On pandemiconomics, part one.

Here’s a continuation of my response to “Just a former student.” JAFS wrote…

I wanted to hear […] your thoughts on how this COVID-19 pandemic will affect our economy. Do you think the government handing out coronavirus stimulus checks was a good idea? Or is increasing our national debt going to end up being a mistake?

The correct answers are, respectively, “I don’t know but I hope so” and “I don’t know but I hope not.” These are the correct answers because I only have intermittent access to the alternate universe where information and judgement are perfect. So allow me to ramble a bit and insult your intelligence by assuming you don’t already know this stuff.

Politically speaking, the government had to hand out stimulus checks. The government shut businesses down left and right, costing millions of people their incomes. Those people have mouths to feed, bills to pay, rent, mortgages, car notes, and so on. The government put them in this situation, or was forced to put them in this situation because of COVID-19, so the government had to make up for it by giving those people cash ASAP. “Do-nothingism,” whether right or wrong, causes politicians to lose their jobs.

Furthermore, by shutting businesses down without due process, I think government is constitutionally bound to compensate people for their losses based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Why? Well, there’s a pair of Due Process Clauses in there (I don’t remember hearings or trials before shutting everyone down), there’s the Equal Protection Clause (some folks were forced out of work, others weren’t), I think you could squeeze in that Eminent Domain Clause (“took” property for public purposes, thus must compensate), and there’s a badly underused Privileges and Immunities Clause that I think needs to be dusted off just to make sure it still works.

Economically speaking, it’s a tougher call. I think stimulus is less effective than most economists do, but that doesn’t mean it never works. The downside of stimulus is harder to see than the upside, because the downside takes longer to kick in, and by the time it does there are plenty of other factors to consider and actors to blame for these problems that seem to have come up out of nowhere.

Allow me to continue dodging your question by answering a different one. What are the downsides of stimulus? For starters, every dollar that Uncle Sam spends has to be paid for by taxes, inflation, or borrowing. Taxes make it harder to buy and sell stuff, inflation is a hidden tax because it weakens the dollars in your wallet or bank accounts, and borrowing drives up the national debt, which has to be repaid via taxation or inflation. None of those options are good, but of course they’re not good: this is about the downside, remember? If the taxes, borrowing, and inflation outweigh the good done by the stimulus, then it was a bad call. But that’s a tough judgement to make, costs and benefits take time to become apparent, and they do so unevenly.

Stimulus runs additional risks that I think I can boil down to two more statements:

  • Stimulus runs the risk of encouraging activities that aren’t that valuable anymore. Imagine giving a stimulus check to a buggy-whip manufacturer in the midst of the Model T Ford boom. Or, to work from current events a bit, imagine giving a stimulus check to the owner of a wet market right now. Whether or not wet markets were actually to blame for the outbreak, that wouldn’t make much economic sense, would it?
  • Stimulus also runs the risk of failing to encourage activities that are becoming more valuable. Imagine you get furloughed or fired due to the COVID-19 shutdown, and then Uncle Sam sends a stimulus check. Mightn’t that check make you a little more likely to try to ride out the tough times and resume your old job, and a little less likely to go looking for a job in a growth industry? Say in delivery, or in nursing, or working in an Amazon warehouse?

…so stimulus sometimes allows economic problems to continue, or discourages pursuit of new economic solutions.

I don’t think this stimulus is going to stimulate, but that doesn’t mean it was a mistake. And I will explain why on Thursday because my brain is fried and I need sleep.

On pandemucation.

“Just a former student” writes:

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy during these tumultuous times.

I wanted to hear how you’re coping with working from home and more importantly, your thoughts on how this COVID-19 pandemic will affect our economy. Do you think the government handing out coronavirus stimulus checks was a good idea? Or is increasing our national debt going to end up being a mistake?

Also, how is PSAS handling graduation?

Thanks!

I am safe and healthy aside from severe eye strain. Thank you for asking, and I hope you are well too, whoever you are.

Let me address the school stuff for now and the economic stuff in a later post, because there’s so much to be said. Teaching from home has generally been much tougher than teaching at school. Here’s a short list of my difficulties:

  • Learning how to use Microsoft Teams for tele-teaching, for conferring with colleagues, making announcements, etc.
  • Addressing student questions and concerns… though having a chat window where I can see their questions helps.
  • Maintaining test security. Test security in this environment doesn’t exist.
  • Monitoring student performance. Given the strain on the internet and the various degrees of internet access at home, the students can’t all turn their work in at the same time, so I can’t examine it all at the same time, and can’t give them feedback all at the same time.
  • Adjusting lessons/lectures based on student feedback. This is partly due to the same concern mentioned above, partly due to not being able to see looks of confusion or contemplation, partly due to not being able to interpret the tone of a question if it’s typed in a chat window. Note that this doesn’t mean I’d actually change anything; I give exactly the same lectures every single year.

