COVID-19 and Probability

This was posted by a Facebook “friend” (who is among many on FB who seem to believe that figuratively hectoring like-minded friends on FB will instill caution among the incautious):

The point I want to make here isn’t about COVID-19, but about probability. It’s a point that I’ve made many times, but the image captures it perfectly. Here’s the point:

When an event has more than one possible outcome, a single trial cannot replicate the average outcome of a large number of trials (replications of the event).

It follows that the average outcome of a large number of trials — the probability of each possible outcome — cannot occur in a single trial.

It is therefore meaningless to ascribe a probability to any possible outcome of a single trial.

Suppose you’re offered a jelly bean from a bag of 100 jelly bean, and are told that two of the jelly beans contain a potentially fatal poison. Do you believe that you have only a 2-percent chance of being poisoned, and would you bet accordingly? Or do you believe, correctly, that you might choose a poisoned jelly bean, and that the “probability” of choosing a poisoned one is meaningless and irrelevant if you want to be certain of surviving the trial at hand (choosing a jelly bean or declining the offer). That is, would you bet (your life) against choosing a poisoned jelly bean?

I have argued (futilely) with several otherwise smart persons who would insist on the 2-percent interpretation. But I doubt (and hope) that any of them would bet accordingly and then choose a jelly bean from a bag of 100 that contains even a single poisoned one, let alone two. Talk is cheap; actions speak louder than words.

Election 2020: Installment 2

It will be a while before there is some reliable polling about the presidential race. In the meantime, I’ll post about relevant issues, such as Trump’s popularity, the state of the economy, and the status of the COVID-19 outbreak.

POLLING

At this stage, it’s best to compare Trump’s standing against Obama’s when Obama was seeking reelection eight years ago. Trump’s relative standing has declined sharply in the past year, though it may (or may not) be on the rebound:


Derived from Rasmussen Reports Daily Presidential Tracking polls for Obama and Trump.

Voters’ perceptions of the state of the union is important, too. That perception has gone south with the rise of COVID-19 and domestic unrest. It may be irrational to blame an incumbent for matters beyond his control, but that’s what a lot of voters do. And Obama, by contrast, went into the election of 2012 with a rising tide to good feeling to buoy him.


Derived from Rasmussen Reports Right Direction/Wrong Track poll.

Trump’s numbers, by election day, will depend in large part on the perceived state of the economy. A robust turnaround will help him. A weak turnaround or new dip will hurt him.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY

The employment numbers are still bad, despite a sharp turnaround. The following graph shows the real vs. nominal unemployment rate (method explained here):

Uncertainty about COVID-19 and the state of the union has put a damper on investor’s resurgent optimism about the future of the economy:

COVID-19

Much attention is being give to the resurgence of confirmed COVID-19 cases; less is being given to the continued decline in the rate at which COVID-19 is producing deaths nationwide. Inasmuch as the response to COVID-19 has become politicized, the effect of the contagion on the outcome of election 2020 will depend, in part, on which piece of news takes center stage. Generally overlooked factors are the relative rarity of COVID-19 and the greater rarity of deaths caused by it. The following graphs sum it up:



Based on statistics recorded here. The projection of deaths is based on the rate at which deaths have declined since the peak rate on April 21, 2020.

COVID-19: The Disconnect between Cases and Deaths

As many (including me) have observed, COVID-19 case statistics don’t give a reliable picture of the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Just a few of the reasons are misdiagnosis; asymptomatic (and untested) cases; and wide variations in the timing, location, and completeness of testing. As a result, the once-tight correlation between reported cases and deaths has loosened to the point of meaninglessness:


Source: Derived from statistics reported here.

So when you hear about a “surge” in cases, do not assume that they are actually new cases. It’s just that new cases are being discovered because more tests are being conducted. The death toll, overstated as it is, is a better indicator of the state of affairs. And the death toll continues to drop.

Election 2020: Installment 1

I was right about Election 2016. Now I’ll start posting regularly about Election 2020. It will be a while before there is some reliable polling about the presidential race. In the meantime, I’ll post about relevant issues, such as Trump’s popularity, the state of the economy, and the retreat of the COVID-19 outbreak.

There’s good news and bad news in this post. Whether the good news is good and the bad news is bad depends on whether you prefer Trump to Biden (or his replacement).

