Category Archives: news

Pandemic blog 19: a socially distanced mathematician reads the newspaper

Just putting in links to some articles that are open in my browser, and that represent what’s going on these days.

The CDC put together a best-practices guide for businesses, organizations, and religious groups planning to reopen during the pandemic, but the Trump administration kiboshed its release.

A mall in Janeville struggles to stay alive. The stores can’t or won’t pay rent. Why is the landlord (a private equity company) demanding it? Surely they’d rather have a tenant three months from now then get one month of rent and then have no tenant because they bankrupted the tenant they had. Leila Schneps tells me that, in France, landlords who forgo the next three months’ rent get a property tax break that compensates them for the loss.

For $89, Frontier will leave the middle seat next to you empty. Presumably this offer only applies while Frontier can’t fill the planes anyway. So what happens if people don’t pay; they pack all the passengers into ten full rows and then don’t let anyone move to an empty row unless they cough up $89?

The Arizona Health Department tells ASU to stop modeling COVID. “We realize that you have been, and continue to be working very hard on this effort, so we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you won’t expend further time and effort needlessly.” ASU says nope, we’re still doing it.

Oh yeah, and when I wasn’t reading the newspaper I was writing something in the newspaper! A piece for the New York Times about pooled testing, an old idea that’s come back to relevance as we try to figure out how to test huge numbers of Americans faster than we can produce test kits.

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Pandemic blog 6: safer at home

I went to Trader Joe’s this morning. It was an extremely pleasant oasis of normality. Everything was as it always is, except for the guy standing out front apparently doing nothing but who I guessed was there to control inflow in case the store got too crowded. (Verified by a friend who was at the store early this afternoon, by which point the guy was only letting someone in when someone else came out.) When I was there, the shoppers were somewhat sparse, but even so there was a kind of awkward impromptu ballet of people trying to imitate repelling particles as best they could. My friends in New York are saying the grocery stores are out of flour, eggs, milk, meat, and pasta, but here everything is stocked as normal. I filled my cart really high, not because I’m hoarding (we have enough shelf-stable starch and cans and root vegetables to last us a while, we’re fine) but because I now know that when all four of us, one of them a hungry teenager who’s now taller than I am, are eating three meals a day in the house, we actually consume a lot more food than I usually buy.

I didn’t wear a mask to the store — but why didn’t I? Everyone is saying that you are probably not going to get COVID from touching contaminated surfaces, as long as you are good about handwashing. They think the spread is really person to person — he coughs on you, you cough on me. Wrapping a scarf around the lower part of your face isn’t an N95 mask (remember when I didn’t know what an N95 mask was?) but any form of barrier has to block some reasonable portion of whatever droplet cloud a person coughs out, right? And that’s the game, to block a reasonable proportion of transmissions, to get that exponential constant down below 1. A few people in the store were wearing masks, maybe 1 in 20.

All the talk in the store was about the rumor that Governor Evers was signing a statewide shelter-in-place order, and when I got home I found out it was true. (Despite reassuring information about surfaces, I am trying not to take my phone out when I’m out in the world, to avoid potentially contaminating it.) Ours isn’t called “shelter in place,” it’s called “safer at home,” which I guess is meant to sound softer. What this is going to mean, I think, is that a lot of workplaces which are currently operating are going to stop. And that maybe I should have planned more state park walks with the kids last week because now it’s forbidden.

CJ’s middle school friends have a film club; they watch a movie and then discuss it for two hours the next day on FaceTime. He’s watching Guardians of the Galaxy right now. Last night we made Cincinnati chili, which I’ve never done before. Boiling the meat has always sounded gross to me but it really does make for a meaty-but-not-greasy chili. One small upside: I am making things you have to simmer for an hour, something I rarely do when I have to start dinner after I get home from work.

