How bad is Italy (ok, one more COVID post this week).

As of the final totals from yesterday, 22 March 2020, there have been 5476 deaths from SARS-COV-2 in Italy. To put that in perspective, in the 2013/14 influenza season, there were 7027 excess deaths due to influenza recorded. In 2014/15, a  20,259 deaths were attributed to that outbreak, while in the worse recent year, 2016/17, 24,981 died from influenza. (from Rosano et al, Int. J. Infections Diseases, Vol 88, Nov 2019, pp 127-134).

Yes, COVID19 is different in how fast cases are coming, but not in whole population mortality. The speed of progression seems to be about 4 and 6 times that of influenza, and that is producing a HUGE strain on the system. But the outcomes have yet to approach a bad influenza outbreak. The present rate of the last three days of 690/day will have to continue for another 28 days to reach the 2016/17 flu season toll. I’d be very surprised if the rates don’t start to drop soon. If they haven’t dropped in Italy in two weeks, maybe then it’s time to worry, but for now, things seem on track for this to be a “flu season in 6 weeks” virus. Catastrophic for the health care system, but not a big deal in whole population terms. In economic terms, that’s a whole different question …

To repeat from yesterday: The US health care system can’t really keep up with a normal flu season; there is no way it can handle a rapid influx. That is why COVID19 is so dangerous, and why everyone needs to take it seriously, following the CDC guidelines, exercising social distancing and hygiene protocols, and otherwise doing everything you can to try to slow down the rate of spread. It’s more than likely not about you. It’s about that 1% of so of the population who will get very sick, and may not get enough care because the system will be overloaded.  Fixating on every up or down tick in the numbers, and chasing down every wild number or wild theory making the rounds is just not sensible or conducive to sanity.  My advice is to be careful, keep watch over those around you, take advantage of the time off as you can, check the news maybe once a day to see if anything has really changed as to what you should do, but don’t drive yourself crazy hitting refresh; this is a slow motion disaster. April will be the cruelest month – but by the last week things should be looking up.

What a fashionable Italian Cat might look like.

The Worst Case Scenario (15 March 2020)

OK, here it is: SARS-COV2 continues to mutate and the mortality rate increases for younger demographics, with the whole population mortality exceeding 10%.  The economic spiral rapidly accelerates into a financial system collapse, and a global depression results.  As social unrest spreads, various state and non-state actors seek to exploit the situation, and a peer-on-peer nuclear exchange is ultimately triggered.  The surviving fraction of humanity is reduced to a mad-max style existence. This is not a joke or exaggeration, this is what some of the models and associated analyses are currently forecasting as our near term future.  However …

Mad Max Fury Road promo shot. Or Abercorn Street in Savannah on word that WalMart has toilet paper. Could go either way.

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You’re Doomed, Friday the 13th Special Edition

Some argue COVID19 is like the flu.  Others scream in outrage that it isn’t at the slightest implication that it is.  Both are right, yet dangerously wrong.

Those who say it’s nothing like the flu are right.  In many ways the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is potentially much more dangerous, especially to certain segments of society.   It is especially devastating to the health care system for two key reasons: it spreads quickly, and while the total numbers becoming seriously sick appear smaller than influenza it has a much higher complication rate for those who do get sick with it.  If we don’t take action, the US we will run out of respiratory support equipment (and people trained to use it) quickly, and it’s going to get ugly. South Korea has four times the hospital beds per capita than Italy – 12.4/1000 vs 3.4/1000.  Most areas of the US are under 3 per 1000. South Korea is farther along the progression than Italy, yet has a hospitalized/identified mortality rate of less than 1%. Italy is currently at 6.6%.

But those who say “worse than the flu!” are also wrong in a very dangerous way.  In societal terms, the hospitalization and mortality rates are comparable to influenza.  As of yesterday evening, those numbers in the outbreak areas in China and South Korea are still converging to the same range as influenza.  In areas that are still in the “exponential” part of the curve, Italy, Iran, and now Seattle, the day to day increases are scary, but are progressing in about the same way.  (As an aside, beware mathematicians who extrapolate the exponential expansion numbers: that is only one phase of the progression and doesn’t last forever …)  This is manageable with some common sense: concern is justified, appropriate and measured action is justified, fear and over reaction is not. The societal and economic impacts of fear are significant, and our economy in particular has a number of fault lines (especially in the areas of liquidity) that this has the potential to cause a major recession or worse.

