• Bonus Photos

    You can never have too many cat pictures, can you? Here’s the whole stripey family:

    And here’s my mother with Tillamook:

    It took a week, but Tillamook finally figured out that my mother was really home, and ever since then he has resumed sleeping in her bed. He is there nearly 24/7, and his purr starts if you merely look at him crosseyed. He’s such a faithful cat.

  • Why Are Republicans Being Such Assholes?

    Stefani Reynolds/CNP via ZUMA

    The $600 bonus unemployment payments put in place in March expire today, and let’s get this out of the way up front: the main reason for extending them is because there are millions of Americans who are out of work and they desperately need the money. There’s no reason to add to the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic itself by making them wonder if they’ll keep getting these payments.

    That said, there’s another reason to extend the UI payments. I’m not the first to say this, or probably even the millionth, but if the payments are cut off it will devastate an already ravaged economy. Here is EPI’s estimate from a few weeks ago of what the payments are doing to keep the economy afloat:

    We estimate that extending the $600 UI benefits through the middle of 2021 would provide an average quarterly boost to gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.7% and employment of 5.1 million workers.

    Now, you can argue with EPI’s precise number. You can propose, say, a $400 UI benefit along with a repeat of the $1,200 stimulus checks. That’s all fine, and it ought to be an easy negotiation. It also ought to be a negotiation that took place a month ago, when it was obvious that we hadn’t beaten COVID-19 and continued support for the economy would be needed.

    So why are Republicans hemming and hawing and putting off any action? After all, the president is a Republican. He’s already in trouble, and if the economy is in shambles in November he’ll obviously have no chance of winning no matter how many federal troops he sends into American cities to gin up riots. From a purely selfish perspective, Republicans ought to be in favor of doing anything they can to keep the economy in decent shape through the election.

    So what’s going on? I can think of a few possibilities:

    • They are genuinely worried about creating even deeper deficits. For obvious reasons, I find this hard to believe.
    • They’ve given up on Trump. This is possible, but they still have their own elections to think about.
    • They’re holding out for goodies aimed at their base and are using the desperation of ordinary people as leverage to get Democrats to agree. Unfortunately, I have no problem believing this.

    Whatever the reason, the whole thing is a disgrace. Ordinary people need this boost. The economy needs this boost. It will almost certainly do no damage in a period of near-zero interest rates. Why are Republicans acting so contemptibly?

  • How Big Is the Underground Cost of Health Care?

    I should preface this post by saying that it’s serious. This is not just a rant of some kind.

    For some time I’ve been wondering about the cost of health care in the US vs. other similar countries. As we all know, the US has by far the highest cost among rich countries:

    This is bad enough. But it includes only the money cost of professional health care provision. As such, it misses a big part of the picture.

    I was finally prompted to write about this because I’ve had a higher than usual engagement with the health care system over the past few weeeks. It’s gone the way it always goes: it’s massively inefficient and prone to errors, most of which end up falling on patients to fix. There’s the hours spent on hold making appointments. There’s the constant checking for medication errors. There’s the endless arguing with insurance companies. There’s the back-and-forth process of telling doctors what some other doctor said because they never talk to each other. There’s the miscommunications caused by the fact that doctors typically know nothing about the actual operation of their own industry. Etc.

    These are all things we’re familiar with, and they’re basically elements of the health care system that are outsourced to patients themselves. It never gets accounted for, but for all practical purposes the health care system relies on the unpaid labor of patients to keep itself in operation. It’s a real cost, but it’s hard to measure.

    I have never seen a study that tries to compare this underground cost among countries. This makes me curious: Is the US system unusually inefficient? Does it produce more work for patients compared to other countries? Or is this just the nature of dealing with a big and highly complex industry?

    It would be difficult to study, but probably worth it. Who would be a good candidate?

