Streetwise Professor

September 26, 2020

Water, Water, Not Everywhere and Still Not a Drop to Drink, Or, The Very Natural State

Filed under: Climate Change,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:53 pm

The WSJ reports that the CME Group is launching a cash-settled futures contract on California water, with Nasdaq providing the cash price index. I predict, with a high degree of confidence, that this will not be a commercial success. That is, it will not generate substantial trading volume.

Why not? For the same reason that listed weather derivatives hardly ever trade. Information flow is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to make people want to trade. For weather derivatives, there is very little information flow until shortly prior to the pricing month. For example, what information arrives between today and tomorrow that leads to updates in forecasts about what the weather in Chicago will be in December 2020, let alone December 2021? Virtually none. Given the nature of weather dynamics, information flow occurs almost exclusively quite close to the contract date (e.g., in late-November 2020 or 2021, if not in December itself). There is little information that arrives today that would motivate people to trade today contracts with payoffs contingent on future weather, even for a future only months away.

So they don’t.

I predict a similar phenomenon for water derivatives. Most of the fundamental shocks are weather-driven, and those will be concentrated close to the pricing month, leading to little demand to trade prior thereto.

Moreover, successful futures contracts rest on functional physical markets. As this recent article from The American Spectator summarizes, it is a travesty to characterize the means of allocating water in California as “a market.” Instead, it is an intensely politicized process.

If you don’t consider the AmSpec reliable, do a little digging into the scholarly literature about water allocation in the West, notably things written by my friend Gary Libecap. The conclusions are depressingly similar.

The politicization of water allocation is not new. It has existed since the beginning not just in California, but the West generally. Control of water confers enormous political power. You think politicians are going to give that up?

Again, this is not a new thing. Read up on the “California Water Wars.” Or, for a more entertaining take, watch Chinatown, which is a fictionalization/mythologization of the conflict of visions between William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton over water in Los Angeles. Spoiler: the romantic vision died (literally drowned), and the corrupt vision prevailed.

California politicians will become charismatic Catholics before they give up control over water. In a way, it reminds me of the effect of sanctions in say Saddam’s Iraq. Restrictions on supply resulting from sanctions empowered the regime. It could use its power to grant access to a vital resource in order to obtain obeisance. Similarly, California politicians can use their power to grant access to the vital resource of water to obtain political support, and exercise political power.

In a way, this is the quintessence of something I used to write about in regards to Russia: “the natural state.” Here, the analogy is even more trenchant, given that it relates to a natural resource.

The natural state operates by creating artificial scarcity, which in turn creates rents. The natural state allocates those rents in exchange for political patronage.

To do things that would undermine the rents–that is, to alleviate the scarcity–would undermine political power. That will NOT happen voluntarily. Markets for water would be a good thing–which is precisely why they don’t exist, and are unlikely to exist, especially in places like California where water is scarce and hence real markets would be most beneficial.

So CME/Nasdaq California water futures face two huge obstacles. First, even if even a simulacrum of a cash market for water existed, the nature of information flows is not conducive to active trading of water futures. Second, there is not even a simulacrum of a water market in California. What exists in place of a market is a political, and highly politicized, mechanism. That is also inimical to building a successful futures contract on top of it.

PS. Riffing of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the title provides an opportunity for another Python reference!


Critical Theories: The Fatal Conceit Redux

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:37 pm

While reading through various things on Critical Race Theory (and Critical Theories generally) I had a flashback to my undergraduate days in the Social Science Core at the University of Chicago. (No, I’ve never done acid, but I think that reading Critical Theory has the same effect on the brain.)

The incident that came to mind was from the week when Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method was the assigned reading. The prof assigned an essay that asked the students to critique a statement to the effect that Durkheim’s methodology was flawed because it “reified” society. That is, it made society a thing, that acted independently and autonomously on individuals.

In retrospect, to the extent that I recall it, my essay was (understandably) sophomoric. Only as my education–and particularly my self-education–proceeded did I come to realize a fundamental divide between ways of thinking about society, one of which reified it, one of which did not.

