Economy & Business

Boiling Over

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Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Andrew Ross Sorkin in Washington, D.C., September 12, 2018 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s frustration over having missed so much of the post-COVID realities in markets and economic life boiled over this morning in one of the more outrageous outbursts I have ever witnessed on financial media. Perhaps this outburst was rivaled only by his behavior during the March COVID market swoon, in which he — on a daily basis — worked hard to terrify viewers, making the most outlandish predictions one can imagine — when he wasn’t defending billionaire hedge funders who had gone on the network to say “hell is coming” with a massive short bet on the market.

One of the things that made CNBC so good coming out of the dotcom bust was the unleashing of their on-air personalities to express market and even political viewpoints. Larry Kudlow and others frequently voiced a center-right, pro-markets view, while David Faber and others held a center-left, market-skeptical view. The interactions for years were mostly mature, professional, and well-reasoned, even as they exposed different approaches and economic worldviews.

What Sorkin did on CNBC throughout the COVID pandemic was not merely ideological — it was sensationalism taken to a level I never thought I would see on business media. And it proved to be divorced from reality.

But here is where I will extend the courtesy to Sorkin that he did not extend to Joe Kernen during this morning’s outburst: I will start by assuming that perhaps he actually believed his predictions, and that his motives were neither crass nor driven by politics. And that is a courtesy: To be frank, a big part of me does believe that Sorkin is too smart actually to have believed the gloom he was peddling throughout March and April. But his daily talking down of the market’s failure to behave in the way his apocalyptic forecasts might suggest, and his daily refusal to accept the systemically improving health picture in our country does lead me to believe that he is frustrated by the way that investors have not followed his script. (And his outburst did look to me as if frustration was at play — but judge for yourself).

Could it be maybe, just maybe, Sorkin’s accusation of Kernen (that he has been covering for the president) might just be a little projection, in reverse?

So, take your pick — either Sorkin is sincere (if, in my view, self-deceived), or, on this topic, he is too ideological to come to an objective assessment. Or maybe the explanation lies with some combination of the above. But to accuse Kernen of shilling for Trump after the markets have moved in a way so differently than Sorkin had expected was unfair, unprofessional, and more than anything else, telling.

Science & Tech

Three Important Ways the COVID Problem Is Incredibly Concentrated

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People wear face masks as they wait in line to receive free food at a curbside pantry in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, April 24, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

A few items that caught my eye these past few days:

First, just before the long weekend, this analysis of the virus’s genetic changes dropped. The results imply that just 1 to 10 percent of carriers cause 80 percent of secondary infections. (You can find a lot more research in a similar vein here.) This means we should think a lot more about “superspreading,” in terms both of superspreading events and of superspreading people.

Superspreading events tend to be situations where lots of adults come into close contact with each other for prolonged periods indoors, often talking or singing loudly. In such a situation, one infected person can pass the virus to many others at once. If superspreading is a big part of how this virus spreads in general, we need to be very careful about these situations. On the flip side, we might be a little less uptight about other interactions, where contacts are brief or outdoors, though masks and safe distances are still good when convenient.

Another possible contributor to the study’s result is superspreading individuals. Maybe there’s some reason these folks expel the virus more, or maybe — owing to their jobs or what have you — they are just more likely to find themselves in the dangerous situations outlined above. The latter types of superspreaders could actually be good news: People with lots of close contacts were probably more likely to get the virus early and gain some immunity, meaning that the most prolific spreaders might be taken out of commission for future waves, and that “herd immunity” could come at a lower threshold than we previously expected.

Second: We already knew that the elderly were far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the young, and of course that viruses spread more easily in close quarters. Add those together and it’s clear nursing homes are at serious risk. But Avik Roy has managed to put some numbers on the problem: Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities hold just 0.6 percent of the population but have produced 43 percent of COVID deaths in the U.S. 

It is very difficult to completely isolate these places, because care workers need to go home for the night and family members want to visit. But as we reopen, nursing homes must be a high priority for testing, temperature checks, and the like. Most important, any nursing-home resident, worker, or visitor found to have COVID-19 must be removed or securely isolated immediately.

Third: Pew got some flak for this dumbly worded tweet, but I think the chart is important. Blue (largely urban) areas were hit harder than red (more rural) areas, but the epidemic seems to be fading more slowly in the latter. These dynamics have both political and epidemiological ramifications we should want to sort out.

Mark Perry made a similar point this week about the severe damage to several dense urban areas, and the lighter toll elsewhere in the country (so far). One-third of U.S. COVID deaths are in counties that hold just 4 percent of the population, and another third are in counties holding 11 percent. As I’ve urged before, we obviously need to have different policies in different places.

