Health Care

The Life Hesitancy of Epidemiologists

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A woman works in a laboratory of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus vaccine, during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, September 24, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The past year has seen the fields of epidemiology and public health rise to an incredible prominence in public life. The reason for this is obvious enough. What is not obvious is why, during that period, so many political actors have deferred entirely to the preferences of people in those fields. Their guidance is not to be ignored entirely. But for human beings living in actual polities, as opposed to public-health abstractions, there are always inherently political choices to make, and trade-offs to deal with. Simply to outsource one’s decision-making entirely to the science — or The Science — is to evade a fundamental responsibility of government.

There is also the fact that those in these fields bring their own biases to their work: chiefly, the understandable, if misguided, bias of viewing all of reality through the prism they were trained to. Some of the implications of this were made clear in an informal survey of epidemiologists conducted by the New York Times, the results of which were revealed yesterday. As a follow-up to the same survey last December, the Times asked various epidemiologists what activities they were willing to do with vaccines now available and coronavirus cases declining. Their willingness to do various things has expanded considerably from December, but is still worth highlighting as evidence of the mindset they bring to this situation.

The survey measured which of the following activities “they had done in the last 30 days, or would have done if necessary, assuming they would wear a mask or distance as needed.” Some highlights:

  • 8 percent had or would have attended a church or religious service
  • 25 percent had or would have traveled by airplane
  • 30 percent had or would have eaten indoors at a restaurant
  • 39 percent had or would have hugged or shaken hands when greeting a friend
  • 45 percent had or would have “interacted outside within 6 feet without a mask”

The group turned out to be fairly confident about doing errands in person (92 percent), and . . . bringing in mail without precautions (83 percent). All of these measures are improvements from December. And also, all of these are things that I have done, without much hesitation and when legally permitted, throughout this entire period. I strongly suspect I am far from alone.

Epidemiologists do important work, most of which I can barely comprehend, and to which we owe great deal. And right now, vaccine hesitancy is a serious problem worth addressing. But if this survey is any indication, the work epidemiologists do inculcates a kind of life hesitancy that their ascension to prominence in political decision-making has spread throughout much of society over the past year. Again, their counsel should not be ignored. But their demonstrable, abnormal risk aversion suggests that it should, at the very least, be qualified as our society looks to leave the pandemic behind.

Economy & Business

Rich States, Poor States: A Tale of Two Models

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Construction workers put the finishing touches on newly built single family homes in San Diego, Calif. March 25, 2013. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Less than a month after the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the population is continuing to flow from “tax and spend” blue states to more competitive red states, an important group of state legislators has filled in the astonishing details on why that’s happened.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has tracked the economic policies of state governments for 14 years. Once again, it found that states pursuing low tax and spending policies have faster growth and a brighter future. Utah came out in first place in the latest Economic Competitiveness report, its 14th straight year in the top spot. Florida was a big winner under Governor Ron DeSantis’s leadership, jumping from seventh place last year to second place now.

Who fared the worst? New York, Vermont, and New Jersey — a trio of neighboring states that are mired in a model that features high taxes, crushing regulations on business, and a precarious public-pension system.

The ALEC report is called “Rich States, Poor States.” One of its co-authors is Steve Moore, co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. He laments that once-vibrant economies such as New York, Illinois, and California have been ruined by bad policies. “People are moving to places like Utah and Florida, where you can’t even buy a house now,” he said. “You can’t get a construction crew for four months.”

Politics & Policy

One Way or Another, Change Is Coming to the NRA

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Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks at the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., April 26, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

It is now conceivable that sometime in the not-too-distant future — 2022? 2023? — the National Rifle Association will cease to exist. Even more likely is that a New York court severely sanctions its leadership, or the prospect of this spurs dramatic changes in the organization’s leadership.

Stephen Gutowski, the longtime gun and Second Amendment-focused writer at the Washington Free Beacon has launched his own gun-focused publication, The Reload. This morning Gutowski lays out the grim assessments from bankruptcy and nonprofit law experts in the aftermath of federal bankruptcy court rejecting the NRA’s filing. Federal Judge Harlin Hale ruled that the NRA was “inappropriately trying to use the bankruptcy court to avoid government oversight,” and stated “in recent years, however, it has become apparent that the NRA was suffering from inadequate governance and internal controls.” One nonprofit expert concluded, “I think it actually made dissolution more likely.”

(When a judge with the nickname “Cooter,” who grew up in a small town in Louisiana rules against the NRA, you know they had a weak case.)