Those who say it is similar to influenza also have a point, in general terms.  As noted above, the overall number of people who are getting sick, dying, etc. are about like bad influenza year.  In total number terms, based on what we saw in China and are seeing in Italy, about 400 thousand Americans will need hospitalization, and sadly about 30,000 will die.  But, again, the H3N2 influenza out break of 2017, against which the vaccine was only partially effective (and only 37% got anyway), hospitalized 810,000 and killed 61,000.  But, saying “it’s just the flu” misses the point just as badly as saying “it’s a bazillion times worse than the flu!” for the reasons noted above: it’s moving faster, and a greater strain on the health care system that doesn’t handle the annual flu outbreaks well.

This is a fascinating exercise in how people deal with risk.  It is also yet again a depressing example of a major societal threat we knew was coming, that experts warned about for many years, and recommended plans be made to deal with it.  But the short-sighted leadership class (of all political stripes) utterly failed in their responsibilities to get ready for it, and are now failing to react appropriately.  And it’s the average person who pays the price for that failure.  Sigh.

Get Away From Me! What part of “social distance” do you not understand?

Usual reminder that the CDC web site has consolidated information and links on the current situation, and as to what actions various at-risk groups should do, as well as what the general public can do to help stop the spread to those groups.

 

Dissecting COVID19 Statistics: what they really mean.

Everybody in the media seems to have become experts in epidemiology and statistics, talking about cases, R0, and mortality rates.  Here’s what all these numbers mean to you: Not much. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t freak out.  The best sources of practical information are at the CDC web site, and the DHS/FEMA “ready.gov” site. Essentially, these are common sense actions.  But, since a 100 word post just isn’t in my nature, here are a thousand or so more words on what we seem to know about COVID19 statistics from a public policy, economics, and emergency management perspective.

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COVID-19, Syria/Turkey, and the Johari Window

In my first job I traveled a lot between world capitals, often spending weeks at a time on an airplane supporting senior government officials and their teams.  One of them was an especially interesting guy, extensive experience in business, politics, and government, and had a set of “rules” he would would give out.  They really weren’t rules per se, but a collection of quotations and reflections based on his experiences, some funny, some thoughtful, that covered working in the White House and government, business, and how to stay sane in life in general. As a young officer I found them very valuable – I still have my signed copy.  Later on he became (in)famous for saying ..

…because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

That is a restatement of something developed in the mid 1950’s known as the Johari Window.  As a concept it’s been around for a while, especially in the intelligence and aerospace communities.  The basic idea is that the things that you don’t know you don’t know are the ones that have the potential to cause you the most trouble. It’s a useful tool for assessing information and decision making.  Recently several sociologists have suggested adding another category: things we do know, but don’t believe for one reason or another.  And I think that is the most dangerous category of all, and what we are facing at this moment in several areas such as with this virus.  People are thinking and acting like some information is unknown, when it is in fact known – but for various reasons don’t want to believe it.

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The Democratic Primaries: Sanders is the best choice

Politics in the US has become so nasty and confrontational I hesitate to wade in to it.  But it is vital that reasonable people try to discuss these issues rationally and not be scared off by raving ideologues and mean spirited trolls. We face serious issues, have serious differences in how to solve them, and need to have serious discussions. So in that spirit … here goes.  I’m not by any means a Democrat or Republican, although historically (pre GW Bush) I had Republican connections and leanings. This year, barring an unforeseen issue, the election will be between President Trump and the winner of the Democratic Primary.  It is vital that the candidate of each party be the best possible candidate, and present a real choice, to avoid “lessor of two evils” choices such as we had in 2016, so I feel that I have to speak up on this.  That said, there is one candidate on the Democrat side I could actually vote “for” rather than making a purely defensive choice.  And that candidate is, surprisingly, Bernie Sanders.

The main reason is foreign policy, but first let’s get economics out of the way: Sanders isn’t a communist or radical socialist, not in any sense of those words from a political science standpoint.  Sanders is a Social Democrat of the “Nordic Model” such as those implemented in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland.  Of course they aren’t perfect, but arguably those systems are better than ours in many respects, balancing capitalism, centralized government, and social programs.  These countries are all highly rated in terms of happiness, equality, opportunity, and quality of life.  I often hear folks who are on the Republican side say “who’s going to pay for all that free stuff?” and complain about the higher direct tax rate.  But of course that’s simplistic, and not how things works.  Take something like health care – arguably we pay far more than we should, with worse outcomes statistically than the Nordic nations.  Much of the ACTUAL cost of health care is hidden due to the complexity of the byzantine system the US has which is based on employment, private insurance, government programs, and  tax “incentives” (for businesses, not so much for consumers).  While hidden, a substantial part of your tax burden already goes directly and indirectly to health care.  So arguing costs is largely a specious argument if the system is redesigned. Instead of paying through multiple channels – taxes and your insurance company and your health care provider and through overhead as you do now – you’d only be paying higher taxes.  Your total actual out of pocket expenses would be the same or less and, if reasonably well designed and managed, have better outcomes on average with much greater transparency.

