Antipodean Covid Craziness

I have heard and read suggestions that having sex with someone outside of one’s own household would be safer if both parties refrained from kissing or, to take it a step further, even wore masks throughout the encounter. I suppose it could be made to work. I simply don’t want to speculate on bizarre sexual practices. Instead I will stick to the more mundane matter of federalism in the age of Covid-19, with reference to the Australian experience. That’s bizarre enough for anyone.

All governments in Australia, the federal government and state and territory governments have responded to the pandemic in exactly the same way as have most governments around the world. Though I’d say, together with New Zealand, Australian governments take the cake for overreaction. I say that because the Covid death rate in Australia (and New Zealand’s is much lower still) is a figure to die for, so to speak, if you are European or North American.

When I last looked (19 September) the death rate in Australia was 33 per million population. Compare that with the UK’s 614, the USA’s 615, Sweden’s 580 and, even, Canada’s 244. Incidentally, this relatively benign outcome is due to geography and fortuitous circumstances; dumb luck not brilliant management.

Nonetheless, it was commonplace some months ago to be presented with a comparison of Australia’s death rate with that of Sweden, with an accompanying admonishment that there but for lockdowns goes Australia. That canard no longer plays, as Sweden’s daily death rate has since plummeted. But for a time, the Swedish model, once so admired by the Left back in the day, was held up in the Australian media as a blight on mankind.

In fact, as we now know, or should know, this virus runs a course of causing a significant number of deaths among the aged and sick before running out of steam as it comes up against those who are less susceptible. That pattern is evident across all northern hemisphere countries – even the United States once you adjust for a later ramping-up phase in some states. The degree and extent of lockdowns would not confound the null hypothesis that they make no difference.

I know, the null hypothesis way of approaching science is yet another example of white privilege having its a wicked way. But there it is. I probable suffer from unconscious bias in favouring the scientific method and, perforce, can’t do much about it because, well, its unconscious.

South Dakota is my favourite point of comparison. No lockdown. Death rate 226 per million. New York, locked down, death rate 1680 per million. Of course, these kinds of state-by-state comparisons, which take no account of circumstances, don’t mean much. And yet, on their face, they provide no comfort at all to those who favour the absurd strategy of locking-up healthy people, destroying their businesses and livelihoods, in a largely forlorn attempt (witness aged-care deaths) to prevent ailing people getting sicker. And, to boot, they provide a segue into the benefits and costs of federalism.

The benefits of federalism are that political decisions are more attuned to the needs of those they affect and, potentially, that competition between states to retain and attract businesses and workers tends to keep them honest. Covid has made one particularly large cost evident: state sovereignty can make it impossible to pursue a consistent national strategy to deal with pandemics.

Unlike America’s, Australia’s federalism doesn’t have the advantage of being competitive. In fact, it is anti-competitive. States ceded the power to levy income taxes many decades ago. Their general income comes largely via the federal government through GST collections. But these are distributed not on the basis of where they are collected but in accordance with the relative economic performances of the respective states. The more poorly a state performs, the more GST revenue it receives. Work that one out. California could only dream about it, I suppose.

Unfortunately, while there are no competitive benefits of federalism in Australia, the costs of handling the pandemic have been huge. Early in the piece, prime minister Scott Morrison set up a so-called ‘national cabinet’ of himself, the six state premiers and two territory leaders, with the laudable objective of coordinating national strategy. What a complete and utter fiasco it has been.

Basically, they have been able to agree that things should open up when it is “safe” to do so. Beyond that it is every man and woman for themselves. The federal government pays all the bills, or most of them, while being effectively powerless. To wit, it can't let people into the country if the states won't have them. Therefore, we have a North Korean policy of restricting citizens from leaving the country, because, usually, they will want to come back. It can't get cafes open and kids back to school if the states don't agree. It can't get state borders opened despite the Constitution guaranteeing (ostensibly?) free interstate movement. In all of this, there is a standout recalcitrant state.

Dan Andrews, the Covid King of Oceania.

The Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has conducted himself and his state in exactly the way you would expect of a hard-left despot. Incompetence on the one hand; authoritarianism on the other. And, to emphasise, the Prime Minister can do nothing about it.

In Victoria, everyone is locked inside their homes for most of the day with a curfew from 8 p.m., now graciously moved to 9 p.m. as daylight saving time approaches Down Under. A curfew! Meanwhile, the federal government feeds money to the unemployed. As the world has seen, pregnant women and grannies are handcuffed and marched off for daring to breach any of the myriad confining rules. One heavily pregnant lady was harangued by two policemen and an accompanying soldier (who had the good grace to look shamefaced) for daring to rest on a park bench while engaging in ‘allowable’ exercise. Evidently some cops are getting in touch with their inner Stasi -- inevitable, when socialists are loosed from constitutional constraints. Hmm, didn’t I mention, c.10,000 BLM feeble-minded stooges went unpunished when ‘protesting’ back in June, while cops knelt.

Victorians attempting to escape Melbourne to regional areas within Victoria are fined $4,957. Why not $5,000? Well, I suppose they've picked up pricing tips from used-car salesmen. Police operate around-the-clock checkpoints (Checkpoint Charlie springs to mind). If mum and dad are in the car, each will be fined; apparently kids and dogs will get off scot-free. Did this new offence of daring to drive beyond 5 kilometers from home go through the Victorian parliament? Of course not. It is all done by diktat under an emergency powers law.

"Dear Leader" Dan, let me aptly call him, has recently succeeded in having these emergency powers extended by six months. And who gave him the casting vote in the upper state house? Samantha Ratnam, of the Greens Party, hurried back from maternity leave. Whenever villainy is afoot, spot complicit Greens.

