What happened to Ebola?

The Ebola outbreak was one of 2014’s biggest stories. But now, by the year’s end, we rarely hear about it. So what happened?

For one, the survival rate among patients is improving, at least in Sierra Leone. Among patients admitted since November 4 to a particular clinic in Sierra Leon’s capital, only 24 percent have died.

All this has led to a smaller number of cases than the CDC expected by year’s end. One of its estimates put the January 2015 number at 1.4 million cases—73 times higher than the 19,000 cases reported by December 21 (that’s embarrassing!).

Ebola also failed to show up in the United States after the most recent confirmed case in New York City on October 24, and those Americans who did contract Ebola fared fairly well on average—just one in four died of the disease.

So to sum up, Ebola didn’t turn out to be as big of a deal as either the CDC or some paranoid, alarm-sounding Republicans made it out to be. Those who predicted we’d all die unless government took drastic measures (like banning flights) were wrong.

This raises an interesting thought experiment: Suppose government had banned flights from infected countries. Suppose they did so on October 25—one day after the most recent confirmed case in America. It’s likely we’d credit the lack of any further cases to government’s action. We’d pat ourselves on the back for supporting a flight ban, and we’d have “evidence” to support the use of more flight bans in the future should something like the Ebola outbreak happen again.

This “evidence,” of course, would be faulty. Ebola wasn’t going to spread any further in the United States whether government banned flights or not. This is fact.

But suppose something else. Suppose other actions the government has taken to combat some perceived threat—say, drone strikes of suspected terrorists in the Middle East to combat the threat of terror, or mandating certain vaccines to combat widespread outbreaks of disease—have had the same effect of apparent usefulness but have, in reality, fought a non-existent threat. How many of those roles government assumes are really just big wastes of money?

Some interesting facts from 2014

Here’s a cool piece from Pew Research. It lists “14 striking findings from 2014.” Here are some highlights (though you really should go check out the whole piece…it’s quite interesting!).

  1. The median wealth of white households is 13 times that of black households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. That’s insane!
  2. 63 percent of Americans say it’s a good thing that states are moving away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. This is up from 47 percent in 2001.
  3. 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” cite Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.
  4. The typical unauthorized immigrant has now been in the U.S. for nearly 13 years, up from 7.4 years in 1995 (does this mean the rate of illegal immigration has slowed?).
  5. The number of Catholics in Latin America has fallen from 92 percent of the population in 1970 to 69 percent in 2014. The number of Protestants, meanwhile, has risen from four to 19 percent over the same period.

I like pieces like this because they help to refine the mental constructs we maintain that color our understanding of the world and the manner in which we interpret current events. It’s easy to think we “get” the world—that we understand the economic, socio-cultural and political factors that shape public opinion because we once read about how this or that influence pervades in this or that cultural setting. But the world is ever-changing. What was true 20, 10 or even just five years ago might not be true today.

In certain contexts, failing to recognize this can be damaging (and sometimes embarrassing). It also frustrates me to hear people reference things like “Christian Europe” and other stereotypes that are founded on grossly outdated information that articles like this help to correct.

Truth on Cuba

Truth from Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog:

This should be good news for anyone who opposes the Cuban regime and its oppression. Time and again over the last 50 years, we have seen cultural and economic interchange fell more authoritarian governments than any amount of military action.  When we cut off free exchange with authoritarian regimes, we are doing their leaders a favor.

On a related note, I’ve long been intrigued by Cuba. It’s so close to the United States, yet it’s rarely visited. Had things gone differently in the twentieth century, it might today be Americans’ most popular vacation destination. It is, after all, a tropical island almost the size of Florida. It’s just a three hour flight from New York City. It’s population density is quite low (if it were a state, it would be only the eight most populous), so there’s lots of room for tourists. The country also has thousands of miles of undeveloped beachfront property, the likes of which is quickly disappearing in the United States.

Vinales Valley Cuba

Vinales Valley, Cuba (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps now is a good time to invest in Cuban real estate. But you won’t be the first…some powerful people are already doing it.

Bundesbank: No QE even with sub-zero inflation

Reuters is reporting that the Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann is skeptical of further QE in the Eurozone, even if the inflation rate drops below zero. In his own words:

Against the background of the rather moderate and uncertain impact as well as the risks and side effects and the not clearly given necessity at the current point in time, I am currently sceptical of a broad-based QE programme. … Substantial volumes would be needed to achieve a moderate and moreover uncertain impact.