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Some perspective on the COVID-19 coronavirus and global response

Over the weekend there have been some major, and on the surface rather frightening developments surrounding the corornavirus outbreak that started in China last year.  So how bad is it, and should you be freaking out?  When the media starts using words like “pandemic” people start to panic.  But the bottom line on this situation is there is more reason to worry about the panic than the pandemic.  Here’s some perspective:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.  In English, that’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related (SARS) CoronaVirus.  Here’s what the beast looks like …

CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312.

Part of the problem is that the info coming out of China is pretty obviously crap.  We just don’t have a good picture of things like how contagious it is, and in particular nobody really believes the statistics on the number of cases and associated mortality rate.  That has given rise to lots of crazy rumors and fear mongering. But it seems like the following is true of COVID-19, based on reliable sources: Continue reading

Do satellite images show the Chinese burning thousands of bodies outside Wuhan?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:  No, here’s the background:  There are a number of reports floating around that are implying that satellite data is showing high Sulphur Dioxide emissions outside Wuhan, China,and that means they are secretly burning thousands of bodies.  It’s being widely reported, especially on “alternative” news sites based on images from “windy.com”.  Here one such image (screenshot from windy.com):

Well, it’s just not true.

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Iran, Iraq, and the attack on Soleimani (Updated 6 Jan)

The news that the US conducted a “precision attack”, “preemptive strike”, “assassination”, “act of war”, whatever you want to call it, and killed not only the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and a PMF leader (perhaps legitimate targets), but a number of Iraqi government security personnel has roiled Near East Asia and put the world on edge for what will happen next. I won’t spend much time discussing whether or not it made any sense to conduct this attack because the reason why it was a bad idea is obvious from the analysis of what might happen next.  But I will say it was an irresponsible thing to do, especially in the where and when it was done.

My position is that overt, public attacks on the leadership of sovereign nations outside of war is highly questionable both from a legal and effectiveness standpoint, and causes more harm than good. There must be a bright line between war and judicial/legal enforcement.  Of course there is a third way – the covert op way – but that’s a different and complex discussion.  I certainly won’t argue that Soleimani wasn’t behind a lot of actions that the US views as terrorism (a term I dislike in this case – what we are seeing is asymmetric warfare conducted by a nation-state).  If it’s that bad (and and argument could be made it is), collect allies, take it to congress, declare war, follow international law, take action.  Here comes the angry rant: In my opinion, in this case any analyst that thought this was a good idea should be fired.  You could put the skull of anyone associated with this operation up to your ear, and you would hear the ocean.  This was next level dumb.  Yes, I’m angry about this because it puts a lot of lives at risk, it violates international law, and compromises the US moral and strategic position both in the region and globally.

My position isn’t based on domestic politics – that’s not an attack on the Trump Administration, because Iran policy has been stupid for a long time, and the concept of assassination by targeted strike in third countries with which we are not at war has been around a long time; in modern times, the Clinton administration used cruise missiles, the Bush II/Obama and now Trump admins use drones. It has distorted US foreign policy, and should stop.  OK, now that’s out of the way, lets gaze into the crystal ball and try to figure out what it means.

Some in the US are hoping on the Iranians “get the message” and back off their support for various proxies around the Middle East; but I think a lot of analysts (not just Republicans, but those on the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the Democrat Party a well) are actually hoping Iran will react directly and give the US an opportunity (excuse) to execute a “regime change” operation.  Only the second has much of any chance of happening – and given the “success” of the last three attempts at regime change operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) it’s hard to see how an outright war with Iran could play out successfully.

How will Iran react, and when?  My guess is nothing happens until Monday (6 Jan) for several reasons.  First, they will want to exploit the mourning period (three days), and fire up the masses.  Second, they will need time to come up with a plan (or, more likely, decide which pre-planned response to trigger) and implement it.  Finally, they are watching developments in the world, especially Iraq.

