Unending nightmares

Sep 19 JDN 2459477

We are living in a time of unending nightmares.

As I write this, we have just passed the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Yet only in the past month were US troops finally withdrawn from Afghanistan—and that withdrawal was immediately followed by a total collapse of the Afghan government and a reinstatement of the Taliban. The United States had been at war for nearly 20 years, spending trillions of dollars and causing thousands of deaths—and seems to have accomplished precisely nothing.

Some left-wing circles have been saying that the Taliban offered surrender all the way back in 2001; this is not accurate. Alternet even refers to it as an “unconditional surrender” which is utter nonsense. No one in their right mind—not even the most die-hard imperialist—would ever refuse an unconditional surrender, and the US most certainly did nothing of the sort.)

The Taliban did offer a peace deal in 2001, which would have involved giving the US control of Kandahar and turning Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country (not to the US or any US ally). It would also have granted amnesty to a number of high-level Taliban leaders, which was a major sticking point for the US. In hindsight, should they have taken the deal? Obviously. But I don’t think that was nearly so clear at the time—nor would it have been particularly palatable to most of the American public to leave Osama bin Laden under house arrest in some neutral country (which they never specified by the way; somewhere without US extradition, presumably?) and grant amnesty to the top leaders of the Taliban.

Thus, even after the 20-year nightmare of the war that refused to end, we are still back to the nightmare we were in before—Afghanistan ruled by fanatics who will oppress millions.

Yet somehow this isn’t even the worst unending nightmare, for after a year and a half we are still in the throes of a global pandemic which has now caused over 4.6 million deaths. We are still wearing masks wherever we go—at least, those of us who are complying with the rules. We have gotten vaccinated already, but likely will need booster shots—at least, those of us who believe in vaccines.

The most disturbing part of it all is how many people still aren’t willing to follow the most basic demands of public health agencies.

In case you thought this was just an American phenomenon: Just a few days ago I looked out the window of my apartment to see a protest in front of the Scottish Parliament complaining about vaccine and mask mandates, with signs declaring it all a hoax. (Yes, my current temporary apartment overlooks the Scottish Parliament.)

Some of those signs displayed a perplexing innumeracy. One sign claimed that the vaccines must be stopped because they had killed 1,400 people in the UK. This is not actually true; while there have been 1,400 people in the UK who died after receiving a vaccine, 48 million people in the UK have gotten the vaccine, and many of them were old and/or sick, so, purely by statistics, we’d expect some of them to die shortly afterward. Less than 100 of these deaths are in any way attributable to the vaccine. But suppose for a moment that we took the figure at face value, and assumed, quite implausibly, that everyone who died shortly after getting the vaccine was in fact killed by the vaccine. This 1,400 figure needs to be compared against the 156,000 UK deaths attributable to COVID itself. Since 7 million people in the UK have tested positive for the virus, this is a fatality rate of over 2%. Even if we suppose that literally everyone in the UK who hasn’t been vaccinated in fact had the virus, that would still only be 20 million (the UK population of 68 million – the 48 million vaccinated) people, so the death rate for COVID itself would still be at least 0.8%—a staggeringly high fatality rate for a pandemic airborne virus. Meanwhile, even on this ridiculous overestimate of the deaths caused by the vaccine, the fatality rate for vaccination would be at most 0.003%. Thus, even by the anti-vaxers’ own claims, the vaccine is nearly 300 times safer than catching the virus. If we use the official estimates of a 1.9% COVID fatality rate and 100 deaths caused by the vaccines, the vaccines are in fact over 9000 times safer.

Yet it does seem to be worse in the United States, as while 22% of Americans described themselves as opposed to vaccination in general, only about 2% of Britons said the same.

But this did not translate to such a large difference in actual vaccination: While 70% of people in the UK have received the vaccine, 64% of people in the US have. Both of these figures are tantalizingly close to, yet clearly below, the at least 84% necessary to achieve herd immunity. (Actually some early estimates thought 60-70% might be enough—but epidemiologists no longer believe this, and some think that even 90% wouldn’t be enough.)