An accurate sense of the NRA’s problems requires keeping two things in mind. The first is that New York state attorney general Letitia James is just about the worst person to lead any investigation of the NRA, because of her past statements labeling the group a “terrorist organization” and obvious ideological vendetta against the group. The second is that the NRA’s management genuinely did bad things that may well have violated the law, or at minimum, represented self-dealing and egregious waste of donor money.

At the 2019 NRA Annual Meeting, it was clear the NRA’s Board of Directors faced an enormously consequential decision with the accusations and counter-accusations between Wayne LaPierre and Ollie North. The board largely decided to act as if everything was fine, and contend that the accusations of self-dealing and wasteful spending represented the usual media bias. That non-response to insiders accusing other insiders now looks like a colossal error in judgment. Having rejected the option of making changes on their own, the NRA’s leadership is likely to have change forced upon it by a court.

The last few years showcased an odd split between the status of the NRA and the status of the cause the organization defends. The NRA spent about half as much as it did on political campaigns and elections in 2020 as it did in 2016, is beset by infighting and dueling lawsuits, ceased its NRATV operations, and has now just lost its bid for bankruptcy. And yet, in 2020, gun sales in the U.S. increased by 40 percent, more than 5 million people bought a gun for the first time last year, and this January, more than 4.1 million guns were sold. Polling indicates gun control is actually less popular now than it was three years ago.

With the cause of the Second Amendment relatively strong, and the NRA relatively weak, some gun owners may see the dissolution or wholesale replacement of the current NRA leadership as less of a tragedy and political setback than a necessary step.

Energy & Environment

Another California Drought with No New Reservoirs

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A visitor walks near the receding waters at Folsom Lake in Folsom, Calif., January 22, 2014. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Drought and monsoon are chronic and predictable contrasting California weather patterns. Now, it’s drought time again. From a CNN story:

About 98% of California is currently experiencing drought conditions, according to the US Drought Monitor, with nearly 75% of the state seeing extreme drought conditions. Droughts have been intensifying, especially in the West and Southwest US, according to the latest National Climate Assessment, with climate change playing a key role in the scarcity of water in the West.

“With the reality of climate change abundantly clear in California, we’re taking urgent action to address acute water supply shortfalls in northern and central California while also building our water resilience to safeguard communities in the decades ahead,” Newsom said in a statement. “We’re working with local officials and other partners to protect public health and safety and the environment, and call on all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”

Dealing with both too much and too little water — depending on the year — requires reservoirs to catch water in times of flood and store it for the times of drought. It’s not that complicated.

But California environmental policy has prevented any new reservoirs from being built for years — no, decades — despite a huge increase in the state’s population. As I explained last year over at the Acton Institute:

In 1979, California’s population was a little more than 23 million. Today, it is more than 39 million. Yet in that entire time, California did not construct one additional, large-scale water storage project – meaning water infrastructure that once suited the state’s irrigation, livestock, and human needs has become chronically inadequate to meet its essential tasks.

The Bible tells us that Joseph was told by the Lord to store food during the seven years of plenty in preparation for seven years of famine. That’s the kind of water pattern California experiences predictably. And yet, there have been no new large-scale water-storage/flood-control projects completed in over 40 years! Why?

Blame environmental ideology that puts human needs last. Whether it is the desire to protect fisheries, antipathy toward water-centric agriculture, or the desire to maintain or restore wild areas, California leaders have not met the task of assuring that the state has adequate water supplies to meet its burgeoning and varied needs.

Wait. It gets even stupider! The state has plans to reduce storage:

There are political efforts afoot to tear down existing reservoirs. Hetch Hetchy, which supplies San Francisco’s water, is the prime target, because it was once a valley of great natural beauty akin to Yosemite. But other dams are in the crosshairs, too. Newsom wants to destroy four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to help the salmon. This, at a time when many farms are withering on the vine, and state-imposed rationing policies will ultimately limit individual water usage to 50 gallons a day over the next 10 years.

So, let’s just make things worse! That’s the ticket!

Meanwhile the state wasted tens of billions on the unneeded high-speed “train to nowhere.” This is also the state that took more than 20 years to rebuild a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge because of ideological infighting, when the entire original bridge took less than six. Oh, and by the way, critical cable sections began to rust within a year.

No wonder people are leaving California in droves. It is becoming Venezuela.

