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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Until the End of Time

Here I sit in California where there is a (partial) lock down of its citizens' activities for the purposes of "social distancing" in order to (partially) reduce the impact the COVID-19 epidemic.

The toll the virus is having is bad. While merely hundreds of people have died in California as I write this, many thousands have died in New York (mostly in and around the city) and more than 10,000 have died in the United States.

The toll from the lock down is not insignificant. Many have encountered or are facing economic devastation from which they will never recover. Mental health issues including domestic abuse (from going stir crazy), depression, and suicide are likely to be much high than usual. Other adverse health impacts (for example from not being able to exercise since parks and gyms are closed) and life impacts (marriages and things like court cases being substantially delayed) are increasing by the day.

Someone had to analyze the tradeoffs between the impact of the virus and the adverse effects of a lock down. Because of the federal structure of the United States, this responsibility falls primarily to the governors and mayors of the country (states and localities).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC), state governments, and not the federal government, have most of the power to place people in isolation or quarantine under certain circumstances.
I don't envy those who have had to analyze such tradeoffs and make decisions based on that analysis. It's definitely a lose-lose situation and it's impossible to know with the limited and erroneous data available at the moment what overall impact a given decision will have.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, shut down New York state in the face of exponentially increasing deaths from COVID-19. All-in-all, I personally thought he did a good job in both making and communicating his decisions.

In the press conference where he announced the lock down, he said a couple things that I think are notable. The first was "I take full responsibility for this decision [to lock down New York]." I applaud that and that statement is part of the public record so he owns it and will own it in the future.

However, I found one of his statements quite frightening: "if everything we do saves just one life, I'll be happy." The reason I find this frightening is I've been wondering just what the threshold is in order to justify extreme measures such as a lock down.

Approximately 1,000 people die every year in New York from influenza or resulting complications. There's no doubt a yearly winter long social distancing lock down would save at least one life. Could that justify an annual lock down? A permanent lock down? If not, why not? What is the threshold in lives that justifies it? Did that threshold get lower now because of COVID-19?

There is little doubt that governments at all levels have broad powers that pretty much trump the constitution when there is a state of emergency. But defining an emergency is a subjective thing. About 3 million people die from all causes in the United States every year. If draconian measures are taken, that number could be reduced substantially. Is anything that causes significant death sufficient to declare a state of emergency? If not, why not?

Some estimates of the COVID-19 impact were millions dead in the United States. However, those numbers came from models that were based on terribly incomplete and probably extremely erroneous data. Are worst case numbers based on bogus data sufficient to declare a state of emergency? That's pretty much what happened in this case. Those numbers might turn out to be correct but that's very unlikely. But we'll never know since we don't have an alternate universe in which to test different courses of action (including doing nothing).

I find the issue of punishing everybody to protect the few interesting as well. A healthy 20-year-old has very little (or at least much less) to fear from the virus. To restrict and harm a whole and very large class of people (young) in order to benefit other people (older folks like me) without any sort of compensation seems wrong to me. The psychology of that may backfire at some point - 20-year-olds may eventually say "enough" and ignore the lockdowns.

I'm also concerned that giving police extraordinary powers is often a really bad idea because it gives a great deal of authority to people who like power and authority and often aren't terribly thoughtful or responsible. For example, yesterday police arrested a man paddleboarding in the middle of the ocean for violating California's lock down laws. They got two boats in order to chase him down, forced him to shore, handcuffed him, and took him to the nearby Sheriff's station to book him.

I guess the thinking is that if they allow one guy to paddleboard in the middle of the ocean by himself, then everybody's gonna paddleboard in the middle of the ocean by themselves and, uh, and, well, I'm not sure what the problem would be with that. Indeed, it seems to me that the police were abusing their authority and not using common sense and wasting resources.

