NR Webathon

Shocked by the Support, but . . . Should We Be?

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In thick, in thin, for decades, NR readers have always shown up, ready to give additional support to this enterprise, which they hold to be an agent of their thoughts and principles, their desires that conservatism be propagated, with consequence, and their hope that the enemies of our principles — the very ideas at the foundation of our Republic — be challenged, mocked, exposed, and beaten back.

We should be used to this kindness. Comfortable with it. Assuming it even?

Heck no. As individuals working here at Bill Buckley’s enterprise, and collectively, institutionally, we remain shocked — mouths agape, heads shaking in wonder — that such unmitigated and cheerful selflessness persists. Should we be, given six decades of such?

And so it goes with our current short-term webathon, launched in this time of crisis: Since Monday over 600 people have contributed some $48,000 to NR. Zounds! This puts us halfway toward our goal of $100,000 (and if the heavens see fit, more, as our needs are, well, much more). As is often the case, individuals attach thoughts and compliments and attaboys to their generosity. Some examples:

  • Cathleen tenders $50 and lets loose: “Can’t thank you enough for being a consistently clear voice of reason throughout this ordeal. I’ve been following all kinds of coverage like a crack addict, and always come back here for honesty, clarity, and truth. Special kudos to David Harsanyi (my new favorite NR author) and Andy McCarthy (a perennial favorite), although ‘there’s not a bad one in the bunch’ as my late, great Dad would say. Keep up the good work . . . wish this was 1000 times more.” Gosh Cathleen you are the best.
  • David sends General Grant our way, and explains why: “Comprehensive coverage of the pandemic is great. You have addressed the pandemic from the where-are-we-at perspective instead of piling-on-the-fault perspective. I’m donating because I want to know today if what I thought was true a month or a week or just last night has changed. I don’t want melodrama. I want the whole truth as best understood today.” That’s what we aim to do, and can do because we have friends such as you. Thanks terribly.
  • Michael contributes $100 and makes an act of contrition: “Frankly, I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long to contribute to NR. You’ve been my go to for years and it’s time that I paid my fair share to support real journalism. I encourage others to contribute as well as subscribe as I’ve just done.” No sins committed Mike . . . but a major-league work of charity, for which we are deeply appreciative.
  • Oh boy oh boy, alter-ego Pete sends $50 and touches all the bases: “Here’s my weekly commuter train budget; saved because I’m in my basement unexpectedly. NR helped bring down the Evil Empire so keep @ it with the ChiComms! . . . and bring home that Pulitzer, Geraghty!” If that organization was honest, he’d win hands down. Thanks so much.
  • Kate finds a kind $20 and off it goes, thisaway, with a swell story to boot: “In 1976 I picked up a copy of National Review in my college library, read a few articles, decided it made more sense to me than Rolling Stone, and within a couple of years my husband agreed and we became subscribers. My son was in his early teens when he read the online chats in, perhaps, 1990–91. The magazine in one form or another has been educating us all for a very long time. I wish I could give more.” Kate, you wondrous soul, you have no idea how much you have given us!
  • Stephen sticks $100 in the collection basket, and tells short and sweet a story that applies to many: “I’ve been inspired by WFB and his legacy for 40 years. NR continues to represent a refreshing, thoughtful alternative to traditional media.”
  • Lois does likewise, giving $100 and a mental-health update: “National Review helps keep me sane, especially during these trying times. I respect and admire all your writers, but my current favorites are Michael Brendon Dougherty, Charles C.W. Cooke, and Rich Lowry. (No doubt influenced somewhat by my love of The Editor’s podcast, which gave me the desire to subscribe to NR Online.) Keep up the superb work!” Superb . . . love that you think that — and you’re right! Many thanks.
  • Big Bad John appropriates $50 and echoes Lois: “NRO has provided some of the best Covid-19 coverage I’ve seen. Particular thanks to KDW, Jim G., Kyle Smith, MBD, Charles Cooke and especially your latest hire, David Harsanyi, whom I’ve been reading since his Denver newspaper days. Hang in there folks, ‘cos we really need you!” We are here because you are alongside us on the barricades John. Thanks.

