

Actually Hanshaw retired permanently after a 1937 radio appearance when she was 36. She recorded her final disc in 1934 (“Let’s Fall in Love” is on the A side) — her only recording of that year. The mistake about her age is due to an error someone made somewhere along the line (and which seems to have gone uncorrected by Hanshaw), namely, that she was born in 1910, though her real birth year was 1901. The error persisted in the Times’s 1985 obituary for Hanshaw, and wasn’t rectified until many years after her death. In any event, she did live for 50 years after her final recording, but she was almost 84 when she died, not 74, as the Times‘s obituary says, or 78, as Wilson says.

The Great Leveler?

A correspondent recently brought Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler, into a discussion of COVID-19:

[Scheidel] argues persuasively that throughout human history plague has been one of the only four causes of significant reduction in income inequality (along with war, revolution, and state collapse). If the most dire of projections comes to pass (2.2 million deaths in the US), might that radically change our demography? People like the three of us are most likely to be among the departed. Some zip codes in Florida and Arizona would need a lot fewer mailmen. So, might Corona move the national political needle to the left? And even if demography doesn’t change things at the ballot box that much, won’t all this unavoidable reliance on government give the case for more government a boost? Might the possible persistence of Corona or a successor, make that boost even stronger?

My response:

My first reaction to your account of Scheidel’s book is that Scheidel must be some kind of ghoul. Plague, war, revolution, and state collapse (like their biblical counterparts) cause great misery (temporarily, at least) among all economic and social classes. The fact that the upper classes suffer more than the lower classes would be a consolation only to the pathologically envious among the lower classes or the economically ignorant (and self-flagellating) among the upper classes, who seem to believe that inequality arises from greed and not (in the main) differences in talents and accomplishments.

My second reaction is that Scheidel is underscoring the lesson that inequality is a natural phenomenon, whereas equality — the fool’s gold of the envious and the ignorant — can be had only at a price that no one should be willing to pay.

You’ve had the great advantage of reading the book. What say you?

The correspondent hasn’t replied to my question. Perhaps I touched a nerve; he is an affluent San Franciscan.

Preparedness

There’s a five-year-old video making the rounds in which Bill Gates warns about the next big catastrophe. Of course, the next big catastrophe looks like the coronavirus. But what did Bill Gates and various other doom-sayers warn about that hasn’t happened (and probably won’t happen)? Make enough predictions and some of them will come true.

In any event, how prepared was the U.S. for the current crisis? A team assembled under the aegis of Johns Hopkins University studied the problem last year. The report is here.

Scroll down to the ranking of countries by estimated level of preparedness. The U.S. is at the top of the list. Nevertheless, the authors of the study concluded that overall preparedness was weak; the U.S. simply looked like the best prepared among generally ill-prepared countries.

A big gap in such assessments, and in thinking generally about preparedness, is the ability of a country’s private sector (the actual producers of products and services) to respond to and rebound from major shocks. The U.S. certainly ranks high (if not highest) on that score.

What Is Natural?

Back-to-nature types, worriers about what “humans are doing to the planet”, and neurotics (leftists) generally take a dim view of the artifacts of human existence. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in that view, of course, mixed with goodly doses of envy and virtue-signalling.

A lot of the complaints heard from back-to-nature types, etc., are really esthetic. They just don’t like to envision a pipeline running across some open far away and well out of sight, ditto a distant and relatively small cluster of oil rigs. Such objections would seem to conflict with their preference for ugly bird-killing highway straddling, skyline cluttering wind farms. Chalk it up economically ignorant indoctrination in the “evils” of fossil fuels.

At any rate, what makes a pipeline, an oil rig, or even a wind farm any less natural than the artifacts constructed by lower animals to promote their survival? The main difference between the artifacts of the lower animals — bird’s nests, bee hives, beaver dams, underground burrows, etc. — and those of human beings is that human artifacts are far more ingenious and complex. Moreover, because humans are far more ingenious than the lower animals, the number of different human artifacts is far greater than the number arising from any other species, or even all of them taken together.

Granted, there are artifacts that aren’t necessary to the survival of human beings (e.g., movies, TV, and electric guitars), but those aren’t the ones that the back-to-nature crowd and its allies find objectionable. No, they object to the artifacts that enable the back-to-earthers, etc., to live in comfort.