This is especially interesting in light of a survey released yesterday showing that 90 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg survey predict the ECB will restart QE next year. This is up from 57 percent the previous month, before oil’s price collapse had become so drastic.

Draghi and Weidmann have sparred for quite some time over the need for more easing. Weidmann’s conservative stance arguably represents the popular opinion among Germans, whose economy has not suffered as deeply as smaller European economies. But Draghi seems to have won this bout—the possibility of a new round of easing has already lured investors into European equities, which would make squashing these expectations a nightmare for already-ailing European markets.

On a related note, here’s a post by Scott Sumner on the ECB. He asks whether the ECB is a hopeless case. He stops short of answering the question outright, but I think we can see where this is all headed.

Russia is doomed

Breaking at Bloomberg: The Central Bank of Russia has raised its key interest rate from 10.5 to 17 percent. This hearkens back to a post I published on Friday regarding divergence among central banks with regard to monetary policy stance. Some face looming deflation (or at least disinflation), like the ECB and Bank of Japan. Others allegedly face inflation, like the Fed (though I’ve expressed my disillusionment with that theory in that same post I cite above). The Central Bank of Russia obviously falls into the latter camp.

Interestingly, the Central Bank of Russia cites existing sanctions on Russia in the first paragraph of its December Summary. Might this hint at more aggressive action to come on the part of Putin to remove these sanctions? The Summary also predicts -4.5% to -4.7% GDP growth in 2015 should oil prices remain at $60 per barrel through 2017. In short, disaster looms. A Washington Post headline tonight literally says “Russia’s economy is doomed.”

I’d like to research the interest rates moves that led up to this hike. I’d like to look for similarities with the Fed’s monetary stance—whether we can learn anything from Russia’s experience with monetary easing that applies in the U.S. I’ll do that tomorrow.

On a related note, that Summary is horribly written (or at least horribly translated). Can they not afford a professional?

That UVA rape story is fishy

Let me get this straight. The author of this trending story on rape at UVA wants us to believe that…

1. The fraternity decided to rape a sober girl and then did nothing to prevent her from reporting the rape afterwards. One guy even mentioned it to her when he saw her later on.

2. Jackie’s best friend Cindy, who was so quick to come get her at 3 a.m. in the morning, didn’t take her to the hospital because “her reputation would be shot” and they might “never be allowed into a frat party again.”

3. Jackie’s best friends Andy and Randall weren’t dissuaded from rushing this fraternity after seven of its members gang-raped her. Randall even joined the fraternity later on.

I have a hard time believing these details. I think they are either outright false or a gross exaggeration.

…or the average student at UVA (an above-average school) really is that stupid and that willing to put their social reputation before justice for rape victims. I guess that’s not totally inconceivable. But if that’s the case, and if this attitude is typical among the average college student (or, at least, the average student at UVA), then I’m not sure this problem will ever be solved. If even people closest to the problem could care less about finding justice, then people up the ranks sure aren’t going to expend too much effort trying to get to the bottom of things. Can administrators even trust the average student’s testimony? Will Jackie’s friends be honest on a witness stand if this case makes it to court? If this story is true, there’s no telling. I think even the author should admit that.

On that note, if I’m right and some of these details are made up, then the author has only hurt the cause of justice by ruining hopes that working with students is going to yield any good, quick outcomes. Same thing if I’m wrong and this really is how the story went down. These students are totally, and almost hopelessly, messed up.

The first step toward solving systemic problems like this is to get the facts straight. Unfortunately, I don’t think this story does that.

The Fed to investigate itself for regulatory capture

I’ve written before about regulatory capture at the Fed. Now even the Fed has been forced to respond, but they still don’t seem to take all this seriously. According to Fortune,

William Dudley, who heads the New York Fed and is consequently responsible for supervising most of the country’s largest banks, will tell a Senate committee later today that a new review into its supervisory practises will look specifically at the issue of ‘regulatory capture’–the idea that a supervisor tasked with upholding the public interest ends up under the influence of the companies it is supposed to be monitoring.

This report implies that the Fed will investigate itself for regulatory capture. Doesn’t that ruin the point? What about regulatory capture of this review? Will the Fed later investigate this investigative process for signs of corruption?

If they were serious about removing the influence of regulatory capture from their decision-making processes, they’d bring in outsiders–qualified critics of the Fed who’ve been investigating this for years. Experts who know what regulatory capture looks like. Investigators who aren’t on the Fed’s payroll.

For the cherry on top, note that most allegations of regulatory capture in the past regard Goldman Sachs—Dudley’s old employer. I assume he’ll be investigating himself, too?