And don’t think enough is enough. Legislation has been introduced that will, if passed, create thought crime. Under this legislation officers will be appointed (no qualifications required) to assess whether those ordered to isolate will really do so. If an authorised officer “reasonably believes that a person is likely to refuse or fail to comply with a direction made the by the Chief Health Officer,” then the culprits will be locked up tout de suite for what they intend to do. Shades of Minority Report in Dan’s socialist state of Victoria.

You should note that the onerous lockdown in Victoria follows an outbreak of cases in June stemming almost wholly from one hotel quarantine misadventure. Poorly controlled, the infection spread inside and outside the hotel. Among other failings, apparently some security guards, appointed for their claimed indigenous identity rather than their expertise, fraternised a little too intimately with hotel guests. It was not reported whether they wore masks. But I assume not.

The upshot has meant that deaths in Victoria (80 percent inside aged-care homes. What’s new?) have dwarfed those in other states. Nevertheless, the death toll per million in Victoria, at 113, is half the rate in South Dakota. The different approach to tackling the pandemic isn’t to do with the virulence or otherwise of the virus. It is to do with politics.

Speak to conservatives and almost to a man and woman they believe that the reaction to Covid-19 has been grossly overblown; that the costs of lockdowns have not nearly been properly taken into account. Yet almost all governments have overreacted. By implication, this sadly shows how little conservatism now influences public policy. And why should it. The latest Newspoll (16-19 September) shows 62 per cent of Victorians supporting their Dear Leader.

When I look across the Australian political landscape, I see governments whether of the left or ostensible centre-right buying into the global warming agenda. And differing only in their degree of panic in responding to Covid. Federalism makes it worse by allowing the nation state as a whole to be hijacked by its least enlightened constituent parts.

You Knew This Was Coming

As we've been saying from the jump, the "global warming" crew adores the Covid-19 manufactured "crisis," primarily because power-mad authorities were able to take an event with only slightly more reality than imminent beachfront property in Nevada and turn it into a full-fledged, economy- and social-trust-destroying assault on the world. If all it took was the flu, for crying out loud, they must be thinking, why didn't we think of something that simple?

The end of the world is already taken, but what about " scientists say it's the end of the world"? And that to appease the angry Climate Gods, we must take the advances the Wuhan virus has brought us and expand upon them?

If global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as recommended by the Paris Agreement, scientists say efforts to reverse economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic must include climate policy measures, according to a [recent]  study.

COVID-19 has killed several hundred thousand people and sickened millions more, but the lockdowns necessitated by the crisis have had a positive effect on air quality. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, however, suggests the pandemic's silver lining is unlikely to last should the world economy's return to business as usual.

Nothing like a "silver lining" to death and economic destruction, I guess. but at least the air quality is better! A small price to pay!

But wait -- the real treat is yet to come:

Even if global lockdowns were extended through the end of the year, without significant economic reforms, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved during the pandemic will amount to infinitesimal reduction in global warming.

And you know what that means...

"Our paper shows that the actual effect of lockdown on the climate is small," study co-author Harriet Forster said in a news release. "The important thing to recognize is that we've been given a massive opportunity to boost the economy by investing in green industries -- and this can make a huge difference to our future climate," said Forster, who recently graduated from the University of Leeds in Britain.

Because the behavioral shifts triggered by pandemic and resulting economic downturn are temporary, researchers suggest the momentary reduction in emissions will have a minimal impact on climate change. Still, the authors suggest the pandemic has provided global governments a unique opportunity to address climate change long-term.

Researchers suggest that while the pandemic's effects on the climate are temporary, they have offered a glimpse of the progress that could be made with permanent structural reforms.

And you really know what that means:

They never stop, they never sleep, and -- even after their entire economic and political system has collapsed -- they never quit trying to destroy ours as well.

The Green Blob Has Spoken!

The other day my wife texted me a New York Times article entitled "How Facebook Handles Climate Disinformation," which included a subheader claiming that the social media giant's policy of exempting opinion articles from fact-checking and warning labels "amounts to a huge loophole for climate change deniers."

She commented "Woo-hoo! You've got a loophole!" I thanked her, but pointed out that I don't think of myself as a climate change denier. As Chris Horner put it in a feature here back in February, "[T]he climate changes – it always has, it always will. Of course, saying 'climate changes makes one a 'climate change denier.' Go figure." I am, in fact, a climate change affirmer!

Read the NYT article if you like, though it'd likely be a waste of your time. The author complains that this supposed loophole allows "industry statements" to be given the same weight as "peer-reviewed science," though her article reads like an industry statement itself, specifically the green energy industry, perpetually annoyed, as they always are, that their economically productive competitors should ever be given a hearing.

But the Left's mounting pressure on our tech monopolies to censor opinions they disagree with really is worrisome. One article I do recommend you read is Jacob Siegel's latest, Google Censorship Is a Danger to Public Health, in which he examines the strange story surrounding the proposed COVID-19 treatment hydroxychloroquine. Siegel purposely doesn't take a side in the debate about whether that medication is effective for this purpose. What he does do, however, is look at Google's policy of suppressing data, and interpretations of data, which run counter to what he refers to as the "expert opinion of the moment."

He quotes the CEO of YouTube (which Google owns) explaining their new policy of removing "problematic" content, including “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations." As Siegel points out, this is "a category which at various times during the pandemic would include wearing masks, travel bans, and asserting that the virus is highly contagious."

The fact that is especially chilling is that, on this shaky foundation, Google has gone as far as deleting a white paper which attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine directly from a doctor's Google Drive. Siegel asks, "Did you know that a Google doc you created can be deleted with no warning or explanation by Google?" I certainly didn't, but it is of a piece with the trend of woke capital demonetizing and de-platforming contrary voices (not to mention pressuring businesses to divest from disfavored industries, oil and gas most of all).