One piece of good news for Trump is the decided drop in the rate at which COVID-19 cases and deaths are occurring (if you believe the official numbers). Here are my tallies, averaged over 7 days to smooth over delays in reporting:

It’s too soon to know whether the curves will ascend again (or ascend significantly, if they do) as a result of “reopening”, which began in earnest over the Memorial Day weekend. Stay tuned.

Two pieces of very bad news for Trump are the sharp declines in (a) his popularity (as measured by an unbiased pollster, Rasmussen Reports) and (b) Americans’ view of the state of the nation (also as measured by Rasmussen).

This is worrying (or not) because it reflects sharply declining poll numbers for Trump, as against rising poll numbers for Obama at this stage 8 years ago:

And this is worrying (or not) because voters’ assessment of the state of the nation is well below where it was when Obama was reelected:

A piece of provisional good news is the possibility (to which I subscribe) of a quick turnaround in the economy. But don’t take my word for it. Consider this:

In early April, Jason Furman, a top economist in the Obama administration and now a professor at Harvard, was speaking via Zoom to a large bipartisan group of top officials from both parties. The economy had just been shut down, unemployment was spiking and some policymakers were predicting an era worse than the Great Depression. The economic carnage seemed likely to doom President Donald Trump’s chances at reelection.

Furman, tapped to give the opening presentation, looked into his screen of poorly lit boxes of frightened wonks and made a startling claim.

“We are about to see the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country,” he said….

“Everyone looked puzzled and thought I had misspoken,” Furman said in an interview. Instead of forecasting a prolonged Depression-level economic catastrophe, Furman laid out a detailed case for why the months preceding the November election could offer Trump the chance to brag — truthfully — about the most explosive monthly employment numbers and gross domestic product growth ever.

Since the Zoom call, Furman has been making the same case to anyone who will listen, especially the close-knit network of Democratic wonks who have traversed the Clinton and Obama administrations together, including top members of the Biden campaign.

Furman’s counterintuitive pitch has caused some Democrats, especially Obama alumni, around Washington to panic. “This is my big worry,” said a former Obama White House official who is still close to the former president. Asked about the level of concern among top party officials, he said, “It’s high — high, high, high, high.”…

Furman’s case begins with the premise that the 2020 pandemic-triggered economic collapse is categorically different than the Great Depression or the Great Recession, which both had slow, grinding recoveries.

Instead, he believes, the way to think about the current economic drop-off, at least in the first two phases, is more like what happens to a thriving economy during and after a natural disaster: a quick and steep decline in economic activity followed by a quick and steep rebound….

Furman’s argument is not that different from the one made by White House economic advisers and Trump, who have predicted an explosive third quarter, and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who said in late April that “the hope is that by July the country’s really rocking again.” White House officials were thrilled to hear that some of their views have been endorsed by prominent Democrats.

“I totally agree,” Larry Kudlow, head of the White House National Economic Council, replied in a text message when asked about Furman’s analysis. “Q3 may be the single best GDP quarter since regular data. 2nd half super big growth, transitioning to 4% or more in 2021.” He called Furman, whom he said he knows well, “usually a straight shooter. Hats off to him.”

“I have been saying that on TV as well,” said Kevin Hassett, a top Trump economic adviser, who pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis predicting a 21.5 percent annualized growth rate in the third quarter. “If CBO is correct we will see the strongest quarter in history after the weakest in Q2.”

Peter Navarro, a Trump trade and manufacturing adviser who’s a Harvard-educated economist, called the high unemployment America is currently facing “manufactured unemployment, which is to say that Americans are out of work not because of any underlying economic weaknesses but to save American lives. It is this observation that gives us the best chance and hope for a relatively rapid recovery as the economy reopens.”…

[A] former Obama White House official said, “Even today when we are at over 20 million unemployed Trump gets high marks on the economy, so I can’t imagine what it looks like when things go in the other direction. I don’t think this is a challenge for the Biden campaign. This is the challenge for the Biden campaign. If they can’t figure this out they should all just go home.”…

Between now and Election Day, there will be five monthly jobs reports, which are released on the first Friday of every month. The June report, covering May, is likely to show another increase in unemployment. But after that, Furman predicts, if reopening continues apace, the next four reports could be blockbusters. “You could easily have 1 to 2 million jobs created a month in those four reports before November,” he said.

