Virus Update

First, the bad news:

The United States surpassed its record for covid-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday, with no end in sight to skyrocketing case loads, falling staff levels and the struggles of a medical system trying to provide care amid an unprecedented surge of the coronavirus.

Tuesday’s total of 145,982 people in U.S. hospitals with covid-19 . . . passed the record of 142,273 set on Jan. 14, 2021, during the previous peak of the pandemic in this country.

But the highly transmissible omicron variant threatens to obliterate that benchmark. If models of omicron’s spread prove accurate — even the researchers who produce them admit forecasts are difficult during a pandemic — current numbers may seem small in just a few weeks. Disease modelers are predicting total hospitalizations in the 275,000 to 300,000 range when the peak is reached, probably later this month.

As of Monday, Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia had declared public health emergencies or authorized crisis standards of care, which allow hospitals and ambulances to restrict treatment when they cannot meet demand [The Washington Post].

In the U.S., 840,000 confirmed deaths and 1,700 every day (almost all of whom are unvaccinated). However:

Scientists are seeing signals that COVID-19′s alarming omicron wave may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the U.S., at which point cases may start dropping off dramatically.

The reason: The variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.

At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic might unfold. . . . And weeks or months of misery still lie ahead for patients and overwhelmed hospitals even if the drop-off comes to pass.

“There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which predicts that reported cases will peak within the week.

The University of Washington’s own highly influential model projects that the number of daily reported cases in the U.S. will crest at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and will then fall sharply “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” according to Mokdad [ABC News].

What’s happened in South Africa, with omicron as the latest spike: 

Finally, a note from France [The Washington Post]:

In an interview with France’s Le Parisien newspaper, [French President Emmanuel] Macron shared his thoughts about France’s unvaccinated population. He did not mince his words. “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Macron said. “And so, we’re going to continue doing so until the end. That’s the strategy.”

The English translation hardly does the comment justice. In French, the verb he used is “emmerder,” which means, quite literally, to cover in excrement. The ire is difficult to translate, but in French it is crystal clear.

Actually, it’s quite easy to translate using the verb form of a different four-letter word — followed by “on them”.

Where We’re Heading

Ronald Reagan. They called him “the Great Communicator”, but he was a horrible president. When he was seeking a second term in 1984, one of his campaign ads began with the phrase: “It’s morning again in America”.

The idea was that after four years of his leadership, the US was in good shape again. The head of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker (a Democrat), had killed the high inflation of the late 70s by raising interest rates to stratospheric levels. And Republicans had juiced the economy by going on a tax-cutting and spending spree based on the ludicrous theory that massive tax cuts would pay for themselves (a doctrine famously labeled “Voodoo Economics” by a future, less dangerous Republican president).

But a poll taken two months ago showed only 29% of country think the US is on the right track.

Well, Democrats and the new media need to get the word out. Biden should reuse that famous phrase: “It’s morning again in America”.

In less than 10 months, the Democrats have have cut child poverty in half, added more than 5 million jobs, managed the most ambitious vaccine rollout in the nation’s history, and passed a $1.2 trillion investment in the water, roads, bridges and broadband. (The broadband provisions of the infrastructure bill will help some of the most conservative parts of America — rural areas that struggle with unreliable, expensive connectivity.)

1.44 million vaccinations were administered yesterday. 70% of adults are fully vaccinated.

Pfizer says its anti-viral pill reduces the risk of death or hospitalization by 89% in people who take it within three days of symptoms starting.

Progress:

  • January 2021: Unemployment rate is 6.3%.
  • February 2021: Nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects we will get to 4.6% unemployment by the end of 2023.
  • March 2021: Democrats pass the American Rescue Plan with ZERO REPUBLICAN VOTES.
  • October 2021: Economy reaches 4.6% unemployment two years ahead of schedule, declining more this year than any other year on record.

The initial August jobs number of 235,000 started a wave of economic panic in the press. It was actually 483,000. September’s 194,000, which signaled malaise, has been revised to 312,000.

531,000 jobs were added in October, beating all expectations. Leisure and hospitality gained 164,000 jobs, as restaurants continued to staff up amid the decrease in coronavirus cases. Professional and business services added 100,000 jobs, manufacturing added 60,000, construction 44,000, health care 37,000, and transportation and warehousing 54,000. . . .

The US has now added 5.5 million jobs since President Biden took office. Approximately 80% of the jobs lost during the pandemic have been recovered. The labor market is recovering much faster than it did after the 2008 recession.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to a new pandemic low.

Average wages are up $2 an hour. Wages for production workers are up 5.8% and 12.4% for restaurant workers.