This is an unfortunate tendency, because critical and contrary voices have always been important for challenging consensuses for the purpose of uncovering truth. But for the nihilistic, fascist Left, the dominant variety in our day, the battle cries are "The science is settled!" and "The time for talk is over!"

Somewhere behind all that denial of freedom of speech they must know that their positions don't hold up to scrutiny.

'Climate Change' and Covid Both About Control

Inside every Leftist is a totalitarian screaming to get out.  And who's out to get us.

We see it over and over again, and the parallels between the hysteria of the “We’re All Gonna Die!” climate alarmists and the “We’re All Gonna Die!” COVID-19 mask fascists couldn’t be more telling.

Now, there’s a world of difference between finger-wagging, lecturing, and virtue signaling; and policy.  The former are just the usual Leftist busybodies telling us what to do, while the latter are Leftists directly assaulting our liberty.  We can live with the former, but must fight the latter.

The Climate Alarmists scream “we’re all gonna die” due to global warming, and that it will happen really really soon, probably even this generation.  Therefore, we should go through life as unhappy yet pious apostles of the Climate Cult, reducing our carbon footprint by returning to the Stone Age and internally retaining flatulence until we float to the moon.

Yet ask Cultists what they are doing to stave off the imminent apocalypse, and they invariably reply that they recycle and drive a Prius.  Maybe they even take public transportation.  What they don’t do is devote every waking moment to forestalling the End of Days which – remember – is going to happen in the next fifty years.  You’d think, given the expedited timeline and rather high stakes, that they’d be doing things with a bit more impact.

Instead they claim that they “do what they can,” which seems to run counter to the idea that we’re all gonna die in the next fifty years.  Confronted with this logical contradiction, and unable to reconcile their hypocrisy, that’s usually when they accuse us of being Climate Change Deniers and storm off to lecture some other unlucky soul.

Friendly persuasion works every time.

Even when provided with competing scientific data, they are unable to rebut it.  They wave their hands, claim “bias” on the part of the scientist (while their scientists are above reproach), and insist that all the other “experts” couldn’t possibly be wrong.

In other words, show them data and they ignore it, because they not only must live in fear, they must be certain that you live in fear.

The truth is that all they want to do is control other people.  

Some Leftists genuinely have a hatred of liberty.  Others have simply fallen sway to the unrelenting propaganda of how bad some intangible threat is and, lacking any feeling of control over their own lives, attempt to assert control over the uncontrollable by controlling other people.

After all, one cannot stop or reverse time, “global warming,” random gun violence, or just plain stupidity that results in death.  So the next best thing is to control people’s behavior in order to stop these things, which of course doesn’t stop anything at all. Which brings us to COVID-19.

The data is pretty clear at this point, after nearly five months of collection from almost every part of the globe.  Once the data settled in after about eight weeks, it hasn’t changed much.  Based on the latest data set from the CDC, here is what we know:

When we remove just these four places, the rest of the country experiences the following:

The aggregate rate of positive tests is 8.85 percent across the nation. 

The four states named above account for 15 percent of cases.

Rural states have positive rates of around 7 percent. States such as Delaware, Vermont, West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii are all under 3 percent.

The current trend for positive cases is down.

Finally, if one examines county-level and municipality-level data, one will find that the prevalence of the virus is highly dependent on locality. In other words, while one doesn’t want to experience symptoms of this virus, the risk of catching it is on par with seasonal flu (10 percent), and the risk of dying is extremely remote if you are not elderly.  Death is even more remote if you are also not obese or immuno-suppressed.

Yet governments at every level have shut down the entire economy, restricted movement and activity, and even threatened to cut off utilities to those who disobey their increasingly arbitrary edicts.  Government and its media enablers continue to terrify Americans, and are destroying our country in the process.

Par mon martin!

The repercussions of this tyranny will last for years, as those trapped under house arrest without work or income will turn to alcohol, drugs, and take their frustration out on their domestic partners and children.  This collateral damage was, and still is not, considered by those in power. 

The hypocrisy of those who willfully destroy American lives with their fear-mongering and tyranny runs in direct contrast to wanting to save humanity from the Climate Apocalypse.  That’s because what Leftists ultimately want is complete control over our behavior.  It has nothing to do with alleged climate change or a virus.

Indeed, those who object are told that forcible wearing of a muzzle is not an infringement on one’s “liberty.”  They put “liberty” in quotes, demonstrating their ignorance and contempt for it, until you mention that abortion should be banned. Then suddenly their liberty is being infringed upon. “My body, my choice” only extends to killing babies.  Maybe we should use the same phrase when told we must wear muzzles or keep restaurants closed.

When they claim that wearing masks is to protect others who don’t have a choice in what we do, demonstrate that the baby they are killing is exactly the same thing.  All that proves is that, again, they want to control our behavior while they do what they choose.

All of this is done under the guise of the nine worst words in the English language. With apologies to Ronald Reagan, those words are, “Do as we say.  It’s for your own good."

Lies, Damned Lies, and the Media

As the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. There’s also a corollary: properly used, statistics don’t lie. But when selectively abused, statistics are meaningless.  The kerfuffle that followed President Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan which aired on HBO earlier this week is yet another example of the phenomenon.

Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfuss was among those who weighed in on the interview. Dutifully following the “orange-man bad” narrative, a Dreyfuss Tweet seemed to imply a belief that Swan had a masterful command of meaningful pandemic statistics, while President Trump was basically clueless:

What made the president a fool and Swan a genius? Trump highlighted the statistical fact that the United States has been more effective in curing, aka reducing the death rate, among Americans who are diagnosed with COVID-19 than most of the rest of the world. This is clearly a testament to the effectiveness of our overall health care system in treating infectious and potentially fatal diseases.