In particular, a couple of years after my Soc Core course, I read Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Then, shortly after, I did a deep dive into Hayek. Both were intensely–and persuasively–critical of the idea of “society” as something real that acted on individuals. Sowell wrote of this use of the word (and concept) of society as metaphorical: it metaphorically anthropomorphized society. More trenchantly, he referred to the “animistic fallacy,” in which all outcomes were willed by some entity, be it a god, or “society.”

In contrast, Hayek–and Sowell–emphasized that social outcomes emerge from the complex interactions of individuals acting to achieve personal, not collective, aims. Society and social norms and collective outcomes generally are an outcome of a process, not an actor in the process, let alone the dictator thereof. Hayek emphasized a quote by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Ferguson: things that are “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” That is, humans acting according to their own lights in pursuit of their own objectives interact in ways that produce collective outcomes that no one intended. This is the idea of “spontaneous order” or “emergent order.”

The alternative view is that orders are the creation of society, or some group in society. That’s reification.

In a nutshell, the divide is between methodological individualism, and methodological collectivism. The methodological divide in many respects reflects a geographical one, between Continental Europe on the one hand, and the British Isles (notably Scotland) on the other. Rousseau’s “popular will,” for example, is a collectivist idea that is the taproot of much continental theorizing that followed. (Durkheim being French, as an example.) In contrast, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (not just Ferguson but Hutchinson and Hume and Smith and others) were theorists of spontaneous orders which emerged unintended from the interactions of individuals.

Critical Theories are inherently collectivist, and reify society–or, more often cabals of the powerful within society–that act independently, as a deus ex machina, to determine/dictate social outcomes.

This is best illustrated by the rather monotonous use of the trope that “X [race, gender, etc.] is a social construct.” This implicitly posits an architect or builder (“society”) that actively and intentionally constructs something. In most modern critical theories, this architect/builder is “the powerful” which through some alchemy or mesmerism determines the beliefs of the non-powerful, thereby cementing their power. The theory is explicitly animistic: it says that social outcomes are the product of deliberate human choices and decisions. Someone willed, say, racism into existence, in order to advance that someone’s interests.

To a devotee of Sowell or Hayek, this is a metaphor, an example of the animistic fallacy. But to critical theorists, it is neither metaphor or fallacy: it is reality.

Not surprisingly, the intellectual roots of critical theories are Continental, not British, let alone Scottish. The family tree is tangled, but its roots are on the Continent, and Rousseau and Marx are prominent ancestors. Ferguson and Smith are decidedly not: indeed, they are mortal enemies.

Thinking about this brings to mind an aphorism, which I think I first read from Sowell, but for which I cannot find the exact source. In any event, it’s not original to me, but I think it is on point. My paraphrase: “Economists study how people choose: sociologists believe people have no choices.” Instead, society chooses for them. I would expand this to say that (some) economists explore the implications of individual choices for collective outcomes.

A Monty Python skit (the Dead Bishop on the Landing bit) also comes to mind:

Voice of the Lord: The one in the braces, he done it!

Klaus: It’s a fair cop, but society’s to blame.

Detective: Agreed. We’ll be charging them too.

My strong view is that Critical Theories are fundamentally flawed because they are bad social science. The reification of society–the deeply rooted animistic fallacy–that these theories embody is profoundly wrong, methodologically and empirically. This original sin is amplified by the superstructure of pseudoscience, namely the non-refutable nature of Critical Theory’s claims (something I’ve written about before), that rests upon these faulty methodological foundations.

These fundamental flaws would be of little moment if the smelly orthodoxies of Critical Theory were purely a matter of academic debate. But they are not. Following one of their intellectual ancestors, Marx, Critical Theorists believe “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Critical Theorists want to change the world, in the worst way. Their march through the institutions has been aimed at transforming our lives fundamentally.

This is acutely dangerous because the fundamentally flawed belief that social outcomes are–and hence can be–engineered implies that social coercion by a powerful elite is ubiquitous. The corollary (which is actually an example of another fallacy, namely Hume’s is-ought fallacy) is that they should be the powerful elite that coerces in order to overturn injustices imposed by the powerful to achieve utopian outcomes.

To reprise another Python bit: “Come see the violence inherent in the system”:

Dennis (Michael Palin) is succinctly expressing the essence of Critical Theory. The powerful (personified by Graham Chapman’s King Arthur) rule “the system” (society) through violence. The Critical Theory gnostics believe that they are uniquely endowed with the ability to diagnose this systemic coercion (systemic racism, anyone?), and that they are justified in using violence or subversion or other forms of coercion to overthrow it.

