Why the US is screwed

A new Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday finds that Democrats and Republicans have polarized views on both the danger the coronavirus poses and how the Trump administration is handling the outbreak.

By the numbers: The poll finds that 43% of respondents overall approve of President Trump’s response to the coronavirus, while 49% disapprove.

That divide falls largely along party lines. 83% of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s response, while 87% of Republicans approve. 68% of Democrats said that they are “very or somewhat concerned” about the virus, compared to just 35% of Republicans.

How will these views change when people start to die in significant numbers from the virus? Will they change? The funny thing about viruses is that they don’t distinguish between political parties.

COVID-19: the choice

Basically, governments have to choose between public health and the economy. This is, ultimately, the message of this Editorial in The Lancet:

So far, evidence suggests that the colossal public health efforts of the Chinese Government have saved thousands of lives. High-income countries, now facing their own outbreaks, must take reasoned risks and act more decisively. They must abandon their fears of the negative short-term public and economic consequences that may follow from restricting public freedoms as part of more assertive infection control measures.

Yep. And, above all, they must not copy the US

Everyone’s cooking the books

From Alexis Madrigal:

Meanwhile, South Korean officials have been testing more than 10,000 people a day, driving up the country’s reported-case count. Same goes for Italy: high test rate, high number of cases. (Now some Italian politicians want to restrict testing.) In China, the official data say the country has more than 80,000 cases, but the real number might be far, far higher because of all the people who had mild(er) cases and were turned away from medical care, or never sought it in the first place. That may be cause for reassurance (though not everyone agrees), because the total number of cases is the denominator in the simple equation that yields a fatality rate: deaths divided by cases. More cases with the same number of deaths means that the disease is likely less deadly than the data show.

The point is that every country’s numbers are the result of a specific set of testing and accounting regimes. Everyone is cooking the data, one way or another. And yet, even though these inconsistencies are public and plain, people continue to rely on charts showing different numbers, with no indication that they are not all produced with the same rigor or vigor. This is bad. It encourages dangerous behavior such as cutting back testing to bring a country’s numbers down or slow-walking testing to keep a country’s numbers low.

Brooks on Sanders

Unsurprising but still interesting. The headline on David Brooks’s column is “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever”.

Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal. This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.

This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.

Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.

He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.

Liberalism celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism. Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

Looks like he feels about Bernie the same way I felt about Jeremy Corbyn.

The economic consequences of George Osborne

Last September there was a terrific conference in King’s College, Cambridge to celebrate the centenary of the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s famous pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In a mischievous spirit in the months before the event, I tried to persuade a well-known economist of my acquaintance to compose another pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of George Osborne, that we could unveil on the weekend before the Keynes conference.

Osborne, as most people know, was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Coalition and Tory governments led by David Cameron following the 2010 general election. In that role he was the prime architect of the ‘austerity’ policy of slashing public expenditure (and therefore welfare benefits) using the preposterous rationale that somehow the public deficit brought about by rescuing the banks was due to extravagant spending by a Labour administration living beyond the country’s means. In fact, working on the principle that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, Osborne used this rationale as a cover for what he always had been seeking to do, namely to shrink the state in best Hayekian style.

Sadly, my tame expert was unable to help with the pamphlet, having been unexpectedly headhunted for a demanding role which left him little time for entertaining pursuits. So the booklet remained unwritten — until now.

But it has just surfaced under a different title and with a different set of authors. It’s  Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, written by a team led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. Although the authors are much too polite and reserved to put it like this, the report shows that the consequences of George Osborne are as numerous and bleak as I had supposed. British subjects can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health, for example. Improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women. The health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas. And place really matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

In more detail, the research underpinning the report says:

  • Since 2010 life expectancy in England has stalled; this has not happened since at least 1900. If health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving. When a society is flourishing health tends to flourish.
  • The health of the population is not just a matter of how well the health service is funded and functions, important as that is. Health is closely linked to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and inequities in power, money and resources – the social determinants of health.
  • The slowdown in life expectancy increase cannot for the most part be attributed to severe winters. More than 80 percent of the slowdown, between 2011 and 2019, results from influences other than winter-associated mortality.
  • Life expectancy follows the social gradient – the more deprived the area the shorter the life expectancy. This gradient has become steeper; inequalities in life expectancy have increased. Among women in the most deprived 10 percent of areas, life expectancy fell between 2010-12 and 2016-18.
  • There are marked regional differences in life expectancy, particularly among people living in more deprived areas. Differences both within and between regions have tended to increase. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in London.
  • There has been no sign of a decrease in mortality for people under 50. In fact, mortality rates have increased for people aged 45-49. It is likely that social and economic conditions have undermined health at these ages.
  • The gradient in healthy life expectancy is steeper than that of life expectancy. It means that people in more deprived areas spend more of their shorter lives in ill-health than those in less deprived areas.
  • The amount of time people spend in poor health has increased across England since 2010. As we reported in 2010, inequalities in poor health harm individuals, families, communities and are expensive to the public purse. They are also unnecessary and can be reduced with the right policies.
  • Large funding cuts have affected the social determinants across the whole of England, but deprived areas and areas outside London and the South East experienced larger cuts; their capacity to improve social determinants of health has been undermined.

I could go on, but you will get the point.

Since being unceremoniously sacked by Theresa May, Osborne has led an exceedingly comfortable life, topping up the income from his family Trust Fund with a lavish salary as Editor of the London Evening Standard and £650,000 for working one day a week for the investment fund Blackwater.

Krugman on Bernie

From today’s NYT. He’s not overly impressed by Sanders, but…

I’m more concerned about (a) the electability of someone who says he’s a socialist even though he isn’t and (b) if he does win, whether he’ll squander political capital on unwinnable fights like abolishing private health insurance. But if he’s the nominee, it’s the job of Dems to make him electable if at all possible.

To be honest, a Sanders administration would probably leave center-left policy wonks like me out in the cold, at least initially. And if a President Sanders or his advisers say things I think are foolish, I won’t pretend otherwise in an attempt to ingratiate myself. (Sorry, I’m still not a convert to Modern Monetary Theory.) But this is no time for self-indulgence and ego trips. Freedom is on the line.

The real test of an AI machine? When it can admit to not knowing something

This morning’s Observer column on the EU’s plans for regulating AI and data:

Once you get beyond the mandatory euro-boosting rhetoric about how the EU’s “technological and industrial strengths”, “high-quality digital infrastructure” and “regulatory framework based on its fundamental values” will enable Europe to become “a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications”, the white paper seems quite sensible. But as for all documents dealing with how actually to deal with AI, it falls back on the conventional bromides about human agency and oversight, privacy and governance, diversity, non-discrimination and fairness, societal wellbeing, accountability and that old favourite “transparency”. The only discernible omissions are motherhood and apple pie.

But this is par for the course with AI at the moment: the discourse is invariably three parts generalities, two parts virtue-signalling leavened with a smattering of pious hopes. It’s got to the point where one longs for some plain speaking and common sense.

And, as luck would have it, along it comes in the shape of Sir David Spiegelhalter, an eminent Cambridge statistician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. He has spent his life trying to teach people how to understand statistical reasoning, and last month published a really helpful article in the Harvard Data Science Review on the question “Should we trust algorithms?”

Read on

Ministers who can’t count

Pritti Patel, the current British Home Secretary (third from left, top row), recently introduced the UK’s “tough” new points-based immigration system that will come into force on January 1, 2021. Faced with criticism that the system will severely impair certain sectors of British industry, Ms Patel asserted that the new rules will be a golden opportunity for 8.48m “economically inactive” British people between the ages of 16 and 64 to join the workforce.

Writing in today’s Financial Times, Bronwen Maddox points out that, according to the Office of National Statistics, 2.3m of those are students, 2.1m are long-term sick or disabled, 1.9m are looking after their family or home, 1.1m are retired and 160,000 are temporarily sick. This leaves 1.87m who might like a job and do not have one.

Perhaps one of them would like a job in the Home Secretary’s office, handling the arithmetic.