All in all, starting from the baseline that the news is very bad, the news is not bad. In Italy, which has been in hard lockdown for what, a week? the rate of new cases is starting to decline. (The mathematician Luca Trevisan is in northern Italy and his blog is a very good snapshot of what it’s like to be in the middle of the outbreak there.) China, after two months of lockdown and quite a long spell without major new infections, is starting to loosen up; what happens next seems pretty important. A big new wave of infection or have they really beaten it?

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Pandemic blog 2: arm metaphor

Years ago I broke my arm, broke it really badly. Head of the radius broke right off and was floating around inside the skin. And the next 48 hours involved things like EMTs taking me to the hospital, setting up surgery, getting surgery, being on a lot of painkillers, etc. At no moment did I think about what was going to happen over the next six months. Everything was “what has to happen right now to get me from this thing to the very next thing.”

But then of course I was past the surgery and past the crisis and had to come face to face with the fact that I had months and months of tedious and kind of painful physical therapy ahead of me in order to turn my screwed-back-together arm into a machine that, while different in certain permament ways, approximated the function it used to have. Readers, it sucked. Probably it’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking about it too much while still waiting, opiated, for them to screw the titanium plate into my bone.

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Pandemic blog 1

Hello from social distancing! I thought it might be good to write down an occasional account of what’s happening with us during the coronavirus pandemic, because the situation is changing so fast and it’s good to have some record of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we thought was happening. A month ago this was something that was happening elsewhere (even though there was already a case in Madison, someone who’d returned from a trip to China.) Ten days ago I was at the Arizona Winter School; I was already worried about travel restrictions and whether there would be problems getting home, but didn’t think twice about eating in restaurants, taking cabs, or being at a meeting of a hundred people. The airports were full and everything seemed pretty normal. But Tanya canceled her conference trip last week but was very conflicted about whether it was irresponsible to do so, and I virtualized the on-campus meetings I had on March 11 and 12, feeling sheepish and like people would be rolling their eyes.

On the 11th, the school district wrote us to say that since no cases had been detected among students or staff, the schools weren’t closing. On the 13th, the governor declared that schools statewide would close on the 18th. On the 14th, Saturday, we thought we’d probably send the kids on Monday but by the 15th we’d decided not to. That afternoon the closure date was moved up to “already closed” and extended until at least April 6. Parents were told they could come to the building to pick up their kids’ medication. On the 17th all University of Wisconsin employees were instructed to work from home unless their work was impossible to do remotely. Yesterday, the 18th, the governor extended the school closing interval to indefinite, and ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for takeout and delivery.

So here we are. We have been OK in the house so far. I’ve gone to Trader Joe’s twice since Friday, trying not to overbuy in a situation where everybody wants the same things. I’m mostly stocking groceries which last weeks or longer and which I know we’ll use eventually: oatmeal, canned beans and salmon, onions, eggs. We are trying to figure out how much of the day to try to cobble into something like a schoolday and how much it’s going to be pure baking and TV-watching. Yesterday, for a change of scenery, I took the kids to the highest point in Dane County, which as you might imagine is not very high. I am trying to get the kids to let me teach them to play guitar but no one’s interested. At night I am trying to shut out the world a bit by going through a draft of a paper and reading the 700-page Edith Wharton biography I aspirationally bought in January. (But what about when she gets to 1918….?) We are in just about the maximally advantageous position for self-isolation; my job can be done at home, Tanya’s can too with some teleconferencing, I am not in the classroom this term so am not scrambling to invent distant learning from scratch… and even for us it’s daunting, the weeks and months to come.

There’s a lot nobody knows. We don’t really know when our taxes are due, or whether there’s going to be summer camp, or whether we’re going to do the 2020 Presidential election by mail, or, you know, how many people are going to die of this. My mom wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times suggesting we were in for multiple waves of “social distancing.”

