On Mèng Wéizhān’s Article About U.S.-China Relations

I read Meng Weizhan’s (孟维瞻) article about how to improve U.S.-China relations from Jordan Schneider’s newsletter, and though I agreed with many of the things Meng said about what Americans get wrong about China, I couldn’t help but notice that he gets a lot wrong about the U.S. For example, in the opening paragraphs, he states:

“In the American intellectual community, criticizing China has a few unspoken rules. First, you cannot say anything that violates American political correctness. For example, you cannot attack China from the perspective of civilization and race. Second, you can’t express disappointment in the Chinese people, though some conservatives feel this way in their hearts.”

Though American intellectuals may be more politically correct than most, and though the practice of criticizing anybody other than white men have grown more and more taboo over the years, Meng appears to have deeply misunderstood Americans. First and foremost, Americans have a long history of racial conflict and racial resentment, some of which has been targeted at Asians (the Japanese internment camps in WWII), and some specifically at Chinese people (The Chinese Exclusion Act). Yes, American intellectuals are politically correct right now, but that can turn at the drop of a dime if relations between China and the U.S. heavily deteriorate. Also, keep in mind that American intellectuals have to grapple with the atrocities being committed in China. It might ordinarily be hard to criticize a different culture, but it tends to be easier when said culture is committing atrocities such as locking up Uyghurs in concentration camps.

Seeing Coronavirus Like A State

People who analyze or manipulate data on a regular basis very quickly figure out how imperfect data can be. Scott Alexander has a great post about this. Take surveys for example. The data can be screwed up in many ways. People can misread and misinterpret questions; willfully lie in their answers, either to troll the survey-taker or because they’re embarrassed by their answer; or answer as their idealized self as opposed to their actual self. Usually, this doesn’t matter because if you collect enough information, you’ll generally be able to sort signal from noise and draw some conclusions. But, sometimes being off just a little can lead to mistaken beliefs that have dire consequences (see Brexit or Donald Trump’s election).

Now how does this relate to coronavirus? Well, take the CDC’s website for example. It tells you on May 9, 2020, there were 1,274,036 cases of coronavirus and 77,034 deaths. The precise count leads you to think that the numbers are accurate, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though these numbers are prominently displayed, if you click on the “About the Data” footnote, it brings you to a section explaining that those numbers are based on “confirmed & probable cases”. Don’t let the word probable fool you. For a probable case to be reported, someone had to say, “this has not been confirmed by a laboratory test, but they displayed the symptoms for it.” This means that a large number of asymptomatic cases go uncounted and who knows how many deaths. On a theoretical level, we know that the reported cases aren’t accurate, but we don’t really grasp how inaccurate they are. We probably think, “Okay, so obviously there’s not exactly 1,274,036 cases and 77,034 deaths, but that means that there’s probably around 1.3 million cases and 80k deaths.” But the reality of the situation is those reported cases can be off by orders of magnitude. Instead of 1.3 million cases, there could be 2.6 million, or 3.9 million. Instead of 80k deaths, there could be 160k deaths, or 240k deaths. We just don’t know. With deaths especially, we won’t know the toll until months later when we can compare how many people have died compared to the baseline. And that’s the problem. You might say that those are just numbers I made up, and I would concede your point. But, what’s important to remember is that the numbers reported by the CDC everyday is the absolute baseline. A year from now, we might discover that there were actually 160k or 240k deaths by May 9th caused by coronavirus, but we will definitely no discover that there were less than 77,034. Fog of war is dangerous indeed. Here, we mistake precision for accuracy.

Corona

Okay, so what’s the point of writing this article? What’s the punchline? Is it to say that the CDC’s data collection is useless? No, that’s not it at all. I’ll get to the punchline but first I want to emphasize that it is important to be collecting this data and even though it’s inaccurate it’s better than nothing; what I want people to understand though, is that these numbers serve as a base and can be off by many orders of magnitude. So now the punchline.