There’s much more like that expressed by other comrades, and there’s more room to be had in the ranks of NR’s band of brothers, and sisters, the we happy few who are especially dedicated to standing athwart history and yelling stop. Surely, you want to join, so . . . how? Can you contribute $10, $25, $50, or $100? Is your mattress cash-lumpy, so that you might be able even to donate $250 or $500? Dare we ask you to consider $1,000 or more (five kindly souls have done just that!)? No amount is trivial, all goes toward us reaching (we pray) or even surpassing (we really pray) our $100,000 goal. If you have not yet contributed, please do show your generosity here. If you prefer to send a check, make it payable to “National Review” addressed to National Review, ATTN: 2020 Webathon, 19 West 44th Street, Suite 1701, New York, N.Y., 10036. Also please consider that if you wish to make a truly significant contribution e-mail me at jfowler@nationalreview.com to discuss some convenient means. God’s blessings on one and all!

Elections

What Did Sanders Achieve?

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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks with supporters at a campaign rally at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Ariz., March 5, 2020. (Gage Skidmore/Reuters)

Chris Cillizza writes:

That Sanders’ second campaign for president ends with this sort of whimper should not in any way diminish what the Vermont democratic socialist accomplished over these last five-ish years. Sanders’ impact on the Democratic Party over that period of time is absolutely massive. He dragged the party’s establishment — at times unwillingly — far further to the ideological left on a panoply of issues, chief among them health care and climate change.
Sanders did so by understanding far earlier and with far more clarity than anyone else in the Democratic Party where its base was — and what it wanted from its future leaders.

I am not sure any of this is true. Start with what the party’s base wants. Any reasonable definition of the Democratic base is going to include most African Americans, and they have consistently shown little interest in aggregate in Sanders. Or look at Minnesota, where Sanders won in 2016 but lost more than half his vote share this time. Most Democratic voters there wanted policies similar to or more conservative than Barack Obama’s, and they voted for Joe Biden.

On health care, Biden is running on expanding Obamacare, mainly by making another run at the public option that Obama wanted in 2009. He might well be running on the same platform if Sanders hadn’t run at all. In Congress, the Medicare for All coalition has shrunk. In 2018, it had 124 House cosponsors. In 2020, after a pick-up of 40 Democratic seats, it has 118.

Other Democratic presidential candidates certainly thought that Sanders was pulling the party to the left on health care, which is no doubt part of the reason Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren endorsed versions of his plan. Helping to sink their candidacies by tying them to this toxic idea may be Sanders’s real accomplishment.

Health Care

The Jury Is Still Out in Sweden

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People watch TV as Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven addresses the nation on coronavirus crisis during a broadcast on Swedish national public television in Stockholm, Sweden, March 22, 2020. (TT News Agency/Anders Wiklund via Reuters)

John Fund and Joel W. Hay argue on the homepage that Sweden’s lax approach to the coronavirus has been successful, and further that its success will “probably” prove the recommendations of most epidemiologists wrong. “If social isolation worked, wouldn’t Sweden, a Nordic country of 10.1 million people, be seeing the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocket into the tens of thousands, blowing past the numbers in Italy or New York City?” they ask. But the jury seems to be out on the wisdom of the Swedish approach.

One reason is time. Fund and Hay note that Sweden has had fewer COVID-19 deaths, cumulatively, than Switzerland, a similarly sized country that implemented far harsher policies. Switzerland’s outbreak, however, began before Sweden’s, and when the case-fatality rate trajectories of the two countries are compared, they actually look quite similar. In fact, over the last week, Sweden’s death toll has grown faster than Switzerland’s: at an average geometric rate of 1.19 per day, compared with 1.11 per day. That Sweden had a later outbreak than Switzerland — or, for that matter, than Italy or the United States — is not obviously the result of public policy (geography, climate, and travel come to mind as alternative reasons), nor does it guarantee that the trajectories will remain similar.

Moreover, there are signs that Sweden is anticipating tragedy in the coming weeks, and considering tighter measures accordingly. Its prime minister warned this weekend of “thousands” of deaths; its parliament is nearing a deal on a bill that “would allow the government to take measures — such as closing schools, shopping malls, or restaurants — without first getting parliamentary approval.” Is it possible there is political pressure on the government to bring its policy in line with those across the Western world? Maybe, but it is also possible the government is revising its policies in light of new information. As much as I believe that healthy societies should allow the questioning of orthodoxy, and as much as I’d like to see the Swedish experiment succeed, I can’t say I’m convinced that it will — much less that it will prove the uselessness of social distancing.

Economy & Business

This Is Not the Time to Intervene in the Oil Market

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(Larry Downing/Reuters)

Prices move up and down depending on factors too numerous to count, including changes in input prices, consumer income, consumer and producer expectations, regulations, and other countries’ economic conditions. This fact means that prices are the result of millions of decisions made by countless individuals at each and every moment in time. In some cases, it is obvious why the price of something goes up or why it collapses. What is never obvious is how to reverse the price trend, precisely because any such trend is the product of decisions made in response to so many details dispersed across the globe. And so it’s never desirable for politicians to intervene and try to achieve what they think is the “right” price.

