Covid 5/5/22: A Lack of Care

China cares a lot about preventing Covid.

I haven’t written an additional China post because my sources have not turned up much additional information, and the situation does not seem to have dramatically changed, so I’m waiting until situation warrants an update. One development was mass testing going on in Beijing, raising worries about lockdown there which could be important politically, but so far the lockdowns haven’t happened.

America does not care much about preventing or treating Covid.

We don’t care about buying or distributing Paxlovid. We don’t care about updating our vaccines. We don’t care about much of anything else either. Nor does the public much care about any of this either. Given the physical situation and what state capacity allows us in terms of alternatives, I am not even sure I would prefer things be a different way. Yes, it means among other things that we literally have a cure for Covid and are barely using it, but it does mean we don’t suffer from lots of extra prevention costs.

The good news is that most of us can safely ignore the whole thing and get on with our lives. Given the alternatives, ‘government does literal nothing’ is not obviously bad news. If they’d done literal nothing from the start we could well be in a much better spot. Alas, this literal nothing does involve things like preventing children from being vaccinated.

The Current Thing not only is no longer Covid, it seems that the invasion of Ukraine has also been replaced due to the leaking of a Supreme Court draft opinion on abortion. Unlike Ukraine, that does not seem like a situation in which my analysis would be news you could use, and I hope to avoid writing much of anything about it.

Executive Summary

  1. New subvariants of Omicron that spread faster are taking over.
  2. They are not deadlier.
  3. Our government is acting as if it does not care about Covid at all.

Let’s run the numbers.

The Numbers

Predictions

Prediction from last week: 400,000 cases (+22%) and 2,720 deaths (+10%?)

Results: 358,439 cases (+9%) and 2,234 deaths (-10%)

Prediction for next week: 420,000 cases (+15%) and 2,275 deaths (+2%).

North Carolina reported 1,172 deaths yesterday, which is obviously a backfill. 1,146 of these were due to updated reporting, and I’ve removed them. With those gone, the number of deaths continues to decline even after the Easter weekend, and this drop is definitely genuine. I’m guessing the numbers that are getting reported are now reasonably decoupled from ‘from Covid’ deaths actually caused by Covid. I’d think they’d go up a little either way, but I wouldn’t have expected a drop this week.

On cases this was overall a good number but the increase in New York in particular is disappointing because it shows that we don’t have a clear peak waiting for us in the future. I’m going to predict a somewhat faster rise this week because I doubt the Midwest drop will get sustained.

Deaths

The deaths number going up this much shows that my prediction the previous week was indeed far too high, despite this coming in substantially higher than my median guess, confirming that last week was a cross between slower real growth than expected and the Easter holiday. This week had a huge jump in the South region.

Cases

BA.1,2,3,4,5

BA.1 gave way to BA.2. Now BA.2 is giving way to BA.2.1.12.

And so it goes, sub-variant gives way to sub-variant. There is no sign that BA.2.1.12 differs substantially in terms of case outcomes from BA.2 or BA.1.

Next up are BA.4 and BA.5 (Flashback to the movie Terminal Velocity: ‘What happened to three?’).

Here is a thread on a new study of cross-immunity between variants (data source).

The news isn’t great. There is reason to think that BA.4/5 might be better able to re-infect people, especially those who were not vaccinated, and thus could cause an additional wave. However they still respond well

Scott Gottlieb reaches similar conclusions.

Bloom Lab takes the same results, and tackles the exact mutations in BA.4/5.

This has all largely been the pattern. New variants make it easier to get infected despite vaccination or previous infection, but protection against severe disease and death remains mostly robust. As a result, additional waves are possible, but they do not case as much proportionate severe disease or death, and the wise move is largely to ignore the wave and go about one’s life. The bigger danger would be if we were unable to do that, but I am not much worried about that at the moment. That could be a big problem if physical circumstances got bad enough, but for now it is saving us.

Bloom’s call for updating the vaccines seems important, but the FDA disagrees. As the prevention section notes, they are dragging their feet and delaying updating into late fall for a variant we knew about last year. Utter disaster.

Physical World Modeling

Bill Gates, always helpful, is here to warn us that the worst of the pandemic may still be ahead.

“We’re still at risk of this pandemic generating a variant that would be even more transmissive and even more fatal,” the billionaire Microsoft co-founder and public health advocate told the Financial Times on Sunday. “It’s not likely, I don’t want to be a voice of doom and gloom, but it’s way above a 5% risk that this pandemic, we haven’t even seen the worst of it.”

