Content moderation strategy

Anyone can comment on this blog. We’d love to see more comments. Challenging our ideas is fine. Telling us that you like our work is encouraging.

If you are in the know, then you assume we have a comment moderation policy, because everyone needs one. If you have never run a website then you might think it is possible to simply have an open form that anyone could type into and get immediately published on the platform.

Comments come in every day, but most of them never get posted. We are not against free speech or silencing an opposition. Most of the comments, if you can even call them comments, are spam. Sometimes spammers try to get posted by saying that they love the site, and sometimes the text seems like AI-generated pornography. The words are not written by humans or at least not humans who have actually read our content.

I don’t think it’s smart to be 100% transparent about our “algorithm” for filtering out this spam. That would make it easier to for bad actors to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

To our human readers, please comment. Your comment will get posted, although sometimes it might take a minute or even hours to get through. We are not censoring ideas, yet we need a moderation policy or else this place would not be fun. People would not want to wade through spam.

Elon Musk buying Twitter is the big news this week. He wants to enhance free speech on the site and, according to him, make it more open and fun. Some fans are hoping that he will make the content moderation and ban policy more transparent. Maybe that’s possible. Maybe he can improve the site.

My point is that if you have not been on the admin side of an internet forum then you might not realize the challenge it presents. There are trade offs involved. I believe that there can be improvements to the current system at Twitter. However, if you want to be taken seriously be tech folk then ask for a system that is possible. A substantially better experience might be incompatible with the site being free to users.

In our case, we could improve our system at EWED. Real people who comment will not like the lag, and fixing that is a technical problem. More time and money could solve it, but this site makes no money.

The economics insight is that you get what you pay for. Studio executives make the movies they believe you will pay for. We get the politicians we bother to vote for. Journalists report what they get paid to write.

Twitter could create a paid user tier. Paid users would be entitled to speak to a human on staff at Twitter in the event that they get censored and have the option of an appeals process.

I am used to getting a lot of services for free online. New companies roll out a huge free initial offering to harvest users and data. I have spent most of my adult life in that roll out phase. Eventually the party stops and investors want to see a revenue stream. Maybe I should start paying for the internet services I value. Maybe part of the reason the conversation is so rancorous is that we are transitioning away from everything being free. Inventing social media is sort of like humans discovering fire and cocaine at the same time! We are still figuring out how to use these tools effectively and safely.

I think a bad scenario happens if we cannot transition over to a patronage model. Remaining trapped in a free stuff mentality would be worse in the long run. I hope Napster didn’t ruin me. In an ideal world, I would be willing to pay for social media and also never spend more than 2 hours a day scrolling on any open platform. We should try for that. We should supplement our online reading with content that has made it past a publisher. For now, one way to get around Twitter censorship is to buy and read books.

Musk, Twitter, and Poison Pills

It has been all over the financial news that Elon Musk made an offer last week to buy out Twitter for $54.20 per share, which is well above its recent stock price. And also, that the board quickly stiff-armed Musk by adopting a “poison pill” provision. What are poison pills, are they a good thing, and how does this particular one work?

Major decisions for a corporation are made by its board of directors. In theory, they are supposed to direct operations for the benefit of the company’s shareholders, who are considered the actual owners of the corporation. The members of the board are elected by the shareholders in annual meetings.

In practice, the board largely does what it wants, and has an outsized influence on who gets elected. The board sets the agenda of the annual meetings, and proposes successor directors. In theory, shareholders can propose resolutions and alternative board candidates at an annual meeting, but it usually takes a determined effort by some activist shareholder group to actually push through some measure that is not approved by the existing board. The outside board members are often executives of other companies, and so are naturally attuned to the interests of the managerial class.  Thus, the members of this Old Boys (and Girls) Club tend to vote each other generous pay:  board members are typically paid very handsomely for what is often a fairly undemanding, part-time job.