And yet here we are again. Over at the Washington Post, Henry Olsen is urging President Trump to intervene in order to ‘correct’ — that is, to raise — the price of oil, which has fallen dramatically, in part as the result of a fight between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but also because of a sharp reduction of demand for gasoline around the world.

It’s one thing for Mr. Trump to act as a mediator between the two countries so that they reach an agreement of some sort, or to offer, as he has, to store excess oil in the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But Olson believes that’s not enough and that “the president must continue to push for higher prices to secure U.S. oil production despite the fact this will increase gasoline prices.” He even suggests that if the two countries fail to agree, “Trump should threaten to impose tariffs on imported oil on national security grounds.”

Leaving aside both the fact that now is hardly the time to start another trade war and the folly of supposing that the administration (or anyone for that matter) can divine what is the ‘right’ price of oil, it is incredibly short-sighted — indeed, perverse — for Olsen to demand intervention to jack up the price of oil on the American people during a public-health crisis.

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux reminds us that:

[T]he benefits to Americans of access to an increasing abundance of oil aren’t confined to lower prices of gasoline. Petroleum is also a major input for the production of medical supplies, including latex gloves and facemasks. And of course petrochemicals are critical components of many pharmaceutical products.

Mr. Olsen’s proposal to artificially restrict Americans’ access to oil is, therefore, also a proposal to artificially restrict Americans’ access to medical equipment and medicines. Now more than ever we Americans need protection from such “protection.”

It wasn’t too long ago that the president was complaining about the price of oil being too high and demanding that it fall. Interesting how things can change.

There is no doubt that many are hurt today by these lower prices — just as there’s no doubt that many are helped today by these lower prices. Yet nearly everyone will be hurt over the long run by distorting the market. Besides, as long as people around the world are sheltering in place in response to the lock-down of the global economy, demand for oil will be too stubbornly low for any intervention to increase it.

Some oil executives don’t support the intervention:

Other executives, including the heads of API and another trade group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, have counseled the president against intervention:

“Imposing supply constraints, such as quotas, tariffs, or bans on foreign crude oil would exacerbate this already difficult situation, jeopardize the short and long-term competitiveness of our refining sector world-wide, and could jeopardize the benefits Americans experience as a result of our increasing energy dominance.”

Whatever drives these executives to this position, it shows that things are always more complicated than we think, and that the global economy is vastly more complex than most protectionists ever acknowledge.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Olsen’s column is that it reminds me of how some conservatives are willing to put so much faith in government command and control.

Economy & Business

The Fed and Normality

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A security guard walks in front of an image of the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

My article in the latest NR issue concerns what additional steps the Fed can take to support the economy during and after the coronavirus shutdown. David Bahnsen adds two caveats to what I say. Both are well-taken.

First, he notes that we should be careful about overreading TIPS spreads as a sign of falling expectations for inflation. That’s a fair point. I mentioned it as one piece of evidence, along with falling asset prices, commodity prices, and expected federal-funds rates, that all told the same story. On that larger story — we are going through a disinflation — Bahnsen and I are, I believe, in agreement. It’s not what we would expect if what was damaging the economy was primarily a supply shock, as early analyses of the economic impact of the coronavirus suggested.

Second, he worries that the Fed’s dramatic interventions won’t be unwound once we have recovered. Although I didn’t mention it in the article, that concern points to another virtue of my main recommendation: that the Fed switch from an inflation target to a spending-level target. That shift would not increase the Fed’s role in our economy and would even allow for it to have a lighter footprint. Just as the Fed didn’t have to keep interest rates sky-high once it broke the back of inflation in the 1980s, a credible commitment to stabilizing the growth of spending would make it possible to have a shrinking balance sheet. Interest rates, and expected interest rates, ought to rise too.

The people who have criticized the Fed over the last ten years because they favor tighter money are not wrong to want all the things they want. The way to get those things just isn’t tighter money, especially now.

NR Webathon

We Could Use 355 Friends, by Sunday

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First, to those who have kindly contributed to NR’s short-term webathon, with just five days to go, we offer our deep thanks. To be precise: At the time this update is submitted, 914 good souls have contributed $78,378, some kicking in as much as $2,000, others a fiver, and all sorts of figures in between.