Politics & Policy

‘What Are the President’s Priorities?’

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This week on The Editors, Rich, Charlie, and Jim discuss Trump’s tweets aimed at Joe Scarborough, Biden’s awkward exchange on The Breakfast Club, and how reopening is happening whether the experts think it should or not.

White House

Trump’s Still Ahead on the Economy

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Yesterday’s Politico story about Democratic worries of a fast economic recovery has obscured the fact that President Trump’s current approval rating on the economy is still pretty strong. He’s at 50.9 percent approval on the economy in the RCP average.

The bad news is that at least eight percent of those polled, on average, approve of his job performance on the economy but don’t approve of his performance overall. Eight percent think he has done well on the economy but aren’t planning to vote for him against Biden.

The faster our economy recovers, the better Trump should do — but Trump’s numbers have been steadier than the economic ones.

Film & TV

AT&T Bungles HBO Max Rollout

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Regina King in Watchmen (Mark Hill/HBO)

Well, the big day is here for HBO Max. Or . . . not. The WarnerMedia unit of AT&T decided that it couldn’t compete with Netflix (63 million U.S. subscribers) unless it massively upsized HBO (35 million) with billions of dollars’ worth of new programming and more library titles. So Warner bought back the rerun rights to (its own show) Friends, formerly a Netflix staple, and bragged that it would pay millions to get the original cast back together for a reunion special that appears to be the most expensive chat show ever conceived ($2.5 million to $3 million for each of the six actors). Launch day for this entertainment juggernaut was set earlier this spring for today. Subscribers to HBO Now, the over-the-top service for HBO viewers who cut the cord with their cable companies, were promised that they’d be given this treasure trove of additional programming gratis, with the price for the upgraded service remaining the same $14.99 a month we’ve been paying for plain HBO, and without even having to download a new app.

And what happened? Thanks to the coronavirus, the centerpiece event of the HBO Max launch, the Friends reunion, is not happening for a while. Oh, and the HBO Max service is only available to some HBO subscribers. If you get your HBO Now through Roku or Amazon Fire TV, you’re out of luck. HBO Max has not yet secured agreements with these companies to pass along its signal, nor with Dish Network/Sling TV. (A deal with Comcast XFinity was just announced after the service launched without this platform).

AT&T is feverishly negotiating behind the scenes to complete these deals, but for one of the world’s leading entertainment companies to fail to make these deals in time for a much-ballyhooed launch date is an embarrassment.

AT&T COO John Stankey recently declared, of Netflix, in that hyper-confident CEO style, “They are the enemy. We’re going to crush them.” Netflix must be giggling into its handkerchief right now.

Politics & Policy

Liz Cheney Urges Trump to Stop Promoting Baseless Conspiracy Theory

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U.S. Representative Liz Cheney addresses the media in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 25, 2017. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

Over Memorial Day weekend, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to promote a baseless conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and former congressman Joe Scarborough might have murdered one of his staffers, Lori Klausutis, who died unexpectedly in 2001 while working in a Florida office while Scarborough was in Washington, D.C. 

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday, Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, urged the president to knock it off. “I do think the president should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died,” Cheney told reporters. 

When Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy was asked about the matter on Wednesday, he said: “I was not here with Joe Scarborough. I don’t quite know about the subject itself. I don’t know the subject well.”

Most Republicans in Congress have kept quiet about the matter. Besides Cheney, two others have weighed in. House Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois tweeted on Saturday: 

Utah senator Mitt Romney weighed in Wednesday morning on Twitter: 

T.J. Klausutis, the widower of Lori Klausutis, wrote a letter on May 21 asking Twitter to remove the tweets promoting the conspiracy theory about his deceased wife. The letter said in part: 

I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage. As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life. There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died. I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is the verifiable truth. Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life. 

The frequency, intensity, ugliness, and promulgation of these horrifying lies ever increases on the internet. These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage. President Trump on Tuesday tweeted to his nearly 80 million followers alluding to the repeatedly debunked falsehood that my wife was murdered by her boss, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough. The son of the president followed and more directly attacked my wife by tweeting to his followers as the means of spreading this vicious lie.

You can read the whole letter here.

Politics & Policy

Cooperomachy

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We seem to be the only website in the U.S. that has not run content about the clash of the Coopers. Robert A. George has, however, already written the best treatment of this subject.

White House

‘Trump’s Grotesque Tweets’

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We posted an editorial yesterday on Trump’s disgraceful anti-Joe Scarborough tweets.