This has been tried many times. It has always–always-ended in misery and death. Often mass death.

Critical Theories are therefore a more modern example of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit.” The problem is that “fatal” is often literal, not merely metaphorical. Since Critical Theorists are not content merely to theorize, but theorize to justify and take action, they must be fought, to the last ditch.

September 19, 2020

Her Way of Leaving It Does Not Become Her

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 3:28 pm

When someone of prominence passes, I often think of Malcolm’s remark in Macbeth about the Thane of Cawdor, executed for treason: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” How did someone depart this mortal coil, and what does it say about him (or her)?

One one level, one could say that Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s leaving became her. She fought a long battle against cancer with courage.

But at a deeper level, there is something deeply disturbing about her last hours, months, and even years. This is captured by her dying wish: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

This is disturbing for several reasons. For one thing, her seat on the Supreme Court was never hers to bestow or bequeath. The lifetime appointment of judges is problematic enough: to allow them to dictate, or even influence, that seat from the grave is intolerable, and intolerably presumptuous.

With respect to lifetime tenure, Richard Posner had some good insights:

“I believe there should be mandatory retirement for all judges at a fixed age, probably 80,” Posner writes in the online debate with U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff. And that retirement age should include justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, Posner says.

“There are loads of persons capable of distinction as Supreme Court justices; no need for octogenarians,” Posner says.

“While many judges and justices have performed OK in old age, I don’t think any of them improved with age, which means they could readily have been replaced with equally good or better judges,” Posner says.

Even beyond the presumptuousness of believing that one individual’s dying wish should bind the living on a matter of such public import, this wish, and Ginsberg’s insistence on remaining on the court despite suffering a devastating illness, suggests twisted priorities that are all too characteristic of this age, and of the governing class. Priorities that elevate politics above all else.

When confronted with imminent mortality, I would hope to focus on important things. Family. Friends. Enjoying the world to the extent that my health permits. Coming to peace with my fate. Trying to focus on the sacred, rather than on the very profane: and little is more profane than politics.

But Ginsberg was so focused on politics and her power to influence it that she hung onto her Supreme Court seat when she knew her time on earth was limited, and was so loath to surrender that power that she attempted to extend it into the afterlife through her dying wish.

Her death in the midst of an already combustible political environment was destined to add fuel to the raging partisan fires. But her dying words have only intensified the conflagration. Within minutes of her words being reported, Obama intoned that her wishes should be respected. If you want to risk your mental health, you can scroll through Twitter and find example after example of threats to riot–or worse–if those wishes are not granted, and Trump nominates and the Senate moves to confirm a replacement.

Rioting, of course, now being the default leftist threat when they don’t get their way.

Why are we at this juncture? Because Ruth Bader Ginsberg decided to let politics dictate the way of her leaving. Or more exactly, the way of her not leaving the Supreme Court, as health and human considerations should have led her to do long, long ago, when such a departure would have caused some civil strife, but nothing to compare to what we are facing now. Given the malign contribution this will make to our already poisoned body politic, it does not become her at all.

September 17, 2020

The Projection Election

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 6:11 pm

One of the Democratic drumbeats in the final days of the 2020 campaign is that Trump will refuse to concede the election, and that the military will have to evict him from the Oval Office. Indeed, the mannequin at the head of the ticket says that he is “absolutely convinced” that Trump will not concede and that the military will be needed to secure the transition of power.

This is pure projection. The Democrats have made it known publicly that unless Biden wins by a landslide, that the country will descend into civil chaos, with mass protests and rioting. This is something befitting Don Corleone: “Nice little country you got here. Shame if anything happened to it. Keep that in mind when you vote.” Particularly chilling in the aftermath of months of a twisted version of a Rodney Dangerfield joke: I went to a protest and a riot broke out. (Is that deliberate messaging?)

No, really. This is a thing. Operating under the Orwellian name of the “Transition Integrity Project,” leading Democratic figures (e.g., John “password is my password” Podesta), their funders (including He Who Shall Not Be Names Unless You Want to Be Called an Antisemite), and supposedly conservative fellow travelers (e.g., Bitter Bill Kristol) have “war gamed” (their phrase) four election scenarios. Only under the Biden landslide scenario does the country avoid a slide towards civil war.