But there’s been some upside:

  • Microsoft Teams makes it easier to get content to my students in case of absences– mine or theirs. And now I know how to use it.
  • The commute to work is much easier and less tiring, though I now avoid my office like the plague, no pun intended, during my “off hours.”
  • I’ve had time to think more carefully about what productive teaching entails. My conclusion is that I’ve been right all along and I’m going to keep talking at people. It works.

I think this whole mess could lead to some big structural changes in education. I’ll have more to add once I’m out of Internal Assessment Grading Mode, which should occur by Friday of this week. In the interest of helping us cope with the cancellation of the IB exams, IB decided to make my grading process 9.2 times harder this year by requiring commentary on 92 papers instead of a random sample of 10. So my brain is fried right now and is crying for sleep.

We don’t yet know how graduation is going to be handled, and I hesitate to share my own ideas for fear of getting blamed for a second wave of starting in late May or early June.

That’s it for now. More later.

EDIT: A quick Google search reveals a grand total of zero hits for “pandemucation.” I’m calling it now, and first.

Why I am sincerely more worried than ever before.

I don’t remember the last time the Bears had this many options for improving at quarterback via trade or free agency.

I like Mitch Trubisky. I think he loves Chicago and loves being a Bear. he’s got a lot of spirit and he seems like a very earnest kid. but the reality is that he can’t make reads, and he’s too inconsistent on easy throws. At best, he can read half the field at a time, which is why he’s so much better on rollouts or scrambles than he is in the pocket. And I will always maintain that no matter how good a QB is at rollouts or scrambling, he’s got to be able to throw from the pocket. Maybe he’ll be average or better one day, but I don’t want the Bears to take a chance that it’ll happen this year. We have better options now.

But the apparent pickings grow slimmer, with Bridgewater a Panther and Brady a Buc. So who’s left? Last I checked: Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Cam Newton, Nick Foles, and Jameis Winston. Dalton is getting up in years and is the very definition of mediocre; look up the Dalton Line. I think Carr is tough to judge; his numbers look better than Trubisky’s at first glance except for his win-loss record. Cam Newton is likely available, but is a little banged up. Also I think he scrambled too much earlier in his career. Nick Foles is either an all-timer or somewhat sub-par. If he’s Eagles Foles, take him. If he’s Rams or Jaguars Foles, no thanks. Jameis Winston would be definitely the most exciting option, though that would be in a bad way roughly half the time. Maybe the LASIK helped. We’ll see.

Someone suggested building a time machine so the Bears could go back and draft Deshaun Watson instead of Trubisky. To my dying day, I will maintain that in 2018, the Bears with Watson (or that Mahomes kid, I guess) would have gone 15-1, if not unbeaten, in the regular season and gone to the Super Bowl.

We are left with just as dramatic and urgent a decision now. Which quarterback would actually be an improvement over Trubisky? And if we can identify him, can the Bears actually sign him? I would hate to see yet another window with such a good defense and such fair-to-middlin’ offensive skill players be wasted for lack of sufficient quarterbacking. This decision will make the difference between ongoing mediocrity and legitimate championship runs.

Merry Christmas 2019!

…and more than six posts a year, though that’s on me.

Merry Christmas!

On universal basic income.

The first mailbag post in a while– first of any type of post in a while– is brought to us from “F.A.”, who writes:

Hey Mr. V, I don’t know if you’ve been following the Democratic party and all that jazz at all but since you have a background in economics, I wanted to hear your take on Andrew Yang’s platform, namely his policies and ideas on universal basic income? I’m doing some research and listening to a lot of what he has to say and it sounds great on the surface level but I wonder if its actually a good idea from an economist’s perspective.

I’m opposed. I am against any proposal that creates any new tax without eliminating old taxes. I am also against any proposal that creates new social programs without eliminating old social programs. Yang’s proposal creates new taxes (e.g, the VAT) and a new type of social program (the Freedom Dividend) without eliminating anything, so I am opposed.