At this rate, it looks like we’ll have to post running updates.

He’s still at it today:

 

World

‘The 82-Day Dictatorship’

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MBD has a good piece up about the imminent repeal of Hungary’s emergency law, which many serious people predicted would never be repealed.

Culture

The Idiotic Attack on Kevin Hassett 

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Kevin Hassett the other day referred to our “human capital stock” being eager to get back to work. This kicked up an idiotic controversy, with Hassett getting denounced for his heartless use of a supposedly racially charged phrase. Making the point as ridiculously as possible, as usual, was AOC:

 

But, of course, economists — and others — routinely refer to human capital, as our friend Michael Strain notes here:

Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize for his work on human capital:

The rule in much of our public life now is shoot first, aim never.

Politics & Policy

Who Benefits If Trump’s Worst Tweets Are Removed?

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If Twitter were to take down the Tweets from President Trump that they deem most offensive, controversial, tasteless, or unacceptable, as some of the president’s critics desire . . . wouldn’t they be doing the president a favor by ensuring that his worst messages would be the least-seen and would disappear from the news cycle and public perception quickly?

Even some of the president’s fans will admit that he would be in a much stronger political position if he would stop going on Twitter tirades about whatever he saw on television that day and simply focused on the duties of the presidency. They argue, in effect, he needs an editor. He needs someone to cut out his worst impulses and keep himself focused on the parts of his agenda that are more popular, appealing, and likely to help his reelection efforts.

Are Trump’s critics sure they want the content-standards managers at Twitter to take the job as the president’s editors, quickly removing his worst moments and leaving the uncontroversial ones intact? Who benefits the most from that arrangement?

Politics & Policy

The Reopening Debate Is Progressing Slower Than the Actual Reopening

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New York Police Department officers keep an eye on people as they control social distance on a warm day amid the coronavirus outbreak at Domino Park in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., May 16, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

“Spike in South Korea virus cases shows perils of reopening,” declares the ominous Associated Press headline. You have to go to another article to find the number of cases and deaths in the country: “The Asian nation reported 40 new cases for Tuesday, the biggest one-day increase since April 8, according to data from Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, or KCDC, with most of the cases connected to a distribution center of an e-commerce firm. This takes the total tally to 11,265 cases while the virus-linked deaths were unchanged at 269.”

By South Korean standards, with a population of about 51 million and having done an excellent job of controlling the spread, 40 new cases in a day looks pretty bad. By the standards of the United States right now, a day like that looks delightful.

Reopening is perilous, but after ten and a half weeks of self-quarantines, lockdowns, closed businesses, and other restrictions, people are “voting with their feet” by going out more. The Atlantic magazine wonders why Americans can’t live almost entirely online the way the Estonians do. Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette laments that Americans can’t handle the freedom to leave quarantine. The weather is getting warmer and nicer. Demonizing people who go to the beach or the park is no longer a useful contribution to our search for a solution.

“Keep everyone inside their houses for three months or more” was never a realistic response to this virus. Our society does not operate on the same principles and philosophies of the Chinese state. We’re not going to weld doors shut to keep people inside.

As Charlie and Rich observed on this week’s The Editors, the debate about reopening society proceeding at a slower pace than the actual reopening of society. Whether or not a person thinks Americans should be leaving their homes more frequently, they’re doing it. The question now is finding a way to live with the virus, to reach some level of economic and social activity necessary for other human needs while minimizing the risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus. Masks, partial-capacity of businesses, standing six feet apart while talking — Americans can take those steps. An order to shut down so-called nonessential businesses — every business is essential to the people who earn their paychecks there — and to go back into homes for another month is just not going to fly anymore, and the chattering class needs to come to terms with that fact.

Politics & Policy

Ezekiel Emanuel Wants to Force You to Wear a Mask

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A man walks by an illuminated flag of The United States as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Manhattan, New York City, March 13, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Ever the technocrat, bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel — Joe Biden’s chief health-care adviser — now has coauthored a piece in the New York Times discussing how to force us all to wear masks. First, he supports laws requiring mask-wearing. From “Mask Wearing Needs to be Easy, Understood, and Expected”:

The most obvious path to universal masking is to pass laws and punish infractions. But enforcing legal edicts to wear masks in public can be difficult and costly, and amid widespread ambivalence can lead to backlash and even violence. So edicts are not a complete solution.

As experts in public health and human behavior, we propose a complementary approach: Make wearing a mask easy, understood and expected.