I don’t think the Government of Iran will act until they see how the Government of Iraq reacts to the fact that the US violated our agreement on keeping troops in their country, not to mention quaint concepts like international norms and law.  Iran has the high ground diplomatically right now, and won’t want to squander it.  If the US is thrown out of Iraq, its position in Syria is utterly undermined, and much of US containment policy against Iran unravels.  If asked to leave and the US refuses, it will rapidly get bogged down in a major counter-insurgency operation in Iraq that will make actions against Iran difficult or impossible.  Even if, ultimately, Iraq decides not to take drastic action, it has soured the relationship and will make future operations much more difficult. Iraq is a very complex place.  Yes, some are cheering this attack, and others are plotting revenge for them.  But for those in the middle, who don’t really like either the US or Iran, it has placed them in a very difficult position and moved the balance towards Iran.   This is why it was utterly foolish for the US to attack Suleimani on Iraqi soil – especially killing Iraqi security forces in the process.  It totally undermines an already iffy presence and will lead to the US being forced out, or, more likely, bogged down and compromised.

At this point, neither side is in a position to back down unless there are no further incidents by either side, but that doesn’t seem likely, as the US has conducted additional strikes Saturday, and Iran feels it must respond.  Worse, the problem is that Iranian proxies, who have a long personal relationship with Soleimani, may not give Iran time to let things play out.  They may give the US the excuse it needs, and any attack by a proxy will be played as an attack by Iran, even if Iran didn’t want or ask for it.

Most media analysts are discussing this in primarily military terms.  The force structures and objectives are so different, it’s almost nonsensical.  Certainly the US could, at some cost, eliminate the Iranian military in a few days or weeks at most.  Only Russia or China could potentially stand up to an all out assault from the US, and those would be bloody for both sides with “victory” unlikely for anyone but the cockroaches.  But Iran just doesn’t have the technology or resources to stand up to a US conventional attack.  It won’t be as easy as some might think, but Iran has no conventional chance at all.

However,for the most part Iran won’t fight conventionally, even if attacked that way.  Iran could inflict harm on the US via asymmetric means (aka terrorism), but I think this is somewhat overplayed with respect to the “homeland”.  Europe and the Middle East are another matter, and regional disruptions are assured if this escalates.   Those analysts discussing the economic aspects seem to be focused on the impact on Iran, and the fact that the US has enough domestic energy (oil) production to ride out major disruptions in Persian Gulf Oil that would result from an all out conflict. Some would even argue the US would benefit – China is very dependent on Middle East energy, so some also argue it’s a win-win: take out Iran, disrupt China.  That’s probably correct from a narrow view, but this misses a vital point.  Despite stock market trends, the US economic situation is extremely fragile on a number of levels – it would take a very long post just to provide the background on that.

While it is true that US oil production is rather high, it is based on the rapidly diminishing returns from fracking and shale oil.  It might ride out a short crisis – and that may be part of the rush to war, since once the boom ends, the US will again be vulnerable to Middle East disruptions.  But the main problem is how intertwined global economies and credit markets are.  The view that a oil disruption induced financial crisis would remain confined to China or Europe is probably wishful thinking.  If Iran (or proxies) attack Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, disrupting supplies, it may cause the economic dominoes to start falling across Asia and Europe, ultimately impacting the US.  Interestingly Russia would likely be little impacted by all this, in part because of US and European sanctions, which has forced them to insulated themselves somewhat from the Western economic system.  And of course they have significant oil and gas supplies, and could profit from the situation.  A few are making the utterly ridiculous argument that Trump is Putin’s puppet, and because Russia might benefit directly from this conflict they are orchestrating it.  Any serious student of Russian foreign policy would know this is absurd.  Russia has been pushing for stability and stabilization in the region – on their terms, to be sure, but if they were given advance work of the strike (and there is absolutely zero evidence they did) they would have opposed it.

A further revelation came this Sunday, that Soleimani may have been involved in passing messages between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran to de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen (and the resulting attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure).    If so, that makes the US strike even more inflammatory and questionable.

So, while the reasons are complex, ultimately the risk isn’t war – bad as that might be for those involved – the risk is that conflict will trigger a major economic crisis.