Indeed, the predominant tone I get from trying to keep up on the current news in epidemiology is fatalism: It’s too late, we’ve already failed to contain the virus, we won’t reach herd immunity, we won’t ever eradicate it. At this point they now all seem to think that COVID is going to become the new influenza, always with us, a major cause of death that somehow recedes into the background and seems normal to us—but COVID, unlike influenza, may stick around all year long. The one glimmer of hope is that influenza itself was severely hampered by the anti-pandemic procedures, and influenza cases and deaths are indeed down in both the US and UK (though not zero, nor as drastically reduced as many have reported).

The contrast between terrorism and pandemics is a sobering one, as pandemics kill far more people, yet somehow don’t provoke anywhere near as committed a response.

9/11 was a massive outlier in terrorism, at 3,000 deaths on a single day; otherwise the average annual death rate by terrorism is about 20,000 worldwide, mostly committed by Islamist groups. Yet the threat is not actually to Americans in particular; annual deaths due to terrorism in the US are less than 100—and most of these by right-wing domestic terrorists, not international Islamists.

Meanwhile, in an ordinary year, influenza would kill 50,000 Americans and somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000 people worldwide. COVID in the past year and a half has killed over 650,000 Americans and 4.6 million people worldwide—annualize that and it would be 400,000 per year in the US and 3 million per year worldwide.

Yet in response to terrorism we as a country were prepared to spend $2.3 trillion dollars, lose nearly 4,000 US and allied troops, and kill nearly 50,000 civilians—not even counting the over 60,000 enemy soldiers killed. It’s not even clear that this accomplished anything as far as reducing terrorism—by some estimates it actually made it worse.

Were we prepared to respond so aggressively to pandemics? Certainly not to influenza; we somehow treat all those deaths are normal or inevitable. In response to COVID we did spend a great deal of money, even more than the wars in fact—a total of nearly $6 trillion. This was a very pleasant surprise to me (it’s the first time in my lifetime I’ve witnessed a serious, not watered-down Keynesian fiscal stimulus in the United States). And we imposed lockdowns—but these were all-too quickly removed, despite the pleading of public health officials. It seems to be that our governments tried to impose an aggressive response, but then too many of the citizens pushed back against it, unwilling to give up their “freedom” (read: convenience) in the name of public safety.

For the wars, all most of us had to do was pay some taxes and sit back and watch; but for the pandemic we were actually expected to stay home, wear masks, and get shots? Forget it.

Politics was clearly a very big factor here: In the US, the COVID death rate map and the 2020 election map look almost equivalent: By and large, people who voted for Biden have been wearing masks and getting vaccinated, while people who voted for Trump have not.

But pandemic response is precisely the sort of thing you can’t do halfway. If one area is containing a virus and another isn’t, the virus will still remain uncontained. (As some have remarked, it’s rather like having a “peeing section” of a swimming pool. Much worse, actually, as urine contains relatively few bacteria—but not zero—and is quickly diluted by the huge quantities of water in a swimming pool.)

Indeed, that seems to be what has happened, and why we can’t seem to return to normal life despite months of isolation. Since enough people are refusing to make any effort to contain the virus, the virus remains uncontained, and the only way to protect ourselves from it is to continue keeping restrictions in place indefinitely.

Had we simply kept the original lockdowns in place awhile longer and then made sure everyone got the vaccine—preferably by paying them for doing it, rather than punishing them for not—we might have been able to actually contain the virus and then bring things back to normal.

But as it is, this is what I think is going to happen: At some point, we’re just going to give up. We’ll see that the virus isn’t getting any more contained than it ever was, and we’ll be so tired of living in isolation that we’ll finally just give up on doing it anymore and take our chances. Some of us will continue to get our annual vaccines, but some won’t. Some of us will continue to wear masks, but most won’t. The virus will become a part of our lives, just as influenza did, and we’ll convince ourselves that millions of deaths is no big deal.

And then the nightmare will truly never end.

The extreme efficiency of environmental regulation—and the extreme inefficiency of war

Apr 8 JDN 2458217

Insofar as there has been any coherent policy strategy for the Trump administration, it has largely involved three things:

  1. Increase investment in military, incarceration, and immigration enforcement
  2. Redistribute wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich
  3. Remove regulations that affect business, particularly environmental regulations

The human cost of such a policy strategy is difficult to overstate. Literally millions of people will die around the world if such policies continue. This is almost the exact opposite of what our government should be doing.

