Saturday, March 28, 2020

Why Isn't COVID-19 Just Like the Flu?

What's the big deal?  COVID-19?  Most people don't know anyone who is affected yet.  People die from the flu in far greater numbers, right?  This year from the flu, CDC expects about 50 million Americans to get infected, 25 million to seek medical care, 500k to enter the hospital and perhaps 50k to die.  These are huge numbers!  And yet we don't shut down businesses, schools or transportation systems.  Do we?  Millions of people aren't laid off, are we?  What's the fuss?

What IS the difference?  And why can't we simply apply the same policies and procedures we have with flu to this new viral infection?  Cities and countries are reacting when there are only tens of people dying.  Compared to 50,000 who die from flu, what's the big deal?

Well, we're arguably three full months into the crisis and a lot of Americans still don't believe it's a real problem.  And what's worse is that most of those who DO think it's a problem, can't explain it to those who don't.

Why isn's COVID-19 just like the flu?  Let's break it down and see if we can figure it out.  Here it is.  With simple numbers.   I'll try to use numbers that can be verified.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Storytelling about Public Health, Immigration and Power

Here is a headline for you to consider:
CDC Recommended that Migrants Receive Flu Vaccine, but CBP Rejected the Idea
With a different headline and presented in a different order, the same facts and even the same text would tell a different story.

This is how the story in the Washington Post by Robert Moore starts out:
As influenza spread through migrant detention facilities last winter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that U.S. Customs and Border Protection vaccinate detained migrants against the virus, a push that CBP rejected, according to a newly released letter to Congress.
In Washington, I guess that's what this story is about: a battle between agencies, political conflict, and, with any luck, a cover-up and a scandal.  It's about power.  And who will be blamed when the outbreak inevitably occurs.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Epitaph by Merrit Mallow at Frank Fisher's Funeral

I'd like to thank Frank Fisher for this poem.

Frank died on April 29th, 2019.  We went to his funeral today and the Rabbi read this poem by Merrit Mallow called "Epitaph."  It was beautiful.

I'd kind of like to know if Frank knew of this poem and appreciated it himself or not.  No matter, though -- I appreciated it either way.  Frank's funeral provided more than an opportunity to learn of this poem, however.  It also made it a lot more meaningful.  When the Rabbi read the poem, I had been thinking about Frank's life, his family and colleagues he left behind.  By living the life he did and drawing people to his funeral as he did -- people who spoke about their memories of Frank and his legacy -- Frank "framed" the poem for me.  Thank you, Frank.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Complex System Underlies Simple Story about GM Layoffs

I found this article in the Times yesterday about layoffs at GM.  It seemed pretty straightforward.
General Motors announced Monday that it planned to idle five factories in North America and cut roughly 14,000 jobs in a bid to trim costs. It was a jarring reflection of the auto industry’s adjustment to changing consumer tastes and sluggish sales.
It’s pretty remarkable because, as short as it is, it is directly or indirectly related to many dimensions of public policy I've devoted time and attention to in this blog, including inequality, taxes, interest rates, growth, trade, energy policy, climate change, globalization, immigration, and even automation and the future of work.

But then I thought about it and concluded I would have appreciated the article even more if Boudette, the author, had bothered to connect the elements in his article into a system.  As is, the story leaves the reader with a pretty clear victim (organized labor) and villain (GM management).  In this frame, the article appears to be a list of factors that help the reader understand why GM has decided to permanently close these plants.  It is, in effect, an apologia for GM management.  And relationships between public policy and poor socio-economic outcomes remain implicit if they are mentioned at all.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trump, White Anger and the Paranoid Political Tradition

Just because you’re paranoid does not mean they’re not out to get you.

Maybe it's true:  immigration does exert a downward pressure on wages.  But maybe it's NOT TRUE.  Plenty of economists find that the incremental demand for goods and services created by immigrants -- and therefore economic growth -- more than offset the competition for wages.  These economists base their argument in evidence, not reason.  In fact, there is no correlation between cities with larger immigrant populations and lower wages.  And there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

But it's certainly true that the argument is an authentic expression of fear and anger of working class whites.  They BELIEVE that immigrants are taking their jobs for lower pay, thereby driving wages down.  And they BELIEVE that the system is rigged against them because to them it's self-evident:  low wages are good for employers, good for business, good for the establishment.  And whether they're true or not, these beliefs have an effect on our politics, our government and our history.

This essay by Lynn Vavreck in the New York Times is a classic summary of this dilemma and it's impact not only on electoral politics and public policy but also how we think of ourselves.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Artificial Intelligence is Out of Control at Facebook

Has anyone else been following this thread of alarmist articles in the media?  Facebook deployed some "virtual assistant" technology or "bots" that apparently developed their own "language" to communicate between themselves more effectively.  Oh no!  Next they'll be conspiring against us!

From Dave Gershgorn at Quartz:
Recent headlines and news articles have depicted research from Facebook’s artificial intelligence lab as the sci-fi beginnings of killer AI: one bot is learning to talk to another bot in a secret language so complex that it had to shut down. A BGR headline reads “Facebook engineers panic, pull plug on AI after bots develop their own language,” and Digital Journal claims in its article that “There’s not yet enough evidence to determine whether they present a threat that could enable machines to overrule their operators.” 
Most of the coverage has been ridiculous:  not just a waste of time or useless but actually misleading.  These writers and publishers are using words to amuse, alarm and provoke but not to explain.  Classic mystification.

But Dave does a decent job here, explaining that, in fact, there is nothing nefarious going on:
The bots did exactly what they were programmed to do: haggle over fake objects. They developed a new way of communicating with each other, because computers don’t speak English—just like we use x to stand in for a number in math, the bots were using other letters to stand in for longer words and ideas, like “iii” for “want” or “orange.”

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Media, Corporations and Democracy

Robert Reich has posted another excellent video, this one entitled "Trump and the Media." In it he outlines how Trump is using power, the law and public opinion to undermine the media and consolidate his own power. Many of my friends and colleagues have responded to this thoughtful analysis with a big "So what?!" They point out that the media has always been biased, that it's never been truly independent, that it's all owned by a couple of corporations and none of them can be trusted. So what's the big deal?

This is fallacious reasoning for three reasons.  First, no matter how bad the media gets, it doesn't make it any more or less important for our communities, our society and our Republic. And second, just because they are biased, not independent and privately owned, does not mean that they MUST be undeserving of our trust. And finally, by generalizing and giving up, we may actually be making matters worse for the few remaining journalists, editors and publishers out there who are still fulfilling their public mission. Cynicism about the media is not the same as skepticism.