Swan highlighted the statistical fact that more Americans have died of COVID-19 exposure per capita than have died as a percentage of population when compared to nations like Germany and South Korea. Though he didn’t directly say so, Swan clearly implied that this statistic was far more important than the statistic President Trump had mentioned.

Trump disagreed with Swan’s analysis: “You can’t do that,” he said.

“Why can’t I do that?” Swan responded, rudely.

At this point, neither party to this discussion displayed any sort of expertise about how to properly interpret statistics. Trump was stumbling, but so would every other President at this level of detail, going back to at least Eisenhower. American presidents are not masters of detail. Moreover, can anyone honestly believe that Joe Biden could get to that part of so nuanced of a discussion without his head exploding or threatening to punch somebody?

I believe the point Trump was attempting to make was that it is unsound scientifically to use the per capita death rate as the metric with which to judge the effectiveness of the administration’s response to the pandemic. If that is indeed the correct interpretation of “you can’t do that,” then the President’s point is valid.

If the death rate per person infected is relatively low, but the death rate per capita is higher, then the infection rate is the driver. Consider an example: Both Group A and Group B consist of one million individuals each, each demographically similar to the other. In Group A 100,000 get infected, while 20,000 of the infected sub-group die. The mortality rate per capita is 2%, while the mortality rate per infection is 20%. In Group B 50,000 people get infected, while 15,000 of the infected die. The mortality rate per capita is 1.5% and the mortality rate per infection is 30%. Infections are more prevalent in Group A, but treatment of the infection is much better in Group A than in Group B.

Or, let’s look at the following real-world analogy. In many developing countries the motor vehicle fatality rate per capita is far lower than it is in the United States. Does that mean it’s safer to drive in those nations? No, it means they have fewer cars. When you look at a meaningful statistic – deaths per motor vehicle – the fatality rate in most of the very same developing countries far exceeds that of the United States. As anyone who's ever driven in the Third World knows.

Per capita statistics are thus rarely useful analytical tools when considered in a vacuum. One must understand the underlying causes and how those causes may or may not be influenced before citing a per capita stat. In the case of COVID-19 there are at least two important underlying variables that should factor into any analysis: infection rate and treatment effectiveness.

Clearly, infection rates vary by state because the individual states have been driving different isolation and protection policies at varying speeds and implementing different “get back to normal” recovery programs as well. If Swan believes that the Administration could have and should have done something to implement a national isolation policy and national recovery policy, he should have said so.

Could the Trump administration have done something like that? I don’t see how. The states would scream bloody murder if he tried to interfere with them. The President can’t even get blue states to disperse riotous mobs occupying the streets of major American cities. Any attempt by this administration to impose rigid standards involving public gatherings and personal interactions would have been denounced as a violation of federalism and widely ignored.

It’s clear that stemming the spread of COVID-19 is about isolation and protective gear. The highest rate of new infections is now among the 20-29 year old demographic, many of whom ignore such restrictions. That’s understandable. They are at relatively low risk of dying even if they do catch it, and most of us who remember our twenties will recall that following rules – even rules meant to protect you – are not a high priority at that time of life. But this development emphasizes the simple fact that the infection rate part of the per capita mortality rate equation is about personal behavior, not national policy.

Among the parts of the equation that the administration could and did address was providing care for the sick and protection for health care workers. From getting Ford to produce ventilators, to ensuring there was an equitable distribution of face masks among the states in the early days of the pandemic, the Trump administration focused on those things it could do to facilitate research, to ensure that health care facilities were not overwhelmed, and to save as many lives of the infected as possible. Certainly the states and numerous organizations both public and private played a huge role in the success of that effort, but it’s petty partisanship at its worst to pretend that the president’s actions were unimportant or somehow misguided.

Sadly, Jonathan Swan’s abuse of statistics is business as usual for the legacy media these days. He focused on a statistic over which the Trump had no practical control, presumably because it made the president look bad, while ignoring the stat that demonstrated how effective the administration has been in helping to address those parts of the pandemic it actually could influence.

'Resilient Recovery' Really Isn't

Back in June I wrote about a new Ottawa-based task force called Resilient Recovery, whose objective is to recommend "sustainable" government action to counteract the economic consequences of the pandemic and lockdowns. What made this group newsworthy was that it counted among its members  former Justin Trudeau advisor Gerald Butts, who'd recently returned to the world of highly remunerative enviro-activism after falling on his sword to mitigate the electoral consequences of Trudeau's inappropriate actions during the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Butts, of course, still has the PM's ear, which makes him an attractive target for any green group with big dreams and a few bucks to spend.

After what were no doubt two grueling months of slaving over hot policy proposals in the balmy Ontario summer, Resilient Recovery have released their preliminary report and, well, its so predictable that it could have been published alongside the press release announcing their formation.

The No. 1 proposal... suggests the federal government spend over $27 billion on retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient.... Other recommendations include moving more quickly to build widescale use and accessibility of zero-emission vehicles and to support the retention and attraction of clean vehicle manufacturers in Canada. The group also wants to see the federal government accelerate investments in the renewable energy sectors; spend more on restoring and conserving natural infrastructure and invest in ways to make working for and creating green businesses easier and more sustainable.

In other words: same old same old.

Task force member Andy Chisholm explains in the piece linked above that their "ultimate goal is to ensure Canada is focusing on the future and the needs of the country in the years and decades to come if and when it starts to roll out billions of dollars in economic stimulus once the health emergency spending phase is over." They recommend $50 billion expenditures, on top of the quarter of a trillion in new debt Canada has already taken on over the course of the pandemic, in response to which Canada's credit rating was downgraded, and probably not for the last time.