 

Twenty Questions (and answers, sort of) on the House Report, Impeachment, Russia, and Ukraine

If you don’t want to wade through all 300 pages of the House “Intelligence” Committee Report (which, unless you take proper precautions, will shave 50 points off your IQ), read the Republican rebuttals (which will take care of any remaining points), and are unable to read thousands of pages of documents in multiple languages, research at least 30 years or so of complex and often obscure history to understand this in context here’s twenty questions and answers (sort of, with a dose of snark) to clear things up:

  1. Did Trump and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  2. Did they commit crimes? Almost certainly. Trump’s people seem to be amateurs at political crime.
  3. Did Biden and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  4. Did they commit crimes? Perhaps, but Biden is experienced at committing crimes legally so maybe not technically in violation of US law.  Ethically?  Oh, yeah …
  5. Did Russia attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  6. Did Ukraine attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  7. Wait – did any foreign country *not* attempt to influence the 2016 election? I doubt it. They’d be crazy not to, given the US is by far the world’s largest military power (and doesn’t hesitate to blow stuff up for “reasons”) as well as one of the top two economic powers depending on how you crunch the numbers, and there too it throws its weight around based more on domestic politics than sound foreign policy. US administrations of both ilks generally don’t follow international law they don’t like, freely abrogates treaties, and only participates in multilateral organizations when it can get its way. So about the only way to influence US foreign policy is to attempt to influence domestic US elections, and most countries do it, some far more overtly than Russia or Ukraine did (Israel, for example, or China.). And of course the US actively influences, interferes, and overthrows elections worldwide at will … so it sort of deserves it. I’ve seen nothing in what Russia did in 2016 that is technically different than what the US did in Ukraine in the lead up to the 2014 Maidan revolution.  And, again, many other countries have used similar techniques to influence US politicians, elections, and policy.
  8. Isn’t (pick something you don’t like from (1) through (7) above) just a conspiracy theory? More than likely, that thing you don’t like is at least partly if not mostly true with just enough uncertainty/fiction/error/bad reporting to allow you to discount it and keep believing the stuff you want to believe – which is also probably mostly true, but lacks context and your conclusions are just as wrong, without context, as the “conspiracy theory” you just dismissed.
  9. Is Russia our enemy? It’s not straightforward, but even though there are some problematic aspects and some serious issues, essentially No.
  10. Why do so many in the US Government hate Russia? It’s really complicated, mostly involving history, ego, bias, ignorance, and convenience. And money and resources. Lots and Lots of Money.
  11. Is Ukraine our friend? It’s not straightforward, but even though the majority of average people in Ukraine are great, and trapped in a horrible geopolitical trap, essentially No. Unless you don’t mind Nazis, or can be bribed (or better yet both). Then, yes, a lot of the current Ukrainian Government and Military is your friend.
  12. Why do so many in the US Government love Ukraine? Also really complicated, but mostly because they hate Russia for various reasons. But also money. Did I mention money?
  13. Is the Russia-Ukraine conflict a vital US concern? Really hard to see any vital US interests in it, in the great scheme of things, and a lot of the conflict is on various levels the fault of the US and NATO.
  14.  Did the US violate agreements and common sense to get involved? Yes. This is a result of 30 years of idiotic policies and greed with respect to the former Soviet Union.
  15. Why did it become so central to US Politics? Did I mention money? Follow the money. Also, hubris.
  16. Are the various career State and Military officials sincerely doing what they think is best for the United States? Sadly, they probably think they are.
  17. Are they doing what is best for the Country? Absolutely not. And there is nothing more dangerous than someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, and aren’t. They are sincere – sincerely delusional; and are blind to their own biases.
  18. What makes you so right and them so wrong? The main reason is I don’t have any overt conflicts of interest.  I also use multiple sources on all sides, and I don’t make assumptions unless I have to.  When I do, I try to constantly re-evaluate them. But the main reason is I don’t care about being wrong yesterday as long as I understand why, so I can do my best to be right today or tomorrow. Most analysts invest a lot of effort in proving they were right yesterday … and in the case of Russia/Ukraine, yesterday (Soviet times) was a different world from today.
  19. Where can I get unbiased information to understand this mess? Sadly, that’s hard. The few rational voices on this subject are marginalized and dismissed, and to understand the complex and overlapping issues of US, Russian, and Ukrainian domestic politics plus the multilateral treaty aspects you also you need to have access to Russian and Ukrainian sources. And then study international affairs ranging from bilateral agreements to international law. It’s nuanced – and nuance is an alien concept in modern American reporting. If you don’t agree with the “Putin owns tRump and is bad” narrative, or the “Our President is a saint, Biden, Ukraine, and Hillary’s Emails are Bad” extremes, it’s hard to be heard. Stephen F. Cohen, for example, is one of the few sane voices on the subject of Russia, and has been for 50 years, yet is dismissed as a “Putin Apologist” by both sides these days. There was a good background article in the otherwise establishment echo-chamber that is Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” by John Mearsheimer (who is sort of a an idiot about nuclear weapons, but got this right).
  20. Are we doomed? Yeah, probably.

There, hope that clears things up …