The Hag of Chappaqua has also weighed in, croaking that Biden “should not concede under any circumstances.” Any circumstances.

The party has readied over 600 lawyers to descend on every contested state and major municipality on November 4. You think Florida 2000 was bad? What happened then and there will happen–only worse–in every state that Trump wins.

Wins on November 3, that is. One of the arguments will be that mail in votes have yet to arrive or be counted, thereby precluding declaration of a winner. This will give time to sow more chaos, pressure more judges, and maybe even manufacture more votes, a la Richard Daley for Kennedy in 1960 or “Landslide Lyndon” in the 1948 Texas Senate race.

Some have compared the TIP “war game” to the blueprint for “color revolutions” authored in 2005 by throne sniffing academic, and former pitiful ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. And indeed, the similarities are quite pronounced.

McFaul gave a wink and a nod on Twitter last week:

“Trump has lost the Intelligence Community. He has lost the State Department. He has lost the military. How can he continue to serve as our Commander in Chief?”

(I would link to the Tweet, but the little weasel blocked me in July 2016 for mocking (a) his nauseating defense of Hillary’s handling of her emails, and (b) his inability to master the incredible intricacies of Google to figure out who I am.)

In sum, the Democrats have broadcast, quite openly, their post-election plans. They argue a priori that Trump cannot win. If he gets more electoral votes, it’s because he cheated, or suppressed the vote, or hijacked the USPS, or on and on and on. That is, they reject anything but a decisive Harris-Biden—whoops, Biden-Harris–victory as illegitimate, and in the event will use any means necessary to make the White House a memory care facility.

All this talk about Trump not conceding, and having to be ejected by the military, is just preparing the battle space. When he contests their Operation Chaos, they’ll shout: “See, we told you! He isn’t leaving! He must be removed!” Gaslighting in its purest form. Projection in its purest form.

All of the hysteria over the USPS is another example of preparing the battle space.

You might argue that some Democrats have said that only if Trump doesn’t concede the election, military intervention would be required. But given that the Democrats clearly and openly reject any Trump victory as illegitimate a priori, such a contingency will arise under any scenario even where Trump can legitimately claim victory. Because the Democrats believe that “legitimate Trump victory” is an oxymoron.

In sum, the Democrats have clearly threatened–and continue to threaten–insurrection unless they win. Meaning, vote right. And if you don’t, your vote won’t count.

We are staring into an abyss. The past four months have just been a pale preview of what waits in store in November.

September 12, 2020

I’m So Old I Can Remember When Trying to Prevent Panic Was Considered a Hallmark of Leadership

Filed under: China,CoronaCrisis,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:27 pm

In what perhaps may become a new feature, in response to a Twitter request by @Esq_SD, here are my thoughts regarding (a) the new Woodward book, and (b) the Israel-UAE (and now Israel-UAE-Bahrain) peace deals.

With respect to the Woodward book, I wouldn’t read his has-been droning on a dare, a bet, or for a date with Gisele Bündchen. So all I can do is respond to the alleged bombshell in the book, namely that “Trump lied [about COVID] and people died!”:

“To be honest with you…I wanted to always play it down. I still want to play it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

This is a completely defensible, and indeed laudable, course to take. Panic makes bad situations worse. Panic kills. Always.

Historically, those in authority who have panicked, or more importantly through intemperate word or deed, caused those who they led or governed or ruled to panic, have created disaster. Those who contributed to maintaining calm even in dire straits have often proven instrumental in overcoming those circumstances.

I’m so old that I can remember being taught in school about a president who said “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”–and that he was admired for saying so.

But now, that president’s political heirs are saying in effect “the only thing we have to sell is fear.”

I am reminded of the first lines of Kipling’s If:

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

Kipling thought this was admirable. It’s now apparently worthy of contempt.

And ain’t it an accurate description of the situation Trump faces?

My criticism–more of a lament, actually–is that Trump did not succeed in stemming panic. Even before Trump spoke to Woodward on 19 March, I had started to call the policy response to COVID-19 a “panicdemic.”

