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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Waiting For Stupendous Man

I am sorry for not posting, but I have been very busy, and the other problem is that when I sit down to write what comes out is gibbering. I have the feeling lately that the US is stuck in a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon.

I spent some time on DU during my swine flu research. I wanted to see what the overall US reaction would be. DU may be a big forum, but it is quite atypical of the US at large. The number of purely maniacal threads on there (i.e. it's a CIA plot against Obama, it's a neocon plot, it's biowarfare) amounted to at least a hundred. There was a remarkably high noise-to-signal ratio. The population at large seems to be much calmer.

I just checked ol DU again, and somebody had posted a thread about Nazi ideology being founded on pragmatism. I guess if you ignore the dementia, that could be true. Somehow I would not describe someone searching for a bus route that will take them to center city so that they could use the death rays emitted by their eyes to destroy their enemies as being pragmatic, and that pretty much sums up Nazi ideology. It was doomed to fail. The shame is that ROW did not stop it before it took so many millions of lives.

I think that I had better stay off DU for sanity's sake.

But the rest of the world isn't much better. The one bright spot is that the CDC/state structure and the other public health initiatives set up to deal with a pandemic flu are working quite well. But of course, there has never been a way to stop a pandemic flu virus, so the success is limited. As of today, the virus is confirmed in seven countries.

It isn't time to panic yet, though. As long as they keep updating it, the time to panic will come when you see the upward rise on the CDC's MMWR (Mortality) compared to prior years. No one wants to get the flu, but it is not going to affect your life until there is enough of it around to generate deaths. Right now 09 mortalities are still low compared to 08.

It's also worth looking at MMWR Mortality to keep in perspective the reported deaths out of Mexico. Few Mexican cases have been confirmed (26 cases) - which is less than the confirmed caseload in the US. As for the death count, consider this. Mexico City is huge - it is comparable in size to New York City. In NYC, 08 weekly deaths from pneumonia/flu for the five preceding weeks (about the time the flu has been running in Mexico City) were in the 50s each week. So the expected death rate from pneumonia/flu in NYC for about 5 weeks prior would be somewhere around 220-275 in a normal year for this period. In a bad flu year, you'd expect to see considerably more deaths. There are yearly variations - this year, deaths have been running in the high 40s except for one pop to 61.

But still, if one is looking at the death count, I would expect to see far more pneumonia/flu deaths from a lethal pandemic virus than Mexico is reporting. For purposes of comparison, within the first month of the NYC 1918 flu epidemic more than 4,000 people died. Ninety years later we have a lot more firepower by way of medicine (especially antibiotics and antivirals) and medical technology, so deaths ought to be much less. But in a severe flu epidemic, Mexico City should be reporting at least 150 deaths per week after seven weeks. So it isn't severe. Not yet. It might become so, but right now heading toward the bomb shelter is a bit of an overreaction.

Aside from that one bright spot, isn't an awful lot of what's happening completely crazy? Take Waxman's description (on NPR, no less) of the pressing environmental danger he is seeking to avert with his plans to tax energy:
We're seeing the reality of a lot of the North Pole starting to evaporate, and we could get to a tipping point. Because if it evaporates to a certain point - they have lanes now where ships can go that couldn't ever sail through before. And if it gets to a point where it evaporates too much, there's a lot of tundra that's being held down by that ice cap.

If that gets released we'll have more carbon emissions and methane gas in our atmosphere than we have now.
!!!! I just saw the flicker of Stupendous Man's red cape!!

There is, btw, a tremendously good and economically unassailable discussion by Peter Huber of the flaws of the "green economy" meme available at Mauldin's Outside The Box. I believe you will have to enter an email address to read this, but it is worth it:
Another argument commonly advanced is that getting over carbon will, nevertheless, be comparatively cheap, because it will get us over oil, too -- which will impoverish our enemies and save us a bundle at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. But uranium aside, the most economical substitute for oil is, in fact, electricity generated with coal. Cheap coal-fired electricity has been, is, and will continue to be a substitute for oil, or a substitute for natural gas, which can in turn substitute for oil. By sharply boosting the cost of coal electricity, the war on carbon will make us more dependent on oil, not less.
It's comprehensive and sensible. The bottom line is that jacking up energy costs in the US is not going to change the global rise in carbon emissions, because countries that are very worried about their own internal economies cannot spare the energy to follow suit. For example, China proudly reported that they have implemented reforms cutting their environmental permits process from 60 to 5 days, and in some cases, 2 days as part of the economic stimulus program.

Which leaves US companies facing another severe competitive disadvantage, which shifts even more production to countries which use energy less efficiently, which overall, raises global carbon emissions. It also makes the US poorer, living less money left over for adaptation.

But if I look around, the picture becomes even more disturbing. It is natural for people to be somewhat upset about the swine flu. Very few of the public can have much perspective on the numbers, and we've all been warned about the dangers of a flu pandemic. Yet DU's flu performance, although most confounding and disturbing, looks remarkably sane compared to this NY Times editorial by Gregory Mankiw recommending achieving negative nominal interest rates (and real interest rates are already negative). He advances a remarkably bizarre suggestion to announce that the US will basically confiscate 1/10th of everyone's cash next year in order to overcome the reality that people will not lend money for negative interest rates.

I cannot write lucidly about this piece of epic insanity. I would need a whole lot of sedatives before I could attempt it. Or possibly an awful lot of really, really good sex.

Fortunately (since the Chief is away right now), I do not have to try to write lucidly about Mankiw's psychotic break with economic reality. Other people have noticed. Start with Robert Murphy's discussion of this editorial, and the disturbing academic mindset behind it:
Mankiw's article beautifully illustrates what is wrong with today's economics profession: it consists of very sharp guys (and gals) who can develop interesting models that spit out policy recommendations that would destroy the economy.
Indeed. That's an understatement.

The problem is that we have theory without practice, and instead of responding to reality's corrections of our theoretical errors, we just keep coming up with wilder theories. That is what induced me to begin an extended meditation upon the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons. One thing about Calvin - he does not give up easily, and he always seems surprised by the predictable results.

Another few years of this, and the American people will be in the mood to kill all the environmentalists and the professors. Or at least fire the professors. I question whether having professors of economics is worthwhile any more.

As seems to be the case with every new issue that comes down the pike nowadays, the swine flu issue comes complete with breathless hype from the media. I have found an excellent site to help refute (or clarify) much of the foolishness on the human health front at JunkScience. She has a very good post up on the flu: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2009/04/flu-fears.html. While you're there, scroll down and check out the one on obesity.
Another site that I recently found through WattsUpWithThat is Cheefio who has an excellent post on energy resources at http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/there-is-no-energy-shortage/

I'm not sure, in these days of relativism, what I would do without the large number of good and informative sites from which to bypass the foolishness of the media and the government to gather real information.
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