He added, “And then toward the end of October, we will get GDP growth for the third quarter, at an annualized rate, and it could be double-digit positive economic growth. So these will be the best jobs and growth numbers ever.”…

Furman is an economist, but he had some strategic advice for the Biden campaign. “Don’t make predictions that could be falsified. There are enough terrible things to say you don’t need to make exaggerated predictions,” he said. “The argument that we are in another Great Depression will look like it was overstated. Trump can say, ‘Two million deaths didn’t happen, Great Depression didn’t happen, we are making a lot of progress.’”

The stock market reflects Furman’s (and my) assessment:

Give them jobs and their hearts, minds, and votes will follow.


Related posts:

Is a Perfect Electoral Storm Brewing?
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”

Just Another Thing or Two about COVID-19

Though it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, and I sort of promised not to make any more predictions about the spread of COVID-19 in the United States because the data are unreliable (examples at the link and here). But I can’t resist saying a few more things about the matter.

Specifically, since my last substantive post about COVID-19 statistics, I now project 2 million cases and 135,000 deaths by mid-August, as against my earlier projections of 1.3 million and 90,000. The new estimates rely on the same database as the old ones, so they aren’t any more reliable than the old ones.

But I have revised my calculations so that they are based on 7-day average numbers of cases and deaths. This is an attempt to smooth over obvious lags in reporting (sudden drops in numbers of cases and deaths followed by sudden surges).

The equations in these two graphs …

… yield these projections:

Those are nationwide numbers. The good news (pending the results of “re-opening”) is that the daily number of new cases has declined sharply from the peaks of late March and late April. But there’s still a long way to go. The first graph in this post is worrisome because recent observations are a bit above the trend line; that is, the incidence of new cases may not be declining quite as rapidly as the equation suggests.

The number of new deaths has declined also, from the peak 7-day average of 2,041 on April 21 to 1,430 as of May 15. Overall, the rate of new deaths per new case seems to have stabilized at 5.7 percent. (The overall percentage will be somewhat higher because the deaths/case rate was higher than 5.7 for quite a while.)

Of course, the situation varies widely from State to State (and, obviously, within each State):

Regional and state variations in death rates
(I am using same assignment of States to regions as used by my data source.)

Nine of the 12 States of the Northeast (including D.C.) are among the top 12 in deaths per resident. The exceptions are the more rural Northeastern States: Main, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

In general, States with large, densely populated metropolitan areas have fared worse than less-urbanized States with smaller cities. That’s unsurprising, of course. But it also underscores the resistance of large swaths of the populace to “New York” rules.


Other related posts:

Contagion Nation?
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”

Most Americans who graduated from high school before the mid-1960s —  when patriotism was still a permissible attitude — would know that the man who said, famously, “give me liberty or give me death” was Patrick Henry. Henry said it at the end of his speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. The speech convinced the convention to pass a resolution to provide troops for the Revolutionary War.

What Henry said applies with full force in today’s crucial moment, when the fearful are being goaded and coerced by state-worshipers into abandoning what is left of their liberty. The final sentences of Henry’s speech put today’s choice starkly:

What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

The difference between then and now is that the citizens of Virginia had on their side — the side of liberty — the stalwarts who adopted the resolution and put it into effect. Those stalwarts, in addition to Patrick Henry, included Richard Henry Lee (grandfather of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and great-grandfather of Robert E. Lee), Benjamin Harrison (father of future president William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather of future president Benjamin Harrison), Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Where are their spiritual descendants today? I ask because there is much truth in a piece that is making its way around the internet:

When the State tells you it’s safe to go to The Home Depot to buy a sponge but it’s too dangerous to go to a florist and buy flowers—it’s not about your health.

When the State shuts down millions of private businesses but doesn’t lay off a single government employee—it’s not about your health.

When the State bans dentists because it’s unsafe, but deems abortion visits safe—it’s not about your health.

When the State prevents you from buying cucumber seeds because it’s too dangerous, but allows in-person lottery ticket sales—it’s not about your health.

When the State tells you it’s too dangerous to go golf alone, fish alone or be in a motorboat alone, but the Governor can get his stage make up done, and hair done for 5 TV appearances a week—it’s not about your health.

When the state puts you IN a jail cell for walking in a park with your child because it’s too dangerous but lets criminals OUT of jail cells for their health—it’s not about YOUR health!

When the state tells you it’s too dangerous to get treated by a doctor of chiropractic or physical therapy treatments yet deems a liquor store essential—it’s not about your health!

When the State lets you go to the grocery store or hardware store but is demanding mail-in voting, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOUR HEALTH.