Big corporate mergers and takeovers became a thing in the 1980’s. Some outside investor would make an offer to buy up company shares for more than the current market price. Often,  management would resist this offer, since it might entail them losing their cushy jobs. The delicate matter for management in such cases was to convince shareholders that rejecting the buyout offer was in their best long-term interest.

As in so many matters, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Management would argue that “short-termism” is bad for the company and for the nation as a whole; the “corporate raiders” would just fire people, break up the company, and sell off the pieces, and generally create misery. The outside investors would reply that their new management would “unlock value” better than the current management was doing, by making operations more efficient and competitive and innovative.

A variety of measures might be implemented by the board to make it less attractive or less feasible for a change in control. The terms of the board of directors might be staggered, so that it would be impossible for the existing board to be totally changed out in less than say 3 years, even if someone controlled 100% of the shares. A company I was associated with in the 1990’s implemented a policy that provided for generous severance packages for upper employees in the event of change of control. (Again, management looking out for themselves).

The term “poison pill” typically refers to some measure that  targets share prices, in a way to discourage a hostile takeover. The most common form is the “flip-in” approach: 

A flip-in poison pill strategy involves allowing the shareholders, except for the acquirer, to purchase additional shares at a discount. Though purchasing additional shares provides shareholders with instantaneous profits, the practice dilutes the value of the limited number of shares already purchased by the acquiring company. This right to purchase is given to the shareholders before the takeover is finalized and is often triggered when the acquirer amasses a certain threshold percentage of shares of the target company.

This is what the Twitter board has pulled on Musk. If he acquires more than 15% of Twitter shares without board approval, the company will allow any shareholder (except Musk) to purchase additional shares at a 50% discount. Yes, this dilution would tend to lower the value of the shares, but if a lot of shareholders bought into this offer, his share of control would shrink. If he tried to buy yet more shares to get back to more than 15% ownership, the company would issue yet more discounted shares to everyone except him.

Is the Twitter board acting in their own interests, or the interests of the shareholders? Investment adviser Larry Black noted, “Let me point out something obvious: If Elon Musk takes Twitter private, the Twitter board members don’t have jobs any more, which pays them $250K-$300K per year for what is a nice part-time job. That could explain a lot.”

Musk hinted at a “Plan B”, and tweeted provocatively, “Love Me Tender”. He might be considering trying to bypass the board altogether and make a “tender offer” to the shareholders at large to sell their shares to him, at some attractive price. Typical conditions for such an offer would be that he only has to make good on his purchase offer if some large plurality of the shareholders take him up on it. It turns out that in practice this approach can be messy and complicated and delayed, probably not something the fast-moving Musk might have patience with. Also, even if he captured 100% of the shares, he could not replace all the existing board members for something like three years, so they could remain sitting there,  making anti-Musk decisions all along.

Musk’s offer has now put Twitter “in play” as a takeover target. You know that lots of wealthy people and entities are consulting their investment bankers about becoming a white (or black) knight here. Anyway, it makes for great theater. Popcorn, anyone?

Truth As a Casualty of Wars

The saying that “The first casualty of war is the truth”  has been credited to anti-war Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1918  and also to the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. We have seen this played out dramatically with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From the Ukrainian side have come the predictable overinflated estimates of the enemy’s losses, and perhaps understated reporting of their own casualties. Also, on the first day or two of the war there was a raunchy defiant response of Ukrainian defenders to a “Russian ship” that was demanding their surrender; as far as I know that exchange was for real, but the initial report by Ukraine that all the heroic defenders were killed was not true. Maybe I am biased here, but these sorts of excesses are stretching some core truth, not trampling over it roughshod.

On the Russian side, perhaps because there is no even vaguely legitimate justification for their invasion, the lies have been simply ludicrous. Apparently, the Russian troops have been told that they are going there to rescue Ukrainians from the current regime which is a bunch of  “neo-Nazis”.  If Putin’s thugs had a sense of humor or perspective, they might have discerned the irony of characterizing the Ukrainian regime as “neo-Nazi” when the president (Zelenskyy) is a Jew, whose grandfather’s brothers died in Nazi concentration camps.