Economy & Business

Transient Inflation Is Still Worrisome

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Stacks of $5 bills in the wrapping and binding department at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., March 26, 2015. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Yesterday’s inflation data show that consumer prices surged in April, growing at a 4.2 percent annual rate — faster than they have grown in well over a decade.

Inflation skeptics were quick to point out that the surge was driven by factors that are unlikely to persist over time, such as a 21-percent increase in the price of used cars (likely due to a shortage of computer chips needed to make new cars) and the fact that inflation in April of last year was relatively low, artificially boosting price growth last month by comparison.

The skeptics are right that these factors were key, and that they won’t persist over time. But I argue in my latest Bloomberg column that they are wrong to conclude from that that yesterday’s inflation data don’t increase the chances that the U.S. enters into a period of sustained inflation:

Any period of sustained inflation is likely to begin with aberrant economic phenomena. The pattern takes months to emerge. In April, a fluke in the semiconductor supply chain sent the price of used cars soaring. Maybe this will return to normal in May, but then a transportation problem could suddenly push up the price of meats and eggs. Imagine that June brings them back to earth, only to see the cost of children’s clothes going through the roof. July and August each have rapid price growth, as well, for their own quirky reasons.

Inflation skeptics seem to think that explaining the quirks dismisses the problem. It doesn’t. The relevant issue isn’t whether one-off factors explain any one month’s data. Instead, the question is whether the accumulated effect of several months of price spikes — each driven by unique factors — leads consumers, workers and businesses to change their expectations about the pace of future price increases.

Is this happening? It’s too early to say. But the trend in market expectations about future inflation is rising. It would be troubling if that continues.

Check out my column for my full argument.

Culture

Pronouns and Other Fighting Words

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Caitlyn Jenner at Vanity Fair‘s Oscar party in Beverly Hills, Calif., on April 3, 2018 (Danny Moloshok / Reuters)

My Impromptus today is headed “Splitsville, &c.” Why? I lead with Bill and Melinda Gates, who are getting divorced. This is not only a personal matter, I think, it is also a blow to society. You may differ (as always).

What else? I have some Vladimir Putin in my column. He is a very, very good hockey player — though maybe not as good as Kim Jong-il was a golfer, or Elena Ceausescu a chemist.

I also touch on Liz Cheney, George Will — and Jack Fowler, that pillar of National Review.

Language, too. My column includes some notes on language, as it usually does, and I’d like to do some more typing on the subject, here in the Corner.

I often say that I’d last about a week — maybe three days? — on a typical college campus. I’d use the wrong pronoun or something, there’d be a blow-up, and I’d be gone.

Language is a minefield. You never know what you’re going to step on. In my column today, I use the word “accompanist,” to describe a pianist who plays in a voice recital. A lot of people don’t want you to use this word. They want you to say “collaborative pianist.” I have not quite gotten with the program. (When do I?)

I smile at the memory of one musician, who when called a “collaborative pianist” said, “No, I’m an accompanist. ‘Collaborator’ makes me sound like a Frenchman on the wrong side in World War II or something.”

My Impromptus on Monday led with Caitlyn Jenner, who is a minefield unto herself — himself? A lot of people feel very, very strongly about this. Some readers thought I had used the wrong pronouns, and they let me know, in no uncertain terms. I say: I have resisted the language cops all my life. Usually, they come from the left. But I’ll resist them wherever they come from.

One of the reasons I rejected the Left, long ago, was that they were always telling you how to talk. They were always saying what you could say and not say. They were language cops. The American rebel in me says: Get stuffed.

There is policing on the right, too. I’ll give you two examples, beyond the pronouns thing. I have been admonished for saying “gay marriage,” instead of “homosexual marriage.” Also for saying “Fourth of July.” Oh, you don’t like American independence, do you? Don’t you know it’s “Independence Day”? You think it’s just another date on the calendar? Do you refer to Christmas as “the Twenty-fifth of December”? Why are you trying to erase Independence Day?

To which I can only say, as our forefathers did, Ay, caramba.

There are a million more things to say about language, and I have said many of them — half a million? — over many years of writing. There is this essay, for example: “Adventures in Lexical Fashion: Today’s progressive term may become tomorrow’s slur.” Bottom line, if I have one: Good will means a lot. Good will über Alles.

Which brings up another language issue (in English, not German): Do you like good will or goodwill? There was a debate at The Weekly Standard, way back. I think that good will and goodwill are pronounced differently. I think the stress in goodwill has to go on the first syllable, which I dislike.