Yes, there’s a good deal of conspiracy-minded paranoia behind sentiments like that. But the screed also points to a truth: Governments across this once-free nation are making dictatorial decisions that are harming tens of millions of Americans, socially and economically, instead of letting those Americans decide for themselves what risks to take. That is to say, Americans are being deprived of (more of) their liberty because of the possibility that a small fraction of them might die.

Reducing the small fraction to an even smaller one is the official excuse for inflicting economic and social devastation on Americans. What’s the truth of the matter? There are many truths:

1. Elected officials prefer to err on the side of caution — in the guise of “caring” for the health of their constituents — to guard against second-wave effects. Rightly or wrongly — and mostly wrongly — they suffer electoral consequences for things that go wrong when they are in office, even those things are unavoidable or have nothing to do with official actions.

2. Elected officials (and government employees generally) are insulated from the economic effects of lockdowns, and have no skin in the game. Moreover, most of them — especially in the central government, State governments, and governments of cities — mingle with and take their cues from information, media, and academic elites who likewise have no skin in the game. Thus their focus, according to #1, is keeping the death toll low.

3. The personal consequences of economic devastation, for the tens of millions of Americans who aren’t insulated from it, aren’t big news. The media instead plays up the consequences of the disease — debilitation and death — in keeping with its age-old tradition: If it bleeds, it leads.

4. The tens of millions of Americans who are suffering economically are represented by demonstrators (often armed) who are portrayed as “selfish” Walmartians. They are the present equivalent (for elite snobs) of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”. And Trump is the leading “deplorable” because of his “racist” insistence on calling a virus that originated in China the “China virus”.

5. To the extent that the destruction of small businesses and the nation’s soaring unemployment rate are news, they stand (somehow, in the mind of smug elites) as proof that the “Trump economy” was somehow phony.

6. Therefore, Trump is discredited and doesn’t deserve reelection. Especially because his early, optimistic pronouncements about COVID-19 somehow caused the federal bureaucracy (a.k.a. the deep state) and many State and local governments (mostly those run by Democrats) to respond inadequately to the pandemic.

All of this plays well, not only to the insiders who perpetrate it but also — and importantly — to the tens of millions of Americans who haven’t a clue about what it means to lose a business or a job because they are economically secure thanks to a government job (or other sinecure), retirement income (especially from a government source), parental support, or ample savings. Fear wins with them because they might die but aren’t going to suffer financially.

To look at it another way, in America the COVID-19 pandemic is another front in the culture war between “cosmopolitan elites” (and their cosseted sycophants) and “real people“.

It is also another way for the ruling classes (for that is what they are) to secure their economic and social dominance, as Joel Kotkin explains in “The Pandemic Road to Serfdom” (The American Mind, May 1, 2020):

Even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, America, like most higher-income countries, was already heading toward a neo-feudal future: massive inequality, ever-greater concentrations of power, and increasingly widespread embrace of a uniform (albeit secular) religion. The pandemic, all too reminiscent of the great plagues of the Middle Ages, seems destined to accelerate this process….

[A]s jobs are destroyed on Main Street, others, like those at well-positioned Amazon, are created by the hundreds of thousands. It is also a rosy new dawn for online collaboration applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Rooms, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, the fastest-growing business app on record. Also greatly enhanced will be those who provide the infrastructure for the conquering digital economy, including chipmakers like Intel and cloud-computing behemoths like (yet again) Amazon and Microsoft.

The pandemic seems likely to further consolidate the tech industry shift from its garage-based startup past, with firms like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon increasingly resembling Japan’s long-dominant keiretsu. The pandemic may have squashed many new companies that are now short on capital. In contrast, the oligarchic firms, which control upwards of 80% of such key markets as search, social media, cloud computing, and computer operating systems, now enjoy an even greater edge in garnering ever more of the nation’s technical talent.

Ultimately the pandemic will provide the new elite with opportunities to gain control of a whole set of coveted industries, from entertainment and media to finance and space travel. Perhaps most concerning will be their ability to control all aspects of information as the last vestiges of local and small-town journalism face Covid-driven “extinction level” events. What is now left of the “legacy” media—the Atlantic, Time, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times—has fallen increasingly under their control. Nine of the 13 richest people under age 40 are in the tech industry: the odds are favorable that the new elite will maintain their control over information for generations….

In contrast, the pandemic has proven an utter disaster for much of the Third Estate [the “commoners”]. The most evident damage can be seen at the malls, or on Main Street, where millions of small firms have been forced to close and, at least in some locations, may be forced to stay locked down for many more months….