This is a pretty weird hybrid of probability (great!) and not probability (less great?), what is ‘way above 5%’? My instinctive interpretation of this is something like ‘I would bet on this at 10% and my real odds are somewhat higher than that’ or something, so real odds in Gates’ mind of maybe 15%-20%, but I’d accept numbers as low as straight 10%. Chances are he doesn’t have a conscious probability estimate here, it’s more that he feels it’s definitely above 5%.

Gates is not reported as having presented evidence for this claim. Does it seem right? Purely in terms of deaths, I can’t disagree simply because 5% is not a lot and it seems fair to put this at more like 10%, and I wouldn’t have a strong disagreement if someone claimed 15%. I do think it is unlikely. We have widespread vaccinations, widespread previous infections and therapeutics that will become increasingly available over time. Covid-19 would not only have to get more deadly, it would have to get a lot more deadly and infectious. Still, there’s reason to think they could correlate, and this thing mutates quite a lot, so it could happen.

The intervention proposed by Gates is… aid to the WHO?

The WHO had “less than 10 full-time people” working on outbreak preparedness, said Gates, adding that “even those people are distracted with many other activities”.

“We’re down to the bare minimum, and if the UK cuts more, then others will do as well,” said Gates. “That would be tragic because . . . all that money saves lives for less than $1,000 per life saved.”

I am very much in favor of pandemic preparedness, of working on identifying and mitigating or preventing future outbreaks. We should spend vastly more on that.

I don’t think giving money to the WHO (or generally ‘foreign aid’) is The Way. Why do they have less than 10 full time people on outbreak preparedness now? What makes you think they’ll make good use of the money if given to them? When a pandemic did arrive, was the WHO helpful or did they actively get in the way of the most important prevention and mitigation measures while worrying about political implications? The questions answer themselves.

Prevention and Prevention Prevention Prevention

FDA Delenda Est as the invisible graveyard continues to fill. Not only are we not allocating any funding for the pandemic, we are not even willing to approve updated vaccines in a timely manner, such that updated boosters continue to be delayed. Omicron emerged last year and it looks like we might get substantial supplies of an updated booster by late Fall.

So much for expedited reviews and approvals. I guess they’re too busy focusing on banning Menthol cigarettes. The choice has been made, and that choice is death. Not all that many deaths at this stage, mind, but death nonetheless. Given this is how seriously FDA is taking even adult vaccinations, how is one to be harsh on individuals who decline to boost or even to vaccinate?

Patrick McKenzie continues to think like someone trying to do the most good for the most people for the least price, and be frustrated to learn our government officials are… not doing that.

I mean, yes, obviously if you triple the price of the first vaccine shots in exchange for producing them a few months faster that is obviously an insanely good trade. Yet it is obvious to most reading this, and definitely to Patrick, many of the reasons why this has zero chance of happening without a sea change at the top.

It’s worth noting that not only can the current pandemic budget not buy an aircraft carrier, there is literally zero money in it. Who exactly is affording the aircraft carriers?

Sam Altman also expresses surprise at our failure to get this done. It was, at the time, reasonably surprising. I wonder if this is making him update on his timelines for fusion power or AGI.

Two Paxlovid tales. The first short and sweet, the second long and less so, but quoted in full to ensure the proper sense of how things are going.

The chance of a given person, faced with that set of obstacles, managing to overcome them in time to make Paxlovid worthwhile is very low. Almost everyone would not know what to do and/or give up, likely at the first signs of social awkwardness but definitely after several failures. Again, no wonder we are not getting these doses distributed, and many of them that are given out are probably losing much of their effectiveness by being too late.

San Francisco reinstitutes its transportation mask mandate. If anything I’m happy that they ever paused it in the first place, an unexpected mark of sanity. I am entirely unsurprised they are bringing it back.

Think of the Children

Even now that Moderna filed, the FDA is still going to stall for an additional six weeks before approving both vaccines for young children. At which point the school year, with its associated mask mandates, will be over for summer.

There was much talk in the comments last week about how this was not an ‘emergency’ situation, and how it would be a ‘wag the dog’ situation if mask mandates dictated vaccine policy. I notice on reflection my real position is (of course) that it is always an emergency in the sense that someone being sick or in danger of being sick is an emergency, saving a life is a mitzvah even on the day of rest, and the FDA should approve anything that would ever get an emergency use authorization, whether or not there is an emergency.