In sum, a pipeline is just as natural as a bird’s nest. Remember that the next time you encounter an aging “flower child”. And ask her if a wind farm is more natural than a pipeline, and how she would like it if she had to forage for firewood to stay warm and cook her meals.

Recession, Depression, or Service Interruption?

A few weeks ago, when COVID-19 was just beginning to look like a serious problem in the U.S., I saw a gloating op-ed by a left-winger on the Sunday “left vs. right” op-ed page of my local paper. The thrust of the lefty’s op-ed was that COVID-19 would push the U.S. into recession or depression, and that Trump wouldn’t be able to brag about the strength of the economy during his presidency.

Sick, sick, sick. But there’s a lot of that kind of sickness going around on the left. In yesterday’s NYT, for example, there was a piece by Robert Sharma under the headline “This Is How the Coronavirus Will Destroy the Economy“. Sharma’s piece makes some sense (as I will come to), but it is telling that the leftists at the Times chose to showcase it.

What is it with leftists and doom-saying? Well, doom-saying serves the purpose of justifying more and bigger government. And doom saying comes naturally to leftists, because they are neurotics. (See the section on Psychology at my “Leftism” page.)

In any event, are Sharma and his ilk right, or even close to right, about the economic effects of COVID-19? Sharma hangs his hat on the burden of debt, which will push many businesses and persons into bankruptcy if economic activity is depressed for very much longer. But in this era of government-backed student loans, relaxed standards for low-income and minority mortgagors, and bailouts in general it seems likely that the U.S. government will intervene to prevent defaults by businesses and persons meeting certain criteria for pre-coronavirus solvency. (Bailing out an already-bankrupt business or person would be out-of-bounds but not unthinkable for the political class.)

I therefore assume that the problem of indebtedness will handled in a way that prevents a “black hole” of insolvency from swallowing a large share of the economy. Similarly, “relief checks” will help to replenish the ready cash of persons whose paychecks are reduced or eliminated during the national lock-down.

That leaves the question of what happens when (not if) the coronavirus threat is tamed and Americans return to somewhat normal living and working habits.

The answer to the question lies, I believe, in the resemblance of the national lock-down to a long vacation taken simultaneously by a large fraction of Americans. But in this case almost everyone who was “on vacation” — either as a producer or consumer — will be eager to go back to work and eager to resume mundane activities. The situation will be more like the game of statues and less like the kind of dislocation that occurs when there is a financial panic (e.g., 1929, 2008) or a major industry (e.g., housing) craters because of over-investment (triggered by bad government policies).

This isn’t to say that there won’t be some dislocations and resulting unemployment. Even if every American  comes out of the crisis as solvent as he went into it, there will be some shifts in consumption patterns that require shifts in production patterns. And some productive capacity will be lost (e.g., small businesses — especially non-chain restaurants) and won’t be restored quickly.

The extent of dislocations and unemployment will depend partly on the length of the crisis and the effect that it has on producers. There will also be an effect on the demand side, as consumers shift their spending habits in response to the crisis. The new habits will include, for example, less travel (especially ocean cruises), less time spent in crowded venues (from stadiums and arenas to concert halls to restaurants), even more online shopping, and a shift of purchases (in the next months and years, at least) toward the accumulation and maintenance of stocks of non-perishable and frozen foods, cleaning products, and personal-hygiene products.

But, on the whole, I expect nothing like the Great Recession (unless the crisis drags on for more than another few months) and something on the order of the mild recession of 1990-91. It spanned only 4 quarters and saw real GDP dip by less than 2 percentage points.

What’s amazing to me is the overreaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which (as yet) isn’t nearly as devastating in the U.S. as the swine-flu pandemic of 2009-10. There were 59,000,000 (that’s 59 million) cases of swine flu in the U.S., as against the current tally of 6,400 cases of coronavirus, and there were 12,000 swine-flu deaths as against the current tally of 108 coronavirus deaths. Yet, despite the disparity, there was nothing like the kind of panic that is now evident. In fact, I didn’t remember the swine-flu pandemic until it was mentioned recently, in the same context — panicky over-reaction to COVID-19.

The U.S. has changed a lot in the last 10 years, not least in the determination of the media to push “social democracy” and “wokeness”. The U.S. probably will survive COVID-19 with little economic damage — though the media will do its best to maximize that damage. But the U.S. will not long survive the media, that is, not as a relatively free and prosperous nation.

