U.S. Exceptionalism


The above graph shows a seven-day rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 cases for a number of countries I selected from the larger data set. I imagine you can draw the same conclusion I did looking at the trends. Still, I am sure you will find Vice President Pence’s reassurances in yesterday’s briefing as compelling as Dr. Fauci did. Especially, “As we see new cases rising — and we’re tracking them very carefully – there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago. That we’re in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we’re in a much better place.” ❖

Anthony S. Fauci director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as
Vice President Pence speaks during a briefing of the coronavirus task force. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up.”

While I have been biting my tongue for a spell, after reading the following today I cannot help but pass it along.

From a Washington Post article entitled In countries keeping the coronavirus at bay, experts watch U.S. case numbers with alarm, with this lede: As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the past three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.

Three new cases in three weeks in a nation with five million people. Compare that to the U.S. where our 330 million people reported (which we all know underestimates the true number, which we don’t know because testing is still inadequate) 419,000 new cases. We have 66x the population and 140,000x the cases. I know New Zealand benefits from its isolation, but if we could manage to get down to double their rate, in the last three weeks the U.S. would have had fewer than 400 cases.

The last several months have seen a lot of incompetence, shortsightedness, and even malevolence, but this New Zealand woman reminds us that as inexplicable as it seems to us here, it appears worse to our friends overseas. I will stop there before writing something I regret. ❖

Acela 21 on the NEC

Things have been quiet here, and that reflects the fact that 2020 seems to just grow worse and worse, and I am so sad about how events unfold that I cannot seem to find the words. In the midst of the fury and sadness and hate and destruction unfolding across the country, part of me feels like almost any other topic is pointless. So please humor me while I talk about a mundane little thing in the face of such important and potentially momentous events.

In August 2016, Amtrak announced the selection of Alstom as the manufacturer of its next generation Acela trains. Since then, Alstom has been hard at work, mostly at their Hornell, New York facility, building the first of what will ultimately be 28 new trainsets. The first one is now out at the TTCI test track in Pueblo, Colorado, where it has recently reached speeds of 165 mph. Below you can see the launch video and the more recent footage from the test track.

The second train has been in Philadelphia for about a month, and made its first forays out on to the tracks last week, traveling along the Keystone Corridor. Yesterday it ventured down to Washington for the first time, and today it headed back to Philadelphia. Given the importance of the Acela to Amtrak, I felt compelled to go downtown in Wilmington today to get my first glimpse of the new train. Here are a few shots of it.

My thanks to my scouts who tipped me off to this run. Here’s hoping that the next 26 units arrive on schedule and that the program has a smoother launch than the first Acela did. Despite the current Acela’s 2002 and 2005 growing pains, those 20 trainsets have safely and successfully carried millions of people since the launch of that service in December 2000, frequently selling out. ❖

An array of headlines

At work, I have been rolling the same boulder up the same hill for four weeks, and today it became clear that next week would be more of the same, so I am fresh out of clever insights. Instead, I thought I might capture a small and varied collections of headlines from the day – a little time capsule.

From the world of business and transportation comes the disheartening news that Hertz is filing for bankruptcy. Perhaps the company’s debt load was widely known before this, but as I almost never rent cars, I have not given any thought to the health of that business. If you had asked me this morning which rental car company is healthiest, I suspect I would have guessed Hertz. I hope they weather this storm.

Next up, a niche interest, but if you follow Apple and Macs and iPhones, it’s required reading to keep up with Jon Gruber’s Daring Fireball. He’s been sharing links and writing about Apple full-time since 2002. Today, he links to a Nilay Patel post about Siri’s poor semantic skills around identifying what is meant when someone says “London,” and examines the issue a bit. For anyone who has had a frustrating moment with Siri, this is a a good reminder of what voice assistants do well, what they don’t, and an area where Apple fares poorly. As someone who cannot get Siri to figure out my wife’s name (and yes, I have added the meta data in the Address Book), I cannot wait for Siri to get smarter.

On the COVID-19 front, here’s a not entirely surprising story, but full of interesting detail nonetheless, from a team at Carnegie Mellon who track the role automated bots play in social media and the resulting impact on public opinion. They reported this week in a release entitled Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots that they “have discovered that much of the discussion around the pandemic and stay-at-home orders is being fueled by misinformation campaigns that use convincing bots.”

Perhaps a tweet is not a headline, but if the person tweeting is one of one’s favorite reporters, then I am going to claim it counts. In a pair of tweets, Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble, who can be relied on for terrific reporting about military aviation and related aerospace technology, quoted Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Development Mike Griffin, on the topic of mounting lasers in tactical aircraft. Trimble tweeted that Griffin said: As a weapon system to equip an airplane with the lasers we think necessary in terms of their power level …and get them to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately, that combination of things can’t go on one platform. Zero time of flight, resistance to jamming, and ‘bottomless’ magazines are just three of the qualities being sought in an airborne laser. Whether these are genuine observations on Grffin’s part or a red herring is an exercise left to the reader.

Yesterday, two dams failed in Michigan following heavy rainfall. You likely already know all about that, but I was interested to see video of one of the dams at the moment of failure. It is less dramatic than I might have expected, which is easy to say as I do not live downstream of it, but still terrifying. I hope careful thought goes into the construction and inspection of this dam, so that other similar structures can be properly monitored.

