How Do We Sleep While Our Beds Are Burning?

A hazy morning today, like yesterday, here in New York, on the eastern coast of North America. The smoke from the wildfires along the western coast of North America clouds the air. A hazy evening, the sun a sharp clear circle beyond the dirt. As it reached the horizon, it grew large, red, and covered with horizontal lines like photographs of Jupiter. My camera doesn’t capture the colors my eyes see.

The evening Sun through the haze of smoke and ash in the upper atmosphere from the wildfires in western North America

The stars in the night sky recently, before the fires, have been especially bright, as if dust and dirt had been scraped off my glasses. I still can only see hints of the majesty of the Milky Way from where I am in New York, which leads me to believe the improved visibility was from less particulate matter rather than a reduction in glare from all the artificial, terrestrial lights. Because, one assumes, of the economic effects of COVID-19.

I am not the only one, by a long-shot, who can put two-and-two together and observe that the increase in fires–not only in North America, but also in Asia and Oceania–and the newly visible brightly twinkling stars are due to our behavior. What we do en masse has an effect on our common home. What I don’t understand are those folks who deny the evidence of their senses and reason in order to parrot arguments that our cumulative behavior is so insignificant that we will never consume all that the Earth has to offer. Or, worse, those who argue that a conception of the common good should be at the heart of law and justice–and then promptly sanctify politicians whose main concern is profiting from exploitation.


For the younger generation, who might not yet have encountered the music of the latter part of the 20th Century, the title of this post is from a song by the Australian band Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning,” off their album Diesel and Dust (1987). Shocking, I know, but our environmental problems are not new; we’ve been ignoring them for longer than I’ve been alive. And while it may be tempting to blame everything on late-stage capitalism or neoliberalism, the Soviet Union and China, the most prominent examples of command economies, have their fair share of hubris and more than their fair share of environmental disasters. What’s interesting, in terms of where do we go from here, is that the concentration of market power in a few hands is effectively identical to a command economy. Very few people simply need to decide to be better people.

Maybe they will, once there’s no more skiing at Davos.

One could argue that this has always been the case, that the actions of a few key players, and not billions of consumers, determine outcomes. The auto manufacturers didn’t have to design internal combustion engines that ran only on petroleum; they just did. They and the oil companies didn’t have to hide the effects of leaded gasoline; they just did. The beverage and bottling companies didn’t have to switch to single-use plastic and aluminum containers; they just did. They don’t have to drain aquifers, bottle the water in plastic, and sell it, but they do. Kellogg’s didn’t have to repackage sugar as fifty-gazillion new flavors of disgusting Pop-Tarts, but they did, even when everyone knows that the only good Pop-Tarts are unfrosted strawberry.

The Wall of Pop-Tarts

What if the large consumer products companies–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Nestlé–simplified their portfolios and cut out plastic? Over the course of my life, soaps of all kinds have shifted in form from powder or bar wrapped in paper to liquid bottled in plastic. I distinctly remember mom not buying SoftSoap. Someone made the decision to make ninety flavors of liquid hand soap. Someone can decide to stop. What if the large beverage companies–Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola–did the same? The grocery shelves are full of plastic-wrapped options. What if the grocer, in my case Ahold Delhaize, decided to stop selling them? What if they actually did it, now, instead of just talking about it doing it, in the future?

What would they lose, a small monetary profit? Of course, the counter-argument runs that someone else, Wal-Mart and Amazon perhaps, will make and sell these to meet consumer demand, and the consumer will simply buy from them. They are only, after all, responding to consumer demand. Somewhat. One is expected to forget that demand for these goods is often created by the dulcet tones of advertising. Nothing in our inmost being tells us to go out and buy Tide or All-Temperature Cheer.

Part of the problem, and the reason addressing it is deferred, is that the effects of choices are not always obvious. Or, even if they are, the person making the choice doesn’t bear the cost of his decision. What if the producer absorbed the full cost of a product’s lifecycle? How many sugar cereals would Kellogg’s willingly produce if it had to buy insulin for everyone with Type II diabetes?

The United States didn’t have to allow corporate entities to live forever for any undefined purpose, but we did. We don’t have to consider them people, but we do. Corporations are blind, deaf sociopaths. They never look up at the night sky in wonder. They never wake to birds singing.