There are two main points that I want to get across. The first is just how important it is for government and people to act once just one case has been reported. We already knew that coronavirus was a big problem in Wuhan, so when the first case was discovered in the U.S., we should have started taking precautions and creating contingency plans. To be clear, we shouldn’t have panicked at that time, and shouldn’t even panic now. But, once the first case is officially reported, it should be clear to everyone that there is already many more cases in the U.S. Just because the CDC says that as of a certain date, there is only one official case in the U.S. doesn’t mean that there is only one case in the U.S. I hope my previous sections make that clear. This virus and other viruses can remain asymptomatic for multiple days, so if we discover just one case, we have to think about not only all the people who have symptoms who just haven’t been discovered yet, but also the asymptomatic carriers. The ship has sailed for this pandemic but it’s a lesson we should learn for the future.

The second is to emphasize how inaccurate comparisons to the flu are. During the early stages of the coronavirus, people would compare the reported numbers to the annual flu numbers. The only problem, as pointed out by an ER doctor in Scientific American is that the flu statistics are estimates, not actual cases. He details how he’s only seen one person die of the flu in all his years as an ER doctor and that his colleagues have had similar experiences. What he ultimately realized was that the 25,000 to 69,000 annual flu deaths number cited by Trump is an estimate from the CDC based on multiplying reported numbers by a coefficient determined by an algorithm. That ultimately represents our best estimate for annual flu deaths, but comparing that number to reported coronavirus deaths is irresponsible. Actual annual counts of flu deaths over the last six years range from 3,448 to 15,620, much lower than the estimates.

Ultimately, I believe that having data on coronavirus across the U.S. is helpful, but citizens should remember that those numbers are not a representation of reality and definitely should not compare those numbers, which are most likely undercounting as is, to estimates. The map is not the territory.

Where The Comparison to Past Tragedies Falls Short

Many people and media outlets have compared the coronavirus to The Great Depression, WWII, 9/11, and other tragic events. These comparisons are apt. Unemployment is reaching levels not seen since The Great Depression; Americans, and people around the world are all bound together by this event we’re all experiencing, like we were in WWII; and the coronavirus will certainly reshape American policies as much as 9/11 did. Let’s hope we don’t repeat our past mistake of pursuing an unending war abroad while spreading racism and xenophobia at home. Yet, when I compare past tragedies to this one, I think there’s one aspect in which our current predicament is unique.

In the past, whenever we faced a life-shattering national event, we not only united as a nation, but we were also able to embrace our friends, our neighbors, and our family. Yet now, that is the one thing we cannot do. Sure, we can Zoom or call them, but as everyone can attest, virtual experiences just cannot compare to actual ones. There is just something unique about being physically close to other people and I’m sure someone can easily make an genetic argument for why that is the case. Regardless, that is now lacking. Those of us who are lucky are able to be with our nuclear families, but we still miss out on the other close bonds in our life. We even miss out on the little interactions with strangers. I can imagine people in line for rations decades earlier commiserating with their fellow man or cracking dumb jokes. Fortunately, we now aren’t facing nation-wide rations, but unfortunately, being at least six feet apart causes us to miss out on these little interactions.

I wrote this in part because I was thinking about David Brooks’s piece on the nuclear family in The Atlantic. I highly recommend reading it in full. Go ahead, I’ll wait. In summary, there was a multi-decade trend towards the nuclear family which had devastating consequences because it reduced our kinship with our grandparents, other relatives, and family friends. Happy families that are well off do pretty well in this system, but single-parent households and households with less means end up worse off in this system because they no longer have the broad support network previous generations have. In a way, we’ve all been forced to live in that word right now. We’re pretty much cut off from everyone besides the people we live with and there’s early studies (though probably take it with a grain of salt for now) that show mental health deteriorating.