I’d also take the position that yes, being forced to wear a face mask for months on end constitutes an impairment of life that rises to the level of an emergency, regardless of whether the mandate is justified or not, and thus justifies an emergency response. One can respond with ‘the mask mandate is dumb, kids are at minimal risk of Covid so we should fix the mandate not issue them vaccines’ and yes that would be good too. I would still want the vaccines available, because some parents are crazy and no matter what they will continue to cripple their kids lived experiences until they get the vaccine – and in some cases even after they get it, but at least somewhat less often and severely.

There’s also the question of, if you do all this crazy stuff to ‘avoid confusion’ what are you telling a reasonable parent about these vaccines that you’re in no hurry to approve?

Also, study finds remote learning greatly reduced pass rates, with largest effects in areas with more black students. This makes sense, as such students are less likely to have home settings conducive to learning, and also will be less able to tolerate the mind-numbing nature of the festivities involved.

Ministry of Truth

As a concept, free speech is very popular, and the tiny fraction who are opposed to it on the (not true for very long) assumption that they would get to choose who could say what things are endangering pretty much everything by not understanding either its popularity or why it is foundational to our way of life in the name of speech controls.

The relevant clown makeup has now been fully applied, and we are fully out of the ‘no we don’t want to restrict free speech’ into the phase of ‘yes of course we must end free speech.’ Usually with the justification of ‘otherwise those freedom-hating people will win.’

The government decided that days after the purchase of Twitter under the explicit goal of securing the right to free speech would be the right time to announce a new government division dedicated to the suppression of politically disfavored information.

The traditional view of such a timing decision is as a stupid mistake.

I don’t agree. The timing of this decision seems intentional. I believe on at least some instinctive level ‘they’ wanted us to know what they were doing and that they were violating sacred norms, likely for reasons fundamentally related to why Trump or Putin take similar actions. It is a show of strength and a belief that people will choose to align with transgressors because they are transgressing.

Besides, when the wrong person gets potential hold of the means of communication and says they don’t intend to do your bidding, and Obama himself calls upon you to put more limits on free speech, what are you going to do, wait around?

So, standard greeting that’s still permitted, may I present to you the actual not-from-a-dystopian-novel Ministry of Truth, run by someone who previously led successful efforts to suppress true but politically inconvenient information.

When asked about this connection, our press secretary made it clear she knew which novel we were basing the script on.

Oh, and also this person, Nina Jankowicz, seems to have left Substack because it was ‘platforming’ people via letting those who wished to do to type words and then have those words appear on the screens of those who chose to view them. The horror.

Officially the name for this new entity is Disinformation Governance Board, but I am not early to the game of calling this board by its right name. I’m showing restraint here, which is good because here are some examples of rhetoric I strongly suspect falls under Not Helping:

Or to sum up the naming situation:

That does not mean the whole episode will be consequential. Yes, there is now a Disinformation Governance Board operating out of the Department of Homeland Security. But the fact that Biden could simply make this happen whenever he felt like it, and the unclear nature of what power such a board would have to do anything, puts a limit on how much one should panic about what happens when the next president ‘gets their hands on’ this board, or what the board might do before then.

Indeed, rather than the symbolism here being botched, I think the symbolism was the point. As it usually is these days, it’s all such folks think exists. The whole idea is that now There Is a Board, which means you’ve Taken Bold Action. So good chance that the creation of the board is itself the main thing that will ever happen with it, and nothing will have changed. Then again, sometimes this kind of thing is a prelude to a steady ratcheting up of restrictions and the beginning of the end of what is left of our rights. Can’t rule that out either.

Also, Twitter staff react to news of Twitter being sold, without commentary. More of this type of reporting would be good.

And a poll of people who say by 62%-13% that Elon Musk will make Twitter better. I definitely agree that this is by far the most likely outcome.

In Other News

An explainer on Evusheld, it’s kind of crazy that it works.

The White House Correspondents Dinner seems to have infected a bunch of people with Covid. The usual suspects are going with the full rub-ins, as one would expect.

Was the dinner obviously going to spread Covid? Yes, absolutely. Do those who went to the dinner regret it? From what I’ve heard the answer is no. This is something that sounds stupid to regular people, but is super important to those who attend it. By all accounts people were in tears to be able to attend. This ritual is a huge deal.

Gated Stat+ article about the origins of Paxlovid.