But we humans do.

Wake up. Your bed is burning.

Provide for … the General welfare

I am livid.

Those fine folks in Congress have an opportunity to help people weather the economic storm caused by COVID-19 and the responses to it, and so the Senate decided that it was more important by far to spend the last week arguing over pet causes and how much pork they could give to favored beneficiaries. And we are supposed to thank them because once again crumbs have been tossed to the masses. Even then presumably respectable Senators like the honorable Ben Sasse of Nebraska were concerned that the unemployment benefits might be too generous and could disturb “the employer/employee relationship.”

Bullshit.

Federal spending is always a decision about values, about what matters, about who matters.

It is never about the money.

The Known Unknown

‪This is the worst game of six degrees of separation ever. Number One Daughter had class with someone who tested positive for COVID-19‬ virus. She has yet to hear if she is to be tested as well. In the meantime, we wait.

She came home from college over the past weekend so that she could be near her people if anything happened. That was joyful. She’s seen and hugged all of her siblings, her mother, me. Made dinner for her siblings and me the first night she was back; a delicious bowl of rice and beans. She’s now at her mother’s house.

What next? Does she quarantine herself in a room far away like a normal teenager, texting for deliveries of food between naps, or mingle with the rest of the households and everybody else with whom she’s already come into contact?

Do I next see her and the others in two weeks, barring any additional symptoms?

It seems prudent, as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, to take precautions in the face of ignorance, not unlike Pascal’s wager on God: We don’t know and the risks are immeasurable. How is this known unknown so much more terrifying than the previously unknown unknown?

A Matter of Life and Death

Here’s a purely hypothetical question for you. Let’s suppose you have a certain number of hospital beds and a certain number of ventilators and a certain number of medical staff. Further, let’s suppose that there are more sick people than there are beds, ventilators, and staff. The system has insufficient capacity to meet the need. Or, in economic terms, demand exceeds supply. How do you determine who receives help?

That question of triage, deciding who is to die, is a difficult moral calculus–for some people. For eugenicists or Nazis, it’s not: kill the old and feeble, the physically or mentally deranged, the scum; cull the weak from the herd and improve the species. Or, as Dominic Cummings, aide to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, put it: “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.

Image

Each time the United States argues over a national health care system, someone attempts to assert that socialized medicine leads inevitably to death panels, as if rationing life by one’s ability to pay were more humane than a committee. The thought was that at some point the State would decide it’s just too expensive to keep Granny alive and she would be killed–completely ignoring the fact that Congress funds anything out of nothing more than desire.

Yet somehow refusing to order production of medical equipment or prepare for a pandemic does not rise to the same level of callousness. Somehow seeking to profit from the deaths of thousands is just good business. Those actions cause or exacerbate shortages which lead to deciding who will die.

The response to COVID-19 is in a very real sense a logistics problem, in terms of delivering care to the people who need it. But it’s also one of meeting demand. And in that respect economics can offer some ways to think about it, as the field is, after all, concerned with how finite resources are allocated–the case of surge pricing toilet paper to prevent hoarding comes to mind. Though it seems rather insane for the price of N95-rated masks to have jumped from $0.70 to $7.00 each over the past week, the prices reflect a case of insufficient supply available for the demand. Some people, such as New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, redirected existing labor to another task: making hand sanitizer. The Army Corps of Engineers are doing what they do. Others are simply volunteering to help, whether in 3-D printing a valve for a ventilator, or providing patent-free CAD designs, or manufacturing, or sewing.

The response to COVID-19 is also an ethical problem. Most people want to help; the rest are outside society.

R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has been on a tear recently. He’s very upset that Roman Catholic churches, among others, suspended public celebration of the Eucharist, and argues that the Church could find other ways of adjusting without shutting out the parishioners. (I suspect he might agree with me about locking the sanctuary doors.) There is something quite magical about gathering together, but expecting others to risk their lives so you can receive the Eucharist seems the opposite of courage in the face of death. Perhaps the Catholic churches could find ways to remain open, but they have decided to help prevent the spread of disease by asking their flock to worship at home, not unlike the early Christians. Some non-denominational churches, more arrogant, won’t raise no pansies.

