Friday 24 April, 2020

Quote of the day

“There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.”

So who is providing the ‘science’ that the UK government claims to be following?

Answer: the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies — SAGE. But here’s the strange thing: its list of members is secret, its meetings are closed, its recommendations are private and the minutes of its deliberations are published much later, if at all.

Yet, as the New York Times notes, government ministers endlessly invoke SAGE’s name without ever explaining how it comes up with its advice — or even who these scientists are.

Why is this? Various possible explanations. One is Whitehall’s traditional (and pathological) dislike of openness and transparency in favour of official secrecy. Another is a desire to shield scientists and medics from hysterical trolling like what has happened in the US to Dr Anthony Fauci.

But there is a more sinister explanation. It is that it will provide this chaotic Johnson administration with a cast-iron alibi for escaping responsibility for their catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic when the time comes for an inquiry into what happened. “We were just following scientific advice”, they will say. It’s a variant on the old WW2 excuse about just following orders.

This lack of transparency was once a puzzle. Now that the economy is tanking as a result of how the pandemic has been handled, it’s become a scandal. Will any of the journalists who (virtually) attend the government’s daily briefings ask why SAGE’s membership and advice is not being published?

Coronavirus: YouTube bans ‘medically unsubstantiated’ content

According to a BBC report, YouTube has banned any coronavirus-related content that directly contradicts World Health Organization (WHO) advice.

The Google-owned service says it will remove anything it deems “medically unsubstantiated”.

Chief executive Susan Wojcicki said the media giant wanted to stamp out “misinformation on the platform”.

The move follows YouTube banning conspiracy theories falsely linking Covid-19 to 5G networks.

Mrs Wojcicki made the remarks on Wednesday during her first interview since the global coronavirus lockdown began.

“So people saying, ‘Take vitamin C, take turmeric, we’ll cure you,’ those are the examples of things that would be a violation of our policy,” she told CNN. “Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy.”

Well, we should be thankful for small mercies, I suppose. So that’s Coronavirus dealt with then? But is YouTube now going to take down all the conspiracy theories about MMR that have been uploaded by anti-vaxx nutters and disseminated by YouTube? After all, as Charles Arthur remarked on this morning’s Overspill, measles kills people too.

Correction: in the first edition of this blog yesterday the reference to ‘MMT’ should have been to MMR. Thanks to the reader who pointed out the error.

How to deal with credulous fools

The quotation at the top comes from a lovely essay by Bertrand Russell. I particularly liked the way he ended it.

I admire especially a certain prophetess who lived beside a lake in Northern New York State about the year 1820. She announced to her numerous followers that she possessed the power of walking on water, and that she proposed to do so at 11 o’clock on a certain morning. At the stated time, the faithful assembled in their thousands beside the lake. She spoke to them, saying: “Are you all entirely persuaded that I can walk on water?” With one voice they replied: “We are.” “In that case,” she announced, “there is not need for me to do so.” And they all went home much edified.

As the Italians say, even if it’s not true it deserves to be.

If people have to stay at home are are thereby unemployed, there are lots of jobs they could do

We need to think like FDR about this. There are lots of things that need doing, but at the moment are not being done. Alex Tabarrok has some useful ideas in that line:

Sick pay pays sick people to stay home but to defeat the virus we also want lots of healthy people to stay home. We also want to support people who are at home because they can’t find work. We can accomplish these goals by subsidizing work using services like Upwork or Mechanical Turk. Jobs on platforms like Upwork are the shovel-ready work of the 21st century. A 21st century jobs program would pay people to stay home and isolate, support people without work, and produce some useful output all at the same time.

Instead of paying people to dig and then fill ditches* we could pay people to help train machine-learning apps, enter data, subtitle videos. take surveys, maybe even fold proteins to disrupt viruses.

More generally, how about paying people to take online courses? i.e. an income support program and a human capital investment program at the same time. Of course, not everyone would do well and people would cheat but think of these programs as a combination of paying people to isolate, maintaining aggregate demand and providing a source of income when low-wage restaurant and other service-jobs are declining but with a work requirement.

Footnote This was a reference to a famous passage in Keynes’s General Theory:

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again… the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”

A book for its time

David Vincent’s new book is out! Talk about timing!

Quarantine diary — Day 34


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