And the Russian lies go beyond ludicrous, to revolting and inhuman. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed concerns about civilian casualties as “pathetic shrieks” from Russia’s enemies, and denied Ukraine had even been invaded.

The Associated Press snapped a picture in the besieged city of Mariupol a few days ago which went viral, showing a pregnant woman with a bleeding abdomen being carried out on a stretcher from a maternity hospital which the Russians had bombed. The local surgeon tried to save her and her baby, but neither one survived. The Russian side put out a string of bizarre and contradictory stories, claiming that they had bombed the hospital because it was a militia base (a neo-Nazi militia, of course) but also that no, they didn’t bomb it, the hospital had been evacuated and the explosions were staged by the Ukrainians, and the bloody woman in the photos was a made-up model. Ugh. I find it chilling to observe a regime in operation where there is absolutely no respect for what the truth actually is; rather, lies are manufactured to serve whatever purpose will suit the regime.

I know that some of that goes on even with Western democracies, but we are still usually ashamed of outright lying, and stand discredited when exposed. But with hardcore authoritarian regimes, there does not seem to be even this minimal respect for integrity.  

Freedom of speech becomes even more critical as cynicism about truth becomes more widespread in the world, even in our own political discourse. Putin is trying to suppress the truth within Russia, now with very harsh penalties (fifteen years in prison) for those disseminating information contrary to the party line. All he needs to do is deem such talk as “treasonous”, and into the clink you go.

I do worry about similar trends towards censorship within the West. In our case, it is not so much governments (so far) doing the censorship, but Big Tech. If Google [search engine and YouTube] / Facebook/Twitter disapprove of your content, they can label it “hate speech” or whatever, and your voice disappears from public discourse. But what gives the high priests of big tech the authority and the powers of moral discernment to rule on what discourse is permissible? Also, the algorithms of social media sites usually direct you towards other sites that reinforce your own point of view, so you rarely get exposed to why the other side believes what it does. However annoying it may be to see various forms of nonsense circulating on-line, the time-tested democratic response is to allow (nearly) all points of view to be fairly stated, and to trust in the people to figure out where the truth lies. Otherwise, the truth can become a casualty of culture wars, as it is in shooting wars.

The War on Ukraine

1. Read this letter from a young woman inside of Russia. Her despair is not sadder than the Kindergarten getting bombed, but it helps explain why people are resisting Russian rule. Ukrainians’ lives would be like hers except worse.

2. ‘My city’s being shelled, but mum won’t believe me’ With loyalty like this, I don’t understand why Russian state TV is bothering to cover up the shelling. Mum’s personal loyalty to Putin already transcends her love of her own daughter. Is lying itself a flex and a form of psychological warfare against the opposition within Russia?

3. Read on the End of History, and my blog about circular history.

4. Social media changes sieges.

5. President Putin speaks his truth, embraces his identity, and blocks his haters. With a trifecta like that, I have no doubt that he practices self-care. And now people are upset that they can’t get through to rattle him. Now people wonder: why can’t we reason together anymore? Yet, this is what Americans are encouraging each other to do. We are out of practice when it comes to discovering and debating The truth.

Previously I wrote about Americans blocking each other on social media. Now when we want to get through to someone on the other side, we have less channels of communication open. Americans don’t get enough practice seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. We have gotten into a bad habit of curating our sources of information to insulate ourselves from the facts and opinions that would force us to learn or argue with someone who holds a different point of view.

Also, we are seeing many people cut ties with Russians. I understand, initially, why there was a blitz on all Russian people, as we tried to get through the news of what was happening with urgency. However, this next week might be an opportunity to reach out to an economist on the inside of Russia, if you know one. Should they be protesting on the street, instead of checking emails? At this point they have already made their decision. You could start a research project with them about some banal uncontroversial topic. They are going to suffer, regardless of whether they have a foreigner to talk to or not. This opens a channel.