In the aftermath of the lockdowns, small independent firms will be harder-pressed to compete against larger competitors with better access to capital and better positioning to wait out the pandemic. In the coming months, we might see many of our favorite local gyms and bars, or taco stands and family-owned Chinese restaurants, replaced by either online options or larger chains….

With the yeomanry thundering mostly from the Right, the protests of “essential” blue-collar workers could help boost the socialist cause. Roughly half of American households have no emergency savings and face an uncertain future as jobs disappear. A new class of ex-workers now finds the dole a more amenable or viable option than hard and dangerous work for relatively low pay. Bernie Sanders may have lost the nomination, but the message he ran on is amplified at a time when soup kitchens, as during the Depression, are now serving New York artists, writers, and musicians. The pandemic will likely increase the strong socialist tendency among both millennials and the successor Z generation….

Ultimately … disorder [born of joblessness] threatens the power of both the oligarchs and the clerisy. Their likely response may be embracing what I call “oligarchal socialism,” where the very notion of work disappears in favor of a regime of cash allotments. This notion of providing what Marx called “proletarian alms,” widely supported in Silicon Valley, could prove a lasting legacy of the pandemic. This is how Rome, as slaves replaced the middle orders, kept its citizenry in line, and how the Medieval order in times of economic stress relied on the charitable efforts of the Church.

The virus that now dominates our daily lives may soon begin to slowly fade, but it will have a deep, protracted impact on our society and class structure. Covid-19 will likely leave us with conditions that more resemble feudalism than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago.

As Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s chief-of-staff-in-waiting, said during the financial crisis of late 2008,

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

What that means now, in addition to the entrenchment of the ruling oligarchy, is probably a permanent expansion of governmental power. As with the New Deal and Great Society, the current wave of handouts has engorged the rolls of those who depend on government and look to it (mostly in vain) for “solutions” to whatever problems seem beyond their (government-enfeebled) ability to solve through private action. And, “deplorables” aside, government’s role as nagging nanny (however incompetent) has been reinforced, and will be exploited to a fare-thee-well.

That’s what the mere possibility of death has done to liberty in the year 2020 A.D.


Other related reading:

F.H. Buckley, “What’s at Risk in Redivided America?“, The American Spectator, May 9, 2020

Wendell Cox, “Majority of COVID-19 Deaths in Nursing Homes: New Report“, newgeography, May 12, 2020

Dov Fischer, “A Time to Hate“, The American Spectator, May 11, 2020

Daniel Horowitz, “Simple Arithmetic Demonstrates that the Epidemic, outside Nursing Homes, Is Essentially Over“, Conservative Review, May 7, 2020

Arnold Kling, “The Future That We Won’t Have“, askblog, May 10, 2020

Francis Menton, “Why Are Government Employees Supposedly Immune to Layoffs?“, Manhattan Contrarian, May 6, 2020

Norbert Michel, “1% of Counties Home to Half of COVID-19 Cases, Over Half of Deaths“, The Daily Signal, May 12, 2020

Dave Middleton, “‘Predictive Models’ Rarely Are Predictive“, Watts Up With That?, May 8, 2020

Dave Middleton, “Lockdown Fail in One Easy Graph“, Watts Up With That?, May 12, 2020

Wilfred Reilly, “The Lockdowns Still Aren’t Working“, Spiked, May 8, 2020

Is a Perfect Electoral Storm Brewing?

The storm that I have in mind is one that sweeps the board for the GOP in November. What might its ingredients be? Here’s my non-exhaustive list:

THE ECONOMY

An economic recovery that is largely limited to States governed by Republicans, while States controlled by Democrats continue to flounder.

OR

A quick, nationwide economic recovery, including a stock-market rally and the rehiring of millions of workers.

DEMOCRAT POLITICS

Solid evidence supporting Tara Reade’s claims about Joe Biden.

AND/OR

A rancorous Democrat convention which, at least, leaves Biden badly damaged and results in the abstention of Bernie supporters in November, and which saddles Biden with a VP candidate who will drive away independent voters (e.g., Stacey Abrams).

OR

A pre-convention deal that allows Biden to withdraw gracefully (though not without shame) and substitutes a more dynamic and less tainted candidate who has his own baggage (e.g., Cuomo and his failure to protect nursing homes from COVID-19).