  • Republicans Blow an FBI Source Again

    Stefani Reynolds/CNP via ZUMA

    Donald Trump has been on a rampage for months to prove that the whole Russia investigation was just a big hoax. Central to this has been an endless effort to show that the FBI’s probe was driven by the infamous Steele dossier. This is despite the fact that the Steele dossier played no role in launching the investigation and only a small role in one small part of the investigation months later.

    But no matter. Trump nonetheless wants to declassify anything he can that reflects poorly on the dossier, regardless of the damage it might do. And guess what? Attorney General Bill Barr forced the declassification of an FBI document last week that ended up exposing a source who had contributed to the dossier:

    The F.B.I. had approached the expert, a man named Igor Danchenko, as it vetted the dossier’s claims. He agreed to tell investigators what he knew with an important condition, people familiar with the matter said — that the F.B.I. keep his identity secret so he could protect himself, his sources and his family and friends in Russia.

    But his hope of remaining anonymous evaporated last week after Attorney General William P. Barr directed the F.B.I. to declassify a redacted report about its three-day interview of Mr. Danchenko in 2017 and hand it over to Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Graham promptly made the interview summary public while calling the entire Russia investigation “corrupt.”

    ….Transcripts of recordings released in April resulted in the identification of a confidential F.B.I. informant who had agree to wear a wire when talking to George Papadopoulos, a former Trump adviser who was convicted of lying to the F.B.I. Other released transcripts of a Russian diplomat’s conversations with former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn revealed that the bureau was able to monitor the phone line of the Russian Embassy in Washington even before a call connected with Mr. Flynn’s voice mail.

    The Steele dossier is the 2020 version of Benghazi, yet another Republican obsession related to national security. And like the Benghazi circus, Republicans really don’t care what damage they do as long as they can release continuous dribs and drabs of confidential information that might—maybe!—produce something that hurts Democrats.

    So now the FBI has the task of convincing future sources that a promise of secrecy won’t be undermined the next time a Republican thinks it might gain them a momentary political advantage. But why should anyone believe them?

  • Which Is Better: Lots of Cheap, Lousy COVID-19 Tests or a Few Really Good Tests?

    Which is better: a highly accurate PCR test for the coronavirus or a cheap strip test that’s not especially accurate at low virus loads? Alex Tabarrok compares the two, but his comparison has lots of words and stuff and you might not bother reading it. So I’d like to present you with a simplified version:

    • PCR test: You take the test, and a week later you get the results. In the meantime you’ve been infecting everyone nearby. Conclusion: it’s pretty useless.
    • Cheap strip test: It can’t be any worse, can it?

    Believe it or not, this is actually a fairly good summary. For something a little more official, here’s a chart from a recent paper that compares testing regimes. The pink bars are similar to what you get with a PCR test, while the gray bars represent a less accurate test:

    If reporting delays are the same, the accurate test is always better. But if, say, the accurate test takes a week to return results then it won’t be as good as a cheaper test that returns results in one or two days. Note that this chart is based on a model, and in real life the cheap test won’t perform as well as the gray bars suggest. But it will still do better than the expensive test. The cheap strip test may not always work, but you can easily test yourself every day and there’s a good chance that if you’re infectious you’ll find out within 15 minutes.

    So why not cover the country with cheap strip tests? Because they don’t meet the FDA’s minimum accuracy requirements, that’s why. Perhaps that deserves a second look?

  • Remote Work Isn’t the Future After All

    Joe Giddens/PA Wire via ZUMA

    Well knock me over with a feather:

    Four months ago, employees at many U.S. companies went home and did something incredible: They got their work done, seemingly without missing a beat. Executives were amazed at how well their workers performed remotely, even while juggling child care and the distractions of home….Some companies even vowed to give up their physical office spaces entirely.

    Now, as the work-from-home experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.

    Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

    No kidding. Anyone with a room temperature IQ could see this coming, but we’re so enthralled with Silicon Valley boosterism that for a while it became conventional wisdom that Zoom was our future. I guess the prospect of making workers pay for their own office space (aka their homes) was so tantalizing that it wiped out common sense for a while. Welcome back to reality, American businesses.