This is because military is one of the most wasteful and destructive forms of government investment, while environmental regulation is one of the most efficient and beneficial. The magnitude of these differences is staggering.

First of all, it is not clear that the majority of US military spending provides any marginal benefit. It could quite literally be zero. The US spends more on military than the next ten countries combined.

I think it’s quite reasonable to say that the additional defense benefit becomes negligible once you exceed the sum of spending from all plausible enemies. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia together add up to about $350 billion per year. Current US spending is $610 billion per year. (And this calculation, by the way, requires them all to band together, while simultaneously all our NATO allies completely abandon us.) That means we could probably cut $260 billion per year without losing anything.

What about the remaining $350 billion? I could be extremely generous here, and assume that nuclear weapons, alliances, economic ties, and diplomacy all have absolutely no effect, so that without our military spending we would be invaded and immediately lose, and that if we did lose a war with China or Russia it would be utterly catastrophic and result in the deaths of 10% of the US population. Since in this hypothetical scenario we are only preventing the war by the barest margin, each year of spending only adds 1 year to the lives of the war’s potential victims. That means we are paying some $350 billion per year to add 1 year to the lives of 32 million people. That is a cost of about $11,000 per QALY. If it really is saving us from being invaded, that doesn’t sound all that unreasonable. And indeed, I don’t favor eliminating all military spending.

Of course, the marginal benefit of additional spending is still negligible—and UN peacekeeping is about twice as cost-effective as US military action, even if we had to foot the entire bill ourselves.

Alternatively, I could consider only the actual, documented results of our recent military action, which has resulted in over 280,000 deaths in Iraq and 110,000 in Afghanistan, all for little or no apparent gain. Life expectancy in these countries is about 70 in Iraq and 60 in Afghanistan. Quality of life there is pretty awful, but people are also greatly harmed by war without actually dying in it, so I think a fair conversion factor is about 60 QALY per death. That’s a loss of 23.4 MQALY. The cost of the Iraq War was about $1.1 trillion, while the cost of the Afghanistan War was about a further $1.1 trillion. This means that we paid $94,000 per lost QALY. If this is right, we paid enormous amounts to destroy lives and accomplished nothing at all.

Somewhere in between, we could assume that cutting the military budget greatly would result in the US being harmed in a manner similar to World War 2, which killed about 500,000 Americans. Paying $350 billion per year to gain 500,000 QALY per year is a price of $700,000 per QALY. I think this is about right; we are getting some benefit, but we are spending an enormous amount to get it.

Now let’s compare that to the cost-effectiveness of environmental regulation.

Since 1990, the total cost of implementing the regulations in the Clean Air Act was about $65 billion. That’s over 28 years, so less than $2.5 billion per year. Compare that to the $610 billion per year we spend on the military.

Yet the Clean Air Act saves over 160,000 lives every single year. And these aren’t lives extended one more year as they were in the hypothetical scenario where we are just barely preventing a catastrophic war; most of these people are old, but go on to live another 20 years or more. That means we are gaining 3.2 MQALY for a price of $2.5 billion. This is a price of only $800 per QALY.

From 1970 to 1990, the Clean Air Act cost more to implement: about $520 billion (so, you know, less than one year of military spending). But its estimated benefit was to save over 180,000 lives per year, and its estimated economic benefit was $22 trillion.

Look at those figures again, please. Even under very pessimistic assumptions where we would be on the verge of war if not for our enormous spending, we’re spending at least $11,000 and probably more like $700,000 on the military for each QALY gained. But environmental regulation only costs us about $800 per QALY. That’s a factor of at least 14 and more likely 1000. Environmental regulation is probably about one thousand times as cost-effective as military spending.

And I haven’t even included the fact that there is a direct substitution here: Climate change is predicted to trigger thousands if not millions of deaths due to military conflict. Even if national security were literally the only thing we cared about, it would probably still be more cost-effective to invest in carbon emission reduction rather than building yet another aircraft carrier. And if, like me, you think that a child who dies from asthma is just as important as one who gets bombed by China, then the cost-benefit analysis is absolutely overwhelming; every $60,000 spent on war instead of environmental protection is a statistical murder.