How much of the government pandemic-related unemployment benefits were outright stolen?

A lot of the money government spends ending up being stolen is par for the course. It doesn’t automatically mean that the program wasn’t worth doing – the best uses of money are worth many times the amount spent, and it’s often not practical to spend the money without getting a lot of it stolen, like the classic ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted but I don’t know which half.’

In the case of the unemployment relief, we definitely needed to do something so it’s hard to say how far we were from the efficient frontier. But this still seems quite bad, as the money isn’t merely gone it is going into the hands of some very bad actors who will thus grow far stronger, and it is a very large amount of money. I do not know anything non-obvious to be done about this (as in, other than ‘make sure that our systems are robust going forward’ and I have every confidence we are doing almost nothing to ensure that this happens). On the margin this should be a major consideration to keep such programs smaller, given our inability to defend them.

Not Covid

Shout it from the rooftops (paper). People dislike their political opponents for views that most of them don’t actually hold. Also, they overestimate how much the other side dislikes them, increasing dislike. And telling them makes this less bad. Neat.

Also, I try to stay away from the current thing but this was too perfect not to share.

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29 Responses to Covid 5/5/22: A Lack of Care

  1. Evan Harper says:

    What is said here about the Disinformation Governance Board does not track with what I have heard, which is that this is a relatively unimportant DHS internal working group intended to disseminate best practices and co-ordinate anti-misinformation activities that are already ongoing at DHS. It seems highly unlikely that decisions about this board were made at the White House level at all, let alone made with these highly specific & sinister motivations. Nor does it seem likely that it could possibly warrant the “Ministry of Truth” designation. Essentially we seem to have a 2010, Obama-administration-style story here where conservative media are using dishonest opposition research to portray fairly mundane policy-making activities as grave threats to liberty (remember “Czars?”)

    • Eye Beams are Cool says:

      “It seems highly unlikely that decisions about this board were made at the White House level at all”
      Their own fact sheet says it is co-chaired by the DHS Office of Policy and Office of the General Counsel. Those are two different departments, headed by two different cabinet members. The departments don’t form ad hoc groups on their own – they get directed to do so (and permission to do so!) (especially OGC, which has attoreny-client duties with HHS) from at least their cabinet secretaries. That’s very much the White House level. I found this out with 3 minutes of web searching.

      If you let your emotional revulsion for the outgroup convince yourself that they can’t possibly be right, you might end up short circuiting your own inqury instinct and increasing your error rate.

      PS I’m very much not a Republican.

    • John Lynch says:

      Why is it better that an elected official isn’t running this? Isn’t it worse if the White House isn’t responsible than if it is? Why would we want unaccountable officials doing this?

  2. Dave says:

    Any info on paxlovid use in other countries? Is the US unusually bad on this?

    Also: “15yo (vaxxed and boosted) […] qualifies for Paxlovid” What?

    There’s no way a boosted kid that age would have had a severe case without Paxlovid, no matter the complicating factors. This parent is clearly a crazy person and I wonder if some (obviously not all) of the resistance she encountered was due to people realizing she was crazy.

  3. myst_05 says:

    I’ve been on the BART in San Francisco last week (which already had a mask mandate, if I understood correctly) and compliance was at ~80% which was lower than I expected for a city as mask crazed as SF is. I suspect compliance will fall down to 20-30% eventually if they keep up the mandate.

  4. Patrick Stevens says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Derek Lowe’s https://www.science.org/content/blog-post/omicron-boosters-and-original-antigenic-sin, but in February he signal-boosted a study suggesting that an Omicron-targeted booster was indistinguishable from just another untargeted booster in monkeys. I have absolutely no expertise, but it doesn’t appear to be obvious that a targeted booster will actually help.

    • TheZvi says:

      That was a valid hypothesis at the time but my understanding is that tests have come back that it does help at least somewhat.

  5. Ninety-Three says:

    “Also, I try to stay away from the current thing”
    Initial, confusing reading: “I try to stay away from the class of things which could be referred to with the phrase ‘the current thing'”
    To clarify, is that what you meant (in which case I see you as generally doing a very bad job of it), or did you mean “I try to stay away from the particular thing which is now current”?

    • TheZvi says:

      I am definitely trying to stay away from *this particular* current thing and things in that reference class, and from discussing the current thing *because* it is current. I have definitely taken passes on some current things during the Covid era.