The liberal reply is that the added debt will go towards creating jobs at a time when Canada is seeing higher unemployment rates than any other G7 country, and fair enough -- that's a noble goal in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, however manufactured. Still, to invest (borrowed money!) so heavily in an unproductive industry in an already precarious economy is, in a word, nuts.

A sane response would be to capitalize on Canada's abundant natural resources by lowering the regulatory burden on the oil and gas industry at a time when it has been dealt a difficult blow. Prices are down, but the sector is still standing, and it would have more money to pump into Canada's economy if it weren't spending so much dealing with federal red tape. Moreover, it wouldn't cost tax-payers a penny.

I bet that never even occurred to them.

Charm Only Gets You So Far

It's amazing that, during the Great Depression, movie-goers were so enamored of films which depicted a kind of glamour few of them would ever actually encounter. Ordinary Americans were out of work and struggling to put food on the table, but when they got a nickel ahead, they'd often put it towards watching, for instance, Fred Astaire, suitably attired in top hat, white tie, and tails, dancing with the elegant Ginger Rogers while surrounded by Art Deco finery.

You'd think that people mired in penury might see depictions of those we now call "the one percent" living it up in Manhattan and decide to tear it all down, like the sans-culottes of Revolutionary France. But the glamour of charming actors like Astaire or Cary Grant, they succeeded in momentarily lifting people from their dire state.

I found myself thinking upon this again while reading up on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's latest scandal. For a quick summation, the Trudeau government announced a deal to pay WE Charity -- an international development organization -- up to $40 million to run a $900 million Covid-19 response program. There was initially some surprise that a charitable organization was given this task, that the program wasn't being run by the Federal government directly. Trudeau responded to this by claiming that WE's national contacts made them uniquely suited to administer such a program.

Shortly thereafter, however, it came out that WE had paid members of the Trudeau family -- including Justin himself, his wife, and his mother -- hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and travel expenses since he became Prime Minister. Finance Minister Bill Morneau was also implicated, his two daughters having worked for WE in different capacities and the charity having paid $41,000 in travel expenses for a trip he took to Kenya in 2017. Morneau admitted in testimony before the House of Commons finance committee that he'd only just paid back that money.

Needless to say, this looks bad. Then again, the SNC-Lavalin and blackface scandals of 2019 looked bad and Trudeau won reelection even after they came out, albeit with a minority government. But there is a difference this time, namely -- to paraphrase another well-known Canadian -- the lockdowns and the damage done.

Trudeau's popularity spiked as he responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, as one-time Tory finance minister, Joe Oliver, put it in a recent article, how could it not?

For months, [Trudeau] has doled out hundreds of billions of dollars to grateful Canadians. He has dominated the media with daily briefings, emoted empathy (a thespian skill that may be wearing thin) and shuttered Parliament so as to mute criticism.... [Moreover] the Conservatives do not yet have a permanent leader, the NDP bartered away its credibility, the Bloc does not resonate outside Quebec and the Greens are going nowhere.

But the costs are starting to become clear. Those "hundreds of billions of dollars" were financed with debt. Consequently, Fitch ultimately downgraded Canada's credit rating. As Jon Hartley explained at National Review, this is a particular problem for Canada because the Canadian dollar is not -- like the American -- a reserve currency, so the country's credit rating actually means something to investors, and borrowing will become increasingly expensive.

Hartly goes on to point out that Morneau "recently revealed that Canada’s projected 2020 deficit is now C$343 billion, a whopping 16 percent of GDP." But, because the lockdowns are ongoing (even as they seem to be driving people insane), the Trudeau government is likely to extend its current emergency relief programs for both businesses and individuals, this latter including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, which pays $2,000 per month to Canadians who qualify. Roughly 20 percent of the country has applied for this benefit, which, Hartly explains, is structured in such a way that it is "a major disincentive for individuals to return to work," since any beneficiary of the program who finds employment paying more than $1000 per month is immediately disqualified for CERB.

On top of that, Canada's already comparatively high Federal and Provincial tax rates make simply raising taxes to beat back the deficit politically unpalatable. All of which is to say, Canada's economic problems are compounding, and for the foreseeable future, Canadians are going to be paying the price.

So, at such a time, to have Canada's wooly-headed pretty boy of a prime minister and his entitled family hauling in hundreds of thousands of dollars by means of what certainly looks like a corrupt relationship with a charity that's receiving government dollars, really might be too much to bear.

Justin's surname catapulted him into public life, but without his looks and charm it wouldn't have made him prime minister. Even so, he's no Grant or Astaire. Suffering Canadians aren't going to feel lifted up by his opulence. They're going to look at the WE Charity scandal, if the truth is as bad as it currently looks, and see him for what he is -- a greedy rich kid who felt the rules didn't apply to him and wanted just a little bit more.

The Coming Covid Curveball

It seems like every morning we wake up to the news that some entity, public or private, is unveiling a "bold new initiative" in response to "the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic," which everyone who has been paying attention knows they've wanted to do already.

Take baseball. I'm a big baseball fan, but not of current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, a man who doesn't seem particularly fond of the game he presides over. Others have noticed this -- here's an article from a few months back entitled Does Rob Manfred Hate Baseball? and another called Rob Manfred Is Ruining Baseball. The gist of them is that Manfred, worried that baseball is less exciting than the other major sports, has spent his five years as commissioner whittling away at the things that make the game unique. For the most part his rule changes have been aimed at making the games shorter, but his efforts have been for naught -- the average game is now three minutes longer than it was when he took over, and viewership is down.

This, of course, hasn't deterred Manfred. He's pushed ahead with plans to, for instance, institute a new, Reality TV informed playoff format whereby,

The team with the best record in each league would get a first-round bye, and then the other two division winners and the wild-card club with the best record could end up picking their opponents in a televised seeding showdown.

This is, to put it mildly, gimmicky as hell.