To reach our goal of $100,000 — which, given our needs, we hope to surpass — we’re looking for 100 people who will contribute $100 each, 200 people who will contribute $50 each, 54 people to kick in $25 a head, and one dude to find $28 under the couch cushions and send it along.

That will get us to our goal. If you can help us get beyond it — so that we can continue to throttle Communism and socialism and their useful media . . . well, mom said it wasn’t nice to call people idiots — please do so. Donate here. And if you’d prefer to send a check, do make it payable to “National Review” and mail it to National Review, ATTN: Spring 2020 Webathon, 19 West 44th Street, Suite 1701, New York, NY 10036.

History

Uncommon Knowledge: Trump, China, and the Geopolitics of a Crisis

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Stephen A. Kotkin is a professor of history at Princeton University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Kotkin is one of the nation’s most compelling observers of foreign affairs, past and present, and is now working on the third and final volume of his definitive biography of Josef Stalin. From that perspective, we discuss Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, Kotkin’s thoughts on the Chinese leadership class and the advantages they may seek to exploit, and which country — China or the United States — will come to represent the more successful or compelling model to other nations.

Recorded on April 1, 2020.

Economy & Business

Can Corporations Doing Business in China Speak Freely? Can Their News Divisions?

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When we see headlines like this one from NBC News . . .


. . . and articles such as the one on NBCNews.com that do not mention that the Chinese government may not be a reliable and trustworthy source for information — and in fact uses state-run media as the source of conditions in Wuhan . . . it becomes difficult to believe that the editorial judgment of NBC News is not being shaped in any way by the parent company Comcast’s significant investment in and ties to China.

From the company’s largest and most expensive theme park they’ve ever built, Universal Beijing Resort, to Universal Pictures access to Chinese moviegoers, Comcast has enormous incentives to stay on the good side of the government in Beijing.

On February 27th, China’s consul general Huang Ping visited Comcast corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. He sai:, “We hope that Comcast continues its efforts to cooperate with China, enhance people-to-people exchanges, and contribute to the Sino-U.S. relations based on coordination, cooperation, and stability.”

Universal Parks and Resorts chairman and CEO Tom Williams said in September:

Part of the key to doing business in China, he said, is to avoid talking politics.

“You don’t start talking about the leadership in China. You would be crazy to bring up Hong Kong, Taiwan,” he said. “You would never start talking that way. You just focus on what you are trying to do.”

Health Care

Is New York Undercounting Coronavirus Deaths?

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Gwynne Hogan at Gothamist writes that a rash of in-home deaths in New York City suggests the city may be undercounting its COVID-related fatalities:

The FDNY says it responded to 2,192 cases of deaths at home between March 20th and April 5th, or about 130 a day, an almost 400 percent increase from the same time period last year. (In 2019, there were just 453 cardiac arrest calls where a patient died, according to the FDNY.)

That number has been steadily increasing since March 30th, with 241 New Yorkers dying at home Sunday — more than the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths that occurred citywide that day. On Monday night, the city reported 266 new deaths, suggesting the possibility of a 40% undercount of coronavirus-related deaths.

When someone dies at home, first responders are called to determine the cause of death and ensure that no foul play was involved before the funeral home receives the deceased. New York City public health spokesman Michael Lanza told Gothamist that the city’s health department does not “provide [COVID] testing in most of these natural at-home deaths,” which leaves open the possibility that some number of people — potentially a significant number — have died from the coronavirus but have not been counted in New York’s official mortality statistics.

More New Yorkers are staying home, which would seem an obvious culprit for at least some of the in-home fatality surge. Also, people with preexisting medical conditions might be less likely to seek inpatient care given the rash of COVID cases in city hospitals, which could explain part of the rise in domestic mortality. In any case, it’s possible — likely, in fact — that the city and the state of New York are undercounting coronavirus fatalities, which gives me pause about the apparent progress the state has made in cutting its mortality figures.

Culture

Books Read and Unread

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In Dresden, Germany, March 23, 2020 (Matthias Rietschel / Reuters)

On the homepage today, you will find a piece called “Staggering Cornucopias: On books to read and music to listen to — or not.” I’d like to publish a little mail, but first, a little background: Part of my discussion deals with great novels, and not just any great novels: ones that I have picked up — more than once — and failed to persevere in. These include Bleak House, Middlemarch, and The Magic Mountain.

Someday, someday. (Or not.)