Mr. Reno also worries about the shrinking of our social life:

[R]estrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away.

Questioning the Shutdown,” R. R. Reno
First Things, March 20, 2020

But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen many people whose first response to the pending isolation was not to buy more toilet paper but to reach out to their family, to their friends, to others they hadn’t spoken with recently; was not to hide under the covers with a flashlight but to arrange online substitutes for in-person discussions. AT&T thanks you. We are a gregarious species.

I am lucky enough to be salaried. I am lucky enough to already work from home. My routine is not disturbed one bit. Except the Spring soccer season is on hold.

Others are not so lucky. Staying home, or, more precisely, away from work, has immediate costs that they cannot recoup. They have no help. The financial situation of many households is precarious. The financial situation of many businesses is precarious, even larger businesses. We are, the bulk of us, over-extended, living hand to mouth. Cash money is, these days, what we need to live. We may adjust to having less. Or we may die.

The financial markets, despite their formerly rosy numbers, are an illusion. The real economy always involves real people, real joy and real suffering, real living and real dying. What are we doing for real people?

We are all looking for a middle ground here, between the Scylla of mass death and the Charybdis of economic apocalypse. At this stage of the crisis, it looks like there is no middle ground. This is an intolerable thing, but it might well be reality.

The Hard Road Ahead,” Rod Dreher,
The American Conservative, March 20, 2020

Where we devote our attention, where we give our time, and what we spend money on tells us a lot about our priorities. We have choices to make.

Meanwhile, it appears we won’t have to worry about missing Easter services. The President thinks we can open up for business in just a few days.


The Plague

Our public library has closed indefinitely, and though I will need to return the large stack of books 📚 I borrowed last month at some point, I do not think I will lack for reading matter if I can manage to tear my eyes away from the slow-moving train wreck that is the world these days: I have many unread books in both the fiction and non-fiction rooms of my own library, which sounds much more grand than it actually is.

This one, however, I’ve read before. According to the receipt inside from Dave’s Comics on Three Chopt Road in Richmond, Virginia, I did so the summer of 1988. It seemed apropos to revisit The Plague.

The language [Rieux] used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

Truth.

A Thousand Points of Light

Many things have been cancelled because of the coronavirus. Love is not one of them.

Faith in the time of Coronavirus“,
James Martin, S. J., America, March 13, 2020

Our moment of crisis is decades in the making, the endgame of decades of embracing the idea that we are not interconnected, that it is each man and woman for themselves.

Coronavirus is an indictment of our way of life,”
Helaine Olen, The Washington Post, March 13, 2020

When this plague has passed, what will our neighbors remember of us? Will they remember that the Christians took immediate, decisive action to protect the vulnerable, even at great personal and organizational cost?

Love in the Time of Coronavirus,”
Andy Crouch, Praxis Journal, March 12, 2020

The challenge ahead is not to rebuild—it’s to build. We can’t restore something that never quite was. We don’t even know what a caring society—the beloved community—might really look like. We’ll have to imagine. So—if your classes are cancelled or your big game is kaput or the office is half-empty, if you don’t know how to wonk or organize, if you’re not a nurse or a public health expert or a social worker, if you’re feeling isolated—well, then, get busy. More time to start the work ahead: imagining the caring society that must come next. This is no thought exercise, this is action, and we can get going now if we haven’t—by determination or due to more visible necessity—started already.

All In,”
Jeff Sharlet, Bookforum, March 13, 2020

fuck coronavirus

who has a bill coming up that they’re not sure they’re gonna be able to pay

send me your bill and your Venmo

Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano), March 13, 2020

What I Hope–and Fear

I hope there will be a great coming together of society, as people from all walks of life realize that we are all in this together. We leave the world a better place than we found it.

I fear a few, seeing the opportunity to never let a crisis go to waste, ensure that they profit at the expense of others, that they consolidate their power, turning neighbor against neighbor as the many fight for table scraps dropped by the few.

One might say I’m a pessimist, but I’m afraid that my fears are more likely to come to pass.

Garbage-In, Garbage-Out

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If testing for COVID-19 only if another test for COVID-19 is positive, when do you ever test?

Answer: you don’t.

Luckily, humans aren’t computers, though rules can make them behave, sometimes, like they are.