But we can debate this little question another time. Again, for today’s Impromptus, go here.

Religion

Bishop McElroy on Abortion and Communion

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President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, attend a service at St. Matthew the Apostle Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., before his presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Salvatore Cordileone, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, has explained why politicians who support exposing unborn children to lethal violence are ineligible for Communion. Responding to him without naming him, Robert McElroy, the Catholic bishop of San Diego, writes in America that “the Eucharist must never be instrumentalized for a political end, no matter how important.” He goes on to argue that millions of laypeople would run afoul of a more stringent standard; that it would be wrong to withhold Communion for officials who are in error on abortion but not those who have made grave moral errors on other issues; that the unity of the Church would suffer as many Catholics failed to see any good reason for this selectivity; and that we must keep in mind that we are “a church of sinners and questioners, who must face intense pressures and complexities in their daily lives.”

One can disagree with each and every argument Bishop McElroy makes. What can’t be denied is that they add up to a case that the Church owes some segregationists an apology.

White House

No, Really, Why Is Joe Biden Wearing His Mask Around Other Vaccinated People?

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President Joe Biden meets with (from left) Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office of the White House, May 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In the Oval Office today, while doing a brief appearance before the cameras, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all wore masks and sat very deliberately spaced apart — if not six feet apart, then as close to that distance as possible.

Every elected official in that room was vaccinated months ago and is considered fully vaccinated. Their immune systems are as prepared for an encounter with SARS-CoV-2 as they can get. Yes, McConnell, Biden and Pelosi are getting up in years. But the CDC itself states, “preliminary data from Israel suggest that people vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine who develop COVID-19 have a four-fold lower viral load than unvaccinated people. This observation may indicate reduced transmissibility, as viral load has been identified as a key driver of transmission.”

Biden was asked about this late last week, and the president answered, “when we’re inside, it’s still good policy to wear the mask.”

You often hear the argument, “Biden wears a mask to set an example.” Okay, an example for whom? Which Americans are going to start acting recklessly if they see Biden in an Oval Office meeting without his mask? Who is the anti-masker out there who’s going to change his mind because Biden keeps wearing his mask, five months after getting his second shot?

What message does it send, seeing four of the highest-ranking officials in our government, all fully vaccinated months ago, all more than six feet away from the pool reporters, photographers and camera crew, all still wearing their masks as if their vaccinations changed nothing?

Is the mentality really that because one of the White House staffers, pool reporters, photographers and camera crew might not be fully vaccinated, it’s not safe for Biden or anyone else in that room to take off their masks?

When will it be considered safe for Joe Biden to be unmasked in the Oval Office? Will it ever?

World

Beijing Lies Again about the Communist Party’s Atrocities during U.N. Event

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Zhang Jun, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations speaks at a Security Council meeting in New York, March 10, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

At the U.N. this morning, evidence of the Party’s brutal conduct was put on full display during a side event hosted by the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and human-rights groups.

Chinese diplomats over the past week had railed against the event — and unsuccessfully asked other countries not to attend — but, sure enough, this morning the video feed for the panel was the first thing displayed on the U.N.’s livestream platform. “We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., during opening remarks for the discussion that followed.

Participants focused on the Party’s abuses and skewered the refusal of U.N. officials such as Secretary-General António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, to decisively condemn Beijing. Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur advocate and daughter of Ilham Tohti, an intellectual detained by the Xinjiang authorities, spoke movingly on the personal toll of Beijing’s abuses: “Families have been separated, hearts have been torn, children and wives are screaming and crying for the missing or the loss of their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, aunts, sisters, cousins, and mothers.”

There was an additional, implicit takeaway from the event: Wherever China goes in the world now, condemnation of its genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang must follow — even at the U.N., where top officials have yet to strongly condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities against the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

This month was supposed to be a productive one for the Party’s advances at international organizations, as China assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council for May. Beijing seems to view this routine responsibility as its latest opportunity to shape international discourse in its favor, as the Chinese Communist Party turns 100 this year and as it celebrates the People’s Republic’s displacement of Taipei at the U.N. 50 years ago. During a press conference last week, Zhang Jun, China’s U.N. ambassador, described all of the ways in which he says the party-state has contributed to global humanitarian goals.

The U.S. and its allies don’t see it fit to leave that laughable narrative unchallenged, and have made clear that they will confront the Party over its atrocities by highlighting what such an order renovated by Beijing would actually mean: acceptance of wanton brutality on the international stage.