National Review’s Fred Schwarz writes,

I like Middlemarch a lot, but I have the same reaction to it that Samuel Johnson had to Paradise Lost — “No man has ever wished it longer.” The first time I read it, I took about half a year because it wasn’t boring enough to put down but wasn’t interesting enough to plow straight through.

I love that sentence, by the way.

The second time was easier because it took much less effort to keep track of the characters and plot developments.

But I’m basically an “if it doesn’t have an English country house, it isn’t a novel” type; Vanity Fair is my all-time favorite.

That is good to know, and a helluva commendation.

Further from Fred:

When I start a novel, I usually consider it a point of pride to finish it; the only exception I can remember is Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence, which (I found out years after buying it) has not only a deceptive title but a reputation for dullness (George Orwell remarked on both of these). But there are plenty of books that I have finished and disliked, including The Moonstone, by Willkie Collins (supposedly the first detective novel, except the detective isn’t particularly clever and the solution is just plain absurd), and Moby-Dick (the non-fiction chapters about the natural history of the whale, the development of the whaling industry, and so on are fascinating, but I found the fictional part thoroughly unengaging).

Them’s fightin’ words — like most words concerning arts and letters (and sports and other subjects).

Another letter, from another reader — who begins, “Bleak House is the only Dickens novel I ever liked.” This is so interesting. I have other letters that say, “I love Dickens — every one of them — except Bleak House.” Anyway, our letter-writer continues,

On Middlemarch, I wish you could find your way into and through it for the joy of it! I never got past the middle (the French part) of The Magic Mountain. Conrad I find astounding but not, somehow, likable. When I was 25, I thought The Red and the Black was the greatest novel ever written. At 55, I read it again and . . . hated it. I actually thought it was plain bad.

Have you ever tried the novels of Barbara Pym? I’m an evangelist of Pym. Some Tame Gazelle is a marvelous one to start with.

In a follow-up, our writer says,

I feel compelled to tell you of another reading turnaround: I tried to read Moby-Dick when young and failed. As soon as Ishmael and Queequeg got on the ship, I was done. Last year I decided to try again, and I’m sure reading it was one of the greatest experiences of my life — not just reading experiences, but any.

And a mountain I have yet to climb, or even approach — Proust.

Three comments:

(1) As the letter illustrates, it pays — or sometimes pays — not to give up on something. This goes for literature, music, and other fields we could think of.

(2) I was talking to a colleague a month or two ago who had just read Moby-Dick for the fourth time. He finds new and marvelous things in it on each reading. He has a portrait of Melville on his office wall (which is how our discussion began).

(3) When it comes to Proust, I think of Mike Potemra, my late friend and colleague. He had read more than almost anyone I knew. Twenty-five or thirty years ago — before we started working at NR — he gave me a list of his 100 all-time books, and a list of his 100 all-time movies. (He had also seen everything.) At the top of the book list was Proust.

Where are those lists, and why don’t I publish them? He gave them to me on paper. (We did not do much Internet in those days.) I’m not sure I can lay my hands on them.

At the top of the movie list, incidentally, was The Conversation, the Francis Ford Coppola film of 1974. I watched it — rented it — and did not understand it. Mike remarked to me, “It’s a meditation on privacy.” (He was very big on privacy.)

Friends, one more letter, at least for now:

Just read your piece on books to read, etc. In fairness, I’ve read none of the books mentioned, though I’ve tried Jane Austen a number of times and crashed and burned before finishing any of her books.

As an octogenarian, I have been unable to overcome a passion for reading even with all of the other possible ways to waste time these days. I confess that I have given up “books” but own and use two Kindle readers so that I can keep at least two books going at the same time. I do this so that I can read “serious” literature/history/economics/etc. on one and popcorn novels on the other. At my age, I still read at least four books a week this way. When I read Hayek or a Chernow history, it shrinks that number.

All that having been said, I have a recommendation if you haven’t read it. My number-one book of all time is the novel A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin. Of course, anything by Helprin is a treat simply to read the English language when properly used, but this one is my absolute favorite.

In the early ’90s — shortly after the book was published — a singer friend of mine remarked, “I believe it may be the greatest novel of the past 50 years.” A potent, bracing statement, and it was my pleasure to share it with the author some years later.

Economy & Business

Charting the Path Back to Semi-Normalcy

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A man wearing a protective mask walks a dog on a shopping street during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Vienna, Austria, April 6, 2020. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Bill McGurn quotes Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute as saying, “My sense is that we can get 90 percent of our lives back, if we have a really well-deployed testing infrastructure deployed, and we’re testing people and are identifying people who are sick and pulling them out.”