Partly that’s because there’s a lot about this virus we don’t know. We don’t really know whether you can get it again once you’ve recovered, though a paper released today about rhesus monkeys suggests acquired immunity may be pretty good. Without knowing that it’s impossible to know what the pandemic dynamics look like. We also don’t really seem to understand what factors lead to bursts of transmission. One guy in New Rochelle seems to have infected dozens of people he came into casual contact with, as did “Patient 31” at a church service in South Korea. But on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama Bay for two weeks in February, only somewhere between 400-700 of the 3700 passengers were infected; that seems good, considering how many people must have been asymptomatically shedding virus in close quarters. (And one of those passengers seems to have been reinfected in Japan after recovering and disembarking, which suggests acquired immunity isn’t total.) The number of cases, at this stage of the epidemic, is exp(ct) and everything depends on the value of c, about which we know nothing except that our actions have substantial effect on it. How much effect does closing the schools have? In Wisconsin, schoolchildren are about one in every eight people in the state, and a school environment involves repeated congregation in large groups, so — maybe a lot? Did I mention we don’t know? I am seeing some people on the internet say children under 9 can’t get infected, which I think is false, and I think it’s dangerous for people to think it’s true.

If kids are out of school, lots of parents can’t work. And people who work in restaurants or bars can’t work. Lots of retail stores are shutting down in-person shopping too. The businesses need to pay their workers so the workers can live but then how can the businesses pay rent? And if the businesses don’t pay rent how can the owners pay their taxes? Here we reach the limit of my understanding of central economic planning. If the state government halts tax collection so the landlords can stop charging rent so the businesses can keep paying their workers even though there’s no work — then what?

“Social distancing works,” my mom says in her editorial, and that’s the one thing that seems like it’s just got to be true. We’re distant but we’re close together too. The empty streets look like civic responsibility and community to me, just as much as the Monroe Street Festival or the Fourth of July do. I know how the logistic curve works and I know people can’t sit at home forever and I know that once people start moving around, c goes back up. But every day we hold out is another day to retrofit unused buildings as hospital space, another day to build ventilators, another day to test drugs — today I am hearing promising things about chloroquine. So we are doing this apartness together. More soon. Stay strong! Stay distant!

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Rebecca Dallet and the gerrymandered Assembly map

The fate of the current Wisconsin Assembly district map, precision-engineered to maintain a Republican majority in the face of anything short of a major Democratic wave election, is in the hands of the Supreme Court, which could announce a decision in Gill v. Whitford any day.

One theory of gerrymandering is that the practice isn’t much of a problem, because the power of a gerrymandered map “decays” with time — a map that suits a party in 2010 may, due to shifting demographics, be reasonably fair a few years later.

How’s the Wisconsin gerrymander doing in 2018?  We just had a statewide election in which Rebecca Dallet, the more liberal candidate, beat her conservative rival by 12 points, an unusually large margin for a Wisconsin statewide race.

The invaluable J. Miles Coleman broke the race down by Assembly district:

Dallet won in 58% of seats while getting 56% of the vote.  That sounds fair, but in fact a candidate who wins by 12 points is typically going to win in more seats than that.  (That’s why the courts are right to say proportional representation isn’t a reasonable expectation!)

Here’s the breakdown by Assembly district, shown a little bigger:

Dallet won by 2 points or less in 8 of the Assembly districts.  So, as a rough estimate, if she’d gotten 2% of the vote less, and won 54-46 instead of 56-44, you might guess she’d have won 49 out of 99 seats.  That’s consistent with the analysis of Herschlag, Ravier, and Mattingly conducted last year, which estimates that under current maps Democrats would need an 8-12 point statewide lead in order to win half the Assembly seats. (Figure 5 in the linked paper.)

I don’t think the gerrymander is decaying very much.  I think it’s robust enough to make GOP legislative control very likely through 2020, at which point it can be updated to last another ten years, and so on and so on.  This isn’t the same kind of softcore gerrymandering the Supreme Court allowed to stand in 1986, and I hope the 2018 Supreme Court decides to do something about it.