If there’s any good that comes out of this, it’s that we prioritize our relationships with other people more. David Brooks, in his piece, says that the younger generations are already trending towards that right now. I think that being in quarantine will accelerate that trend. There have been many predictions about the long-term effects of the coronavirus. One of them is that remote work trends will be accelerated as white-collar workers realize how useless some meetings are and that they can do most, if not all, their work from home. I think that is true to a certain extent, but I think the other end of this is also true. We will also place added emphasis on in-person meetings because it signals how important we feel the meeting or the meeting’s attendants are. After all, if I could have done this meeting remotely, but I decided to personally fly across the country to attend this meeting, then you’d probably understand how much I value the meeting. Similarly, I think people will place additional value on in-person gatherings with the people the really care about. We’ll text and call some friends, but for those we really care about, in-person gatherings will always reign supreme.

Viewing Michael Jordan’s Flu Game Through Today’s Lens

1997 Finals, Game 5 against the Utah Jazz is one of many legendary moments in Michael Jordan’s career that people list when they tell you why is the GOAT, or when they tell you what a fierce competitor he was. There are conspiracy theories that he was actually hungover instead of sick with the flu and probable theories that he had food poisoning. I’m not here to litigate any of those debates. Instead, what’s been on my mind with the epic MJ documentary about to come out, and with coronavirus at the top of everyone’s mind, is whether MJ should have been in the game at all.

First, I’m going to assume that he actually had the flu, though I know that may have not been the case. So, the question is, given all that we know now, should Michael Jordan have played in the game if he actually had the flu, and if the answer is yes, how bad does the disease have to be for him to not play at all? To be honest, I really struggle with the question. On one hand, I think it should be an emphatic yes. It’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals for Christ’s sake with the series tied at 2-2. How could he not play? The seasonal flu is not very deadly especially for healthy, young men. But, on the other hand, what if he got other people sick? He could’ve passed this onto his teammates or even his opponents, who might have symptoms severe enough to force them to sit out the next game. If that were the case, then letting Michael Jordan play might punish the other team. If Michael Jordan does not play, what happens then? Are we going to treat the flu like an injury and just say that it’s tough luck? Players get hurt all the time, even in the Finals, yet we sit them out and play the series without them. But the flu is different. What if MJ insisted on playing? In the Finals, players would only sit out if the injury was so bad that they could not play so we accept that and let the series go on. But in MJ’s case, he would be forced to sit, not because he can’t play or won’t play, but because he’s not allowed to play. And it’s not like he’s some bench-warmer. He’s the best player on the team and the NBA’s premiere player. Forcing him to sit when he can play might cause riots, or at least a Twitter riot.

“Okay,” you might say, “the flu’s not that bad, so let him play.” But then, where’s the cutoff? Are we going to let a player play if he has coronavirus? Evidently not, based on the NBA’s decision last month. This is not just armchair philosophizing. This is a dilemma the NBA is probably confronting right now (or if they’re not, they should be). The NBA, and all the other major sports leagues, cannot and will not wait 12-18 months for a vaccine. They are all scrambling and creating contingency plans to get games going as quickly as possible. On the NBA side, the most common idea floated is getting all the playoff teams in one city and placing them in a bubble, testing everybody multiple times a day. There would be no fans watching the games, but at least the games will be broadcasted on TV, which is where the bulk of revenues come from anyways. So then the question becomes, what happens if one of the players contracts coronavirus? This would most likely be during the playoffs and maybe even in the Finals. What happens then? Does it get treated as a two-week injury, or do they play the games regardless of who is sick? If it’s regular season games, then nobody will complain about sitting, but what if it’s Game 5 of the Finals with the series tied 2-2 and the best player on one of the teams, say Giannis, gets it? My guess is that they would just sit him out and they would play the rest of the series without him. People in the media and on Twitter would go berserk, but the NBA probably cannot afford to just postpone the Finals for two weeks. There’s TV spots already booked, advertisers already lined up, venues already rented out, and probably a ton of other logistical issues that I’m not thinking of. Even if the games can be postponed again, what’s the ramp-up period back? Would Giannis be okay to play right after two weeks? What if he’s out of shape? Or, what if other players aren’t game ready and get hurt? The NBA probably doesn’t want to think about this and instead probably wants to just hope for the best, but I think they should have a plan in place. I lean towards playing the games without any infected players, but it’s dependent on the situation. It’s one thing for one player to be infected, but another story entirely if say five players between the two teams are infected. The reason I lean towards just playing the games, though, is that injuries happen all the time. Many championship runs were won on the backs of injured opposing players, and ultimately contracting coronavirus is not that different.