Reducing some taxes and social programs while consolidating others isn’t good enough. Nothing in Yang’s proposal would actually keep the old taxes low or restrain spending on the old social programs. And those old taxes would eventually go back up, guaranteed, and the spending on the old social programs would eventually go back up, guaranteed. And then we’d be stuck with higher taxes and higher spending on social programs.

My position on this matter is supported by the entire history of federal taxation and spending. Every major social program in American history has cost more than originally projected. And every tax aimed at funding those programs is higher than originally promised. The same would be true of Yang’s proposal. There is absolutely no reason not to believe this.

Look back at this poorly written post from ten years ago to get a sense of a UBI plan that I might sorta kinda be willing to support. Seriously, read it. I’ll wait here.

Back? Good. Today I’d probably oppose even Murray’s plan because I have virtually no faith that the costs would be controllable, but set that aside for now. The reason I might sorta kinda be willing to support it is that it would replace every form of federal social spending without raising taxes. But that’s assuming projections go to plan, and that’s assuming the pressure to raise the payout is somehow structurally and constitutionally contained, and that’s assuming we ratify a constitutional amendment restricting federal social spending to this one program.

I won’t belabor that point anymore. I have other concerns.

I don’t think automation will be as dangerous or disruptive as Yang and others do. I think interfering with market processes will be more dangerous than Yang and others do. The more they tinker, the faster labor is replaced by capital. I’m too tired to explain that right now, and I’m trying to watch the Patriots-Steelers game. I actually like Belichick a lot due to his background in Economics.

I think it is socially and psychologically dangerous to give people something for nothing. Workfare programs have the virtue of giving a dollar to someone who’s earned it, and thus are relatively popular in the US. But giving UBI to a bunch of no-good soy-latte-sipping cravat-wearing goateed neo-Gramscian beatniks who vape fair trade vegan CBD oil in their rent-controlled solar safe space hippy communes and snap their soft fingers to laments about the evils of earning money? That wouldn’t play in Peoria. Neither would giving UBI to a bunch of lazy Nazis. If someone can work, you really shouldn’t incentivize them not to work.

In short, Yang’s take on UBI looks nice on paper but would be very, very bad.

I appreciate your question, because I’ve been far too slack with the blog for far too long.

Fourth of July, 2019!

Happy 243rd birthday to the sweet land of liberty!

And happy 146th birthday to President Coolidge, who by all accounts would have appreciated it, but would have mumbled his thanks in Belichickian brevity!

Normally when posting on the 4th, I like to express an appreciation for this great country and remind the reader to celebrate its blessings and be mindful of its sins. There’s upside and downside to all things, and the Fourth is the day we laud America’s upside.

But on this particular Fourth of July, I am distressed enough by recent developments in the sporting world that I must direct attention there. But I direct it not to Nike’s Betsy Ross Kaepernick public relations stupidity. Nor do I direct to the battle of tweets and soundbites between President Trump and likely future Senator Rapinoe (which I strongly suspect is a cover-up for a torrid affair betwixt the two). But I do direct it towards the women’s national team.

As many are aware, the US women’s team is, as usual, doing pretty darn well in the World Cup and really should win it this coming Sunday. Two days ago, on the anniversary of the day John Adams thought should have been celebrated, the US beat England 2-1 in the semifinal. In celebration of scoring what would eventually prove to be the game-winning goal, Alex Morgan simulated sipping a cup of tea, which, apparently, unstiffened the reputedly stiff upper lips of the English.

I will grant that the manner in which she mock-sipped the cup was a bit off. At first I thought she was Juuling poorly, because her thumb and forefinger were way too close to her lips. A quick glance at Wikipedia revealed that she is not originally from The North, which might’ve explained her unfamiliarity with proper tea-sipping technique, but then I saw the extended pinky finger, which delivered the undeniable message that this– this— was a cup of tea.

So some English folks found this offensive.

Well… too bad. That’s what you get for losing the war, and that’s what you get for giving up a goal. Try winning in the future.

I hereby propose the following:

  1. That whenever the US plays England in any form of football, that our equipment manager prepare several chests full of tea and leave them in a location convenient to our players, and
  2. That whenever the US scores a goal, touchdown, or try in any form of football, the US players shall celebrate by opening one chest of tea and dumping it near, or better yet, all over the English bench.

We can adapt this to other sports as necessary. Say LeBron posterizes some pitiful English excuse for a big in the Olympics. We dump the tea all over them, and then he can do his chalk toss with some of the loose leaves.

Anyhow, God Bless America and the women’s team, and England needs to stop whining.