And it only got worse from there. And in certain quarters, the panic continues unabated. This is particularly appalling, given that perhaps, given the ignorance of the early days, there were grounds for fear in March. But given all of the evidence amassed in the past six months, it is now beyond obvious that those fears were vastly overblown.

Yet the fear mongers keep mongering. Just look at the UK, where BoJo (whose erratic behavior makes Trump look like Seneca the Younger) has clamped down again. Or Victoria, in Australia (I’m being specific as an acknowledgement to Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break’s admonition that there is more to Australia than Melbourne), or New Zealand, both of which have adopted the insane eliminate-the-virus strategy

The panicked policy responses have wreaked havoc, and inflicted far more damage than the virus itself. So would that Trump’s efforts to tamp down the panic been far more successful. But I certainly will not join the baying chorus attacking him for going against character, and choosing understatement over hyperbole.

As for the Mideast peace deals. What? You haven’t heard about them? Well, that’s understandable, because the media has been speaking sotto voce on the subject. And that tells you just how epochal the deals are.

They obviously can’t say the deals are a bad thing. They clearly are a good thing, but they can’t say that, because that would be a boon for Trump, and we can’t have that, can we? Especially with an election in 7 weeks. So the media silence (and the silence of the Democrats) is as ringing an endorsement as one could imagine.

You can bet your bottom dollar that if Obama had shepherded such a deal to completion, the media would be singing his praises from the rooftops. (As if Obama ever could have achieved this, given his inveterate hostility to Israel and his obsession in consummating a deal with Iran.) But since Trump’s fingerprints are on it, the most substantive diplomatic realignment in the Middle East in decades is all but ignored.

As is the deal in another allegedly intractable conflict, between Kosovo and Serbia. Richard Grenell’s scathing takedown of the press for its indifference to and palpable ignorance of the the importance of the rapprochement was fully justified. (Ironically, Grenell would check various intersectional boxes, but one box that he checks–Trump Republican–puts him beyond the pale of the pale.)

These two achievements also give the lie to the oft-repeated slander that the Trump administration is isolationist, withdrawing America from the world, and in particular, abandoning the Middle East.

Letting Syria go to shit–stay shit would be more accurate–is not abandoning the Middle East. It is prudent to avoid getting involved in . . . what’s the word that Democrats always used to throw around? . . . ah . . . quagmires, that’s it. Drawing down in Iraq–after largely vanquishing ISIS–is prudent. Economy of force and concentration on strategic priorities is prudent: getting involved and staying involved everywhere is strategic idiocy.

It is particularly ironic that Trump has been routinely savaged as a war monger, yet he–in the teeth of furious opposition from the Pentagon and the State Department apparatchiks other elements of the Deep State–has steadfastly–and patiently–whittled away at American military presence in fruitless conflicts, and used diplomacy to advance American interests and reduce conflicts, thereby avoiding additional military commitments.

We are well into a new era of great power rivalry, specifically with China. Prudent strategy focuses on those arguably existential conflicts, and avoids peripheral ones, or attempts to mitigate them through diplomacy. The peace deals, the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the waging of asymmetric conflict against China (cf., TikTok, Huawei, visas to Chinese students, prosecuting academics who whore for China) are all elements of such a prudent and foresightful strategy. Trump’s adoption thereof is more likely instinctual than intellectual, but his instincts are correct and he has had the fortitude to pursue them despite the inveterate opposition of the idiots in the Establishment. These policies do not represent an abandonment of American influence, but a concentration on The Objective.

Clauswitz–and Sun Tzu–would understand, even if the DC Mandarins are clueless.

September 6, 2020

Batting 500: Striking Out on Evictions, A Four-Bagger on Coercive Critical Theory Indoctrination

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:13 pm

The Trump administration announced two policies over the last week. It batted 500, and its slugging percentage is 2000. It had one strikeout and one home run.

The strikeout was the CDC moratorium on evictions, due to the covid panicdemic. The short term political benefits are manifest here, but the longer term consequences are malign–as is usually the case with emergency measures.

This is a classic case of the seen and unseen. The seen will be fewer evictions prior to the election–although it should be noted that to the extent that there are gains from trade between landlords and tenants in adjusting the terms of rental contracts due to exigent circumstances, the main impact of this is to change the balance of negotiating power between them, rather than to affect the number of evictions. In a frictionless Coasean world, the policy would not affect the number of evictions. In the real world, there are bargaining frictions, so the policy will reduce the number of evictions, but I am guessing that this (efficiency) impact will be small. Thus, the main impact of the policy will be distributive.

