The Things I Read Today — January 22, 2021
Where there’s a will (and a dollar), there’s usually a way.
Afternoon Prayer: Ephesians 6:1–9
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy Today we meet the old Prince Bolkonsky and we’re introduced to his curious pedagogy. Let’s take a look at his approach to teaching as he instructs his beloved daughter in geometry and algebra:
The old man would lose his patience, scraping his chair backwards and forwards, then struggle to control himself, not to lose his temper, which he almost always did, and then he shouted at her, sometimes flinging the book across the room.
The princess got one of her answers wrong.
‘How can you be so stupid?’ he roared, pushing the book away, and turning from her sharply. But then he got up, paced up and down, laid a hand on the princess’s hair and sat down again. He drew close to the table and went on with his explanations.
As a homeschool teacher I can say with certain authority that this is the exact opposite of what you want to do as an instructor. While your expectations should be firm and challenging, your lessons should be encouraging and fun. Otherwise your student will lose all interest and, especially if you get angry like the old Prince, shut down completely drowning in a deluge of crippling self-doubt. Indeed, that’s what we see with Princess Mary in today’s chapter. Tolstoy writes of her response to her father’s madness: “The princess’s eyes glazed over, she could see and hear nothing, she could feel nothing but the close proximity of her strict father with his desiccated face, stale breath and body odour, and she could think of nothing but how to get away from there as soon as possible.”
The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola Zola is the novelist of modernity. His novels, to this day, remain an exquisite articulation of man’s response to and negotiations with the incentives and vagaries of modern life. In today’s reading, chapter six, for example, there are at least two things contemporary readers will find apropos to their lives.
The first is the problem of disinformation. Here we have the good people of Plassans waking up to news that not only has a coup d’état against the Republic occurred but also rumors that their reactionary town leaders have put down a republican insurrection against the nascent empire. Witness the spread of fake news:
It was ten o’clock, and Plassans was now wide awake. People were scurrying through the streets, stunned by the reports that were circulating. Those who had seen or heard the insurrectionary forces told the most extravagant stories, contradicting each other and asserting the wildest things about what had happened. The majority, however, knew nothing at all about the events of the night; they lived at the far end of town, and listened open-mouthed, like children being told a nursery story, to the accounts of how several thousand bandits had invaded the streets during the night and vanished before daybreak like an army of phantoms. The most sceptical among them declared it all to be nonsense. But some of the details were very precise, and Plassans at last felt convinced that some terrible danger had passed over it while it slept, leaving it unscathed.
Later, the erroneous idea that the republican insurrection has actually been a success is transmitted through the gossip of the town’s maidservants who “lost no time in spreading news, embellishing it with various dramatic details.”
Consider that this disinformation is spread primarily through gossip and print media. It’s bad enough when such things are constrained by the limits of the speed of sound and nineteenth century locomotion. When, however, information spreads, as it does now, at rates approaching the speed of light darkness descends.
The second thing that struck me today about Zola is his insight into modern moral psychology. It’s almost as if in creating his characters for the novel Zola is drawing upon the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who helped develop the Moral Foundations Theory which, excuse my awful encapsulation, is the idea that there exist several discrete, innate and universal moralities in humans that serve as the “taste buds” with which we evaluate the flavor of various ethics and policy. The sensitivity of each of these taste buds, the theory goes, determines an individual’s politics. So while conservatives and liberals share access to these same taste buds, the sensitivity for each differs and they will often have wildly different responses to the same policy. Conservatives, like the reactionaries of Plassans, place a high value on authority. That’s why, when Pierre and his cohort justify their newfound positions of power after the coup d’état they argue that they deserve such power because it was they who, in their yellow drawing-room, have always been the “friends of order and authority.”
The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today by David Stasavage Reading this one slow so I didn’t get too deep into it today. I did get deep enough to learn that the author wants to answer two questions with his book. First, how does democracy arise, consolidate and prosper? Secondly, why did democracy consolidate first in Western Europe and the United States? He also writes a little bit about “early democracy” which he finds in various places throughout history and defines as “a system in which a ruler governed jointly with a council or assembly composed of members of society who were themselves independent from the ruler and not subject to his or her whim.”
The Life and Times of Emile Zola by FWJ Hemmings Favorite sentence: “Zola’s lifelong faith in the power of science to banish not just ignorance and poverty but also cruelty and human degradation may appear naive today.”
Yes it does.
Beethoven: A Life by Jan Caeyers Today I learned that Beethoven took lessons in vocal composition from Antonio Salieri. I had no idea. Salieri also counted Schubert and Liszt as students. That’s quite the roster. Also learned a little about the Eroica symphony, a favorite of mine.
Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle Still don’t like consuming this type of work as an audiobook. I do like, however, that Kierkegaard wanted to “depose Hegel.” Hegel sucks. At least I think he sucks. I was never able to understand what the hell he was talking about.