The Lesson from the Diamond Princess, Underscored

What I say here, Willis Eschenbach says here (in greater detail).

Related reading:

Brian C. Joondeph, M.D., “Remember the H1N1 Pandemic? I Don’t Either“, American Thinker, March 16, 2020

J.G. Walsh, “Weighing the Future: Coronavirus and the Economy“, American Thinker, March 16, 2020

Gordon Wysong, “The Coronavirus Will Save America“, American Thinker, March 16, 2020

See also my posts, “America’s Long Vac” and “Trump, the Coronavirus Panic, and the Stock Market“.

Control vs. Competition: Striking the Balance

Rare is the person who doesn’t have a definite view of how the world should be — at least those aspects of it that are important to the person. Even “libertarians” have proven themselves of dictatorial bent in such matters as the state-enforced redefinition of marriage as between anyone and anyone.

Having held a senior management position that made me responsible for the business side of a think-tank full of prime donne analysts (my customers), I know that control is necessary in any organization which strives to survive and thrive. Control is always there, if not in minute-to-minute micromanagement then in the design of processes and performance standards. The more indirect the ways and means of control the happier (generally) will workers be. (There are, of course, some workers who need and seek close direction, and some who need but reject it. Neither type fared well in my regime.)

If you are intelligent and competent, the urge to control can be very strong in you, especially if you are highly conscientious. You want to get things done, and done right. And you aren’t often sure that the people who work for you are capable of doing things right unless you (a) give them a lot of direction and (b) establish processes that help to ensure that their jobs are performed well.

The urge to control — in the manner I just outlined — may seem to conflict with “libertarian” and free-market principles. The reduction or absence of control is touted as the way to ensure that good ideas, systems, and processes are offered up and adopted through demonstrations of their superiority, which leads to and emulation and further innovation. By the same token, the controllers and their systems are forced to prove their worth, rather than appeal to authority (“Because I say so.”) or use authority (regulation) to maintain control.

There is something to be said for both ways of ordering the world. Chaos and inefficiency would reign if organizations (from families to huge corporations) were anarchic. Order and efficiency might emerge here and there because of the instinct to survive and the pressure of competition, but turmoil and waste would abound.

The spontaneous order of “libertarians” and free markets isn’t necessarily instantaneous order. It may take some disastrous wrecks at busy intersections before drivers generally adopt a stop-and-look-and-yield-to-the-car-on-the-right rule. Government institutionalizes the rule by installing stop signs or traffic lights. Government, on the other hand, doesn’t do much between the stop signs and traffic lights, except to arrest and fine violators of speed limits and reckless drivers often enough (in theory) to procure a relatively safe and steady flow of traffic.

Similarly, individual firms may be tightly controlled — whether overtly through micro-management or covertly through processes that have the same effect. But free markets give those firms room in which to innovate, market, and price their products so that consumers get good value for their money, while badly run firms fall by the wayside. In this instance, government (ideally) polices firms only to ensure that they don’t sell dangerous products and services, don’t despoil the environment, and don’t cheat their customers. Government, of course, doesn’t limit itself to minimal interventions because the urge to dictate is made real, all too often, by the power of government to shape commerce to its liking rather than to the tastes and preferences of consumers.

Putting government aside (and how I wish we could, for the most part), there is a flaw in the picture of controlled firms competing freely for consumers’ favor. The flaw is obvious in this reductio ad absurdum: There is one firm in the United States that produces all products and services. The firm has many subdivisions, each of which operates according to protocols that range from minute micro-management to loose-seeming processes that guide workers in the “right” direction. But the giant firm has no competitors and so its output accords with the wishes of its managers, which mesh with consumers’ wishes only by sheer luck.

The easily recognizable result is equivalent to state socialism. The are two reasons that a self-proclaimed socialist won’t embrace mega-corporatism. The first is that he might not (and probably wouldn’t be) in charge of it. The second is that he believes, beyond reason, that transforming a private person into a government bureaucrat magically transforms him into all-wise, all-knowing, beneficent servants of the people with not wish whatsoever to impose his personal worldview on others.

What about something closer to the current situation, in which important industries are dominated by one firm or a few firms, but those industries compete furiously with each other for consumers’ patronage? That’s a far better situation than the corporate equivalent of state socialism, but it still means that a lot of what becomes available to consumers depends on the whims of corporate bureaucrats and is, at best, sluggishly responsive to consumers’ wants. Overlay it with the heavy hand of government regulation and you get something much closer to state socialism.