SPYGATE (A.K.A. RUSSIAGATE)

The indictment of senior officials (e.g., John Brennan, Susan Rice, James Comey) of the Obama administration on charges related to Spygate (e.g., obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, filing false claims with the FISA court, perjury).

AND A CLINCHER

The inclusion of a thinly disguised Barack Obama as an “unnamed” conspirator in the indictment.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

The collapse of Iran’s regime.

AND/OR

An attempt by Iran’s regime to disrupt the flow of oil from the Middle East that is met with prompt, devastating, and decisive action by the U.S.

AND/OR

The death or overthrow of Kim.

AND/OR

Conclusive evidence of China’s malfeasance in the COVID-19 pandemic.

There must be a lot more, but that will do for a start.

 

Lockdown or Re-open?

UPDATED 05/03/20

Why are governments forcing businesses to close, costing tens of millions of jobs at least temporarily (and millions permanently), thus causing unemployment compensation claims to soar while tax revenues drop, and therefore causing some states to verge on bankruptcy, while also inflating unemployment compensation payouts and thereby making many workers reluctant to return to work even if they could? Nowhere mentioned in that breathless litany are the social and economic effects of lockdowns and job losses on families, friendships, social circles, etc., etc., etc.

The comfortable and fearful — a set that contains mostly leftists, who tend to be more affluent and more neurotic than the “deplorables” whom they disdain — are wont to worry about the consequence of re-opening “too soon” (i.e., before they are personally affected by lockdowns). That consequence, of course, is the possibility that the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths will rise rather than fall to zero.

But so what? Suppose that a doctor — of all people — were to reopen his practice, tell patients that he will take every reasonable precaution to shield them from infection, require them to take similar precautions, have them sign releases holding him harmless should they later be found to have contracted COVID-19. Wouldn’t you go to that doctor if you needed to, rather than have him try to diagnose you telemedically? I would.

The same kinds of protocols could be followed by businesses of all kinds, and followed not only with respect to customers but also employees. Aren’t there tens of millions of citizens who would rather shop and work in the real world rather than in the virtual world? There certainly are tens of millions who would rather go to work instead of collecting unemployment compensation and watching their savings dwindle (if they have any to begin with). Moreover, the protocols could be backed by State governments granting to employers immunity from criminal and civil prosecutions if they follow specified procedures and all parties execute standard forms.

Why are governments preventing citizens from taking reasonable, informed risks so that the affluent and neurotic can sleep more easily — and enjoy watching frustrated “deplorables” protest in vain? Oh, that’s it. The suffering of “deplorables” given pleasure to leftists (e.g., this), and they’re in charge in too many places.

Which just goes to show, once again, that there’s no such thing as a social-welfare function. How can the pleasure gained by leftists possibly offset the pain they are causing to tens of millions of real Americans?

P.S. Jay Cost elaborates on the tension between the “haves” and the rest of us. The “haves” keep lecturing the rest of us to think of others. But it’s they who aren’t thinking of others; they’re only thinking of themselves. Well, if they don’t want to be exposed to COVID-19, they can just shelter in place while everyone else makes the economy work for the benefit of them (i.e., the “haves”).

My blue-collar roots are showing.

The Economic Damage of COVID-19: A Preliminary Assessment

The Bureau of Economic Analysis today released its advance (first) estimate of GDP for the first quarter of 2020, which is now almost a month in the past. The year-over-year change in real GDP was 0.3 percent (a slight increase). The annualized decline in quarterly GDP was 4.8 percent, the worst since the 8.4 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2008 (the year of the financial meltdown).

Here’s how the first quarter of 2020 looks in the context of post-World War II changes in GDP:

If, as I expect, the incipient COVID-19 recession of 2020 ends quickly (perhaps in the third or fourth quarter of the year), it will prove to be less damaging (economically) than previous post-war recessions. That won’t be of solace to those who have suffered through the disease, lost loved ones,  lost their jobs and businesses, and seen their investments decline in value.

But (economically) it is better than the alternative, which is something on the order of the Great Recession or Great Depression. The former spanned 3-1/2 years, from the time of its onset until real GDP finally rose above the pre-recession level. The latter spanned 1929-1936, was followed by a recession in 1937-1938, and didn’t end decisively until after World War II.

COVID-19: Public Service Announcement

It has become obvious that COVID-19 stats are unreliable; see this, this, and this, for example. I am therefore withdrawing from the business of reporting official stats and making projections based on them. I leave that endeavor with this thought.