(The faculty at Kyiv School of Economics is probably getting behind on their research. They would probably love it if you would look up their previously published papers. )

The percent of Russians who don’t agree with the war should be a concern to the Kremlin. Most of them will not openly say what they think within the borders of Russia, so it creates uncertainty. On paper, Russia is favored to be able to inflict more casualties, but this aspect of Russian society makes the future hard to model. Any young men who are sent to the front lines will learn what is actually happening from the Russian speakers in Ukraine. How will that affect them?

Half of Deliberately Exposed Unvaccinated Volunteers in UK Study Did Not Get COVID; Why?

A British study by Ben Killingley and 31 co-authors recently appeared in pre-print form, where 36 (heroic) healthy young adult volunteers were deliberately exposed to the Covid virus by nasal drops. These volunteers then went into quarantine for 14 days, and logged their symptoms and were subjected to various tests for a total of 28 days.


Of the 36 subjects, only 18 (53%) became infected with the virus, as determined by PCR testing (the gold standard for Covid tests) and by direct counting of viral loads in mucus cells by FFA.

The study found that viral shedding (as estimated by mucus viral loads) begins within two days of exposure and rapidly reaches high levels, then declines. Viable virus is still detectible up to 12 days post-inoculation. This result supports the practice of people quarantining for at least 10 days after they first exhibit symptoms of infection. There were significant higher viral loads in the nose than in the throat,  which supports the practice of wearing masks that cover the nose as well as the mouth.


The cheap, fast, LFA rapid antigen test method (used in home tests) performed fairly well. Because it is less sensitive, it did not it did not yield positive results for infected individuals until an average of four days after infection, or about two days after viral shedding may have begun. But from four days onward, the LFA method was sensitive and reasonably accurate which supports the ongoing use of these quick, cheap tests.

These direct inclusions from the paper are helpful, but not earthshaking. The elephant in the room, which the paper did not seem to directly address, is why nearly half of the people who were exposed did NOT become infected. This raises all kinds of issues about what mechanisms the human body may have to naturally fight off COVID or similar viral infections. Gaining insight on this could lead to breakthroughs in preventing or mitigating this pernicious virus.

An article by Eileen O’Reilly at Axios probes these questions. There is nothing conclusive out there, but four ideas that are under investigation are:

1. Cross-immunity from the four endemic human coronaviruses is one hypothesis. Those other coronaviruses cause many of the colds people catch and could prime B-cell and T-cell response to this new coronavirus in some people.

2. Multiple genetic variations may make someone’s immune system more or less susceptible to the virus.  Some 20 different genes have been identified which affect the likelihood of severe infection, and a genetic predisposition to not getting infected is seen in other diseases where people have one or multiple factors that interfere with the virus binding to cells or being transported within.

3. Mucosal immunity may play an underrecognized role in mounting a defense.

This suggests nasal vaccines might have a chance at stopping a virus before it invades the whole body.

4. Where the virus settled on the human body, how large the particle was, the amount and length of exposure, how good the ventilation was and other environmental circumstances may also play a role.

These considerations support continuing with the usual recommendations of social distancing, wearing facemasks, and ventilating buildings, especially when caseloads are peaking. Also, the doses administered to the volunteers in the study were considered quite small by clinical standards. It was surprising that such a low dose was effective as it was in causing full-blown infections; and the particular strain used in the experiment was not necessarily one of the more recent highly virulent variants. After reading these results,  it is more understandable to me why so many reasonably careful friends and family members of mine (nearly all vaccinated, fortunately) have come down with (presumably) omicron COVID in the past two months. Just a little dab will do ya.

What Proportion of Journalists Live in NYC?

