Pandemic and Prosocial Strategies

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley published an interview with Paul Atkins on principles of prosocial action that will help us to maintain community during the pandemic. The principles and prescriptions are sound. I had a few points to make regarding historical interpretation.


Adam Smith wrote on the tragedy of the commons in “The Wealth of Nations.” His prescription was that government must ensure the well-being of specialized workers made unnecessary by changes in technology. This is an aspect of his humane judgment omitted by the neo-conservative economists that coined the phrase “greed is good” in the ’80s. As Smith was the authority they cited, I think that it is important to honor his opinions.

What is cited as Asian “collectivism” is typical of all agricultural societies. It is evaporating under the opportunities for rapacity allowed by rapid industrialization and centralized political control.

Both phenomena are supported by the original form of “social distancing”: the creation of gated communes for the wealthy that enable them to avoid confrontation with those suffering the consequences of their narcissism. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great leveler of those privileges, as will be the consequences of global climate change. Their preserves, often sited in the most desirable of environments, will suffer the greatest disruption.

“We Will Get Through This”

No we won’t, Donald. Hundreds of thousands of us will get sick, perhaps 100,000 will be unable to resume their previous life because of lung damage, tens of thousands will die.

All because you did not act when the Democratic caucus advised you on February 5th that you needed funding to plan for the outbreak. All because you downplayed the danger and allowed people to continue to congregate. All because you did not act to ensure supplies and equipment were in place.

You can “play by instinct” and do your word salad and monitor your Tweet likes to find out what plays well with your base. You may escape blame. But the hospitals and governors will assemble the numbers and you will be called to account in the next election.

You said we’d “win so much you’ll get tired of winning.” Well we’re dying instead, and even Twitter won’t save you from that contrast when November comes around.

WTFU

I’ll re-iterate yesterday’s point in secular terms. Prior administrations, recognizing the disastrous costs of a future pandemic, established an office directly within the White House to ensure international coordination when new diseases are detected. This reflected recognition that the primary spawning ground is currently Southeast Asia. It is in tracking Asian outbreaks of influenza that we build our current flu vaccines.

Prior administrations used the White House office to prevent the spread of MERS and SARS and Ebola. The Trump Administration, in some kind of “Make America Great Again” isolationist pique, dismantled that office. Thus when COVID-19 reared its ugly head, there was no one to lead the response. Worse, the President downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and deflected blame to others when it began to make inroads in American communities.

The end result of this strategy was visible in yesterday’s CDC press release. In the most ridiculous display of sycophancy imaginable, the CDC head spoke fawningly of Trump’s initiative in helping to “flatten the curve” of infection. What this means, people, is that they recognize that the disease is out of control. 60-70% of Americans will be infected, with fatalities up in the high hundreds of thousands or low millions. Their only goal is to slow the rate of infection to avoid saturating the American health care system. If that happens, fatalities could reach into tens of millions.

To characterize this as a laudable outcome is simply absurd. That it is being touted in press conferences is tantamount to admission that Trump behind the scenes is threatening to fire anyone who does not flatter his leadership. He is holding the American public hostage to his ego. Obviously the President does not recognize that he abdicates leadership with statements that he’s “not responsible for anything.” Followed by “someone in my Administration did it,” it’s clear that his paranoia has grown from the “Deep State” to blanket his own people.

Those in the Republican Party who projected this faker into the Oval Office have much to answer for. You should have helped the Democrats throw him out on his ear.

The Abyss

They don’t love him because he speaks for them, or because he entertains them.

They love him because through him they deploy the only strategy that seems to work any longer – the strategy of terror.

“Take care of us or we’ll blow our country up.”

Ignited by anger, driven by fear. The worse the corruption and criminality, the more heartened his supporters. They glory in the hand-wringing and hypocrisy of legislators and judges who step into line to ratify his conduct.

Through him they have power. They have meaning. They are seen. People have to pay attention.

We are become our own enemy. And the Madih resting at the bottom of the Indian Ocean smiles in delight.

Not All Lost

Spent a fair portion of the day yesterday in the Santa Clarita area. Both church services I attended focused on Thursday’s events at Saugus High School. When I returned at 7 PM for the vigil in Central Park, the park was packed with people – I ended up standing 200 or more feet from the stage.

I did the best that I could to support the speakers, several of whom teetered on the edge of emotional collapse.

I was heartened that both of the deceased children were memorialized. I’ve been to several cities after such shootings, and this was the first time the shooter was remembered as a loving, active presence in the community. I consider it a huge step forward.

Block-Head Chain

We may be losing the trade war in goods with China, but the virtual trade war is running nicely. It seems the US should soon resume its historical dominance in natural resources production…

Excerpted from the link:

Extracting a dollar’s worth of cryptocurrency such as bitcoin from the deep Web consumes three times more energy than digging up a dollar’s worth of gold.

There are now hundreds of virtual currencies and an unknown number of server farms around the world running around the clock to unearth them, more than half of them in China

Money for Nothing

One of the fundamental assumptions of free-market theory is that information is frictionless. A competitor introducing a higher-value laundry detergent drives innovation only if consumers know about the product. Renewable sources of electricity will be adopted only if public utilities can mothball their existing fossil-fuel-based generating plants – made more difficult when the bonds are still being paid off.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century, the American worker benefited from friction in the delivery of goods and services. That friction took many forms: shipping costs, brand loyalty, and legal and financial rules. Today, globalization of markets forces us to compete with much cheaper sources of labor overseas, and the laziness of American managers (as compared to German and Asian counterparts that invested in skill development) means that jobs bleed across our borders.

The last redoubt of friction is financial services. The Baby Boomers generation accumulated huge retirement reserves, and Reagan-era fiscal policies have driven government deeply into debt. The dollar is the currency of choice for international business. Finally, expensive real-time trading technology is a high barrier to entry.

To those that understood the dynamics, it was no surprise that in the fiscal year following the 2008 meltdown, financial services companies reaped fully half of the profits enjoyed by American business. The system was rigged in their favor.

Some information about the practices of the industry have been revealed by those investigating the collapse of mortgage equities and the Ivan Boesky pyramid scheme. Every financial advisor banks on insider trading. Their job is to build relationships that allow them to get their clients to the trough first when an opportunity is created. No outsider can hope to compete.

Now the World Economic Forum has weighed in on the dangers to this system of artificial intelligence. Substituting a relentless, unbiased algorithm for your investment advisor ensures that you will always be given the best deal available. Your loan may come from Malaysia instead of Wall Street, but the impact of that truth is to drive down costs in the financial services sector.

Yes, the interim will be messy as the trading algorithms expose instability and self-serving in our existing financial system. But the end result will be a system with far less friction. As promised in free-market theory, money will find those inspired to create value, and bypass those motivated solely by greed.