Obviously, we need testing (and possibly related symptom checks, such as taking people’s temperatures) to be ubiquitous, quick, and frequent. But once we have that — and a supply of masks, and maybe hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance to every building — it opens the doors, both metaphorically and literally in some cases. Disney’s executive chairman Robert Iger told Barron’s, “Just as we now do bag checks for everybody that goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that that takes people’s temperatures, as a for-instance.”

One question we can and should be asking is what jobs would be safe to do with people standing six feet apart, wearing masks, and washing their hands as frequently as Lady MacBeth.

Could restaurants re-open, and operate at something like one-third their regular capacity? Many restaurateurs wouldn’t like the restriction, but the income from one-third of the dining room capacity plus take-out and delivery would be higher than just take-out and delivery. (Again, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.”)

Could some assembly lines safely operate with everyone six feet apart and wearing masks and gloves?

You could probably reopen most of America’s retail stores under this scenario. Already grocery stores and pharmacies are operating, encouraging social distancing and limiting capacity in some cases. Could most other stores work that way? Step into the Gap or Old Navy, keep your distance from everyone, keep your mask on . . .  we would still have to work through issues like dressing rooms. The health risk for shopping for groceries with these safety guidelines isn’t all that different from shopping for home goods at Bed Bath and Beyond, Ikea, Williams and Sonoma, gadgets at the Apple Store or Best Buy, sporting goods at Bass Pro shops, books at Barnes and Noble, and so on. (Some stores are still open, and limiting the number of customers inside at any one time.) Movie theaters could reopen, with the audience spaced apart every few seats. Perhaps this would even work for sports stadiums, concerts, and other events.

This wouldn’t bring back the entire U.S. economy — but it would start getting people back to work in larger numbers. The question is how much this sort of mask-wearing, hands-washing, spaced-out economic activity would increase the risk of further infections. At some point, the economic consequences will get so severe that the risk will become acceptable.

Coronavirus Update

Coronavirus Update: Social Distancing Is Working

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People line up on social distancing marks to enter a super market in La Paz, Bolivia, as the coronavirus outbreak continues, March 26, 2020. (David Mercado/Reuters)

As the numbers come in this week, the evidence grows that social distancing is working, and the U.S. has avoided the worst-case scenarios of the pandemic. “This is an indication, despite all the suffering and the death that has occurred, that what we have been doing has been working,” Dr. Fauci said of this week’s data. “Keep it up,” he added.

While the data are confounded by testing constraints, after careful analysis, an MIT economist concluded that the curve is indeed flattening in New York City, which bodes well for other cities.

As of this morning, nearly 370,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the U.S., with almost 11,000 deaths.

Graph: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project

The growth rate in new cases continues to slow. The table below shows the average daily growth rate in new cases over the past five days and the change in that growth rate from five days prior. The negative percentages in the right-hand column reflect decreases in the growth rate across all of the hardest-hit states.

Table: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project

The slowing transmission is beginning to reduce deaths. In New York City, the number of daily deaths has been decreasing since the weekend. This indicates a decreasing strain on medical systems and reduces worries that hospitals will be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases.

However, Indiana is a curious exception. With only 5,000 cases, the state has nearly 1,000 coronavirus patients in intensive care, a far higher portion than the average. We’ll be watching the numbers from Indiana to see whether its high number of ICU admissions increases deaths.

Graph: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project

Testing continues apace, with just over 155,000 tests administered yesterday. That being said, delays in test results have persisted, especially in California. Quest Diagnostics, for example, reportedly takes up to 13 days to return test results.

Graph: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project
Science & Tech

Understanding the White House’s Preferred Coronavirus Model

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A doctor wearing a protective mask walks outside Mount Sinai Hospital during the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, April 1, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

As both Tobias Hoonhout and Andy McCarthy pointed out yesterday, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently downgraded its predictions of how many coronavirus deaths the U.S. will see and how much hospital capacity the pandemic will take up. I just wanted to jump in with a cursory explanation of what’s going on.

The IHME model is very different from the Imperial College model that drew a lot of attention a few weeks back. The Imperial College model simulated how a virus spreads through a population based on a host of assumptions about how easily the disease jumps from one person to another and how often people come into contact with each other under various social-distancing rules. The IHME model, by contrast, simply looks at what has actually happened elsewhere in the world during this outbreak and uses that information to predict what will happen in the U.S. and individual states.