Michael’s post this week on the dangers of high-status, low wage jobs opened by citing this tweet:

Michael presents a fascinating model that applies well beyond journalism. But when his post went viral, some commenters asked how accurate Josh Barro’s claim about half of young journalists living in Brooklyn was. Clearly Michael’s post doesn’t depend on it being true, and I’m not even sure Barro meant it literally, but it got me wondering- just what proportion of all young journalists do live in NYC?

For a first pass, we can look at the BLS Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics for the category “News Analysts, Reporters, and Journalists“. Their latest data (May 2020) shows 41,580 workers employed in those occupations nationwide. It also shows that the NYC metro has by far the most journalists with 5,940, more than twice as many as the second place metro (DC). This implies that 14.2% of all journalists in America live in the NYC metro. Since only 6% of all Americans live in the NYC metro, journalists are clearly clustering there, though clearly well over half of journalists still live elsewhere.

But, this doesn’t quite get at Barro’s claim, which is about journalists under 40 concentrating in Brooklyn. I don’t know of any data source that would let me really test the Brooklyn part, but I can get at the under-40 claim using Microdata from the American Community Survey, which also zooms us in a bit closer to Brooklyn since it tells us who is in NYC proper (not just the metro area).

The 2019 ACS shows that 10% of all “news analysts, reporters, and journalists” are in NYC proper, rising to 14% if I only consider journalists under 40 years old. This is quite concentrated (only 2.5% of all Americans live in NYC proper), but still a lot less that half of all journalists.

As Michael suggested, the vast majority of young NYC journalists are white (77%) with a college degree (91%), though English was only their second most common major after Communications.

The data confirm the last part of Michael’s post quite well- as journalists get older they are likely to move out of NYC and switch to more lucrative fields like PR. Only 5% of all “public relations specialists” are in NYC.

Will we repeat the Christmas Covid wave?

EDIT at 7pm, same day as posting: You know you have good friends when someone quietly emails you and tells you that the news about Omicron just got much worse and you should probably edit your post. I’ve been trying to rationalized why this January will be better than last January. Of course if it were not for Omicron, I would expect very little from holiday gatherings among mostly-vaccinated Americans. However, having known Omicron was looming, I probably shouldn’t have even tried to speculate. Get your booster and be prepared to hunker down in January if the 2-3 week data indicates that infections are turning extra-lethal. </edit>

In keeping with the “dismal science” brand, let’s dwell on the horrible death toll of the January 2021 Covid wave in the US that followed the Christmas holiday. Here comes Christmas (and other winter holidays) again, a major public health event.

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/27/us-reports-record-number-of-covid-deaths-in-january.html

This graph I borrowed from CNBC shows how fast deaths spiked up after the winter holidays of 2020. See also https://data.cdc.gov/.

According to Google search auto-complete, the public is more interested in whether there will be another Christmas Prince movie than whether there will be another Christmas Covid death wave.

I think it’s unlikely that we will see a repeat of exactly what happened last year. I’ve been looking online for predictions and mostly I have found articles warning that Omicron will cause a some kind of wave. No one wants to commit to predicting how many people will die, because anyone who tries is sure to be wrong. The consensus is that breakthrough infections are likely but that vaccines protect against extreme illness.

Nearly a million Americans have died from Covid already (Jeremy argues for a million). Some of those deaths, in retrospect, can almost certainly be tied to family travel during the holidays in 2020. The January Covid wave has only happened once, so it’s impossible to predict what will happen this time. Unfortunately we may get an interaction from increased holiday travel plus a novel highly infectious variant.

The Omicron variant is spreading fast, but no one knows if it will be worse than we we are currently dealing with from Delta. It seems like triple-vaxxed people are not at high risk, from preliminary data. That is reassuring to me personally. Thank you South Africa for being fast and sharing data with the world. For communities with low vaccination rates, it seems certain that more deaths will result from fast-traveling Omicron. Yet, from my reading this week, it is hard to know if it’s really much worse than what they are currently experiencing from Delta.