To be sure, the Biden administration did have a worrying stumble recently, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined a Security Council meeting convened by China’s U.N. ambassador last week to discuss multilateralism as Beijing defines it. Not only should Blinken not have blessed the gathering with his presence, instead of explicitly condemning the Party’s conduct, he panned former President Trump’s foreign policy, saying that the U.S. has not always upheld its international commitments.

His statement amounted to unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic battles that take place at Turtle Bay. The Chinese party-state, of course, never traffics in that sort of conciliatory rhetoric.

Ahead of the side event this morning, Chinese governmental social-media accounts continued to whitewash Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. China’s mission to the U.N. even sent a lower-ranking diplomat to voice the Party’s position during the Uyghur panel: “So-called genocides are lies of the century. China has nothing to hide.” And, in a statement after the event, “What gives these countries the right to judge the human rights situation in Xinjiang?”

These lies will only grow louder and more effective with the Party’s rising global clout, unfortunately; already dozens of countries have endorsed them at the U.N. All the more reason for opponents of genocide to redouble their efforts to prove that the Party should be treated as an international pariah for its crimes.

World

Sure, We Should Reform WHO, but the Chinese Regime Is the Real Problem

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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference after a meeting of the Emergency Committee on the coronavirus in Geneva, Switzerland January 30, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Over in the United Kingdom, a government panel has determined “the worst ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided had the world not ‘lost’ a month at the start of the crisis to indecision and complacency.”

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), led by two former heads of governments and a host of international experts including former UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband, says the international health system led by the World Health Organization (WHO) is “clearly unfit” to prevent another outbreak and calls for radical reform.

“Covid-19 is the 21st century’s Chernobyl moment,” says the report. “The system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic”.

The 86-page report, supported by a raft of supplementary annexes, describes the WHO as being “underpowered and underfunded”. It adds that it was hamstrung by conservative international regulations which prevented it from acting “immediately and independently” with respect to China and more quickly declaring an international health emergency.

Give the World Health Organization a healthy serving of blame and ridicule. The Biden administration rejoined the WHO, contending that U.S. membership will give us better leverage to force improvements within the organization, instead of leaving, as former president Donald Trump wished. It not quite clear how the U.S. will manage to force through changes for better performance and accountability in the organization. The WHO does love the Biden administration’s decision to waive the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

But as satisfying as it might be to knock around WHO like a piñata for failing in their primary duty, let’s keep in mind what the primary problem was at the start of this pandemic in Wuhan: The Chinese government kept lying to everyone — from their own people to the WHO to other governments and the international media. From the first cases in Wuhan hospitals until January 20, both the local and national Chinese government lied, and lied, and then lied some more, insisting that “The investigation so far has not found any obvious human-to-human transmission and no medical staff infection.” Medical personnel in hospitals suspected they had caught the virus from their patients in late December!

For the crucial opening weeks of this pandemic, the official stance of the Chinese government was:

  • The virus wasn’t contagious.
  • “The disease is preventable and controllable.”
  • Doctors who said the virus was a serious threat, like Dr. Li Wenliang, needed to be threatened by law enforcement for “spreading rumors.”
  • There was no reason to alter plans for mass gatherings in Wuhan at the Lunar New Year.
  • There was no reason to interrupt international travel into and out of Wuhan.

Direct flights from Wuhan to New York City continued until January 23! By that point, the rest of the world was doomed.

What you have is an authoritarian government that hates to acknowledge problems, prefers to hope they go away, reflexively lies even when the stakes are life-and-death, and has no regard for the lives of people inside or outside their borders. No WHO reform is going to fix that!

The British review includes all kinds of proposals that are fine on paper — peer review of countries’ pandemic plans, “national pandemic coordinators,” running simulations for practice, etc. But most of that is window dressing. The most important proposal is, “allow the WHO to send teams to investigate outbreaks and publish data without prior approval of the countries concerned. Make surveillance fully transparent.”

But that’s extremely unlikely to happen, unless Beijing gets boxed in by a furious international pressure campaign. China micromanaged every detail of the WHO team’s investigation in Wuhan in January 2021. The Chinese government refused to share some requested data. If another virus escapes from a bioweapons research lab — er, pardon me, I meant if another virus just naturally jumps from some bat that we never found — and sets off another pandemic in China, why would we expect the Chinese government to act any differently than they did last time?