For the most part Manfred's tinkering has been confined to the edges of the game, and he would probably tell you that that's why it hasn't had the desired effect. That, unfortunately, he has been cursed with conservative, history obsessed fans who are resistant to alterations which make today's game less like the one played by Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron. Which is to say, he'd probably dislike me as much as I dislike him.

But a man can dream, and for years we've heard whispers that Manfred's great aspirations included increasing offense by imposing the Designated Hitter on the National League, which has resisted this innovation since the 1970s; starting extra-innings with a runner on second base to speed things up (or, a fan might say, limit the amount of baseball fans were getting for free); and contracting the Minor Leagues, so that MLB resources could be directed away from entertaining yokels in, say, Dayton, OH or Montgomery, AL, and towards virtue signalling social justice initiatives which get lots of applause from the great and the good.

And then came the miracle Rob Manfred had been been praying for: the Wuhan novel coronavirus, which, thanks to the incompetence of politicians like Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, spread like "a fire through dry grass” throughout the nursing homes of the northeastern United States (as healthcare analyst Avik Roy has pointed out, 42 percent of U.S. deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in the 0.6 percent of the population who reside in nursing homes and assisted living facilities).

But, more to the point, it gave him an excuse to make big changes to the game purportedly for the sake of player safety. And what changes did he implement? Imposing the DH on the National League; beginning extra innings with a runner on second; and the elimination of up to forty-two minor league teams.

I think that this is a pretty good (and comparatively innocent) illustration of what is going on across America right now.

California, for instance, raised its gasoline tax again this month, so that it now sits at 50.5 cents per gallon. Why would California's politicians be so foolish as go ahead with this hike during an economy-destroying pandemic (what you might call Pulling a Trudeau)? Well,

“Driving is way down, so in theory this is a great time to catch up on highway investment,” observed Ronald Fisher, an economics professor at Michigan State University. While less driving temporarily means less revenue from a gas tax, it also means less disruption from road work. Fisher also pointed out that the state typically contracts with private companies to perform such infrastructure repairs, which means proceeds from the higher gas tax could actually serve as a stimulus for the California economy in the form of job creation.

Right...

In another example from the Golden State, Gov. Gavin Newsom has formed a Recovery Task Force to address California's dire financial situation in the wake of the pandemic. It is co-chaired by uber-environmentalist and failed Democratic Presidential candidate Tom Steyer (a bad sign), and, shockingly, it has concluded that green energy has the potential to be a “huge job creator," according to Steyer. As if this were something which had just occurred to him. Environmentalist Hal Harvey concurs,

[Steyer's] right. Clean energy can be the economic engine for California.... The path is clear: Decarbonize the electric grid, then electrify everything—creating good jobs and thriving clean tech industries along the way.

Which is to say that the powers that be are using this moment of disruption to enact their preexisting agendas. They're taking advantage of your exhaustion, your inclination to give in, in the hope that sometime soon everything will go back to normal. And that's why we need to be especially vigilant right now.

At the center of baseball is a psychological game between pitchers and batters, where the former works to make the latter think that one pitch is coming his way, and then throws him another. Fastball inside, fastball outside, fastball inside, fastball outside. And then comes the curve, and the batter who isn't looking out for it finds himself walking slowly back to the dugout.

Keep yours eyes open. Don't let them sneak the curve past you.

'So Where Are the Deaths?'

In their continuing efforts to destroy President Trump's re-election prospects, the American and international news media have once again turned to their Great Green Hope, Covid-19, to continue wreaking unnecessary havoc with the world's economies and thus take down Orange Man Bad and replace him with the semi-animated hologram of the soon-to-be late Joe Biden, with Kamala Harris or Michelle Obama (or Barack Obama, for that matter) as the power behind the Resolute desk.

Having failed with Russian collusion, Ukrainian impeachment and, latterly, the twin thuggery of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, they're back again with Infection = Death. Problem is, very few are dying of the Wuhan Flu any more, as Heather Mac Donald notes:

The coronavirus doomsayers could not even wait until the fall for the apocalyptic announcements of the dreaded second wave. Because the red states recklessly loosened their lockdowns, we are now told, the US is seeing a dangerous spike in coronavirus cases. ‘EXPERTS SKETCH GLOOMY PICTURE OF VIRUS SPREAD: FAUCI TELLS OF “DISTURBING” WAVE, WITH A VACCINE MONTHS AWAY,’ read the front-page lead headline in the New York Times on Wednesday. ‘VIRUS SPREAD AKIN TO “FOREST FIRE”’ read another front page headline in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, quoting Michael Osterholm, one of the media’s favorite public health experts. Osterholm had told NBC’s Meet the Press: ‘I’m actually of the mind right now — I think this is more like a forest fire. I don’t think that this is going to slow down.’

The ‘this’ is an uptick in daily new cases from 19,002 on June 9 to 38,386 on June 24. The high to date in new daily cases was on April 24 — 39,072. Since April 24, the daily case count started declining, then began rising again after around June 9. What virtually every fear-mongering story on America’s allegedly precarious situation leaves out, however, is the steadily dropping daily death numbers — from a high of 2,693 on April 21 to 808 on June 24. That April high was driven by New York City and its environs; those New York death numbers have declined, but they have not been replaced by deaths in the rest of the country. This should be good news. Instead, it is no news.

Of course it's not news. A rapidly declining death rate is of zero interest to the news divisions, because it doesn't further the narrative that the world is coming to an end (not that we don't deserve it!). They'd rather toss around dubious and misleading statistics such as this Business Insider report:

While about 0.1% of people who got the flu died in the US last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus' death rate is currently about 5.2%, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths. That makes the coronavirus' average death rate 52 times higher than that of the flu.