The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow Consider this passage about Morgan’s work with Grover Cleveland in solving the great gold panic of 1895:
Despite his venality, the gold operation had been a tour de force for Pierpont. He had functioned as America’s central bank, stepping into the historic breach between Andrew Jackson’s 1832 veto of the second Bank of the United States and passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. So long as governments were financially weak, with primitive monetary methods and small budgets, they had to rely on private bankers.
Imagine having that much power. Damn. Respect.
News, Opinion and Policy Analysis
Stock Futures Fall, Signalling Losses After Fresh Records (The Wall Street Journal): Futures were down this morning:
Markets appeared to be pausing after rallying for much of January, with money managers saying there was no clear catalyst for the decline. Investors have been cheered in recent days by a solid start to earnings season, though some are concerned that high valuations in corners of the market will leave stocks vulnerable in the coming months.
Biden Moves to Jump-Start Covid Fight with Slew of Orders (The Wall Street Journal) This is an unambitious and inadequate plan. If we’re only averaging one million vaccine doses administered per day then that won’t get us to herd immunity for another whole year. That’s unacceptable. Getting covid under control should be Biden’s top priority and, frankly, this isn’t promising at all.
Shades of Blue (Harper’s) Thomas Chatterton Williams offers his account of Trump’s gains with nonwhite voters in 2020. Williams’s idea, one I think is largely correct, is that the extremely online progressive left has used its privileged position atop America’s foremost cultural institutions to crowd out more sensible leftist public policy with a relentless torrent of obnoxious social justice posturing. Witness the insistence on the use of the term “latinx” for example. Or the idea that looting is actually good and we should abolish the police. This type of talk alienates people and the more the Democratic Party is associated with it the more voters they will lose. One must recognize that the Democratic Party is a broad coalition, a big tent. For various reasons, mostly the blatant racism of the Republican Party since the adoption of the Southern Strategy, nonwhites tend to favor the Democratic Party. Roughly ninety percent of African Americans, for instance, vote Democrat. But that does not mean all black people are liberal, let alone progressive. The fact is that any given population probably boasts a normal distribution of political sentiment. If Democrats want to grow their coalition it’s better, in my estimation, that they amplify voices that advocate sound, evidence-based anti-poverty policy solutions rather than the voices of the radical social justice left.
MAGA Carta (Harper’s) This is really funny.
Espresso (The Economist)
The Morning Dispatch- Vaccine Blame Game (The Dispatch)
Media Trust Hits New Low (Axios) This is depressing. I don’t know how we’re ever going to solve the problem of disinformation if we can’t boost levels of trust in our institutions, the media in particular. I mean, democratic theory is in large part predicated on an informed citizenry engaging in political institutions. And right now it doesn’t really seem like we have an informed citizenry at all.
US Joins Global Vaccine Efforts on Biden’s First Day (Financial Times) Good. So glad to have a globalist back in the saddle. Now go do some free trade deals, Joe!
‘The White Tiger’ Review: Don’t Call Him a Slumdog (The New York Times) An uneven review of the new Netflix film but this caught my interest:
Bahrani’s literary reference points (and Adiga’s) lean more toward Dreiser, Dostoyevsky and “Native Son.”
Dostoevsky? I’m in!
Would Markets Have Handled the Vaccine Rollout Better Than Government? (Capitolism - The Dispatch) You’d expect 2020’s neoliberal shill bracket winner, and a Cato Institute senior scholar no less, to come out decisively for markets but that’s not what Scott Lincicome thinks here.
He actually thinks Operation Warp Speed (“OWS”) got some things right:
First, the streamlining of regulatory scrutiny — particularly under the FDA’s “emergency use authorization” system (which, for example, freed vaccine manufacturers from receiving an FDA site inspection before shipping doses) — has been lauded as instrumental in speeding up the vaccine process, which can normally take years from research to distribution. Second, the front-loading of government funds for the development of select vaccine candidates, as well as the advance purchase contracts for all producers, lowered companies’ risk of developing the vaccine and allowed some of them to ramp up manufacturing long before their vaccines were approved. Third, there have been numerous reports of the U.S. government helping pharmaceutical manufacturers obtain raw materials, other supplies, or facilities during the peak of the pandemic, which roiled domestic and foreign businesses alike. Finally, observers have generally praised OWS’s decision to outsource distribution of non-Pfizer vaccines to an experienced centralized distributor, McKesson Corporation, which distributed vaccines during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and had a pre-existing government contract.