  6. Alex N says:

    Re: “the FDA should approve anything that would ever get an emergency use authorization, whether or not there is an emergency”. This is perhaps relevant as a general reminder: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Oldham_Kelsey.

    Perhaps Right To Try could be improved. But relative to vaccines and children that would be extremely hard to do.

  7. Seb says:

    Zvi, what do you make of all these new variants being centered on the same province in the same country? I’m not sure what to conclude here.

    • TheZvi says:

      This Is Not a Coincidence Because Nothing Is Ever a Coincidence.

      It suggests that the origin is non-random.

      • Seb says:

        After reading your blog for 2 years I am fully onside with that general conclusion. I’m still struggling with what I think is actually going on over there though. I wish there was a decent way to have all the possible theories battle for supremacy, but in the absence of more information that wouldn’t be effective.

  8. Basil Marte says:

    > It’s worth noting that not only can the current pandemic budget not buy an aircraft carrier, there is literally zero money in it. Who exactly is affording the aircraft carriers?

    Moderna, i.e. the imagined conversation is between its managers? Much as in https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2021/12/23/get-set-also-go/ you worked from the model that while even increase-shareholder-value concerns should have motivated Pfizer managers to ramp Paxlovid production while they were waiting for FDA approval (since they spend the same amount on the same ramp-up no matter when it happens, plus if necessary they can borrow aircraft carrier sums against future sales, as is standard practice, and the value of doing it earlier outweighs the chance of losing the investment to the FDA refusing), they didn’t, and that the cost of correcting this mistake was low enough that some single individuals could pay it.

    > So good chance that the creation of the board is itself the main thing that will ever happen with it

    Disagree. Malice not necessary, but at all times the board (or its chair, etc.) must justify the continuation of its existence (and its chair’s power) to whoever has at that time the power to dissolve it. The sound of this ratchet is neither “click” nor “mwahaha” but “sorry, please give us another chance, I swear we’ll not screw up next time”.

    Since this principle can operate recursively, a single-trace-of-command i.e. tree organization can be built up with it, e.g. some Bronze Age kingdoms and some modern dictatorships. However, such organizations have poor upward flow of information, and are inherently susceptible to rebellion, which in this case is a single node deciding to change what its parent node is, and the entire subtree below it going along with the change by default. This is among the reasons why higher-capacity states preferred preset terms of appointment (Roman provincial governor for N years, not an indefinite-term vassal), be ideological (so that many nodes in the subtree have a direct tie to some top node with comparable strength to their immediate parent node), thoroughly silo away from each other funding vs. spending (so that multiple nodes would have to simultaneously switch), generally divide power at the higher levels on whatever non-geographic basis they find e.g. ministries. Likewise organizations of all kinds try to build matrix/lattice communication structures — e.g. I report to a project manager, a technical lead, and a mostly-administrative group lead — to create redundant paths for information flow, both up and down.

    (In parallel, states change what form they extract surplus in. Each little location raises its own military unit that can march off even if the transportation infrastructure is “no”. Then the state organizes long-distance grain shipment (e.g. the Annona to Rome). Then the state can tax farmers in money.)

    • TheZvi says:

      Yes, as I noted this is possible, and I am concerned. However, I do think the default outcome is that this never gets any real teeth, because even the people in charge of regulating the symbols only know how to symbolically regulate the symbols rather than actually do so.

      • Basil Marte says:

        I had assumed as default that some semi-competent people would end up there, because semi-competence is common enough (organizations mostly keep functioning and adapting). But when a new fish is being created, its head is unusually important and in this case subject to selection effects I neglected.

        Alternatively, a cargo cult can to some extent keep operating the ruins of a system they inherited, because their theatric props happen to work, despite their inability to adapt it, let alone create a new system from scratch. My favorite example is a quote from https://www.slowboring.com/p/amtrak-should-bring-in-foreign-experts?s=r

        > This is a recurring issue. After years of me blogging about Amtrak’s odd boarding procedures, we finally got an Inspector-General inquiry into it, but all the IG turned up was that nobody could explain why they do what they do. Amtrak officials had previously represented to me that it’s a security requirement but could not provide further details. They didn’t want to lie to the IG so they admitted this isn’t really the reason. But they didn’t come up with a reason. And then they also didn’t change the process.

        • TheZvi says:

          So what would you do to try and fix Amtrak now, if an IG can’t do anything? We have an impossibly expensive, painfully slow set of trains and it seems no intention of trying to improve matters despite Biden the lover of trains in the White House. Is there any hope? What would it take?