The Cataclysm Sentence

Radiolab recently did a podcast on a question Richard Feynman posed to a group of undergrads: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” I highly recommend checking the episode out, but it got me thinking on what sentence I would pass on.

I came up with something along the lines of this:

“We have been to the moon and back, sent machines further still, have all of the world’s information in the palm of our hands, and yet we are all but dust and shadows, extinguished by the tribal sentiments inherited millennia earlier, that we were ultimately unable to overcome.”

I chose the first part of this sentence because I wanted to convey what is possible. When humans have a concrete goal, we work harder and achieve that goal faster than when we fumble around searching for the next big thing. I assume that the next generation of creatures, if they are intelligent, might work the same way, and so I want to pass the message on of what we have achieved so that they are able to use those achievements as a model to develop technologically faster than we were.

The second part of my sentence has a built in assumption that we annihilate ourselves. I made that assumption partly because the context in which Feynman asked the question was influenced heavily by the Cold War and partly because I believe that if humans were to become extinct, it would be due to either our own action or our inaction. I specifically emphasize the danger of tribal sentiments because whenever I run down the list of existential risks, it is at the center of the cause. We ignore the risks of climate change because our various countries are split as to its dangers and because we cannot come together as a globe to address the issue. Nuclear annihilation would only happen if two or more nations were at odds with one another. Human-made pandemics would be caused by reckless experimentation due to lack of proper regulations and procedures which is rooted in competition between nations. Same with the existential risks posed by AI.

And so, I want to pass on the message of the need to unite to put the interests of our world ahead of the interests of ourselves/our nation. Do I think that that is possible? Most likely not. But, it’s the best sentence that I could come up with, and given enough iterations, hopefully some future generation of creatures really can unite in a global/universal sense.

Explaining The Real Driver of Toilet Paper Shortages

Many media outlets have blamed hoarders for the toilet paper shortages across the country and I bet, if you polled random people, they would all blame hoarders as well, but hoarders are not the main cause of this shortage. Yes, there are some hoarders, but they make up a very small percentage of the population. A more detailed look at the shortage reveals that it is instead caused by a confluence of factors: just-in-time supply chains and predictable sales, consumers using more toilet paper at home, and consumers stocking up on slightly more than before.

Let’s start with the supply chain and the sales around toilet paper. Toilet paper sales, along with the sales of other household staples, are some of the easiest to predict. That’s because the demand, in normal times, remain very stable. Each individual will use around the same toilet paper as they used the previous year regardless of their income. If you suddenly win the lottery, you might buy some nice clothes, a nice car, or some other luxury items, but you definitely will not be buying more toilet paper. The same applies to other household items such as soap, shampoo, etc. Because toilet paper is a basic necessity that is easy to produce and is relatively impervious to the status games that we play with other consumer goods, it is a low margin product. As a result, companies mainly compete by getting the cost of production as low as possible. Combined this with toilet paper’s predictable sales, and companies are incentivized to utilize just-in-time supply chains, a practice popularized and mastered by Toyota. The basic idea is to ensure that the various components that go into making a product, and the product itself, arrive “just in time”. Doing so allows companies to cut down on warehousing costs to store inventory and ensures that employees are utilized more efficiently. In normal times, this is great. Toilet paper gets bought at a constant rate and supplied at a constant rate. But, the system no longer has any slack, and when there’s a demand spike, companies are not well-positioned to meet it.