But perhaps that is not surprising, because the primary engine of politics is the distribution of wealth and income.

The longer run impacts are unseen. To the extent that this “emergency” policy is considered to be a precedent, and that such moratoria are more likely in the future, the effect will be to cause rents to rise, and the quality and quantity of rental units to decline. That’s what expropriation of property rights does. These higher costs will be borne by all renters.

Thus, in the long run, the policy is inefficient. The welfare losses will be borne not primarily by landlords (due to essentially free exit from the sector in the long run), but by the alleged beneficiaries–renters. But those people–and pretty much everybody–will not connect the higher rents and crappier apartments to the policies allegedly adopted for their benefit.

The four-bagger is the ban on requiring federal workers to take courses rooted in “critical race theory” or theories of “white privilege” or “systemic racism” and the like. These programs are beyond malign. They are oppressive and sow strife, rather than ameliorate it.

Moreover, they are based in lies.

Any “theory” that is self-labeled “critical” is pseudo-scientific rubbish. If you want to do a deep dive into the subject (warning: you are risking your mental health if you do!), I recommend the New Discourses website. I will just hit a few highlights–or, more accurately, lowlights.

As New Discourses points out, critical theories tend to be rooted in Marxism, post-modernism, or a Frankenstein amalgam of both. To dive into the distinctions between Marxist and post-modern flavors of these theories is to court migraine. But there are some broad similarities that can be expressed succinctly.

To greatly oversimplify, but at the same time to capture the essence, critical theories deny objective truth. Instead, everything is “narrative,” and the narratives are simply brainwashing/propaganda intended to rationalize, justify, and perpetuate the power of certain classes. In the case of critical race theory, the class is white people.

These theories are essentially gnostic. The theorists claim to have special insights into hidden structures of power relationships, based on their unique ability to “deconstruct” (i.e., decode) hidden meanings in ordinary speech, literary texts, and even scientific works.

Ironically, the theorists claim that nothing that anyone else says is objectively true–but you are expected to take their deconstructions as truth.

The mechanism by which this process works is also unspecified. At least classic conspiracy theories involve identifiable conspirators, and acts of coordination among them. Theories claiming vast Masonic plots, for example, can at least point to secretive meetings among powerful people at Masonic lodges. But just how, exactly, do all white people (or all men, or all cis-people, or all hetero people, depending on the particular brand of critical theory) agree on the narrative, and agree to oppress The Other?

It is notorious that collusive arrangements are hard–and frequently impossible–to maintain, especially among large numbers of far-flung individuals, even if it is putatively in their collective interest for the conspiracy to succeed. How do these massive conspiracies survive the forces that make collective action very difficult to maintain, even within small groups, let alone within massive groups of strangers separated by space and time?

Critical theories do not even pose the question, let alone answer it: they basically advance a deus ex machina theory of causation.

Moreover, these theories tend to have the feature of pseudoscience that Popper pointed out eons ago: they are not refutable. The theory of “white privilege” (yeah, tell that one to my hillbilly ancestors and relatives, e.g., the Hatfields) is a perfect example. The premise is that all white people are racist. If you admit you are racist, well, QED. But if you deny you are racist, well, QED! Everyone is a winner! Your denial merely reflects your internalization of the white power structure and your steadfast refusal to admit it exists. Proof of how powerful that structure is!

The theory is always right. It cannot be disproven. That is the essence of pseudoscience.

The related theory of “systemic racism” is also pseudoscientific. It takes evidence of differences in outcomes among races as irrefutable evidence of racism (again produced by some unspecified coordination mechanism across hundreds of millions of individuals). Yes, one implication of the theory is that in a systemically racist society, blacks will experience worse outcomes (income, health, mortality, etc.) than whites. But there are alternative explanations for the same patterns that do not involve systemic racism. (Cf., inter alia, Thomas Sowell’s numerous books.)