          (Actually asking for real)

        • Basil Marte says:

          Set it on fire and start from zero? Partly because the delta is too big, partly… apparently its management consists solely of people who are comfortable with “managing” a business they don’t understand. It’s not just that of the individual people, zero have the physical modeling aptitude and/or curiosity to question the practice, but that organizational culture failed to transmit an answer. That’s normal for a pagan/animist society.

          The principles are fairly simple. (Late edit: “this is the kabbalah, everything else is commentary”.) Passengers mostly care about travel time in “when do I need to walk out the door to get to X by T”, thus the theoretical top speed of the vehicle is less important than 1) frequency (and predictability); 2) connecting transportation, whether to other trains of the same agency or to e.g. local buses; 3) detail work on wasting less time. That includes things like level boarding, MUs rather than locomotive-pulled trains, fixing slow spots on an otherwise fast line or buying tilting trains for a very curvy line (if speeding that service up makes sense in the context of the network). 4) Station buildings mostly don’t matter, passengers care about good connections rather more than about the expensive “signature architecture”. The question of commerce is open (anything is welcome on the other side of the street; making non-customers walk longer by taking up floorspace in the station is a tradeoff; there is ongoing experimentation in the train itself spending some moving floorspace on anything from a dining car to a vending machine, or it can have a nice witch push the food trolley on the Hogwarts Express).

          Empirically, it turns out that setting up everything to repeat with a period of power-of-2 hours works quite well from all aspects, hence the name ITF (Integrated TaktFahrplan, ~ rhythm/beat timetable). “Clockface schedules” are easy for passengers (e.g. a suburban train leaving every :12 and :42); the even demand on how many trains need to run at any given time (i.e. high utilization) keeps cost down; because the relative movements (e.g. opposing trains passing) always happen at the same places the infrastructure to accommodate them can be minimized, keeping costs down; and planning the whole network to provide connections is more human-computationally tractable if merely one “slice” has to be planned. The demands of this regularity in connections, i.e. trains taking integer half-periods between major nodes, leads to the saying “trains run as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible”.

          Other sayings are “organization before electronics before concrete”: drafting timetables is ~free, buying better (e.g. faster-accelerating) trains is a tolerable cost, building new infrastructure is so expensive even in Switzerland that they try not to do it. When they do it anyway, it happens because the service to the passengers i.e. the timetables can be improved so much that the cost is worth it. (Emphasis: the aspirational timetable is created before anyone even asks if construction is feasible. No emphasis but worth noting, if the idea looks feasible, most engineering work is done tentatively (and usually in-house), only getting presented for the political decision on whether to build after planning is largely done, i.e. this or nothing. A political commitment to building something, TBD what, is an invitation for leeches, though politicians wanting to build pyramids don’t mind.) Of course, buying massive earthmoving operations or shiny new trains is much *easier* than service planning.

          I don’t know whether Amtrak has a problem with this, but I know that MÁV does, so I’ll mention that train speed and travel class are separate things. If a geographic area produces enough ridership that both “slow” and express trains run there, then — both will run at least hourly, right? — given that the trains run, even “slow” trains will have some demand for “business class” area, and the expresses for some “economy”. Since it relates to ticketing, I’ll also mention here that there is ongoing debate around whether to do airline-style demand management (since we supply a fixed amount of floorspace moving from A to B) or instead have transparent, predictable pricing.

          In terms of organizational structure, it seems to be a good idea to separate service planning (and operations funding) from both train operations and track maintenance, so that service is run not at the convenience of the maintenance dept. but for passenger demand (or policy goals e.g. to compete with road transportation). Less certain, but track ownership — most notably access control i.e. human control of the signals — should be separate from train operations, so that competing train operating companies don’t get to prioritize their own trains at the expense of guest/competitor trains — this is an important part of why the serve-all-congressional-districts long-distance Amtrak trains, mostly running on freight railroad company metals, are so slow. Not that cooperation between publicly owned passenger companies is good; IIRC Amtrak charged unreasonable electricity prices from MARC until the latter decided to run diesel trains under the wires. AFAIK all European countries ended up saying that track (including planning “even-handedly” for all passenger-friendly timetables and/or freight-friendly ones, rather than preferentially for the company’s operations) looks like a natural monopoly, so they have a state-owned company for that. Some kind(s) of government, central/state/municipal, sometimes multiple ones jointly, set up and fund passenger service authorities, which plan, collect fares, and contract with train operating companies (and bus companies) to run exactly what they ask for. That’s how, even with paper tickets, people can buy a single ticket for the entire journey (or a short-term pass), independently of what type of vehicle implements which leg, just as people don’t buy a separate bus pass, tram pass and subway pass.