Which brings us to toilet paper usage. In ordinary times, most people spend around half their waking day either in school or at work, so when they have to go to the bathroom, they use the toilet paper there. Now, everybody is quarantined and stuck at home, so instead of using the toilet paper at their company, they are now using more of their own. “Okay,” you say, “so they use more toilet paper at home but less at work, so there’s no net change and therefore no problem, right?” Wrong. The toilet paper rolls at work and in public places are the massive rolls that do not fit onto your toilet paper rack. In fact, companies tend to specialize in one or the other (how fitting for our age of specialization), and apparently it is a difficult process to switch from producing industrial-sized rolls to consumer-friendly rolls. As a result, the companies that produce toilet paper for businesses are overloaded with product while the companies that produce toilet paper for consumers are left with little supply, which is only exacerbated by our next problem.

Most consumers are not hoarders, but most people are also not stupid. They see the news broadcasts warning them of toilet paper shortages, and though those media outlets misdiagnose the disease, they are right on its symptoms. So, when people see that stores are running out of toilet paper, their natural response is to buy some more. People also understand that they should try to limit their contact with the outside world, and so they stock up, more than usual, on supplies. In normal times, people that usually only keep a pack of six rolls at home would now buy an extra pack or two, and people that normally keep a Costco-sized pack at home now decide to instead keep two. It’s not the small minority buying massive amounts of toilet paper, but the masses buying slightly more than usual.  Combined this with the additional usage of consumer-sized toilet paper and the lack of slack caused by just-in-time supply chains, and you have a toilet paper shortage.

Are you unconvinced? Change the formula a little and see how it can be used to explain why we are seeing shortages in other basic items. Take hand sanitizer and soap. There will always people who buy massive amounts of those items in times of crises to either hoard or make a quick buck, but I’d bet the shortage there is caused by most people using more soap and hand sanitizer than before. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example since the media blames hoarders for shortages there as well. How about the shortage in yeast and board games instead? I doubt anybody is hoarding any of those items. Instead, we want to entertain ourselves while stuck at home and so consumption patterns have changed on a massive scale. Or, if you want an example of the same product for different clients not being easily changed, take this example from Marginal Revolution about food intended for restaurants not being reallocated to supermarkets. Companies that were used to a stable, easy-to-predict sales flows, are now facing major supply chain shocks. And, at the root of the problem, we find not hoarders, but the changes in consumption habits brought about by the orders to stay at home.

 

Mask Protocol: A Quick Summary

This is my attempt to summarize all the latest info on the efficacy of masks against the coronavirus. In this post, mask = surgical masks and respirator = N95 respirators.

You should wear a surgical mask. All evidence points to it. Whether it’s effective in protecting you from the coronavirus is debatable, but the evidence points to it being better than nothing. Where it’s most helpful is in helping contain the spread. Many people with coronavirus are asymptomatic, so the mask does a ton in preventing them from spreading coronavirus to others. If everybody wore masks, the virus would probably spread a lot more slowly. In fact, we should probably wear masks all the time when we’re in a public space in the future, like they do in Asia.

You should not wear a respirator. If your local hospitals are short on respirators, you should donate them. Respirators are hard to put on properly and even doctors that have been trained in putting them on have problems wearing them properly, so you probably are not using them right. It’s much better for society if you just don’t buy them at all, given the shortage, and buying masks instead will give you basically the same results and save you money.

Yes, the media was misinformed when they said that you shouldn’t wear a mask. To be fair, it wasn’t really their fault as they were just relaying the message of the central medical authorities. Maybe the authorities thought that the public couldn’t handle the nuance between buying and wearing masks vs. not buying respirators.

So, should you buy and wear masks? Yes. Should you buy and wear respirators? No. Should we wear masks in the future after the coronavirus blows over? Yes. Will we (we in this case being Americans)? Probably not.