Elections

As It Stands, Governor DeSantis Is in Good Shape for 2022

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and wife Casey at his election-night party in Orlando, Fla., November 6, 2018. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Florida elections are always close. There are eighteen months between now and the midterms. And nobody knows what changes to the political landscape we will see between now and then. But . . . things look pretty good for Governor DeSantis’s re-election campaign.

Per a Cherry Communications poll, released today, DeSantis’s approval-disapproval rating is 55-40. His net approval rating with independent voters is +20. His approval-disapproval rating on vaccine distribution is 70-26, with 74 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats saying he’s done good job getting people inoculated. If anything, Florida polls tend to underestimate Republican support.

Even more encouraging for DeSantis are the head-to-head numbers for next year’s re-election campaign. DeSantis leads Charlie Crist by ten points, 51-41; he leads Nikki Fried by 12 points, 51-39; and he leads Val Demings by 15 points, 53-38. There’s a lot of room there for the Democrat nominee to grow into. But still. I know who I’d rather be at this point in the cycle.

Prior to COVID, DeSantis was putting up remarkable approval numbers — of 65, 68, even 72 percent. The partisan reaction to the pandemic has clearly hurt him among Democrats (although not so much that they’re pretending that he’s messed up vaccine distribution), but it doesn’t seem to have dented him a great deal among independents. And if he can add the enthusiasm we’re seeing among Republicans to a majority of independents, he’ll be governor once again.

Economy & Business

Even Matt Yglesias . . .

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I confess to subscribing to Matt Yglesias’s newsletter, and I usually find his missives interesting and informative. Today, he takes up the question of whether bonus unemployment benefits are discouraging employment and pushes back against those on the left who are resisting the idea that there’s a problem:

. . . here’s why I think it probably is an issue:

  1. As of our most recent data, job openings were at a high level.
  2. In the latest jobs report, we saw a huge fall in people who said they were working part-time but would prefer full-time hours.
  3. We also saw a substantial rise in employment by teenagers.
  4. The Ioana Marinescu, Daphné Skandalis, and Daniel Zhao research that found the $600/week bonus UI didn’t cost jobs did find that it reduced job search intensity — they just found it didn’t matter because jobs were so scarce that even with reduced search intensity, all the positions got filled.
  5. Low-end wages are clearly rising as employers try to attract workers.

If you ask me, points (1)–(3) all paint a picture of an economy where employers want to hire back folks who suffered pandemic-related job losses, but FPUC money is making those people reluctant to accept those jobs. Consequently, a lot of positions are being filled by people who are ineligible for FPUC either because they weren’t in the labor force previously (teens) or because they had steady part-time jobs.

Point (4) is also important here because FPUC fans liked this study when it came out, but it clearly supports the proposition that FPUC would now be elevating the unemployment rate.

Last, the fact that a lot of people on the left are reacting to (5) by essentially saying “good, the real issue here is that some employers are trying to get away with not paying a living wage” strikes me as revealing that there is actually less analytic disagreement here than a surface read of tweets would suggest.

White House

The White House’s Approach to the Colonial Pipeline Is Baffling

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Holding tanks at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, N.J., May 10, 2021 (Hussein Waaile/Reuters)

Sometimes I’m left unsure as to what progressives believe the government is for. In response to the news that the key energy pipeline on the East Coast had been hacked, the White House said this:

Earlier Monday, White House national security officials described the attack as financially motivated in nature. Biden administration officials, however, would not say if Colonial Pipeline agreed to pay the ransom.

“Typically that’s a private sector decision,” Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technologies, told reporters at the White House when asked about the ransom payment.

“We recognize that victims of cyberattacks often face a very difficult situation and they have to just balance often the cost-benefit when they have no choice with regards to paying a ransom. Colonial is a private company and we’ll defer information regarding their decision on paying a ransom to them,” Neuberger said.

Really? I’m one of those guys who thinks that government should do very little — especially the federal government, which I think should do almost nothing. But in what universe is this primarily a “private sector decision”? And in what universe does the Biden administration, which seems to want pretty much every aspect of American life to fall under the purview of the state, believe that ransom demands made against core energy infrastructure is outside of its remit?