Happy 109th!

Today would’ve been my grandmother’s 109th birthday. Here she is, on the right– I think– with one of her sisters and one of their friends or cousins who, as this goes to press, is yet unknown to me:

img319_01

I say “I think” because I’ve mis-identified her sisters as her before in some of these older pictures. If I’m wrong, correction will occur soon enough. Either way, this is a good picture. I have no idea what park she’s in, assuming it’s a park, or what the occasion of this visit was, but it looks like she had a nice day.

Happy 119th!

Still not keeping up with the blog very well, but today is my grandfather’s birthday, and I always post a digital card of sorts. Here he is with a daughter and the Easter Bunny, none of whom look pleased.

img732_01

Candy must’ve been lacking that year, what with the Depression and the War and all.

Grampa would’ve turned 119 today if he hadn’t died re-transcendentalizing pi.

A letter to President Trump.

Dear President Trump,

I honestly haven’t checked the internet to if this idea is out there already, so I’m not saying this is original. In fact, I hope it already is out there so more people get on board as soon as possible. Bear with me, sir (that means be patient, I’ll get to the point eventually).

Mr. Trump, you’re going on national TV tonight, presumably to say something-or-other about building a southern border wall. I’d like to go on record in opposition to your wall. The wall would be inefficient. The wall would be ineffective. And the wall would be immoral.

Instead, I propose that we take every last penny (those are the tiny bronze ones) you want to spend on the wall and invest them in the rapid development and deployment of alternative energy generation. To be more specific, it should all be spent on solar power.

The Sun is the source of all energy on this planet, one way or another. “We are all made of stars,” as Herman Melville or somebody once put it. Let me give you a for instance:

The Sun blasts out photons– which are, like, the tiny little things that light is made of– and the photons get absorbed by plants, the plants get eaten by animals, and the animals die and decompose and eventually turn into fossil fuels like oil. I’m glossing over and perhaps completely misstating some details, but that’s OK because you’re used to it and this is the internet. Converting photons into 87 octane takes a bazillion years, is essentially non-reversible unless they invent replicators like on Star Trek, and is just plain dirty.

So we must develop solar power as quickly and as bigly as possible. It is faster, more renewable, and cleaner than relying on those filthy, very dirty, very environmentally very bad fossil fuels. Sure, we’re still working on making the batteries and the panels, but this is America and we’re going to get Elon Musk and Bill Gates, great guys as you know, working on a solution. Great guys. The best guys.

So we should invest many, many billions of dollars and other monies in massive solar farms, and build them as quickly as we can. To get as much energy as possible, the solar panels need to be huge. Let’s say at least 50 feet tall. That is, the solar part itself should be 50 feet tall, the whole thing would have to be taller so you could plant it firmly in the ground. To catch as many photons as possible, the solar panels would have to be side-by-side, with virtually no gaps between them. For this to be useful, and to speed up the switch to solar energy, we would need probably need 3,000 miles or so of these panels, and place them in the most solar-friendly parts of the country. I took the following screenshot from the US Department of Energy’s really cool Solar Energy Potential website:

solarpowermap

I say build the farms in southern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southern Texas, along the northern side of that orange and yellow line. And given that these farms are going to lead us into a clean, efficient, environmentally safe future, we need to protect the farms. No unauthorized walking across the farms, no digging under the panels, and definitely no climbing on the panels. We can’t afford to have them scratched, because they don’t make Gorilla Glass that big. In fact, we should probably fence off the farms and bring in some federal agents to guard them.

Of course, people could still legally walk between these solar farms using officially designated roads, bridges, and so on.

So President Trump, don’t waste our hard-earned money on a useless, inefficient boondoggle like a wall. Instead, please invest that money in solar farms. We must do it for the environment. We must do it for America. And we must do it for the children.

Just make sure those farms are big and beautiful.

Sincerely,

Vincent D. Viscariello

Merry Christmas 2018!

Xmas2018
Merry Christmas to you and yours!

“How little improvement there has been in human evolution.”

Earlier this summer, I decided to take a look at my genetic ancestry via the fine folks at 23andme.com. I bought two kits, one for me, and the other also for me in hopes of seeing how precise they could get with two samples from the same person. So they shipped out a couple of kits. Long story short, 30 minutes after the last time you ate, drank, smoked, gargled, or brushed your teeth, you spit in a tube. Then you seal it up, put it in a box, register the sample on the internet, and ship it off. Then you wait.

