Friday, July 23, 2021

How to Lie While Telling the Truth: This Time on Vaccination Effectiveness

I have had two previous posts on people using a true statement to mislead, one on religion, one on the effects of climate change. This is the third.

99% of COVID deaths are now of unvaccinated people, experts say

And, from a different story:

More than 99% of recent deaths were among the unvaccinated, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier this month on NBC's Meet the Press,

Such claims struck me as implausible. The estimated effectiveness of the vaccines used in the U.S. is about 95%. Since a majority of adults, and a large majority of those most vulnerable, are vaccinated, one would expect more than 5% of those dying to be vaccinated. It might be somewhat lower if more of the unvaccinated are located in areas with higher than average infection rates but it would be surprising if it was that much lower.

The solution appears part way down the story under the headline:

In Texas, 99.5% of people who died from COVID from February through July 14 weren't vaccinated,

As of the beginning of February very few people had been vaccinated and deaths were running about ten times their current level. A calculation for a period starting then can be expected to greatly overestimate the current ratio of unvaccinated to vaccinated deaths. Another story I came across was for a period starting in December.

What the current ratio is I don't know — possibly no one does. Fauci's claim is about the past month, but an AP news story giving the same figure he did (.8%) added:

The CDC itself has not estimated what percentage of hospitalizations and deaths are in fully vaccinated people, citing limitations in the data.

Among them: Only about 45 states report breakthrough infections, and some are more aggressive than others in looking for such cases. So the data probably understates such infections, CDC officials said.

Reading the stories, the consistent theme is the need for more people to get vaccinated. I agree that it would be a good thing if more people got vaccinated, but not that the truth should be stretched to get them to do it.

I don't have current statistics for the ratio of vaccinated to unvaccinated deaths — probably nobody does, judging by the CDC quote — but I note that, according to a recent news story, 20% of recent infections in the LA area are of fully vaccinated persons. The story includes:

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the department's director, told the Los Angeles Times that if you get COVID-19 after vaccination, "your chances of both ending up in the hospital, ending up in an ICU, ending up intubated are much less than the chances of that happening if you're somebody who is unvaccinated."

According to the published information on vaccine effectiveness, however, protection against hospitalization is about 94%, about the same figure I have seen for protection against infection. I do not know what the figures are for probability of dying. That's a sufficiently rare event so that we probably don't have good data on it from the trials.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

A Europe Trip in August

The U.K. has announced that it is opening up on July 19th, so I have started planning my next speaking trip, tentatively for the second half of August. Suggestions and invitations are welcome. As a general rule, I am willing to speak anywhere that will pay my expenses and provide an interesting audience. Honorarium optional. I will probably end the trip in London, since the U.K. is the most likely place to present Covid problems, and a delay at the end of a trip is less of a problem than at the beginning.

P.S. It has been pointed out to me that the U.K., at this point, is only accepting evidence of vaccination by the NHS, so I would still have to quarantine. Also, the situation in the EU is less clear than I thought — I'm not sure they accept US vaccination certificates. So it isn't clear when I will be able to take the trip.

Noah Smith on Adam Smith

In his substack Noahpinion, Noah Smith offers five quotes from The Wealth of Nations in order to show that Adam Smith was not really a wicked conservative (true) but a modern progressive (false), opposed to property and inequality and supporting progressive taxation. To support the latter claim, Noah offers:

It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

If Noah had actually read the book he is quoting he would know that Smith starts his discussion of taxation with a series of maxims, of which the first is:

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.

Tax burden in proportion to revenue is a flat tax. The context of Noah's quote is a discussion of a tax on the rent of houses, where the fact that it falls more than proportionally on the rich is a disadvantage but not a decisive one. Saying something is “not very unreasonable” does not imply it is desirable.

Another quote Noah offers to show that Adam shares the views of a modern progressive is:

Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.

Noah interprets this as “Adam Smith decries the existence of inequality and poverty, blames property rights for this inequality …”

In fact, the passage continues:

The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security.

...Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days' labour, civil government is not so necessary.

Smith isn’t decrying the existence of inequality, he is arguing that the existence of inequality makes government necessary to protect property.

A third quote:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Noah does not quote the next two sentences:

It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.

Smith isn’t arguing for antitrust law, he is arguing against government doing things that encourage cartel formation, the 18th century equivalent of the 20th century cartelization of the airlines by the CAB.

Noah’s conclusion:

Adam Smith decries the existence of inequality and poverty, blames property rights for this inequality, advocates progressive taxation as a remedy, and is innately suspicious of profit. He sounds more like Thomas Piketty than Milton Friedman.

It is true that Smith, like most people, decries poverty. All of the rest of the sentence is false. Adam Smith was an 18th century radical who supported laissez-faire in large part because he thought it resulted in less poverty than the alternative, not the 21st century progressive of Noah Smith’s imagination.

The important lesson from this is the danger of believing things you want to believe on the basis of quotations selected by people who share your views. To have written what he did after actually reading The Wealth of Nations Noah would have to be deliberately dishonest, which, so far as I can tell, he is not. He is, however, saying things in public which he has no good reason to believe are true — and are not.

This not the first, nor the second, time that I have found someone complaining that other people misrepresent Adam Smith while himself doing do.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Is the Infection Rate in Santa Clara County Zero?