This is not even particularly controversial among economists. There is disagreement about specific environmental regulations, but the general benefits of fighting climate change and keeping air and water clean are universally acknowledged. There is disagreement about exactly how much military spending is necessary, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an economist who doesn’t think we could cut our military substantially with little or no risk to security.

The challenges of a global basic income

JDN 2457404

In the previous post I gave you the good news. Now for the bad news.

So we are hoping to implement a basic income of $3,000 per person per year worldwide, eliminating poverty once and for all.

There is no global government to implement this system. There is no global income tax to be collected or refunded. The United Nations and the World Bank, for all the good work that they do, are nowhere near powerful enough (or well-funded enough) to accomplish this feat.

Worse, the people we need to help the most, not coincidentally, live in the countries that are worst-managed. They are surrounded not only by squalor, but also by corruption, war, ethnic tension. Most of the people are underfed, uneducated, and dying from diseases such as malaria and schistomoniasis that we could treat in a day for pocket change. Their infrastructure is either crumbling or nonexistent. Their water is unsafe to drink. And worst of all, many of their governments don’t care. Tyrants like Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-un, King Salman (of our lovely ally Saudi Arabia), and Isayas Afewerki care nothing for the interests of the people they rule, and are interested only in maximizing their own wealth and power. If we arranged to provide grants to these countries in an amount sufficient to provide the basic income, there’s no reason to think they’d actually provide it; they’d simply deposit the check in their own personal bank accounts, and use it to buy ever more extravagant mansions or build ever greater monuments to themselves. They really do seem to follow a utility function based entirely upon their own consumption; witness your neoclassical rational agent and despair.

There are ways for international institutions and non-governmental organizations to intervene to help people in these countries, and indeed many have done so to considerable effect. As bad as things are, they are much better than they used to be, and they promise to be even better tomorrow. But there is only so much they can do without the force of law at their backs, without the power to tax incomes and print currency.

We will therefore need a new kind of institutional framework, if not a true world government then something very much like it. Establishing this new government will not be easy, and worst of all I see no way to do it other than military force. Tyrants will not give up their power willingly; it will need to be taken from them. We will need to capture and imprison tyrants like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Un in the same way that we once did to mob bosses like John Dillinger and Al Capone, for ultimately a tyrant is nothing but a mob boss with an army.Unless we can find some way to target them precisely and smoothly replace their regimes with democracies, this will mean nothing less than war, and it could kill thousands, even millions of people—but millions of people are already dying, and will continue to die as long as we leave these men in power. Sanctions might help (though sanctions kill people too), and perhaps a few can be persuaded to step down, but the rest must be overthrown, by some combination of local revolutions and international military coalitions. The best model I’ve seen for how this might be pulled off is Libya, where Qaddafi was at last removed by an international military force supporting a local revolution—but even Libya is not exactly sunshine and rainbows right now. One of the first things we need to do is seriously plan a strategy for removing repressive dictators with a minimum of collateral damage.

To many, I suspect this sounds like imperialism, colonialism redux. Didn’t so many imperialistic powers say that they were doing it to help the local population? Yes, they did; and one of the facts that we must face up to is that it was occasionally true. Or if helping the local population was not their primary motivation, it was nonetheless a consequence. Countries colonized by the British Empire in particular are now the most prosperous, free nations in the world: The United States, Canada, Australia. South Africa and India might seem like exceptions (GDP PPP per capita of $12,400 and $5,500 respectively) but they really aren’t, compared to what they were before—or even compared to what is next to them today: Angola has a per capita GDP PPP of $7,546 while Bangladesh has only $2,991. Zimbabwe is arguably an exception (per capita GDP PPP of $1,773), but their total economic collapse occurred after the British left. To include Zimbabwe in this basic income program would literally triple the income of most of their population. But to do that, we must first get through Robert Mugabe.

Furthermore, I believe that we can avoid many of the mistakes of the past. We don’t have to do exactly the same thing that countries used to do when they invaded each other and toppled governments. Of course we should not enslave, subjugate, or murder the local population—one would hope that would go without saying, but history shows it doesn’t. We also shouldn’t annex the territory and claim it as our own, nor should we set up puppet governments that are only democratic as long as it serves our interests. (And make no mistake, we have done this, all too recently.) The goal must really be to help the people of countries like Zimbabwe and Eritrea establish their own liberal democracy, including the right to make policies we don’t like—or even policies we think are terrible ideas. If we can do so without war, of course we should. But right now what is usually called “pacifism” leaves millions of people to starve while we do nothing.