That figure is certainly incorrect, and by several orders of magnitude. As testing for antibodies increases, the rate will continue to fall, as it's already doing in Britain:

While both the number of people in hospital and the number of hospitalised people dying are falling, deaths are falling at a faster rate. The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is halving every 29 days, while deaths are halving every 16 days. Prof Carl Heneghan, who carried out the analysis, said the pattern of falling death rates in hospitals was also being seen in other countries, including Italy.

"We should be investigating what's changed," he said. "It's a radically different disease we're looking at if the death rate is 1% rather than 6%".

No kidding. It's a numerator/denominator problem, but in plain English: the more people who've had it (even if asymptomatic, as many were and are), the lower the fatality rate. I know math is hard, but try to keep up:

When calculating the mortality rate, we need:

  1. The number of actual cases. We need to know the number of actual cases (not merely the reported ones, which are typically only a small portion of the actual ones) that have already had an outcome (positive or negative: recovery or death), not the current cases that still have to resolve (the case sample shall contain zero active cases and include only "closed" cases).
  2. The number of actual deaths related to the closed cases examined above.

Considering that a large number of cases are asymptomatic (or present with very mild symptoms) and that testing has not been performed on the entire population, only a fraction of the SARS-CoV-2 infected population is detected, confirmed through a laboratory test, and officially reported as a COVID-19 case. The number of actual cases is therefore estimated to be at several multiples above the number of reported cases. The number of deaths also tends to be underestimated, as some patients are not hospitalized and not tested.

If we base our calculation (deaths / cases) on the number of reported cases (rather than on the actual ones), we will greatly overestimate the fatality rate.

The higher the count, the lower the fatality rate.

This study considered New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and the metro area responsible for most of the American cases and deaths. Keep in mind that the vast majority of deaths have occurred in people over 65 with comorbidities, including obesity -- which may also account for the racial and ethnic disparities: in New York City, the breakdown is White 7 percent, Asian 11.1 percent, multi/none/other 14.4 percent, Black 17.4 percent, Latino/Hispanic 25.4 percent.

Something else of interest:

19.9 percent of the population of New York City had COVID-19 antibodies. With a population of 8,398,748 people in NYC, this percentage would indicate that 1,671,351 people had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and had recovered as of May 1 in New York City. The number of confirmed cases reported as of May 1 by New York City was 166,883 [source], more than 10 times less.

Therefore:

Mortality Rate (23k / 8.4M = 0.28% CMR to date) and Probability of Dying

As of May 1, 23,430 people are estimated to have died out of a total population of 8,398,748 in New York City. This corresponds to a 0.28% crude mortality rate to date, or 279 deaths per 100,000 population, or 1 death every 358 people.

And yet the hysteria is once again rising. The media is using increased testing and reporting as a scare tactic, especially if the "positive" tests have occurred in a red state such as Texas and Florida; everything is political, including life and death. Forget about "flattening the curve," which was meant to distribute the same number of infections over a longer period of time, so as not to overwhelm the hospitals. Now, nothing but the complete eradication of Covid-19 via a totally safe vaccine will satisfy the Left in its rabid desire to demand that the impossibly perfect always be the moral enemy of the good enough to muddle through.

Ms. Mac Donald concludes:

There are no crises in hospital capacity anywhere in the country. Nursing homes, meat-packing plants, and prisons remain the main sources of new infections. Half the states are seeing cases decline or hold steady. Case counts are affected by more testing; the positive infection rate captured by testing is declining. The current caseload is younger, which is a good thing. The more people who have been infected and who recover, the more herd immunity is created. Meanwhile, daily deaths from heart disease and cancer — about 3,400 a day combined — go ignored in the press.

But the drum beat to halt the still far too tentative reopenings gets louder by the day. It should be resisted. The lockdowns were a mistake the first time around; to reimpose them would be disastrous for any remaining hope of restoring our economy. The damage that has been done to people’s livelihoods and future prosperity will continue to outweigh the damage done by the coronavirus. The only vaccine against poverty and resulting despair is a robust economy.

Get it. Get over it. Get on with it.

When 'Social Justice' Comes to Investing

Trillions of dollars sit in private trusts, pension and retirement accounts, and charitable endowments, and they are targets of those who wish to reshape domestic investments, corporate governance and means of energy production. I recall years earlier when people and outfits who wished to accomplish such things bought stock and made pests of themselves at shareholders meetings, or ran well-funded public relations campaigns against investment in South African companies or nuclear energy, to take two historical examples of “active shareholding.” In recent years they’ve devised another means: pressuring trustees of these funds and fiduciary investment managers to consider Environmental, Social and corporate Governance (ESG) analyses in their investment buys. A quick Google search shows a number of providers vying to assist (for fees ) trustees in making such investments.

The most detailed explanation of the history and pitfalls of this strategy—economic and legal—is in this Stanford Law Review article:  The authors, Max M. Schanzenbach and Robert H. Sitkoff, are writing for a very specific audience and you are encouraged to read it all if you want a more complete analysis, but here’s a short take on it as it involved institutional investors, index funds , endowments and trust companies. Such investing may well place trustees at risk of violating their fiduciary duty of loyalty under which they must consider only the interests of the beneficiary.

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Fiduciaries motivated, even in part, by any other thing—sense of ethics, benefit to third parties, for example -- violate their duty of loyalty. While trustees of a charitable endowment whose settlor or beneficiaries okay such considerations, might do this without violating the rule of loyalty, trustees of institutional investors, trust companies and even index funds run a risk if they do.
In the first place, the very concept ESG investing lacks precise definition.