I’m keeping a Twitter thread going of what other people are saying. Caleb Watney points out that we have two things going for us. Widely available vaccines keep people safer from infection and reduces the chance of needing medical treatment. Secondly, we have gotten better at treating the disease. Together, that should mean less deaths in January 2022, as long as people seek treatment quickly and hospital capacity does not become a limiting factor. Omicron could multiply cases so quickly that we can’t apply all our best treatments to everyone. That is the biggest reason to worry.

Even though people will be less cautious about winter holiday travel this year than they were last year, the country has been open for many months now, including the recent Thanksgiving holiday. The vulnerable population this time should be smaller, in terms of the people likely to die from Omicron.

To say that we won’t blindly exactly repeat the biggest mortality event of my lifetime is not “optimism”. It seems like this January will not be as bad as last January for the reason Watney states: better medical tech on hand, most importantly vaccines for prevention.

Continue reading

If Tyler is talking about a new variant…

For some Americans, this Thanksgiving was the first holiday that felt normal in a long time. Being re-united, without Covid restrictions, is something to celebrate.

On the other hand, a new coronavirus variant was just discovered in South Africa. It’s scary enough that travel bans might be imposed. We have all (just about) learned to live with the original strain from Wuhan, but scientists want time to figure out how dangerous and infectious this new strain is. Maybe at this point people are tired of being lectured about risks. No matter how much or little a person sacrificed for Covid-19, they might feel like that storyline has become too boring to deserve any more of our attention. We cannot stop looking out for new variants that might force us to put cherished traditions on hold again. Coronaviruses kill. My advice is to keep following news from Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and Emily Oster.

Oster has been consistently reasonable about family and health risks. She argued to open schools and essentially said that you can see grandparents if the risk is small enough (even though the risks are never zero). As I said before, another trustworthy source of information throughout the pandemic has been Tyler and Alex, who put up almost all of their material in real time at Marginal Revolution.

I’ll share something a friend wrote to me today:

Although [his wife’s name]’s chemo treatment continues to show good long-term signs, this morning we discovered that [she] tested positive for COVID. That’s bad news, the good news is that [she] is already getting the antibody treatment and some extra fluids at the hospital as I write this.

“The antibody treatment” did not exist when the first Covid-19 waves swept through New York with such devastating consequences.

If the newest strain turns out to be a serious development, then in many ways we are better prepared to deal with it than we were before. We probably will blow through the red tape on at-home rapid tests faster the next time around (I’m such an optimist!). We already have contact tracing apps that protect privacy. Vaccine scheduling software is already in place. Everyone has masks at home.

The biggest difficulty I foresee is not coming up with scientific solutions but agreeing as a society about which tools to use. Some people might (will) not even believe the new strain is real.

EWED was started right at the moment when Marginal Revolution commentary on Covid seemed the most crucial. So, sometimes I will do little more here than keep up the echo. Do tweets, phone calls, letters, blogs, or talk about Covid around the Thanksgiving table. Don’t give up.

It’s now clear, whether or not the news out of South Africa turns out to be serious, that we are living with a new problem that will last a long time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you ever read much of the New Testament, you’ll see a theme in the letters of Paul to cities he has visited. The brand-new churches were doing well, while he was with them in person. Then time goes by and the community or doctrine starts to fray.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Galatia, more than a year after he had visited them:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 

Galatians 6:9
Continue reading

Alex Madrigal’s Atlantic Article on Testing Positive for COVID, and Pushbacks

A friend just texted me a link to an article by Alex Madrigal that came out yesterday in The Atlantic. Madrigal described how he made a last-minute decision to attend a wedding and associated gatherings in New Orleans. He knew there would be non-zero risk of infection, of course, but he had been fully vaccinated and he had reason to believe that essentially everyone else at the festivities was likewise vaccinated.  Madrigal had helped to assemble and lead a consortium of journalists who gathered and published COVID data in the early months of the pandemic, before officialdom got its act together on reporting good numbers, so he is well-acquainted with the math of this disease.