The first sample was taken at 4:47pm on July 26th and was labeled “Vincent.” The second sample was taken at 8:00pm on July 26th and was labeled “Dominic.” These are my first and middle names; they are not reflective of different personalities or identities or aspects of my being or any other such thing. Actually, that’s not true. “Dominic” is more sullen, but less morose. So I took the two samples, sealed them up, put them in boxes, registered them on the internet, and shipped them off.

The results came back this week.

One feature of 23andme is that it allows you connect to other users and compare your genetic ancestries. So I connected “Vincent” to “Dominic.” It correctly recognized that I was me, and that the relationship between the two samples was either “self” or “twin.” That was impressive. But despite the very explicit, boldfaced statement that “You share 100% of your [i.e., “Vincent’s”] DNA with Dominic,” there were some discrepancies.

Here are the results, keeping in mind that the “you” in the left column is “Vincent,” i.e., the 4:47pm me:

Screenshot 2018-09-27 at 8.50.44 PM

In a little over three hours, I became about 5 percentage points more Italian, about 4pp less Irish, about 2.5pp less Western Asian and North African, about 0.7pp more Balkan and 0.1pp less Siberian.

Oh, and I turned a teensy bit more Neanderthal:

Screenshot 2018-09-27 at 9.37.55 PM

How could this have happened? I could chalk it up to the mild imprecision that results from combining commercial-grade genetic testing with amateur, non-sterile sample collection. Or I could take a look at the “Ancestry Timeline” feature. Here’s “Vincent’s” timeline:

Screenshot 2018-09-27 at 8.39.37 PM

And “Dominic’s”:

Screenshot 2018-09-27 at 9.07.47 PM

In that three-hour window, someone could have altered the timeline. I don’t mean someone at the lab messed around with the results, I mean time travel. I think, if I’m reading this correctly, that at least one of my Irish ancestors from the original timeline went back to the mid- to late-1700s, killed or otherwise neutralized my would-be Siberian ancestors, and mated with some Balkan person, making him or her my ancestor in the new timeline. But if this is the case, then (A) how did the Irish ancestor get the time machine, and (B) why would I still have any evidence of the original timeline? And how does the Neanderthal stuff fit in?

This is silly supposition, of course. It’s just as feasible that the Irish time traveler corrected the timeline, wiping out an alternate history in which I had Siberian rather than Balkan ancestry, so I shouldn’t really commit to one story or the other. Either way, it was a fun though somewhat pricey exercise that made me feel more connected to you humans.

World Cup Russia 2018: Fin.

We now enter the long, dark four-and-a-half-year-gap-between-World-Cups of the soul.

That was a pretty darn good final, and a pretty darn good World Cup overall. Not my favorite of either. I preferred the 2006 Final because it was far more dramatic (click here for my write-up from back then). I preferred Italia ’90, maybe because that’s the first one I followed– American coverage back then was so bad they had commercial breaks during the action– maybe because of the ancestral connection, but mainly because it featured a far better villain. The big storyline was whether Maradona could will his team to victory despite negative play, despite him being a horrible a@#$%^e, despite losing the opener to Cameroon, despite losing their starting keeper to a broken leg. He almost did. Thank God for West Germany.

Anyhow, back to the present. It was a pretty entertaining game. Croatia played well, but France had better players, more energy (it helps to not have to play three consecutive overtime games), more shots on frame, and more goals in the net. The end. The fact that France’s first goal came off a dive takes a teensy bit of shine off their trophy, but their other goals were legit.

An irony: both of Croatia’s goal-scorers also gave up goals. Mandžukić was “credited” with the own goal, and Perišić’s handball led to France’s penalty. I was reminded of the ’06 final, when Materazzi gave up a penalty early and scored off a corner about ten minutes alter. I hoped the parallel would extend to a Croatian victory, but… it didn’t.

France is a worthy champion, and given their youth they’ve got to be favorites to win next time. In the meantime, I’ve got four years to figure out what my students are going to do while I’m watching games in the middle of the workday.

Also in the meantime:

  • FIFA should keep tweaking VAR. I was pleasantly surprised with it this time around, but hopefully they’ll find a way to make those decisions faster.
  • They need to work harder at increasing scoring and reducing time-wasting.
  • They need to crack down harder than ever on diving.
  • They need to replace the yellow card tiebreaker rule.
  • And they need to schedule the Qatar 2022 games for whatever works out to be 5 PM and 8 PM in my time zone. I believe that’d be 8 AM and 11 AM over there.

I foresee no difficulties.