The irony of the anti-trust movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s was that it (temporarily) broke up the monopolies of the day, but instituted regulatory agencies that simply (and with greater force) replicated the inefficiencies and unresponsiveness of the monopolies. That is to say, the anti-trust movement (which still has a lot of life in it) brought the U.S. closer to state socialism and the resulting evils of non-competitiveness.

Is there a golden mean of sorts, a combination of orderliness in the small that yields order and efficiency in the large? Classical microeconomic theory posits the perfectly competitive market as the golden mean. The theoretical result of perfect competition is more of everything, which is another way of saying that competition pushes costs down because it squeezes out inefficiency and “excess” profits. But economists recognize that perfect competition is a theoretical ideal that is seldom if ever attainable in the real world, and then only in isolated cases.

Various kinds of less-than-perfect competition — and even monopolies in some industries — are therefore not only inevitable but also desirable from the consumer’s point of view. The massive deadweight losses inflicted by regulation cannot conceivably be worth the theoretical losses resulting from less-than-perfect competition. And regulation is just one aspect of a burdensome control apparatus — government — that has robbed Americans of trillions of dollars over the decades.

The moral of the story: Control what you can if it makes you feel better. Control what you can if it makes your business more profitable. But aside from the obvious things, like controlling crime and foreign enemies, don’t use government to make the world conform to your idea of what it should be like. You’ll only make yourself poorer — and less free.

(See also “Economics: A Survey” and “Putting in Some Good Words for Monopoly“.)

America’s Long Vac

COVID-19 has shut down much of America (and the world, too, I suppose). The shutdowns are coinciding with, extending, and preempting spring breaks at schools, colleges, and universities. You might say that America is taking a Long Vac. That’s the British term for summer vacation from school, college, or university. (See Oxford Glossary.)

How long will it last? Hard to say. Necessity rather than prevention may force the resumption of normal operations and activities. Although — and this is merely a hope — Americans will be less inclined to demand and supply products and services which are merely the excess fruits of capitalism (e.g., ocean cruises, boisterous rock concerts, destination weddings, and professional basketball).

Trump, the Coronavirus Panic, and the Stock Market

UPDATED 03/16/20

A writer at The Washington Post compiled a record of President Trump’s statements about COVID-19 through yesterday. Whether it is a complete and unbiased compilation I will leave to you to investigate and decide. Let’s just say that it doesn’t put Mr. Trump in a good light, which was undoubtedly the writer’s intention given the identity of his employer.

I say that the compilation doesn’t put the president in a good light because his optimism has been depicted as a manifestation of ignorance and stupidity. But — as was obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense (i.e., not rabid reporters and other leftists who won’t let a crisis go to waste) — Mr. Trump was merely striving (in vain, it seems) to defuse the panic that the media and disloyal opposition have been intent on spreading.

The president’s declaration today of a national emergency would seem to be an admission that he had been unduly optimistic and glaringly wrong in his earlier statements. But that remains to be seen; as of now, the incidence of COVID-19 in the U.S. accounts for only a minute fraction of the populace (6/1,000,000), and the number of deaths accounts for an almost invisible fraction of the populace (2.2 percent of cases thus far). The cancellation of events and the widespread practice of self-quarantine and isolation will do much to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 from what it would otherwise had been. But it is still far too soon to know how bad it will get in the U.S.

According to the article in the Post, president made his first public comment about COVID-19 on January 22. The full effect of that statement, if there was any effect, would have been reflected in the Rasmussen Reports Presidential Tracking Poll of January 27. As it happens, Mr. Trump’s approval numbers didn’t vary much after that date until the week of February 24-28, when they jumped and then dived.

What happened during that week? Trump’s visit to India (which seemed to be a plus for him) was followed by a sharp drop in the stock market. Trump’s approval ratings haven’t changed much since February 28 (see the first graph below), despite (a) the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., (b) panicky responses by opportunistic media types and Democrats, (c) a rising tide of closures and cancellations, (d) a brief recovery in stock prices followed by sharp declines (see the second graph below), and (e) today’s partial recovery in the wake of Trump’s declaration of emergency (again, see the second graph).