That is, there are other hypotheses that are observationally equivalent to some implications of the systemic racism hypothesis. Rejection of the no-systemic-racism null does NOT imply acceptance of the systemic racism alternative hypothesis–a logical error that advocates of this theory repeat, usually at high volume and in high dudgeon. Other alternative hypotheses are also consistent with the rejection of the null. What is necessary is to find implications of systemic racism theory that differ from other theories that imply disparate outcomes, and to see which theory best explains the data.

But that’s where the Popperian element of pseudoscience kicks in: only racists deny that evidence of disparate outcome is not due to systemic racism.

The denial of objective truth in critical theories is a denial of all the premises of the Enlightenment, and all the methodologies of the Enlightenment–including the scientific method. Look around you, and witness all of the products of the Enlightenment that have freed you from the poverty, drudgery, and ignorance of the pre-Enlightenment. If you embrace critical theories, you are willingly throwing away all of those things.

Talk about Died of a Theory.

I would also note that there is a huge element of projection in critical theories, critical theorists, and those who embrace them. Recall that the core of critical theories is that they claim that social and cultural institutions, norms, and beliefs are merely instruments to advance and protect the power of one group (e.g., “white people” as if that is some kind of homogeneous group, cf., Ireland) over The Other. But it is abundantly clear that the advocates of critical theories have an overwhelming will to power. Deconstruction is merely a mechanism for them to dissolve existing institutions so that the gnostics can achieve the power to order things as they will. Thus, when those spouting critical theory say that everything is about power, they are revealing far more about themselves, than about the things and people that they critique.

And the fact that critical theories are merely a cloak to the will to power is exactly why the administration is absolutely correct in its efforts to banish the coercive propagation of such ideas to federal employees. Would that the administration find the legal means to banish it in other spheres as well, higher education included.

September 2, 2020

Bullshit Data, Part II: The Government We Deserve?

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:25 pm

Two big covid-related stories have come out in the past few days. The first is that the CDC announced that only about 6 percent of those counted among the covid-19 death toll had no other cause of death listed. The vast majority of those counted as covid casualties had other co-morbidities, notably respiratory problems, diabetes, and obesity. Indeed, the average number of co-morbidities was 2.6 across the 150,000 or so deaths.

Some, like Trump, immediately seized upon this as evidence that only 9000 people had died from covid. We can’t have that, now can we? So immediately the usual suspects, notably Fauci and the media, pushed back, claiming that no, 150,000 is the true death toll. Media outlets in particular began “fact checking” the claim. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)

Anyone who has done serious science, especially social science, knows that proving causation is difficult. Even defining what is meant by “to cause” is difficult to pin down. So arguments about how many deaths covid has caused are more likely to generate heat than light. In particular, in common parlance the idea of causation is zero/one, on/off: X caused Y, or it didn’t.

It’s better to think in terms of probability, e.g., what is the impact of covid the probability someone dies. A fair reading of the CDC report is that covid increases materially the probability that an aged, unhealthy, and especially aged unhealthy person dies prematurely, but it has a minor impact on the probability that an otherwise healthy person dies. (Even that conclusion is dicey, due to the lack of control groups, but leave that aside.)

Even though such a characterization could support an assertion that covid “caused” 150,000 deaths in the US, it is a devastating indictment of past, present, and likely future covid policy, in the US and elsewhere. Why? Because it means that one-size-fits-all-shut-everyone-in policies are grotesquely costly.

If covid is a very slight risk to healthy individuals, but a big risk to unhealthy ones (especially the elderly) then measures should be targeted at the at-risk population, leaving the rest of us to go about our daily lives pretty much normally. The indiscriminate, draconian measures involve huge pain for little gain, and arguably no gain relative to targeted policies.

As death rates–even based on the dubious policy of categorizing the death of anybody with covid as being from covid–have fallen, the bondage fetishists in government and the media have pivoted to another metric: covid cases, i.e., positive test results.

And that brings me to the next big story, one from the NYT no less: because of the nature of the standard testing method, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), it is possible to return a positive test when you are not presently sick, and/or not contagious–and never were!

According to the Times:

The PCR test amplifies genetic matter from the virus in cycles; the fewer cycles required, the greater the amount of virus, or viral load, in the sample. The greater the viral load, the more likely the patient is to be contagious.

This number of amplification cycles needed to find the virus, called the cycle threshold, is never included in the results sent to doctors and coronavirus patients, although it could tell them how infectious the patients are.