The argument that we have previously supported (or even continue to support, ahem, Saudi Arabia) many of these tyrants is sort of beside the point. Yes, that is clearly true; and yes, that is clearly terrible. But do you think that if we simply leave the situation alone they’ll go away? We should never have propped up Saddam Hussein or supported the mujihadeen who became the Taliban; and yes, I do think we could have known that at the time. But once they are there, what do you propose to do now? Wait for them to die? Hope they collapse on their own? Give our #thoughtsandprayers to revolutionaries? When asked what you think we should do, “We shouldn’t have done X” is not a valid response.

Imagine there is a mob boss who had kidnapped several families and is holding them in a warehouse. Suppose that at some point the police supported the mob boss in some way; in a deal to undermine a worse rival mafia family, they looked the other way on some things he did, or even gave him money that he used to strengthen his mob. (With actual police, the former is questionable, but actually done all the time; the latter would be definitely illegal. In the international analogy, both are ubiquitous.) Even suppose that the families who were kidnapped were previously from a part of town that the police would regularly shake down for petty crimes and incessant stop-and-frisks. The police definitely have a lot to answer for in all this; their crimes should not be forgotten. But how does it follow in any way that the police should not intervene to rescue the families from the warehouse? Suppose we even know that the warehouse is heavily guarded, and the resulting firefight may kill some of the hostages we are hoping to save. This gives us reason to negotiate, or to find the swiftest, most precise means to deploy the SWAT teams; but does it give us reason to do nothing?

Once again I think Al Capone is the proper analogy; when the FBI captured Al Capone, they didn’t bomb Chicago to the ground, nor did they attempt to enslave the population of Illinois. They thought of themselves as targeting one man and his lieutenants and re-establishing order and civil government to a free people; that is what we must do in Eritrea and Zimbabwe. (In response to all this, no doubt someone will say: “You just want the US to be the world’s police.” Well, no, I want an international coalition; but yes, given our military and economic hegemony, the US will take a very important role. Above all, yes, I want the world to have police. Why don’t you?)

For everything we did wrong in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think we actually did this part right: Afghanistan’s GDP PPP per capita has risen over 70% since 2002, and Iraq’s is now 17% higher than its pre-war peak. It’s a bit early to say whether we have really established stable liberal democracies there, and the Iraq War surely contributed to the rise of Daesh; but when the previous condition was the Taliban and Saddam Hussein it’s hard not to feel that things are at least somewhat improving. In a generation or two maybe we really will say “Iraq” in the same breath as “Korea” as one of the success stories of prosperous democracies set up after US wars. Or maybe it will all fall apart; it’s hard to say at this point.

So, we must find a way to topple the tyrants. Once that is done, we will need to funnel huge amounts of resources—at least one if not two orders of magnitude larger than our current level of foreign aid into building infrastructure, educating people, and establishing sound institutions. Our current “record high” foreign aid is less than 0.3% of world’s GDP. We have a model for this as well: It’s what we did in West Germany and Japan after WW2, as well as what we did in South Korea after the Korean War. It is not a coincidence that Germany soon regained its status as a world power while Japan and Korea were the first of the “Asian Tigers”, East Asian nations that rose up to join us at a First World standard of living.

Will all of this be expensive? Absolutely. By assuming $3,000 per person per year I am already figuring in an expenditure of $21 trillion per year, indefinitely. This would be the most expensive project upon which humanity has ever embarked. But it could also be the most important—an end to poverty, everywhere, forever. And we have that money, we’re simply using it for other things. At purchasing power parity the world spends over $100 trillion per year. Using 20% of the world’s income to eliminate poverty forever doesn’t seem like such a bad deal to me. (It’s not like it would disappear; it would be immediately spent back into the economy anyway. We might even see growth as a result.)

When dealing with events on this scale, it’s easy to get huge numbers that sound absurd. But even if we assumed that only the US, Europe, and China supported this program, it would only take 37% of our combined income—roughly what we currently spend on housing.

Whenever people complain, “We spend billions of dollars a year on aid, and we haven’t solved world hunger!” the proper answer is, “That’s right; we should be spending trillions.”