Then again, it also got things wrong:
Full participation in OWS would have subjected the [companies] to potential political influence and regulatory oversight that could have complicated (and in Moderna’s case, slowed down) the process of bringing a vaccine to market. Second, reports indicate that OWS impeded Pfizer’s ability to increase supply in late 2020 because certain raw materials had been earmarked for vaccine producers that participated more fully in OWS by taking upfront R&D funding. Even though several of these companies (e.g., Sanofi and Novavax) are nowhere near ready to ship a finished vaccine (despite billions in government funds), their OWS “favored status” among raw materials suppliers disadvantaged Pfizer’s access to those very same sources — a position resolved only by a subsequent U.S.-Pfizer agreement for more doses (famously rejected by the Trump administration earlier on) that freed up those inputs and allowed Pfizer to boost vaccine supply.
[There are two problem we’re seeing]: bypassing traditional distribution networks and politicized rationing rules — in real time. On the former, pharmacies with ample experience distributing vaccines have thus far had only a minor role (and in some states, no role) in distribution, and those involved can’t do much without state approval. As Walgreens’ CEO Stefano Pessina put it, “We are just an agent for the states. … We are vaccinating at a pace that is a fraction of the pace that we could be doing. We could do much more as a pharmacy chain if we had a certain degree of freedom.” Now, states are turning back to those pharmacies — or other private companies like Starbucks with longstanding expertise in logistics and distribution (plus available real estate) — for more help. However, the states still have to obtain doses from the feds, and that too has turned into a logistical nightmare.
Finally, there are also questions about what OWS didn’t do on the regulatory front, namely accelerating its emergency approval process or providing a parallel avenue for people to take vaccines that did not yet receive government signoff. To reassure the public about the vaccines’ safety, the FDA has quite publicly attested to maintaining its standard approval process, but this approach has also caused vaccine authorizations to be a bit slower than in other places, such as the U.K.. Given the pandemic’s ongoing toll in the United States, this “drug lag” can cost numerous lives.
Just as importantly, the federal government has not allowed Americans to volunteer to receive unapproved vaccines (and, of course, waive their liability in case of a problem) — a “right to try” approach that could have been done in parallel with the standard FDA approach and might have boosted public support if few side effects were reported. As Tabarrok has noted, the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective, has been approved in several countries, has support from numerous medical professionals, and is already being produced in large volumes in a factory in Baltimore. Continued U.S. refusal to allow Americans to access it (and any other vaccines), as thousands die from COVID-19 every day, is a considerable failure.
The vaccine rollout might also provide some broader lessons regarding the role of government in economic policy. Here, one can argue what “worked” was basic government funding for research (for example the NIH’s early-stage support for Moderna and BioNTech’s mRNA technology long before COVID-19 existed); no-strings rewards — whether purchase contracts or something similar like prizes — for delivering a requested product or service; a streamlined regulatory regime; and, of course, openness to global knowledge, capital, labor, and materials. What came up short, on the other hand, was regulatory inflexibility and extensive meddling in — if not attempted rewiring of — complex manufacturing and distribution supply chains that have evolved over decades based on millions of interactions between suppliers and their customers.
My own opinion is that government has a roll in bankrolling vaccine production and distribution in a pandemic but it’d probably be better to leave distribution to the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart. If those companies were in control of logistics we’d all probably be vaccinated already.
Hank Aaron, Baseball Great Who Became Force for Civil Rights, Dies at 86 (The Washington Post) First of all, God bless him and may he rest in peace.
Secondly, what the hell is wrong with people?:
After hitting 40 home runs in 1973, Mr. Aaron had a career total of 713, one shy of Ruth’s record. Each home run seemed to come at a deep personal cost.
Since 1972, the U.S. Postal Service noted at the time, Mr. Aaron had received more mail than anyone who was not a political figure. Much of it was filled with racism and vile language.
Some of the contents were released to the public. “If you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers,” one letter said, “I have a contract out on you. Over 700, and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell.” Another read, “My gun is watching your every black move.”
A security team accompanied Mr. Aaron at all times, his daughter received police protection while attending college, and the FBI looked into some of the more extreme threats. Mr. Aaron kept the letters as a reminder of his lonely, dangerous pursuit.
“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” Mr. Aaron wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “I Had a Hammer.” “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
Wall Street Stocks Follow Europe Lower on Gloomy Economic Data (Financial Times) The futures this morning, unfortunately, were right.
Podcast of the Day: The 46th: Joe Biden to the Rescue (Plan): The first half conversation between co-hosts Michelle Goldberg and Ross Douthat isn’t that great but the second half interview with Biden economic advisor Jared Bernstein is absolutely fantastic. With it you’ll be offered a chance to listen in on a smart conversation about the Build Back Better economic program, hopes for bipartisan policy agreement (hello Infrastructure Week Biden Edition!), American natalism, as well as the Trump economy’s challenge to fiscal and monetary policy orthodoxies. This last part in particular is interesting to me because it speaks to the questions of what ever happened to the Phillips curve? Will the savings glut spike inflation? And are there still constraints on monetary policy given that over the course of the last decade or so inflation targets are consistently falling short despite the massive liquidity pumped into markets. Worth your time.