COVID-19 in the United States: Updated Statistics and Projections

Details here.

It is noteworthy that the 2019-2020 flu season was taking a much heavier than normal toll until COVID-19 came along. That alone should cast a lot of doubt on the COVID-19 figures being reported by the States and D.C. Then there is the problem of comorbidity, especially among older persons. In sum, there won’t be a good estimate of the actual death toll of COVID-19  until it’s possible to compute “excess” deaths — taking all other causes into account — when the final tally of deaths in 2020 becomes available a few years hence.

There is also the looming possibility that (1) the COVID-19 infection rate is vastly understated; (2) the COVID-19 fatality rate is therefore vastly overstated; and (3) millions of persons who are already immune to COVID-19 because they have already (unknowingly) recovered from it (believing that they had a cold, the flu, or allergies) and are being held hostage by lockdown orders that are killing the economy. (See this for example.)

Flattening the Curve

What does it mean to “flatten the curve”, in the context of an epidemic? Here is Willis Eschenbach’s interpretation:

What does “flattening the curve” mean? It is based on the hope that our interventions will slow the progress of the disease. By doing so, we won’t get as many deaths on any given day. And this means less strain on a city or a country’s medical system.

Be clear, however, that this is just a delaying tactic. Flattening the curve does not reduce the total number of cases or deaths. It just spreads out the same amount over a longer time period. Valuable indeed, critical at times, but keep in mind that these delaying interventions do not reduce the reach of the infection. Unless your health system is so overloaded that people are needlessly dying, the final numbers stay the same.

I beg to differ. Or, at least, to offer a different interpretation: Flattening the curve — reducing its peak — can also reduce the total number of persons who are potentially exposed to the disease, thereby reducing the total number of persons who contract it. How does that work? It requires not only reducing the peak of the curve — the maximum number of active cases — but also reducing the length of the curve — the span of time in which a population is potentially exposed to the contagion.

Consider someone who has randomly contracted a virus from a non-human source. If that person is a hermit, the virus may kill him, or he may recover from whatever illness it causes him, but he can’t infect anyone else. Low peak, short duration.

Here’s an example of a higher peak but a relatively short duration: A person who randomly contracts a virus from a non-human source then infects many other persons in quick succession by breathing near them, sneezing on them, touching them, etc., in a short span of time (e.g., meeting and greeting at a business function). But … if the originator of the contagion and those whom he initially infects are identified and quarantined quickly enough, the contagion will spread no further.

In both cases, the “curve” will peak at some number lower than the number that would have been reached without isolation or quarantine. Moreover, and more important, the curve will terminate (go to zero) more quickly than it would have without isolation or quarantine.

The real world is more complicated than either of my examples because almost all humans aren’t hermits, and infections usually aren’t detected until after an infected person has had many encounters with uninfected persons. But the principle remains the same: The total number of persons who contract a contagious disease can be reduced through isolation and quarantine — and the sooner isolation and quarantine take effect, the lower the total number of infected persons.

COVID-19 in the United States: Latest Projections

UPDATED 04/21/20

Relying on data collected through April 20, I project about 1.3 million cases and 90,000 deaths by the middle of August. Those numbers are 50,000 and 6,000 higher than the projections that I published three days ago. However, the new numbers are based on statistical relationships that, I believe, don’t fully reflect the declining numbers of new cases and deaths discussed below. If the numbers continue to decline rapidly, the estimates of total cases and death should decline, too.

Figure 1 plots total cases and deaths — actual and projected — by date.

Figure 1

Source and notes: Derived from statistics reported by States and the District of Columbia and compiled in Template:2019–20 coronavirus pandemic data/United States medical cases at Wikipedia. The statistics exclude cases and deaths occurring among repatriated persons (i.e., Americans returned from other countries or cruise ships).

But there is good news in the actual and projected numbers of new cases and new deaths (Figure 2).

Figure 2

As shown in Figure 3, the daily percentage changes in new cases and deaths have been declining generally since March 19.

Figure 3

But there is, of course, a lag between new cases and new deaths. The best fit is a 7-day lag (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 5 shows the tight relationship between new cases and new deaths when Figure 3 is adjusted to introduce the 7-day lag.

Figure 5

Figure 6 shows the similarly tight relationship after removing 8 “hot spots” which have the highest incidence of cases per capita — Connecticut, District of Columbia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

Figure 6

Figures 5 and 6 give me added confidence that the crisis has peaked.

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.