All told, the fluidity of the ESG rubric means that assessment and application of ESG factors will be highly subjective. Like any form of active investing, risk-return ESG investing necessarily involves subjective judgments in the identification of relevant factors, assessing whether they are good or bad from an investor’s perspective, and how much weight to give each factor. However, this subjectivity makes both application and empirical evaluation of ESG investing challenging and highly contextual. As some astute commentators recently noted, “the breadth and vagueness of the factors as a whole, and the likelihood that different factors bear on different investments, present barriers to their widespread use as investment guides.

What are the social and environmental impacts of a firm’s products or practices? Is a gas pipeline better for the wildlife in the area it runs through than a solar or wind farm? (No one’s surveying the views of the caribou in Alaska who seem to love the pipeline, or the avian communities fried or turned to pate by solar and wind farms.)What are the environmental costs to producing the glass and aluminum to create solar panels or the cost of disposing of no longer useful wind turbines ?

The favorable empirical results regarding environmental and social factors, however, are not uniform. A significant concern is that managers may invoke ESG factors to enact their own policy preferences at the expense of shareholders—an agency problem for which there is also some empirical evidence. Another concern is that the extent of a firm’s regulatory and political risks may not be reflected in its ESG scoring. For example, companies pursuing alternative energy sources may score high on ESG factors but still face significant political and regulatory risk owing to heavy reliance on current government policy. Indeed, one of the Commissioners on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has suggested that the SEC has not yet taken a position on ESG disclosure in part because defining ESG factors is value laden and would involve confronting contentious political issues.

And then there’s corporate governance. Some corporate governance issues are obvious—lack of a sound auditing and accounting operation or frequent litigation losses for bad labor practices or unhealthy products. The social factors are even more subjective and not well validated by empirical evidence. The effect of sex and race diversity on the corporate board doesn’t seem measurable or even relevant to how prudent an investment might be in a company. The number of factors one might consider under this category seems inexhaustible.

The fluidity of the ESG parameters and the obvious subjectivity involved in weighing them should concern trustees. Aside from subjecting them to litigation for losses due to erroneous assessments on ESG investments, trustees can be removed, enjoined, forced to repay the trust for losses and so forth for breaching their duty of loyalty to the trust. To defend against such claims, the trustee who picks and chooses among investments on the basis of ESG strategies, must have documented analyses showing he’s made a realistic risk-loss return estimate and must also reevaluate these analyses regularly, a costly undertaking. So, to take an example near at hand, if President Obama made the cost of fracking higher through regulatory constraints on it and the trustee eschewed investing in such companies under his analysis of risk-reward, President Trump’s support for fracking certainly changes the equation. So does the I hope temporary dislocation of that market due to the Wuhan virus shutdowns. The trustee has to reconsider original action and readjust the portfolio. The risk-reward equation has shifted.

If independent analysis shows the ESG models the trustee relied upon resulted in statistically significant under-performance, the fiduciaries who relied upon those models may well have breached their duty of loyalty and be subject to litigation by the beneficiaries of the trust. And any claims that ESG investment strategies provide superior returns are far from certain. Even more troublesome in the authors’ view is this: if corporations draw a lot of ESG investment on the grounds that they are undervalued from a risk-reward standard by their lights, they may soon become overvalued. Contrarian strategies seem then to be attractive.

Going belly-up for climate change.

A few months ago, concerns were highlighted in a dispute involving the trustees of the California State Pension Fund (Calpers) and other major pension funds.

In the last two years, its directors have opposed proposals to sell stocks in private prisons, gun retailers and companies tied to Turkey because of the potential for lost revenue and skepticism about whether divestment forces social change. One of these directors is now urging the system, also known as Calpers, to end its ban on stocks tied to tobacco, a policy in place since 2000. “I do see a change,” said that director, California police sergeant Jason Perez, in an interview. “I think our default is to not divest.”

Calpers isn’t the only system wrestling with these new doubts. Rising funding deficits are prompting public officials and unions across the U.S. to reconsider the financial implications of investment decisions that reflect certain social concerns.

The total shortfall for public-pension funds across the U.S. is $4.2 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. New York state’s Democratic comptroller and unions representing civil service workers oppose a bill in the Legislature to ban fossil fuel investments by the state pension fund. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, vetoed legislation last year that would have forced divestment of state pension dollars from companies that avoid cleaning up Superfund sites by declaring bankruptcy...

The board now plans a comprehensive review, scheduled for 2021, of all of Calpers’ existing divestment policies, which include bans on investments in companies that mine thermal coal, manufacturers that make guns illegal in California and businesses operating in Sudan and Iran. 

And then there are outfits like Black Rock which seemingly to court millennial investors are weighing such factors. Is it, in danger of violating its duty of loyalty? Bernard Scharfman thinks they may be.  He hints that this virtue-signaling may be an effort to draw in Millennial investors, and discusses the practical limitations of Black Rock’s stated plan to weigh companies’ stakeholder relationships in weighing investments. He says this sort of shareholder activism may breach the duty it owes to its own investors:

So while Black Rock’s shareholder activism may be a good marketing strategy, helping it to differentiate itself from its competitors, as well as a means to stave off the disruptive effects of shareholder activism at its own annual meetings, it seriously puts into doubt Black Rock’s sincerity and ability to look out only for its beneficial investors and therefore may violate the duty of loyalty that it owes to its current, and still very much alive, baby-boomer and Gen-X investors. In sum, if I were running the Department of Labor or the Securities and Exchange Commission, I would seriously consider reviewing Black Rock’s strategy for potential breaches of its fiduciary duties.

If people really want to put their money into virtue-signaling instead of reasonable returns, why doesn’t someone just create a Virtue Fund? Investors would agree not to hold the managers of it accountable for losses as long as the investments tickle their fancy. That would leave those of us such as the Calpers beneficiaries who rely on secure returns to use more traditional measures of risk and reward (like debt-equity, dividends and price-earnings ratio) which have an historical measure of efficacy.