In full disclosure, I've been sneaking on to the beach (all the beaches are closed along with the ocean) in the middle of the night in order to run because my knees only can withstand running on very soft surfaces such as deep sand. So I might also end up in the slammer like the paddleboarder. I would stick to bicycling but they've also closed all the bicycling trails. They've also closed all the gyms. So I can either sit around and get fat and out-of-shape and unhealthy or I can break the laws of this state of emergency.

But it's not just people playin' in the parks:
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has announced plans for a spying program to look for businesses that are open. He announced this week that he has already shut off the water and power to eight businesses that he didn't deem "essential."
Essential? Essential to whom? That's another subjective term. In Vermont, clothing seems to be considered non-essential:
...retailers such as Target, Walmart and Costco are now required to limit the sales of nonessential items in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The directive was announced by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development on Tuesday. The agency hopes it will reduce the overall number of people going into stores to purchase items such as clothing...
Yet I imagine if someone goes to the grocery store naked, the police would decide that clothing was indeed essential!

Where does it end? COVID-19 may be with us forever now. It may or may not be susceptible to a vaccine (other corona viruses are just colds and nobody has come up with a vaccine for them yet). It may or may not ever be reliably treatable (perhaps anti-virals will work to some degree but they probably won't be completely effective). People are still arguing over whether or not masks will help significantly (I personally am absolutely convinced masks will help).

So keeping the lock down going forever may always save one more life and give Cuomo and others the reason they need to keep New York and much of the rest of the country locked down until the end of time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Recent Real World Example of Efficiency vs. Resilience

I'm not a very good libertarian because I don't support unlimited free trade. One reason is that unrestricted free trade tends to concentrate manufacturing of given products in a small number of countries. That's very efficient, of course, because of amazing economies of scale. But what if something happens to one of those massive manufacturers? For example, in this post I wrote:
As a roboticist, I have almost a fetish for electric motors and actuators and the production thereof. While I’ve never visited their factory in China (Hong Kong area), some colleagues that have visited it describe Johnson Electric[johnson] as one of the most awesomely efficient motor production facilities in the world; in one end goes copper ore and other raw materials and out the other end comes millions of motors per day. It’s a shining example of economies of scale and efficiency. Their specialty is automotive electric motors (for power windows, for example) and they produce a significant fraction of all motors worldwide in that niche. If trade restrictions and tariffs were further reduced, no doubt they would have even a larger share of the market and be even more efficient and be able to produce and sell the motors at a somewhat lower cost.
I imagine that part of the appeal of free trade is that there would be many extremely efficient companies like Johnson Electric, each thriving in a specific niche with tremendous volumes, yet with enough competition from a handful of other companies to drive relentless innovation, quality improvement, and cost reduction.
However, there’s potentially a downside to such a scenario. What happens if something happens to Johnson Electric? What happens if there’s political unrest (war), a fire, or a natural disaster?
To war, fire and natural disaster we can now add epidemic. China's latest coronavirus problem is causing economic turmoil beyond the epicenters of the epidemic:
The coronavirus outbreak in China has generated economic waves that are rocking global commodities markets and disrupting the supply networks that act as the backbone of the global economy.
Some of this would happen if there is any international trade at all. But the more free trade there is, the more susceptible we all are to the economic disruptions that have been (and will be) caused by the virus. Having multiple sources for those things manufactured predominantly in China would be less efficient in the general case, but more resilient in the face of issues in one part of the world.

My company has been adversely affected (but not badly) by these disruptions. We have most of our electronics boards manufactured in China and we had to scramble to move that production elsewhere because the factories we normally use have been shut down due to quarantines.

Nobody twisted our arms and told us we had to manufacture in China, but in a world with minimal tariffs and minimal trade restrictions, that's simply what naturally happens. If China hadn't taken over manufacturing small quantities of boards, domestic companies would develop and while they wouldn't be as inexpensive and efficient as China was before the coronavirus outbreak, I believe it would be close enough to not matter much. In other words, less efficient, but not terribly less efficient.

Somewhat less efficient but more resilient.