American courts during the Coronashutdown

People sometimes ask how work as an expert witness (mostly in software patent cases, but also in some aviation matters) is going during the coronashutdown. I tell them that things are slow and deadlines are typically pushed back by six months because most courts have shut down except for emergencies, though sometimes hearings will be held via Zoom. “The Chinese must be laughing their asses off when they see how Americans spend their time,” was one response to this news.

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Train Americans to use masks the way that surgeons do or restructure the physical environment?

My Facebook feed is packed with the Masked Faithful expressing their outrage at fellow U.S. residents’ incompetence. Examples:

Ran into Meijer today – only about 1/2 the people were wearing masks, and maybe 25% of them weren’t wearing them correctly. A 12% success rate won’t help, folks. … [details on how stupid everyone else is] #communityspread #covidiots PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send an emergency notification text to everybody’s cell phone. This is important.

[from a Manhattan elite] The last ten people I saw: every single one with his mask under his nose. One with his mask under his chin. Why bother?

I responded to the last one with “The dream of the technocrats encounters the real-world American.” One of her friends reasonably asked “So, how do we fix this? If people genuinely won’t follow directions about masks and distancing, etc. (and it does seem more and more likely that they either can’t or won’t), what’s the solution?”

My answer:

that is a great question! I think it is probably smarter to reconfigure stuff physically. Take out half the shelves in a Target for example, so that people are naturally farther apart. With so many other retailers shutting down, there is plenty of mall space.

switch small retail to more like it was in the 18th century. Customer enters spacious front part of shop and asks for item. Shopkeeper goes into jammed back part shelves to retrieve requested item.

make it illegal to sell the middle seat on an airliner except to a family group instead of relying on people to use masks properly (which includes never touching one’s mask) during a 6-hour flight.

in states with warmer weather, build a lot of big shade structures so that more things can be done outdoors rather than indoors. Add some warming lamps in the ceiling to extend the useful season.

The current situation seems a bit like observing that there are a lot of car accidents and planning to reduce them with more intensive driver training. In fact, the solution that has been found to work all over the world is re-engineering the road system so that the humans that we have are less likely to crash. (Dividing busy roads, for example, to eliminate the possibility of head-on collisions for most of the miles that people travel.)

Readers: What do you think? Re-engineer Americans or re-engineer the American physical environment so that people are naturally more separated? Besides the above, what else could we do?

[My own Karen moment: I was in a big box store on Saturday. It was jammed and there were long lines for anything requiring human assistance now that people have discovered they can earn more on unemployment than by working. The City of Waltham requires masks for everyone, said a sign at the carefully policed front door. Once inside, I observed an interaction between a store worker roughly age 60 who was wearing a mask…. around his neck, and a shopper in his 30s, nowhere near 6′ away, who was seeking help from him. The shopper had his hand on his mask to pull it away from his nose and mouth (leaving the nose completely uncovered) to make it easier to talk.]

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What happens to classical musicians in the Age of Corona?

The audience for live classical music and opera is perilously close to the 82-year-old average age of a Covid-19 victim in Massachusetts (source). Concert venues are shut down by orders of the governor, First Amendment right to assemble notwithstanding. Even if it were legal to host a concert, would the core of elderly patrons show up?

This means that classical music and opera must be experienced via recordings and/or live audio/video streams. But what is the market for a new performance of Carmen or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? If you’re going to sit at home and watch it on a screen, why it is better to experience a 2020 performance of an 18th or 19th century work than a 1995, 2006, or 2017 performance that was recorded?

With pop music, it makes sense that we could have a market for new performances. People would pay to hear a new song by Kanye West, performed by Kanye West. They don’t just want to listen to “Gold Digger” over and over. Pop musicians should be able to do roughly as well as the movie industry, i.e., by selling tickets to people watching from home.

Classical music and opera depend on donations and ticket sales tied to live performance. Due high costs under union agreements, American orchestras have typically lost money on recordings. Even if the governor of Massachusetts and his License Raj would permit the Boston Symphony Orchestra to assemble long enough to make a recording, how could that possibly yield enough revenue to keep the institution going? Who is going to donate to an enterprise that is not legal to operate?

Maybe the institutions that have streaming services, such as the Metropolitan Opera and the ever-entrepreneurial musician-owned London Symphony Orchestra, can continue to exist. But what about the average player who would ordinarily be playing in the average city orchestra?

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Coronaplague is a primarily sexually transmitted disease in Massachusetts?

Here we are in Massachusetts in our third month of shutdown with 2.3X the death rate of never-shut Sweden (some stats). Judging by the shape of the curve of deaths per day, the virus is spreading here at roughly the same rate as it has been spreading in Sweden. Our offices are shut. Our non-essential business are shut. Our flight schools are shut until a bureaucracy can come up with a detailed plan for the few hundred students that might want to fly during the remainder of 2021. Our theaters are shut. Unlike in reopened or never-shut Europe, our schools are shut. How, then, is the virus spreading?