The question above was prompted by personal concern. It’s that time of the year when folks, including me, tend to get sick. I’ve had symptoms of the common cold or allergies for a week or so: a dry cough, runny nose. Number One Son presented symptoms of a viral infection on Monday evening: A fever, a dry cough, aches and pains. He did not have trouble breathing. Could be an influenza.

We can test for the flu. The test results came back negative. It’s not the flu. Given the current situation, it could be SARS-CoV-2. We could test for that, if test kits were available. But test kits are unavailable, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to a fragile supply chain. Therefore the Centers for Disease Control has certain recommendations on when to test, in order that the available tests not be used up in a panic.

Decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19, as well as the clinical course of illness. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever1 and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing). Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.

Epidemiologic factors that may help guide decisions on whether to test include: any persons, including healthcare workers2, who have had close contact3 with a laboratory-confirmed4 COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset, or a history of travel from affected geographic areas5 (see below) within 14 days of symptom onset.

Evaluating and Reporting Persons Under Investigation, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(updated March 4, 2020; retrieved March 11)

Practically speaking, however, there’s no testing because we can’t. This limits our knowledge of the spread of the illness and whether or not we should test.

And that’s not even getting to sins of omission. The cases reported to the World Health Organization are an approximation due to input error. We can somewhat extrapolate the scope of this problem with math–The Economist mapped typical tourism flows to elucidate where COVID-19 is being under-reported, for example–but small errors in variables cause very different results. How many people have been exposed? How many people have been infected? How long is the incubation period? When does an infected person start spreading the disease? How long does an infected person spread the disease? How much can you trust people who habitually lie?

All of which means that the very nice map from Johns Hopkins is a picture of the past, and not a clear guide to what’s happening now, in your neighborhood. The same goes for any news reporting. Still, decisions have to be made with incomplete or inaccurate data. And they can be, from knowledge of how diseases spread in general, and boil down to two things: reduce contact and reduce travel. The decisions by many colleges to hold classes online and to send students home is then, in this light, only half right.

We know that we don’t know if we’re infected.

We know that it spreads before symptoms appear.

We know that the symptoms are deceiving.

We know that we aren’t testing.

We know that the virus cannot spread without hosts.

Waiting until we have a confirmed case before acting seems the height of silliness, closing the barn doors after the horse has bolted.

But how easy is it to ask people to stay home for a fortnight? Martial law shouldn’t be necessary: ask folks to stay home and make it possible for them to do so. That’s the difficult part.

One thing that can be done, relatively easily, is projecting the result of doing nothing. [edit to add link that starts from a different assumption]

First, assume everyone is infected. 80% will be fine. 20% will develop complications. 1% will die. In the United States, that’s ≈3,500,000 people dead. Luckily, we aren’t doing nothing. People do wash their hands and stay apart from each other. We’re just doing practically nothing.

When this is all over, we shall see.

Personal Hygiene is Public Hygiene

Isn’t it remarkable how the recommendations for what to do if you get sick are basically the same regardless of the cause? Wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Cover your mouth (not with your hand) when you cough or sneeze. Clean surfaces. No double dipping. Wash your hands. Stay home. Rest.

The difference with something like SARS-CoV-2 is that, because of its virulence, the population as a whole cannot depend on individuals to wash their hands–or to stay home.

We here in America have a habit of not staying home when we’re sick, for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious: if I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid; if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat. Some people do have paid sick days, though not everybody does, nor does everybody have enough paid sick (or personal or vacation) days to cover being sick more than once. They have no option.

But we’ve also been taught not to take our sick days on Mondays or Fridays because the boss will think that we’re not actually sick. Obviously, we’re goofing off or we drank too much over the weekend. So we go to work. We were taught this in school: attendance is mandatory. Come to school every day unless you have an excuse. Our industrial training has been effective. Long story short, we do not rest: we go out and contaminate the world when we’re sick.

Perhaps after this epidemic runs its course, particularly if it kills enough people, that might change.

A Simple Rate Tweak Should Do It

Last week, the Federal Reserve and others lowered interest rates in an attempt to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Also last week, The Economist optimistically wrote that a recession is unlikely but not impossible:

Yet there is an uneasy feeling that a flurry of rate cuts may not be the solution to this downturn. In part that reflects the fact that they are already so low.