He had been seeing maskless people laughing and chatting  in restaurants, and he really liked New Orleans, and he wanted to support his friend who was getting married, and he wanted to enjoy some return to good old normal good times. So, he went and he mingled. Liquor flowed and happy chatter filled the air. And then he flew home.

He has a wife and two children, so to be on the safe side, upon his return he took no less than three PCR antigen tests, a day or so apart. All came back negative, even the one four days after the wedding. He did develop some cold symptoms, and upon his wife’s request, did one more swab at home on the fifth day. That was unmistakably positive, as was a follow-up test.

What followed was a nontrivial amount of inconvenience – – he went and  lived in a rental apart from his family for at least ten days, his kids got pulled out of school, and he worried that if he had passed it to them, they in turn would need to quarantine. He is 39 and in top physical condition, and was vaccinated, so his course of illness was just that of a nasty cold, but that was still not fun. For him the most poignant aspect was the reaction of his two children:

My nonbinary 8-year-old was so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95. I’m not sure which reaction was more heartbreaking. It was as if one never wanted to see me again and the other didn’t want to let me out of her sight.

He wrote all this up in “ Getting Back to Normal Is Only Possible Until You Test Positive “. The concluding lines echo the title, “Right now most policies appear designed to make life seem normal. Masks are coming off. Restaurants are dining in. Planes are full. Offices are calling. But don’t be fooled: The world’s normal only until you test positive.”

My reaction, which I’d like to think would be a common reaction to this piece, is sympathy for the hassle that he and his family have been through, and appreciation for this reality check: the newer variants of COVID multiply so fast that you can get sick and spread the disease, even if you have been vaccinated. You probably won’t die, but getting infected could be very uncomfortable and inconvenient. At the macro level, some activities may never get fully back to pre-2020 levels, and on the personal level we should keep all this in mind before entering a room with lots of talking (or singing) unmasked people. In the U.S. there are still a thousand people dying every day from this communicable disease, and Europe is getting hit hard. I guess we all have pandemic fatigue, but a thousand deaths at a pop used to be considered a lot.

That would be a fine observation with which to end this blog post. But I will throw in one other observation: the internet is a pretty harsh place, and Madrigal’s article spawned at least two fairly ascerbic pushback articles.  Claire Carusillo at gawker.com (which I know nothing about), in Alexis Madrigal: I Can’t Believe I, a Really Good Person, Got Covid , takes multiple jabs:

Alexis C. Madrigal, a columnist for The Atlantic and a cofounder of the COVID tracking project, got a mild breakthrough COVID case at a destination wedding in New Orleans. Instead of just going to bed for two weeks like a normal person, he wrote an essay about it wherein the only thing he makes clearer than his dedication to his workout routine is how he believes his story is a horrifying parable for our time.

It isn’t. It’s an unremarkable story from a public health perspective, though Madrigal’s inclusion of specific details make this piece a fascinating study of what it’s like to be an American man with a certain level of privilege who also just so happens to have a huge platform and a deadline to meet. Social distancing, it seems, has inflamed his out-of-touchness with what most people have endured over the course of the last 20 months.

… You may be thinking, spending a few childcare-light days at an Airbnb on your own block with a mild throat “tickle” that does not prevent you from either doing Peloton workouts or writing an essay for The Atlantic does not sound that bad. In fact, you may think it sounds a lot better than the trips I have taken to the Bay Area, particularly the family vacation we took to Alcatraz when I was nine. Either way, how dare you?

Ouch.

Tiana Lowe at the Washington Examiner blames Madrigal’s fear-mongering for his kids’ reactions to his plight, in her article If your nonbinary 8-year-old gets mad at you for getting COVID, tell them to grow up :

Over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal engages in some light sadism, dedicating thousands of words to flagellating himself for the great sin of contracting the coronavirus….. He got a mild breakthrough case of coronavirus. But because the vaccines work well, he made a full recovery shortly thereafter.