Notice how the writers soft-pedal their call for a legal mandate, but that is precisely what they advocate. They write that “edicts are not a complete solution,” meaning they are part of what should be done. And they write that other “complementary” approaches should also be engaged — in other words, in addition to legal compulsion.

The rest of the column focuses on technocratic efforts to manufacture social “norms” that would seek to shame us all — at the risk of social excommunication — to accept universal mask-wearing. I think that would be unwise.

I am all for wearing masks where appropriate and have no objection to “leadership by example” efforts by admired people. But constructing a “norm” through social manipulation could unleash a form of unreasonable fear of the kind we saw the other day in a Staten Island grocery, where people howled and screamed in panic at an unmasked shopper, driving her out of the store. That behavior was far more alarming and socially unhealthy than the presence of woman who thoughtlessly didn’t wear a mask.

Also, while the issue is mentioned, the authors skip over the science that mask- wearing outside is unnecessary if proper social distancing is followed. This is a problem with technocrats. They tend to approach issues with cudgels instead of scalpels.

Give Americans accurate information, and most of us will do the right thing voluntarily. But as an individualistic culture, we get our backs up when “the experts” attempt to dictate individual behavior, whether through social or legal compulsion. Deploying legal and/or social coercion to induce universal mask-wearing is likely to cause more popular resistance, not less.

Education

More Evidence That We’ve Oversold College

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New data sources make it more plain than ever that the U.S. has oversold college. Lots of young people spend years of their lives and plenty of often borrowed money to earn degrees that don’t lead to financial success. (Nor do they usually lead to much educational enrichment, but that’s another story.)

In today’s Martin Center article, Montana resident Tom Burnett writes about his area, where those without college credentials frequently earn as much or more than those with them. He writes:

I couldn’t help noticing the starting wages offered by Hobby Lobby at their new store in my city, Bozeman, Montana. Store officials said they would be paying full-time employees $15.70 an hour. Many graduates of our land-grant university, Montana State University-Bozeman, with degrees in liberal arts and film/video and photographic arts could find higher pay there than where they’re working.

Even better paying than the entry-level jobs at Hobby Lobby are grounds-keeping jobs for the City of Bozeman.

Burnett continues:

Among the [University of Montana’s] 203 fields of study, College Scorecard has relevant data on 91. Earnings for those in all the largest undergraduate fields of study pale next to starting wages for Bozeman’s city lawnmower:

-liberal arts, $20,600;

-wildlife management, $23,200;

-English, $23,700;

-teacher education and professional development, $24,200;

-psychology, $24,500;

-natural-resources conservation, $24,500;

-communications and media, $25,200;

-sociology, $27,100; and

-general education, $31,200.

Moral of the story: The conventional wisdom that college degrees are a great investment is wrong. Students need to think carefully about how best to use their time and money after high school.

Culture

The Romantic Sense of Self

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The New York Times ran an essay by a transgender woman named Meredith Talusan this morning. Talusan described a college reunion where a peer remarked that Talusan — who underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2001 — looked “the same” as when the pair were undergraduates. After a decade of “estrogen had softened my features enough that I felt safe from people on the street calling me a man,” the peer’s remark sent Talusan headlong into an existential crisis:

Maybe my mind was protecting me from my male past, and I wondered to what degree the image in front of me [in the mirror] conformed to what was real. But I also reminded myself that there is no single, objective truth; that reality is so much more malleable than people make it out to be; that the first step in making something real is believing it could be real; that my very presence in front of this mirror, in this school, in the world, was itself proof of the power of belief in a reality that seemed entirely far-fetched.

Disenchanted with “idealized femininity,” Talusan resolved to “express my gender how I want to, regardless of society’s expectations” — a free-floating Self, unmoored from the strictures of tradition and truth itself.

Talusan’s story — at once anxious and indulgent — is a distillation of what Darel Paul called the “romantic sensibility of the self”: a Freudian conception of the self as “a unique and creative spirit whose reason for existence is its own expression.” Drawing on Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Paul writes that to preserve the “romantic sensibility of self,” the organs of “therapeutic culture” must constantly affirm those idiosyncratic “selves” whose behaviors or identities might be stifled by the mores of the collective:

The therapeutic demands authentic selves that are not only expressed but also socially recognized. Mental health professionals once counseled the development of pro-social interdictions that would enable an individual’s adaptation to social expectations. Under the therapeutic, they now advocate for the wholesale transformation of all of society in order to facilitate self-actualization. This is why simple tolerance is wholly inadequate, for without recognition, selves will internalize a sense of inferiority and thus fail to become authentic. Hence the commissioning of every institution into the work of bestowing recognition and liberating selves.

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