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What is the median length of homeownership?

Well, it’s longer than it used to be, per Conor Dougherty in the New York Times:

The median length of time people have owned their homes rose to 8.7 years in 2016, more than double what it had been 10 years earlier.

The accompanying chart shows that “median length of homeownership” used to hover at  just under 4 years.  That startled me!  Doesn’t 4 years seem like a pretty short length of time to own a house?

When I thought about this a little more, I realized I had no idea what this meant.  What is the “median length of homeownership” in 2017?  Does it mean you go around asking each owner-occupant how long they’ve lived in their house, and take the median of those numbers?  Probably not:  when people were asked that in 2008, the median answer was 10 years, and whatever the Times was measuring was about 3.7 years in 2008.

Does it mean you look at all house sales in 2017, subtract the time since last sale, and take the median of those numbers?

Suppose half of all houses changed hands every year, and the other half changed hands every thirty years.  Are the lengths of ownership we’re medianning half “one year” and half “30 years”, or “30/31 1 year” and 1/31 “30 years”?

There are about 75 million owner-occupied housing units in the US and 4-6 million homes sold per year, so the mean number of sales per unit per year is certainly way less than 1/4; of course, there’s no reason this mean should be close to the median of, well, whatever we’re taking the median of.

Basically I have no idea what’s being measured.  The Times doesn’t link to the Moody’s Analytics study it’s citing, and Dougherty says that study’s not public.  I did some Googling for “median length of homeownership” and as far as I can tell this isn’t a standard term of art with a consensus definition.

As papers run more data-heavy pieces I’d love to see a norm develop that there should be some way for the interested reader to figure out exactly what the numbers in the piece refer to.  Doesn’t even have to be in the main text.  Could be a linked sidebar.  I know not everybody cares about this stuff.  But I do!




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Ordinary business expense

From today’s NYT:

But even if Hyundai is eventually forced to pay the full amount of the damages, the punishment could be substantially reduced through a tax loophole that permits the company to save millions of dollars by deducting any court-ordered punitive damages as an ordinary business expense. The result, critics say, is that taxpayers are in effect subsidizing corporate misconduct.

What’s terrible about this isn’t that companies are allowed to claim the fines they pay for malfeasance are an ordinary business expense.  What’s terrible is that it’s true.

Update:  I misspoke, as a commenter points out.  A “fine” — that is, a penalty you pay to the government — is not deductible.  What may be deductible are punitive damages, paid to people you injured or whose river you despoiled.  Prepare your return accordingly!

Death to the 529 / long live the 529

Obama flip-flops faster than I can blog!  Prezzo has already walked back his proposal to change the 529 college-saving tax break, but I have a post about it queued up, and by gum I’m gonna publish it.

Here’s the plan that just got shelved.  From now on, capital gains on contributions you stow in a 529 plan won’t be tax free anymore — they’ll just be tax-deferred, as with a retirement plan.  In essence, it takes away a tax break whose benefit flows predominantly to high-income families (some 529 money is held by middle-income parents, but under Obama’s plan the $500 or so they’d lose on their 529 was more than offset by an AOTC expansion.)

OK, this Congress is as likely to roll back a tax break for high earners as they are to rename Reagan National Airport after Pete Seeger, so this isn’t actually happening, but I’m just saying, that’s the plan.

People are mad, and feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. My FB feed, populated by dutiful savers like me, is full of ire. Mark Kantrowitz, in the New York Times:

He went as far as saying that the proposal could be characterized as a broken promise. “People saved money in 529 plans because of the expectation that the favorable tax treatment would continue,” he said.

But why does the New York Times let Mark Kantrowitz say this when it’s plainly not true? I saved money in a 529 plan. And the favorable tax treatment for that money will continue. When I take it out, I won’t pay a dime on any capital gains.