Finally, saving the best for last, is a story from the Atlantic entitled “How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?” about mistakes being made about test result reporting. I will cover this in more detail in my next post about testing, but in the meantime read it. Here is the lead paragraph:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conflating the results of two different types of coronavirus tests, distorting several important metrics and providing the country with an inaccurate picture of the state of the pandemic. We’ve learned that the CDC is making, at best, a debilitating mistake: combining test results that diagnose current coronavirus infections with test results that measure whether someone has ever had the virus. The upshot is that the government’s disease-fighting agency is overstating the country’s ability to test people who are sick with COVID-19. The agency confirmed to The Atlantic on Wednesday that it is mixing the results of viral and antibody tests, even though the two tests reveal different information and are used for different reasons.

-Alexis Madrigal & Robinson Meyer

Have a good Memorial Day weekend, everyone, and be safe. ❖

Discretionary and compulsory economic responses to the pandemic

In my posts about testing, I have mentioned my respect for the analysis of Bill McBride found on his Calculated Risk blog. This afternoon he had a post I found pretty fascinating (with a mouthful of a title): Merrill: “Most of the slowdown occurred due to voluntary social distancing rather than lockdown policies”.

McBride explains that Merrill Lynch economists released a note this morning, based in large part on a study prepared by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and CEBI (presumably the Center for Economic Behavior and Inequality). McBride’s post offers no link to the source paper, but it is not hard to find. The page where the CEBI announces the May 12 work is here, complete with a May 14 tweet from Larry Summers (his second appearance on QES this week). Summers’s tweet provides the link to the paper, which is here.

McBride’s synopsis of the Merrill Lynch review of the Scandinavian research is as follows: the data indicate that most of the [economic] slowdown occurred due to voluntary social distancing rather than lockdown policies. … the economic downturn has been primarily because of the virus, not the policy response.

The article itself is seventeen pages long (really sixteen, but they have an egregious widow problem on page 17 (which they would not have encountered if they had had heeded Butterick’s Typography on this matter (right?))), so I decided to wade in and see what I made of it without all the interlocutors. Here is the abstract:

This paper uses transaction data from a large bank in Scandinavia to estimate the effect of social distancing laws on consumer spending in the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis exploits a natural experiment to disentangle the effects of the virus and the laws aiming to contain it: Denmark and Sweden were similarly exposed to the pandemic but only Denmark imposed significant restrictions on social and economic activities. We estimate that aggregate spending dropped by around 25 percent in Sweden and, as a result of the shutdown, by 4 additional percentage points in Denmark. This implies that most of the economic contraction is caused by the virus itself and occurs regardless of whether governments mandate social distancing or not. The age gradient in the estimates suggest that social distancing reinforces the virus-induced drop in spending for individuals with low health risk but attenuates it for individuals with high health risk by lowering the overall prevalence of the virus in the society.

-Andersen, Hansen, Johannesen, Sheridan

The authors posit that “individuals may themselves choose to restrain economic activity based on their personal health risk, even when this is not mandated by law,” which seems perfectly reasonable. Despite my risk-averse culture’s determination to eliminate and regulate risk in nearly all its forms, I know that I often choose to exercise more caution than is mandated by law.

I admire the academic use of emergencies to serve as unintentional natural experiments. Ethics and practicality prevent so many explorations into human behavior, but to derive academic value from those emergencies is a clever skill. Denmark and Sweden’s varied responses to the pandemic provide the basis for the comparative work done in this paper, and the first idea that prompts in my mind is to wonder if there are U.S. states where similar analyses could be performed? I wonder if a pair of U.S. states would have less variance, given their integration under various federal mandates, or if there would be more variance, reflecting the lack of unified policies that seems to mark America’s response to the pandemic? We would be looking for a parallel to the conditions the authors explain like this, “Because Denmark and Sweden were exposed similarly to the epidemic, but only the Danish government restricted economic activity, a comparison of spending dynamics in the two countries allows us to isolate the effect of the restrictions.”

The next thought that occurs to me is how easily the authors obtained their data set. They note, “Our analysis is based on transaction data for about 860,000 individuals in Denmark and Sweden who are active customers at Danske Bank, the second-largest bank in Scandinavia with a customer base that is broadly representative of the general population. For each customer, we measure spending by cards, cash withdrawals, mobile wallets and settlements of online invoices until 5 April 2020.” Presumably the data were anonymized in some way, and the customers likely authorized such a use when they clicked ‘Accept’ on a privacy policy pop-up with tiny text. In fact, the article includes this explanation: All individual data used in this analysis has been anonymized and no single customer can be traced in the data. All data processing has been conducted by authorized Danske Bank personnel, following the bank’s strict data privacy guidelines. I can only imagine how hard it would have been for economists during the Great Depression to obtain such detailed, comprehensive consumer spending data. The modern world provides a smorgasbord of data to those on the lookout.

Unrelated to the pandemic, I was intrigued by this statement, which the authors provide with citations: for many years Denmark and Sweden have had the highest card payments per capita and the lowest cash payments per capita of almost any other countries. I wonder how long before U.S. reliance on cards match that found in Denmark and Sweden?

I have been tiptoeing around the second portion of the paper, as I wanted to save it for the hardy few who blaze ahead and read it for themselves, but let me end with an illustration showing that spending drop by every age group was proportionately larger in Denmark than Sweden, except for those over 70.

So, brave reader, for making it this far… interesting, obvious, dull? Please me your thoughts on this work. ❖

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