What does it all mean? Trump’s approval rating, it seems to me, is related directly to the state of the stock market, which is related directly to fears about the economic effects of COVID-19, which is driven by fears about the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world and in the U.S., in particular. That is to say, most voters are sensible enough to know that what the president says about the disease has next to no effect on its incidence, and therefore next to no effect on them, personally. But — out of long and misguided habit (driven by the media and the professoriate) — a large share of the electorate holds the president responsible for short-run changes in the state of the economy. The stock market reflects expectations about those changes, usually in an exaggerated way.

Sic semper boobus americanus.

I expect today’s jump in stock prices to show up in Monday’s Presidential Tracking Poll. UPDATE: Well, the Fed did it again, with another panicky (and probably ineffective) rate cut, which sent the market tumbling (though it’s recovering somewhat at this moment).

Lesson from the Diamond Princess: Panic Is Unwarranted

As of today there have been 696 reported cases of coronavirus among the 3,711 passengers who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The ship was quarantined on February 1; all passengers and crew had disembarked by March 1. As of March 1, there were 6 deaths among those infected, and the number hasn’t grown (as of today).

Given the ease with which the virus could be transmitted on a ship, the Diamond Princess may represent an upper limit on contagion and mortality:

  • an infection rate of 19 percent of those onboard the ship
  • a fatality rate of less than 1 percent among those known to have contracted the disease
  • a fatality rate of less than 2/10 of 1 percent of the population potentially exposed to the disease.

Conclusion: There is no question that coronavirus represents a significant threat to life, health, and economic activity. But the panic being fomented by the media and opportunistic politicians is unwarranted.

The Fed Spreads Panic

Broad stock-market indices began on Friday to rebound from coronavirus panic. The rebound continued yesterday with huge gains. And it was continuing nicely this morning — until the Fed announced a rate cut. Bang! The bottom fell out of the market, for no good reason.

It’s not unusual for a rate cut to send stocks down because a cut implies that the Fed “knows” that the economy needs a boost. In this case the boost was “needed” because of the economic effects of coronavirus. The Fed, of course, knows next to nothing about “managing” the economy, as has been shown time and time again. Chalk up another bonehead play for the Fed.

See “Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much“, “The Fed and Business Cycles“, and “Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations“.

Further Introspection: Libertarian Conservatism and Other-Worldliness

Regarding the emotional distance that I put between myself and a long-time friend, there may have been more to it than our political differences. The distancing happened at about the time that I was in general retreat from the noisy world around me. I had by that time no other friends, having spent my last few years of full-time work in the relative isolation afforded by my fixation on a major project and having cut myself off from colleagues with whom I had previously enjoyed cordial relations.

As I have said: No man is an island. But I am a gated peninsula.

The less I am in the world, the happier I am.

My politics — libertarian conservative — must be driven by my personality.

See these related pages and posts:

About
My Moral Profile
Political Ideologies

“Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Solitude for the Masses” and the items linked to therein
Friendship and Personality
‘Libertarianism’, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand

An Introspection

A long-time friend died of cancer this morning after fighting it for five years. By “long-time friend” I mean that he was a friend — a close friend — for many years, but not in later years.

I admit that I began to think of him as something less than a friend when our political differences emerged in the 1990s. I was then becoming overtly conservative, whereas he remained as “liberal” as ever.

It isn’t to my credit that my feelings of friendship toward him dwindled because of our political differences, whereas he seemed not to let them affect his friendship for me. (It’s not just “liberals” who let political differences affect their feelings toward others, though many of them do — as I’ve seen first-hand.)

Our friendship began in 1970, when we worked together on project: he as a civil servant, me as an outside analyst. From that beginning grew a friendship that included our wives. My wife became as much a friend to him as I had ever been, and their friendship was unaffected by political differences because they had none.

We frequently saw each other as couples until the early 2000s, when they moved to Colorado and we moved to Texas. After that we visited each other every year or two. But even after we moved to different parts of the country, my wife communicated regularly with him and his wife. I didn’t.

As he withered physically he reached out more frequently to my wife, mainly through text messages. This went on until he came to the end-stage of his illness a few weeks ago. And then silence ensued.

I was (and am) grateful that my wife remained close to him. Their continued friendship surely helped him to endure his last years and months more happily than would have been the case if she had shut him out.

Here, I will give myself some credit because I had never told her about my changed feelings toward him, nor the reason for the change. And I never will. He will always be our beloved friend of 50 years.