Let’s consider a young healthy person here in Massachusetts. What has he/she/ze/they been able to do?

  • play sports with friends: illegal
  • meander around a mall: illegal and impossible
  • walk outside without a mask: illegal
  • go to the movies: illegal and impossible
  • go to the gym and get fit: illegal and impossible
  • learn to fly: illegal
  • go to the local mosque or church: illegal

How about “Meet someone on Tinder, go to that person’s house, have sex, and sleep over”? Legal and possible.

When the only legal option for entertainment, other than watching Netflix, is casual sex, should we be surprised if young people decide that this is how they want to entertain themselves? In my informal survey of people in their 20s and 30s, more than half have no personal fear of contracting coronavirus and all of the single ones continue to be interested in making, um, new connections (and, without even being asked, quite a few admit to having made new connections).

Is there any evidence for this theory? Supposedly, Tinder achieved a historic peak in usage on March 29, 2020 (WTOP). From TMZ:

There’s an app, Sensor Tower, that gives insights into traffic on popular dating/sex apps, including, Tinder, Bumble and Grindr … and millions and millions of people are, at the very least, looking for love, and at worst, hooking up with strangers.

If Tinder is the primary app for the most casual of casual encounters, consider this headline: “During coronavirus lockdown, Tinder surpasses Bumble, OkCupid, Hinge downloads”

Why don’t we see evidence of this on social media? From “The Secret Lives of Perfect Social Distancers” (Atlantic):

“When I look at my choices as objectively as possible, I should not be doing this,” a 26-year-old speech pathologist told me, referring to the romance she started a few weeks ago.

The speech pathologist, who asked to not be identified by name to avoid repercussions at work, has been renting a car and driving from her home in Washington, D.C., to her new boyfriend’s home in Baltimore a few times a week, and keeping it a secret from almost everyone she knows.

For now, the speech pathologist has told only a few friends (all of whom got mad) and her mom (who also got mad) about her blossoming relationship.

What is the point of shutting down flight schools, public restrooms, museums (10 visitors per hour at the more obscure ones?), and picnic tables for burger and seafood shacks if strangers are going to meet by the millions every week as part of enjoying the one form of entertainment that remains legal?

(You might ask how casual sexual encounters can explain the high rates of coronaplague and associated deaths in nursing homes here in Massachusetts. Let’s assume that the inmates are not using Tinder, but the workers and the children of the workers probably are. The typical young person who gets infected with coronavirus will not develop a forehead temperature that will stop him/her/zer/them from entering a nursing home to go to work.)

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Buy a shut down summer camp and turn it into a private vacation retreat?

One of the savviest MIT professors whom I know turned some of his software expert witness consulting revenue into a lakeside Maine summer retreat. He was able to invite 10 friends at the same time, each friend accompanied by his/her/zer/their entire family. How? The vacation house had formerly been a summer camp and it came with a bunch of cabins as well as a prime location and a lot of recreational space.

Right now it looks as though summer camps in a lot of states are going to be forbidden by governors from operating (NPR, 5/17). So they won’t be able to obtain any revenue. But they will still owe property tax on their real estate, valued as if it could still be used.

Like any other labor-intensive business in the U.S., summer camps surely were already in tough financial shape due to rising minimum wages, rising employee health care costs, increasingly complex labor regulations, and exposure to employment-related lawsuits (imagine if two counselors get hold of some alcohol, drink it, and then have sex). Covid-19 should put the rest of the nails in the coffin, no?

Readers: What do you think? Is it time for people with money to swoop in and buy up these obsolete institutions?

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Judge questions how marijuana shops came to be essential

From the Chicago Sun Times, the transcript of a southern Illinois judge’s ruling against some of the governor’s dictates:

Selling pot is essential but selling goods and services at a family- owned business is not. Pot wasn’t even legal and pot dispensaries didn’t even exist in this state until five months ago and, in that five months, they have become essential but a family-owned business in existence for five generations is not.

Doctors and experts say different things weekly. The defendant cites models in his opposition. The only thing experts will agree on is that all models are wrong and some are useful. The Centers for Disease Control now says the virus is not easily spread on surfaces.

The Science-denying judge is like a black-robed version of Adley!

He highlights some apparent logical contradictions:

A family of six can pile in their car and drive to Carlyle Lake without contracting COVID but, if they all get in the same boat, they will. We are told that kids rarely contract the virus and sunlight kills it, but summer youth programs, sports programs are cancelled. Four people can drive to the golf course and not get COVID but, if they play in a foursome, they will.