The Colonial pipeline, which runs through twelve states, is, by definition, a matter of “interstate commerce” — and it would have been perceived as such long before the New Deal redefined that term into open-ended meaninglessness (see: Gibbons v. Ogden). The pipeline is also extremely important. It supplies nearly half of the fuel that states on the East Coast use for driving and flying, and it is hooked up to a number of crucial airports, including the nation’s busiest, Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta (air travel is another intrinsically interstate concern). There can be no doubt about the federal government’s regulatory jurisdiction here, nor any doubt that it has an interest in keeping the pipeline safe. In addition, there are national security implications — and real ones, for once, rather than the usual “tax policy is a national security issue” guff to which we’re treated whenever politicians don’t get their own way.

This being so, one has to wonder why on earth the administration would be content to leave the issue to Colonial? Hacking, damaging interstate infrastructure, and demanding ransoms are all illegal under federal law — yes, even when the perpetrator is within the United States. Indeed, it is to step in when such eventualities arise that we have a federal government in the first place. If a person is kidnapped, the relevant authorities do not say, “well, families are private, so I guess we’ll just leave the cost-benefit balance to the parents.” If a train or steamboat is hijacked, the relevant authorities do not say, “well, the operators are privately owned, so I guess we’ll just leave the cost-benefit balance to the board.” They take over the response. So it should be here.

At the very least, the White House needs to work on its messaging. The administration has waived some transportation rules in order to help alleviate the resultant shortages, and it has now “convened the inter-agency principals leading the administration’s whole of government response.” But the nonchalance with which it has discussed the incident from the outset is jarring given that the president is currently trying to convince voters to let him spend two trillion dollars on . . . well, infrastructure. Thus far, Biden’s push has mostly taken the form of recasting anything that has ever been given a name as “infrastructure,” and then insisting that it is crucial to the nation’s future. And yet here we are, with a real infrastructure problem — a problem that is about as infrastructure-y as infrastructure gets — and his staff seem content to sound like Murray Rothbard.

Weird.

Energy & Environment

The Not-So-Green Biden Plan

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the April jobs report from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Last week, I wrote a column in which I argued that Biden’s infrastructure plan wasn’t as green a plan as the administration would like us to believe. This fact was first pointed out to me by Chris Edwards at Cato, who explains that:

Perhaps the most striking contradiction in Biden’s plan is that it is supposed to combat climate change, but the plan’s $2 trillion in taxpayer funding is not green. The green way to fund infrastructure is through user charges that restrain consumer demand. But Biden’s plan relies on income taxes to pay for infrastructure subsidies, and that approach does not moderate consumption or reduce resource use.

One other major factor that few green advocates want to acknowledge is that the greener our lives are, the more minerals we need. Unfortunately, as I noted last week, the terribly burdensome regulatory regime in the U.S. makes it harder to open mines here, and shifts some of the mine production to less-than-environmentally-friendly countries:

Those higher-income taxes on top of the many costly labor and environmental mandates in the bill would also raise production costs in the United States. That would shift production of many products to other countries that have more competitive tax rates and lower production costs — but also, oftentimes, questionable environmental standards. This was nicely highlighted in a recent Kite & Key Media video that explains how our already burdensome labor, health and climate regulations make it impossible to open a mine or to operate one profitably in the United States. This matters because the greener our lives, the more we need minerals like graphite, lithium and manganese.

Here is the Kite & Key video.

As it happens, the International Energy Agency (IEA) agrees with Kite & Key Media. The WSJ has an informative piece this morning by Mark P. Mills that starts with this paragraph:

The International Energy Agency, the world’s pre-eminent source of energy information for governments, has entered the political debate over whether the U.S. should spend trillions of dollars to accelerate the energy transition favored by the Biden administration. You know, the plan to use far more “clean energy” and far less hydrocarbons — the oil, natural gas and coal that today supply 84% of global energy needs. The IEA’s 287-page report released this month, “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions,” is devastating to those ambitions. A better title would have been: “Clean Energy Transitions: Not Soon, Not Easy and Not Clean.”

He adds this:

The IEA finds that with a global energy transition like the one President Biden envisions, demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth metals would explode, rising by 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900% and 700%, respectively, by 2040.

The world doesn’t have the capacity to meet such demand. As the IEA observes, albeit in cautious bureaucratese, there are no plans to fund and build the necessary mines and refineries. The supply of ETMs is entirely aspirational. And if it were pursued at the quantities dictated by the goals of the energy transition, the world would face daunting environmental, economic and social challenges, along with geopolitical risks.

Read the whole thing here. And here is an interesting thread from the executive director of the IEA. This is a bummer for central planners such as our president. The question is: Will the administration acknowledge this reality? I doubt it, but would love to be surprised.

For a few greener policies go here.