          Moving up to the policy/politicking level: in the above model it is generally understood that transportation modes (intercity bus, airplane, driving) are close enough substitutes that they don’t capture much of the surplus they create, thus it is right and proper for governments to subsidize the modes it thinks to be socially beneficial to support. (Smaller airports and services flying there are often heavily subsidized. Roads are too obvious to mention.) Alas, Amtrak since its creation had been imagined as a number of things, ranging from “temporarily run whatever stuff it inherited from bankrupt private companies until rail passenger service dies out” through “publicly-owned-for-now company that is juuust around the corner for profitability, at which point we’ll sell it” to “whatever, just keep running that twice-weekly train to my district”. Of course Amtrak’s own ideas were again and again to symbolize airlines (Amfleet coaches date from the ’70s, the example boarding procedure probably from the ’00s) or to increase the top speed of the vehicle.

          For more detail, I recommend pedestrianobservations.com written by Alon Levy, or caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com by Clem Tillier, or reading whatever the keyword ITF throws up.

        • Basil Marte says:

          Also on topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buy_America_Act
          The American passenger rolling stock market is a rounding error, thus mostly what ends up happening is that the European manufacturer sets up somewhere a factory with BS jobs and basically launders their product. Which is not quite standard, since it has to satisfy oddball FRA regulations (which used to be extremely stupid until a few years ago) on crash strength.

          I almost forgot to mention electrification; pretty much everything with meaningful traffic density should be wired. Reliability, maintenance, performance, even passenger comfort all point in the same direction. A small hiccup is the conflict with double-stacked containers (“AAR plate H”).
          Low-traffic rural lines (i.e. not low-hanging fruit) that aren’t economical to electrify are in Europe seeing some experimentation with replacing diesel multiple units (DMUs) with battery-electric ones (BEMUs). Currently this technology is not something that American passenger railroads should concern themselves with.

        • Basil Marte says:

          Month-late correction of parts where I failed to write what I mean:
          1) Travel class. In short-distance travel, it usually isn’t worth the hassle to create separate travel classes (e.g. on a subway), but as the in-vehicle travel time increases, often it does make sense. Since there is some demand to stops that the expresses don’t serve, and often higher-class tickets can be sold for more *per unit of floor area*, this makes sense. For expresses, the issue is often described as the reverse: higher-class travel demand doesn’t fill the train, and since the variable cost of increasing train length up to the chosen standard of the line is very low, padding it out with lower-class seats tends to work.
          2) Politics. The issue is not money (clearly the astonishing construction costs would not happen if this were the case), but a lack of constraints to go along with the money, i.e. that politicians are often willing to give money solely in order to say that money has been given. The rest of the time, mostly they still prefer things that can be summarized in soundbites (e.g. top speeds), equivalent pictures (architecture), and produce opportunities to hold shovels and cut ribbons. Their setting the exchange rate between regular capital and political capital also includes setting the degree to which projects are to submit to NIMBYs.

  9. thechaostician says:

    Is Patrick McKenzie offering to bribe the FDA with an aircraft carrier if they agree to approve vaccines faster? Under what conditions would this be a good trade?

    • TheZvi says:

      Patrick’s a little short there, he’s only worth ~25% of a carrier. My guess is that value of approval is less than the value of an aircraft carrier at this time, but getting approval of the original vaccine in 2020 would have been worth ten carriers – he’d have had to take up a collection, but worth it.

      Of course, I’d prefer different ships since in all the wargames the carriers are useless. How about USA-built dredge ships and Jones-Act eligible ships that can install wind turbines, of equal value?

  10. R Barry Young says:

    RE: “The Current Thing not only is no longer Covid, it seems that the invasion of Ukraine has also been replaced due to the leaking of a Supreme Court draft opinion on abortion.”:

    SQUIRREL!!!

  11. michoel says:

    “Then again, sometimes this kind of thing is a prelude to a steady ratcheting up of restrictions and the _beginning_ of the _end_ of what is _left_ of our _right_s.”
    Love the double entendre here. And it gets better. Because what is left of your right but yourself, your body and your opinions? So it is the beginning of the end of everything with which you can identify.

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