Home values are up. Family debt is down. The S&P 500 is up 23% since Biden took office, 32% since he was elected (we’re still waiting for the crash the previous president predicted).

In October, consumer confidence, “the engine of the U.S. economy”, rose after months of decline. Consumers were also the most optimistic since 2000 about their own prospects to find jobs. 

It’s true, the average price of gasoline has gone up. It always goes up and down, given the price of oil and how much people drive. It was almost $5.00 a gallon in 2008 (when a Republican was president) and $4.00 in 2014. It’s around $3.40 today.

fotw1199Since we’re coming out of a pandemic-infused recession, problems should be expected.

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What’s next?

Democrats, again with ZERO REPUBLICAN VOTES, will pass parts of Biden’s “Build Back Better” social policy bill, fulfilling some of the promises he ran on in 2020 (not because  Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has hypnotized him).

Biden describes it in two sentences, “The build back better framework lowers your bills for health care, child care, prescription drugs, and preschool. And families get a tax cut.”

Paul Krugman used one sentence: “Tax the rich, help America’s children”.

Democrats may — may — finally be about to agree on a revenue and spending plan. It will clearly be smaller than President Biden’s original proposal, and much smaller than what progressives wanted. It will, however, be infinitely bigger than what Republicans would have done, because if the G.O.P. controlled Congress, we would be doing nothing at all to invest in America’s future.

But what will the plan do? Far too much reporting has focused mainly on the headline spending number — $3.5 trillion, no, $1.5 trillion, whatever — without saying much about the policies this spending would support. . . 

So let me propose a one-liner: Tax the rich, help America’s children. This gets at much of what the legislation is likely to do: Reporting suggests that the final bill will include taxes on billionaires’ incomes and minimum taxes for corporations, along with a number of child-oriented programs. And action on climate change can, reasonably, be considered another way of helping future generations.

Republicans will, of course, denounce whatever Democrats come out with. But there are three things you should know about both taxing the rich and helping children: They’re very good ideas from an economic point of view. They’re extremely popular. And they’re very much in the American tradition.

I hope what comes soon after that is an all-out push to convince two or three misguided Democratic senators to reform the filibuster in order to protect voting rights, because, all around the country, Republicans are doing whatever they can to insure minority, right-wing rule.

Biden and his team are restoring reasonable regulations for business and trying to address the climate crisis. They’re reuniting immigrant families instead of tearing them apart. They had the guts to finally end our longest, stupidest war. They’re getting respect around the world, not losing it. They want women to control their bodies. They believe it should be easy for Americans to vote. 

Maybe him and other Democrats know what they’re doing. Maybe more of us will figure that out.

Setting the Record Straight on Afghanistan

From Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post:

Testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A Milley before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday was enlightening in several respects. The two defense officials may not have persuaded those who wanted to continue an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but they certainly put President Biden’s decision-making in context.

Much of the media’s attention focused on Milley, who at the beginning of the hearing shattered the notion that he had acted outside the chain of command or usurped civilian control in the waning days of the Trump administration. His conversations with the Chinese to de-escalate any conflict were cleared with civilian officials beforehand, he said, and he debriefed them afterward. Milley, who acted deftly within the bounds of the Constitution to avoid disaster, is not deserving of blame; rather, the ones who need to explain themselves are the former president’s cowardly enablers, who to this day pretend the former president is fit for office.

The bulk of the hearing, however, focused on Afghanistan. Austin effectively conceded in his testimony that three presidents never acknowledged (or at least never appreciated) that the mission of the war — to create a viable Afghan government and military — failed spectacularly. Austin explained:

We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of [President T____’s] Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight. We provided the Afghan military with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them. Over the years, they often fought bravely. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers died. But in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.

That’s as devastating a critique of the war’s promoters as any defense official has delivered.

Biden’s critics will have a hard time explaining why a limited force left indefinitely in Afghanistan would have been a viable alternative. There has been no evidence to dispute the conclusion that the United States could have preserved the status quo. Miley acknowledged, “The Taliban [in 2020] strengthened its positions around several provincial capitals in anticipation of the departure of foreign forces and, over this time period, enemy-initiated attacks increased by over 50 percent and were above previous seasonal norms.” He added, “The Taliban controlled approximately 78 districts in February of 2021. This rose to over 100 in mid-June and surpassed 200 by mid-July, with fighting occurring on the outskirts of 15 provincial capitals.”

The notion that the Taliban would have halted its advance if the United States kept a few thousand troops in the country defies logic. Indeed, Milley conceded, “On the first of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban. Of that, there was no doubt.”

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote in an op-ed earlier this month, “If Biden had reneged on this deal, there would be a ferocious response from the Taliban. Two thousand five hundred troops would have never been nearly enough to repel the reaction from a jilted Taliban.”