Yet the IHME model is still very much a work in progress — as the rest of the world is constantly churning out new data to add and the researchers are finding ways to improve the structure of the model itself. So, about those downgrades.

When the group released its new predictions, it also put out a lengthy explanation of what had changed, including this quite salient bit regarding deaths:

• At the time of our first release on March 26, the only location where the number of daily deaths had already peaked was Wuhan City. These data from Wuhan formed the basis of our estimation of the time from implementation of social distancing policies to the peak day of deaths. Since then, an additional seven locations in Italy and Spain with large coronavirus epidemics appear to have reached the peak number of daily deaths (see below): two in Spain (Castile-La Mancha and Madrid), and then five in Italy (Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, and Tuscany).

• With today’s update, we now estimate the time from implementation of social distancing policies to the peak of daily deaths using all eight locations where the number of daily deaths appears to be peaking or to have peaked. The time from implementation of social distancing to the peak of the epidemic in the Italy and Spain location is shorter than what was observed in Wuhan. As a result, in several states in the US, today’s updates show an earlier predicted date of peak daily deaths, even though at the national level the change is not very pronounced.

And this section on hospital capacity:

First, we have been able to include more up-to-date data for estimating ratios of hospital admission to deaths. These ratios inform model parameters that are used to predict need for hospital beds, ICU beds, and ventilators. In previous releases of our estimates, our ratios were informed by a CDC report with information on early COVID-19 cases in the US – from February 12 to March 16 – and those patients’ outcomes. Based on these data (509 admissions divided by 46 deaths), our overall ratio was 11.1 hospital admissions per COVID-19 death.

Over the last few days, we have been able to incorporate data sources, including data provided by state governments, on a substantially larger sample: 16,352 hospital admissions and 2,908 deaths related to COVID-19. This allowed us to estimate state-specific ratios where data were available on at least 50 deaths from COVID-19, using random-effects meta-analysis.

Our estimates released today use the state-specific ratios noted below and for those states without data, the pooled ratio of 7.1 hospitalizations per death (95% CI 4.0 to 12.7). These lower ratios of admissions to deaths result in predicted peak hospital resource use – total beds, ICU beds, and invasive ventilators – that is lower than previously estimated.

There was a ton we didn’t know at the beginning of this process, and the gaps had to be filled with sketchy data and guesswork. As new information comes in, good data can replace bad, and the predictions improve.

That means the original model might turn out to be off by a huge number. But it doesn’t necessarily mean there was a radically better way to go about this. You have to make do with the data you have, and sometimes those data ain’t great. There’s still oodles of uncertainty here, as illustrated by the huge gray bands around IHME’s estimates — meaning that, no matter what, we’re taking a risk of under- or overreacting. That’s life when a brand-new, lethal virus emerges from the animal kingdom to prey on humanity.

If you want to dive deeper into the guts of the model, see this academic paper and (if you’re into computer code) this GitHub page.

Elections

Fast Cases Make Bad Law: The Wisconsin Election Decision

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(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court tonight issued an order setting the rules for tomorrow’s elections in Wisconsin. There is absolutely no justification for holding an election right now in the midst of a pandemic, but I will leave aside for the moment the allocation of blame for that feckless decision among Wisconsin’s Democratic governor Tony Evers, its Republican-controlled legislature, and Bernie Sanders for keeping the presidential primary race (not the only one on the ballot tomorrow) alive, and focus on the problem as the Court faced it.

Under normal circumstances, Wisconsin law requires absentee ballots to be received by Election Day. Not one of the nine Justices argued for enforcing the law that was actually written by the legislature. Both the 5–4 conservative majority (in an unsigned order that was probably written by Justice Kavanaugh, who received the emergency application) and Justice Ginsburg’s dissent agreed that the Court should extend the deadline for absentee ballots beyond what the law provides, allowing more votes to be counted. With just an evening to decide the case the night before the election, no written election law to guide them, and not even the Court’s customary ability for the Justices to meet in person, it is not surprising that the resulting decision was sloppy on all sides.