In three sets of testing data that include cycle thresholds, compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90 percent of people testing positive carried barely any virus, a review by The Times found.

Think of it like distillation: the tests aren’t making wine, they’re making 199 proof stuff.

In other words, the case numbers are bullshit, if they are intended to measure how many sick, or more importantly, how many contagious people there are. A large fraction of the positives are in no danger, and pose no danger to others. (In previous posts, I outlined other reasons why case numbers are bullshit, e.g., the nature of the test regime, and changes therein over time.)

Put this together with the first story–that the risk of death from from covid among the healthy is small–and the one-size-fits-all policies that are currently justified based on the number of positive test results look even more insanely destructive. If you are healthy and get it, you are unlikely to die: if you have a positive test result, you are highly unlikely even to be sick or make anyone else sick. So why continue highly restrictive policies imposed on virtually everyone (particularly in places like California, let alone Australia and New Zealand which have descended into police states) based on something (a positive test result) that indicates negligible risk?

Thus it is particularly insane that very low risk populations (primary and secondary students, college students, professional athletes, college athletes) are subjected to severe limitations on their normal activities based on “spikes” in positive tests. The hysteria among college administrators is particularly idiotic: they are freaking out and cracking down over such spikes. University life has not returned to anywhere resembling normal even at universities, which, like mine, are formally “open” and offering some in person classes: on what are usually the busiest days of the year, the first couple of days of the semester, the UH campus is still a ghost town. (Not that I am surprised about the idiocy of administrators, mind you. Thirty years in academia means that I am anything but surprised.)

The bullshit nature of death coding–if someone tests positive for covid and dies, it is coded as a covid death–raises another serious question when combined with the hypersensitivity of the test results: the incremental impact of covid positivity on mortality may be smaller than the official numbers suggest, even among at-risk populations, because the “dose” of virus that generates a positive test may be far too small to have a meaningful health effect even on the sick.

Here’s where things get even more interesting. It is clear that there have been large numbers of excess deaths (i.e., deaths above historical averages) during the covid period. Indeed, the number of excess deaths exceeds the number of official covid deaths, leading some to conclude covid deaths have been undercounted.

But the ubiquity of testing in hospitals, plus the extreme sensitivity of tests, makes it highly likely that covid did not materially contribute to many of the deaths officially counted as covid casualties. Presumably a lot of the people who died after testing positive had too little viral load to suffer from the virus.

Which would mean that the difference between excess deaths and covid deaths is likely an underestimate of excess mortality attributable to the “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (e.g., lockdowns). Indeed, if deaths counted as covid are overstated because of the hypersensitive tests, excess deaths minus covid deaths undercounts the deaths attributable to lockdowns, including the deaths for which the economic collapse was a materially contributing factor.

In other words, if covid is listed for some as a cause of death, for others “government policy” should be. (And of course, for some, e.g., nursing home residents in NY, “both” would apply.)

In one of my early posts, where I was among the first to raise serious doubts about the prudence of lockdowns, I said that it was a matter of trade offs. Trade-offs not just between death and income/wealth, but between deaths from one cause and deaths from another. It is now becoming clear that tens of thousands, and perhaps over 100,000, of the excess deaths are not the result of covid infection, but from the policy responses to covid.

Yet throughout the country, and indeed throughout the world, with a few exceptions, these realities regarding the true risks and the meaninglessness of tests are not causing those in power to slacken their grip. States of emergency continue throughout the US, especially in places like California, Michigan, New York, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Travel quarantines exist worldwide. (Though why the Europeans are keeping out Americans but letting in Chinese is totally beyond my comprehension.)

Why? Well, for one thing, admitting this now would be to confess that the previous measures were unnecessary, cruel, and excessively destructive of life and economic welfare. This is not a good look for politicians:

Not to admit error is human. Especially for the subspecies of humanity (I’m being generous) called politicians and bureaucrats. But I think there is something more sinister going on here.

They like the power over our lives. They are intoxicated by the power over our lives. They revel in the power over our lives. And they are goddamned if they are going to give up that power over our lives.

Especially when so many people ovinely submit to them running roughshod over our lives and our liberties. If Joseph de Maistre was right, and we get the government we deserve, the governments we have now speaks very poorly of us indeed.

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