According to the Santa Clara County Covid-19 Cases Dashboard, new infections are running about 25 to 30 a day. According to the testing dashboard, the test positivity rate is 0.5%. Checking online for the false positive rate from the most reliable of the tests, I get a range of estimates which includes 0.5%. So we don't actually know from the test results whether anyone at all is currently infected.

When I first noticed that, I checked the death rate from the same source. It was running at about 17 deaths from Covid a week, which suggested that there were still infections. This morning, however, when I looked at the same dashboard, the death rate (7 day average) was shown as about 3. It wasn't a drop over time but a sharp change in the number given for past weeks, the same weeks that had shown a death rate of about 17 as of two days ago. 

My first guess was that they had for some reason replaced per week figures with per day figures and not bothered to tell anyone. But then someone pointed me at a recent news story reporting that the county had concluded it had been over reporting deaths and had just reduced its estimate for total Covid deaths by 22%. The reduction from 17 to 3 is a lot more than 22%, but the rate of actual Covid deaths is much lower than it was a few months ago so the ratio of mistakenly identified Covid deaths to actual deaths might be much higher — if, for instance, they tested everyone who died, using a test that had a significant false positive rate, and counted anyone who died with Covid as having died of Covid — as, according to the article, they had been doing.

An infection rate near zero with apparent deaths and infections almost all false positives fits the pattern of a rapid decrease in both deaths and infections down to a low level, followed by a roughly constant level of both thereafter. The rapid decrease implies a reproduction rate below 1, which should have meant a continued fall. 

So perhaps it stopped falling because it got to zero.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

European Speaking Trip: The UK Problem

As I recently mentioned, I would like to travel in Europe this summer and give talks, having interrupted such a trip last March because of the pandemic. I usually start my trips in London, both because there are convenient flights to there and because I can usually arrange for two or three talks in the UK. Also, London has some of my favorite museums.

At the moment, however, an American traveling to the UK must, among other things, spend several days in quarantine, which I am reluctant to do, and the current lockdown rules make a talk undoable, at least indoors. I had been hoping that would change in time for a mid-July talk, one of my invitations being to Georgia for an event happening then. So far, however, the travel restrictions seem to be staying on and the increasing infection rate in the UK makes the lockdown likely to continue. One possibility would be to skip the UK, but it probably makes more sense to plan on a later trip. I note that Georgia currently has much higher infection rates and Covid death rates than the other countries I plan to visit.

Comments welcome, especially from anyone better informed than I am about the present and likely future situation in the UK.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Climate and Exploitative Taxation

The Tiebout model holds that competition for residents among local governments forces each to provide the optimal level of local public goods. One limitation to the argument is that although an individual can take his labor and his capital out of a locality whose government charges him more than the value it provides, his land remains behind.

Model a local government as a dictatorship in order to explore the non-political constraints it faces. Assume all citizens are identical. The optimal level of local public goods costs $10,000 per capita to produce. An adjacent polity currently produces that level of services at that price in taxes, as per Tibout.

The dictator sets taxes at $11,000 per capita, spends $10,000 producing the optimal level of local public goods, pockets the rest. Citizens start to leave. As they leave, the value of fixed resources, land and houses, goes down. They continue leaving until the cost of selling their house and land at a low price and replacing them at a higher price in the adjacent polity just balances the advantage of paying a thousand dollars less a year in taxes. There is then a new equilibrium with a smaller population and higher taxes. A local dictator who is selfish and rational will adjust the tax rate to maximize his revenue while still providing the optimal level of local public goods, since providing more or less would, once population had adjusted, leave him poorer.

The implication of this model is that the greater the value of living in the territory of a local government, taxes and services aside, the higher the level of exploitative taxation we should expect. If living in California instead of Nevada is worth $10,000 a year, California can afford to charge $10,000 more in taxes net of the value of services before citizens start to leave for Nevada. This looks like an explanation for why California, with a notoriously attractive climate, also has notoriously high taxes.

California, of course, is not a dictatorship. To fit the model more closely to reality, assume special interests within the polity, such as organized public employees, have effectively captured control of revenue. The threat of teacher strikes or police strikes or sanitation strikes can be used to push wages and pensions above the market level, transferring the excess tax revenue to the public employees. From an accounting standpoint there is no exploitative taxation, since the cost of the services provided, including the cost of those wages and pensions, absorbs all of the tax revenue.

This line of argument was suggested to me by an online discussion of what the disadvantages were of living in a low tax state where one participant wrote:

Whenever I've fisked the stats on such things all I've been able to see is that it is much worse to be a public employee in states without income tax. Schools don't seem to be worse, but being a teacher is worse, as an example.

One implication of the model is that there should be a correlation between the level of taxes in a state or local government and the natural advantages of its location. To test that implication, find or calculate an estimate of the natural advantages of different locations, taxes and services aside, and see if it correlates with level of taxes.

[Complaints about the formatting of this post should go to not to me. All of the body of the post was set to the same font and font size.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A European Speaking Trip this Summer?

In March of last year I cut short a speaking trip and flew home because of the pandemic. It now looks as though things should be mostly over in another few months, so I am considering another trip, probably in July or August. Hopefully it would include Ljubljana, an interesting city that was to be the next stop on my trip. Probably London, possibly Prague, possibly Budapest if the pandemic is under control in Hungary by then. Possibly other places. 

Anyone interested?