Here’s Dudley himself responding to the Fed’s critics.

I don’t think anyone should question our motives or what we are attempting to accomplish.

This says lots about the Fed supervisors’ mindsets, I think, and explains the habitual lack of seriousness with which they’ve takes these allegations. Call it a power trip, groupthink, a delusion of granduer…whatever it is, it’s not right.

For more reading on this investigation, I suggest this Financial Times report.

The problem is public accommodation

Media pundits like to pitch cases like Hitching Post as attacks on religious liberty. Religious freedom issues are great for ratings, after all. They rile people up.

For those who don’t know, the owners of Hitching Post Wedding Chapel were recently ordered to conduct a same-sex wedding ceremony despite their religious objection. If they refuse, they face jail time and up to $1,000 in fines for every day they continue to refuse.

But cases like Hitching Post aren’t really issues of religious freedom—at least not directly, or in terms of how the law is written. They’re about economic freedom. They have to do with the doctrine of “public accommodation,” by which the government can force businesses to service particular types of customers. As the law stands, any business open to the public must service customers regardless of race, disability, sex, sexual orientation. Business owners’ beliefs and opinions, including their religious objections, don’t matter.

LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.

That’s the fundamental problem. It started with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some might counter that Hitching Post’s objection is rooted in religion and not the racism targeted by the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, it’s not really an issue of public accommodation akin to a white hotel owner refusing black customers. It’s a matter of being forced to behave in ways contrary to an intimately-held religious belief.

But racism could conceivably have religious roots, too. In fact, it unfortunately did for centuries. Until those who care about their liberties are willing to put aside their fear of social and political ostracism and admit that the letter of the Civil Rights Act itself is a problem, they’ll never get anywhere. Slowly but surely, their respect for “political correctness”—even if unenthusiastic—will leave them, us, with nothing left to defend.

Remember Elaine Huguenin? She lost her case last year after refusing to photograph a lesbian wedding ceremony on the grounds of public accommodation. Rulings like this will happen over and over again because they’re the only ruling consistent with the public accommodation doctrine. Expect nothing different until that doctrine is rigorously challenged.

I have a longer, more formal piece on public accommodation being published tomorrow. I’ll post a link here when it’s available.

Brace for more stupid, unwarranted Islamophobia

Mark my words: Mainstream media pundits will make a big deal out of the fact that the gunman in Ottowa today was a Muslim. In fact, they usually only use the word “terrorist” when the perpetrator was a Muslim.

That’s sad, because most terrorists aren’t actually Muslim. In fact, between 9/11 and 2012, only 33 of the more than 300 Americans killed by terrorist acts died at the hands of Muslims. I don’t want to downplay that number, but consider that more than 180,000 Americans were murdered during this time for reasons unrelated to terrorism, or that the Virginia Tech shooter alone killed 32—just one less person.

I also notice a tendency among media pundits to blame Islam when a criminal is Muslim like they blame guns when a criminal is either insane or has no obvious motive. Many accept the first tendency yet decry the second by pointing out that only a minuscule fraction of guns are used to kill innocent people. But we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. If blaming guns is wrong because guns are almost always used responsibly, then blaming Islam must also be wrong because Muslims are almost always not terrorists.

No matter what anyone tells you about the “inherent violence of Islam” or Muslims’ tendency toward terrorism against Western targets, remember that more than seven million Muslims live in the United States today who have never committed a terrorist act. These people live in our neighborhoods. Their children go to our schools. They work at our banks, our pools, our grocery stores, our city halls. Saying Islam is inherently violent is like saying driving is safer than flying–it’s simply false, based entirely on ‘gut feeling’ and not on real-world data.

I don’t want to defend Islam. I’m not a Muslim. I think Muslims are wrong. I hate the way many of them treat women. But I also hate false information–especially when it leads to unwarranted fear.

Fight Ebola yourself

No, I don’t mean that title to be offensive or flippant.

It’s actually a summation of my article today at Values & Capitalism. In it, I explain why combating Ebola doesn’t require broad-based federal action. Instead of whining about why the CDC won’t step up, why not take steps yourself? On an individual level, yes, but also at an organizational level. We aren’t helpless, after all. That’s what libertarians and conservatives believe about everything else. Why shouldn’t it apply to disease control?

Take Firestone Tire and Rubber, for example. When Ebola showed up near their rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia, they took drastic measures to combat the virus. The result: The virtual disappearance of Ebola in their town, despite it’s proliferation across neighboring towns and the rest of the country.

You can read my article at this link. Hope you enjoy.