The Economy

Inflation: Over by Christmas?

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(Nerthuz/Getty Images)

As Isaac Schorr noted on the home page this morning, today’s inflation news is . . . not good:

The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which tracks the cost of a variety of consumer goods as well as housing and energy prices, has risen 4.2 percent from a year ago, notably higher than the estimated 3.6 percent. It is the largest yearly increase since September 2008.

Even controlling for food and energy prices, the CPI was up three percent, higher than the estimated 2.3 percent. The 0.9 percent CPI increase from March, again controlling for food and energy prices, is the highest since April 1982.

This data comports with Americans’ everyday experiences. On Tuesday, the average price of a gallon of gas rose to $2.99, the highest figure since November 2014.

The news also contradicts the Biden administration’s line on the risk of inflation — that it’s nearly nonexistent . . .

The hope, of course, is that this is just a blip, the product of baseline effects, temporary supply-chain disruptions, and (once again, temporarily) distorted labor markets; but now might be the moment to re-up a piece by John Cochrane and Kevin Hassett that we ran a couple of weeks ago on Capital Matters.

In particular, when it comes to assessing the extent to which this jump in inflation might be more than a blip, it is worth paying attention to this passage in that piece:

When demand soars and supply is constrained, inflation will rise. When people question policy and find it feckless, they expect more inflation, and inflation grows more and becomes entrenched. Persistent inflation grows suddenly, unexpectedly and intractably, just as it did in the 1970s.

I don’t believe that I am the only person to think that additional spending of as much as $6 trillion might be on the “feckless” side, and that is before we get to what the Fed is (or is not) doing.

Here is an extract from an article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

Jamie Fahy from Citigroup says inflation is flashing red and the Fed has fallen “behind the curve”. Money is being printed to fund government spending that goes directly into the veins of the economy, or for transfers to poorer Americans with a higher propensity to spend. To all intents and purposes it is helicopter money. The character of QE has self-evidently changed.

Mr Fahy said the immediate inflationary build up is likely to end in one of two ways. Either the Fed blinks, turns hawkish, and winds down QE earlier than it now suggests. This would trigger a taper tantrum and major sell-off in asset markets. Citigroup thinks it could be comparable to the Bernanke tantrum in 2013, a memory that dollar debtors and emerging markets would rather forget.

Or the Fed persists with loose money regardless, stoking a consumption boom that sucks in imports and leads to a balance of payments scare. This second course would send the dollar into a tailspin and potentially lead to a vicious circle as China, Japan, and the eurozone stop recycling a large part of their $720bn combined current account surpluses into the US debt markets.

Such a monetary boom would be much more painful in the end. Mr Fahy says a little inflation may be elixir for stock markets but this turns toxic once the CPI index crosses 4pc. At that point bonds and equities both deteriorate, and there is nowhere to hide in a conventional portfolio. “It could be a painful adjustment process from the current frothy valuations,” he said.

It is worth remembering that Wall Street equities lost half their value in real terms in the decade after the onset of the Great Inflation in 1967. I keep hearing claims that this is nothing like the “guns and butter” fiscal expansion of the Johnson era but actually Joe Biden’s $6 trillion plans are an order of magnitude greater, if defined by deficit-to-GDP ratios . . .

Commodity inflation is by now beyond doubt. Lumber futures have risen fivefold from their pre-pandemic level to over $1,600 (per 1,000 board feet). This alone has pushed up the cost of a new home by $24,000. Record prices for copper and iron ore add a further layer of cost.

New US home prices are rising faster (11pc) than during the final parabolic phase of the subprime property bubble in 2006 — a modest affair in retrospect. The property surge is enabled by ample Fed liquidity and by bond yield compression that has held down the standard 15-year Freddie Mac fixed mortgage rate to 2.3pc — half the level two years ago.

There is plenty more in Evans-Pritchard’s piece to think about, none of it reassuring. Sadly, the article is paywalled, but I will add his conclusion:

Janet Yellen explained in a speech as Fed chief in 2015 how inflation pauperises households and pensioners that depend on fixed incomes to survive, and how it eats into the real earnings of poorer workers least able to defend themselves.

She also argued that the Fed was ultimately responsible for the destructive consequences of the Great Inflation in the 1960s and 1970s. In her words the institution allowed chronically over-heated labour and product markets to crystallise what was otherwise just a commodity shock. It caused an “inflationary psychology” to take hold.

Hmm.

Hmm, indeed.