Sadly, he does not attempt to answer the stay-at-home mom’s question: “If masks work, why aren’t we back at work? If masks don’t work, why are we being asked to wear them?”

He does throw in some philosophy:

The defendant in this case orders you to stay home and pronounces that, if you leave the state, you are putting people in danger, but his family members traveled to Florida and Wisconsin because he deems such travel essential. … When laws do not apply to those who make them, people are not being governed, they are being ruled.

A good thought to ponder as Americans make their way to their neighborhood marijuana stores….

I’m still waiting to hear what the standard is for terminating young healthy Americans’ First Amendment right of assembly. If one “expert” predicts that 10 million people will die unless young healthy people are imprisoned, that’s sufficient for a governor to imprison them? How about 10 experts predicting 1 million deaths? What about 100 experts predicting 200,000 deaths and the potential for a shutdown to defer 50,000 of those deaths by a year? Are there any thresholds for how many experts one needs or what death rate (can’t use absolute number due to rapid population growth) justifies the suspension of what had been Constitutional rights?

(And what if there are experts on the other side? Is the former chief scientist of the European CDC outweighed by one American academic forecasting unprecedented doom and demanding shutdown? How about all 15 epidemiologists on the Swedish government’s team? Against those 15, how many Americans does it take for a governor to say “the science is settled so I will terminate the First Amendment”? How about Sunetra Gupta and her team at Oxford? Is a statement by Dr. Fauci worth 20X a statement by Professor Gupta?)

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Memorial Day thought: Will coronaplague bring us years of peace?

My Dutch friend, quoted in an earlier post:

What was his take on the continued lockdown in the U.S.? “All of the rights that Americans fought and died in multiple wars to defend, they gave up in one governor’s press conference.”

Even if it turned out that we did not need or value the freedoms that Americans previously died for, today is our day to reflect on their sacrifice.

Maybe there won’t be too many more sacrifices among soldiers worldwide for the next few years. Do countries that have shut down their societies, schools, and economies have the will or the wealth to go to war? What would they fight for? To conquer a territory that is also shut down and packed with inhabitants who are entirely dependent on government welfare?

Readers: What do you think? Time to short the merchants of death because governments won’t be buying weapons and going to war any time soon?

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Did doom visit the Swedes yesterday as planned?

On May 3, in “Doom for the wicked Swedes is always three weeks away”, the IHME prophecy for Sweden was a peak in ICU usage on May 22 and a peak in deaths (494/day) on May 23.

What actually happened? Yesterday’s WHO report showed 54 new deaths. The day before it was 40. In other words, the prophecy was off by a factor of 10.

They were going to need nearly 4,400 ICU beds. The actual number in ICUs all around Sweden? About 340. In other words, the “scientists” were off by a factor of 13X.

What’s the latest from the prophets at IHME? As of a May 20 update to the forecast, Sweden will have a gradually declining daily number of deaths, in more or less the same shape as still-shut-down Massachusetts. A total of 5,129 Swedes will die from/with Covid-19 (roughly one third the previous forecast). The virus will simply burn itself out, apparently, despite Sweden’s lack of shutdown. (But in other countries, the same shape decline will be attributed to a multi-month shutdown?)

How about the Fall of Saigon-type scenes at hospitals that were forecast? IHME has walked that back to forecasting about 500 ICU beds occupied as of today (compare to 340 actual). Within a month it will be down to 150.

Do the arcs of the epidemic in different countries confirm the Swedish epidemiologists’ theory that Western government policies have minimal effect? Here are a few:

Sources:

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The only people who doubt that a vaccine is close at hand are people working at the vaccine company

Our decision to shut down is looking ever smarter because a vaccine will be available imminently:

Are there any doubters?

From CNN: “Moderna unveiled encouraging coronavirus vaccine results. Then top execs dumped nearly $30 million of stock”

(Supposedly the stock sales were planned in advance, but if these top managers and researchers believed that they’ll be selling 8 billion vaccine doses starting in September, wouldn’t they call their brokers to say “Hey, let’s hold off on those sales”?)

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Coronavestment Ideas? Is the market like Wile E. Coyote?

At least with the only people who matter, the most popular TV show in our household is Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.

Rule #1: the Road Runner cannot harm the coyote.

A big topic of discussion among friends is how the stock market can be so far out of sync with their perception of the health of the real economy. Is the market, like Wile E. Coyote, already doomed, but it won’t actually fall until someone looks down?

From a Harvard MBA friend, forwarding some content from a discussion group among investment bankers:

This is the standard “bull trap” rally. We saw this in 2007-2009 crash. It took 17 months from top to bottom and along the way there were multiple rallies lasting up to 8 weeks. The end result was a 58% drop in the S&P-500. 58% from January would bring the S&P-500 to around 1500.