For money I put in later, it’s another story. But so what? If something’s on sale today, nobody’s breaking a promise to me when it’s not on sale tomorrow. I guess it’s strictly true that the proposal “could be characterized as a broken promise.” But it would be better to say it “could be characterized as a broken promise by people who don’t mind characterizing things as different things.”

A broken promise would look more like a state government defaulting on money it owes the thousands of middle-class taxpayers whose pensions it mismanaged.


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Wisconsin is not a blue state

Another Wisconsin election day!  By the polls — and I trust the polls, absent any reason not to — incumbent governor Scott Walker is likely to squeeze by with a narrow win.  If you don’t live in Wisconsin, how much should you care about this?  A lot, says Slate’s Betsy Woodruff, who calls this race “The Most Important Race in America.”

Winning statewide as a conservative Republican in Wisconsin isn’t easy. Even though five of its eight congressmen are Republicans and the GOP controls its statehouse, Wisconsin is a very blue state. It’s historically been a union stronghold, and it hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential race since 1984. For progressives, the Republicans’ fragile hold on state government is an insult, an affront that should be corrected.

Wisconsin is not a very blue state.  In those 30 years since 1984, a Republican has been governor for 19 of them.  In both 2000 and 2004, the Democratic candidate won Wisconsin’s electoral vote by less than half a percentage point.  In 2012, Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points, in a year he won nationally by 4 points.  So Wisconsin, in Obama’s home turf of the Upper Midwest, was slightly bluer than the country that year.

But it’s not California or Maryland.  It’s not even New Jersey.  It’s a state that’s half Republican and half Democratic.  (See also:  “It’s a recall, not an omen.”)  That’s why elections here are close.  Despite what Woodruff writes, neither liberals nor conservatives think they have a right to own the state.  Walker has the advantage of incumbency and he’s probably going to win.  That’s important for his dreams of a Presidential run; but I don’t think it has much to say about national politics.

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Why I’m voting no on the Wisconsin transportation referendum

All attention is focused on Mary Burke and Scott Walker, so I didn’t even realize there’s a state ballot proposition in next week’s election.  And it’s not a trivial one, either.

Question 1: “Creation of a Transportation Fund. Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?”

Mary Burke supports this.  So does Governor Walker.  The bill to put the referendum on the ballot was passed by large majorities of both houses.  “Yes on 1” has an organized campaign and a snappy website; as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as “No on 1.”

But I’m voting no.  I don’t expect every dime of people’s property taxes to support upkeep of residential infrastructure.  I don’t think the sales tax should be restricted to promoting Wisconsin retail.  I think money is money and it’s the job of the legislature, not the constitution, to decide how money can best be raised and where in the state it’s most needed.

The amendment prevents gas taxes and vehicle registration fees from being used to fund schools and hospitals and police, but it doesn’t prevent other revenue sources from being raided to fund our highways and bridges.  And that’s what’s actually happening right now; the current administration takes $133 million from the general fund to fund transportation in the current budget.  I’m not sure why transportation, out of all state projects, ought to enjoy a special status:  allowed to draw money from the general fund, but constitutionally prohibited from releasing any back.

The Yes on 1 FAQ points out that many states around the country have constitutional language enforcing segregation of the the transportation fund.  I looked at a few of these, and it’s true!  But those provisions are of a rather different nature.  California’s constitutional provision requires that 25% of the money go to public transportation.  In Minnesota, it’s 40%.  Our referendum has no such restriction, requiring only that the money go to things funded by the DoT.  The Yes on 1 FAQ points out, correctly, that “Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund is the sole source of state funding for the entire transportation system – highways, air, rail, transit, harbors, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.”  Pretty weak sauce — the fund will not be prohibited from funding other forms of transportation.  Unless an enterprising governor splits off transit into a separate department, that is.  (Ohio’s Constitution, by the way, already forbids gas taxes and license fees from aiding mass transit.)

The amendment establishes one class of spending and taxing as privileged above all the rest.  It shouldn’t be part of our state constitution.


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