5 min read

Scoring the pandemic

Scoring how various pandemic policy responses; the culture of masking in Korea; China's not buying US debt; and measuring child poverty.
Photo of a dart board.
Policies enacted during the pandemic were a bit like an amateur throwing darts at a board; you never knew what you were going to get. Photo by engin akyurt / Unsplash

Please note that there will be no email on Monday due to the public holiday in WA.

1—Scoring the pandemic

Now that Joe Biden has declared the pandemic over and even hardliners such as WA's 'Emperor McGowan' are winding back their emergency powers, it's worth taking a look at how various responses worked or, as was more often the case, didn't. That's exactly what Arnold Kling did in a recent post, with a heavy US focus. First the good:

"The vaccines were developed within days. That is terrific. I see Operation Warp Speed as ramping up production before they had been tested, which was a smart move. But I see not doing human challenge trials as a major mistake, which delayed the deployment of the vaccines by months.
In addition to Scott Atlas, I would say that Zvi Mowshowitz and Robin Hanson contributed positively to COVID discussions. But they were even further from positions of influence."

Then there's the bad, which is basically the rest of the article. Here are two:

"I am appalled by the lack of scientific curiosity among those responsible for public health, at the CDC and elsewhere... I honestly think that I was offering better public health advice based on my observations than what the experts were telling us.
Politicians and public officials took advantage of the crisis to take more power and spend more money. Enacting 'stimulus' was irresponsible. There was nothing for people to spend money on until after fear of the virus had subsided, at which point the pent-up savings unleashed inflation."

Kling ends with a desire for "an honest and open-ended post-pandemic inquiry commission", but doesn't expect to get one because it might involve "clipping of the wings of politicians and other public officials". We could certainly use a Royal Commission in Australia but so far all Anthony Albanese has committed to is giving "consideration to an appropriate form of analysis". 🙄

You can read Kling's full post here (~3 minute read).

2—Take off the mask

"Walk any street, of any Korean city, at any time of day, in any weather, and the vast majority of faces you see are still covered. This takes some explaining ― something that the "good citizen" argument cannot.

People obediently following government regulations don't then ignore their government when the regulations change, unless they were never really following at all.

A more likely explanation is, they were scared then, and remain scared now! This at least matches what we are seeing on the ground (masks still being worn outside) ― but it also comes with its own set of problems."

That's from Jed Lea-Henry in the Korea Times, who worries that if Koreans are still genuinely fearful despite being "reasonably healthy, double or triple or quadruple vaccinated, holding antibodies from infection or exposure, and, of course, are outside where we know that the virus does its weakest work... then something very unpleasant has been allowed to take residence in Korean society".

But apparently it's not the virus that's frightening Koreans:

"Even before the pandemic hit the peninsula, it was common enough for young women and girls to wear masks ― blaming allergies, pollution or fine dust; anything for an excuse to hide away for a day or two, and get some temporary relief from all that pressure.

So no doubt the mask mandates originally came as a happy escape for such people. Still, this is no more of a solution to vanity and judgment, than heroin is to physical pain. And in the case of masks, they cannot even be said to ease that underlying agony.
Back here in Korea, young women (and plenty of men too, of course) must have ― at first ― enjoyed the mental holiday that covering their faces allowed them to have. Now, nearly three years later, that mask increasingly looks like an addiction ― a comforting vice they can't quite shake."

Do read Lea-Henry's full article here (~5 minute read), in which he worries about "what the long-term effects of this might be".

3—China stopped buying

Tweet showing China's holdings of US Treasuries.
The decline is mostly because the US kept issuing debt while China stopped buying.

4—Impossible by definition

Ending child poverty sounds like an admirable goal, and so the US government recently expanded its 'child tax credit' – reducing the tax burden for families with  dependent children, noting that if it exceeds taxes owed, families receive the excess amount as a cash payment – with the aim of cutting "the nation's child poverty rate in half".

But according to the latest official census numbers, the 2021 child poverty rate "fell a mere 0.7 percentage points from 16% in 2020 and was still 0.9 points higher than the pre-pandemic low of 14.4% in 2019, even though government spent an extra $2.6 trillion on transfer payments in 2020-21".

According to Phil Gramm and John Early, that's because it's impossible to reduce child poverty through tax credits:

"No matter how much money the government pours into any of these tax credits, it will never raise the official income measure given the way the census defines income. The omission of refundable tax credits from the official poverty rate calculation isn't unique. The Census Bureau fails to count two-thirds of all government transfer payments to households in the income numbers it uses to calculate not only poverty levels but also income inequality and income growth. In addition to not counting refundable tax credits, which are paid by checks from the US Treasury, the official Census Bureau measure doesn't count food stamps, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, rent subsidies, energy subsidies and health-insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. In total, benefits provided in more than 100 other federal, state and local transfer payments aren't counted by the Census Bureau as income to the recipients."

Gramm and Early show that child poverty would have been just 3.2% in 2017 (the official rate was 17.5%) if all of those benefits were included in the definition, which "not only overstates the level of poverty, but it distorts the policy debate... [as policy] doesn't address the basic needs of the 2% of American households that actually are poor".

You can read Gramm and Early's full article here (~5 minute read), which bemoans not only the ever-expanding number of fiscal transfer payments but also the huge marginal tax rates the policies impose on the bottom quintile of households, which has contributed to a reduction in the number "who actually work from 68% in 1967 to 36% in 2017".

5—Further reading...

♟️ Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen finally broke his silence on the Niemann cheating saga, stating that "I'm very impressed by Niemann's play, and I think his mentor GM Maxim Dlugy must be doing a great job." Dlugy was suspected of cheating on chess.com back in 2017.

🔌 BloombergNEF analysts revised up their projections for the share of electric passenger cars sold in the US from 43% to 53% by 2030. Sales in 2021 were just 5% of the total.

🩸 "Up to 10% of US plasma collected nationwide comes from Mexican nationals, who get paid roughly $50 to donate."

⚔️ After Vladimir Putin announced conscription for military reservists and that he wasn't bluffing about using nuclear weapons, Joe Biden said "This war is about extinguishing Ukraine's right to exist as a state... If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, now we put at risk everything."

🌬️ Why did wind power take so long to scale up given "the basic technology for wind-generated electricity (a windmill and an electric generator) has been in place since the 1800s"?