Lowering the prime rate has no effect because it’s not the banks who don’t have enough money: it’s the people. Maybe rate changes would have an effect if the banks changed the interest rate on consumer credit from 25% to -25%, but they won’t. It’s thoroughly irritating how some commentators say there’s too much money in the system when the problem is not how much there is but who has it. We’ve needed a helicopter drop of cash or a debt jubilee for a decade, and a basic income for a century.

In the United States, “full” employment is not having an effect on wages because it’s not full. The labor market is global, or was until yesterday, and global unemployment is roughly 50%, so real wages are still going down. Because employment only counts paid labor–and bears only a passing relation to what work needs to be done–employment is constrained by employers. And there aren’t enough employers, again because of the distribution of money, but also because of a tendency to monopoly: how many paperclip maximizers do we really need? Meanwhile, none of that matters because the system isn’t designed for the public good–or, if you prefer, it’s not designed to maximize marginal benefit for all market participants. Finance capitalism thrives on greed: the world can go to Hell; I’ve got mine.

Besides, it’s not just households who are over-leveraged. Everyone is.

One way the virus hurts the economy is by disrupting the supply of labour, goods and services. People fall ill. Schools close, forcing parents to stay at home. Quarantines might force workplaces to shut entirely. This is accompanied by sizeable demand effects. Some are unavoidable: sick people go out less and buy fewer goods. Public-health measures, too, restrict economic activity. Putting more money into consumers’ hands will do little to offset this drag, unlike your garden-variety downturn. Activity will resume only once the outbreak runs its course.

Then there are nasty spillovers. Both companies and households will face a cash crunch. Consider a sample of 2,000-odd listed American firms. Imagine that their revenues dried up for three months but that they had to continue to pay their fixed costs, because they expected a sharp recovery. A quarter would not have enough spare cash to tide them over, and would have to try to borrow or retrench. Some might go bust. Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements, a club of central banks, find that over 12% of firms in the rich world generate too little income to cover their interest payments.

Many workers do not have big safety buffers either. They risk losing their incomes and their jobs while still having to make mortgage repayments and buy essential goods. More than one in ten American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to about two days’ work at average earnings, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. Fearing a hit to their pockets, people could start to hoard cash rather than spend, further worsening firms’ positions.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2020/03/05/a-recession-is-unlikely-but-not-impossible

The Economist longs for Bretton Woods while they chart some of the attempted remedies. It’s quite possible, however, as some commentators have noted since at least the turn of the century, that the global economy is now too complexly intertwined to be centrally managed, if it ever could have been, or ever could be.

May you live in interesting times.

Don’t Panic

It may be this is the End of Days, or it may not. We shall see, though it has certainly looked like this century has been rhyming with the last since at least 2008. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to recall the wise words on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Or, as it was written in the days when Men were Men and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri were Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri,

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If—,” Rudyard Kipling (1910)

(Come to think of it, it’s no surprise that the Scout motto is Be Prepared. Baden-Powell and Kipling came out of the same mileau.)

Living on Margin

Instant gratification is made possible by just-in-time delivery. What if just-in-time never arrives?

I have four eggs left in the refrigerator and half a gallon of milk, so if I want to make waffles over the weekend, I will need to purchase more. Assuming that I have money to buy more. Assuming that there are more to buy.

I know someone with chickens, so eggs might not be a problem if, for some reason, I have to beg favors, or the local grocery store closes, or a delivery can’t be made because all the drivers are ill or fuel is scare, or the farmers or their robots can’t milk the cattle or gather eggs from the chickens. But do I know anyone with a milk cow? It’s still Winter; do I know anyone with greenhouse? (Actually, I know several, but they’re in Virginia and Connecticut; I’m in New York.)

What will you eat when the world ends?

What is your margin of error?

Pride Goeth Before

Most of us find it hard to admit mistakes.

Was the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak worsened because admitting the scope of the problem, or that a problem even exists, could be embarrassing? Is that any different from a Church that claims to speak infallibly and act in-errantly, yet shelters and enables abuse?

Are we bound to ignore the probability of error? Why do we assert absolute truth, yet fester with lies; claim omniscience, yet remain ignorant?

What a sin is this pride, this hubris!