The idea that the administration did not prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government was false as well. Both Miley and Austin described the advance planning in detail, including the pre-positioning of troops and a noncombatant evacuation. Moreover, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that the administration should have retained Bagram air base appears to have been misplaced. Milley explained:

The U.S. military could not secure both Bagram airfield and Hamid Karzai International Airport [HKIA] with the troops available. All together securing Bagram would have required approximately 5-6,000 additional troops assuming no indigenous partner force was available. These forces are in addition to those that would be required to secure Kabul and HKIA in the event of a [noncombatant evacuation operation]. As Gen. [Austin S.] Miller has previously testified, HKIA would always be the center of gravity of any NEO due to the population that would need to be evacuated was mostly in Kabul.

Austin also explained, “[Retaining Bagram] would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value in the evacuation.”

Finally, the widespread declaration that the administration’s airlift was a “failure” was exaggerated and lacked context. Austin and Milley conceded there were a couple of days of chaos, but tens of thousands more Afghans were evacuated than thought possible. “We planned to evacuate between 70,000-80,000 people. They evacuated more than 124,000,” Austin said. He also noted, “At the height of this operation, an aircraft was taking off every 45 minutes. And not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days.”

Critics who said the United States would not be able to evacuate anyone after the military left were wrong. The military was able to evacuate 6,000 Americans and, with subsequent extractions, has removed the vast majority of Americans who wanted out. (After months of warnings, assistance and advice, it is hard to think what more the administration could have done.)

With regard to the Afghans we failed to extract, the sad reality is that when a nation loses a war, it simply cannot get everyone whom it wants out. The expectation that we could have saved hundreds of thousands of Afghans from Taliban rule was never realistic. (Arguably, the president should have made that clear rather than make open-ended promises.)

President Biden’s critics are left exasperated. How could the United States not have done better? Certainly, Milley, Austin and other officials should have known that Afghan forces and the civilian government were hollow. But even had they foreseen an immediate collapse, a mass evacuation on any timeline would have likely had the same result (i.e., a rush to the exits). For those who wanted an indefinite war, it is time to admit there was no way to preserve the status quo without loss of more American lives. For those who wanted a “clean” and swift end, it is time to acknowledge wars do not end that way.

Moreover, the military officials’ emphasis on the disastrous Doha deal negotiated with the Taliban under President D____T____ was a proper corrective to the hypocritical blame Republicans heaped on Biden. My colleague Aaron Blake writes, “Both Austin and Milley cast the deal as largely a failure, particularly when the Afghan military — which the United States had tried to prop up for 20 years — quickly collapsed and allowed the Taliban to take control.”

In sum, the testimony went a long way toward confirming an uncomfortable truth: The 20-year war to create a viable Afghan state was a fruitless, misguided and arrogant undertaking. Biden finally decided not to sacrifice more troops and spend more money on an unwinnable venture. His error may have been in failing to prepare Americans for the ugly, heartbreaking reality of losing a war to no real effect. . . .

Identify This State

When we moved to the East Coast from California 30 years ago, I met someone who lived in New Jersey and told him that the state, from what I’d seen, was much nicer than I expected. He said “Yes, we like to keep that a secret”.

Of course, there are old cities and rundown neighborhoods, ugly factories and the challenging NJ Turnpike, but for such a small, densely-populated state (47th by size, 8th by population), there’s a lot of variety. We do have the most hazardous waste sites in the nation — a remnant of the state’s industrial past, when NJ also earned its nickname “The Garden State” because of the way NJ farms fed New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey also has the 2nd highest income, 3rd highest percentage of college graduates and 3rd highest percentage of immigrants. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought here, Thomas Edison became “The Wizard of Menlo Park” here, researchers at Bell Labs developed radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language here. Abbott met Costello here.

Much of the state away from New York City and Philadelphia is undeveloped. The coastline is beautiful. We’re in the top 10 in life expectancy. The public schools are highly rated. We get less back from Washington than any other state, compared to the federal taxes we pay (you’re welcome). And we avoid electing Republicans.

It was notable, therefore, that when 1,200 Americans were asked to choose America’s best states, New Jersey just barely beat Mississippi and Alabama, coming in 48th out of 50.

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Maybe that’s because, according to generations of comedians, New Jersey is funny. “I’m from Joisey! You from Joisey? Which exit?”

Property taxes are too high. There are those toxic waste sites scattered around. And who knows whose remains are hidden in the Meadowlands, which is more swamp than meadow (and where the “New York” Giants and Jets play football, but won’t admit it)?

Fortunately, however, New Jersey and its state government have a sense of humor:

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The state of New Jersey. A well-kept secret.

China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:

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Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.

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