….Children these days have dramatically calmed down from the bad behavior of the ’80s. This has brought with it the blessing of far fewer pregnancies and underaged smokers. But helicopter parenting, even before the pandemic, produced a significant cohort of children far, far too cautious and not nearly socialized well enough for adulthood. The share of teenagers who have ever had a job, gotten their driver’s license, or gone on a date, all previously the major milestones of young adulthood, has plummeted, and now we’re adding COVIDiocy to that trend?

An 8-year-old capable of making a parent abide by their preferred gender identity is probably also capable of bullying said parent out of having a normal social life. But the real fault belongs to the parent who would let a child live in such fear and fall so deeply into coronavirus delusions.

A virus for which we now have three vaccines and several new, inexpensive treatments does not provide any reason to stop living life to the fullest. To fail to explain this to children is the kindness of cowardice — or even cruelty masquerading as kindness.

Again, ouch. I think the two pushback articles make some valid points, particularly Lowe’s observations on helicopter parenting in general, and it does seem like the Madrigals’ kids had been given overly inflated fears about their dad’s prospects. That said, we need more in the way of civil discourse. The abrasive tone of these reactionary articles says more about their authors’ attempts to garner clicks than about Madrigal’s original earnest cautionary tale. It is a jungle out there.

Forecasting that Job Growth Would Continue

The number of new jobs is being heralded (example in picture) as disappointing relative to the expectation that we would march steadily back to pre-Covid employment levels. (Ben Casselman is a good Twitter source for the data.)

One of the reasons for a slow recovery is that the Delta variant of Covid hit hard at the end of the summer and people are not getting vaccinated, so the health threat of going out to work and consume did not decline as much as we had expected. Covid was hard on family caregivers, often women. The disruptions to childcare from Covid still are not over. We are seeing a reversal of the massive influx of women into the formal workforce that started in the previous century.

Some people are saying that workers no longer want “dead end jobs,” and there has been a permanent shift in the labor supply, although it is hard to disentangle that from the effect of temporary Covid subsidies.

I am reminded of two very different sources who claimed, before 2019, that what we had in the early 21st century was not sustainable.

First, there were agitators for a $15/hr minimum wage. They marched in the streets while leading Democrats voiced approval. They were pointing out that families in America who depend on $8/hr jobs do not feel like they have a part of the American Dream.

Someone who, I am certain, would be against a federally mandated $15/hr minimum wage was also pointing this out. Tyler Cowen published Average is Over in 2013, when unemployment was still high following the Great Recession. Chapter 1 of Average is Over is called “Work and Wages”. Tyler was concerned that market forces were creating a world where some people have the best jobs that humanity has ever conceived of, by virtue of their compatibility with intelligent machines, while the rest of the workforce is left with jobs that are not so great. At the time, I don’t think people realized how many jobs could be done from the comfort of home or from a hip coffee shop. Covid exposed that. The “not so great” jobs feel especially crappy when you know that people in your city get paid 6 figures to sit at a laptop.

Tyler might have been surprised when unemployment dropped so low in 2019, right after he had written The Complacent Class, which warns us that America isn’t working well for a large group of people.

We are not great at predicting the future.* Some of Tyler’s predictions have come true already, but even he did not try to put a date on things. The point is that maybe the latest job numbers are not as surprising for the reason that the forecasts were more wrong than we thought. Covid has moved us far out of equilibrium, so it is still hard to tell where we are going to land.

Personally, I thought prices at the grocery store, one of the few places you could go in early 2020, would shoot up faster. It seemed to me like we would need to start paying cashiers more as hazard pay.

*In one of my experiments, I asked subjects in the role of employers to predict what their employees would do. They failed to predict how strongly employees would respond to wage cuts. We are not great at predicting.