It would have been better to keep the courts out of the case entirely, but that was not an option here: A single federal district judge had extended the deadline until April 13, a week after the election. Had the Court refused the case, the election laws of Wisconsin would have been rewritten by one judge instead of nine. Even the plaintiffs in the suit had not asked for the April 13 date or presented evidence to support it. The majority, reiterating the core problem with judge-made ad hoc election laws that drove its decision in Bush v. Gore, would have none of this:

Importantly, in their preliminary injunction motions, the plaintiffs did not ask that the District Court allow ballots mailed and postmarked after election day, April 7, to be counted. That is a critical point in the case. Nonetheless, five days before the scheduled election, the District Court unilaterally ordered that absentee ballots mailed and postmarked after election day, April 7, still be counted so long as they are received by April 13. Extending the date by which ballots may be cast by voters—not just received by the municipal clerks but cast by voters—for an additional six days after the scheduled election day fundamentally alters the nature of the election. And again, the plaintiffs themselves did not even ask for that relief in their preliminary injunction motions. Our point is not that the argument is necessarily forfeited, but is that the plaintiffs themselves did not see the need to ask for such relief. By changing the election rules so close to the election date and by affording relief that the plaintiffs themselves did not ask for in their preliminary injunction motions, the District Court contravened this Court’s precedents and erred by ordering such relief. This Court has repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.

(Emphasis added.) The Court also noted that the district court’s judge-made election law was impractical because it required an order attempting to suppress news of the results (among other things, requiring an extensive prior restraint of speech) while people kept voting after Election Day. Thus, it allowed ballots to be postmarked as late as tomorrow, even if received after the legal deadline — but no later. This is the kind of decision that courts are unsuited to make. But the Court simply did not have the option of doing the right thing, which is to tell the legislature to live with the rules as written or fix them. Getting the case the night before Election Day with a pandemic ongoing and nobody trying to act responsibly to postpone the election, the Court selected what it considered the least of evils. It did leave the door open for the legislature to pass new laws, if it could get its act together with the governor at this late hour.

Justice Ginsburg was outraged that this would deprive some people of the vote, given that nobody really expected a few weeks ago that the election would go forward with nobody able to vote in person. Her complaints are entirely reasonable ones, if directed at the political officials involved, but the Court took her to task for completely ignoring the evidence and the legal posture in which the case reached the Court:

The dissent is quite wrong on several points. First, the dissent entirely disregards the critical point that the plaintiffs themselves did not ask for this additional relief in their preliminary injunction motions. Second, the dissent contends that this Court should not intervene at this late date. The Court would prefer not to do so, but when a lower court intervenes and alters the election rules so close to the election date, our precedents indicate that this Court, as appropriate, should correct that error. Third, the dissent refers to voters who have not yet received their absentee ballots. But even in an ordinary election, voters who request an absentee ballot at the deadline for requesting ballots (which was this past Friday in this case) will usually receive their ballots on the day before or day of the election, which in this case would be today or tomorrow. The plaintiffs put forward no probative evidence in the District Court that these voters here would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to the timing of their receipt of absentee ballots. In that regard, it bears mention that absentee voting has been underway for many weeks, and 1.2 million Wisconsin voters have requested and have been sent their absentee ballots, which is about five times the number of absentee ballots requested in the 2016 spring election. Fourth, the dissent’s rhetoric is entirely misplaced and completely overlooks the fact that the deadline for receiving ballots was already extended to accommodate Wisconsin voters, from April 7 to April 13. Again, that extension has the effect of extending the date for a voter to mail the ballot from, in effect, Saturday, April 4, to Tuesday, April 7.

This is a sloppy and not especially principled decision by the Court’s conservatives, but the options were awful and the dissent’s approach completely lawless. It should never have come to this.

Politics & Policy

Vermeule’s Latest

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In his much-discussed Atlantic essay, Adrian Vermeule notes that originalism has become the dominant method of constitutional interpretation on the right. “When, in recent years, legal conservatism has won the upper hand in the Court and then in the judiciary generally, originalism was the natural coordinating point for a creed, something to which potential nominees could pledge fidelity.” He asserts, however, that originalism has “outlived its utility.” It is only a means of defending conservatives from judicial activism of the left, and now that legal conservatism has grown so strong within the courts it can be replaced with something more “robust.”

I noted in response that since, by Vermeule’s own account, originalism is rising in influence in the courts, its achievements may mostly lie in the future.

Vermeule has now answered his critics, albeit with the same coy evasion that marks so much of his work. (His comment ends, “This post is satirical,” which proves that it is not successfully so.) He refers to my criticism dismissively, suggesting that originalism has not achieved anything for conservatives and won’t achieve anything for them in the future.

You can maintain that originalism isn’t growing stronger, and so we have already seen as much in the way of results as we are ever going to see. Or you can maintain that it has been so successful that it is no longer needed. Neither thesis seems very plausible, but some academic can be found to defend nearly anything. To advance both propositions at the same time, though, is to move not just “beyond originalism” but beyond coherence.

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