The market was already way overvalued whether by Shiller’s CAPE, Buffett’s indicator, price-sales – all were in nose-bleed territory.

The 1929 crash lasted over 3 years with big rallies every few months. 80% of workers do NOT work for S&P-500 cos. They will be sleeping in their cars, defaulting on mortgages, etc., etc. Treasuries will look awfully good compared to stocks.

She also sent “Stock Market Collapse An Avalanche Waiting to Happen” from April 5, which relies on more recent data.

My response to her was that investors are not betting on the health of the U.S. economy, but rather on the tendency for U.S. politicians, of both parties, to want to stay in office. Their reelection would be at risk if the stock market goes down in nominal terms. Maybe a share of the S&P 500 will buy less in terms of Shanghai hotel stays or African safaris or beachfront property on Nantucket (i.e., indexed for inflation in the goods and services that people with money actually spend significant money on). But even the Democrats can’t afford to have the S&P 500 be lower than it was in 2016. The government did not have the tools and willingness to intervene in markets back in the 1930s that it does today.

She responded that her company is cutting pay, that she sees all of the small businesses that her big company supplies going under (being acquired for pennies by bigger competitors and/or simply disappearing), and that everything looks like a full-scale Depression. I reminded her that she is biased by being part of the private/market portion of the economy, which is only about half of the U.S. economy, the other half being direct government spending or government-regulated and taxpayer-subsidized (e.g., health care).

Readers: (1) Who is right? Her Harvard MBA friends who say the market will collapse to match the collapsed U.S. economy, or me who says that the government will rig the market until the numbers look good? (2) what is worth buying right now?

Turning our attention to what is worth buying right now… my friend’s MBA husband (example of assortative mating that exacerbates income inequality; the working class can bust into this, though, with a bit of creativity in states such as Massachusetts) wanted to find some airline stocks to buy. A mutual friend said that the credit default swap rates on airlines showed that investors expected a substantial probability of bankruptcy within five years (and remember that bondholders are ahead of shareholders; “[CDS rates] were around 20% in early April, which implies a 20-25% default probability per year for the next five years”). I personally hate airlines as an investment because if they do well, the union workers will take the profits, but if there is a downturn, the only way to get out of the union contract is a bankruptcy that wipes out the shareholders.

How about private prison companies? With millions of Americans currently on unemployment and not all of them eligible to transition to a lifetime of welfare, there are going to be a lot of residents of the U.S. with no way to get money other than stealing. The U.S. also has millions of inflexible alimony and child support orders (see “Litigation, Alimony, and Child Support in the U.S. Economy”) that can’t be modified without what might be years of court procedures and $100,000+ in legal fees. If the defendant in a family court lawsuit is ordered to pay money and doesn’t have it, the standard American solution is prison (because the defendant has violated a court order to pay) and additional debt to the plaintiff continues to accrue while the defendant is imprisoned. When the economy was basically stable, and the typical defendant was likely to keep earning whatever had been earned previously, roughly 1 in 7 child support defendants were eventually imprisoned. That number has to go up, which should increase demand for prison cells.

(See “What to do if you’re struggling to pay child support or alimony during the coronavirus crisis”:

Those obligations are calculated based on your income and assets at the time the amount is determined, and the agreement can stretch for many years. And typically, unless there’s been a material change in your income, it can be hard to alter.

Additionally, with many court systems either shut down or running in a limited capacity, getting immediate relief from a judge’s ruling could be challenging, depending on where in the country you’re located.

“The court will look not only at your income stream but also your assets,” said Shaknes. “If you’re sitting on a $2 million brokerage account, even if it had been at $3 million, you’re not getting relief.”

If you have filed for unemployment, be aware that those benefits are considered income — meaning not only is it subject to certain taxation, it counts toward your ability to pay. In some states, depending on how your support payments are typically paid, they may automatically come out of your unemployment benefits, Shaknes said.

Meanwhile, during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, courts were not that forgiving when it came to requests for support modifications, Shaknes said.

“A lot of people who suffered job losses or severe income reductions tried to get their obligations reduced and were not successful,” Shaknes said. “We kept hearing ‘go get another job.’”

)

How about Silicon Valley firms? I am negative on those due to the “sell on good news” philosophy. The “good news” of mass home imprisonment of Americans has already occurred, so Netflix, Amazon, Zoom, et al. should already have gotten whatever boost they’re going to get.

Although I generally dislike commodities on the theory that nearly all previous arguments about scarcity and price bumps have proven to be wrong in the long run (example), what about copper? If we want to make a plague-proof country, don’t we need to coat almost all surfaces with copper?

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